How to Kill Friends and Implicate People by Jay Stringer: Girl Meets Boy on a Crime Spree

Two days in a row where I use denouement in a post. Odd streak. Pretty sure I can guarantee I won’t go for three, though. Sorry for the babbling that’s about to ensue.

No, I’m not really, it’s what happens when I get excited.

How To Kill Friends And Implicate PeopleHow To Kill Friends And Implicate People

by Jay Stringer
Series: Sam Ireland Mysteries, #2
Kindle Edition, 404 pg.
Thomas & Mercer, 2016
Read: May 30 – 31, 2019

I can’t pretend that everybody I’ve killed has been a bad egg. I can’t even say they all had it coming. But you want the real truth? We could all be said to have it coming. Write down the worst things you’ve ever done. Just the top ten. The silent little moments of guilt sitting at the back of your eyes in the bathroom mirror.

Did you break someone’s heart? Were you a bad husband or wife? Lousy mother or father? Was there a time you stole some money from the till at work? Maybe you just cheated on a test. We’ve all done things. One day, these things might come to the attention of the wrong person, and you get me knocking on your door.

Morals have to be flexible when you’re self-employed. Sometimes I can turn jobs down if I think they’re shady, but I’ve still got bills to pay.

This is coming a couple of weeks later than I intended to write it — mostly because I was trying to get my thoughts in order (yeah, also busy, tired, etc., etc. — but largely the getting my head wrapped around it bit). I didn’t know how it could live up to it’s predecessor and then knowing it, I had a hard time knowing how to compare the two; I couldn’t decide what was safe to talk about; I’m not sure what I can say about the ending; one of the events of this novel shocked me in ways authors almost never succeed at, and I’m still recovering (this is a good thing — but I still kind of hate Stringer for it). Frankly, I’m not sure I’ve decided any of these things, but I don’t want to not talk about this anymore.

One of the best parts of Ways to Die in Glasgow was the three first-person narrator structure, and I wondered how Stringer was going to approach this one, given that two of those narrators were unavailable. I was happy to see that he simply replaced them with another two — and relieved that it was as successful, if not more so, in these pages.

I couldn’t help thinking of the opening to Fletch (one of my favorite first chapters ever) as I got into this one. In Fletch, Alan Stanwyk hires Fletch to kill him — supposedly to prevent him from dying a painful death from a rare form of cancer. This job offer sends Fletch off on a great investigation that results in an ending Stanwyk couldn’t have predicted. Here, a businessman who makes Stanwyk look ethical, named Alex Pennan hires hitman Fergus Fletcher* to pretend to kill him. He’s done some very bad things, and some very, very bad people are going to want to do very, very, very bad things to him — the only escape is to die (but not really). Fergus knows this is a bad idea — but it’s such a bad idea that he’s interested.

* A connection I just now made — wow, I’m dense sometimes

Fergus is at something of a crossroads — he’s not sure that being a hitman is the right thing for him anymore. It’s not like he’s received “a swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever” or anything — but it’s similar. He’s lost the taste for it, he’s making sloppy mistakes. Maybe, just maybe, not killing someone would be a great way to get out of the business.

Alex and Fergus are our two new narrators — and they have very different takes on their deal, and how things unfold. This alone would be worth reading — but it gets better, because I haven’t talked about Sam Ireland — part-time PI, part-time bicycle messenger, and all around great character — our other narrator yet. Alex’s wife knows he’s up to something sketchy, and hires Sam to prove that he’s having an affair. Also, Sam and Fergus have recently met on a dating app (neither is incredibly up front about their careers for their own reasons). So you see — things are getting even more interesting.

Now, add in the very, very bad people that Alex wants to fool, the people that employed Fergus while he made some sloppy mistakes, some crooked cops, one very not-crooked cop, Alex’s wife, Fergus’ family, a footballer, a couple of shady politicians, a best-selling crime novel that keeps showing up everywhere, and a few other folks — and you’ve got yourself a Grade-A Kerfuffle of Epic Proportions. I really can’t say more than that — but I want to, it’s a great roller-coaster of a ride that you’ll enjoy while you hang on for dear life.

Alex is a great character — he’s thoroughly convinced that he’s smarter than he is — which doesn’t mean he’s not going to get away with his plan. He’s got big dreams and will do anything — anything — to achieve them. But, wow, he’s such a lousy person — you find yourself spending a lot of time hoping that Fergus messes up and actually kills him. Fergus, meanwhile, is objectively a reprehensible person — he’s a very successful hitman, after all — you should want him dead or rotting away in prison. But you won’t — you’ll be cheering him on, hoping he gets the chance to figure out his next career steps.

And Sam? If you’ve read, Ways to Die in Glasgow, you know all you know everything you need to about Sam.

I want to devote a post or two to Sam’s brother and his cockamamie thoughts and observations on comic books. But to do that, I’d end up ruining the reading experience, so I’ll keep my powder dry. But Phil made me rethink Jor-El’s efforts to save Kal-El and Krypton, and made me laugh audibly while doing so. His ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to subscribe to his newsletter.

While I’d never pretend to be able to predict everything that happens in various books — to an extent, you kind of can after awhile. Right? Even when we say to each other “I never saw X coming” — in retrospect, you usually can see where X came from. The number of stunning, out of left field, I cannot believe Author Y did that moments are few and far between — maybe a dozen in the past five years. I know the only one that comes to mind in recent memory is John Mars’ Her Last Move which left me a reeling for days last November. Stringer did that to me here, I so strongly disbelieved what I’d read that I re-read a particular passage four times before moving on — only to come back a couple of pages later to try it a couple of more times. Surely it had to be what a pretty unreliable narrator perceived to have happened, not what really happened.

For those of you keeping score — this is the book that got me in a hopeful and cheery mood moments before Noelle Holten shattered it. But don’t infer from that an ending that doesn’t exist — this is one of the most complex denouements I can remember — following shortly after one of the more exciting climaxes I’ve read this year. I remember walking into another room to read the last 15 percent or so, because I could not — would not — tolerate any distractions. Not that my kids and dog were being more distracting than usual, but it was that kind of ending (and really, my dog’s half-pug, so simply breathing is frequently a distracting behavior…). It’s that kind of a read — you will laugh; you may find yourself rooting for the boy in his crime spree to get the girl; you will find your jaw hanging open (even is — especially if — you’re not the type of person to do that); you will (at the very least want to) cancel/rearrange plans to make time to read; you will wish your reading speed was a little faster so you can find out what happens when Sam tries to (ahem, well); you will find yourself writing/speaking in italics more than you’re accustomed to when discussing the novel. It’s just that kind of read.

I know Stringer has a non-Sam Ireland book coming out soon, but I sincerely hope that he’s not done with her. I’m not ready to be.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

✔ Read a book with “how to” in the title.

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

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Paper Son by S.J. Rozan: Lydia and Bill in their most foreign setting yet — Mississippi

Paper SonPaper Son

by S. J. Rozan
Series: Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #12eARC, 352 pg.
Pegasus Books, 2019

Read: June 12 – 17, 2019

One thing I’ve said (possibly too often) as I talk about this series is how much I enjoy the conversations between Lydia and Bill — but I think one of the conversations between Lydia and her mother tops anything the partners have to say (until the last conversation, anyway), and the rest weren’t far behind. We start off with Mrs. Chin telling Lydia that she has to go to Mississippi — and take Bill along — to investigate a murder. Long-time readers of this series will be forgiven the need to re-read that sentence, I assure you that it’s correct. One of Lydia’s cousins (yes, she has cousins in the Mississippi Delta — she’s as shocked as you are) is accused of murdering his father. Her mother wants Lydia to go down and prove his innocence. That he’s innocent isn’t ever in doubt for a moment — he’s related to Lydia’s father, ergo, he’s innocent. Lydia doesn’t accept her mother’s logic, but feels obligated to try to help this cousin she’s never heard of before now, so she and Bill set off for the Delta. It’s simply a dynamite first chapter, and the hook was set immediately.

Upon their arrival, Lydia and Bill find themselves neck deep in a tangled web of history, race, meth, gambling (both your more traditional varieties and purely 21st Century versions), politics and a even more race (it is Mississippi). Lydia’s cousin Jefferson is in his mid-20’s, a computer whiz of some sort with questionable ethics. He’s called to come to his father’s grocery store for some reason — they argue, and Jefferson leaves to cool off. When he returns, he finds his father bleeding out from a knife wound. Naturally, that’s when the police arrive, taking him into custody immediately. He’s bloody, standing over the victim and weapon — and sure, his fingerprints are all over the knife. Seems like an open and shut case, right?

Jefferson’s uncle, Captain Pete, is at the front of the line of those who doubt this — which is why he called his cousin’s widow to get her PI daughter down to help. Pete’s a professional gambler — precisely the kind of person Mrs. Chin wouldn’t like to acknowledge, but is friendly, hospitable and charming. Lydia and Bill warm to him quickly and he becomes a source of comfort as well as a source of information for the duo as they dive in to the investigation. Soon after arriving in Mississippi, they also meet another of Lydia’s cousins — a nephew to Pete, who is running in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Lydia can’t believe she’s related to a candidate for governor and she’s never heard of him. What else has her mother been keeping from her? Just from her conversations with Pete and Raymond Tam (the candidate), Lydia’s overwhelmed with family history that she didn’t expect to exist, much less be able to understand it all. It doesn’t derail the work that she and Bill are doing at all, but it threatens to distract her more than once. Adding the candidate into the mix guarantees that the water will get a lot muddier before it starts to become clear.

Lydia’s voice is as strong, engaging and entertaining as ever — possibly better than ever. I want to compare it to vintage Spenser, but that seems wrong (I’m not sure why I want to compare it to Parker at his best or why I shouldn’t — but that’s where I am). She’s funny, she’s smart, she’s insightful, she’s in a very alien place and is doing her best to acclimate. Bill seemed under utilized a little bit this time around — but (as he himself would point out), this was Lydia’s family, her case — he was just around for support. And he did come to her aid at pivotal moments — laying his native Southern accent on a little thick to help pave the way with some of the locals and to diffuse tense situations. Captain Pete is a great character, and I wish he wasn’t designed to be a one-and-done kind of guy, but I can’t see him coming up to Chinatown anytime soon to have tea with Mrs. Chin. Actually, I could easily read another novel or two with this cast — from the Public Defender staff to the people that hang out at the grocery store and all points in between. I’m not sure how Rozan could orchestrate those novels without feeling a bit contrived, but I’d be in for them.(*)

(*) Sure, I’d be in for Lydia and Bill Go Grocery Shopping or Bill and Lydia’s Day at the Recycling Center, but that’s beside the point..

I enjoy tea, but I’m no expert on it — I’m no where near the tea aficionado that Lydia is (even keeping Bill’s cupboards better stocked than he understands), but I loved her reaction to Sweet Tea (not just because I think she’s right). Using food is a great shortcut to revealing character traits, and Rozan does a great job throughout this book, but particularly on this point, of using that peculiar Southern version of tea to show us sides of Lydia.

Rozan’s at her strongest when in addition to the mystery, she’s using the circumstances around it to have Lydia and/or Bill explore another culture/sub-culture. She’s displayed this strength when helping her readers understand the Jewish refugees in the 1930’s who fled to Shanghai (The Shanghai Moon), Hong Kong (in Reflecting the Sky), Small Town High School Football (Winter and Night), the Contemporary Chinese Art scene (Ghost Hero), and so on. Here we get a Yankee perspective on Mississippi black/white relations (and a glance or two at how it differs from neighboring states), as well as a fascinating look at the Chinese in the Mississippi Delta in the late Nineteenth Century (which left me almost as shocked as Lydia). You give us that kind of history and commentary while delivering a solid mystery? It’s hard to ask for more.

As interesting as that is, the heart of the novel is in the idea of family. It’s a strong theme throughout the series, actually — whether it be Lydia’s strong sense of family, or the found family in the partnership of Bill and Lydia — or the many damaged families they encounter in their work. In Paper Son family shapes the warp and woof of the narrative — it’s Mrs. Chin’s confidence in the innocence of her husband’s relations, and Captain Pete’s call for help that brings the duo to the Delta. Lydia fights the impulse to believe Jefferson and Pete (and others) just because they’re family, yet wants thing to be the way her mother believes they are (even when — particularly when — the facts don’t seem to support it). Bill even encounters a fellow Smith, and while no one believes for a second they share anything beyond the name in common, there’s a connection. At it’s core, Paper Son is a story about the sacrifice, support, trust, and dysfunction that comes along from strong family (blood relation or found family) — not to mention all of the unintended consequences of that sacrifice, support, trust and dysfunction. I’m tempted to keep going, but I’d end up revealing too much.

The mystery itself is up to Rozan’s high standards — you may guess the identity of the killer fairly early on (and you may not), but you will not see the motivation coming until it’s past the point of inevitability. The ending feels a little rushed, but I can’t think of a way to improve upon it — and any rush was actually probably just me trying to discover how things would play out. The first half of the denouement with Lydia’s family is heartwarming — and, sure, borderline cheesy, but Rozan earned it. The second half is less cheesy and will fill even jaded readers with hope and joy. It’s just a great way to close the book.

If Paper Son isn’t S. J. Rozan and the series at their best, it’s hard to tell. For book 12 in a series to be this good almost defies the odds, the years that separated this book from it’s predecessor didn’t slow her down a bit (I honestly was afraid we’d be looking at something like Lehane’s return to Kenzie and Genarro in Moonlight Mile after 11 years). Long-time fans will be delighted in the return of this pair. I don’t know that this is the best introduction to the series, but it’d work just fine — you learn everything you need to know here. Fans of PI fiction starring smart, capable (and yes, mouthy) women will find a lot to reward them in these pages.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from W. W. Norton & Company via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Pub Day Repost: The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind by Jackson Ford: The Title Says Almost Everything You Need to Know About this Rollicking Adventure

The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her MindThe Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind

by Jackson Ford
Series: Teagan Frost, #1

eARC, 496 pg.
Obit Books, 2019
Read: May 28 – 29, 2019

Not unlike James Alan Gardner’s All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault from 2017, the title, The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind tells you all the important things about this book that you need to know before picking it up — although I think this book does a better job of following through with the tone of the title throughout the book. The voice, the attitude and the defining characteristic of the protagonist (at least as most people are concerned) is all right there. If the title turns you off, don’t bother buying/borrowing this novel, you’re going to hate the experience. The same goes for the first few pages — if you’re not amused and/or intrigued by Teagan’s personality and narration within the first chapter, just stop and go find something else. If you’re amused and/or intrigued? You’ll be in for a good time. If you’re amused and intrigued? Well, my friend, settle back and enjoy.

Teagan Frost is our titular girl, and she…well can move sh…aving cream with her mind. She has psychokinetic abilities (not telekinetic, she’s touchy about that distinction) — or pk, as she calls is. Teagan will slowly describe her abilities to us as she has opportunity — and eventually will spell out to someone where those abilities came from (surprisingly far from the beginning — which I appreciated). But for the initial plot all you need to know is what the title said.

She’s part of a pseudo-governmental espionage team that acts a lot like judge and jury without bothering with the formalities. No one, or almost none of her team wants to be on it, but the shadow-y figure that calls the shots is forcing them all to be part of it (including Teagan — don’t get the idea that she wants to be some pk wielding super-hero/secret agent — she wants to work in a kitchen somewhere until she’s good enough to start her own restaurant). The rest of the team have various skills that prove handy in their tasks, but she’s the only one has any kind of extra-ordinary abilities. Actually, as far as anyone knows, Teagan is the only person alive who can do what she does.

That is, until a dead body is discovered — and the victim could not have been killed by anyone but a psychokinetic. Naturally, there’s a tie to both Teagan’s teams recent activities and the location they were in the night before. The police are looking for them (not that they have an explanation for how the victim died, but they expect someone can), and some of the higher ups in the government want to take care of Teagan without worrying about due process (those who live by the sword and all) — and if that “take care” involves dissection or vivisection so they can figure out how her pk was given to her . . . well, who’s to complain? Teagan doesn’t have a lot of time to clear her name, but she’s going to try. As are most of her associates — if she does down for this, they will to.

Time prevents me from talking about all the things I want to, but that should be enough to whet the ol’ appetite. It’s a fun book and not one you need to know much about first. There’s a lot of action, plenty of snark, some violence, some banter, some mystery, some heartbreak. There’s a very Cas Russel/Peri Reed feel to this book and this world. But something that feels entirely fresh at the same time. I’m not sure that’s technically possible, but it seems it. So it can appeal both to fans of Cas and Peri, as well as those who didn’t care for them/don’t know who they are.

There’s a lot of depth to the characters, a lot more than you’d expect — which is one of the great parts about this book. As you learn more and more about what’s really going on around the murder victims the more you learn about Teagan and her team/found family (ditto for Teagan, actually). There are plots revolving around romance and friendship plots that are legitimately surprising — in a pleasant way, nice to see someone going the way Ford does, making the choices he makes for his characters. While I’m on the subject, it wasn’t just in characterizations/relationships that Ford surprised me — he did it throughout. Even when I was saying “Well of course, ____ was really doing ___, there’s no other explanation” to myself, that was a heartbeat after I said, “What??!?! No, that can’t be right!” I’m not saying I couldn’t see anything coming, but the ratio of surprises to telegraphed moves comes out in Ford’s favor.

There are a number of X-Men parallels, going on here — all of which would appeal to Teagan (some of which she mentions). Which is a nice touch. It’s probably also something that deserves more space than I’m giving it — I’m stopping myself, because I think I could go a long way down this particular rabbit hole. I’d love to ask Ford about it.

Now, there’s one character that I think Ford messed up — he’s part of a government clean-up crew that comes to take Teagan into custody. For some reason, he hates Teagan with some sadistic vengeance, and isn’t afraid to tell anyone that. It’s senseless and motionlessness (yeah, I know sometimes people hate others for no reason — I can accept that in real life, I can’t accept it in fiction. There has to be a reason). Which is strange, as little as we understand this jerk, we know the murderer and the individual prompting them to act. Technically, we know more about the killer than we do about Teagan for most of the book. Which just makes the clean-up guy even stranger.

I expect in future installments, we’ll get an explanation for the hatred and I’ll shut up. But not until then. Ford may be playing a long game here, but this is a short game world. Ford’s set up a lot for future installments, really (you won’t figure out just how much until the end — unless you’re smarter than me, then maybe you’ll see some of it coming) — but that doesn’t stop this from being a wholly satisfying experience.

So much of the time when I’ve been reading lately I get wrapped up in evaluating a book (for good or ill), wondering why an author did this or that, and what that might mean for the book as a whole, what that might say about the writer, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that — at all. But every now and then, it’s nice to stop the critical thinking and just enjoy a book. I’m not saying I did that wholly (and my lengthy notes can testify to that) — but in a real sense I did. I got lost in Teagan’s voice, the action, and wondering just how far the killer (and the individual pushing him to be one) would go, and who’d be lost in the process. I didn’t worry about what I was going to write, but about what Jackson Ford had written. I appreciate that.

I think this is one that could be better on a second (and then maybe on the third) read, once you can take your time and not race to find out what happened, or be dazzled by Teagan’s personality. If I’m wrong, and Ford’s just razzle dazzle — well, you’re left with a fun read with snappy prose and an more-entertaining-than-most protagonist/narrator. Either way, The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind is a book I recommend without a hint of hesitation (if you pass the simple tests from my first paragraph).

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Orbit Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

4 Stars

✔ A book with a curse word in the title.

Firefly: Big Damn Hero by Nancy Holder, James Lovegrove: Take me back out to the black

Firefly: Big Damn HeroFirefly: Big Damn Hero

by Nancy Holder, James Lovegrove
Series: Firefly, #1

Hardcover, 334 pg.
Titan Books, 2018

Read: May 13, 2019

           Inara gets these faraway looks — don’t know what t means, but I know not to ask. Still got the Tams on board, and Jayne hasn’t tried to sell ’em out since we got those medical supplies on Osiris, so that’s a plus. Shepherd’s sill reading his book of fairytales. Zoë’s still my first officer, and I wouldn’t have any other. Kaylee keeps us running, and Wash keeps us flying.

Is it a good life or a bad one? The answer doesn’t matter.

It’s the only life we have.

I was a fan of Firefly from the first episode that FOX aired — and was crushed by the cancellation. Serenity was a great send-off for the characters, but like for so many, I wanted more. However, for reasons I don’t understand, I haven’t read any of the comics that came out after (which bothers me). Maybe I was just trying to move on — aside from the bi-annual (or so) rewatch of the series and movie. But when I saw that Titan Books was going to be doing a series of novels, I had to give them a shot. And then let it sit on my shelf for months.

Whoops. That was a mistake that I’m glad I rectified.

Before I talk about the novel, I’ve got to say that this is probably the nicest tie-in novel I own. It’s just a high-quality production, from cover to printing, to ribbon bookmark.

Sometime between “Heart of Gold” and “Objects in Space,” the crew finds themselves on Persephone picking up some cargo to make a run for Badger. In the chaos that ensues during a bar fight, Mal is kidnapped and Zoë and Jayne can’t find a trace of him anywhere. With a clock ticking on the delivery, the crew decides they have no choice but to deliver Badger’s goods, even with Mal in danger. Book stays behind to see what he can discover.

What he finds is evidence that Mal’s been taken by a group of Browncoat vets still embittered by their loss to the Alliance. They’ve got a little track record of finding “traitors” to the cause, trying them in a kangaroo court and executing them. The ringleader of this group seems to have a particular hatred for Malcolm Reynolds and it doesn’t seem that Mal’s got long before he’s convicted and executed.

Meanwhile, Mal’s trying to make sense of what’s happening to him and takes a trip down memory lane, going back to his childhood/early adolescence and reliving the days at home leading up to signing up with the army for the Independent cause. What we see is an immature Mal, with very little to tie him to the man he is — the same mouth, certainly, and a little bit of the same style. But it’s the war that turn him into the man that we all know and love.

Shepherd Book gets a nice little adventure on his own, able to use an old contact of his to extract information about what might have happened to Mal that Zoe and the rest can’t get. Inara gets a moment or two to shine, as does just about everyone else. Zoë gets the spotlight thoughout (as she never quite got in the show, sadly), which was great. River’s . . . River-ness(?) was on full display and was great. A lot of care was show in getting the characters — all of them, either the crew or otherwise — just right. And they did a great job of that.

It was a lot of fun exploring Mal’s roots. I’m not sure what kind of background I’d imagine him having, but it wasn’t this one. I could’ve bought another childhood/adolescence for Captain Tightpants, but this works just as well. Watching it come back to bite him seems fitting, really.

I wasn’t crazy about the end — the way that the crew left things with the kidnappers seemed a bit harsh. But the ‘Verse they fly in is a harsh one, and sometimes you have to let things be rough. So I’m not going to complain too much, but it left a bad taste in my mouth.

Will this work for people who didn’t like the show? No — well, probably not. But why would they be picking up the book? Will it convince anyone not familiar with the show that this is a universe they want to spend more time in? Mayyyyybe. Will those people enjoy the novel? Same answer. Will this help fill the void that the premature cancellation left in the hearts of so many fans? Yes. It’ll also get them asking for more — this is a fanbase that doesn’t seem to understand the concept of satiation. I know when it comes to these stories, I don’t.

It’s a very satisfying story, exciting, capturing the feel of the show and the characters. I loved getting to spend more time with these people and I hope Titan gives us several more books.

—–

4 Stars

State of the Union by Nick Hornby: Love on the rocks, Ain’t no surprise

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

by Nick Hornby


Paperback, 132 pg.
Riverhead Books, 2019

Read: June 4, 2019

           [Louise says,] “Underneath it all, I love you.”

“Underneath it all.”

“Yes.”

“Great.”

“To be honest, I think you should be happy with that. You’re lucky there’s anything still there.”

Tom and Louise are in trouble — they’ve been married for years, have kids, and on the outside seem to be doing fine. But the marriage is in trouble — and it has been for awhile. Recent events have demonstrated just how bad the situation is, and Louise has talked Tom into counseling. Each week before their session, they meet in the pub across the street for a quick drink and to talk about what they’ll discuss in the upcoming session — also reacting to the previous session, what’s gone on in the week since, and discuss their future — if such exists.

Ten sessions. Ten very short chapters. More than 10 pints and glasses of white wine. 10 fantastic, intriguing, character revealing, entertaining conversations.

I guess I tipped my hand a bit there, didn’t I? It’s not much of a surprise that I loved this book because it’s written by Nick Hornby. And even when I’m not crazy about the novel in the end, there are few writers out there I enjoy reading as much as Hornby (alas, most of his novels predate this here blog, so you’ll have to take my word for it).

But it’s Hornby that takes what could be a maudlin exercise, a too-jokey experience, or an all-around failure and turns it into an experiment that’s successful, entertaining, and emotionally rich. I see Tom’s point of view, understand his pain and get his reluctance to do the work he needs to. I also understand Louise’s take, I get (don’t approve of, but get) her reaction to Tom, and appreciate her willingness to do the work (while seeing her own weaknesses — at least some of them). A lot of times in this kind of scenario, the reader will end up “taking the side” of one of the characters (frequently the one sharing their gender). But very quickly I noticed that I wasn’t rooting for Tom or Louise here, I was rooting for Tom and Louise.

But best of all? I loved reading their conversations — open, honest (an honesty borne from realizing they’ve got no choice at this point, what could would anything else do?) full of that love that’s “underneath it all” for both. And somehow, still entertaining for the reader.

I typically limit myself to one quotation from a book, but I there’s another I want to share to give a flavor for the way the book works on the mechanical level.

           “How are new starts possible?” Louise says. “When you’ve been together for a long time, and you have kids, and you’ve spent years and years being irritated by the other person? But if they stop being irritating, they’re not them anymore.”

“My text was me not being me.”

“Exactly.”

They walk to the door.

“So I’ve got to stay as me.”

“Yes.”

“While at the same time being different, somehow.”

“It’s a conundrum.”

One, count ’em, one dialogue tag. Five words of description. Which is pretty typical of the book (maybe a little heavy on the description). That’s practically nothing — and dialogue tags pretty much only show up after description so you know who’s starting the back and forth — it could easily be a page or more before the next one. It’s like Hornby’s version of an acoustic recording — a story stripped down to its essence. Maybe that’s not the best metaphor — it’s the literary equivalent of espresso, the bare minimum, concentrated. Ian Shane called it “a literary play.” I like that, too.

The minimalism makes this a deceptively quick and easy read — you start flying through the text, caught up in the conversation and then realize just what it was they’re being breezy about, just in time for a line that emphasizes just what’s at stake.

This was also a show on Showtime recently — ten 10-minute episodes, as I understand. I don’t know which came first — the show or the book. If it was the book, I don’t know that a script would really be necessary — just hand them this book and say “go.” And if it was the other way around, it’d be about the easiest adaptation from a script ever.

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.

Note: I won a copy of this from Riverhead Books via Goodreads — and I thank them both for that. But my library got me a copy first, so I haven’t read it yet. But it will be the copy I re-read (and I think I’ll be doing that a lot).

—–

4 1/2 Stars
2019 Library Love Challenge

Deception Cove by Owen Laukkanen: A Con, A Vet, A Dog and Small Town Corruption trying to Crush Them.

Deception CoveDeception Cove

by Owen Laukkanen
Series: Neah Bay, #1
Hardcover, 369 pg.
Mulholland Books, 2019

Read: June 6 – 7, 2019

Since 2012, I’ve known a couple of things about Owen Laukkanen — he can write engrossing thrillers and he can fill them with compelling characters. He’s proven it again and again and again. Either one of those traits would likely keep me coming back for more, but you put the two of them together? Fughetaboudit. So when I read the premise for Deception Cove I figured I was in for a treat.

Boy howdy.

So, Jess Winslow is a multi-tour Afghanistan Vet, one more Marine with PTSD and too many memories that will haunt her dreams (and waking life). She’s sent home after word comes that her husband’s died, but isn’t really ready for civilian life. She gets a service dog, Lucy, and tries to move home. Sadly, her dead husband was desperate to better their circumstances and made some very foolish and criminal choices. One of these choices put her husband in the crosshairs of the corrupt local deputy sheriff (and soon to be corrupt local sheriff). Now that he’s gone, the deputy focuses on Jess — she has something he wants (don’t ask her what or where it is), and he’ll try to break her until she gives it to him. For starters, he takes Lucy from her, exaggerates the circumstances and severity of her biting him and schedules her destruction.

On the other side of the country, a convicted felon is released from prison, after spending about half of his life there. He’s not one of those who claims he was innocent, he knows what he did and takes full responsibility for it. But he’s paid his debt to society and wants to try to build something. The first thing he does outside of prison is to contact the people behind a dog training program he’d been a part of. He’d spent months training Lucy, getting her to trust him and getting her ready to help out someone like Jess. When Mason hears that Lucy’s about to be put down, he can’t believe it. He refuses to believe his girl would attack someone and wants to find out what happened. He borrows money from his sister and takes a bus from Michigan to the end of the road in Washington to see what’s going on.

Jess and Mason form an uneasy alliance — Mason only wanting to help Lucy (but he knows helping Jess helps Lucy), and Jess is unable to trust anyone, but knows she needs help saving Lucy (and maybe herself). They set out to find out what her husband took from the criminals the deputy works for, where he hid it and how they can get out of this jam intact. They’re not out to set things right, they’re not trying to bring criminals to justice (they’re not against it, don’t get me wrong), they don’t even care about vengeance — they just want to survive.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the corrupt deputy and his flunkies — or the people they all work for — but a quick word. They feel very real, high school bullies who find themselves in positions of adult power, and no reason to act any differently. Big fish in a small pond, but who want something better. Like Jess’ husband, they make some foolish and wrong choices to get that. It’s understandable that they find themselves in the situation they’re in, but that doesn’t excuse their actions for a moment. Beyond that, you really need to see Laukkanen’s treatment and development of them.

Laukkanen has pulled a Bradley Cooper and cast his own dog, Lucy, as the common ground for these two characters. It’s easy to see why. She’s a good girl, one of the best, but she’s not a super-dog (no offense to Walt Longmire’s Dog or Peter Ash’s Mingus). She gets scared, and runs from danger. But she’s loyal, and knows what Jess needs from her. And she knows a creep when she sees/smells one.

I want to pause for a moment and say, yeah, this hits some similar beats to Spencer Quinn’s The Right Side — an injured Vet who finds herself helped by a dog as she struggles with civilian life — and some small town injustice. But Jess and LeAnne are very different women — as Goody and Lucy are very different dogs — and their situations aren’t the same. But if you liked one of these novels, you should check out the other.

Yes, a lot of this book plays out the way you know it will from the description. But not all of it. More than once, Laukkanen will make you say, “Wait–what?” But even better, you will keep turning the pages as fast as you can, absolutely riveted — even during the largely predictable parts. That’s no mean feat, but Laukkanen will make it look easy (note the use of the word “largely” — none of it is as predictable as you think, and the plot takes some unanticipated turns). More than anything, you will care about this odd pair and the canine glue that holds them together.

The last chapter just seals things for me — great ending. It’s not like I was on the fence about whether I liked the book or not, because I did. It’s not even something that made me like the book more — it’s more like it ratified my opinion. “You know all the positive thoughts and inclinations you had about this book? Well, guess what, Sparky? You were right.”

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. Go, get this one.

—–

4 Stars

2019 Library Love Challenge

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

The Definitive (for now) Irresponsible Reader’s take on Charlie and Rose Investigate/Jo Perry

I was a little bummed, I have to admit, when Damppebbles Blog Tours approached me about doing this tour — I’d already said my piece about Dead is Beautiful, so what can I do to help spread the word about this wonderful series. The only thing I can do at this point is make it easier for you to find out more about the boks, so you can order them yourselves. So here’s everything (to date) that I’ve had to say about the series in one handy spot. Hopefully this helps.

(for those that I’ve posted about more than once, I went with the more recent posting, just because I’ve edited and commented on them).

I know you aren’t supposed to use modifiers with words like unique, but I have it break the laws of language with this series: they simply are the most unique books in Crime Fiction. You will not read anything like them – every other Crime Fiction novel I’ve read in the past 6 years (and that’s a lot) can be compared to at least 6 others without breaking a sweat or resorting to my reading logs to aid my memory. The only things I can compare the Charlie and Rose books to are other Charlie and Rose books.

These are special novels, but don’t take my word for it — go learn for yourself.

Dead is BetterDead is Better

My complete take
“This is a fast and lean read — Perry doesn’t waste a word. . . You’ll grow to like Charles, you’ll want to adopt Rose, and you’ll want to finds out what happens to them next.”

4 Stars

Dead is BestDead is Best

My complete take
“Funny, poignant, all-around good story-telling. Plus there’s a dog. You really can’t ask for more than that.”

4 Stars

Dead is GoodDead is Good

My complete take
“For a good mystery with oddly compelling characters, once again, look no further than Jo Perry.”

4 Stars

Dead is BeautifulDead is Beautiful

My complete take
“…this is one of those series that improves as it goes on. These unique protagonists get us to look at life and events in a different kind of way, while reading very different kind of mysteries. I hope I get to keep spending time with them for a long time to come — and I strongly encourage you to join in the fun.”

4 Stars

A Few Quick Questions With…Jo Perry

My Q&A with Jo Perry from February.
“…despite all that I am very late bloomer when it comes to fiction. My first novel, Dead Is Better was published in 2015.

As for a ‘career in fiction,’ I’m not there yet”

My thanks to damppebbles blog tours for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials they provided.