The Driver (Audiobook) by Hart Hanson, Ari Fliakos

The DriverThe Driver

by Hart Hanson, Ari Fliakos (Narrator)

Unabridged Audiobook, 9 hrs and 11 mins .
Penguin Audio, 2017

Read: August 10 – 14, 2017


Michael Skellig was a Special Forces Sergeant in the Army, who came out of the War on Terror with more than just scars and stories. He also came back with a burden to help Vets. So far, he’s gathered a small group of them around him in his limo company. It’s more than just a company, it’s a family — a place for them all to heal. These are the strangest, most tragic, yet funniest group of characters you’re likely to meet this year. You’ll be glad that Hanson introduced you to them as well as being a little angry that he does what he does to them.

Skellig is driving for a skating mogul/rap musician/all around lifestyle entrepreneur, Bismarck Avila, and he stumbles upon an attempt on Avila’s life and thwarts it — with no help at all from Avila’s bodyguards. Avila blackmails Skellig into driving for him regularly (no, really) which gets Skellig involved in Avila’s less-than-legal activities. All Skellig is trying to do is keep Avila alive — and maybe find out why people are trying to kill him.

But Avila’s criminal associates and rivals don’t understand that, they think Skellig is an accomplice, assistant, or just generally in cahoots with Avila. So they come looking for a pound of flesh from Skellig and his little found family, hoping that’ll result in them getting what Avila owes them. All it does is provoke Skellig.

Skellig isn’t your typical thriller figure — he’s got a couple of PhD’s — one in mathematics, a sense of duty and loyalty, a knack for categorizing people using Hippocrates’ four humors (hey, it beats Myers–Briggs Types — at least for entertainment value), and an odd sense of humor. I don’t know that Hanson’s setting this up as a series, but if he is, Skellig is going to be one of my favorite series’ leads soon.

Avila . . . I just don’t know what to say about him. He’s an interesting weasel of a character. There are times when you’d like Skellig to just walk away and let the police or some criminal or another take him out. Other times you feel sorry for the kid and hope someone protects him from himself and his dumb choices.

The plot moves quickly — not so much that you don’t get invested in characters, their hopes, dreams, phobias — and steadily. There’s a wit to the writing, as well as to the dialogue. Skellig’s right-hand-man is his former interpreter, an Afghan man, is wise, funny and wily — he’s also Skellig’s conscience pretty often. The two of them going back and forth is one of the highlights of the month for me. The writing is crisp, descriptive (sometimes you might feel overly so, as you read descriptions about the kinds of trauma visited upon bodies/body parts), and engaging. Really, for a debut, this is some outstanding work.

Ari Fliakos does a fantastic job — accents, voices, emotions, humor — he nails them all. Last year, I listened to his narration of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which was easily as good as this. But I didn’t recognize his voice — the only reason I know both books had the same reader is that’s what the Internet tells me — the performance he gives is so good. I’ve got to make a point of listening to more things with his name on them.

The Driver is perfect for fans of Shane Kuhn’s John Lago books (The Intern’s Handbook, Hostile Takeover) or Josh Bazell’s Peter Brown (Beat the Reaper) books — but a little less violent. Just as smart, just as witty, just as . . . not your typical thriller. This is probably the best thing that Hanson’s ever brought into the world, I hope this is the first in a long line of novels from him.

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4 Stars

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 Blinds by Adam Sternbergh

The BlindsThe Blinds

by Adam Sternbergh

Hardcover, 382 pg.
Ecco, 2017

Read: August 17 – 19, 2017


I just finished this and am not sure how to talk about it. I don’t know what I can say without ruining things, so I’m just going to copy and paste from Sternbergh’s page:

Welcome to Caesura, Tx, aka The Blinds, a dusty town in the Texas Panhandle cut off from the outside world and populated entirely by former criminals and witnesses put in protective custody. The twist: None of these people know who they are, because all of them have had their memories of their pasts erased. All the better to give them a fresh start and a second chance. But one thing is clear to them: If they leave the Blinds, they will end up dead.

For eight years, Sheriff Calvin Cooper has kept an uneasy peace—but after a suicide and a murder in quick succession, the town’s residents revolt. Cooper has his own secrets to protect, so when his new deputy starts digging, he needs to keep one step ahead of her—and the mysterious outsiders who threaten to tear the whole place down. The more he learns, the more the hard truth is revealed: The Blinds is no sleepy hideaway. It’s simmering with violence and deception, aching heartbreak and dark betrayals.

If I say one more thing about the plot/premise I’m afraid that I’ll ruin things for you. The book starts off with a whole lot of exposition, setting up the world (well, town, to be accurate) it takes place in — but Sternberg works that in well with the plot, so it doesn’t get bogged down with the exposition. Then once the dominoes are all set up, he knocks them down and you just sit back and watch.

But you don’t actually sit back — you lean forward in your seat and turn the pages quickly. At one point there are four or five conflicting plans at work, and it’s a footrace to see which will get accomplished first (and hopefully not get supplanted by another). At times it seems like any of them will end up working out — they’re all plausible.

It’s just so great. So compelling. Such a fun ride.

Yeah, the characters could be a bit more fully-developed, but that’s hard when part of their history, part of their personality — part of them — has been deleted. So, I’m not sure I can actually complain about that. We do get plenty about who the characters are in the here and now — definitely enough to get you invested in them.

In this driving plot, there’s some exploration of the nature of memory, of personality, of the nature of man, of evil. There’s some moments of triumph, of despair, heartbreak, and more than a couple of instances of “what??” You will learn a Russian phrase that will chill you to your bone and you will be ever so happy that Sternberg found gainful employment in journalism rather than turning to a life of crime.

On page 119, I wrote, “I’m either going to hate this ending or I’m going to be recommending this book for months.” And I didn’t hate it — Sternberg’s got another winner here. If his Shovel Ready wasn’t your thing, this is different enough that you should give it a shot. He’s got a strong voice, a twisted imagination and a knack for story telling — this book as secured him a place on my “auto-read” list.

Just go read the thing, I’m going to stop before I ruin something.

—–

4 1/2 Stars
2017 Library Love Challenge

Let it Bleed by Ian Rankin

Let it BleedLet it Bleed

by Ian Rankin
Series: John Rebus,, #7

Hardcover, 287 pg.
Simon & Schuster, 1996

Read: August 9 – 10, 2017

He stood there shivering after the warmth of the pub and his car. He was a few yards from where the boys had jumped. The area was cordoned off with metal barriers, anchored by sandbags. Two yellow metal lamps marked off the danger area. Someone had climbed over the barriers and laid a small wreath next to the broken rail, weighing it down with a rock so it wouldn’t be blown away. He looked up at the nearest of the two vast supports, red lights blinking at its summit as a warning to aircraft. He didn’t really feel very much, except a bit lonely and sorry for himself. The Forth was down there, as judgmental as Pilate. It was funny the things that could kill you: water, a ship’s hull, steel pellets from a plastic case. It was funny that some people actually chose to die.

“I could never do it,” Rebus said out loud. “I couldn’t kill myself.”

Which didn’t mean he hadn’t thought of it. It was funny the things you thought about some nights. It was all so funny, he felt a lump forming in his throat. It’s only the drink, he thought. It’s the drink makes me maudlin. It’s only the drink.

Yeah, right.

Before we get to this moment of self-deception (or self-mockery, it could go either way with his sense of humor), we’re treated to what’s quite possibly the most action-packed few pages in the series thus far — more happens in the first 6 pages of this novel than can happen in chapters of Rebus novels. Two suspected kidnappers are leading the police on a high-speed chase, and no one’s relishing it more than Chief Inspector Frank Lauderdale. No one’s hating it more than Inspector John Rebus. Things go really bad from there, but not in the way that anyone expects (least of all the reader, as jaded as we might be from too many crime novels).

While the police are still trying to sort out what exactly happened there, a man walks into a (poorly attended) public meeting with a Councilman and shoots himself in front of the Councilman. Once Rebus visits the widow, something starts bugging him. There’s just something wrong with that suicide (more than just what has to be wrong to lead to a suicide). Rebus starts asking some questions. Before he realizes it, he’s investigating two incidents of suicide connected to two Councilmen.

And then pressure comes down on Rebus to stop. Which works about as well as you’d think. He’s “encouraged” to take a few days of leave, which he uses to dive in without restraints to get his answers. This series as dabbled in political intrigue, power brokering and the like before, Let it Bleed takes it up a notch. What can happen to Rebus if he falters — or what can happen to him if he makes all the right people happy — shows that he’s in a whole other league now.

And then after all the action at the beginning of the novel, Rankin gives us an incredibly talky ending. And it works. Not many novels about police officers or detectives end with as much dialogue, as many meetings, as this does, but it’s entirely satisfying. No one’ll be sitting there for the last couple of chapters just wishing for a car chase, a gun fight, or anything like that. Rebus being smarter, wilier, and unwilling to bend is what makes this ending not only inevitable, but just what the reader needs.

There are a lot of criminals in this novel, but most of them aren’t your typical mystery novel “bad guys.” They’re guys who take advantage of the system, manipulate the system, and then try to protect their assets (that last one is the most problematic). There are textbook villains — and not all of them pay for it — but with Rebus around, you know that some justice will be meted out.

Our favorites are back — so is Patience — Rebus’ daughter’s back in Edinburgh, on her own now. Siobhan Clarke, Farmer Watson, Gill Templer, and Brian Holmes all are involved. Clarke is the most interesting, yet again, her determinism and ability to stay (pretty much) in line with her superiors while helping Rebus make her a fun character to spend time with. She’s more involved in these cases than she has been in the past — and it’s good to see Rebus having someone allied with him. Thankfully, she’s a good police officer, too. Because, honestly, Rebus is a horrible police detective. He’s just too much of a lone wolf, too intuitive, not the kind of detective you want building a case for you. With Templer, Farmer and Clarke around, at least he’s got some good, capable help.

A gripping, tense, intriguing, and frequently funny, novel. Let it Bleed is just a great book. This series has been growing on me, little by little for seven books now, that’s pretty clear. Let it Bleed is above and beyond the best of the bunch, and I am looking forward to what’s coming up.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

2017 Library Love Challenge

Pub Day Repost: Fox Hunter by Zoë Sharp

Fox HunterFox Hunter

by Zoë Sharp
Series: Charlie Fox, #11
eARC, 400 pg.
Pegasus Books, 2017
Read: May 22 -24, 2017

I honestly had given up on seeing another Charlie Fox novel — which was a cryin’ shame, but I get that authors have to move on sometimes. But then a couple of weeks ago, when I logged onto NetGalley to take care of something, there it was on the front page — and I jumped to request it (despite promising myself I was taking a NetGalley break to catch up on other things).

“You were a soldier, Miss Fox , and you are now a bodyguard. There is an old saying that is true in both cases : To survive—to protect a life— you have to be lucky every day. But your enemies, they have to be lucky only once.”

Following his near-miraculous recovery from the injuries no one expected him to survive, Charlie Fox’s love/boss, Sean, hasn’t been the same. Now, it looks like he’s settling old debts — not necessarily his own. The fact that he’s doing that is bad enough — it’s not quite de rigueur for someone in his position to go around exacting vengeance. But the way these debts are being settled (if that’s what’s happening) speaks to someone not in full control. Charlie fights for the opportunity to do the boots-on-the-ground investigation to prove that it’s not Sean’s handiwork.

This ground is Kuwait and Iraq, and before she knows it, Charlie is dealing with soldiers/mercs that she’s annoyed in the past, Russians with a grudge, Iraqis trying to defend cultural artifacts and certain three-letter agencies mucking around in it all — and every sign is that Sean’s up to exactly what Charlie is convinced he’s not doing. Before the book ends, she’ll come face to face with multiple faces from her past (none of which she ever wanted to encounter again) and will be forced to reassess some of the most formative events of her past and career.

For those new to Charlie Fox — this would make a pretty good entry point, by the way — she’s former British Army, who received some special forces training, before her career was derailed. Since then she’s done plenty of work as a bodyguard and worked other types of security. She’s stubborn, loyal, inventive and tenacious. And deadly — it eats away at her, but when push comes to shove, Charlie’s as lethal as you can find.

Killing because your life—or that of another—is in immediate danger is one thing. I’d been trained to accept that possibility right from the start of my army career. But appointing yourself judge, jury, and executioner is quite another. As is doing it anyway, only to discover that it doesn’t trouble your conscience nearly as much as it should.

Sharp has given Charlie a strong voice — one you can believe can accomplish all she needs to, yet one that’s entirely human.

The new characters are well developed — and we see plenty of old faces, too. One unexpected antagonist is almost too evil to be believable (but, sadly, I imagine that plenty of Armed Forces have people just like him). There’s one death that was a real gut-punch for the reader (or at least this one) — that’s a testimony to Sharp’s skill that she can create someone like that in a brief period.

I don’t remember any of the previous novels being all that tied to current events, but Fox Hunter clearly took place post-Brexit and during the Trump administration. I’m not saying that’s bad, but oddly specific — and changes when the rest of the books happened as well, because this didn’t take place long after Die Easy despite the 5 years between the novels — I’d have had an easier time swallowing the book without that specificity, but not much — I note it because I found it strange.

That aside, this is exactly what Charlie Fox readers have come to expect from her — she takes the proverbial licking and keeps on ticking, and kicking, swinging and everything else. Best of all, she thinks — she plots, she improvises, she keeps on trying. Not to sound cliché, but this damsel finds herself in plenty of distress — and gets herself out of it (occasionally with help — but not in a Nell Fenwick sort of way; more like Lt. Templeton Peck way). Plenty of action, plenty of violence, plenty of suspense — all with some character development, moving ongoing story arcs forward (while re-evaluating everything before).

Not much else to ask for — except another volume soon.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from W. W. Norton & Company via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.
N.B.: As this was an ARC, any quotations above may be changed in the published work — I will endeavor to verify them as soon as possible.

—–

4 Stars

Dead is Good by Jo Perry

Dead is GoodDead is Good

by Jo Perry
Series: Charlie & Rose Investigate, #3

Kindle Edition, 282 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2017

Read: August 3, 2017

Oh, and after all this time I learned something else about being dead.

Death is failure.

Death is loss.

Everything—who you are, what you know—goes.

Whoever you thought you were, you weren’t and you’re not.

When he was alive, Charlie Stone was married multiple times to pretty horrible women (if we’re to believe him — and we might as well, he seems pretty upfront and honest about this kind of thing), not that he was any catch, either. But he really only loved one person, Grace Morgan. Grace broke things off with Charlie and moved on with her life, but apparently after hearing about his murder, she was moved to change her approach to art — deciding to challenge the audience, forcing them to realize how close to death they are.

Yeah, it sounds pretty silly and pretentious to me, but hey…that’s not the important part of the story. Maybe if we got more examples of her art, I’d care more and maybe even understand. What is important about Grace, for our purposes, is that her life is in danger, it’s because of this danger that Charlie and Rose have been brought from their afterlife-limbo back to Earth.

The book opens with one of the more blatant suicide-by-cop scenes you’ve ever read, which is intended to serve as protection for Grace. It doesn’t work out, or the book would be really short. Powerless to do anything but watch and hope things turn out okay, Charlie and Rose travel around L.A. discovering for themselves what it was that endangered Grace in the first place — which brings them into a world of drugs, sweatshop workers, deceptive piñatas, and smuggled birds.

This is a very tangled story, it takes Charlie quite a while to put the pieces together — Rose has her own priorities in this mess and spends some time away from Charlie, unwilling to turn her focus on his behalf. The way that this criminal enterprise is eventually revealed to work not only seems like something that really exists, but is revealed in a way that is narratively satisfying.

Charlie will tell his readers over and over that there’s no character growth in death — that’s nonsense. Post-mortem Charlie is a much more emotionally mature and self-sacrificing kind of guy than pre-mortem Charlie was. In this book we see him come to — or at least acknowledge — a greater and deeper understanding of what love is, and what he allowed his previous relationship to become. It may not do him any good in the afterlife, but Charlie is better for it, and in someway we can hope that Grace is better off having gone through all this, so that whatever life has in store for her can be tackled face-on.

I love these characters — even while we readers don’t fully understand their circumstances, how they know where to go, what brings them to this world at certain times. Even while they don’t have much better of an idea than we do (at least Charlie doesn’t). I love how while they can’t interact with their environment, the people they see and events they watch unfold, they are driven to find answers, driven to care about what’s happening. There’s something about that compulsion — and success they have in figuring things out — that matters more than when Bosch or Spenser or Chin and Smith put all the pieces together to thwart someone.

This wasn’t as amusing as previous installments, but it was just as satisfying — maybe more so. For a good mystery with oddly compelling characters, once again, look no further than Jo Perry.

The L.A. County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner has a gift shop?? Why isn’t anyone investigating this? It may be real, it may be popular and legal. But surely that’s a crime against tact, right?

—–

4 Stars

The Late Show by Michael Connelly

The Late ShowThe Late Show

by Michael Connelly
Series: Renée Ballard, #1

Hardcover, 405 pg.
Little, Brown and Company, 2017

Read: July 17 – 22, 2017


Det. Renée Ballard works the graveyard shift out of the Hollywood Station, nicknamed the Late Show. She and her partner, the veteran detective John Jenkins, are basically place-holders — they handle the initial investigation of a crime (or sign off on a suicide) and then hand off their notes to one of the other detective squads that work days. It’s not demanding work — Jenkins likes it because there’s almost no overtime, and he can go home and be with his sick wife during the day. Ballard is stuck on the Late Show because she made some political waves a couple of years back, she couldn’t be fired over it, they could just make sure she found the prospect of another line of work appealing.

We meet Ballard on a pretty eventful night, she and Jenkins look into an elderly woman’s report of her purse being stolen and people using her credit cards; the vicious assault of a transvestite prostitute; and are involved in a minor role following a night club shooting. She and her partner are supposed to be turning over their involvement in these cases to someone else, but Ballard just can’t let go. She works the murder under the radar (as much as she can), gets permission to keep at the assault (which should not be construed as her investigating it according to Hoyle), and is brought back into the robbery organically — I stress this because it’s not all about Ballard skirting regulations, she works within (or near) the system.

Connelly constructs this like a pro — weaving the storylines into a good, cohesive whole. Each story feels like it gets enough time to be adequately told (without the same amount of space being devoted to each), there’s no grand way to connect them all into one, larger crime (which I almost always enjoy, but this is a bit more realistic), while something she learns on one case can be applied to another.

There’s one point where I thought that a plot development meant “oh, now we’re going to wrap things up now — cool.” Which I never would have thought if I bothered to pay attention to which page I was on, but it still seemed like the point that most writers would wrap it up. Instead, Connelly plays things out the way you expect, and then uses that to turn the novel in a different direction.

The book is full of nice little touches like that — Connelly’s been around enough that he knows all the tricks, knows all the plays — he can give you exactly what you think he will and then have the result come up and Connelly’s you.

In the future, I’d like to see a little more about Jenkins — but then again, how much did Connelly really develop Jerry Edgar or Kiz? Still, this is a new series, so he can develop things a bit more — I don’t think there’s a lot that can be done with Jenkins, but he can be more than just the guy who splits paper work with her. I hope that [name withheld] doesn’t become Ballard’s Irving, but I can think of worse things that might happen, so I won’t complain. I also hoped I’d get out of this with only 1 bit of comparison to the Bosch books. Oops.

The best thing — the most important thing — to say here is that Renée Ballard is not a female Harry Bosch; all too often, an established crime writer will end up creating a gender-flipped version of their primary character — basically giving us “X in a skirt” (yeah, I’m looking at you, Sunny Randall). This isn’t the case here. There’s a different emotional depth to Ballard, different lifestyles, different aspirations. Sure, she’s driven, stubborn, and obstinate, just like Harry — but name one fictional detective that isn’t driven, stubborn and obstinate. Readers don't show up in droves for slackers. Is there plenty of room for development and growth for Ballard in the future? Oh yeah. She's not perfect by any means (as a fictional character or as a person). But what a great start.

Same can be said for the series, not just the character — this book does a great job of capturing L.A. (an aspect of it at least), has a great plot, with enough turns to keep the reader satisfied, and a final reveal that's truly satisfying. The last thing that Connelly really needed was to start something new — but I'm glad he decided to.

—–

4 Stars