Saturday Miscellany—11/16/19

Good reads, but just a few odds ‘n ends over the week about books and reading that caught my eye. You’ve probably seen some/most/all of them, but just in case:

    This Week’s New Releases I’m Excited About and/or You’ll Probably See Here Soon:

  • You Must Have A Death Wish by Matt Phillips—Phillips’ Know Me from Smoke was so good that I don’t care what this is about, I’m excited. (oh, it’s about a rookie hitman, if you must know).
  • Action At A Distance by Andrew Cartmel, Ben Aaronovitch, Brian Williamson, Stefani Renne—the newest Rivers of London comic paperback looks into Nightingale’s WWII past.
  • Paradox by Jeanne C. Stein—It’s been six years (wow! six years??!?) since Stein has published an Anna Strong novel. Can’t wait to see what brought her back.

Lastly, I’d like to say hi and extend a warm welcome to babblingstories, Zoé O’Farrell and kerrimcbooknerd for following the blog this week. Don’t be a stranger, and use that comment box, would you?

Fallen by Benedict Jacka: Alex finds power and incredible loss as Jacka ramps up the seriousness of the series.



by Benedict Jacka
Series: Alex Verus, #10

Mass Market Paperback, 296 pg.
Ace, 2019

Read: November 7-8, 2019

Wars between mages are very different from wars between countries. When countries fight, if they want to attack into enemy territory, they have to go through the other army to do it. Mages don’t. Gate magic let’s strike teams appear anywhere at anytime, attacking and then disappearing back to the other side of the world. You never see mages fighting to take control of a bridge or a mountain pass, because holding those kinds of places doesn’t accomplish anything. When mages engage in combat, it’s for one of two reasons: either they’re fighting over something valuable, or one side is attacking the others base of operations. Otherwise, if one side doesn’t want to fight, they can just leave.

That really sets the tone for this novel—we’re talking all-out war here—the Council vs. Richard Drakh et al. Naturally, because no one really trusts Alex, there are many who still aren’t sure what side of this conflict Alex comes down on.

For the last few books, I’ve been (mistakenly) thinking, “Ah, he’s hit rock bottom now, it’s time for things to get better.” Fallen is, at the very least, Exhibit A for how little I understood things. I was joking the other day with a friend about a theory that Jacka really doesn’t like Alex Verus and is enjoying destroying him bit by bit.

You could make the case that he’s chipping away at Alex’s shell so that he can access who he is at his core. Below how Alex thinks he should act, below how he wants to act—to get to the actual Alex Verus.

That’s probably closer to the truth, but I like my theory a little better.

Early on, Alex tells his readers:

You know things are bad when waking up feels worse than the nightmares.

And that works pretty well as a thesis statement for Fallen. Jacka finds new ways to ruin Verus’ life—up to and including one of the freakiest, strangest and most disturbing magic-induced injuries I can think of.

We’re at the point in this saga where I can’t really say anything about the plot without ruining most of it. So let me summarize it with this: we’re watching that prophecy the Dragon gave Alex work out in his life, he’s figuring out how it’s going to be fulfilled and is working to that end.

Which involves some of the riskiest moves he’s made. Some of which pay off in ways even he couldn’t foresee (some of them don’t work out so well). It’s hard to point to a book when things go as well for our favorite diviner. But as I said before, things go really, really, bad for him, too.

There are two scenes specifically (but, they’re not the only two) that will devastate readers as much as they did Alex. One of which gave us a result I’ve figured was coming (but I figured it would be in book 12, no earlier than 11—again, Jacka shows me how little I know).

While Jacka’s systematically destroying Alex, he weaves in plotlines and characters that you won’t expect, including at least one major magic artifact that you probably assumed we’d never see again. Seeing how Jacka’s using Alex’s past in the way he is was a real plus for me.

You know this was going to be a bad novel for our friends—you don’t call a novel Fallen to fill it with ponies, rainbows and slapstick moments. But man, this was just rough. Hard to read—but totally worth it.

I cannot state this strongly enough—this should not be the first book in the series you read. Horribly entry point, but such a wonderful ride for those who know Alex and his world and struggles. But if you’re a long-time reader, and haven’t had the chance to read this yet—fix that. Pronto.

4 1/2 Stars

The End of The Year Book Tag

This book tag has been floating around the last couple of years, having been started (as far as I can tell) by Ariel Bissett on her vlog. It seemed like a nice pairing with my post on Monday.

bullet Are there any books you started this year that you need to finish?
I’ve got two more weeks in my Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 5: Ecclesiology, the Means of Grace, Eschatology by Geerhardus Vos schedule (which will finish off the set), but that’s about it.

bullet Do you have an autumnal book to transition into the end of the year?
I honestly have never thought of a book in these terms. In the last month or so, it seems like 60% of the blogs I read and at least half of my Twitter feed is talking about Autumn/Fall books. I assume there’s something wrong with me.

bullet Is there a new release you’re still waiting for?
There are four this month alone…Robert B. Parker’s Angel Eyes by Ace Atkins; The Lights Go Out in Lychford by Paul Cornell; You Must Have a Death Wish by Matt Phillips; and The Hero by Lee Child (non-fiction!). There might be one or two in December, too. But I can’t think of them off the top of my head.

bullet What are three books you want to read before the end of the year?
Well, there are those four for starters. But if I don’t finish The Cartel by Don Winslow, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer, and The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle by Dec. 31, I’ll be really annoyed with myself.

bullet The Is there a book you think could still shock you and become your favourite book of the year?
A few years ago, my best of the year was something I started on Dec. 28, so, yeah, there’s a strong possibility. The Cartel is the likeliest contender, but the Beagle book could be a dark horse contender.

Dark horse…unicorn…HA! I kill me…

bullet Have you already started making reading plans for 2020?
Still very sketchy at this point, but yeah…I’ve started. Just trying to decide what’s the middle ground between a cake walk and overly-ambitious.

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Bookmarks

As I’ve been making a point of trying to do more non-review(ish) posts, I’ve been thinking about trying some of these Top Ten Tuesdays that I’ve seen other bloggers doing. And looking over the upcoming topics, this one piqued my interest — do I even have 10 favorite bookmarks? Can I approach that number? So I had to give it a shot.

Turns out that, yes, I had precisely 10 Bookmarks to use. Phew.

This used to be the most common one for me (although #1 has replaced it) — random bits of paper, preferably heavier stock. Movie tickets and coffee (or other) shop punchcards were the best, but whatever receipt/used envelope nearby would do in a pinch.
9 Online bookstore freebie. Love these. Amazon used to send me so many of them, I threw them away or lost track of them (regret that, they were good quality). Thankfully, as they’ve moved past being a “mere” bookstore, there are others out there that haven’t.
8 Better are the ones that authors give away, because, hey — cover art and it’s just good advertising.
7 Not as heavy, and easier to lose — pages out of pocket notebooks are decently sized — and you can write on them. I HATE writing in my books, so this is a major plus.
6 #8, but signed. Who doesn’t like a good autograph? (Anton Strout’s autograph here is blurred, to be nice)
5 Front and back of this one, a nicer take on #6 because I just love the receipt from Atticus’ bookstore being one side of this. (Kevin Hearne’s autograph here is blurred, to be nice)
4 Left over shopping lists (text blurred because I really don’t need you mocking my family’s handwriting), decent sized, room for writing.
3 Yeah, this is technically a repeat of #9. However, these are nicer. I have two of them and use them frequently. WTS bookstore used a nicer paper, heavier than other bookmarks I have, and a little textured. Perfect size. Probably technically the “best” I have.
2 A few years back, my library started using sheets like this for the books on reserve. Minus: it’s a really staticy paper, and super thin, so it’s easy to “lose” the bookmark inside the book. Have wasted too much time hunting for the things. Pluses: Plenty of room for writing (some inks and pencils don’t do well given the paper type); the title is on the sheet, so you can return the book and have an easy time identifying what the notes are about.
1 (I assure you, there is a bookmark imaged there)
My favorite. Get yourself some printer paper that’s perforated (if you’re lazy, or too inaccurate with scissors) into thirds. Plenty of room for taking notes (on both sides), good size (unless you’re reading a mass-market paperback). Not pretty, but ever so handy.

Catch-Up Quick Takes on Audiobooks of This is Where I Leave You, When You Reach Me, How Not to Die Alone, The Right Stuff

Trying to clear the decks here with these quick takes on Audiobooks, like I indicated I would be doing yesterday (which also helps from the deep dive I took on Hands Up yesterday, too).

This is Where I Leave YouThis is Where I Leave You

by Jonathan Tropper, Ramón de Ocampo (Narrator)
Unabridged Audiobook, 10 hrs., 17 mins
Recorded Books, 2009
Read: October 9-10, 2019

(the official blurb)
This is not my favorite Tropper novel—but it’s a really good one, and I get why this is his most successful and the only one that’s actually been adapted as a movie (or anything).

From the hilarious (and painful in many senses) opening to the heights of hope, the lows of sorrow, the uncomfortable nature of sitting shiva with estranged family, oh, and the obligatory Tropper awkward fight scene, this is a heartfelt, funny, and entertaining read (or, listen, in this case)

de Ocampo does a better job than I’d anticipated anyone doing with this—he captures Judd’s anger, heartbreak, grief and everything else. He also gets the other characters—including some of the more difficult ones (Phillip, Tracy, Alice). I was really impressed with him, and am a little tempted to get a Wimpy Kid audiobook just to see how he does with that.
4 1/2 Stars

When You Reach MeWhen You Reach Me

by Rebecca Stead, Cynthia Holloway (Narrator)
Unabridged Audiobook, 4 hrs., 19 mins.
Listening Library, 2019
Read: October 29, 2019

(the official blurb)
I didn’t realize this was an MG novel when I grabbed it—I thought it was YA—it wouldn’t have made much of a difference, it just would’ve been good to know what I was getting into.

Miranda is in 6th Grade, has one friend (who has just decided not to be friends anymore), and is obsessed with A Wrinkle in Time. Her mom is a paralegal and is dating a lawyer in her firm. It’s the late 70’s and latch-key kids are becoming more common, but not as much as they will be.

As Miranda tries to find new people to connect with, she receives odd messages about needing to write a thorough and completely true account of something that’s about to happen. She’ll know the thing when it happens. Totally normal, right?

There’s some time travel, there’s some personal growth, there’s some tribute to L’Engle’s novel. It’s a charming little work, really. Sure, I could see most of it coming from miles away, but that’s because I’m a few decades older than the audience, not because Stead didn’t know what she was doing.

Holloway does a fine job, too. Capturing the bouncing emotions just right. I dug it, upper MG readers probably will, too (L’Engle fans are shoo-ins).
3.5 Stars

How Not to Die AloneHow Not to Die Alone

by Richard Roper, Simon Vance (Narrator)
Unabridged Audiobook, 8 hrs., 52 mins.
Penguin Audio, 2019
Read: October 14-16, 2019

(the official blurb)
The concept for this novel feels like something that’d happen to George Costanza, but what makes this novel work is that Roper makes Andrew a believable, sympathetic human being—not the dumpster fire of a person that George was. It’s utterly preposterous, really. But you can’t help but believe it happening (and can likely see yourself doing something similar).

I’ve seen repeated—almost ubiquitous—comparisons to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. And I get that, and can kind of agree with it. I found the character and story in this novel better than Ms. Oliphant or her life. Although that book seems much more plausible. (and I quickly decided not to care).

Andrew’s friendship with Peggy is wonderful, I wish we had more time with them working/hanging out. Peggy’s a great character on her own—and if Roper were to write one of those ridiculous “same story just from someone else’s POV” sequels, I’d have to cast aside my prejudice against those so I could spend more time with her.

Vance gives one of those audiobook narrations that convinces you there’s no other way for the book to sound—if you read the text version, the voice in your head would have to be Vance. And if you’d never heard of him before, that’s okay, because your subconscious would invent a voice just like his.

Moving, amusing, hopeful. Great job.
4 Stars

The Right StuffThe Right Stuff

by Tom Wolfe, Dennis Quaid (Narrator)
Unabridged Audiobook, 15 hrs., 42 mins.
Audible Studios, 2018
Read: October 29-30, 2019

(the official blurb)
I read this book about 2-3 times a year from Middle School to the first or second year of college, and haven’t been able to do it since (I’ve tried off and on). But when Audible had a sale on this earlier in the year, I had to give it a shot. Especially with one of the stars of the remarkable movie adaptation doing the narration.

Now an audiobook of Wolfe is a tricky proposition (at best). Wolfe’s a master stylist. But so much of it (to me anyway) is how the words are on the page. His idiosyncratic capitalization, punctuation, visual rhythms . . . it’s all about how the text shows up in the book. But Quaid gets close enough. So I was able to fully enjoy and immerse myself in this story about the early years of the US/USSR Space Race—the test pilots around Yeager’s feat and then transitioning into the Mercury Program and a little beyond.

Wolfe educates and then entertains with the way he tells the story, editorializes about the events and people, and captures the essence of the various people involved. Listening to this brought me back to the first time I read this book and reminded me why I fell in love with Wolfe.

Quaid did the near-impossible here, he got as close to humanly possible to capturing Wolfe’s style, sensibilities and je ne sais quoi. He didn’t quite get it, but I can’t imagine anyone doing better. It’s probably one of my favorite audiobook performances to date. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Quaid guy just might have a future in show biz.
4 Stars

2019 Library Love Challenge

Trying to Plan the Rest of 2019/Cutting Myself Some Slack

I’ve been feeling really under the gun lately—I’ve mentioned (I think) that I over-committed for Sept./Oct. I still have 2 books I told authors I’d read in October (and one other to write about). Plus a few new releases that I meant to read this fall that aren’t so new anymore. I still have one book that I’m committed for this month, and a short one next month (maybe one more in there…I’ll check my calendar later). Plus a handful of things that are on my “I will read this in 2019” list.

For some reason that I have trouble articulating (and I know that some of you get this, and many of you don’t understand), between some of those goals and the 50 days remaining in 2019, I’m feeling a lot of pressure.

All self-imposed, I realize, but that doesn’t change it.

So you know what I did this weekend? I took a look at a few of the things on my “Must Read in 2019” list and put them on the “Probably Get to in 2020” list. Including 5 library books—one habit I fell into (pre-blogging even) is that a library due date trumps just about anything else when it comes to reading. And I don’t take things back to the Library until I’ve read them. These are on their way back, though. I would’ve taken care of them Saturday, but it was too late by the time I decided this.

Fewer books on the “Must Read” list equals fewer books on the “Must Write About” list. Which is good—because that list is still ridiculously long. But I’ll do what I can, I’ll be a little briefer about some things than I want to be (some things), and probably do a few more “Quick Takes” posts.

You know what? I felt so much freer just by giving myself that option. And yeah, I realize that I’m probably not still going to be able to finish everything on my “Must” lists this year, but it seems a little more attainable.

I’m not saying that feeling is going to last, or that I’m not going to find a new way to apply stupid pressure to myself. But for now…I’ll take it.

Right after I scheduled this post (naturally), I saw these tweets from David W at FanFiAddict:

Which tie in nicely to this post on their blog (also, one I didn’t see until after I wrote this). Followers and ARCs aren’t my hangups (well, occasionally that ARC thing, but I get over it pretty easily). It’s the reading and writing pace (as people who’ve been here for a bit know all too well). “Just remember: THIS ISN’T YOUR JOB. You started a blog to share your enjoyment of books with others…Don’t fret over what you can’t do, but be excited about what you can.” That’s exactly what I was trying to tell myself. It was reassuring to see someone else say that about the same time. Thanks, David!

Hands Up by Stephen Clark: The Aftermath of a Police Shooting Seen from Multiple Angles

Hands Up

Hands Up

by Stephen Clark

Kindle Edition, 292 pg.
Wido Publishing, 2019

Read: November 5, 2019

“If you want to survive as a cop on these streets, then you need to check your conscience at the door. Sometimes there’s casualties. But if we don’t do whatever it takes to get the bad guy, then we could end up like your dad”

About a month ago, I posted about N. Lombardi, Jr.’s Justice Gone, and as I started to write this post, I noticed I was about to write something very similar here. But why re-invent the wheel? I’m just going to repeat the first few sentences (don’t worry, I get original after that).

I’ve mentioned before here that after I decide to read a book I forget what its about (if I even know) to keep myself coming from being disappointed by preconceived notions. It worked this time, I really had no idea what it was about when I opened it on my Kindle last week.

Which made the opening pages, featuring the killing of an innocent and unarmed black teen by the police, as shocking as they could’ve been. But they also led me to believe I was in for a grim, adult version of The Hate U Give.

That I’ve used that idea twice in a month says a few things to me, including: 1. Angie Thomas has clearly taken up residence in a corner of my mind (welcome, Angie, sorry for the clutter); 2. the fact that I keep running into novels about the police killing innocents says something about our cultural moment (and it’s not positive); and 3. thankfully, all three of these authors run with the concept in very different directions.

Lombardi quickly becomes about other killings (prompted by the police’s unjust actions and the officers not facing any consequences), Thomas focuses on what happens to the witness of the shooting (but includes what happens to the family of the victim and the city in the aftermath), Clark focuses on the aftermath of the killing on the victim’s family and the officer who pulled the trigger ending Tyrell Wakefield’s life.

Let’s start with that officer, Ryan Quinn, shall we? We meet him in the opening pages, working to reassure himself that he’s not a murderer as he prepares to give a statement about the shooting. He’s been a part of the Philadelphia Police Department for 8 months at this time. His partner, Sgt. Greg Byrnes knew Ryan’s father when he was an officer, too. And after Ryan’s dad was killed on the job, Byrnes has acted as a surrogate father. It’s because of Byrnes that Ryan was in a position where he had to make that fatal choice, and it’s Byrnes that guides him through the aftermath (for good or ill, I’ll let the reader decide).

Clark makes the very uncomfortable choice (for the reader, and I can only imagine for the author) of making Ryan the only first-person narrator of this book. Early on, I resented having to be in his head through all of this—especially as I learned just how sketchy the circumstances around the shooting (and what Byrnes did afterward) were. I didn’t want to be that close to this man’s thoughts at this time, I didn’t want to find him sympathetic, I didn’t want to pull for him at all through this process. Which is exactly the reaction I think that Clark wants. It’s uncomfortable by design.

The shooting affects Ryan, his family and his fiancé. He starts having panic attacks, getting professional help, and taking steps to become a different person on the one hand, while trying to keep his job, avoid prosecution, and rescue his career on the other hand. Too many authors would make him a complete villain or a misunderstood hero. Clark does neither. Or maybe he does both. Either way, Ryan is depicted in a very believable way.

One complaint with Ryan: throughout the book, Ryan thinks of his mother by her first name. I found that distracting at best. I can’t help but wonder if Clark changed him from third-person to first late in the process and forgot to change that to “Mom” (or an equivalent) in the editing process.

As far as Byrnes? Ugh. Clark clearly wants the reader to not trust him, not like him, and wish that Ryan would get away from his influence. He succeeded in all of that with me. He’s not a cartoonish racist cop or anything, he’s just a horrible person.

Now, on to Tyrell’s family. We first meet his sister Jade minutes before she discovers what had happened to him. She then has to break the news to her mother. Their grief and anger feels real, it feels raw, and you can’t help but share their desire for justice and their pain.

Jade’s our second protagonist and from the moment we meet her up until the very end of the book, she’s the one you really identify with, pull for, and agree with almost every step of the way. If Clark had put her in another novel, I’d really enjoy spending time with her as a character instead of watching her in the tumultuous days of anger and grief.

She’s a bartender, and one day Ryan comes into her bar for a few drinks. She recognizes him, he has no idea about Tyrell’s family. Things get interesting from there.

The third protagonist in the book is Tyrell’s estranged father who comes back to Philadelphia after a decade or so away when he gets the news.

Kelly saw his son for the first time in ten years, lying still in a casket, he could feel his heart breaking. He knew he could never get back all the time he lost with him. But if only he could have five minutes. Five minutes to catch up on his life. Five minutes to pass on his wisdom. Five minutes to tell him how much he loved him. Kelly just sat in the pew, staring at his son’s body in silence.

Now, Kelly’s a major complication that this family didn’t need at this time. Initially, I was very sympathetic toward him and wasn’t sure that Jade (and the others, but primarily Jade) were giving him a fair shake. Jade’s openly hostile toward her father—even when others warm to him. It didn’t take me long, though, to get on Jade’s side and start to wonder about Kelly (and Clark did a nice, subtle job with his character).

Each protagonist’s storyline takes on turns that you might not expect going into the book—Kelly and Ryan do a lot in a short amount of time and their characters change and develop. Everything that happens—even though much of it has nothing directly to do with the shooting happens in the shadow of Tyrell’s killing. It colors every conversation, every event, every reaction. In time Jade, Ryan, Kelly and the others will be able to move past this and do other things with their lives. But none of that happens now.

There’s some stuff with Kelly and Jade at the end that made me think about rating this lower, but in the end, Clark pulled it off (and more than once I wondered if he could). Kelly makes some choices that I initially thought unnecessarily complicated a pretty full plot, and I’m still not sure that Jade would have done what she did (and I’m less sure I should accept her explanation of it). But the more space I give those events, and the more I mull about Clark’s resolution, the better I feel about them. But I’m primarily giving this rating for what happens in the first 80 or so percent of the book.

Also, some of my reactions (still) to what happened in this book are so visceral that I’ve got to give Clark the credit for that. This is a much more even work than his first novel (which I liked, but had reservations about), but shares his talent for taking people who should be antagonistic toward each other, untrusting, and disinclined to to build any sort of relationship with each other—and helping them see the common humanity in each other and moving on past their differences. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing, as long as it’s not done in a cheesy, “A Very Special Episode of…” kind of way. Which, I want to stress is why I like Clark’s approach.

It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a good one—with some powerful moments that are dealt with skillfully. I encourage you to check out Clark’s work and join me in waiting to see what he’ll do next.

4 Stars

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