Opening Lines—The Swallows by Lisa Lutz

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. Would it make you commit?

Some teachers have a calling. I’m not one of them.

I don’t hate teaching. I don’t love it either. That’s also my general stance on adolescents. I understand that one day they’ll rule the world and we’ll all have to live with the consequences. But there’s only so much I’m willing to do to mitigate that outcome. You’ll never catch me leaping atop my desk, quoting Browning, Shakespeare, or Jay-Z. I don’t offer my students sage advice or hard-won wisdom. I don’t dive into the weeds of their personal lives, parsing the muck of their hormone-addled brains. And I sure as hell never learned as much from them as they did from me.

It’s just a job, like any other. It has a litany of downsides, starting with money and ending with money, and a host of other drawbacks in between. There are a few perks. I like having summers off; I like winter and spring breaks; I like not having a boss breathing over my shoulder; I like books and talking about books and occasionally meeting a student who makes me see the world sideways. But I don’t get attached. I don’t get involved. That was the plan, at least.

from The Swallows by Lisa Lutz

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Fletch Won (Audiobook) by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller: A Real Mixed Bag

Fletch Won (Audiobook)Fletch Won

by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller (Narrator)

Series: Fletch, #8 (#1 Chronologically)
Unabridged Audiobook, 6 hrs., 30 min.
Blackstone Audio, 2018

Read: June 20 – 26, 2019

This is chronologically the first Fletch novel, he’s a rookie reporter, who’s been bounced around from headline writer, to obituaries, to wedding announcements, and is finally sent to the Society pages—with a warning. Fit in, and don’t make any trouble or he’ll be unemployed. His first assignment is to meet with an attorney, Donald Habeck, in the publisher’s office to discuss a major donation he’ll be making to a local museum and do a puff piece about it. Fletch objects, wanting to do real news—the kind of stuff he’ll later be known for. His editor (Frank Jaffe, a name known to those who’ve read Fletch and Fletch and the Widow Bradley) refuses, insisting that this is his assignment—and maybe later he’ll get a chance to do something else.

There’s a catch—Habeck is murdered in the newspaper’s parking lot on his way to this meeting. Fletch jumps on the opportunity to report on this, but the senior crime reporter shoos him off (and Jaffe). Fletch tries to exercise squatter’s rights, but no one is having any of it. Naturally, this means that Fletch will ignore this and will investigate the murder on his own—and typically is a few steps ahead of both the police and the senior crime writer.

In the meantime, he has to do his actual job (at least until he has something he can print). There’s another story they want Fletch to work on, there’s a local “escort service” parading itself as a fitness establishment—Jaffe insists that Fletch do an expose about them. To stay employed, Fletch agrees—but threatens the most detailed and explicit expense report ever. This isn’t a story that appeals to Fletch—I don’t think he cares too much if this service is just close to prostitution, or if it’s the actual thing—and he has better things to do with his time. Also, he’s about to get married, the last thing his fiancé is going to want is him hanging around a brothel all day.

The opening chapter is a hoot. As are several of the encounters Fletch has with the members of Donald Habeck’s family (particularly his wife)—and Alston Chambers never fails to be amusing. The escort service story is fun, and ends up being the kind of thing that Fletch can write about—but its main purpose is to give Mcdonald an opportunity to opine on our cultural obsession with beauty, health, and so on, while causing problems for Fletch’s personal life. There’s not a lot of meat to this story, but there’s a lot of fun. On the other hand, the murder investigation is great and vintage Fletch. It’s the best part of the book (as a mystery novel, I guess it should be, right?)

All in all, a decent Fletch novel—full of interesting characters, a nice twist, Fletch bucking all sorts of authority (police, veteran reporters, Frank Jaffee), and more than a few amusing situations. It works as an origin story, how did he become the sort of reporter we know, etc. As I mentioned earlier, we even see young Alston Chambers — just starting as an associate in a powerful law firm. But—and this is a big but— this places Fletch at the newspaper we know he ends his newspaper career with as a rookie, as a man about to be married (for the first time). We know there’s not a lot of time between the end of his first marriage and Fletch, but there’s some. Enough for a second marriage and the Window Bradley events, but not much more. What there isn’t time for is the past referred to in Confess, Fletch, Fletch’s Fortune and even hinted at in The Man Who — and the first two of those depend on Fletch’s history to work. Unless we’re to believe that his wives let him leave the state, work in a variety of other papers, developing a Fletchian reputation, move back to the same paper he started his career in (with the same senior editor), and then hit him up for alimony and still be carrying a torch for him. It stretches credulity a bit too much for me to stomach. The next book, Fletch, Too, doesn’t help things.

Does that ruin Fletch Won for me? Not totally, but that alone keeps it out of my personal top-tier Fletch novels and rank it slightly above The Widow Bradley (only for the chuckles it gives me). Clearly, McDonald isn’t as picky about this sort of thing as many of his readers are, but man, that rankles. Still, it’s fun, it features entertaining characters— some odd poetry—and enough Fletchisms to keep you happy. It’s a good time, and if you ignore what it suggests about the rest of the series, you should have a good time.

—–

3.5 Stars
2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Carioca Fletch (Audiobook) by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller: A Bad Fletch Book — whodathunkit

Carioca FletchCarioca Fletch

by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller (Narrator)
Series: Fletch, #7 (#5 Chronologically)
Unabridged Audiobook, 6 hrs., 3 min.
Blackstone Audio, 2018
Read: May 21 – 25, 2019

Just in case people were thinking I’d drunk too heavily in the Fletch/Gregory Mcdonald Kool-Aid bowl, this should alleviate any concern. I just don’t like this book.

Following the events of Fletch, our now-jobless journalist is enjoying life in Brazil, he’s got a girlfriend, is making some investments and friends and is about to enjoy Carnaval. Quite by accident, he runs into the newly-widowed Joan Allen Stanwyk, and things get a little awkward for a bit. But before he can follow up with her, an elderly Brazilian woman claims that he’s the reincarnation of her murdered husband, come back to identify his murderer.

This distracts Fletch greatly and between that, and a new group of acquaintances who seem to be rich young men who devote all their time to wine and women, Fletch can’t deal with Joan. He first has to spend some time trying to deal with the problems of their debauchery, this supernatural claim and learning about the Brazilian culture in general.

This might, might, be an okay book if it was about any other American hiding in Brazil, learning about the culture and people. But it’s not a Fletch book. He doesn’t solve the mystery by being clever or interviewing anyone. It’s not a particularly funny book, either. It’s mostly Fletch bouncing from situation to situation with little control or agency for a couple of hundred pages, and then solving a decades-old mystery by a cheap stunt.

What redeems this book is the Joan Allen Stanwyk material that bookends it. Those are the only chapters that really feel like Fletch (and, they’re grounded in the rest of the series). Also, Fletch’s background in, interest in, and history of investing in art is shown here in embryo—as well as the other things he does to pay for his villa, GCN stock, racehorses, and so on. So that’s good, but we didn’t need to see it, the character was good enough without that.

Naturally, Dan John Miller had nothing to do with any of my problems, he does a great job as usual.

This was just a misfire for Mcdonald (not the only one in the series), and is easily forgotten—and should be.

—–

2 1/2 Stars
2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Fletch and the Man Who (Audiobook) by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller: Mcdonald and Fletch at their Best

Fletch and the Man WhoFletch and the Man Who

by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller (Narrator)
Series: Fletch, #6 (#8 Chronologically)Unabridged Audiobook, 6 hrs., 14 min.
Blackstone Audio, 2018
Read: May 14 – 18, 2019

“Good morning,” Fletch said. “As the governor’s press representative, I make you the solemn promise that I will never lie to you. Today, on this bus, we will be passing through Miami, New Orleans, Dallas, New York, and Keokuk, Iowa. Per usual, at midday you will be flown to San Francisco for lunch. Today’s menu is clam chowder, pheasant under glass, roast Chilean lamb, and a strawberry mousse from Maine. Everything the governor says today will be significant, relevant, wise, to the point, and as fresh as the lilies in the field.” …

“Is it true you saved Walsh Wheeler’s life overseas?” Fenella Baker asked.

“That’s another thing,” Fletch said. “I will never evade any of your questions.” He turned the microphone off and hung it up.

I think this is my favorite Fletch novel (that spot may actually bounce between this and Fletch’s Fortune), and I could practically recite portions of this with Miller’s narration while driving. This doesn’t mean I didn’t catch anything new, it just means that I enjoyed this time through immensely.

An old Army buddy (and C.O.) of Fletch’s calls him up for a favor — his father, Caxton Wheeler, is running for an unnamed party’s presidential nomination and has just had to fire their long-term press secretary, could Fletch step in? Minutes before Fletch arrives at the hotel the campaign is using a young woman plunged to her death from one of the rooms on the higher floors (later shown to be the candidate’s room). Fletch’s first job is to discover if she jumped or was pushed — and then to make sure that it had nothing to do with the campaign.

Sadly, it appears she was pushed — and she was associated with the campaign. Even worse, it seems like she’s the latest in a string of dead women near the campaign. Giving Fletch a quandary. He needs to figure out who is doing this killing (assuming it’s one person), insulate the candidate — and keep anyone else (i.e. the press) from printing the facts.

Fletch as an obstacle/opponent/facilitator (all at the same time) of the press in any shape is just a lot of fun. His instincts, training, and inclination is to dig into a story, find the facts on his own, and run the story. His new job is to feed information to reporters, keep them from doing any fact-finding on their own, and to hide aspects of the story. It is so fun to watch him struggle in this role.

Particularly because one of the reporters on the press bus is Freddie Arbuthnot, someone who might be a better reporter than Fletch. She’s certainly more employable than he is — as she’s a crime reporter, her presence on the campaign tells Fletch a lot about how serious this string of murderers is. Also, she’s a whole lot of fun as a character, so the reader gets something out of it, too.

Speaking of returning characters, we get Alston Chambers again — I need to do a better job of tracking his career path, but I think he’s moved up in the world a bit since we saw him last, so good for him. Alston served with Fletch under Walsh Wheeler and provides some vital information for his friend. He’s also just a great guy for Fletch to talk to and bounce things off of, helping both the character and reader to process what’s going on.

So who are the recipients for Mcdonald’s critique/satire? There are so many — tabloids (particularly the mid-80s version of them), politics, the press’ political coverage (about the horse race, not the ideas/work), pressures on a candidate (Wheeler is given drugs to wake up, keep him going and then to go to sleep because there’s no way that he could do that naturally with the pressures/pace of the campaign). Given his target-rich environment, the book could’ve been twice as long just to give Fletch the opportunity to tilt at a few more windmills and wouldn’t have lost much of its punch. Like I said with Fletch’s Moxie, it seems like his satire is even more on-point now than it was thirty years ago. Which really shouldn’t be the case.

I appreciated the fact that Mcdonald left party names out of this, and none of Wheeler’s policies can be easily labeled as belonging to one of the major parties. Anyone can read him as being one of their own (or, if they’re so inclined, one of the other guys). There’s not targeting or critique of a particular party, just the entire process.

At one point, inspired by a conversation he has with Fletch, Wheeler has a moment of statesmanship (a no-no for a candidate, Fletch is told) where he talks about the ways that technology is connecting the planet and helping share information in ways unthinkable generations earlier, and talks about how it will increase in that way. Essentially predicting the Internet as we know it. Granted, it’s a more utopian vision of the Internet rather than the dumpster fire it frequently is. But Wheeler/Mcdonald has a vision for what today is in a way that no mystery writer in 1983 should’ve.

Caxton Wheeler and his driver, Flash, will show up in a Flynn book that takes place sometime before this. They’re not there a lot, but I remember the first time I read that and it blew my mind (that was my second Flynn novel and I’d yet to find Confess, Fletch so I had no idea the universes were linked) while in Middle School.

Dan John Miller is great yet again — I’ve got nothing new to say about him. I need to track down some of his other narrations, see what I think of them.

Mcdonald shifts gears with his writing and the series after this, and I really, really wish he wouldn’t have. A few more books in the vein of Fortune, Moxie, and The Man Who would’ve been a boon to his readers, and would’ve solidified Mcdonald amongst the all-time greats. I’m sure he had his reasons, but from my vantage point (now and for the last couple of decades), he shouldn’t have. In the meantime, this work is a great mystery, fantastic commentary on politics and the media, and even a bit of prescience — bundled together with Mcdonald’s sharp prose, winning dialogue and characters that demand to be re-read. I can’t recommend Fletch and the Man Who highly enough.

—–

5 Stars
2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Fletch’s Moxie (Audiobook) by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller: Fletch Solves a Very Hollywood Murder in Key West

Fletch’s Moxie (Audiobook)Fletch’s Moxie

by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller (Narrator)
Series: Fletch, #5 (#8 Chronologically)

Unabridged Audiobook, 5 hrs., 51 min.

Blackstone Audio, 2018

Read: April 24 – 29, 2019

So in the last book, we met Moxie Mooney while Fletch was still a working journalist. They’d known each other for some time at this point, and it might have been just about the last time they saw each other until now, sometime following Fletch’s Fortune (when his tax problems were taken care of and he could return to the States), although she had visited him in Italy shortly before this.

Moxie’s decided she needs Fletch’s help with something, she’s got some sort of problem that needs investigating, and who better? When Fletch arrives on the movie set for her current project in Florida, he’s just in time to help her with a brand-new problem. She’s appearing on a (pre-taped, thankfully) TV interview with her business manager—the only people on the set (or near enough the set) are Moxie, her manager, and the interviewer. So when the manager is killed with a knife to the back, there aren’t a whole lot of suspects.

Fletch jumps to action and gathers a lot of information (as only he can) before the police really even know what’s going on, including an in-depth interview (that doesn’t look like one) with the widow. He then whisks Moxie away to the home of a business associate in Key West, to keep her out of the spotlight while he can do some digging into both of her problems.

Great plan, that doesn’t account for two things: 1. Moxie’s father, the illustrious stage and film actor, Frederick Mooney—known more now for a constant state of drunkenness is visiting her, too, and has to come along; 2. Moxie tells the director and most of the cast where she’s staying and they arrive, too. Having a cast of movie stars past and present staying in one house tends to attract a bit of attention—especially when they’re associated with an unsolved murder.

One thing Fletch has done recently is buying enough stock in GCN (Global Cable News—a CNN-like entity) that executives take his phone call and pay attention to his news tips. This turns out to be pretty advantageous and helps with some of his research—this will prove fruitful for future books, too.

Fletch investigates the murder in the way he does best—by talking to people and interviewing them without their realizing it and making phone calls. I just love watching him work. It’s an intricate problem and Fletch’s solution is quite clever.

This particular book gives McDonald a chance to do two things—better explore Moxie’s character (who might be a richer character than Fletch, but not one you could base a series on) and lampoon Hollywood and its approach to the art/business of movie-making. Almost everything he talks about in this 1982 book is still prevalent — and maybe moreso.

I have nothing new to say about Dan John Miller—he’s a really good narrator and perfect for the series. I assume at this point, I’ll hear his voice in my head for at least part of the time I think about this character in the future.

This isn’t my favorite Fletch book, but it’s one of the best and a great showcase for both the character and McDonald. Amusing, insightful, smart and fun—hard to ask for more.

—–

4 Stars
2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Fletch and the Widow Bradley (Audiobook) by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller: An oddly contemporary-feeling Fletch novel that’s good but not really good.

Fletch and the Widow Bradley (Audiobook)Fletch and the Widow Bradley

by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller (Narrator)
Series: Fletch, #4 (#3 Chronologically)

Unabridged Audiobook, 5 hrs., 28 min.
Blackstone Audio, 2018

Read: April 1 – 4, 2019

Fletch checks in to his office before returning from a few days away to find out that he’s fired. He’d filled in for an injured colleague to write a profile on a small local business that the Gazette had written an exposé about a few years before, just to see how they were doing in the aftermath. They were doing fine, and Fletch had quoted recent memos from the CEO demonstrating that. The teeny tiny problem there is that the particular CEO had been dead for a couple of years. Quoting corpses is generally frowned upon (unless you’re writing about voters’ views on Chicago politicians, I guess), and so Fletch is fired. Not only that, he’s probably finished forever as a journalist.

Understandably, Fletch is incensed. He’s angry. He’s also mystified — he knows what he read. He knows he did good work — how did they fool him? More importantly, why? If his career is over, he’s going to know why it happened. So he starts interviewing those nearest the dead man — his business associates, family, and so on — he eventually flies across the country a couple of times (and up to Alaska, too).

At this point in Fletch’s life, he is notoriously dead broke — recently divorced (again) with attorneys looking for alimony payments, and (as mentioned) fired. So how does he afford the gas and airline travel? Well, he found a walled with a whole lot of money in it and cannot find the owner. So he borrows a little bit. This is a very odd little storyline that I honestly have never fully understood. Not the events in it, but the reasoning behind its inclusion in the book. Other than to give Moxie (more about her in a moment) and Fletch something to talk about, and to give Fletch money for plane tickets.

Now, close readers might pick up a thing or two (if they haven’t read the books anyway) — I said Gazette (the paper that Fletch was almost certainly fired from after Fletch) and “at this point in” his life and “recently divorced.” This is the first time where Mcdonald bounces back in time for a novel — this is why I’ve noted publication order and chronological order in my post headings for this series. Mcdonald needs Fletch to have a newspaper job to tell this story — and post Fortune, that’s not really likely (it’s not like he needs the money). This chronological flexibility is both rare in a series like this one, and will become a hallmark of the books.

The best reason to read this book is the introduction of the character Moxie Mooney. Moxie’s an actress — daughter of the legendary Freddie Mooney — a major acting star of both stage and screen. Moxie’s still struggling to make it at this point, but she’s got talent. She’s also a long-time on-again/off-again romantic partner to Fletch. There’s more chemistry between the two, more genuine feelings and more obvious compatibility between Moxie and Fletch than there is between any two people in this series. She’s funny, she’s quirky, she’s driven — not unlike Irwin Maurice himself. I’m not sure how often I would have re-read the book without her

At the end of the day, this one doesn’t have the same impact and entertainment value most of the rest of the series does. There are some great moments — and I love Moxie — but there’s something missing from this one. Still, Fletch books are like that old line about pizza — when it’s good, it’s really good; and when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.

—–

3 Stars
2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

That Ain’t Witchcraft by Seanan McGuire: Annie at the Crossroads (literally, mystically, metaphorically, and probably a couple of other adverbs, too)

That Ain't WitchcraftThat Ain’t Witchcraft

by Seanan McGuire
Series: InCryptid, #8

Paperback, 357 pg.
Daw Books, 2019
Read: April 24 – 29, 2019

           I didn’t know these woods. I’d never been to Maine before, and [didn’t have any of the family bestiaries to prepare me for what I might find. There are cryptids everywhere in the world, which only makes sense, when you consider “cryptid” means “science doesn‘t know about it yet.” New species are discovered every year, brought into the scientific fold and lifted out of cryptozoological obscurity. These days the word mostly gets used to mean the big stuff some people say is real and other people say is a big hoax, like Bigfeet, unicorns, and the occasional giant snake.

(Always assume the giant snakes are real. The alternative is finding yourself being slowly digested in the belly of something you didn’t want to admit existed, and while I’m as fond of healthy skepticism as the next girl, I’m a lot more fond of continuing to have my original skin. As in, the one I was born with, not the one the snake has left me with after a little recreational swallowing me whole.)

After Annie, Sam, Fern and Cylia leave Florida and the disaster that was left in their wake, they bounce around a little before settling on something that is about as non-Florida as you can get on that side of the country — central Maine. They find a house that needs a tenant for a few months while the owner is off to Europe and settle in to enjoy a time off the roads to regroup, rest and recuperate.

Ahh, such a good idea.

But first, they meet a neighbor, James Smith. It turns out that he’s a sorcerer, who’s itching for a fight with the Crossroads for the way they fulfilled (or didn’t) a deal with a friend of his from a few years’ back. Annie owes the Crossroads something, and it just might come time to pay up — which isn’t good news for James. If that wasn’t enough, Leonard Cunningham — Annie’s Covenant connection and the presumptive future leader of the group comes to town on her tail.

So much for the three R’s.

Annie’s solution to the problems she faces here is so… Annie. On the one hand, this is obvious, she’s a different character than Alex or Verity — and this series has never been the kind where the Price kids are interchangeable. But there is just no way that Verity or Alex would even consider doing what Annie tries. In many ways, she reminded me of Harry Dresden with the way that she dealt with the final problem. No, not by throwing a lot of fire, snark and energy around, but by coming at the problem in a way that you just don’t see coming (although, that’s not ruling out snark and fire) that seems more than a little reckless. Up to that point, Annie and crew had reminded me a lot of Sam and Dean Winchester and their crew.

This was really such a great way to wrap up this Annie arc — it’s going to be hard to put her aside for a book or three. Verity’s a lot of fun, Alex is a great reluctant hero who’d rather be researching things — but Annie? Annie’s really my kind of Urban Fantasy character — in the vein of Dresden, Atticus O’Sullivan, Ree Reyes, etc. And her friends are a lot of fun, too. The only thing this book is missing that’d really make it fantastic are the Aeslin mice — their absence is felt, particularly because Annie can’t stop thinking about them. Of all the things that McGuire has brought into my life, these mice are my favorite — and it’s been too long since I’ve had a decent dose of them.

I’m not sure how to talk about this without digging into details — and I’m this close to tossing out my spoiler policy and pulling an all-nighter to produce 20-30 pages about the InCryptid Dire Straits Trilogy. So much of what makes this book work is as its the culmination of this trilogy-within-the-greater-series. While I don’t think the book is perfect, I don’t remember a single problem I had with it — and felt the same way while reading it. Everything worked — the voice, the characters, the villains, the stakes, the challenges, the solution, the emotions, the quips, the action. I spent a good deal of time unsure how many of Annie’s little group were going to survive, and this isn’t normally that kind of series. I don’t think I actually shed a tear at the height of the novel — they weren’t far from the surface. This met and exceeded every expectation I had for this book and made me rethink my estimation of the series as a whole.

This is easily the best of this very good series — in fact, were this the final book in the series, I’d be satisfied. I’m very, very glad that it isn’t — please don’t misunderstand — but if it were… Heart, humor, thrills, and a very clever conclusion, pulled off in a way that the whole series has been leading to, but you don’t see coming. I don’t know how McGuire can equal it — much less top it. But since we’re talking Seanan McGuire, she will, probably not in book 9, but soon. Go get it — you’ll be better off if you start with #1 (Discount Armageddon), but you could get away with starting at #6 (Magic for Nothing), you can still appreciate a lot of the goodness if you jump on here, but you’ll miss so much you won’t enjoy it the way you could.

—–

5 Stars