Fletch, Too (Audiobook) by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller: Fletch’s Ski Trip to Nairobi

Fletch, Too

Fletch, Too

Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller (Narrator)
Series: Fletch, #9 (#2 Chronologically)

Unabridged Audiobook, 5 hrs., and 43 mins.
Blackstone Audio, 2019

Read: August 21-22, 2019


Up to this point, we know practically nothing about Fletch’s personal life—he’s been married (and divorced) twice and engaged once or twice in addition to that. He’s carried on an on-again/off-again relationship with Moxie Mooney. Served with valor in the Army, made a couple of good friends there. That’s pretty much it—most of what we know about Fletch is about his professional life—and then the amateur sleuthing/investigative journalism he’s done since he didn’t kill Alan Stanwyck. We know next to nothing about his family, his childhood, and so on.

In Fletch, Too McDonald decides to fix that. Picking up right after Fletch Won (like a day or two after) with his first wedding, the revelations start right away. We meet Fletch’s mother, a mystery novelist of some renown (but perhaps not of the highest caliber). After the ceremony, he’s handed a letter from someone claiming to be his father. Fletch had been told that his father had “died in childbirth,” so he’s taken aback by this. The letter describes (briefly) why his father had not been around for his life and that he’s “mildly curious” about his son. If Fletch is at least “mildly curious” about his father, he’s invited to visit him in Nairobi for their honeymoon, tickets are enclosed.

More than mildly curious, and driven to get some answers (or at least a good story), the two hop that plane (bringing their luggage and skis packed for a trip to Colorado). At this point, it stops being a standard Fletch novel and becomes something more akin to Carioca, Fletch. Before they leave the airport, Fletch witnesses a murder (unbeknownst to the murderer).

Fletch makes a couple of attempts to investigate the murder, but due to circumstances, a language barrier, police not given to outsiders’ help, and the lack of anything to go off of, he doesn’t get far. In fact, minor spoiler, the only reason Fletch “solves” the murder is that he recognizes the killer toward the end of the book. Which makes for a fairly unsatisfying “mystery” novel.

Where this book gets interesting is as Fletch and his wife meet some locals, explore the city, and meet a colleague of his father’s. We’re treated to a look at the culture, legal system (or lack thereof), history and some speculative Archeology about the area. It’s interesting—but it feels more like McDonald had an interesting vacation, read some good books on the region and/or had some great conversations with people from Nairobi and wanted to share what he’d learned (again, see, Carioca, Fletch).

I think I appreciated this more than the other non-standard Fletch because 1. I came in with low expectations (remembering how little I liked it) and 2. the supporting characters are more interesting.

At this point, I assume (and am supported by experience) that Miller will do a capable job with the Narration and he helped me enjoy the experience.

This is one for completists, for those who are curious about Fletch’s backstory, or for those who have a hankering for learning about Kenya. It’s not a bad book, it’s just not as good as it should be.


3 Stars
2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Maxine Unleashes Doomsday by Nick Kolakowski: Kolakowski Gets His Crime Fiction Chocolate in this SF Peanut Butter

This is one of those books that I’m uber-excited about, yet I don’t think I do a good enough job at explaining why I am. It’s just good.

 Maxine Unleashes Doomsday

Maxine Unleashes Doomsday

by Nick Kolakowski

eARC, 274 pg.
Down & Out Books, 2019

Read: October 29-31, 2019

“You know the trick to surviving? The one thing you got to do?”

“What’s that?” Maxine asked.

“You got to treat every day like an adventure. Like it’s fun, or a challenge, even when everything’s crappy. Especially when it’s crappy. Because otherwise, it’s all going to crush you.”

“I feel like I spent my whole life being crushed.”

“Well, that’s your fault. A normal job, trying to live a normal life, it’s just inviting people to stomp you. And they do.”

“Yeah.”

“But at least in my line of work, sometimes you get to stomp back…”

In case the author’s name looks familiar to you, yeah, you’ve seen me use it a few times this year—3 novellas, 1 short fiction collection, and now this novel, Maxine Unleashes Doomsday. It occurs to me now, that he was the first author I read this year, and he did a pretty good job setting the tone for 2019’s reading. This book is his first step out of Crime Fiction and into Science Fiction—dystopian SF, to be precise (that really should be obvious to anyone familiar with him, I don’t think he’s got a utopian novel in him).

That said, there’s enough of a Crime Fiction flavor to this SF novel, that fans of either genre will have enough of their drug of choice to be satisfied.

This is set in the near-future, at various points along the fall of the US/Western Civilization. While there are plenty of other characters to keep an eye on, our focus throughout is on Maxine. After a rocky start to life with a drug-addicted mother, and an unsuccessful academic career (although she tried for a little bit), she tries to follow her uncle’s example and become a criminal. She has some success in that, but a large failure resulted in life-threatening injuries to a friend and the loss of one of her arms. Following that, she tries to live a non-criminal life, she gets a job, settles down with a guy and has a kid. But her heart’s not in it, and she ends up dabbling in thievery. At some point, she abandons that life and sets her eyes on a criminal career.

Maxine is one of my favorite characters this year—she’s flawed (not as flawed as she thinks), she’s a fighter (not as good as she thinks), self-destructive, optimistic, and driven. She takes a lot of (metaphorical and literal) punches, and while she may not get up right away after them, she doesn’t stop moving forward. Ever. I love reading characters like that.

Her uncle, who goes by Preacher, is one of the most significant criminals in the New York area—and has some cops dedicated to taking him down, and any number of civilians supporting him. Off and on throughout her childhood, Preacher tried to get Maxine’s mother to leave her addictions behind to provide for and care for her kids. Between his power and influence on the one hand, and being just about the only adult to look out for her and her brother, it’s no wonder that Maxine will want to be part of his life. Readers of Kolakowski’s Main Bad Guy will enjoy playing a compare/contrast game with Preacher and Walker.

There are a number of other characters that greatly influence Maxine’s life and desires, but none so much as her uncle. And to get into them would just push this post beyond the length I want (and would end up spoiling stuff to really talk about).

By and large, this is the story of Maxine’s journey from a struggling public school student to being a wanted criminal (and beyond). But that’s not everything that’s going on. For the first chapter, you get the impression you’ll be reading a book about rival groups fighting for supplies in mid-apocalyptic New York. But then you’ll realize that’s not it at all, it’s a story about how Maxine became the tenacious gun-fighter and would-be criminal mastermind that she is. Eventually you discover that yeah, both of those are true, but Kolakowski’s really writing a different story—and boy howdy, you feel pretty clever when you suss it out, and it’s such a brilliant way of telling this story that you don’t mind being wrong about what the book is trying to accomplish. But even then, you won’t really understand everything until the last line of the book (I’m not sure I actually pumped my fist when I read it, but I probably thought about it pretty hard).

Yes, it’s a pretty violent book (this too, should really be obvious to anyone familiar with Kolakowsi), but most of the truly horrible stuff happens “off-screen,” making it a lot easier to take. The prose moves quickly and assuredly, the writing is sone with a strong sense of style and savoir faire. Frankly, it’s too lively and enjoyable to keep the most readers who aren’t into gunfights, etc. from being turned off by the violence.

It’s a well-realized dystopia, one that’s easier to imagine happening than say, Panem. Kolakowski does a wonderful job of littering this book with little details that tell you so much about the world his characters live in and entertain the reader. Hitting both of those notes regularly is a difficult task. For example:

“Someday I want to go to California,” Michelle told Maxine. “Did you know it used to be a state?”

and

This far north, the concept of local government grew teeth and claws. If you stuck to the highway, you would cross into territory controlled largely by the New York Giants, which had expanded beyond its origin as one of the nation’s most consistently mediocre sports teams to control a big swath of towns northeast of Buffalo.

One of the conceits of the book is that the material is a result of an academic study about Maxine. It’s one of the best moves that Kolakowski makes in this book (and it’s full of great moves). Don’t skim over these notes, you’ll be rewarded for your attention.

Oh, I should warn you: This book might put you off popcorn for a while. I’m just saying…

Rob Hart wrote one of the endorsements for this: “Take one of Richard Stark’s Parker novels and throw it in the blender with DVDs of Mad Max and The Warriors. Guess what? You just broke your blender. Find solace in this book, which is what you should have done in the first place.” I repeat that for a couple of reasons—1. I love the last two sentences. 2. He’s right, and says everything in 4 sentences that I tried to above. You should listen to one of us. Kolakowski has outdone himself with this one, it was a pleasure from end to end. You really need to read it.

Disclaimer: I was provided a copy of this novel by the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion. My opinions are my own, and weren’t influenced by this.


4 1/2 Stars
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

Finally Fall Book Tag


While reading these posts on Bookidote, beforewegoblog, and The Witty & Sarcastic Bookclub, I noticed myself mentally composing this list—so I figure I had to join in the fun. I’d have posted this last week, but my free laborer realized how little he was getting paid and decided to play video games instead of generating my graphic.

Naturally, I only paid half of his fee.

Enough of that, bring on the Autumn! (even if it feels like Winter here in Idaho):

In Fall, the air is crisp and clear. Name a book with a vivid setting.

The Last of the Really Great WhangdoodlesThe Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Edwards

I had a hard time coming up with something for this one, honestly. But Whangdoodleland was so vivid that I can still picture parts of it, despite having read it only once in the last 30+ years.


Nature is beautiful…but also dying. Name a book that is beautifully written, but also deals with a heavy topic, like loss or grief.

A Monster CallsA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

When I posted about it, I said, “I’m not convinced that this is really all that well-written, technically speaking. But it packs such an emotional wallop, it grabs you, reaches down your throat and seizes your heart and does whatever it wants to with it—so who cares how technically well it’s written? (and, yeah, I do think the two don’t necessarily go together). A couple of weeks from now, I may not look back on this as fondly—but tonight, in the afterglow? Loved this.” I still look back on it as fondly, for the record.


Fall is Back to School Season. Name a Nonfiction Book that Taught You Something.

TimekeepersTimekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time by Simon Garfield

If I’m going to read a non-fiction book, it had better teach me something or I’ll end up ranting about it for days/weeks/months! This one popped to mind, though. In my post about the book, I said: “Did I learn something from the book? Much more than I expected to. The chapter on the French experiments alone probably taught me enough to justify the whole book. I didn’t/couldn’t stick with the details of watch-making (I have a hard time visualizing that kind of detail), but even that was fascinating and informative on the surface. Most topics broadened my understanding and taught me something. Also, the sheer amount of trivia that I picked up was great (the amount of time spent recording the first Beatles LP, why pop music tends to be about 3 minutes long, etc., etc.).”


In order to keep warm, it’s good to spend some time with the people we love. Name a fictional family/household/friend-group that you’d love to be a part of.

Nero Wolfe trioThe Household of Nero Wolfe from the books by Rex Stout

(yeah, that picture is from the A&E TV show, not exactly the books—but in that image in particular, they look just about perfect)

There were many families/groups/households that I could’ve picked for this, but that Brownstone on West 35th Street is near the Platonic ideal for a place to live—I’d love to spend time with Mr. Wolfe, Archie and Fritz (not to mention Saul, Fred, Orrie, Lily, Lon . . .)


The colorful leaves are piling up on the ground. Show us a pile of Autumn-colored spines.


(I thought this was going to be hard, but in the end, I had to not make the pile bigger!)

Also…wow, clearly, I’m not a photographer. It’s a shame I don’t live closer to my pal, Micah Burke, things around here would look much spiffier.


Fall is the perfect time for some storytelling by the fireside. Share a book wherein somebody is telling a story.

A Plague of GiantsA Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne

That’s really 90% of the book—a bard telling stories. How he pulls this off, really impressed me.

(Hammered by Kevin Hearne would also qualify, but I liked the storytelling in this one better)


The nights are getting darker. Share a dark, creepy read.

Darkness Take My HandDarkness Take My Hand by Dennis Lehane

This one disturbs me every time I read it (4-6 I think), I still remember having to sleep with the lights on after I stayed up reading it until 2-3 in the morning the first time—I doubt I was a very good employee the next day. (Sacred maybe is creepier, but this is the better book by Lehane)


The days are getting colder. Name a short, heartwarming read that could warm up somebody’s cold and rainy day.

WonderWonder by R. J. Palacio

The “short” in the category is the sticky wicket. But this is a quick read (even if the page number is higher than I’d count as “short.” Formulaic? Yup. Predictable? You betcha. Effective? Abso-smurfly. Textbook example of heartwarming.


Fall returns every year. Name an old favorite that you’d like to return to soon.

Magic Kingdom for Sale — SOLD!Magic Kingdom for Sale — SOLD! by Terry Brooks

Ive been thinking about this book a lot since Bookstooge’s Quick Fire Fantasy post. Gotta work this into the 2020 reading schedule.

I’m tagging any blogger who reads this. Play along.

Universal Monster Book Tag


Witty and Sarcastic Book Club tagged me in her little creation—a tag based on Universal’s Classic Movie Monsters. There’s a lot of recency bias in my pics, but oh well—I liked the list. I really need to do more things like this, it was fun.

While trying to come up with the last couple of entries for this, I took a Facebook break and read a couple of posts on a Nero Wolfe fan group, and realized I could fill my blanks from that Corpus. Then it occurred to me that I could do one of these with entries only from the Nero Wolfe series. Or, the Spenser series. Huh. (I’d have trouble with some other series depending how you define “sequel” below). Watch me control the impulse.

bullet Dracula: a book with a charismatic villain
The Silence of the Lambs
My Pick: Gotta go with Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, every other charismatic villain I can think of pales in comparison.
Bonus Nero Wolfe Pick: (yeah, so much for restraint—this was a fun additional challenge) Paul Chapin in The League of Frightened Men (my post about the book)
Bonus Spenser Pick: The Gray Man in Small Vices

bullet The Invisible Man: A book that has more going on than meets the eye
The Last Adventure of Constance Verity
My Pick: The Last Adventure of Constance Verity by A. Lee Martinez (my post about the book)
Bonus Nero Wolfe Pick: Even in the Best Families
Bonus Spenser Pick: Early Autumn

bullet Wolf-Man: A complicated character
Needle Song
My Pick: Doc Slidesmith in Needle Song (my post about the book)
Bonus Nero Wolfe Pick: Can I just use Nero Wolfe? Eh, Orrie Cather in A Family Affair
Bonus Spenser Pick: Patricia Utley in Mortal Stakes

bullet Frankenstein: A book with a misunderstood character
The Unkindest Tide
My Pick: The Luidaeg in The Unkindest Tide by Seanan McGuire (my post about the book)
Bonus Nero Wolfe Pick: Over My Dead Body (my post about the book)
Bonus Spenser Pick: Hawk, A Promised Land

bullet The Bride of Frankenstein: A sequel you enjoyed more than the first book
Stoned Love
My Pick: Stoned Love by Ian Patrick (my post about the book)
Bonus Nero Wolfe Pick: The League of Frightened Men (yeah, that’s the second time this shows up, but it’s the sequel…) (my post about the book)
Bonus Spenser Pick: God Bless the Child

bullet Creature from the Black Lagoon: An incredibly unique book
A Star-Reckoner's Lot

(there’s a better cover now, but this is the first)

My Pick: A Star-Reckoner’s Lot by Darrell Drake (my post about the book)
Bonus Nero Wolfe Pick: Some Buried Ceasar (my post about the book)
Bonus Spenser Pick: A Savage Place

bullet The Mummy: A book that wraps up nicely (see what I did there?)
Every Heart a Doorway
My Pick: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (my post about the book)
Bonus Nero Wolfe Pick: This applies to almost every one of them, I’m going to go with The Doorbell Rang
Bonus Spenser Pick: The Judas Goat

I’m not going to tag anyone, but I’d encourage any reader to give it a shot. I’d like to see your lists.

Also, I’ve been thinking for awhile I needed to do a re-read of the Spenser series. This post has convinced me I really need to get on that.

Opening Lines—System Failure by Joe Zieja

Head & Shoulders used to tell us that, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” That’s true for wearing dark shirts, and it’s especially true for books. Sometimes the characters will hook the reader, sometimes the premise, sometimes it’s just knowing the author—but nothing beats a great opening for getting a reader to commit. This is one of the better openings I’ve read recently. I’m sure we can all relate to it.

Lucinda Hiri was pretty sure taking over the galaxy hadn’t been in the job description when she was offered this intern position six months ago. Then again, it wasn’t impossible. The Snaggardir corporation’s paperwork was notoriously long and detailed, vetted by droves of lawyers at every level of approval to make sure that the language had all the right loopholes in all the right places. Lucinda supposed that somewhere on page 356 there could have been a small asterisk that said “in the event a nascent people rise up after two hundred years of secret collusion, you will be required to take detailed notes at their strategy meetings.”

It had seemed like a dream come true at the time. Sal Snaggardir and his family’s company were arguably the most powerful economic force in the galaxy. The possibilities for her career as a businesswoman were endless. Not liking interning at some space technology company on Urp, where she would likely move laterally for the entirety of her disappointing, coffee-supported life. Snaggardir’s was the place to make it big.

In retrospect, though Lucinda should have noticed that Mr. Snaggardir was trying to conceal just how big his company had gotten. Subsidiary corporations literally thousands of banks all across the galaxy holding funds under different names, and that nondisclosure agreement she signed threatening to eradicate her family line if she ever told anyone anything about the company. The legal department said that was boilerplate, and, really, what did she know? She was just a thirty-year-old unpaid intern with three advanced degrees in business arts.

from System Failure by Joe Zieja

The Unkindest Tide by Seanan McGuire: The Luidaeg takes Center Stage in this Water-filled Adventure

The Unkindest Tide

The Unkindest Tide

by Seanan McGuire

Series: Toby Daye, #13

Hardcover, 301 pg.
DAW Books, 2019

Read: September 10-11, 2019

I finally took my eyes off the water, peering at her through the disheveled curtain of my hair. “Are you just babbling at me until I start feeling better?”

“Yup!” Marcia beamed. “Is it working?”

My stomach was no longer roiling. I didn’t trust myself to stand up on my own, but I also didn’t feel like I was about to introduce the barnacles to my breakfast. Again. I blinked. “Actually, yes.”

“Sometimes you need to take peoples’ minds off their problems if you want those problems to resolve themselves,” said Marcia. “Focusing on things can make them worse.”

“Not all problems go away if you ignore them. Most don’t.”

“No, but not all problems can be fixed. Sometimes you have to wait until the situation changes.” She smiled sympathetically. “Like if you’re on a boat and you get seasick.”

Yup. Toby’s on a boat—a sailing ship, to be precise—just the place for someone who hates water. Why is she there? Well, that has something to do with the debt she owes the Luidaeg. The Luidaeg has decided that time is up and it’s now time to pay that mysterious bill she told the Selkies was coming due. And Toby has to come along to help her collect. A couple of months ago, when I listened to the audiobook of One Salt Sea, I wondered what happened to that ominous future event, so that was nice to see. On the other hand, we’re told that this was nearly three years ago, which means it takes only three-ish years for books 6-12 to occur? That’s an eventful life right there.

Because they’re apt to be useful, and because Toby isn’t likely to come nicely without them, the Luidaeg also brings Tybalt and Quentin along on their trip to the Duchy of Ships, where a convocation of Selkies will be held to pay this bill. Due to the significance of this happening, a few other dignitaries come, too—delegations from the Kingdom of the Mists, the Duchy of Saltmist, and Goldengreen—oh, and Gillian (which makes sense for people who’ve read the previous book, Night and Silence).

So we’ve got a group of Toby’s friends, a new Duchy for most of them to visit, a bunch of debts the Luidaeg is collecting, and the fate of an entire race in the balance. What could go wrong?

Naturally, that’s the wrong question. SOmething better to ask is: how many pints of blood will Toby lose while trying to fix what goes wrong and how many others will die? Obviously, I’m not going to answer those, but we need to get our thinking straight.

Something I want to mention before I forget: Before the Sea Witch shows up at her door, Toby’s narration gives a very thorough and succinct recap of the entire series (one of the best of those I’ve read lately, it’s a tricky thing to accomplish) before noting

…there’s a lot of history around here, and sometimes it doesn’t summarize very well.

It’s a small thing, but it made me smile—McGuire excels at those.

The Luidaeg has got to be just about the most popular character in this series, and we really get to know her so much better here than we have before—and it made me so happy to see this. I’d gladly take another Luidaeg-centric book or three any day of the week. Seeing her at this turning point in all her power and all her grief is just stunning. I don’t think I’d ever felt bad for her (at least not for long), but watching her being resolute in carrying out the duty she was bound to here—while clearly not wanting to go through with it—was moving. Early in the book, there’s a scene between her and a little girl that just about broke my heart. At the same time, she has plenty of great lines and made me chuckle a lot, too. Her interactions with Quentin (and vice versa) might be my favorite parts of the book.

The Luidaeg/Selkie story was strong enough that I don’t care so much about the rest of the book, which is good, because I think it’s one of her weakest. There’s an adventure in Saltmist that seemed pretty perfunctory and while the ending is very clever—and gives Toby a chance to embrace the technicalities of Faerie in a way she usually doesn’t (that is, keeping the letter of the law, but doing a tap dance all around the intent)— it seemed anti-climatic. We have a great build-up and then an almost let-down of a conclusion.

A few quick bullet points that I don’t have the time to expand on (nor do I think I could do them justice without talking too much about them):

  • No one expected, I trust, that things between Toby and Gillian would get better after Night and Silence, but it was tough (yet understandable and believable) to read Gillian’s reactions to Toby here.
  • There are repeated references to the weakness/susceptibility to harm of one member of Toby’s group—McGuire hit that note so often that I really feared for that character. One that I didn’t realize I liked as much as I did when I feared for their safety and longevity.
  • We get to meet another Firstborn! She’s just fantastic and I hope we get to see more of her. Also, the reactions of various members of her descendant races to meeting her in the flesh were priceless.
  • Someone’s blind fosterage is getting harder to maintain. That could prove interesting (and in the Toby-verse, interesting usually is defined as calamitous)
  • Clearly, Toby’s reputation as someone who topples monarchies has spread far and wide. This isn’t good for her, but will be good for us readers.
  • Marcia continues to show more depth and ability than I gave her credit for when we met (which surprises me almost every time we see it)
  • What we’re told about future books here (in terms of Toby’s future obligations) is enough to get long-term readers excited (not that we needed the encouragement, really, but it’s nice to know)

This isn’t one of the best in the series—but it features some of the best moments, scenes, events. It’s not a trade-off I’m entirely pleased with, but I can live with it (and thankfully the good far outweighed the less-good). It’s safe to say that a lot won’t be the same again in this world or for many of these characters. Any time I spend with Toby, Tybalt, Quentin, the Luidaeg, etc. is a good time, and I thoroughly enjoyed the read, I just wanted a bit more from an author who usually brings more than you could realistically ask for.


4 Stars

The Swallows by Lisa Lutz: Hilarious and Harrowing Account of Destroying the Status Quo because the Status is Not Quo

The Swallows

The Swallows

by Lisa Lutz

Hardcover, 399 pg.
Ballantine Books, 2019

Read: August 21 – 22, 2019

As I gazed at my students, I had the same thought I always had on the first day. They looked so young and innocent. Then I found a dead rat in the bottom of my desk drawer and remembered the tenet I had learned over the last eight years. The young may have a better excuse for cruelty, but they are no less capable of it.

For someone looking for omens, it’s odd how many exit signs I chose to ignore.

If a century of tradition were the only thing my time at Stonebridge brought to an end, I’d be okay with that. It’s the two deaths that keep me up at night.

How can I talk about The Swallows without ruining the experience? Not easily, and verbosely. Let’s see if I can manage it.

Structurally, it’s a boarding school book—a bunch of well-off (and/or scholarship) kids livingly largely without parental supervision and guidance, getting away with all sorts of things while the adults responsible for the supervision turn a blind eye, are honestly oblivious, or are complicit in the goings-on. At the end of the day, the real power is wielded by the students—a small sub-set of them, anyway—and there’s a split between those wanting to exercise their power for their own pleasure and benefit (largely male at the expense of female empowerment, self-respect, self-esteem, and dignity) and those, well not wanting that.

Largely the book focuses on a small group of female students sick and tired with the status quo (offended and angry, actually) who set out to expose the cabal and the horrible games they play with people in a way to salt the earth so it can’t be repeated. This seems like a tall order, but what choice do they have? They also have male students sympathetic to their cause and are willing to help out.

But also, there’s a teacher (or more) not willing to go along with this, and who knows something’s going on, so she does what she can to track it down to find ways to stop it (either herself or via student/faculty proxies). Her name is Alex Witt and she’s just arrived at Stonebridge Academy following an ignominious departure from Warren Prep. It takes her very little time to determine that something is rotten at Stonebridge and that a couple of her students are trying to do something about it. Instinctively in agreement with them, Alex does what she can to encourage the individuals to find one another and use the strength their numbers and collaboration can bring. One student described her as:

…my friend, my ally, my confidante. She charmed, teased, amused, incited, and befriended us.

Alexandra Witt was the pied piper of Stonebridge Academy.

Chapters are told from the perspective of Alex or some of the other faculty or various students—primarily from the perspective of Gemma Russo (the student quoted above). Gemma was well on her way to a time as a firebrand, but with nudges and aid from Alex, her crusade picks up momentum until upheaval comes to the existing conditions and then all bets are off (see that last line of the opening quotation). Essentially, Alex is John Keating without the stand-up or poetry, making Gemma Neil Perry, I guess.

The book starts off as offbeat, with Gemma as this strange instructor in an alien environment, trying to escape her legacy and to maybe find a little peace while the students are running around pretending to be revolutionaries. But it shifts at a certain point, and while still occasionally comic and never anything but fun to read, it sheds the comedy in favor of earnest emotions and motives and dangerous situations. You don’t notice it happening, but after a certain point, you’ll notice the ground has shifted. Lutz pulls that off really well.

There’s a lot of subtle work to the plot and the prose, and some that’s pretty obvious. But even the obvious is done well. There’s a reveal toward the end of the book that caught me so off-guard, but was so perfect I think I laughed out loud. I think this is technically streets ahead of Lutz’ previous work.

It’s a very different kind of humor than we got in The Spellman Files, but it’s probably as funny as Lutz has been since the third book in that series—but it’s mixed with the harsh realities of The Passenger and the feel of How to Start a Fire. Lutz puts on a clinic for naturally shifting tone and using that to highlight the important stories she’s telling.

There’s not a poorly designed or written character—I can’t say I liked all of them, or even most of them (many of them could use a few days in a pillory while fellow students threw rotten fruit or whatever at them)—but as players in this particular drama, they’re great. I was repeatedly torn between things happening too quickly, and yet not quickly enough—which I take as a sign that she nailed the pacing.

Because I’m really nervous about oversharing here, I’m going to wrap things up—but this is one you really should be reading. If it’s not on one of my Top 10 lists of 2019, I’ll be pretty shocked. I can’t think of many that I’ll put ahead of it at the moment.

From the funny and dark beginning, to the perfect and bitingly ominous last three paragraphs The Swallows is a winner. Timely and appropriate, but using tropes and themes that are familiar to readers everywhere, Lutz has given us a thriller for our day—provocative, entertaining, and haunting. This is one of those books that probably hews really close to things that could or have happened and you’re better off hoping are fictional. Lisa Lutz is always a very good author, The Swallows is Lutz at her best.


5 Stars