Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire: Jack and Jill’s Final (?) Showdown in the Moors

Come Tumbling Down

Come Tumbling Down

by Seanan McGuire
Series: Wayward Children, #5

Hardcover, 206 pg.
Tor Books, 2020

Read: January 8-10, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children was an island of misfit toys, a place to put the unfinished stories and the broken wanderers who could butcher a deer and string a bow but no longer remembered what to do with indoor plumbing. It was also, more importantly, a holding pen for heroes. Whatever they might have become when they’d been cast out of their chosen homes, they’d been heroes once, each in their own ways. And they did not forget.

I wanted to do an Opening Lines post for this book, but I couldn’t decide where to stop—maybe around page 6 (which is a little too long for that kind of post). Seriously, it took less than a page for me to fall in love with this book.

It’s a typical day at Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children (assuming such a thing exists) when a door appears, but instead of someone getting to go to their “home,” two figures emerge. One is a complete stranger, the other is Jack. Well, sort of. Close enough for our purposes here.

Things on the Moors have gotten to a crisis point where only one of the Wolcott twins can survive—Jack or Jill. Jill has struck first and things are dire. Jack recruits a couple of her friends and classmates to return with her (she was relatively certain she could return them to the school) to aid her in confronting her sister. They used to be heroes, they will be heroes again—as often as needed—much to Eleanor’s chagrin.

Once in the Moors, a dark and nasty place to be sure, dangers that no one (save maybe Jack) could’ve predicted present themselves and threaten the lives of the students in horrible and chilling ways. Culminating in what appears to be a final encounter for the sisters.

I love the way that McGuire writes these books, and Come Tumbling Down is no exception. It is full of the typical whimsical, fantastic and nigh-poetic language and ideas. If you’ve read a Wayward Children book before, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t . . . it’s hard to tell you. Here’s a sample or two:

“This is terrible . . . I mean we knew it was going to be trouble . . . but this is bonus terrible. This is the awful sprinkles on the sundae of doom.”

“A little knowledge never hurt anybody,” said Sumi.

“Perhaps not. But a great deal of knowledge can do a great deal of harm, and I’m long past the point of having only a little knowledge.”

Sumi was Sumi. Spending time with her was like trying to form a close personal relationship with a cloud of butterflies. Pretty—dazzling, even—but not exactly companionable. And some of the butterflies had knives, and that was where the metaphor collapsed.

Jill had always been the more dangerous, less predictable Wolcott, for all that she was the one who dressed in pastel colors and lace and sometimes remembered that people like it when you smiled. Something about the way she’d wrapped her horror move heart in ribbons and bows had reminded him of a corpse that hadn’t been properly embalmed like she was pretty on the outside and rotten on the inside. Terrifying and subtly wrong.

“wrapped her horror movie heart in ribbons and bows” is pretty much worth the purchase price of the book.

I’m glad that I enjoy—relish, really—the language like I do, because there’s not a lot of plot or action here. There’s enough, but there’s an awful lot of talk both around and before the action really gets underway. That’s not a wholly bad thing, and I enjoyed all of it, it just seemed self-indulgent.

It felt to me that McGuire’s reached the point of diminishing returns with this one, it’s been one too many trips to the Moors and it’s time for other Wayward Children to get the focus. Thankfully, that seems to be the plan.

I don’t think this would be a great introduction to this series (but it would function okay that way) if you’re not going to read them all in order, I feel safe in saying that it needs to be read after Down Among the Sticks and Bones. This is a good way to return to the world and revisit some of these characters. I can’t wait to see what happens in the next volume.


4 Stars

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

Junkyard Cats by Faith Hunter, Khristine Hvam: Hunter tries SF with Predictably Entertaining Results

Junkyard Cats

Junkyard Cats

by Faith Hunter, Khristine Hvam (Narrator)

Audiobook, 5 hrs., 2 min.
Audible Original, 2020

Read: January 3-6, 2020


Faith Hunter dips her toe into SF with this Audible Original, and leaves quite an impression. The distinctive Hutner-flair is there, with science-y stuff replacing the magic stuff. It works pretty well.

Shining Smith is a veteran, of a handful of things, really. This takes place in the near-future, following a World War and another one (called the Final War in an act of aspirational nomenclature, I assume). She lives in/runs a scrapyard left to her by her father with a few cats and another vet recovering from trauma.

Shining deals on both sides of the law through intermediaries—no one knows her or who she is beyond those. It’s a perfectly safe environment.

Not a nice one, not a fulfilling one, but a safe one. And in her world, that’s asking a lot.

Until one day, one of her intermediaries shows up at her scrapyard dead. And then a very strong suspect for killing him shows up. And things get worse from there.

The action scenes are cool—filled with all the kinds of things that the best SF action scenes are filled with. The future-tech is cool, completely foreign to reality, yet it seems like the kind of thing that would emerge from our current tech.

I liked Shining, we don’t get to know her much. She’s such the riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, that it’s hard to get a real handle on her—but we get enough to root for her and want to know her better. Her compatriots are intriguing—as well-rounded as characters can get in this limited space where everyone is lying to each other about who and what they are.

There were a couple of SF-brand/tech names (like The Tyrell Corporation or tricorder) that I really couldn’t understand what Hvam was saying. Against the spirit of an “Audible Original,” but I’d like to read this so I could get a handle on those things. Which isn’t saying that Hvam didn’t do a great job—as per usual, her narration is top-notch.

My only complaint (outside of the tech words I couldn’t decipher), is the brevity, we get the good story, but we don’t get any depth—it’s like it’s designed to make you want more. Hey, wait a second . . .

A fun action-packed story that’ll whet your appetite for more. This is a glimpse into a cool world and I love what Hunter has created here. Yeah, I’m only going with 3 Stars for this. There’s a lot of potential in this world and with these characters—if Hunter returns to this? I can easily see this becoming a favorite series. It’s fine as a stand-alone, and it doesn’t demand a series/sequel but I think to really appreciate everything she set-up here, we need a little more. I’m not sure that makes sense, but…it’s what I can do.


3 Stars

Clearing the Deck: Tweet-length thoughts about books I can’t find time to write about

Yeah, I have a daunting TBR stack, but I also have too many books on my “Too Write About” pile, and it’s bugging me. So, I’m cutting myself some slack, and am clearing the deck of everything from 2019 and before that I haven’t made time for. This was painful to do, I was looking forward to writing about most of these, but I’m just not going to get to them–and the 2020 books are starting to pile up, too. So, in 144 characters or less, here’s me cutting myself some slack.

(Click on the cover for an official site with more info)

Rivers of London: Detective Stories
3.5 Stars
Rivers of London, Volume 4: Detective Stories by Andrew Cartmel, Ben Aaronovitch, Lee Sullivan
Brief flashbacks showing what Peter et al. get up to between novels/comic series. A fun idea, well executed. Would enjoy another one like this.
Cry Fox
3.5 Stars
Rivers of London Volume 5: Cry Fox by Andrew Cartmel, Ben Aaronovitch, Lee Sullivan
This was a lot of fun, and showed a new side of a cool recurring character.
Rivers of London: Action At A Distance
3 Stars
Rivers of London: Action At A Distance by Andrew Cartmel, Ben Aaronovitch, Brian Williamson, Stefani Renne
A serial killer hunt and Nightingale backstory. Great combo.

(some nice Molly material, too)

Geerhardus Vos: Reformed Biblical Theologian, Confessional Presbyterian
4 Stars
Geerhardus Vos: Reformed Biblical Theologian, Confessional Presbyterian by Danny E. Olinger
A biography and a discussion of his Vos’ major works. This was an excellent way to gear up for my 2019 Vos reading. Inspirational stuff.
The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant
3 Stars
The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant by Drew Hayes, Kirby Heyborne (Narrator)
A light Urban Fantasy about misfit monsters. Enjoyable enough to come back for more.
Open Season
4 Stars
Open Season by C. J. Box, David Chandler (Narrator)
Series Debut about a WY Game Warden with a nose for mystery. Loved the dual POVs (Pickett, his daughter). Addicting.
Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain
3 Stars
Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m a Supervillain by Richard Roberts, Emily Woo Zeller (Narrator)
A cute story about kids of super-heroes/super-villains trying to get started in the biz without their parents’ involvement. Went on longer than it needed to, but fun enough to try volume 2.
Dragon Blood
3 Stars
Dragon Bones by Patricia Briggs, Joe Manganiello (Narrator)
Manganiello is a great choice for narrator. Nice little stand-alone fantasy story. Great dragons.
Savage Run
3.5 Stars
Savage Run by C. J. Box, David Chandler (Narrator)
Almost as good as the first Pickett novel. Mrs. Pickett gets to shine here, too. I’m so glad I finally got to this series.
Inkheart
3 Stars
Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, Lynn Redgrave (Narrator)
Gets a bit redundant, but I loved the concept. Better than the movie (which I kind of liked), but still could’ve been better.
Undeath and Taxes
3 Stars
Undeath and Taxes by Drew Hayes, Kirby Heyborne (Narrator)
A little better than the first volume, an enjoyable way to spend a few hours.
Dragon Bones
3 Stars
Dragon Blood by Patricia Briggs, Joe Manganiello (Narrator)
OK, so Dragon Bones wasn’t a stand-alone. Could’ve been, but it was nice to get a little more with these characters/this world. Still, give me a Briggs Urban Fantasy above this.
The Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ in the Westminster Standards
4 Stars
The Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ in the Westminster Standards by Alan D. Strange
I love this series. Strange packs so much material into this tiny package. Excellent stuff.
Badlands
3 Stars
Badlands by C. J. Box, January LaVoy (Narrator)
Cassie takes over The Highway series and moves to a new Oil Town in North Dakota. Midwest Winter, Drugs, Murder, Corruption and Too Much Money wreak havoc on her first week on the job.
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland (Audiobook)
3.5 Stars
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland: A Book by Patton Oswalt (Audiobook)
The memoir chapters are nice, the comedic bits are odd (and funny). An interesting look at Oswalt.
No Sweat
3 Stars
No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness by Michelle Segar, Ph.D.
A great way to look at keeping (or getting) yourself motivated to exercise.

Not Dressed by Matthew Hanover: If this book doesn’t bring a smile to your face, something’s broken

Not Dressed

Not Dressed

by Matthew Hanover

eARC
2020

Read: January 3-6, 2019

“Hey there, Jake. This should be fun, right?”…

“I guess,” I say.

“You don’t sound too excited,” she says as she takes a hair tie off her wrist and pulls her disheveled hair back into a ponytail.

“Yeah, well. I’m not good at dancing.”

“Obviously! That’s why you’re here. Same as me. I’m probably just as bad as you. But we’ll learn together, okay?”

“Okay.”

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” she says.

“I…have no idea what that means.”

“It’s from Star Trek…Actually, Star Trek: The Next Generation. It means we’ll work together to solve a common problem. In this case, the problem is learning how to dance.”

“I gotcha. So, you’re like…a Trekkie?”

“Was my sweatshirt not a big enough clue?”

“No, I just—”

“You’re not a Star Wars fan, are you? If you are, you’ll have to find a different partner.”

Jake Evans is our protagonist—he’s a decent enough guy, who could probably use some maturing (which means he’s like 90% of guys in their twenties). He’s got a great girlfriend (although the relationship seems a bit rocky when we meet him) and is second-guessing his chosen career (partially because he has a horrid employer, and partially because architecture isn’t the career he thought it would be). There are signs that he’d be a pretty fun guy to hang out with, but when the book opens he’s got a pretty good-sized cloud over his head between the girl and the gig.

Lindsay’s his long-time girlfriend. She works in radio and is very passionate about her job. She’s enjoying a little bit of success, and has a hard time relating to Jake’s struggles. She’s the producer and in-all-but-name on-air sidekick to a Boston-area conservative talk show host, who calls her “Lefty Lindsay.” (don’t worry, politics are absent from the book!) At least when the book opens, I really didn’t see why the two of them were a couple. There’s a good chance that neither of them rembered at that point, either, it had been so long.

Two things about their relationship provide most of the initial conflict for the plot. First, due to some financial hits they’ve taken recently, Lindsay has taken some modeling gigs to make some extra money. She did it back in college, which was recent enough that she still had connections. Why didn’t Jake do something to make extra money? He’s having a hard enough time finding a replacement full-time job that it didn’t seem like a good idea to try to add another job search to his plate. Besides, Lindsay’s moonlighting is profitable enough. What she neglects to mention to Jake is that this modeling is for art classes at a local college. And, well, none of these artists-in-training are working on fashion degrees—clothing gets in the way of what they’re learning to draw/paint/sculpt. Jake’s an open-minded kind of guy, except when it comes to this, it’s not pretty when he finds out (although it’s a pretty amusing scene for readers when he does).

Meanwhile, Jake’s sister’s wedding is coming up and Lindsay has decided the two of them need to learn to dance before it. Besides, it’s a fun activity for the two of them—they never go out mid-week anymore, and their relationship could use a boost. So she signs them up for a dance class, and then tells Jake about it after she paid for it, so he pretty much has to agree to it, but isn’t really that interested. So she basically promises him sex if he goes. Which pretty much seals the deal. But then Lindsay’s show gets moved to a new (and better) time slot. So, in addition to not being able to make the class, the couple will hardly see each other during the week. Her plan is that Jake will go, and then on the weekend, teach her the moves (he insists on getting his payment in advance for this).

Jake hates this new plan, and is convinced that he’s going to be stuck dancing with the instructor (after he and the reader meets this instructor, no one thinks this is going to be fun for him). Thankfully, just before class starts, Kaylee walks in. You read her opening dialogue up above. She’s a few years younger than Jake, taking some time out from college to figure out what she wants to do with her life, and is a major geek. She’s almost a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but doesn’t fit the category in a few ways (I’m only using that term because I’m afraid this post is getting too long and I want to pick up the pace). She’s also my favorite character of 2020 so far (granted, that would mean more if it wasn’t January 13th).

Kaylee and Jake strike up a nice little friendship during the class, and pretty soon, he’s going so he has an excuse to hang out with her. The two of them are fun together—she’s socially awkward and embarrassed to be herself, Jake tries to shake her out of that, and even encourages her to let her Geek-Flag fly (even if he doesn’t get any of it). Meanwhile, she’s encouraging about his job hunt (as opposed to Lindsay, who mostly nags or wants him to find a way to succeed where he is), and gets him to be a little less angst-y about his life. I like Jake more when he’s in friend with Kaylee-mode over guy with Lindsay-mode. But what do I know? I have a tendency to pick people the protagonists don’t in these situations (I won’t provide examples because I’d expose myself to too much ridicule).

The one last bit of Jake’s life we need to talk about is his job. It’s horrible. He has a nice group of work-friends who band together for mutual support (and complaints), but the atmosphere at work is toxic, and their superiors would be enough to turn anyone against their chosen field. For example, in the first chapter, Jake’s two-year anniversary with the company happens and he asks his boss about scheduling his annual review (which will hopefully involve a raise, which he could really use). His boss stammers and suggests an alternate date, nine months away. Yeah, Jake’s bad attitude toward work makes a little sense, doesn’t it?

I worked as a draftsman at an architecture firm some years ago, and while the atmosphere there wasn’t at all what Jake experienced, Hanover did do a great job of capturing the kind of work and personalities that I saw—which doesn’t really match the typical depiction of architects in fiction. I liked that bit of realism. (I asked Hanover about that in an upcoming Q&A, but I haven’t read his responses yet, looking forward to seeing where that authenticity came from).

Getting back to Jake’s life—what we have here is a stagnant (at best) relationship that’s got a couple of pretty big things to work through; a job situation that needs addressing; and a new friend that is really the only positive thing in his life. Jake’s life is basically begging to be shaken up, is Kaylee going to help instigate that?

There’s something about Hanover’s style that I can’t express, but I wish I could. This book (like last year’s Not Famous) is effortless to read. When I started this book, it was late in the day and I thought I’d just stick a toe in the water, maybe read about 10% of it. Before I knew it, I was about a third into the book (and were it not for the time of day, I’d have probably finished it in one sitting!). It’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s infectious, it’s engaging as anything I can remember. I cared about these characters and got invested in their lives faster than I typically do.

Jonathan Tropper tends to have certain character types that show up in every novel—particularly the wise sister/friend-who-might-as-well-be-sister* (many authors do this kind of thing, I know, but Tropper is who I thought of when I was reading this book). Hanover shows signs of the same thing—sisters play a big role in both of his novels to date. He doesn’t use them the same way that Tropper does, don’t get me wrong, but his male protagonists are more honest and open about their emotional lives because of sisters. This is neither good or bad, it’s just a trait that he may have—it’s something I’ll be looking for next time. (again, see the Q&A for more on this topic). I like that there’s someone who can draw this out of a character without the need for alcohol, drugs or trauma—also, that he bares his soul first to someone who isn’t a love interest.

* There are other types that Tropper utilizes constantly, too, if I ever get around to my big re-read of his corpus, I’ll end up compiling a chart.

There’s a bit of conventional wisdom discussed here that I didn’t know before reading this book.

“You realize that dancing is basically foreplay, right?”

“So I’ve heard.” [Jake replies]

Four chapters later:

“Because dancing is, like, totally foreplay, you know.”

“Why does everyone keep saying that?” [Jake asks]

I counted someone telling that to Jake four times (with at least one more allusion). Is this really a thing that everyone thinks/says? I may need to cancel some of my daughter’s plans for the next 20 years…

I’d forgotten that Hanover had said there’d be a link between Not Famous and this book. It’s small, and if you haven’t read his other novel, you won’t miss anything. But if you have, you’ll enjoy the brief catch-up you get about the lives of the protagonists of that novel. It brought a big grin to my face.

There was a slight flavor of Nick Hornby wanna-be-ness to Not Famous that’s not present here. Instead, what Hanover has done is take that same voice and put it to use telling a story that’s all him (while being the kind of thing that Hornby readers will appreciate). I do think that Hanover could go a bit deeper in his characterizations (I have very little sense about Jake apart from work/Lindsay) and his plots could add a little more complexity. I’m looking for a few degrees of depth/complexity, not much. But that doesn’t stop me from loving this world and characters, and it doesn’t keep me from encouraging you all to grab this book when it releases next month.

This heart-warming tale about being who you are and finding acceptance for it is a real winner. Adorkable, irresistible, and just fun—Not Dressed is sure to please (if you are so led, book is available for pre-order). I don’t know what Not Description is next for Hanover, but I’m already eager to read it.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest opinion and this post. I appreciate the book, but it didn’t sway what I had to say.


4 Stars

My Favorite Crime/Mystery/Detective/Thriller Fiction of 2019

Once I settled on dividing this chunk of my reading out for its own list, I knew instantly half of the books that’d make it before I even looked at my reading log. After my first cut (which was pretty hard), I had 20+ candidates for the other 5 spots. Whittling those down was difficult, but I’m pretty comfortable with this list. That doesn’t mean the other 90 or so books I read in this family of genres were bad—most were really good and worth the time (sure, a handful should be missed, but let’s forget about them). But these are the crème de la crème.

Not all of these were published in 2019—but my first exposure to them was. As always, I don’t count re-reads, or almost no one could stand up to Stout, early Parker, etc. and my year-end lists would get old fast.

I should say that I was a little worn out by the time I composed a lot of this and ended up borrowing heavily from my original posts. Hope you don’t mind reruns.
(in alphabetical order by author)

Deep Dirty TruthDeep Dirty Truth

by Steph Broadribb

My original post
Lori is kidnapped by the same Mob that wants her dead, giving her basically two choices—do a job for them or else they’re coming for JT and Dakota. Nothing about this book went the way I expected (beginning with the premise), it was all better than that. I had a hard time writing anything about this book that I hadn’t said about the first two in the series. Broadribb’s series about this tough, gritty bounty hunter (who is not close to perfect, but she’s persistent, which is easier to believe) started off strong and remains so.

4 Stars

ThirteenThirteen

by Steve Cavanagh

My original post
One of the best serial killer antagonists I can remember reading. A breakneck pace. An intricately plotted novel. An already beloved protagonist. Genuine surprises, shocking twists, and a couple of outstanding reveals make this fourth Eddie Flynn novel a must-read (even if you haven’t read any previous installments).

5 Stars

Black SummerBlack Summer

by M. W. Craven

My original post
It’s hard to avoid hyperbole in a Best-Of post like this, it’s harder still when talking about this book. But I just did some math, and Black Summer is in the top 1% of everything I read last year—the writing, the plot, the pacing, the tension, the protagonists, the villain(s), the supporting characters are as close to perfect as you’re going to find. The first note I made about this book was, I’m “glad Craven gave us all of zero pages to get comfy before getting all morbid and creepifying.” It’s pretty relentless from there—right up until the last interview, which might elicit a chuckle or two from a reader enjoying watching a brilliant criminal get outsmarted. It’s dark, it’s twisted, and it’s so much fun to read.

5 Stars

An Accidental DeathAn Accidental Death

by Peter Grainger, Gildart Jackson (Narrator)

My original post
Grainger’s DC Smith couldn’t be more different than Craven’s DS Poe if he tried, and these two books feel so different that it seems strange to talk about them at the same time. What’s the same? How easily they get the reader invested in their protagonists. How easily they get you plunged into their world and caring about what they care about. Grainger has a nice, subtle style (with even subtler humor) that made this novel sheer pleasure to read (well, listen to, in this case).

4 Stars

Dead InsideDead Inside

by Noelle Holten

My original post
When I was about halfway through this novel, I wrote, “While I’m loving every second of this book, I’m having a hard time shaking the bleak outlook on life and humanity that seems to be part and parcel of this novel…Seriously, read a few pages of this book and see if you’re not willing to replace humanity as the apex predator with something careful and considerate—like rabid pit bulls or crack-smoking hyenas.” This is not an easy read thanks to the characters and circumstances, later I wrote, “This isn’t the cops dealing with a larger-than-life genius serial killer—rather, it’s the everyday reality for too many. Just this time tinged with a spree killer making a grim circumstance worse for some. It’s a gripping read, a clever whodunit, with characters that might be those you meet every day. As an experience, it’s at once satisfying and disturbing—a great combination for a reader. You won’t read much this year that stacks up against Dead Inside and you’ll join me in eagerly awaiting what’s coming next from Holten.” I can’t put it better than that.

5 Stars

Deception CoveDeception Cove

by Owen Laukkanen

My original post
I heard someone describe this as Laukkanen writing fan-fic about his dog Lucy. Which is funny, and pretty much true. From the setup to the execution and all points in between, Deception Cove delivers the goods. Anyone who read just one of his Stevens and Windermere books knows that Laukkanen can write a compelling thriller with great characters. In these pages, he shows that in spades—you take a couple of characters that could easily be cardboard cutouts and instead makes them three-dimensional people with depth, flaws, and a relatability—and throw them into a great thriller. What more could anyone want? A wonderful dog. Guess what? He’s got one of those, too. Leaving the reader wanting little more than a sequel.

4 Stars

HackedHacked

by Duncan MacMaster

My original post
Duncan MacMaster is a new (for me) go-to author if I need someone to break me out of a gloomy mood because of books like this. Clever, well-plotted, and filled with more laughs than some “Humor” books I read this year. It also features what’s probably the best secondary character from 2019. Take out the humor (for the sake of argument here, don’t you dare do that really) and this is still a smartly-plotted and well-executed mystery novel. Adding in the humor makes this a must-read.

4 1/2 Stars

The ChainThe Chain

by Adrian McKinty

My original post
There was enough hype around this that I can see where some of my blogger acquaintances were let down with the reality. But McKinty’s breakout novel absolutely worked for me. The tension is dialed up to 11, the pacing is relentless, the stakes are high enough that the reader should make sure their blood pressure prescriptions are filled. The Chain is as compelling and engrossing as you could want. It’s a near-perfect thriller that doesn’t let up. Winslow calls it “Jaws for parents.” He’s right—I can’t imagine there’s not a parent alive who can read this without worrying about their kids, and reconsidering how closely to track their movements and activities.

4 1/2 Stars

Black MossBlack Moss

by David Nolan

My original post
This is one of those books that the adjective “atmospheric” was invented for. There’s an atmosphere, a mood, an undercurrent running through this book. Hopelessness surrounds the so many of these characters. Wretched also works to describe the feeling. You really don’t notice the time you spend in this book, it swallows your attention whole and you keep reading, practically impervious to distractions. Yes, you feel the harsh and desolate atmosphere, but not in a way that puts you off the book. The mystery part of this book is just what you want—it’s complex, it’ll keep you guessing and there are enough red herrings to trip up most readers. As far as the final reveal goes, it’s fantastic—I didn’t see the whole thing until just a couple of pages before Nolan gave it to us. But afterward you’re only left with the feeling of, “well, of course—what else could it have been?” And then you read the motivation behind the killing—and I don’t remember reading anything that left me as frozen as this did in years. There’s evil and then there’s this. This is a stark, desolate book (in mood, not quality) that easily could’ve been borrowed (or stolen) straight from the news. Nolan’s first novel delivers everything it promises and more.

5 Stars

The Power of the Dog The CartelThe Power of the Dog / The Cartel

by Don Winslow

My original post about The Power of the Dog, The Cartel should be up soon.
There’s simply no way I can talk about one of these without the other, so I won’t. This is a fantastic story about a DEA Agent’s obsessive drive to take down one of the most powerful, deadly and successful Mexican Drug Cartels around, as well as a devastating indictment of the U.S.’s War on Drugs. Despite the scope and intricacy of the plot, these are not difficult reads. Despite the horrors depicted, they’re not overwhelming. In fact, there are moments of happiness and some pretty clever lines. Which is not to say there’s a light-hand, or that he ever treats this as anything but life-and-death seriousness. They’re not easy, breezy reads— but they’re very approachable. I don’t know if there’s a moment that reads as fiction, either—if this was revealed to be non-fiction, I would believe it without difficulty. I will not say that he transcends his genre to be “Literature,” or that he elevates his work or anything—but I can say that Winslow demonstrates the inanity of pushing Crime Fiction into some shadowy corner as not worthy of the attention of “serious” readers.

5 Stars

Books that almost made the list (links to my original posts): Flight of the Fox by Gray Basnight, Who Killed the Fonz? by James Boice, Killer Thriller by Lee Goldberg, Going Dark/Going Rogue by Niel Lancaster (can’t pick between the two), You Die Next by Stephanie Marland, The Killing State by Judith O’Reilly, Dead is Beautiful by Jo Perry, Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin, Paper Son by S. J. Rozan, and How To Kill Friends And Implicate People by Jay Stringer.

My Favorite Non-Crime Fiction of 2019

Like last year, while trying to come up with a Top 10 this year, I ran into a small problem (at least for me). Crime/Thriller/Mystery novels made up approximately half of the novels I read this year and therefore dominated the candidates. So, I decided to split them into 2 lists—one for Crime Fiction and one for Everything Else. Not the catchiest title, I grant you, but you get what you pay for.

These are my favorites, the things that have stuck with me in a way others haven’t—not necessarily the best things I read (but there’s a good deal of overlap, too). But these ten entertained me or grabbed me emotionally unlike the rest.

Anyway…I say this every year, but . . . Most people do this in mid-December or so, but a few years ago (before this blog), the best novel I read that year was also the last. Ever since then, I just can’t pull the trigger until January 1. Also, none of these are re-reads, I can’t have everyone losing to books that I’ve loved for 2 decades that I happened to have read this year.

Enough blather…on to the list.

(in alphabetical order by author)

A Man Called OveA Man Called Ove

by Fredrik Backman, Henning Koch (Translator)

My original post
I’ve been telling myself every year since 2016 that I was going to read all of Backman’s novels after falling in love with his My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. The closest I got was last year when I read his first novel, A Man Called Ove (and nothing else). It’s enough to make me resolve to read more of them, and soon. The story of an old, grumpy widower befriending (against his will, I should stress) a pretty diverse group of his neighbors. It’s more than that thumbnail, but I’m trying to be brief. The story was fairly predictable, but there’s something about the way that Backman put it together that makes it perfect. And even the things you see coming will get you misty (if not elicit actual tears).

5 Stars

Dark AgeDark Age

by Pierce Brown

My original post
When I started reading this, I was figuring that Pierce Brown’s Red Rising Saga was on the downward trend. Boy, was I wrong. Dark Age showed me that time after time after time after time . . . Entertaining, occasionally amusing, stress-inducing, heart-wrenching, flat-out captivating. It was brutal and beautiful and I can’t believe I doubted Brown for a minute.

5 Stars

Here and Now and ThenHere and Now and Then

by Mike Chen

My original post
One of the best Time Travel stories I’ve ever read, but it’s so much more—it’s about fatherhood, it’s about love, it’s about friendship. Heart, soul, laughs, and heartbreak—I don’t know what else you want out of a time travel story. Or any story, really. Characters you can like (even when they do things you don’t like), characters you want to know better, characters you want to hang out with after the story (or during it, just not during the major plot point times), and a great plotline.

4 1/2 Stars

Seraphina's LamentSeraphina’s Lament

by Sarah Chorn

My original post
Chorn’s prose is as beautiful as her world is dark and disturbing. This Fantasy depicts a culture’s collapse and promises the rebirth of a world, but getting there is rough. Time and time again while reading this book, I was struck by how unique, how unusual this experience was. As different as fantasy novels tend to be from each other, by and large, most of them feel the same as you read it (I guess that’s true of all genres). But I kept coming back to how unusual this feels compared to other fantasies I’ve read. The experience of reading Seraphina’s Lament isn’t something I’ll forget any time soon.

4 1/2 Stars

No Country for Old GnomesNo Country for Old Gnomes

by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne

My original post
Having established their off-kilter world, strong voice, and approach to the stories of Pell, Dawson and Hearne have come back to play in it. The result is superior in every way that I can think of. I lost track of how many times I said to myself while reading something along the lines of, “how did they improve things this much?” These books are noted (as I’ve focused on) for their comedy—but they’re about a lot more than comedy. The battle scenes are exciting. The emotional themes and reactions are genuine and unforced. And tragedy hits hard. It’s easy to forget in the middle of inspiring moments or humorous aftermaths of battle that these kind of novels involve death and other forms of loss—and when you do forget, you are open to getting your heart punched.

(but mostly you laugh)

4 1/2 Stars

Twenty-one Truths About LoveTwenty-one Truths About Love

by Matthew Dicks

My original post
It’s an unconventionally told story about a man figuring out how to be a businessman, husband, and father in some extreme circumstances. The lists are the star of the show, but it’s the heart behind them that made this novel a winner.

5 Stars

State of the UnionState of the Union: A Marriage in Ten Parts

by Nick Hornby

My original post
This series of brief conversations held between a married couple just before their marriage counseling sessions. At the end of the day, this is exactly what you want from a Nick Hornby book (except the length—I wanted more, always): funny, heartfelt, charming, (seemingly) effortless, and makes you feel a wide range of emotions without feeling manipulated. I loved it, I think you will, too.

4 1/2 Stars

The SwallowsThe Swallows

by Lisa Lutz

My original post
This is not my favorite Lutz novel, but I think it’s her best. It has 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 deadly serious, nonetheless. Lutz puts on a clinic for naturally shifting tone and using that to highlight the important stories she’s telling. 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 thrilling novel 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.

5 Stars

PostgraduatePostgraduate

by Ian Shane

My original post
This has the general feel of Hornby, Tropper, Norman, Weiner, Russo (in his lighter moments), Perrotta, etc. The writing is engaging, catchy, welcoming. Shane writes in a way that you like reading his prose—no matter what’s happening. It’s pleasant and charming with moments of not-quite-brilliance, but close enough. Shane’s style doesn’t draw attention to itself, if anything, it deflects it. It’s not flashy, but it’s good. The protagonist feels like an old friend, the world is comfortable and relaxing to be in (I should stress about 87.3 percent of what I know about radio comes from this book, so it’s not that). This belongs in the same discussion with the best of Hornby and Tropper—it’s exactly the kind of thing I hope to read when I’m not reading a “genre” novel (I hate that phrase, but I don’t know what else to put there).

4 1/2 Stars

The Bookish Life of Nina HillThe Bookish Life of Nina Hill

by Abbi Waxman

My original post
This is a novel filled with readers, book nerds and the people who like (and love) them. There’s a nice story of a woman learning to overcome her anxieties to embrace new people in her life and heart with a sweet love story tagged on to it. Your mileage may vary, obviously, but I can’t imagine a world where anyone who reads my blog not enjoying this novel and protagonist. It’s charming, witty, funny, touching, heart-string-tugging, and generally entertaining. This is the only book on this particular list that I know would’ve found a place on a top ten that included Crime Novels as well, few things made me as happy in 2019 as this book did for a few hours (and in fleeting moments since then as I reflect on it).

5 Stars

Books that almost made the list (links to my original posts): Not Famous by Matthew Hanover, Circle of the Moon by Faith Hunter, Maxine Unleashes Doomsday by Nick Kolakowski, In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire, The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion, and Lingering by Melissa Simonson

Look Alive Twenty-Five by Janet Evanovich: A local rock star with ambition, a shoplifter, and a mysterious deli fill Stephanie Plum’s 25th novel.

Look Alive Twenty-Five

Look Alive Twenty-Five

by Janet Evanovich
Series: Stephanie Plum, #25

Mass Market Paperback, 306 pg.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019

Read: December 25, 2019


Someone that Vincent Plum Bail Bonds had put up the bail for skipped town, and he’d put up his deli as collateral. Vincent’s father-in-law (the owner of the Bail Bonds) has decided he wants to diversify, so he’s hanging onto it. The catch is, the last several managers have disappeared while working. So Vinnie’s decided that 1. Stephanie is the new manager; 2. She needs to find out what’s going on to get the other manager’s kidnapped/killed/whatever; 3. She can take care of her bond enforcement job during the off hours.

That’s pretty much all you need to know. Stephanie’s running a strange little deli with Lulu as the assistant manager/sandwich guru. There are three other employees there who really know what they’re doing (mostly doing drugs while toiling away at a minimum wage job). Hijinks ensue—her car is stolen, she tracks down a couple of skips, she looks into the disappearances (with help from Joe Morelli and Ranger), and things get weird at the deli (particularly due to Lulu, who becomes a social media sensation of the moment).

I must say that Stephanie seems more competent at this gig than a lot of the other jobs she’s held over the course of this series—either in an undercover assignment or because she was trying to do something other than bond enforcement. If it wasn’t for the distraction of the investigation (and Lulu), she probably could’ve made a decent go of it and changed the series for good. It was pleasant to see her not horrible at something.

We get a little bit of another of Stephanie’s supernatural acquaintances, Gerwulf Grimoire (Wulf), here, but in such a small amount that I’m really not sure why Evanovich bothered. That said, if she was determined to use Wulf, this is precisely as much as she should.

I still don’t get what Stephanie sees in Joe, or what Ranger sees in Stephanie, or why Joe or Ranger let this stupid triangle continue. But I’m at peace with that—I’ll never get it, and Evanovich will never change it, why fight it?

If this had been part of any other story, I’d say the solution stretches credulity too far. But as it’s a Plum novel, I really don’t think I can. Honestly, it was only as I was gathering wool a couple of days later that I gave it any thought.

One last thing: I’d read the blurb for Twisted Twenty-Six a few weeks earlier, and was looking forward to reading it more than I have since the mid-teens (I’m guessing). So, it turns out that I was already primed for the near cliff-hanger last couple of pages. I don’t feel too bad saying that because it really doesn’t have much to do with this novel (although events in it do tie-in), but it’s something I have to talk about because I don’t remember Evanovich doing this in the previous twenty-four novels.* Evanovich doing anything new at this point is something to note and celebrate.

* Feel free to correct me in the comments.

This wasn’t anything special, but there wasn’t anything annoying about it, either. Which sets it apart from the last handful. Evanovich ticked all the boxes she needed to; got Stephanie into a new situation and had her handle it in a non-disastrous way; and capped the book off with something new. I can’t imagine Evanovich will return to the comedic heights of the early series—and I imagine even less that she feels any compulsion to do so. I just hope for a reliable level of moderate entertainment, and that’s what she delivered. It’s a decent time, but if you’re new to Plum—go back to One for the Money and immerse yourself in the first dozen or so of these before taking the plunge into the higher numbers.


3 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge