Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions by Amy Stewart

Miss Kopp's Midnight ConfessionsMiss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions

by Amy Stewart
Series: The Kopp Sisters, #3

eARC, 384 pg.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

Read: August 15 16, 2017


Without meaning to slight Girl Waits with Gun or Lady Cop makes Trouble, this is the best constructed novel in this series. There’s a unity of theme, stories that complement each other, and a level of (honest) introspection from the characters that we haven’t seen before. That said, I don’t think I enjoyed it nearly as much as I did the others. So it’s a little bit of a trade-off.

We are treated to three stories of young women, one sixteen year-old and two eighteen year-olds, who leave home for various reasons. They all want something more than they can have at home — meaning, a job, excitement, freedom, and maybe something more. One girl did everything right, but sill was arrested for waywardness. One was pretty foolish, and did some illegal things, but was really arrested for the foolish mistake. The third was Constance’s little sister, Fleurette. Constance went to bat for all three — interceding with the law (when applicable), with family (when she could), trying to give them the ability to live the life they wanted to — and each of them pressed Constance’s ability, job and standing as she did so.

While this is going on, Constance is making headlines across the nation — making her both a distraction to her friend the Sheriff, as well as a voice for social change. I know she regrets the former, and I’m not convinced she relishes the latter. If she had her druthers, I think Constance would prefer just to do her job and be left alone. But she is learning how to use her notoriety — or at least her relationship with members of The Press — to help her accomplish her goals.

Constance begins to come to terms with some very unfortunate realities of her life, and begins to grasp what the future may hold for her, both professionally and personally. In some way (I think), she thought she could keep the life she had and just add on her job on top of it. But between her fame, the time she spends away from the home, Fleurette’s aging and getting ready to leave the nest, and everything else going on around the sisters, that’s no longer possible. Her old life is gone, and the new one is too in flux for her to get a handle on it. Assuming that there are more Kopp Sister novels to come, watching Constance figure out what her life will be — and hopefully she gets a hand in shaping it — will be the key to the series as it progresses.

On the whole, this one didn’t work as well for me as the previous books did. But several of the individual elements I found compelling and wanted more of — I wish we got more of the story about Edna Heustis (I don’t need to know what happened over the rest of her life, I just want a clearer picture of the next few months) or her roommate. I’d have liked more interaction between Constance and her boss — we just didn’t get enough of them — and an honest conversation about the future would’ve been nice. I did think the ending of the Fleurette story was handled perfectly — I don’t think I’d change a thing about that whole storyline, really. Still, this novel was somehow less than the sum of its parts, for me — but I can easily see where I’ll be in the minority for thinking that. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it, I just should’ve enjoyed it more.

Strong characters, some strong themes (ones you usually don’t see in Detective fiction), and a tumultuous time period (for several reasons) combine to deliver another satisfying entry in this series that’ll please existing fans and probably pick up a few more.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

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3.5 Stars

The Hate U Give (Audiobook) by Angie Thomas, Bahni Turpin

There’s just so much I want to say about this book, I know I’m leaving stuff out even as I prepare to hit “Publish.” Also, I know that I’m not doing justice to how good this book is. Given that, here’s my best shot.

The Hate U Give (Audiobook)The Hate U Give

by Angie Thomas, Bahni Turpin (Narrator)
Unabridged Audiobook, 11 hrs., 40 min.
HarperAudio, 2017

Read: July 27 – August 1, 2017

I’ll be honest, the hype around this one turned me off initially. It just didn’t seem like my kind of thing. But my wife bought a copy and tore through it and started telling everyone she came across that they needed to read it (especially those of us she lives with). When I saw the library had a copy of the audiobook, I snagged it, because I hadn’t got that far on my TBR. By this time, I only remembered “YA,” “something about Black Lives Matter,” and “Mrs. Irresponsible Reader said I needed to.” Which is about as tabula rasa as one could get when coming to a book.

Our central character is Starr Carter. She attends a very nice private school in the suburbs of whatever unidentified city she lives in. She plays basketball there, has friends and a boyfriend and seems to be generally well-regarded by all. Then there’s her “other life”, that has almost no relation to that one — she and her family live in a poor neighborhood where almost no one knows her by anything but “Mav’s daughter what works at the store” (or something close to that). She has a friend or two in the neighborhood, but mostly works and then goes home. On one of the rare nights she goes out to do something social, she runs into her childhood best friend, Khalil, who she hasn’t seen for a few months. Their reunion is cut short, sadly, while he drives her home and they’re pulled over by a police officer for a routine traffic stop. I’ll leave the details for you to read on your own, but essentially, her unarmed friend is shot repeatedly by the police officer in front of Starr.

In the days that follow Khalil’s death is a nationwide story, Starr’s being questioned by the police and is trying to keep her psyche intact while the wheels of justice grind slowly. There are problems at school, unforeseen challenges at home and in the neighborhood, add in the involvement with the criminal justice system and activists, and it’s clear that neither of Starr’s lives are going to be the same again.

Yes, this book is about the shooting of Khalil and the aftermath. But it’s about more than that, too. Similar to the way you could say that To Kill a Mockingbird is about the trial Tom Robinson and its aftermath. There’s a whole lot of other things going on in both books that are just as much a part of the essence as the shooting/trial. There’s family growth and change, individual characters learning more about the world and changing, there’s the evolution of localities and best of all, there are characters taking all of this in and exercising a little agency to change themselves — and impact everything in around them.

One thing I didn’t expect was how fun this book would end up being. I laughed a lot — her father’s strange theories about Harry Potter, her Fresh Prince of Bel Air obsession, the teasing between her friends, her family’s very cut-throat approach to watching the NBA finals and trying to jinx each other’s teams, are just a start. Even when it’s not being out-and-out funny, there’s a joie de vivre that characterizes the lives of these characters.

When they’re not grieving, being threatened (by criminals or those who are supposed to be protecting them from criminals), being angered at the way that the system seems to be destined to fail them, or scared about their lives, that is. Because there’s a lot of that, too. All of which is justified. The interplay between the emotional extremes speaks volumes to the authenticity of Thomas’ work, and makes it much more effective than it could’ve been in less careful hands.

There are so few YA novels with healthy — or existing families — that Thomas should probably win an award or three just for having so many in one book. None of the families are perfect (though Starr’s comes close), some push the boundaries of “dysfunctional” into something we need a new word for; but at the very least there were at least a core of people caring about each other and trying to help each other, in their own way.

Yes, there are political overtones — or at least ramifications — to this book, but this is first and foremost a human story and can be appreciated by humans from all over the political spectrum. Thomas, as far as I can tell, went out of her way to be fair and balanced. It’d have been very easy to paint some of these characters/groups as all evil, all good, all misunderstood, all [fill in the blank]. Instead, she took the more difficult, more honest, and much more interesting approach and filled the book with people all over the moral spectrum, no matter their profession, ethnicity, socio-economic background, education, etc.

A few words about Turpin’s work. I loved it. She was just fantastic, and rose to the challenge of bringing this kind of book to life. Looking at her credits just now, that doesn’t seem like much of a stretch for her — she’s clearly a talented heavy-hitter on the audiobook front.

I laughed, I cried . . . it moved me. This is the whole package, really. It’ll challenge you, it’ll entertain you, and give you a little hope for tomorrow (while helping you despair about the time until tomorrow comes).

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5 Stars

The Force by Don Winslow

Oh fer cryin’ out loud, after I finished writing this, I noticed that the publisher’s description starts with the same quotation I started my post with. I swear I didn’t steal the idea.

The ForceThe Force

by Don Winslow

Hardcover, 479 pg.
William Morrow, 2017

Read: June 26 – 29, 2017

Our ends know our beginnings but the reverse isn’t true.

If Denny Malone’s beginning knew his ending, would it have prevented anything? Or would Malone have convinced himself he could find a work-around? Probably the latter.

Denny Malone is a one of NYPD’s Finest — a detective sergeant, and the head of a task force (known as “Da Force”) on the front line of the War on Drugs. He and his team — who’ve been together for years — rule Manhattan. Sadly — and perhaps naturally — they’re corrupt. They take (and are given) money, drugs, weapons and more from criminals (of all levels), lawyers and others. They pass on some of these to lawyers, city officials and other cops — and keep a whole lot for themselves. Through their methods, they do keep some sort of peace on their streets — sure, they pass on some of the violence and poison on to other parts of the city, but that’s not their concern.

After doing this for years, the wheels start to come off — it’s tough to say what the first domino (to mix metaphors) was to fall, but once it does, there’s nothing stopping the rest — as much as Malone may try. The result is one of the most powerful crime novels I’ve read in years.

The characters are rich, fully developed and they seem like they could step out of the book onto the streets of NYC with no trouble. You are sickened by them, want to see them stopped — yet start to understand them, like them as people, and — despite yourself — hope at least some of them get away with it all. At one point, I was laughing at their banter like we were all old friends hanging out, and it bothered me how much I enjoyed them as people (that faded somewhat in a few pages).

This book feels like the love child of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy. You really feel like you understand how the city of New York is run — at least parts of it: the police, elements of the criminal world, and parts of the criminal justice system. Not how they’re supposed to run, but the way it really is. He achieves this through a series of set pieces and didactic periscopes. Three quick examples: you get Malone musing on how the way that cops have to learn how not to care about citizens and criminals, because otherwise, they’ll end up hating them. A great section showing how The Force goes out on the town to celebrate. The following quotation about the attitude of a prosecutor and Malone about his creative use/understanding of the truth while testifying:

Because the real truth that they both know is that without cops “testilying,” the DA’s office would hardly get any convictions at all.

This doesn’t bother Malone.

If the world played fair, he’d play fair. But the cards are stacked against the prosecutors and police. Miranda, Mapp, all the other Supreme Court decisions, give the advantage to the skels. It’s like the NFL these days–the league wants touchdown passes, so a defensive back can’t even touch a receiver. We’re the poor defensive backs, Malone thinks, trying to keep the bad guys from scoring.

Truth, justice and the American way.

The American way is, truth and justice maybe say hello in the hallway, send each other a Christmas card, but that’s about the extent of their relationship.

You throw that kind of stuff in with a compelling plot, believable characters, striking details and Winslow’s voice? You’ve got yourself a dynamite book.

If someone had told me this was non-fiction, I’d believe it (maybe I’d balk at some of the details of his personal life being told in a Non-fiction book, but otherwise…). It rings true — and I spent most of the book just hoping that Winslow was exaggerating and fearing that he was holding back. The whole thing feels real, it seems ripped from the headlines, and is beyond engaging — it’s engrossing, it’ll take over your mind, make you see deception and corruption everywhere.

Winslow nailed it. It’s just mindbogglingly good. I’m going to over-hype it if I keep going — so I’ll leave it at that. Get this book and then strap in for one of the best reads you’ll have this year.

—–

5 Stars

Pub Day Repost: The Right Side by Spencer Quinn

The Right SideThe Right Side

by Spencer Quinn
eARC, 336 pg.
Atria Books, 2017
Read: May 11 – 12, 2017

Okay, since I first opened the pages of Dog On It 8 years ago, I’ve been a Spencer Quinn fan — it probably took me two chapters to consider myself one. So it’s kind of a given that I’d like this book — but only “kind of.” This was so far from a Bowser & Birdie or Chet & Bernie book that they could be written by different people.

Sgt. LeAnne Hogan was an excellent athlete in her childhood and teen years, and then she joined the Army (deciding her West Point plans would take too long — an oversimplification that’ll do for now) and became an excellent soldier, serving multiple tours in combat zones. During her last sting in Afghanistan — as part of a team working to build intelligence sources among Afghan women — she is involved in an attack that leaves some dead and her injured — physically and mentally.

Her memories of that fateful day are vague and dim at best, but the scars will not leave. Not only that, she lost an eye, her confidence, her future plans, and career. She slowly befriends a woman who lost part of her leg to an IED in Iraq who shares a room with LeAnne in Walter Reed. Marci dies suddenly and unexpectedly — and that is too much for LeAnne. She leaves the hospital immediately and sets off on a drive across the country, she really doesn’t have a plan, but she needs to be somewhere else.

It’s pretty clear that LeAnne is suffering from PTSD on top of everything else — as you’d expect. She comes across as angry and rude to almost everyone she runs across and exchanges more than a few words with. She eventually finds herself in Marci’s hometown — where her daughter has gone missing. For the first time since the day everything changed, LeAnne has a purpose — bring her friend’s daughter home. Along the way, she LeAnne gets adopted by a large dog who will prove an invaluable aid in this challenge.

LeAnne is a great character — not a perfect person by any means, but you can see where a lot of writers (novelists or journalists) would try to paint her as one. She has huge flaws — some of which are easier to see after the injury (and some of them are new after it, too). There are some other good characters, too — even if you don’t necessarily like them (LeAnne’s mother would be an example of this — she’s trying to do the right thing, but the reader can sense LeAnne’s apprehensions toward her — and will likely share them). The people in Marci’s hometown (particularly those that are related to her) are the best drawn in the book — and I’d be willing to read a sequel or two just in this city to spend more time with them. Not everyone gets what LeAnne’s going through — some don’t know how to react to her — but those that come close will endear themselves to you.

The dog, Goody, isn’t Chet, he isn’t Bowser — he’s a typical dog, no more (or less) intelligent than any other. Goody won’t be serving as the narrator in a story any time — he will drink from the toilet bowl and ignore a lot of what LeAnne wants him to do.

Like I said, I’m a Quinn fan — but I didn’t think he had this in him. Funny mysteries with dogs? Sure, he’s great at those. But sensitive explorations of veterans dealing with the aftermath of life-altering injuries? I wouldn’t have guessed it. But man . . . he really got this flawed character, this incredibly human character, right. There’s a couple of moments that didn’t work as well as they should’ve — a couple of moments that were hard to believe in a book as grounded in reality as this book was. But you know what? You forgive them easily, because so much is right with this book — so much just works, that you’ll accept the things that don’t. It wasn’t all dark and moody — there’s some hope, some chuckles, a lot that is somber and sad, too. While not a “feel good” read by any means, you will feel pretty good about who things end up.

This is probably categorized as a Thriller, as that’s where Quinn’s readers are — but I can see a case for this being labeled General Fiction (or whatever synonym your local shop uses), it’s flexible that way. This is Spencer Quinn operating on a whole new level with a character we need more like — such a great read.

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

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4 1/2 Stars

The Bucket List by Emily Ruben

The Bucket ListThe Bucket List

by Emily Ruben

eARC, 383 pg.
Inkitt, 2017

Read: June 14 – 19, 2017


I am absolutely not amongst the audience for this book. I knew that from the title alone, much less the description. Still, I’d read Ruben’s first book and enjoyed it and was curious about her take on this idea.

This is basically a take on the dying teen romance, with a splash of the Rob Reiner movie. I’m tempted to go on a rant about the whole dying teen romance idea — The Space Between Us, The Fault in our Stars, and the like — but I just don’t have the energy. I don’t get it, it seems like a highly artificial way to inflate drama. But whatever — just because it’s an overplayed idea, that doesn’t mean the book can’t be good.

Besides, the central characters in this book are 20 and 21, so by definition this is different.

Leah is surprised one day to find the new guy moving in next door is her old best friend that she hasn’t seen for 5 years. Damon (think Ian Somerhalder) is glad to see her, but before they renew their friendship, has to warn her that he’ll be dead within a year and a half. He has some sort of brain tumor (Ruben intentionally gives few details about this) that cannot be treated. Leah decides that she’ll do what she can to renew their friendship in the time remaining.

Soon after this, the two decide that he’ll write up a Bucket List and that each day, they’ll cross an item off of it until it’s too late. This will lead to all sorts of travel, adventure, changing of existing and/or new romantic relationships and (this isn’t much of a spoiler, you can tell it’ll happen from the get-go) their eventually falling in love.

The worst part about this book is how everything that happens to them is the best, the greatest, the ____est (or the worst). Leah and Damon live in the extremes — they never have a normal day, a blah experience. It’s just too much to handle — a few things that are okay, a few things that aren’t bad mixed in with all this would make this easier to read. Yes, you could say that given the heightened situation, everything they do is given a hint of the extreme, but still . . .

The tricky thing with Damon having an unnamed disease — it’s hard to have any idea how realistic this is. But a brain tumor that causes organs to decay before death, necessitating an ethically/legally-questionable euthanasia method is stretching things beyond the breaking point. Beyond that, the amount of money that these people spend is utterly unbelievable — talk all you want about plundering no-longer-necessary college savings, it’s just not something I could buy.

There’s an element of charm to the writing — but I don’t think that this is as charming as Ruben’s first book — there’s something appealing about the earnestness of her writing. But this just wasn’t for me. Although he probably didn’t say it, Abraham Lincoln is often quoted as reviewing a lecture by saying something like, ” People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” I feel like that about this book — if you can find a grain of salt big enough to help you swallow the unbelievable, if you can tolerate the excess of superlatives, and like a love story in the face of certain doom, this is probably a pretty entertaining book. Was it for me? Nope. But I didn’t hate it and can understand why many would.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from the publisher in exchange for this post — I do appreciate the opportunity, even if it doesn’t come across that way.

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3 Stars

Devil in the Countryside by Cory Barclay

Devil in the CountrysideDevil in the Countryside

by Cory Barclay

Kindle Edition, 348 pg.
2017

Read: June 10 – 13, 2017


I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again — I prefer liking books, I like liking things. I do not enjoy giving anything other than recommendations — but sometimes, I just can’t do anything else. This is one of those times.

This is a historical fiction but the history is bad. Before we even get to the first chapter — in an introductory note we’re told “By the early 1500’s,” Europe was in a time called the Protestant Reformation. The traditional starting point for the Protestant Reformation was October 31, 1517 — but things didn’t really get moving for a few years. So “by” the early 1500’s is not really accurate. The same paragraph says, “while across the ocean in North America witch-hunts were gaining traction.” Now, I guess it’s possible that some of the Spanish colonies or Native American tribes were conducting these hunts, but I’m pretty sure Barclay intends us to think of the Salem Witch Trials, which started more than a century after the events of this novel. We’re not even to chapter 1 and we’ve got a paragraph with two glaring historical flubs — it’d be difficult (but not impossible) to recover from this. Barclay doesn’t.

With historical fiction, you have to decide on the character’s vocabulary — will you attempt to get it chronologically-appropriate, or will you take some liberties and use contemporary language and ask your readers to suspend disbelief to allow for everyone’s ease? Most take the latter, and most audiences play along. It is difficult to get period-dialogue correct if you’re not immersed in it, and many readers find it difficult or boring to read. While it’s understandable to use contemporary phrasing, I’m not sure I’m willing to buy 16th century people talking about “teenage angst.” Nor should we get people drinking coffee, wearing high heels (at least not among the peasant class), or making references to zippers. These kind of anachronisms are just lazy, sloppy — and it takes the reader out of the moment.

If you’re going to set something during the 3rd generation of the Reformation, and make the conflict between Lutherans, the Reformed and Roman Catholics (and the state powers that use those groups to mask their machinations) core plot points — you should, get the theology right. Which is just the same point as above, I realize — but man . . . when it’s such a major component of the book, you owe it to your readers to put in the effort. (also, Barclay suggested I’d like the book as a “theology nerd,” so I should be expected to look at it as one). We shouldn’t have Roman Catholic priests consulting German translations of the New Testament, nor should we have Lutheran ministers conducting baptism by immersion — particularly not of someone already baptized. Martin Luther, like all the Protestant Reformers, had very harsh things to say about that practice. In general, every religious sentiment (at least those expressed by the devout) was in conflict with the point of view it was supposed to be espousing — most of them not sounding like 16th Century Lutheran, Reformed or Roman Catholic believers but some sort of vague 21st Century theism.

This book is also a mystery. As such, um, it wasn’t really a success. There wasn’t real effort put into finding answers, just finding good candidates to pin something on. At least officially — those who actually looked for answers were stopped by one way or another. If we were talking about a novel about 16th Century politics and the ways they impacted lives of individuals — including crime victims and survivors — this might have worked.

I’m just piling on now, and I really don’t want to do that. So, I’ll ignore the grammatical errors, typos, a handful of words that basically demand Inigo Montoya to tap the author on the shoulder to say ” I do not think it means what you think it means.” Nor will I get into the lazy plots revolving around Roman Catholic clergy sexually molestation or father forcing a daughter to marry a horrible person for his own financial gain.

Barclay can probably produce a decent book — there were some good moments in this book, but not enough of them. This is just not worth the time and trouble.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author in exchange for this post — I do appreciate it, even if the book didn’t work for me.

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2 Stars

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster CallsA Monster Calls

by Patrick Ness

Paperback, 225 pg.
Candlewick Press, 2013

Read: June 1, 2017


I hadn’t even heard of this book until a couple of weeks ago, when it was recommended to me by a loyal reader. And I wasn’t given a lot of details, just a strong recommendation and something about it being “about grief.” I could’ve used the warning that it was a YA book, but otherwise, that’s all I needed to know (and the YA wouldn’t have been a deal breaker or maker — I just would’ve liked to know what I was grabbing). I’m not going to say much more than that, really. It’s about grief, there’s some magic, and it’s one of the most effective novels I’ve read this year.

There’s been so much said about this book by others — I’m almost afraid to say much, I don’t want to ruin anyone’s discovery.

You’ve got a 13 year-old boy, Conor, whose mother is undergoing cancer treatment — and it’s not going well. His grandmother (not at all the stereotypical grandmother-type, as Conor is very well aware), comes to stay with them with every new round of treatment, and Conor hates it. His father and his new wife have started a new life in the US. All of this has left Conor isolated, emotionally all alone — except at school, where he’s bullied (when not alone). Somehow in his despair, Conor summons a monster, a monster older than Western Civilization, who visits the boy to help him.

He helps him via stories — I love this — not escapism, but through the lessons from stories — and not in a “You see, Timmy . . . ” kind of moralizing — just from understanding how people work through the stories.

After reading page 15, I jotted down in my notes, “Aw, man! This is going to make me cry by the end, isn’t it?” I didn’t, for the record, but I came close (and possibly, if I hadn’t been sitting in a room with my daughter and her guitar teacher working on something, I might have.

The prose is easy and engaging — there’s a strong sense of play to the language. There’s some wonderfully subtle humor throughout, keeping this from being hopelessly depressing. The prose is deceptively breezy, it’d be very easy to read this without catching everything that Ness is doing. But mostly, what the book gives is emotion — there’s a raw emotion on display here — and if it doesn’t get to you, well, I just don’t know what’s wrong with you.

The magic, the monster and the protagonist remind me so much of Paul Cornell’s Chalk (which is probably backwards, Chalk should be informed by this — oops). Eh, either way — this is cut from the same cloth.

That’s a bit more than I intended to say, but I’m okay with that. I’m not convinced that this is really all that well-written, technically speaking. But it packs such an emotional wallop, it grabs you, reaches down your throat and seizes your heart and does whatever it wants to with it — so who cares how technically well it’s written? (and, yeah, I do think the two don’t necessarily go together). A couple of weeks from now, I may not look back on this as fondly — but tonight, in the afterglow? Loved this.

Love, grief, hope, loss, anger, fear, monsters and the power of stories. Give this one a shot. Maybe bring a Kleenex, you never know . . .

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4 1/2 Stars

2017 Library Love Challenge