The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin: Malcolm Fox Uncovers Corruption both Past and Present

The Impossible DeadThe Impossible Dead

by Ian Rankin
Series: Malcolm Fox, #2

Hardcover, 391 pg.
Reagan Arthur Books, 2018
Read: December 24 – 26, 2018

Detective Paul Carter has been found guilty of some pretty clear-cut criminal activity. Fox and his team have been brought into investigate a neighboring force, Carter’s own, to see who might have been involved with him — or at the least covered up for him. They weren’t involved with the original investigation, but that doesn’t keep anyone from hating them as they come in for the follow-up.

Not too surprisingly, they’re getting nowhere fast. So they go fishing — not talking to the detectives they’re looking into, but witnesses and others. One of them ends up dead not long after Fox talks to him. There’s enough hinky in the crime scene, what the witness had told Fox — and the fact the detectives in charge are the same ones that Fox and his team are looking into, that Fox determines he needs to look into things.

There’s a tie between this murder and an old cold case involving a firebrand politician tied to the more militant wing of Scottish Nationalism. Fox is convinced that the two crimes are linked and he sets about proving who killed one man as a way to finding the killer of the other. This two-pronged focus of the book keeps Fox, his partners, and the readers on their toes.

Despite all the differences between the two characters (which will become even more obvious, it seems in the next Rebus book), they ultimately operate best in the same way, as lone wolves. But when Rebus goes off on his own and causes trouble, it’s just par for the course. When Fox does it, it’s out character — he’s a team player (at least he wants to be), so there’s a lot of mechanics involved in getting him off on his own. In The Complaints it took a conspiracy to isolate Fox, here, it takes one detective Fox crossed to take advantage of his tenuous link to a crime.

But on his own, Fox will do more to uncover the facts not just of the murder he’s wanting to investigate, the investigation he’s supposed to be running, and a very cold case. Yes, he does work with his friends who are still on the inside, to confirm or deepen his knowledge (and he does feed information back to them), but he’s very much on his own.

There’s a good amount of family drama again for Fox — grounding Fox and giving a dimension to the character that is good to see (even if it doesn’t always bring out the best in him).

I very much enjoyed watching Fox work — and try to stay near the system, if he can’t stay in it. The solutions to the crimes are well done — by both Fox and Rankin. We even get a little bit of a cameo-like appearance of good ol’ Rebus. Nothing about this really blew me away, but I was gripped throughout, and entertained by the whole thing. Rankin’s good enough that he doesn’t have to dazzle you as a reader to be very aware that you’re in the hands of a master. Fox would be worth following on his own, and I’m glad we got to see him for a couple of books before he comes park of the greater universe surrounding Rebus.

—–

4 Stars
2018 Library Love Challenge

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Past Tense by Lee Child: If this wasn’t a Reacher book, I’d probably like it more…

Past TensePast Tense

by Lee Child
Series: Jack Reacher, #23


Hardcover, 382 pg.
Delacorte Press, 2018

Read: December 6 – 7, 2018
Shorty and Patty are a young couple from a rural Canadian community on their way to New York City to sell off some beloved possessions in order to make enough money to go to Florida and start their lives. Which sounds like a great idea (assuming they’re not ripped off in NYC) — if only they’d ever done basic maintenance on the car they’re driving. They end up breaking down outside a small town in New Hampshire, nowhere near a decent city.

The owners of a newly refurbished hotel outside town take pity on them and rent them a room for a little cheaper than they should and offer to help with getting their car going again — they even invite them to dinner their first night with them. Yes, I said first night — home repairs aren’t doing the job, so they have to call a tow truck/mechanic to fix the car — which is going to pretty much wipe the couple out. But what choice do they have?

Still, something doesn’t seem right about the whole thing. Shorty’s a trusting guy and rolls with everything that happens, but Patty smells something. She thinks a lot — incidentally, she thinks a lot like Reacher. Which is annoying when you’re reading a book starring Reacher that you get a clone. But it’s good for her and Shorty and just might end up saving their lives. It’d be better for the both of them if she had any of Reacher’s skills other than his ability to analyze a situation, but, I guess you take what you can get.

Meanwhile, Jack Reacher comes into the same town those two are stranded outside of. He was passing near by and on a lark decides to stop in Laconia, his father’s birthplace. He’s never met anyone from that side of the family, and his father said almost nothing about his childhood experiences there. So Reacher’s a bit curious about the town — he doesn’t even know if there might be a cousin or three around. It turns out that finding anything about his family is almost impossible in the official records — and there’s a decent chance that there’s no one around who knows anything about them that’s not in the official records.

While that’s going on, in the middle of the night Reacher encounters an attempted sexual assault and, ahem, dissuades the attacker. This attacker doesn’t press charges or anything, but it turns out that he’s connected to a significant crime family in the Northeast. Reacher is informed about this and is encouraged to leave town soon by a former MP turned local law enforcement officer that he’s become acquainted with. Reacher doesn’t like to be told what to do — by anyone — and there’s something about his father’s past that has him more curious than he’s been before and wants to track that down.

These two stories run independently of each other, while happening very near each other. Reacher does come to the hotel and asks a couple of questions about his quest about the same time that Patty’s getting suspicious, but the two don’t cross paths.

Now, I didn’t right down the page number when Reacher’s story intersects with Shorty’s and Patty’s — but I do know that it hadn’t happened by page 245 (of 382). Which is pretty astounding, and is definitely a new way to bring Reacher into the main events of a novel. I doubt it’s a trick Child can pull off again, but I’d like to see him try. If he doesn’t show up, bad things will happen — and will likely continue to happen — but it’s hard to say just how bad it’d all be. But Reacher does show up, and he does his usual thing, and many more people live than otherwise would have. Which isn’t to suggest that no one dies after he shows up, it’s just that most of them aren’t the people that seemed likely to die 30 pages earlier.

There’s little violence until the end of the book (there’s Reacher’s dissuasion, and two other minor — by Reacher’s standards — fights), but once the fighting starts, it doesn’t stop until there’s a whole lot of violence and bloodshed. Tension and unease that’s been mounting slowly over the whole book, are unleashed – and most of the last twenty percent (or so, I’m just guessing) of the novel is as violent and action-packed as you could hope for. Once that switch is flipped, it’s on.

This wasn’t my favorite Reacher novel — by far — but it was a really engrossing read. I enjoyed it — and really think if Jack Reacher hadn’t been the fly in the ointment for the people trying to manipulate and hurt Shorty and Patty, I think I’d have enjoyed this much more. But I expect more from Lee Child than I do other writers, and this time, I just don’t think he pulled it off. I’m willing to bet he does better next year, and I’ll content myself with that hope.

—–

3.5 Stars2018 Library Love Challenge

Ross Poldark by Winston Graham: A decent read, but it’s not for me.

Ross PoldarkRoss Poldark

by Winston Graham
Series: The Poldark Saga, #1


Paperback, 379 pg.
Sourcebooks Landmark, 2015 (originally published 1945)

Read: December 27 – 28, 2018

Ross Poldark, the scandalous son of a minor land-owner, comes back from serving the Crown in the War for American Independence to find his father dead, his estate in disrepair, and the woman who he’d hoped to wed engaged to someone else (a formerly close friend, actually). Understandably, he’s about to throw in the towel on life, but instead he starts putting things together.

He bullies his fathers’ (and now his) servants into getting to work restoring the house and lands, and hires some new help and even rescues a poor little girl being picked on by some nearby children and brings her into his house as a kitchen maid. He has to fight and then pay off her abusive father for the privilege, but does so. He takes care of his tenants, and is soon seen as half-one of them half-landowner. He starts a new mine with some other people in the area, doing a lot to help the local economy.

There’s some legal drama, a touch of medial as well, a malicious criminal presence, too — but it’s hard to take any of these seriously, and they are all dispatched quickly. In fact, that’s pretty much par for the course for everything — a problem arises and is resolved soon. There’s no real book-length plot to this novel — there’s no central or driving conflict. You might be able to make the case that it’s a story of Ross finding contentment and/or happiness after the way his homeland welcomes him. But I’m not sure I can buy that.

There is just so much wrong with the love story involving Ross that I’m not going to touch it. I get that it’s a different time, different standards, and everything, but he’d be locked up today for what happens — and rightly so. Frankly, all of the romances are a bit . . . off. Nothing that Austen would touch, for sure. One of the Brontë sisters might have, though.

This book feels like someone was convinced the only proper kind of book for a British person to write is one that Austen, a Brontë, or Dickens could have written — so he combined the three influences into one. But Graham isn’t one of those. He’s a passable writer of limited imagination. Every so often he’ll write a passage — a small paragraph to a page or so in length — that strikes me like he’s realized he hasn’t done anything “writerly” for a bit and dashes something off that fits the bill. Then he gets back to his usual story telling for 5-10 pages until he repeats the process. This isn’t to suggest he’s a bad writer, it’s just usually decent prose with odd splashes of flair.

It’s hard to describe any of the characters except in reference to Ross — and would end up spoiling a lot of the book to do so. I found them all relatively two-dimensional and without a lot of growth or development. What change there is in most of them is hard to believe, or at least happens off-screen and without explanation. The maid that Ross brings in is the easiest to see grow and develop, and we almost get a real sense of who she is — but I’m not sure I can say that.

Ross Poldark isn’t a bad book — but there’s nothing about it that grabbed me. I did grow to be a bit interested in two of the characters, and was pleased to see things go well for them. I’m not driven to pursue things to the next book much less eleven more, however. I can see the appeal — I think — that this book and/or this saga would have for some, but it’s not for me. But for people who like semi-romantic historical epics, you’d be well served by trying this. I probably sound more negative than I really am — I’m more indifferent than anything else.

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3 Stars
2018 Library Love Challenge

✔ Read a book recommended by one of your parents (in-laws count).

Them: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Heal by Ben Sasse: A Profound and Helpful (and Hopeful) Book I Wish I Could Adequately Discuss

ThemThem: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Hea

by Ben Sasse

Hardcover, 288 pg.
St. Martin’s Press, 2018
Read: November 27 – 30, 2018

I really do prefer to come up with my own synopsis/summary, but I was struggling to come up with one without this taking 3-4 times as much space as I usually do for an entire post. So, I’ll just use the Publisher’s:

           Something is wrong. We all know it.

American life expectancy is declining for a third straight year. Birth rates are dropping. Nearly half of us think the other political party isn’t just wrong; they’re evil. We’re the richest country in history, but we’ve never been more pessimistic.

What’s causing the despair?

In Them, bestselling author and U.S. senator Ben Sasse argues that, contrary to conventional wisdom, our crisis isn’t really about politics. It’s that we’re so lonely we can’t see straight—and it bubbles out as anger.

Local communities are collapsing. Across the nation, little leagues are disappearing, Rotary clubs are dwindling, and in all likelihood, we don’t know the neighbor two doors down. Work isn’t what we’d hoped: less certainty, few lifelong coworkers, shallow purpose. Stable families and enduring friendships—life’s fundamental pillars—are in statistical freefall.

As traditional tribes of place evaporate, we rally against common enemies so we can feel part of a team. No institutions command widespread public trust, enabling foreign intelligence agencies to use technology to pick the scabs on our toxic divisions. We’re in danger of half of us believing different facts than the other half, and the digital revolution throws gas on the fire.

There’s a path forward—but reversing our decline requires something radical: a rediscovery of real places and human-to-human relationships. Even as technology nudges us to become rootless, Sasse shows how only a recovery of rootedness can heal our lonely souls.

America wants you to be happy, but more urgently, America needs you to love your neighbor and connect with your community. Fixing what’s wrong with the country depends on it.

Now, a lot of people are talking about/writing about negative tweets, hostility between parties, loss of civility, etc. in our contemporary culture. But most of them are discussing symptoms of something deeper — and addressing the symptoms isn’t going to help much. Sasse wants to focus on the underlying issues and spends a lot of time talking about them before describing how he best thinks we can take care of them (and the symptoms).

I am not entirely convinced that he’s diagnosing the problems correctly — but he’s as close as I’ve seen. In short, we’ve stopped seeing our fellow Americans as countrymen that need to be convinced and compromised with, instead as evil opponents that need to be defeated and humiliated. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking politics, social policy, or people who like a TV show you don’t. The loss of civility, decency and humility in our culture is a clear and present danger to our union.

I’ve got a strong, strong desire to spend a week or two posting about this book — going through it a chapter at a time. But this isn’t that kind of blog — and I just don’t have that kind of time. There are places for that sort of conversation, this isn’t one of them. The books thought-provoking, inspiring, discouraging, and entertaining — not usually at the same time, but frequently within a couple of pages. I took pages of notes — really. Some of them just because I liked his phrasing. Some because I wanted to spend some time thinking about what he said, or doing follow-up reading, Some because I thought he nailed the idea.

Now, while Sasse goes to great pains to keep the book a-political (at least when it comes to specific policies), he correctly sees that politics is one of the main ways we’re separating ourselves from one another — or are being separated by them. So he talks about some of the ways that’s happening, and because he’s more familiar with the antics of the Right, he focuses primarily on them (also, it’ll give him more credibility to beat up his “own” team than the other guys). There are some Republicans that he cites favorably, and some Democrats that he puts in negative light — but primarily, Democrats come out of his book looking a lot better than his fellow Republicans do. I liked that a lot. If nothing else, it shows that Sasse’s willing to practice a lot of what he preaches (maybe all of it, I don’t know).

Sasse writes with conviction and compassion, humor and wisdom, even if (maybe especially if) you disagree with his politics, he’ll win you over with his common-sense realism. Some of his proposed solutions seem very pie-in-the-sky, and those are my favorites. Some of them seem more likely to succeed, but either way, just people talking and thinking about them is a step in the right direction. And I can’t help but imagine just that would be enough to satisfy Sasse. Read this book. Get others to read it. Talk about it.

—–

5 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge

The Complaints by Ian Rankin: Introducing the anti-Rebus, Malcolm Fox

The ComplaintsThe Complaints

by Ian Rankin

Series: Malcolm Fox, #1

Hardcover, 438 pg.
Little, Brown and Co., 2011

Read: November 20 – 22, 2018

I left the last Rankin book thinking, “If I didn’t know that there were more Rebus books coming, I’d be really depressed.” There are advantages to being this far behind a series. Thanks to a podcast interview I heard with Rankin around the time I started to plan my Rebus reading (I think it was this A Stab in the Dark episode), I knew that at some point, he pushed “Pause” on Rebus to introduce a new character — initially, I think, to replace Rebus. But it didn’t work out that way. Still, I wanted to read them in chronological order, so I could appreciate it when the new guy was merged into the Rebus books.

And that’s where we are now, with the introduction of The New Guy: Malcolm Fox, of the Complaints and Conduct division (aka “The Complaints”) — essentially, Internal Affairs (aka “The Rat Squad”). It’s almost like Rankin came up with a list of Rebus’ characteristics and put a “not-” in front of every one of them to create him. He doesn’t drink (because he’ll end up like Rebus does, or worse), he follows the rules (generally speaking), he gets along with and respects/trusts his superiors, he’s close with his family . . . et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. He’s a lot more likeable than Rebus, too — as a person and as a fictional character. He’s not as well-developed — this is his first book and Rebus had 17 at that point, so that makes sense. Although, typically, IAB/Complaints type characters are usually dramatic obstacles to the series protagonists and are therefore little-liked, so that was strange.

The novel starts with Fox riding high — he’s just closed a major investigation, and is doing clean up on that when he’s given a new assignment. He’ll be helping out another division — I suddenly forgot their name, but essentially, they’re the equivalent of the Special Victims Unit. So right away you know this is not going to be a fun book — a detective who polices the police investigating sex crimes. There’s just no way to paint a “fun-loving romp” face on that premise.

But before we can get too far down that road, a pretty big complication arises. (Minor Spoiler warning) The abusive boyfriend of Fox’s sister is found murdered. And guess who is the first suspect? That’s right. Better yet: guess who is one of the investigating officers? If you guessed the target of Fox’s new investigation, give yourself a pat on the back.

So Fox has to investigate a detective without him knowing about it, while being investigated by that same detective — and to keep it from looking like payback. Which is a pretty cool setup for a novel, you’ve got to admit. Better yet, it’s Rankin behind the wheel, so you know he can (and does) deliver on the setup.

The bulk of the novel is about Fox doing his best to find the killer — for his sister’s sake (primarily) — and keep himself out of the cross-hairs of the investigators. This will lead him to some very not-regulation investigative techniques, some of which might remind people of the Rankin creation that Fox isn’t. The mystery itself and the way it’s told is classic-Rankin. Lots of twists, a couple of good turns, very satisfying throughout.

Meanwhile, we get a pretty good character study/introduction to this new character through this — and through a friendship he develops with another detective during this. I really enjoyed the novel, and Rankin gave his new character a serious challenge to start with, a very cleverly constructed mystery to untangle. Fox is a worthy entry into the world of Rebus and Rankin.

I’ll leave with this — if after 2007’s Exit Music I’d have been nervous about what was to come next, I’d have been relieved after 2009’s The Complaints. Now, I’m just eager to see the two detectives on the same page.

—–

4 Stars
2018 Library Love Challenge

They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded by James Alan Gardner: The Newest Canadian Super-Heroes are Back in Action

 They Promised Me the Gun Wasn't Loaded They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded

by James Alan Gardner
Series: The Dark vs. Spark, #2

Paperback, 350 pg.
Tor Books, 2018

Read: November 26 – 27, 2018

When I read the first book in the series, All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, back in January, I said “the sequel can’t get here fast enough.” I didn’t quite expect to be reading it 11 months later, but I’m okay with that.

It’s just a couple of weeks after the events of the previous book, and the newly formed team of superheroes has gone home for Christmas break. Now with just a few days before classes start up again, the team is coming back. In the last book we focused on Kim/Zircon, this time our protagonist is her roommate/teammate Jools/Ninety Nine.

Jools doesn’t even make it out of the airport before she’s dealing with the police and a powerful Darkling — and maybe a powerful Spark artifact.

(Quick reminder: In this world there are two super-powered groups: the Darks/Darklings and the Sparks. The Darks are all the supernatural-types you can think of (and some you can’t): vampires, weres, etc. The Sparks are Super-Heroes and the like (although some have gone astray))

Jools, with a little help from her friends, gets out of that mess — only to find herself signed up for more.

Soon, in an effort to keep this artifact from falling into the wrong hands — Jools finds herself cut off from her friends and in the secret-hideout with a very maverick group of Sparks — a modern-day Robin Hood and his Merry Men. This gives her an opportunity to watch other Sparks in action, to see how they live and think — and come up with some ways to evaluate her new lifestyle. Also, there’s a lot of fighting and nifty tech to read about.

I wasn’t crazy about how little time we got with the rest of the team because of this, but I think in the long run, it’ll work for the strength of the series. And when we get the team together again, it’s even better to see than it was before.

Again, I had a blast with this book. Gardner’s world is ripe with story-telling possibilities and I’m enjoying watching him develop these characters and this world. Jools is a great character — a solid combination of vulnerable and snarky, unwise and ridiculously intelligent — you’ll probably end up with her as your favorite character in the series (at least until book 3). Go grab this (and the other one, too) now.

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4 Stars
2018 Library Love Challenge

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: A Charming, Dark, and (somehow) Fun Serial Killer Tale

My Sister, the Serial KillerMy Sister, the Serial Killer

by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Hardcover, 223 pg.
Doubleday Books, 2018

Read: November 23, 2018

Ayoola summons me with these words — Korede, I killed him.

I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

That’s one of the best pair of opening sentences I can recall. How do you not get hooked right there? You get so much in those two sentences, you know that Ayoola has killed multiple times, at least three (otherwise, Korede would’ve said something like “What, again?”); the fact that she says “him,” instead of “someone” or a name suggests that Korede will know who she’s talking about without explanation; and you hear a put upon sibling fed up with their sister’s antics.

And yeah, that’s the book in essence — Ayoola has killed her third boyfriend (in self-defense, she swears . . . again), and calls on her big sister to come help clean up. Korede’s a clean freak — she’s not quite OCD, but close. When life gets stressful, she cleans, and with her little sister, she’s got plenty of stress in her life.

Korede is beginning to think that Ayoola might not just be the innocent girl who has been able narrowly escape assault. Three kills, she’s read online, qualifies you to be a serial killer. And what’s worse — the doctor that Korede has unrequited feelings for has caught her sister’s eye, too (and vice versa) — and that can’t be good for him. I had about a dozen ideas how this was going to end — and I was wrong on every point. Which is good, because Braithwaite’s ideas were far better than mine would’ve been. She zagged when most would’ve zigged and nailed the resolution to this book.

This is enough to make an entertaining and suspense filled book. But then you throw in the characters that Braithwaite has created and things take on a different twist.

Korede’s a nurse — a demanding, dedicated, compassionate one. Ayoola is a vapid knockout who knows that it doesn’t matter what she knows, does, or thinks — she’s convinced that all she has to do is continue to look good and make men feel good about themselves and she’s set. This seems shallow, but neither Ayoola or Korede can prove that she’s wrong.

The dynamic of the long-suffering, responsible, plain(er) sibling doing the right thing and looking out for the spontaneous, outgoing, super attractive one isn’t new. Adding a mother who takes the responsible one for granted and dotes on the other, doesn’t change things, either. But somehow, Braithwaite is able to depict these three in a way that seems wholly familiar (so you can make assumptions about a lot of the relationship) and yet it feels so fresh she might have invented the archetypes.

If Jennifer Weiner lived in and wrote about Lagos, Nigeria and included murders in a tale of sibling rivalry and learning to accept yourself — you’d get something a lot like this book. There’s an intangible, ineffable quality to Braithwaite’s writing that I cannot capture better than that — but it’s better than my illustration sounds. The story goes to some really dark places, and there’s really no reason to find the characters or story so charming — but that’s all down to Braithwaite’s fantastic authorial voice. Yes, it’s about murder, the importance of family, self-sacrifice and what’s more important in this life — skill, intelligence and dedication, or beauty and sex appeal; but you might as well be reading about Bridget Jones counting cigarettes and worrying about Daniel Cleaver and Mark Darcy.

One other thing — this is just a wonderfully designed book. The size — smaller than your typical hardcover — is distinctive, the typeface used in chapter headings and page numbers are peculiar enough to stand out. The whole thing just feels like a different kind of book. Does this make an impact on your enjoyment of the novel? Probably not, but I appreciated the experience and look.

I can’t think of enough ways to praise Braithwaite — there’s an intangible quality to this book that just won me over pretty much on page one. You will not believe that this is her first novel — and you will hope it’s not her last. The sibling rivalry story was well-told and engaging, the hospital stories were enough to be the core of a very different novel by themselves, the serial killer story was unpredictable. The characters are the kind that you’ll remember for a long time. Stop reading me and go find a copy of this book.

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4 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge