Slow Horses by Mick Herron: A solid, if slow-building, entry point to a spy series.

Slow HorsesSlow Horses

by Mick Herron
Series: Slough House, #1Hardcover, 329 pg.
Soho Constable, 2010
Read: March 1 – 4, 2019

’What you have to bear in mind’–the O.B.’s words–’is that worst sometimes does come to worst.’

The worst had increased exponentially over the last few years.

The O.B.’s words of advice for his grandson turns out to be a bit more. I don’t think Herron placed this on page 2 to be a thesis statement for the book — but it really could be one. River Cartwright was musing about the way things were going for Intelligence officers (and people in related vocations) when it came to predicting what terrorists of various stripes would do. If September 11, July 7, and similar dates have taught Intelligence officers (and people in general), anything it is that sometimes the worst case is actually what happens. (actually, what do I know, maybe it was a thesis for the novel)

Of course, it doesn’t just happen for terrorist attacks — sometimes it happens for someone’s career. Take River Cartwright — after the events on page 2 (and the rest of that first chapter) — and his colleagues. Each of them had worked for the Intelligence service, many of them were rising stars (or stars that had already risen), until they messed up. Sometimes it’s in a large-scale drill, sometimes it was in the course of duty — but they all made an embarrassing mistake, misstep or failure of another stripe, resulting them being assigned to Slough House. In Slough House, all the officers still technically do intelligence work — reviewing transcripts of cell phone conversations for certain words and phrases, for example. But it’s all low priority, low importance work. Far from the important work that the rest of MI-5 (and the rest) do. They’re dubbed the “Slow Horses” and if they aren’t forgotten about by the rest of the service, they’re mocked.

One day, a Slow Horse brushes up against something that approaches “real” work and River takes the results are taken to MI-5’s HQ for them to follow-up on (after making a copy). About the same time that happens, a young Pakistani immigrant is kidnapped by a nationalist group that promises to behead him on the Internet. River decides to try to follow up on this intel, thinking it might lead to the kidnappers. And well, chaos ensues, and let’s leave it there.

Honestly, I had a lot of flashbacks to the show MI-5 (aka Spooks), throughout. The story has a very British spy feel, with more clandestine meetings, history and significant looks than an American spy story (which largely revolve around attractive people shooting things). But these Slow Horses aren’t the type that Nicola Walker, Peter Firth, and Miranda Raison would deal with — at best, they’re the ones those people would pass in the hall. But all of them wanted to get back to the major leagues — they all had the drive, the chip on their shoulder, the need to lose the embarrassment. It makes for an interesting motivation — it’s not just about saving the young man, it’s about them doing it.

The characters are quite a rag-tag bunch, who really don’t like each other much at the beginning — they all know that Slough House is a dead-end and resent being there — and transfer that resentment onto the others stuck there with them. An actual team gets forged through the events of this novel and the characters find things about each other that they can relate to — and maybe even admire.

It’s a solid spy story, and one told with restrained humor — it’s not a comedy by any means, but there are comic sensibilities throughout. Herron could’ve easily turned it into a humorous spy story about rejects trying to save the day. But he plays it pretty straight, there are things to grin about — or at least smile wryly about. But by and large this is a serious story told seriously. And it’s well done — it’s a well-constructed story and by the time the big twist is revealed, you care about the players enough to react appropriately.

But man, it was slow. Once things started happening, it flowed pretty smoothly and quickly. But those early chapters, where Herron was setting up his dominoes, were a slog. It took awhile to figure out why we were spending so much time with X, Y and Z. But when he started knocking the dominoes over? You understood why he’d spent the time and were glad he did. The slow pace of the early chapters were entirely justified, thankfully. Still, I think we could’ve had a better hook early on.

I do think that the later books in the series will be able to build on what’s established here and be less slow, and using the characters we met here get into the action quicker. I’m planning on reading at least a couple more in this series because I did enjoy this one, and think that Herron can build this into a great series. It’s a good entry point into something that promises to be better.

—–

3 Stars

2019 Library Love Challenge 2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

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Killing State by Judith O’Reilly: I Can’t Suitably Encapsulate this Gripping Thriller

Killing StateKilling State

by Judith O’Reilly
Series: Michael North, #1

Kindle Edition, 496 pg.
Head of Zeus, 2019

Read: March 5 – 7, 2019

           “You should come with me.”

He turned over the offer in his mind.

Why would he?

Because she was stop-your-heart beautiful.

Then again, the world teemed with beautiful women. Because he wanted to know how it ended.

Badly, he predicted.

What happens when an assassin doesn’t get the expected reaction from his target? Honor Jones, MP, tells him to let her finish her cigarette and asks him a question, “Where’s Peggy?” The assassin in question, Michael North, doesn’t know who Peggy is, much less where she is. What he does know is that he can’t kill this woman — maybe it’s because (unlike the rest of his targets) he wasn’t given a reason for her execution, maybe it’s her attitude, maybe he’s just getting tired of killing (not to be confused with Martin Q. Blank’s newfound respect for life) — certainly her beauty doesn’t hurt.

His refusal to kill her doesn’t go down well with his employer — an extra-governmental body dedicated to the preservation of the British government. That morning, he’s contacted in person with strict instructions to get the job done or face the (fatal) consequences. Instead, North tried to get her out of the country and ends up saving her from a different assassin. Not very shockingly, North also finds instructions to kill him on this assassin’s corpse. By this point, North is smitten with Honor and is committed (whether either of them consciously realize it) to helping her survive and find her friend Peggy.

At the moment, it’s clear that Honor’s search for her dear friend is tied to the kill order. Peggy’s an astronomer, largely apolitical, and not tied to any endeavor that would normally put her on the radar of anyone outside of astronomical/academic circles. Nevertheless, she’s somehow set these dominoes falling, and now Honor and North are running from killers across the country as they seek to learn why Peggy has disappeared.

This hunt for Peggy will push North and Honor to — and past — their limits. It will see them both injured. Both under threat of grave bodily harm (and death) through violence — and both will have to take steps to defend themselves. Around them, the culture and government face shifts and challenges from within that threaten to change everything that Britons know about themselves. On top of all that — there are some great character moments, real growth and change that happen ways that you can believe — not just the clear result of authorial fiat, but because that’s what happens when people face what they did.

Plots involving large-scale conspiracies frequently leave me cold — O’Reilly not only convinces me that her conspiracy is worth reading, but she’s effective enough with it to make me enjoy it. I struggle to accept plots involving psychiatric professionals and loved ones trying to convince a character that the reality they know (and the audience knows) isn’t real, but is the result of delusion brought on by some psychological condition. Now this one isn’t as involved as say, “Normal Again” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it’s there — and O’Reilly sticks with it long enough to accomplish what she needs to for her story, but she doesn’t milk drama out of it. There are a few other things like this — tricks, plotlines, tropes — that I typically avoid or get annoyed by, but I accepted and enjoyed here.

My notes are filled with “O’Reilly isn’t going to try ___, is she?” entries, followed by “Yeah, she is — and it works.” She squeezes in so many of these things that I’m tempted to doubt my memory about them — and I’m writing this less than a day after I read it! For reasons of space, time, and readability I’ve limited myself in what I’ve addressed in this post. I had a lot of other things I wanted to say, and even had drafts talking about. But I ended up restricting myself — not just because of spoilers (though, as always, that’s part of it) — but because O’Reilly stuffs this novel with so many ideas, plot points and details that I can’t talk about it all without the post becoming unreadable. I don’t know how she manages to put it all in while maintaining the pounding pace. It’s truly noteworthy and laudable that she pulls it off. I can’t even express this without producing an ungainly paragraph.

Michael North is a larger-than-life character, but honestly more grounded in reality than many assassin/lone warrior types in Thriller fiction. Part of that comes from O’Reilly’s restraint in describing him — he’s never depicted as anything superlative. He’s simply a skilled and surprisingly dedicated combat veteran in a series of tight situations that even he is shocked that he survives as long as he does.

Similarly, Honor is one of many beautiful women in the world (as North himself notes above) — she’s one of many dedicated elected public servants, she’s one of many people who’ve overcome difficult pasts thanks to the help of a friend/loved one. She also isn’t depicted as a superlative anything — just the right person in the right place at the right time. Even if that right place is in front of Michael North’s knife. And yes, the name Honor is ripe with possibilities and symbolism — O’Reilly takes advantage of it. Not as much as some authors would’ve, but she gets her money’s worth out of the name.

There is an plausibility-stretching character — a young computer whiz (actually, she’s something beyond whiz, but I can’t think of a term that fits her), who North allies himself with temporarily. But between her attitude and role in the overall story, I can’t see any reader not suspending disbelief enough to embrace her.

Most of this book takes place in moral gray areas (as it almost has to given North’s profession), but that doesn’t stop O’Reilly’s villains from clearly being villains and her heroes clearly being heroic. Killing State doesn’t try to go for some sort of situational ethics or a “yes, but” approach to the morality of te characters — which may or may not have been successful.

The plot moves like the proverbial roller coaster — ups, downs, rushes, and loops all at a pace that you just hope to keep up with. Fair warning — once the hook is set (and it’ll be early on), you won’t want to put the book down and you’ll likely get in trouble with deadlines and schedules. Things won’t really end the way you expect them to — I had a handful of expected conclusions that I had to discard along the way (although some I didn’t have to discard until the last moments) — but when you’re finished with the book, you’ll likely realize that there’s no other way for things to have fallen out.

There’s a sequel expected later this year — I honestly can’t imagine that it’ll be able to live up to this. But I wouldn’t put it past O’Reilly to confound my expectations again. I had a lot of fun with this novel and was regularly impressed with O’Reilly (and North and Honor). I expect that I’m not alone, and soon I’ll see a lot of very positive buzz surrounding this book.


My thanks to Love Books Group for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including the book) they provided.

—–

4 Stars

Head of Zeus
Love Books Group

BOOK SPOTLIGHT: Killing State by Judith O’Reilly

Today I welcome the Book Tour for the gripping Killing State by Judith O’Reilly. Along with this spotlight post, I’ll be giving my take on the novel here in a bit.

Book Details:

Book Title: Killing State by Judith O’Reilly
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Release date: March 7, 2019
Format: Hardcover/ebook
Length: 496 pages
Killing State Cover

Book Blurb:

WHAT IF THE PERSON YOU’RE ORDERED TO KILL IS THE WOMAN YOU WANT TO PROTECT?

Michael North, assassin and spy-for-hire, is very good at killing bad guys. But what happens when his shadowy bosses at the dark heart of the post-Brexit British government, order him to kill an innocent woman and North can’t bring himself to do it?

The woman is rising political star, Honor Jones, MP. She has started asking dangerous questions about the powerful men running her country. The trouble is, Honour doesn’t know when to stop. And, now that he’s met her, neither does North…

Praise for Killing State:

“A terrific future-shock thriller.” Lee Child
“Fast-paced and packed with action.” Mick Herron
“A gritty, action-packed page-turner.” Andy McNab
“New thriller writers come and go. I suspect this lady will stick around.” Frederick Forsyth
“Thought-provoking, pacy and thrilling.” Sunday Mirror
“Gripping and twisty” India Knight
“Grabs you from page one and won’t let you go… Action-packed from start to finish – but with tenderness and great characterisation too. Fast, sharply-written, clever and intense.” Jeremy Vine, BBC2
“A high-octane plot that centres around the dark heart of British political power. A great debut.” Sunday Times

About Judith O’Reilly:

Judith O'ReillyJudith O’Reilly is the author of Wife in the North, a top-three Sunday Times bestseller and BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. Judith is a former political producer with BBC 2’s Newsnight and ITN’s Channel 4 News, and, when she isn’t writing novels, she writes for The Sunday Times. Judith lives in Durham.

Judith O’Reilly’s Social Media:

Website ~ Twitter ~ Facebook



My thanks to Love Books Group for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including the book) they provided.

Head of Zeus
Love Books Group

Not Everyone is Special by Josh Denslow: A Short Story Collection that’ll Gobsmack You at Least Once

Not Everyone is SpecialNot Everyone is Special

by Josh Denslow


eARC, 160 pg.
7.13 Books, 2019

Read: February 2 – 24, 2019

I’m not sure what to say about this collection of 15 short stories. They’re all really well-written — there was one or two I didn’t care for, two that I really liked — but they all showed skill, craft, and achieved what I think Denslow intended to achieve. But I’m not sure that I can muster up any excitement over the collection.

Some of the stories fall into the SF/Speculative Fiction category, but by and large these are “General Fiction” (whatever exactly that is). Some are comic, some are very tragic (I think you could make the case for all of the stories containing elements of both).

“Proximity” a bittersweet story about a young man on the brink of maturity (but resisting stepping over it) who happens to be able to teleport is one of the best things I’ve read in months. A great combination of imagination and story, that sadly, I read the same day I read the best novel I’ve read so far this year, and completely forgot about until I started flipping through this book again while writing this. (but, man, am I glad I remember it now…)

Then there’s “Mousetrap,” which starts with the line,

I want to find a not scary way to tell my sister that I’m contemplating killing myself, but I don’t want her to think that it has to do with the fact that she asked me to start paying rent.

And openings don’t get much better than that (the story lives up to it).

There are a handful of other really high high points in this collection. I can’t talk about “Dorian Vandercleef” beyond encouraging you to read it — but you really should. “Blake Bishop Believes in Love” is sweet, grotesque and unpleasant (intentionally so). “Extra Ticket,” a story about a teenager dealing (and not well) with grieving over a friend’s death would serve as a handy example of the concept of “poignant,” if you ever find yourself in need of one.

I might not be over-the-moon with this book, but I did like it. I can even see me being in a situation where I’d re-read parts or all of it (I don’t normally re-read short story books, but I’m not opposed to the idea). I would absolutely read more by Denslow — long form or short form. Not Everyone is Special is a good book — some of the stories might even be more than good. I’d absolutely encourage you to get your hands on this to judge for yourself. I promise you’ll find at least one story that’ll knock your socks off.

—–

3.5 Stars
Disclaimer: I received this book from the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion, which is what I provided.
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing: I don’t think John Gray’s books cover marriages like this one

My Lovely WifeMy Lovely Wife

by Samantha Downing


eARC, 359 pg.
Berkley Books, 2019

Read: February 28 – March 2, 2019

You’ve been married for a decade and a half, the kids are in high school, you’re pretty established in your careers, middle age is around the corner — how do you keep the spark in your marriage alive (or reignite it)? There are dozens — probably hundreds — of suggestions out there, but probably none quite so . . . homicidal? The couple at the center of My Lovely Wife murders women — an idea so out there, I can’t imagine there’s enough wine in the world to get Kathy Lee and Hoda to promote.

They pick the victims together, he goes out and gets the women into a vulnerable situation and then she takes over while he spends time with the kids. This is an over-simplification, but not by much. This joint-project does seem to bring them together, giving them a common goal, something to talk about — it even seems to rekindle the romance. Sometimes their interaction is pretty sweet — sometimes, it’s a little sad. But at the core, you can see these two featuring in a very different kind of novel if only they had a different . . . activity to bond over.

Meanwhile, their son is acting defiant toward his father’s authority and is sneaking around with a girl. Their daughter is becoming more and more anxious — a media-induced anxiety disorder of some sort. While they’re dealing with the difficulties of parenting adolescents, they’re focused on their next target and evading the police. You have to feel for them as parents, really. They’re doing everything they should and you just can’t tell if the children will respond the way they hope. It’s a clear sign of their dedication to each other that they keep going.

It’s a great premise, really — and that alone is going to earn it some accolades. Downing does a pretty good job delivering on the promise of it, too. But after the original “What??” moment (which wasn’t that much of a surprise if you’ve read the blurb, but was still skillfully executed), I waited a long time to truly get hooked by this story. I kept feeling like I was alllllllllmost hooked, but I never got past the mildly curious level. I kept waiting for the hook, expecting it, wanting it — but it just didn’t come. Until some time in the last fifth of the book — and then even though I’d seen two of the big reveals coming, I hadn’t seen the reasoning behind the most important one. Also, Downing absolutely nailed the climactic portions of this book — all the dominoes she’d spent the whole novel setting up came down just as designed and were absolutely riveting to watch.

I want to complain about how long it took for me to really get hooked, to get invested in the outcome of the book — and I guess I am — but it was all worth it. I do think it’s dangerous to hope that an audience will stick without you that long — but seeing the design and how she set it all up, I just don’t know how to quibble that much. Because the pay off was just that well done.

This isn’t your typical story about killers — it’s not over the top and funny, it’s not dark and moody, it feels like a book about a fairly stable couple living in the nice part of Atlanta. Which is what the book is, but this couple has some pretty horrible secrets to explore. While it didn’t click for me until the very end, I can easily see where many people are going to love this book. Downing is a writer to watch, and I know I’ll be eagerly waiting for whatever comes next.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Berkley Publishing Group via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this, but it did not affect the substance of this post beyond giving me something upon which to opine.

—–

3.5 Stars

The Last Act by Brad Parks: He’s in the jailhouse now

The Last ActThe Last Act

by Brad Parks


ARC, 368 pg.
Dutton Books, 2019

Read: February 26 – 27, 2019

Inspired by the Wachovia Bank scandal from a few years back, Brad Parks’ third stand-alone is a departure in a sense from his previous two. Rather than crimes close to home for his protagonists, this is crime on an international scale, with most of the figures involved never laying eyes on each other.

Mitch Dupree was a high-level bank executive who was convicted of aiding a Mexican drug cartel by laundering a lot of money. He’s been sentenced to a minimum security prison in West Virginia. If after reading this — or even while reading it — you want a few more details about what happened with Dupree before the novel starts (or more specifics about the events leading up to his arrest), check out the prequel short story, The Whistle Blower. He has made it known both far and wide that he has a large amount of evidence against the cartel tucked away safely — and as long as he and/or his family are alive, that evidence stays hidden.

Naturally, the DEA, FBI and the cartel want to get their hands on it — and are willing to do some above and beyond work to get it.

Enter Tommy Jump — he’d risen to fame and prominence (and a Tony nomination) as a child on Broadway, but as he aged into adulthood the parts dried up. He’s on the verge of calling it quits — at least for a couple of decades. He’s approached by a childhood friend, Danny Ruiz, flashing a shiny FBI badge and an interesting job offer. Danny and his partner, Rick Gilmartin, want Tommy to go undercover with an assumed identity of a bank robber and serve time in the same prison. He has six months to get close to Dupree, win his trust and get the location of the documents. If the intelligence he gathers leads to indictments, he gets a hefty bonus on top of the pretty nice initial paycheck (all the funds come from civil forfeiture, and the well seems to run pretty deep). Given that his fiancé — a painter waiting to be discovered — just told him she was pregnant, any kind of pay-day sounds good to an out-of-work actor, one with a pay-day that could set them up for years? How can he pass that up?

The early stages of the plan go pretty smoothly — Tommy’s given a new identity, develops a cover story and is sentenced to the same prison. He arrives and gets settled — not really making friends, but getting well acquainted with fellow inmates, who show him the ropes and help him get acclimated. It goes so smoothly, actually, that it bugged me a little. Sure, he’s an actor, but this isn’t a play, there’s no script, and it seems easy. But, Tommy’s such a likeable guy, a winning narrator that I just kept shrugging off my skepticism and rolled with it — I wanted things to work out for Tommy and Amanda, I wanted to see what happened with Dupree — so whatever it took to get me to seeing if things would work out for them I could accept.

And then — because this is a thriller, because Parks is good at torturing his readers (that’s why we keep coming back), and because no one is as lucky as Tommy seemed to be — everything got nearly impossible. On a dime, the momentum changes and suddenly thing look incredibly grim for Tommy, Amanda, Dupree and several other characters. Naturally, at the same time the bottom fell out and I was reeling from a pretty significant reveal, my lunch break ended and I had to get back to work with no time to process things. I know it’s stupid, but it felt like Parks planned it that way.

The novel alternates between Tommy chapters and chapters with Amanda, one of the cartel’s higher-ups and his efforts to find the evidence, Danny and Rick, and Mitch Dupree’s wife. I was honestly surprised how much time we got with Amanda and Mrs. Dupree — both of whom had their own character arcs independent of (although influenced by) Tommy and Mitch. I could’ve used a little more of both of them — not that Parks short-changed them in any way, but their stories were so interesting that I would’ve enjoyed it. Alternatively, by the end of the book (especially in light of The Whistle Blower), I was surprised how little time we got with Mitch Dupree — again, it’s not that he was short-changed, I just would’ve assumed we’d have more time with him. And what time we do have with him was by and large mediated through Tommy or his wife.

Beyond that, all the characters are well-drawn, well-developed and the kind that you would like to spend more time with. Parks has always displayed a great knack at creating characters that you can easily imagine coming across in real life — no matter their walk of life. They’re not all good people (particularly those who are aligned with the cartel), but they’re all believable people.

Before I get back to what Parks did right, I have a couple of problems that I want to talk about — as always, I’m afraid that the amount of space I spend talking about them is going to give the idea that I had real problems with the book as a whole. I didn’t. It’s just a couple of issues — issues that take more space to explain than the bits I like take. Still, they’re worth talking about.

I’m not 100% convinced that Parks adequately gets the point across about how dangerous this cartel that Tommy’s mixed up in is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like he portrays them as cuddly or anything. But I’m still not sure I got a large sense of threat and doom from them–Tommy and Dupree carry that sense, they’re adequately scared (especially Dupree), but I’m not sure that Parks gets the readers to be. I know he’s capable of it, I’m just not sure he did it here.

Similarly, I think he could’ve done a better job depicting life in the minimum security prison, the daily ins and outs — the lack of privacy, the loneliness, the hardships. I’m struggling for words here — the deprivations from a life of liberty that make prison a place you want to avoid, even a minimum security prison.. . It honestly felt like Tommy had an easier time getting up to stuff (including out-of-the-building excursions) in the middle of the night than Harry, Ron and Hermione did at Hogwarts. Or to put it in a different light — Say Nothing‘s Scott Sampson’s pretty sizeable home and nice office, felt far more confining than the prison did. And the small house that Melanie Barrick called home in Closer Than You Know seemed much more restricting and frightening than Tommy’s incarceration (as did the county jail she spent time in).

That said — what Parks was able to convey very strongly was the life-and-death nature of the situation that Tommy, Dupree, and Dupree’s wife was in. Also, the questions of identity, the future consequences of everyone’s actions loomed large here and dominated their thoughts, motives and actions. Where Scott and Melanie’s stories were much more immediate in their focus (yes, with long-range repercussions, but a very intense focus on the immediate future), Tommy’s story and his own focus is on the future. He spends very little time thinking about the now of things, most of his eye is on a decade away — which is likely tied in to his sentence.

As I mentioned earlier, when things started going bad for Tommy, they went really bad — and the rest of the book didn’t lighten up on him. It’s almost as if Parks lulled readers into letting their guard down before hitting them hard (actually, it’s probably exactly that). The twists and turns start to come fast and relentlessly. The beginning of the book is interesting and winning — and then once the hook is set, Parks just messes with you and you can’t relax until everything is over. In his previous stand-alones, Parks pretty much kept the tension and suspense going from the first chapter theory the end. In this book, he saved almost all of it until the end, so it hits you harder. So it stops being about characters that you’d like to see succeed or find out more about, to characters that you like and have to know if they’re going to survive with their wits, health and family intact — and you have to know it right now.

About the same time that things got intense, I had a realization — I think I’ve figured out what makes Parks’ novels work so well, how he gets his readers to commit — in The Last Act — and everything else he writes — what matters most is family. Ultimately, all his books are celebrations of family, and what people will go through for the sake of family. It’s tucked away in some of the Carter Ross books — but, without going back to reread any, I’m pretty sure its there. But especially in his stand-alones, this is Parks’ recurring theme. It’s the way he connects his audience to whatever his protagonist is going through and to the protagonists themselves. There’s something instinctive, primal about the way that Parks portrays family and the lengths that individuals will go through for them — whether the family is just starting or well-established. something that Tommy and Dupree have a conversation about made that click with/for me — and thinking about it is the only thing that got me to think about putting this book down for a moment.

I’ve yet to be disappointed by a Parks book, I’ve enjoyed all of them — and this is no exception. I do think there’s something special about this one, both in Park’s construction of the novel and what it’s saying about the characters. He takes some risks, and does some things he hadn’t done before, and I was pleased to see the results. There’s a lot of heart in The Last Act, a lot of tension, and more hope than you might expect. There’s also some things said about the drug war and the prison system that are worth reflecting on. I’m not sure what else I can say to convince you to try this, so I’ll just call that good.

Disclaimer: I received this ARC from Dutton Books, which did not influence anything I had to say about it — it just means I was able to say something about it before the publication date. I do thank them for the opportunity, however.

—–

4 Stars

The Great Brain (Audiobook) by John D. Fitzgerald, Ron McLarty: A frequently pleasant stroll down memory lane

The Great Brain (Audiobook)The Great Brain

by John D. Fitzgerald, Ron McLarty (Narrator)
Series: The Great Brain, #1

Unabridged Audiobook, 4 Hours, 41 Minutes
Listening Library, 2002

Read: February 25 – 26, 2019


Growing up, these stories about a pre-teen con artist in late 19th Century Utah were among my favorites. I remember stumbling on a box set at a Yard Sale after I’d read them from the Library a couple of times and just about wore out the set reading and re-reading them. Even then, I remember that I had problems with some of the characters, and recall that my favorite was always the narrator, John D., not the titular Great Brain himself, Tom D. About 10 years ago, I read the series to my kids, and enjoyed it (possibly more than they did), but not as much as I remembered. Still, when I saw it listed as a new addition to my library’s catalog, I took a second glance and when I saw that Ron McLarty did the narration, I had to try it.

This book is a series of episodes from over a year or so in the life of three brothers, Sweyn D., Tom D. and John D. Fitzgerald. Sweyn is around a little bit as the more mature eldest brother, John’s the youngest (8 or 9, I believe) and Tom is 10 and the star. He’s Greedy, conniving, and ambitious — and his ego is bigger than the rest of his attributes combined. They live in a small, largely LDS, town in Utah during the last decade of the 1800s. The episodes feature different ways in which Tom’s Great Brain works to make him money and/or notoriety in the community, especially with the kids.

Some of these antics are silly, some are serious. Almost all of them are profitable for Tom. The strength of the stories is the humanity of the rest of the community — the traveling Jewish merchant, the local farmers, the Greek immigrant family, for starters. The weakness comes from the very laissez-faire approach to parenting the Fitzgeralds take — allowing Tom D. to pretty much get away with everything he wants.

There is some charm, some heart, throughout — even from Tom. That part appeals to me, the ego-driven greedy exploits of the Great Brain don’t. John’s narration occasionally will critique Tom’s motives, but mostly John’s a little brother thinking his big brother is fantastic no matter what. I know John becomes more disillusioned later, but for now, it was annoying. I want better for him.

How’s the narration you ask? Honestly, the chance to listen to Ron McLarty narrate was half the reason I had for grabbing this. McLarty will always be Sgt. Frank Belson to me, despite the many other things he’s accomplished in life. He did a fine job, at times a great job. Something about him reading the contraction-less dialogue bugged the tar out of me. George Guidal can make it work when he reads Henry Standing Bear — although it helps that no one else does it. McLarty can’t make it work, probably because despite the fact that slang is used, time appropriate language — but not a contraction from anyone? I don’t lay the fault at McLarty’s feet, it’s just a prominent feature.

I still recommend the books and enjoyed them. It’s just a tempered enjoyment. I’ll probably keep chipping away at the series over the next few months — waiting to see John’s disillusionment grow, and the brothers develop a conscience.

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3 Stars

2019 Library Love Challenge