Rubicon by Ian Patrick: A thrill-ride that will stay with you long after the action ends.

RubiconRubicon

by Ian Patrick

Kindle Edition, 232 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2017
Read: May 31 – June 2, 2018

. . . there’s no money in policing unless you cross the line.

But that doesn’t mean that Sam Batford isn’t going to try.

Batford is an undercover police officer who’s after a kingpin of some repute and his guns and drugs importing. DCI Klara Winter is a no-nonsense head of a task force going after the same kingpin, Big H, more directly — phone taps, applying pressure to associates, interrogations, etc. Batford is assigned to her task force to supplement their intelligence. Neither want this assignment, and work to undermine it immediately. They do actually help each other out — but it’s almost despite their best efforts. Their mutual dislike, distrust and antagonism is one of the more interesting dynamics that I’ve run across lately.

We see most of the novel through Batford’s eyes, with the occasional glimpse from Winter’s perspective. It doesn’t take much to get a strong sense of Winter’s personality and thought process. Just from the volume, the reader ends up seeing things Batford’s way — whether or not they should.

Batford infiltrates Big H’s organization — at least to a degree — for one job. A large one, no doubt, one that would secure Winter’s career (and would do his own some favors). Like most undercover officers (especially in fiction), he cuts many legal and ethical corners to do so. There’s some question — as there should be — whether or not Big H really trusts him, and the constant testing, evaluation and insecurity makes for great reading — it’s an atmosphere you can almost feel through the words.

So Batford is doing what he can to get enough information to take down Big H, to gain his trust (and therefore access), to disrupt the flow of drugs and guns — and mostly to stay alive. If he can find a way to make a little money while he’s at it . . . well, he might as well. Winter just wants enough evidence to make some arrests — and maybe some headlines — so she can get the budget to keep her team working.

This is not a book for the squeamish — there are a few scenes I know that would cause some of my friends and readers to throw the book down in disgust (the same scenes will cause other friends/readers to fist pump their excitement — I’m not sure which of these bothers me more). There’s one scene in particular that made me think of the dental scene from Marathon Man (I’ve never watched the movie just in case they nail that scene from the novel).

There were two . . . I don’t want to say problems for me, but things that kept me from going over the moon with Rubicon: Batford works his way into this assignment by worming his way in to the trust of one Big H’s associates while they’re in Bali. Do Metropolitan Police Undercover Officers really get to globe-trot the way that Batford does? Is that a bit of Artistic License? Is it a sign of just how far outside the lines that Batford colors? Does it tell us that he’s not just a Metropolitan Police Officer? It’s a minor point, I admit — and it’s really easy to accept as kosher (but that doesn’t mean I don’t wonder), because watching Batford’s machinations there is fascinating.

Secondly, Batford displays a very particular vocabulary — I’m not sure if it’s London slang, or Ian Patrick-slang. I could believe either. I will admit that there were periods that the slang got in the way of the story. That’s probably on me — and some of it is Shaw’s two countries separated by a common language phenomenon. With a little bit of work, and a small amount of guesswork (and a willingness to go back and revisit a passage later), it was all accessible enough and perspicuous.

There’s a lot about this book that I’m not sure about — I’ve been chewing on it for a couple of days, and it’s going to take a few more at least. Patrick’s characters take a little chewing, I think. It’d be easy to put Batford in the “murky anti-hero” category and move on — but I’m not sure he fits there; I’m even less sure where Winter fits — she’s not the straight-laced cop you’re at first tempted to label her, nor is she just the figure that makes life difficult for our anti-hero to do what he wants (although she functions pretty well that way). But even if/when I decide how to categorize these two — then I have to decide what I think of them as these characters — are they good people? No. That’s easy. Are they good fictional beings in their particular roles? My gut says yes, and my brain leans that way, but I’m still working on that.

Either way, I’m enjoying chewing on the novel and these ideas — and I’m definitely getting my money’s worth out of this book, just having to think about it this much.

There is part of this evaluation that’s easy — the writing? Gripping. The pacing? Once it gets going, it’s a runaway train that you’re just hoping you can hang on to long enough to get through to the end. The narrative voice is as strong as you could ask, and even when you’re thinking this cop might be more deserving of a being handcuffed on his way to a long incarceration than his targets, you’ll need to hear his singular perspective on the events around him.

Strong writing (some of my favorite sentences of the year are in this book), characters that demand thinking about, a plot that you can’t wrap up in a tidy bow — this isn’t your typical thriller. Whether it’s your cup of tea or not, it’s one that you won’t forget easily.

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4 Stars

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Trouble is a Friend of Mine (Audiobook) by Stephanie Tromly, Kathleen McInerney: The most enjoyable mystery I’ve come across in months!

Trouble is a Friend of MineTrouble is a Friend of Mine

by Stephanie Tromly, Kathleen McInerney (Narrator)
Series: Trouble, #1

Unabridged Audiobook, 8 hrs., 49 min.
Listening Library, 2015
Read: May 16 – 17, 2018

Preparing to survive a typical day of being Digby’s friend wasn’t that different from preparing to survive the apocalypse.

I don’t remember exactly what I was reading, but I came across a reference to this book filling the Veronica Mars dialogue hole for the writer (or something like that — I stupidly closed the tab and moved on so I can’t get the quotation right, or credit the source…). That sounded good enough to try, and boy, oh boy, am I glad I did. I doubted it’d come close to Veronica Mars, because none of the things I’ve read compared to it have ever come close (not that I haven’t enjoyed many of those things, even in their non-Mars-ness), but that was wrong of me — there’s a strong Mars-like vibe here.

Actually, that’ll work for a very reductionistic and not very accurate summary of this book: It’s Veronica Mars, gender-flipped, narrated by the Wallace figure.

I should’ve paid more attention to the piece I skimmed, I didn’t realize until I’d started that this was a YA mystery, but it works okay for older readers. There’s a soupçon of romance — and only that. I just want to throw that out before some of you decide to bow out of this one from the start.

So, post-bitter divorce, Zoe and her mother move to a small town from NYC. Mom’s an English professor at a community college and Zoe’s trying to fit in — temporarily. Her plan is to blow this popsicle-stand and move on to a Private School, make her mark there and step on to Princeton. She just needs to nail this semester.

Enter Digby. This odd boy who always wears a suit and refuses to fit in. First, ropes her into working on an insane independent study project (which he shows no signs of ever working on), showing up in the least convenient places, and leading her into all sorts of trouble — despite her best intentions.

Digby has a dark past, the events of which shape his every move (that’s obvious, I know — but he’s self-conscious about it) and the way that everyone in town sees his every move. It’d be very easy for this past to turn Digby into some sort of Bruce Wayne-y do-gooder crusader; or angry, rebellious young man — neither ends up being the case. He’s a brilliant kid with little regard for societal norms (not that he’s not very aware of them and how to use them for his own benefit). I’m doing a horrible job describing him — while there’s all that going on, Digby is observant, quick-witted, a creative thinker, resourceful, with a sharp-tongue, an odd-sense of humor and the teenaged-boyest teenage-boy appetite.

Zoe is strong-willed (except when it comes to Digby or her father), smart, careful, cautious, determined and focused. But she wants to be more — she wants to be adventurous, popular. I just don’t think she can admit that to herself. She’s a great character with a voice that makes you just like her.

Speaking of voice, I’ve gotta give kudos to Kathleen McInerney. She narrates this tale with life, verve, and humor. This is good material and she makes it live.

In addition to Zoe and Digby, we’ve got Henry — an old friend of Digby’s, the clean-cut quarterback — and many other mainstays of high school fiction (the meangirl, the computer geek, the bully athletes). Zoe’s mother is a better-than-average adult character for YA fiction, she’s not perfect, but she’s a committed and caring mother. Her father, on the other hand, is a little more typical — over-bearing and focused on his goals for his daughter (that’s typical for a character, not a father, I want to stress). The characters and the relationships between them feel grounded and believable — which makes it easy to want to see them succeed and to buy into the outlandish situations that Digby introduces Zoe and Henry to.

I’ve gone on a lot without talking about the plot — what kind of situations are there for Digby to involve his friends in? Let’s start with the cult with a headquarters across the street from Zoe’s house, and the very creepy guys who live there. There’s drug dealing, a missing high schooler, some dumpster arson, a gynecologist who definitely needs to review the Hippocratic oath, a case the police have given up on, and high school drama. It’s actually very difficult to say the plot is about X, because Digby has an agenda that he really doesn’t fill people in on until the last minute. And he seemingly hops around from caper to caper in an ADHD-manner. Minor spoiler: it’s not the case, he as some kind of a plan.

I’ve done a lousy job selling you on this book, some of that is because it’s such a quirky, oddball of a story — and the rest is due to a sloppy job on part, so let me sum up before I make things worse. The book moves swiftly and smoothly, making you smile frequently — impressed with Digby’s dogged determination and enjoying (even while rolling your eyes at his antics). The dialogue is snappy, the characters are likeable, you’ll find yourself invested in this crazy story — even if you’re a couple of decades past the target audience. Trombly has given us a great gift in Zoe and Digby, give this a shot, you’ll have a great time.

—–

4 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge

Sixth Prime by Dan O’Brien: The beginning of a sweeping epic that came up snake eyes for me.

Sixth PrimeSixth Prime

by Dan O’Brien
Series: The Prime Saga, Book 1

Kindle Edition, 240 pg.
2016
Read: May 23 – 24, 2018
There’s a danger that most readers have familiarity with — a novelist oversharing the details of their worldbuilding so much so that it drags down the story and characters. The opposite danger isn’t seen as often — the writer withholding the details so much that you spend half your time figuring out what’s happening, rather than paying attention to characters and plot. It’s a tricky balance, no doubt — and sometimes a novel can overcome an author falling into either ditch. Sixth Prime was not one of those success stories — for whatever reason, to be careful, to be coy, because he didn’t notice — this book fell into the “not enough information” ditch, and couldn’t find its way out of it.

There are a few storylines, somewhat connected — it becomes somewhat clearer later how they are — there’s a murder investigation conducted by a corporation that supersedes the local authorities’ own investigation; a high-ranking military official on trial (and the strange aftermath of that); a jail-break leading to another jail-break on its way to an assassination; a scientific exploration goes awry; and a couple of competing treasure hunters hunt for an artifact. Somehow these all connect to an interstellar war and forces as old as creation itself.

The characters were lifeless, little more than names and job titles — with just a couple of exceptions. The characters in the murder investigation had promise — and if this book had just focused on that storyline, this’d be a much different post. At least one of the characters in the treasure hunting story have promise (but the more villainous one was so over-the top that literal mustache twirling wouldn’t have seemed out of place).

This entire novel seemed to be a set-up for the coming series — not a novel that’s part of a series. The various stories didn’t have endings, there wasn’t an overall arc to the novel that I could see — the stories stopped, or “resolved” by authorial fiat, nothing organic. This is a problem — I can accept not tying up everything in a tidy little bow, but there needs to be some sort of closure to a novel, some sort of point to that one thing. I’m not sure I’m being entirely fair here — 1 or two of the stories might actually have had a decent resolution, but by that point, I was out of patience with the entire endeavor. A dynamite ending, or compelling hook could’ve saved it (I think), but they were nowhere to be found.

Nothing about this really worked for me — one storyline came close — but being surrounded by the rest, it never stood much of a chance. A little more restraint, a little more discipline — maybe a longer book — I don’t know. There’s something missing, I’m not sure what it was, really.

Disclaimer: I received this novel from the author in exchange for my honest opinion as reflected above. Sorry about that, Mr. O’Brien, but thanks anyway.

—–

2 Stars

The TV Detective by Simon Hall: A Murder. A Reporter. A Police Detective. Maybe the beginning of a beautiful friendship

The TV DecectiveThe TV Detective

by Simon Hall
Series: The TV Detective, #1

Kindle Edition, 290 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018
Read: May 16 – 17, 2018

The first interview with a witness.

Or, as Breen had put it, ‘Initially a witness, anyway.’

‘Meaning?’ Dan asked, as they walked down the stairs from the MIR.

‘It’s remarkable how quickly a witness can become a suspect in this business.’

All it needed was a musical sting to emphasise the drama of the detective’s words. Dan was beginning to suspect his new colleague was a frustrated actor. He certainly enjoyed a little theatre.

Dan deposited the thought safely in his mental bank. It might just be useful.

Carter Ross, I. M. Fletcher, Annie Seymour, and Jack McEvoy are my favorite reporters who happen to find themselves in the middle of criminal investigations (“find themselves” is typically code for throw themselves into, slip past the all the blockades surrounding, etc.) — I think Dan Groves has added himself to the list. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Dan Groves is a TV Reporter for Wessex Tonight, covering environmental news. With the Christmas holiday rapidly approaching, he’s forced to help cover the latest in a string of attacks on prostitutes. He and his cameraman/friend Nigel are found taking a less-than by-the-book approach to getting a colleague of the latest victim on camera (really, Nigel didn’t do anything — but he didn’t stop Dan, either). The story they aired was good, but their tactics were reported — between his editor’s need, his skill, and his editor’s fresh material for leverage — Dan’s taken off the Environment beat and made the program’s new crime reporter.

The problem is, he knows nothing about reporting on Crimes. And demonstrates it with a facepalm-worthy performance at his first crime scene (a murder, of course) after getting this assignment. So he pitches this idea to his editor, who in turn runs it by the local police. The police haven’t been looking good to the (and in the) press lately, Dan needs a crash course in detective work — so why doesn’t he shadow the investigation, giving the police some good coverage and PR while he learns on the job from the best around. DCI Breen — and (the underused) DS Suzanne Stewart — aren’t crazy about this idea, but they aren’t really in a position to argue with the brass, so they bring him on. Tolerating his presence largely at the beginning, but gradually finding ways to use him.

This is one of those cases that the police would probably be okay with not solving — at least most of the police. Edward Bray was in Real Estate — he owned many buildings, treated his tenants horribly and evicted them when he could find a way to make more money off of the land/building. He was heartless, notorious, and had an enemies list worthy of a, well, an unscrupulous land-owner. Yet, he also gave generously to a local hospice — so generously that many people had a reflexive notion to commend him while they suffered cognitive dissonance between his perceived nature as a shark, and his obvious and selfless good work with the hospice center. The list of suspects is long — former tenants, an employee, competitors he profited from and ruined, his own father — and the head of the hospice center who chafed under his authoritative hand.

So there’s the setup — a pretty good hook, I have to say. It’s an interesting pairing — Castle-ish, but not as goofy. I could totally buy this without suspending a whole lot of disbelief. The reactions of the other police officers help ground this. So who are the investigators?

First is Dan Groves — he seems to be a decent reporter, we’re told repeatedly that he has a history of looking out for the little guy in his news stories. He’s into the outdoors, hiking and whatnot. He’s very single and has been for some time — there’s a hint of something significant in his past that put him there, but we don’t get into that in this book. I’ve never read about a reporter not wanting the crime beat — it’s the most interesting, right? I just didn’t get his rationale for quite a while. But by the time we’ve heard about a few of his past stories, I guess I could see it (and have to admit that Environmental News sounds pretty dull, but wouldn’t have to be in the right hands). Lastly, Dan has a German Shepherd named Rutherford, who seems like a great dog. This speaks volumes for him.

DCI Adam Breen is your typical driven detective — stern, unbending (at first, anyway), not that crazy about the unusual staffing on his inquiry. He has a flair for the dramatic (as noted above — but it’s worse), seems to spend more time and money on clothing than most (somewhere, Jerry Edgar is fist pumping the idea that he’s not alone). We eventually get to know a little about him outside the job — and it seems to go well with the character we’ve met. He seems like the kind of detective most police departments could use more of. Breen will warm to Groves (and vice versa) and will find ways to use his strengths, as Groves finds ways to flex them.

DS Suzanne Stewart, on the other hand, is little more than a name and a presence. Hall needs to find a way to use her character in the future or drop her. This character is the biggest problem with the book. Not an insurmountable one, or one that greatly detracts from the book, but still. I get that Hall’s priority was establishing the relationship between Groves and Breen — and he nailed that. But he could’ve given us more of Stewart along the way. We could also use a little more development with Nigel and Dan’s editor, Lizzie — but I honestly didn’t notice how underused they were. Stewart stuck out to me.

Hall does a really good job of balancing the murder inquiry and dealing with the characters outside of the case — Breen off-duty, Dan’s blossoming personal life, another story or two that Dan works on. The suspects are well-developed and interesting — and there are times that you could totally buy all of them (well, maybe all but one) as the actual perpetrator. That’s really hard to pull off, many writers will start off with a long list of suspects and really only have one or two that you can believe being the killer after one conversation. They all have similar but individualized reasons to want Bray dead. Most of them also have strong alibis, because you don’t want this to be easy. The solution to the case is clever — and better yet, the way that Groves and Breen have to work together to get the solution proven is well executed.

Hall’s writing is confident and well-paced. He knows how to use characters and plot to strengthen each other. There are occasional turns of phrase that will really make the day of readers. I have a lot of “oh, that’s nice” notes throughout the book. This is a solid start to a series — the kind that makes me want to read more. I’m looking forward to finding out a little more about Dan’s history as well as seeing the relationship between he and DCI Breen grow and change (and be challenged, I assume). Good stuff.

—–

4 Stars

Gables Court by Alan S. Kessler: A Character Looking for Love, a Novel Looking for a Plot

Gables CourtGables Court

by Alan S. Kessler

Kindle Edition, 268 pg.
Black Rose Writing, 2018
Read: May 8 – 9, 2018

Ugh. Just…ugh. Why? Why would anyone bother publishing this?

I like liking things. I want to enjoy books. But every now and then, too often lately, I come across a book that I can’t find a redeeming feature in. This is one of those.

It is impossible, simply impossible, for someone to get through Law School (and the requisite undergrad program) and come out as naive as Samuel Baas. I would think that’d be particularly true in the 1960’s. If, if Baas had been sheltered his entire life and escaped/was released at age 24, many of his conversations would have been appropriate. But for someone with his education? Nope. Conversations at any age, on personal or professional topics.

I use the word “conversation” loosely — primarily, his conversations are monologues with a little bit of interaction between those involved tagged on.

There are several attempts at plot lines, but Kessler doesn’t seem to commit to them wholly — or for long. The novel seems listless, bouncing around from idea to idea, trying out this thing and then another and another — like a college freshman deciding on a major. I’m not suggesting any of these ideas were interesting or well-executed, but there were a lot of them.

There’s no ending to this book, it just stops. Baas has learned nothing — any epiphanies he’s had or changes he’s made evaporate faster than dew in the desert. To say I was frustrated by the ending is an understatement.

There’s part of me that wants to go on and pick this apart — but why? No one wants to read that — maybe if I was more annoyed by it and mustered up some funny comments, but I just don’t care enough to. This book induced apathy and a general sense of ennui. Gables Court was aimless, listlessly written, dull and an utter waste of time.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author, clearly my opinion wasn’t influenced by that.

—–

1 Star

Reluctant Courage by Rica Newbery: I just can’t muster the energy to excoriate this

Reluctant CourageReluctant Courage

by Rica Newbery

eARC, 234 pg.
BookVenture, 2017

Read: May 5 – 7, 2018

When I don’t like a book (yes, it’s going to be one of those posts), sometimes I’m tempted to describe all the problems I had with the book. And some deserve it. But generally, I don’t want to do that — it seems mean, a lot of this is subjective anyway, and someone poured themselves into their book and why kick them?

So I’ll keep this short and vague.

We’re in Oslo, two years into the Nazi occupation. One thing that’s easy to forget is that even under oppressive governments, life goes on — people love, get married, have kids, go to school, have affairs, abuse substances, and whatnot. Sure, you’ve got to be careful about it — you don’t want to attract the attention of the oppressors or anything, but hey, into each life family turmoil must fall.

Maria and her three daughters (and sometimes her husband) spend so much time bickering and fighting with, or just hurting, each other that it’s almost like they forgot there are Nazi soldiers walking the streets. Sadly, throughout, the antagonism and outbreaks of anger, or sadness, or what have you, don’t feel organic, but rather the results of authorial need. Their lives are filled with poverty, hardship, disease and bitterness — and more than a few attitudes that don’t seem genuine for anyone living tat that point in history (with or without Nazi soldiers on the streets).

I do want to stress that everything that happens is plausible, is possibly based on fact — I’m not commenting on that. It’s the frequently melodramatic way this novel depicts it — it’s just not well-written. Shallow characterization, poor pacing, and strange organization are what dooms this.

There’s one scene that comes out of nowhere that gave me a little hope for the book when someone (who’d basically be depicted as a horrible person) risks life and career to save some Jewish families from arrest. It’s a long time before anything comes from that one scene. I didn’t dislike and/or get put off by the whole book, there was a point that I breathed a sigh of relief — something interesting was finally happening. It was page 148 when I noted that. Sadly, most of what followed (at least the parts that had to do with that event) was hard to believe — and was shoehorned in with a few other storylines for the last 80 pages.

Dull, cliche-filled, aimless, and difficult to believe. Don’t waste your time on this.

Disclaimer: I was given a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

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1 1/2 Stars

Life Begins When The Kids Leave Home And The Dog Dies by Barb Taub: A fun humor collection looking at family and life.

Life Begins When The Kids Leave Home And The Dog DiesLife Begins When The Kids Leave Home And The Dog Dies

by Barb Taub

Kindle Edition, 175 pg.
2018

Read: April 13 – 14, 2018

Barb Taub, a former Midwest newspaper columnist turned blogger, has released a collection of (I think) previously published and/or posted columns and blog posts around the family-related themes — kids, relationships, life, travel, holidays, pets, and death.

You know how there are hard-boiled mysteries, noir mysteries and cozy mysteries? This feels like cozy humor. (I’m sure there are better designations/genre labels, but I don’t know them). There’s nothing offensive, nothing boundary pushing, nothing upsetting — just amusing anecdotes, a slightly off-kilter look at life, and a way with words. Simple entertainment — pretty much what you’re looking for in a collection of humor, right?

I wouldn’t recommend sitting down and reading this cover to cover. Sample from it, a little here and a little there over a few days. Taub has a couple of phrases that she really likes, anecdotes that she returns to often (for different ends sometimes) — and I don’t blame her for doing so, when it works, it works. But when you read them too close together, it takes a way from the moment. But that’s a minor quibble.

This is a simple, straightforward, collection of amusing, occasionally heart-warming, pleasantly humorous pieces. I feel obligated to say something else about it, but I can’t think of anything else to say. Taub’s a funny woman, if you like reading funny things, you should read this book.

Disclaimer: I was given a copy of this book by the author in exchange for my honest opinion and this post. I appreciate it, but this simple act didn’t impact my opinion.

—–

3.5 Stars