The Blackhouse by Peter May

The BlackhouseThe Blackhouse

by Peter May
Series: The Lewis Trilogy, #1

Hardcover, 357 pg.
SilverOak Books, 2012

Read: December 18 – 19, 2017


Endinburgh’s DS Fin Macleod returns to work after a month’s bereavement leave and is immediately sent to the Isle of Lewis to aid in a murder investigation. The murder shares some commonalities with a murder he’d been investigating before his leave and Fin grew up in the same town as the murder — in fact, he knew the victim as a child and was bullied by him. Fin has returned to the island once since he left, and that was almost two decades ago — nevertheless he is surrounded by memories and ghosts.

As is so often the case with this kind of story — the returning detective/writer/lawyer/etc. — the narrative is divided between the present and the past. In the present we get Fin and his local contact looking into aspects of the murder, drawing on Fin’s knowledge of the suspects and other persons of interest. The other portion traces Fin’s friendships and lost loves on the island, his problematic relationship to the island’s culture, and some of the trauma of his life. In the end, as every reader knows, the past illuminates the present and Fin’s able to solve the mystery — at great cost to himself.

May structured this wonderfully, the prose is gripping, the characters well-developed and believable — you can feel the harsh environment, the cold, the isolation.

But . . . I just didn’t like it. I can’t point to anything in particular that put me off, I just didn’t click with it. I didn’t dislike it either, I should say.

Strong writing, a great sense of setting, a story well told — I can see why so many readers appreciated it, and figure many of my readers will, too. But it just didn’t do enough for me. I’ll give it 3 1/2 stars on the strength of May’s skill alone.

—–

3.5 Stars

2017 Library Love Challenge

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Set in Darkness by Ian Rankin

Set in DarknessSet in Darkness

by Ian Rankin
Series: John Rebus, #11

Hardcover, 414 pg.
Minotaur Books, 2000

Read: December 8 – 12, 2017


This has all the elements of a good Rebus novel — and then some.

We’ve got a murder that took place so long ago that there are almost no living witnesses or suspects, a very contemporary murder, Rebus in political trouble, Rebus being self-destructive, and a couple of cases that have nothing whatsoever to do with the murders — oh, and Big Ger Cafferty shows up to do something horrible (and something helpful).

Farmer John is near retirement and comes up with an assignment to keep Rebus out of his hair — he’s part of a task force overseeing security on the construction for the impending Parliament. This construction uncovers a murder victim and Rebus and the rest of the task force begin investigating. They can barely get started when another corpse shows up. This one is very fresh, and very connected to a prominent family — politically and culturally. I’m not going to get into this much more than that — there’s a lot of good stuff in these cases, most of which we’ve seen variations of before. This doesn’t make it bad, it’s very Rebus-y material, told the way we’ve come to expect.

The part of the book that fascinated me were the crimes that had little to do with the murders. Siobhan Clarke starts off the book doing some work on a sexual assault case that isn’t really hers, and then witnesses a suicide of a homeless man. This homeless man turns out to have plenty of money in the bank and a history that cannot account for that. Clarke threatens at times to take over the book with her investigations. Not just from her investigation, but the way that one uniformed officer describes her as “one of Rebus'” and the introspection, speculation and reaction to that observation causes in Clarke’s life and work. (Incidentally, Clarke taking over the novel would be fine with me)

One of the storylines is perfect — there’s almost no interaction with any police characters, and resolves largely off-screen. Basically the way that most storylines actually resolve in the world. There are payoffs in the novel as a whole, but not in the way you’d expect.

Really well-constructed with almost no dull moments, puzzles that you can’t suss out at first glance, and a whole lot of great characters. There’s not a lot for the courts to deal with at the end of this book, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no justice found for any victims.This isn’t the best Rebus novel I’ve read, but it’s really, really good.

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4 Stars

2017 Library Love Challenge

Red Dog by Jason Miller

Red DogRed Dog

by Jason Miller
Series: Slim in Little Egypt, #2

Paperback, 316 pg.
Harper Paperbacks, 2016

Read: November 25 – 27, 2017

“And for sixty-flve dollars, too.”

Anci rolled her eyes. “Oh, I know. Usually, you get kicked in the head for free. Why not try it for money this time? Besides, this is your chance to do a good deed, pile up some karma.”

“You can’t eat karma, darlin’..”

“No, but it can eat you.”

I really can’t decide what part of these books I like best — Slim’s dogged determinism when it comes to finishing what he’s started, Jeep’s almost-superhuman capabilities (he’s Hawk + Joe Pike, with a better romantic life while not as tied to reality), or Anci. Okay, that’s a lie. It’s Anci — she’s smart, she’s insightful, she’s sweet, she’s got an attitude that just won’t quit.

In this book, Anci takes time out from critiquing The Hound of the Baskervilles to convince Slim to take a case for a couple of odd strangers that show up on their doorstep. They want him to find their dog for him. They’re pretty sure where the dog is, but they don’t think they could retrieve her.

Slim takes the case, and within hours he’s cut off part of a man’s body, had several threats made against him, and discovers a dead body. Oh, he finds the dog, too. But that doesn’t matter, because he’s arrested before he can return the dog.

Things go haywire from there — Slim’s still bound and determined to find the dog while he clears his name (or vice versa). The hunt for the dog and the real killer takes him to all sorts of places he probably shouldn’t go — many of which make the coal mining he left behind seem like a safe alternative to his current job. I hate to say this, but it’s in the publisher’s description (and on the cover image), but one of the places that Slim shouldn’t go is to dog fights. His reaction to them is visceral, and you almost feel it as much as he did as you read.

The characterizations are as deep and wonderful as before (including a couple of characters that’d make Flannery O’Connor balk), the evil that Slim confronts is very dark and twisted, and Slim’s voice is deadly serious one minute, and seamlessly laugh-out-loud funny without giving the reader a sense of whiplash. There’s some violence — brutal stuff — yet it’s Slim’s brain that does most of the work. Basically, it’s the whole package.

The Bonus Story About Those Danged Chickens, “Hardboiled Eggs,” was a hoot — not strong enough to work as a part of the novel, but it tied in well (and best read after the book) and was nice example of Anci and Slim working together.

I hope there’s more to come in this series, because I just can’t get enough. Miller’s style is great — the prose is smooth and fluid, so much so that you don’t realize just how dark and twisted the events are until it’s too late because you’re having too much fun reading. Take some time to visit Little Egypt and you’ll see what I mean.

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4 Stars
2017 Library Love Challenge

The Midnight Line by Lee Child

The Midnight LineThe Midnight Line

by Lee Child
Series: Jack Reacher, #22

Hardcover, 368 pg.
Delacorte Press, 2017

Read: November 23 – 24, 2017

“But this particular guy won’t talk to me?”

“I would be surprised.

“Does he have no manners?”

“I wouldn’t ask him over to a picnic.”

“What’s his name?”

“Jimmy Rat.”

”For real?”

“That’s what he goes by.”

“Where would I find Mr. Rat?”

“Look for a minimum six Hariey-Davidsons. Jimmy will be in whatever bar they‘re outside of.”

Three days after Make Me, Reacher hits the road — and a few hours into that, he’s already trying to track someone down. That conversation leads to the following:

There was a bar in a standalone wooden building, with a patch of weedy gravel for parking, and on the gravel were 7 Harley-Davidsons, all in a neat line. Possibly not actual Hells Angels as such. Possibly one of the many other parallel denominations. Bikers were as split as Baptists. All the same, but different.

(don’t worry, I’m not going to tell the whole story in this detail, I just really enjoyed the writing here).

Reacher goes into the bar and then has a pleasant chat with a member of the local law enforcement community and a productive chat with Mr. Rat. In between those chats he may have engaged in a physical confrontation with the owners of those motorcycles, I’ll let you guess what happened there. It was fun to read, I assure you. What led to him looking for Jimmy the Rat? Pretty simply, he saw a female West Point class ring in a pawn shop window. That’s not an easy thing to earn/deserve. Reacher figures that there’s got to be an interesting story behind such a ring ending up in a pawn shop — and maybe some fellow alumnus needs a hand, one that he can give. Jimmy the Rat is just the first link in a chain of indeterminate length back to this graduate.

Because he’s not an idiot, Jimmy points Reacher in the right direction: a laundromat in Rapid City. Also, because he’s not an idiot, before Reacher is on his way, Jimmy calls in a warning to that laundromat. Jimmy’s a rat, but he’s a survivor, too. This laundromat is owned by a guy named Scorpio, who is absolutely not Rapid City PD’s favorite small-business owner, if they could, they’d shut him down. This warning phone call, they hope, will be the harbinger of something — his downfall, or something to give them enough ammunition to arrange his arrest and downfall. Either way, the PD is fine.

Reacher has a quick conversation with Scorpio, who also points him in a direction. Reacher interacts a bit with a member of the local PD about him, as well — pointing out something that someone should’ve noticed already. There’s a PI who’s also pretty interested in Scorpio, but Reacher doesn’t get to chat with him, at least not then. When he turns up in Wyoming a few hours behind Reacher, on the other hand . . .

Reacher ends up with one of the stranger ad hoc teams he’s had to track down this woman — and the extra-legal steps he has to take to help her aren’t in his normal wheelhouse. But you go the extra mile for some people, and it’s definitely in-character and understandable for him to do what he does. There’s some interesting introspection early-on that I’m not used to seeing, and hope we get more of.

Here’s a major weakness to me (normally, I’d shrug this off, but Child gets held to a higher standard): too many people don’t know what “Bigfoot” is. If this took place in the UK or France or something, I could buy it. But in South Dakota? Sorry, not buying it.

The Midnight Line features more female characters than your typical Reacher novel — and none of them are damsels in distress. Yeah, most of them need a little help — but so do the males. Reacher’s life is even saved by one of the women. These are all strong, confident and capable women — not that the Reacher novels have ever been lacking in that regard, we just don’t normally get that many of them at once.

I don’t keep a spreadsheet or any kind of detailed notes on these things, but this might be one of the least violent Reacher novels ever. Make no mistake, Reacher has not turned into a pacifist and when he needs to punch, elbow, kick or headbutt (so soon after the concussion tests? tsk.) he does so very effectively, but I just think his count is a bit low this time).

Also, thanks Andy Martin, “Reacher said nothing.” now jumps out at me every time it shows up. How it never jumped out at me before, I’ll never know — but wow.

I really enjoyed this — it didn’t blow me away in the same way that Make Me did, but very little does. It was a lot better than Night School, however. Reacher’s knight-errant act is as satisfying as ever — maybe even moreso in this conclusion that features more details on his acts of compassion than his violence (the last violent act happening “off-screen,” although we get to see the aftermath). It was a fast read, full of action, great scenery and believable bad guys. I can’t think of much else to say — Reacher fans should love this, people new to Reacher should finish this with a desire to plunder the back-list, and everyone will start counting the days to #23.

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4 Stars
2017 Library Love Challenge

Dead Souls by Ian Rankin

Dead SoulsDead Souls

by Ian Rankin
Series: John Rebus, #10

Hardcover, 406 pg.
St. Martin’s Press, 1999

Read: November 10 – 13, 2017

For the best part of an hour, Rebus had been trying to blink away a hangover, which was about as much exercise as he could sustain. He’d planted himself on benches and against walls, wiping his brow even though Edinburgh’s early spring was a blood relative of midwinter. His shirt was damp against his back, uncomfortably tight every time he rose to his feet.

This might actually be the high point for Rebus in this novel — at least as far as the way he feels goes. The bad news is, this is from Chapter 1. Clearly, Jack Morton’s influence has clearly ended. Rebus is moments away from doing something he’ll regret almost instantly and that will have ramifications on everything he does for the foreseeable future, some of which will likely haunt him for more than that.

Which almost seems par for the course, I realize as I type that.

Anyway, Dead Souls focuses on crimes against children and what that can do to them — not just at the moment they’re victimized, but years later. There are also unintended (and fully intended consequences of crimes against adults throughout the book — Rebus’ own hands aren’t entirely clean here. Rebus’ actions in the opening pages cast enough of a shadow on him that his very brief involvement on another case is used by the defense to cast a shadow on the police’s investigation. He’s also tasked to investigate the apparent suicide of a police detective, informally, anyway. His main task is to work with Siobhan Clarke and a rookie to be a very obvious police presence to a convicted multiple-murderer, recently released and deported from the US back to Scotland. They really can’t do anything other than be visible for a few days until money runs out on the operation, but no one who knows this killer has any doubt that he’ll strike again, and the police are trying to discourage that. Unofficially, Rebus makes things uncomfortable for a pedophile in his new home — an act that will not go well and will spiral out of control — and he’s helping an old girlfriend look for her missing son.

Confused? Yeah, sure, I am — and I wrote that summary. Somehow, Rankin is able to take all that mess and assemble it into a novel that actually makes sense — with all of these stories being tied together, not just with over-lapping themes, but in reality in some sort of 6 degrees of separation fashion — even excluding DI Rebus. It’s really very impressive watching how Rankin weaves every strand of story and character in this novel — it always is, but this web seems more intricate than usual.

The other police in this novel interest me — I won’t go down the list, but those who can’t see why he cares about something, those who can’t understand why he’d do something with so little regard to consequences are on one end — the other end is filled by people (like Clarke) who know exactly what kind of man he is, and without approving or participating in the less-than-savory aspects his methods, can use him and them for good.

…he wondered why it was he was only ever happy on rewind. He thought back to times when he’d been happy, realising that at the time he hadn’t felt happy; it was only in retrospect that it dawned on him. Why was that?

There’s very little light in this novel, there’s introspection, there’s despair, there’s hatred, fear, prejudice, and opportunists taking advantage of all of that. But somehow the book never seems slow or ponderous — just Rebus chugging along, doing his thing. There’s also some strong action — some we see as it happens, but most we hear about after the fact (years or days alter). If you stop and think about how many criminal seem to “get away” with their crimes (as defined by not being charged/tried), it’s not that satisfying. If you think about the book in terms of Rebus (and through him, the reader) understanding what happened and why — it’s satisfying, not really cheerful, but satisfying in that regard.

The souls that are dead here have been killed by various means and methods over time — some realize that’s what they are, some haven’t a clue — some come to realize it in these pages (and some try to revitalize themselves). By and large, they’re dead souls walking, and seem intent on taking others with them. The question is: is DI Rebus among them?

I’m really not sure if I’ve said anything worthwhile about the book — it’s impressive, immersive and will not let you go — even days after finishing it. I don’t know that this is a bad one to be your first Rebus novel — you may be willing to cut him more slack for his questionable actions if you’ve got a history with him than you would be otherwise, however. For me, this is just further proof that Rankin is one of the best and is getting better (or was, at this point in his career anyway)

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4 1/2 Stars
2017 Library Love Challenge

Paradox Bound by Peter Clines

Paradox BoundParadox Bound

by Peter Clines

Hardcover, 369 pg.
Crown, 2017

Read: November 8 – 9, 2017


Sanders is a typical American small-town, so typical, I felt like I grew up there. Thankfully, unlike Sanders, the place I grew up in has moved on, Sanders has not. There’s still a Video Rental Store there, for crying out loud. Those who work with computers, or want to have much of an idea about contemporary pop culture, have to move away — or at least commute.

Eli Teague is just such a person — but before he commutes to his IT job from his apartment above the Video Rental Store, he grows up in a pretty typical way. With one exception: twice while growing up, he encounters a young woman dressed incredibly oddly while working on an old Ford Model A, which seems to be fueled by water. They spend a little time conversing each time — typically leaving Eli more confused than he’d have thought possible — then she drives off and disappears. This instills in him an obsession with historic cars, that spills over into American History in general.

As an adult, he encounters her again and inadvertently puts her in danger. He abandons everything he knows in an effort to save her from this and ends up joining her on a hunt through history. Harry (this mysterious woman) travels through history — she’s not a time traveler, she’ll be quick to point out, she travels in history. She’s not crazy about bringing Eli along with her, but literally has almost no choice in the matter.

Harry . . . she’s a great character, and I would’ve appreciated a lot more focus on her, and getting to see much more of her past. Maybe not getting to actually helps, because it makes the reader more curious about her — but I’d still have rather had a better look at her life before Eli became a regular part of it. She’s tough, loyal, cunning — but no superhero, just a strong person.

Short of spoiling the whole thing, this is one of those I have to be very vague about the details, but then why should you read it? I’ll leave it to you to read the book to get more about the hunt they’re on, but I’ll just say that it’s a great idea, a wonderful concept. The other hunters (and allies) we meet are interesting, but man, I’d love more of all of them — there’s some great historical cameos, too. Naturally, we need an opposing force to make things more tense — and we have one of the creepiest around in these pages. They’re not evil, not corrupt, not anything but driven (and with a skewed way of looking at things).

There’s a nostalgic, hopeful tone throughout — despite the sharp critique of the stats quo in America. There’s an evident wit behind the words, too, but this isn’t what you’d call a funny novel. I do think that Clines and I would differ a bit on some of the ways he interprets parts of the national character/psyche, but I can appreciate what he was going for (that’s one of those things that’ll make more sense after you read the book). The characters — whether we like them or not — are very human, very relatable, and pretty sympathetic. Clines has again taken some tropes, concepts, ideas that we’re familiar with — some we know very well, but skewing them just a hair and resulting in something we haven’t sen before.

I expected this to be a pretty good read after The Fold a couple of years ago, but I wasn’t expecting something as fresh feeling as this (but with the skill of someone who’s written a few novels). There’s a dash of civics lessons, some cultural commentary, and a lot of hope — things you don’t always get in light(ish) SF. I “bought into” this book much more quickly than I did The Fold, I’m not sure if that’s because Clines earned my trust in the previous book, or if there’s something more accessible about this one — either way, it’s something for the “Plus” column.

Give this one a whirl — you’ll be glad you did.

2017 Library Love Challenge

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4 Stars

The Freedom Broker by K. J. Howe

The Freedom BrokerThe Freedom Broker

by K. J. Howe
Series: Thea Paris, #1

Hardcover, 361 pg.
Quercus, 2017

Read: November 6 – 7, 2017


Thea Paris is such a cool character — she’s like a combination of Charlie Fox and Vanessa Michael Munroe — but with a very different load of emotional baggage. When she was a child, her brother was sleeping in her room to help her make it through a hard night when he was kidnapped. She’s spent the following decades convinced that the only reason he was kidnapped is that the abductors thought he was Thea. Yes, he eventually made it back safely, but he was (obviously) never the same, and Thea used that to fuel her mission in life. Her father is the tycooniest of American Oil Tycoons, and she could’ve easily rested on his laurels, or followed in the family business.

But no, Thea is in private security, with an emphasis on K&R (Kidnapping and Ransom). She’s the one negotiating with kidnappers/their representatives to get a ransom paid and the victim returned to his home/family/nation/company. When that doesn’t work, Thea will lead the extraction team doing what they can to bring te victim home. She’s one of the best around. She is not perfect, and we see that right off, but she gets the job done well.

Which is good, because on the verge of one of the biggest deals of his life, Thea’s father, Christos, is kidnapped. It’s up to her, some allies and friends to bring him home. There are several candidates for the kidnapper’s identity — there’s the Chinese oil corporations competing with her father, there are representatives of the African nation that kidnapped her brother all those years ago, there’s an arms dealer that has rumors flying, too. In the midst of this hunt, secrets will be revealed (many Thea will regret learning), and virtually everyone in her life will end up divulging something dark and hidden.

One more thing about Thea — she’s diabetic. Which is an interesting character trait — I can’t think of another action hero with something like that: a real physical condition that requires maintenance, but is manageable and will not ordinarily cause anything more than inconvenience. Sure, it does give us what I’m calling Chekhov’s glucose monitor (not a spoiler, that’s what I put in my notes when it was first mentioned).

I liked the other characters, too — but it’s hard to talk about most of them without getting too heavily into the plot. So let’s just say there are a few people I’m really looking forward to seeing again, and a few that I enjoyed enough this time out, but am very glad they’re in no position to show up again. Just about everyone has a believable motivation — no matter what side of the law and/or morality they fall on — which is just great.

Howe’s prose is tight and the pacing is great. There’s a few times that Thea has the same thought over and over — which is probably realistic, but it seems repetitive (and possibly not trusting the reader enough) to read her conclude “X may have done Y” in a chapter, and then “Y may have been done by X” in the next. But it’s nothing to get too worked up over, I didn’t think. Howe does seem to have a “everything including the kitchen sink” approach to story telling — the number of things that go wrong during Thea’s search for her father, and the number of opponents and obstacles in her way is seemingly endless. I love it, every time you think she’s on a roll and things are going to start going her way, a problem that the reader should’ve seen coming (but almost never does) shows up to derail things again. Sure, eventually, that comes to an end — the book doesn’t go on forever — but not until Howe’s good and ready for it to end. She’s probably getting a new kitchen constructed to hurl at Thea in the next book.

There’s a great mix of action and intrigue, putting clues together and smacking heads, emotional growth and uncovering the past. Like it’s protagonist, The Freedom Broker isn’t perfect, but it gets the job done well. Sign me up for the upcoming sequel, too.

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3.5 Stars

2017 Library Love Challenge