The Immortal Conquistador by Carrie Vaughn: Just who is the Vampire Rick, Anyway?

I’ve been trying to get this out for over a week now (it was published last week), but I couldn’t seem to be able to—I’m a little surprised I’ve had the energy to post anything since I started telecommuting (odd that not going anywhere tires me out more than going to work does). Finally, with apologies to the publisher for getting this post up late.

The Immortal Conquistador

The Immortal Conquistador

by Carrie Vaughn
Series: Kitty Norville, #1

eARC, 192 pg.
Tachyon Publications, 2020

Read: March 20-23, 2020


I’ve been a fan of the Kitty Norville series since the debut in 2005, and one of the supporting characters that fans seem most enamored of—and are given the least information about—is Kitty’s vampire ally, Rick (the Master of Denver).

For those (like me) who need a little brushing up on some of what went on toward the end of the series, Rick leaves Denver for a while in order to explore a different way to take on Dux Bellorum (the series’ Big Bad).

This book gives the reader some insight into what Rick was up to during this time. The book stitches together four short stories about Rick’s origin (some previously published, some not) while Rick introduces himself to the Order of Saint Lazarus.

I’d already read the first story, “Conquistador de la Noche,” in the collection Kitty’s Greatest Hits—but it worked really well in this setting, too—this sets the stage for the rest of Rick’s history and tells about him becoming a vampire. The next two stories show what happens when he first encounters the Vampire sub-culture and is first exposed to the rules (most) Vampires live by and how Rick skirts the edges of those rules and starts to make both a name for himself and build his different kind of power base.

The fourth story is my favorite detailing what happens when Rick meets a legendary Old West character. It was just a great story with an element of fun. It’s also something the reader is told that Rick’s never told anyone about before. It’s precisely the kind of thing that Kitty would kill to hear, she’s constantly asking vampires and other supernatural types for stories like this. That Rick would go out of his way to deprive her of this story (but we get to read it) was a little extra dash of fun.

I don’t know that this gave me a much better picture of Rick—the novels had pretty much done that. We know his character, we may not understand his past and what he was—but we know who he is. But this book rounds out our understanding of the man and gives the reader a little hope for his future.

Once I cottoned on to what Vaughn was doing—stitching together short stories—I was a little skeptical of the format. But I came around pretty quickly and decided it worked really well. It’s better than a simple short story collection, essentially giving us a bonus story. The stories (including the framing device) feel different from the Kitty series, but not so much that it doesn’t feel like the same world.

A cool bonus of this—you can read it totally independent of the Kitty Norville series. It’s not dependent at all on the events or people of the series (there are references to certain antagonists, but not in any way that makes familiarity with the series necessary for understanding).

I do have to wonder about the timing of this—the series ended almost five years ago, so I’m not sure I get why we’re getting this material in this format now. But that’s just me being curious, not complaining. Did I (or the series) need The Immortal Conquistador? No. But I’m very glad I got it.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Tachyon Publications via NetGalley in exchange for this post —thanks to both for the opportunity.


3.5 Stars

Pub Day Repost: The K Team by David Rosenfelt: A New PI Trio Takes a Bite Out of Crime

The K Team

The K Team

by David Rosenfelt
Series: The K Team, #1

eARC, 304 pg.
St. Martin’s Press, 2020

Read: March 13-16, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!


After 20+ books (and counting!) in a series, what’s an author to do? Well, if you have the dog food bills that David Rosenfelt must have (seriously, check out the photos on his website or Facebook page of the dogs he and his wife shelter), you create a spin-off. I found myself comparing the books a lot in the paragraphs that follow—I won’t make a habit out of it as the series progresses, but I kept comparing them as I read, so that’s how I think of the book. I hope it doesn’t get too tiring.

In 2019’s Dachshund Through the Snow, we met Former Paterson NJ police officer Corey Douglas and his German Shepherd partner, Simon Garfunkel. At the end of that novel, Corey had decided to join forces with Laurie and Marcus to form a detective agency. This is their first case—and what a way to start!

Longtime Andy Carpenter antagonist, the harsh, yet fair, Judge Henry Henderson (aka Hatchet) hires the team to look into a blackmailer trying to pressure the judge into something. He doesn’t know what the blackmailer wants yet, but he knows there’s enough to damage (probably fatally!) his career. The arrangement they enter into means that Andy won’t be able to try a case before Hatchet again—which bummed me out, he wasn’t a constant presence in those novels, but a frequent one—probably the only judge’s name I recognized. I enjoyed watching Andy squirm around the judge.

But now, it’s Hatchet’s turn to squirm. The blackmailers (well, potential blackmailers—he’s quick to note they haven’t actually broken the law yet), have some manufactured evidence to make it look like he’s crooked. He’s not, and has enough of a reputation and goodwill to weather the storm. Probably. But the hint of scandal would taint his record and probably force him off the bench.

So, Corey, Laurie, and Marcus get to work—looking into cases the judge presided over and could be alleged to have influenced. Before long, the threats get more real and bodies start appearing (or, disappearing, in some cases). And well, that’s really all I can safely say. But fans of the Andy Carpenter books will be familiar with the way things play out—and new readers will be entertained by it, too.

Marcus doesn’t do much more (especially on the dialogue front) in The K Team than he does in a typical Andy Carpenter book, he’s basically an unintelligible superhuman (yeah, the jokes about the protagonist’s inability to understand him are of the same genus as the ones in the Carpenter novels, but they’re a different species coming from Corey—I was surprised at how refreshing that was). I think he probably gets a little more space devoted to him than he typically gets, but he does basically what we’re used to seeing. There are a couple of exceptions, including what I believe is the longest hand-to-hand fight scene we’ve seen from him.

Even Laurie isn’t featured as much as I expected. Actually, that’s an understatement. I assumed that this would be Laurie’s series with a couple of sidekicks—or maybe an equally Laurie and Corey series with Marcus showing up to do his thing every now and then. Maybe a third person kind of thing alternating between focusing on each character. But no, this is first person from Corey’s POV—so we get a lot of Laurie, but most of what she did was off-screen, only teaming up with Corey for bigger moments or to discuss what they’d done together. It’s not what I expected, but I can live with it (I just wish she’d get to shine a bit more).

So, Corey…we get to know him a bit better here than we did in his first appearance, obviously. He’s single—deliberately—and very devoted to Simon (but not the same way that Andy is to Tara), they worked together and are now shifting to a new career together. Corey’s a bit more willing to leave Simon out of some of the action than say, Bernie Little is (eager, occasionally, for Simon’s safety). He’s a movie buff—a little bit of a nerd about them, it seems—and I look forward to seeing this more. He’s good at his job, still a straight arrow (the kind of cop he was), but is discovering that he’s more willing to color outside the lines than he thought. I’m looking forward to getting to know him better.

The humor is a similar style to the one employed in the Andy Carpenter books, but it’s not Andy’s voice in a different body. Corey is distinctive, but fans of the one will tend to enjoy the other. That’s half the point (maybe 70% of the point) of a spin-off, right? Similar, but not equal—that applies for the voice, the humor, and the story.

If you’ve never read an Andy Carpenter book, don’t worry. Just think of this as the good idea it is—a team of PI’s working together instead of a lone operator with an occasional side-kick. A trio is so rare in the PI fiction biz that I can’t wait to see it at work more in future installments. I enjoyed this enough that I’m ready to read the next two at least. There was so much set-up to The K Team that Rosenfelt almost had to shoe-horn the plot around it. This was a good intro to the series, but I’m looking forward to seeing what Rosenfelt has in store for the team now that he’s been able to establish things.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley in exchange for this post—thanks to both for this.


3.5 Stars

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

The Awful Truth About the Sushing Prize by Marco Ocram: Metaficton, Murders, and Tom Cruise, Oh My!

The Awful Truth About the Sushing Prizhttp://tattoolit.com/e

The Awful Truth About the Sushing Prize

by Marco Ocram
Series: The Awful Truth, #1

Kindle Edition, 346 pg.
Tiny Fox Press, 2019

Read: March 17-20, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

With notable exceptions—among whom I would include you, my friend—writers are the most egotistical of all humans. The desire to be published is a desire for attention. When one writer draws less attention than another they suffer a humiliating insult to their psychological ego centres.

After compiling last Saturday’s Miscellany post, and thinking about this book, I’ve decided that I really should have read The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker before starting this one. Just what I’ve gleaned online about this book makes it seem like Denis Shaughnessy Marco Ocram was fairly influenced on it for at least the backstory and a couple of the character names for this present novel. I’m curious about how much more than that I’d have picked up if I’d read Dicker before the palindromic Ocram, but it’s not a necessary pre-requisite.

I have, however, read Mark Leyner’s Et Tu, Babe, which this novel also reminded me of. I’m pretty sure I haven’t come across anything in Crime Fiction that I could compare to Leyner before, so that’s saying something.

The Ocram that’s the narrator of The Awful Truth About the Sushing Prize, like the protagonist Leyner, is a mega-selling author and celebrity, master of multiple disciplines. One thing that Ocram can do that Leyner couldn’t* is he can shape the course of the novel—or a scene he’s in the middle of—because he’s writing his reality. Which I hope makes sense. (Think of the movie Stranger than Fiction, but Will Ferrell’s character is calling the shots).

* As I recall, anyway. It’s been a couple of decades since my last re-read.

In an attempt to get out of watching sports with his friend, the Chief of Police Como Galahad, Ocram invents a body down at the port. The two go to investigate and end up in dealing with criminals from around the globe in a scheme that defies reason (but makes a lot of sense when the details are revealed).

Most of the book is truly outlandish and implausible, but it fits this tour of absurdity better than you could imagine.

The weakness of this book comes from its strength and premise, the novel is so clever and adheres so much to the conceit that it gets in the way of telling a good story with some depth to the characters. It’s still a decent story with amusing characters—but I think if the writer had pulled back a little from his commitment to the premise it’d be a better novel. Of course, if he had, I’d probably complain about him pulling his punches. So take this with a handful of salt.

“I heard six shots. You didn’t get him with any of them?”

“No, but they think I hit his car.”

“Good shooting. Next time I need to hit a barn door from ten paces I’ll ask you along for advice.”

“It’s easy to be sarcastic, but don’t forget I’ve never used a gun before.”

“That’s true. At least you worked out which was the shooty end. Could have been messy otherwise.

The humor is sometimes as subtle as a sledgehammer attacking a watermelon. Then within a sentence or two, something will be slipped in so cleverly that I had to re-read it a couple of times to make sure that what I thought was funny was supposed to be. I generally preferred the latter, but some of the obvious jokes were so well done that I don’t want to knock the frequent lack of subtlety. I’ve gone back to this next line so many times over the last couple of days, and still chuckle at it:

He’s meant to be one of the most intelligent people in the world. An autodidact too.”

“He can spout as much about cars as he likes…

The metafictional aspect of the novel is largely used for humorous ends—although sometimes it’s a tool to progress the plot, too. Sure, sometimes it’s used for loftier ends (à la Leyner’s work), but the emphasis here is for entertainment value. Which saves it from becoming a self-indulgent, pretentious mess rather than being what it is: self-indulgent fun. Here’s a few lines (I could produce many more) as illustration:

Which left the agency driver—just as I’d suspected when I made him up.

It was the oldest plot twist in the book (so far, anyway). I wagged my head at the thought of how predictable it all was.

Back in the car park, I made a convenient continuity error and climbed into my black Range Rover, hoping my readers wouldn’t remember that I’d left it at a burnt-out warehouse three chapters ago.

There are a couple of instances where the author switches from past tense to present because the events being described are so intense. I found myself grinning while reading each time it happened. It’s a delightfully inspired choice.

I chuckled, I looked up a couple of words, I wondered about the author’s sanity and really enjoyed myself while reading this. Sure, I wanted a little more depth, a little more reason to connect with any of the characters or the story—but I knew I wasn’t supposed to. The Awful Truth About the Sushing Prize is an impressive novel, clever and amusing—and if you can embrace the absurdity behind it, you’ll be glad you read it (and you’ll probably still enjoy it if you don’t fully get on board with the absurdity, but you’ll have to work harder for it).


3.5 Stars

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.


My thanks to damppebbles blog tours for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including a copy of the novel) they provided.

The K Team by David Rosenfelt: A New PI Trio Takes a Bite Out of Crime

The K Team

The K Team

by David Rosenfelt
Series: The K Team, #1

eARC, 304 pg.
St. Martin’s Press, 2020

Read: March 13-16, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!


After 20+ books (and counting!) in a series, what’s an author to do? Well, if you have the dog food bills that David Rosenfelt must have (seriously, check out the photos on his website or Facebook page of the dogs he and his wife shelter), you create a spin-off. I found myself comparing the books a lot in the paragraphs that follow—I won’t make a habit out of it as the series progresses, but I kept comparing them as I read, so that’s how I think of the book. I hope it doesn’t get too tiring.

In 2019’s Dachshund Through the Snow, we met Former Paterson NJ police officer Corey Douglas and his German Shepherd partner, Simon Garfunkel. At the end of that novel, Corey had decided to join forces with Laurie and Marcus to form a detective agency. This is their first case—and what a way to start!

Longtime Andy Carpenter antagonist, the harsh, yet fair, Judge Henry Henderson (aka Hatchet) hires the team to look into a blackmailer trying to pressure the judge into something. He doesn’t know what the blackmailer wants yet, but he knows there’s enough to damage (probably fatally!) his career. The arrangement they enter into means that Andy won’t be able to try a case before Hatchet again—which bummed me out, he wasn’t a constant presence in those novels, but a frequent one—probably the only judge’s name I recognized. I enjoyed watching Andy squirm around the judge.

But now, it’s Hatchet’s turn to squirm. The blackmailers (well, potential blackmailers—he’s quick to note they haven’t actually broken the law yet), have some manufactured evidence to make it look like he’s crooked. He’s not, and has enough of a reputation and goodwill to weather the storm. Probably. But the hint of scandal would taint his record and probably force him off the bench.

So, Corey, Laurie, and Marcus get to work—looking into cases the judge presided over and could be alleged to have influenced. Before long, the threats get more real and bodies start appearing (or, disappearing, in some cases). And well, that’s really all I can safely say. But fans of the Andy Carpenter books will be familiar with the way things play out—and new readers will be entertained by it, too.

Marcus doesn’t do much more (especially on the dialogue front) in The K Team than he does in a typical Andy Carpenter book, he’s basically an unintelligible superhuman (yeah, the jokes about the protagonist’s inability to understand him are of the same genus as the ones in the Carpenter novels, but they’re a different species coming from Corey—I was surprised at how refreshing that was). I think he probably gets a little more space devoted to him than he typically gets, but he does basically what we’re used to seeing. There are a couple of exceptions, including what I believe is the longest hand-to-hand fight scene we’ve seen from him.

Even Laurie isn’t featured as much as I expected. Actually, that’s an understatement. I assumed that this would be Laurie’s series with a couple of sidekicks—or maybe an equally Laurie and Corey series with Marcus showing up to do his thing every now and then. Maybe a third person kind of thing alternating between focusing on each character. But no, this is first person from Corey’s POV—so we get a lot of Laurie, but most of what she did was off-screen, only teaming up with Corey for bigger moments or to discuss what they’d done together. It’s not what I expected, but I can live with it (I just wish she’d get to shine a bit more).

So, Corey…we get to know him a bit better here than we did in his first appearance, obviously. He’s single—deliberately—and very devoted to Simon (but not the same way that Andy is to Tara), they worked together and are now shifting to a new career together. Corey’s a bit more willing to leave Simon out of some of the action than say, Bernie Little is (eager, occasionally, for Simon’s safety). He’s a movie buff—a little bit of a nerd about them, it seems—and I look forward to seeing this more. He’s good at his job, still a straight arrow (the kind of cop he was), but is discovering that he’s more willing to color outside the lines than he thought. I’m looking forward to getting to know him better.

The humor is a similar style to the one employed in the Andy Carpenter books, but it’s not Andy’s voice in a different body. Corey is distinctive, but fans of the one will tend to enjoy the other. That’s half the point (maybe 70% of the point) of a spin-off, right? Similar, but not equal—that applies for the voice, the humor, and the story.

If you’ve never read an Andy Carpenter book, don’t worry. Just think of this as the good idea it is—a team of PI’s working together instead of a lone operator with an occasional side-kick. A trio is so rare in the PI fiction biz that I can’t wait to see it at work more in future installments. I enjoyed this enough that I’m ready to read the next two at least. There was so much set-up to The K Team that Rosenfelt almost had to shoe-horn the plot around it. This was a good intro to the series, but I’m looking forward to seeing what Rosenfelt has in store for the team now that he’s been able to establish things.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley in exchange for this post—thanks to both for this.


3.5 Stars

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

The Starr Sting Scale by C.S. O’Cinneide: Gritty, Violent, Full of Heart. You’re gonna dig this one!

The Starr Sting Scale

The Starr Sting Scale

by C.S. O’Cinneide
Series: The Candace Starr Series, #1

eARC, 304 pg.
Dundurn Press, 2020

Read: March 5-7, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

When a book is named for a scheme to rate pain from insect stings, you know it’s not going to be a feel-good kind of read. C.S. O’Cinneide delivers the kind of book you’d expect from that title and readers are the beneficiaries.

Candace Starr is the daughter of a hitman who followed in her father’s footsteps. She spent a few years in prison, and now released, she’s trying to retire. Her days are full of drinking, sleeping with anyone handy, drinking some more and then occasionally manning the till in the convenience store below her apartment.

But her name is still out there (among people who know hired killers, anyway), and a potential client approaches her wanting her daughter’s boyfriend (a low-life drug dealer/user) eliminated. But Candace is trying to retire and the target it seventeen. And that’s just not something she can do.

But someone kills him and Candace is worried that she’ll be a suspect (for fairly obvious reasons). So when homicide detective Chien-Shiung Malone asks her to consult for the investigation—she takes the opportunity (Malone offering information about her father’s killer doesn’t hurt).

Candace is smart, acerbic and tries really hard to be apathetic. Malone is smart, driven, and tough. Put the two of them together and you’ve got a great combination—this is definitely the beginning of a beautiful friendship (assuming they live that long)—emphasis on “beginning.” I thoroughly enjoyed watching the interplay between the two and the establishment of their relationship.

We also meet a few other cops—some seem pretty cool, others are focused on bringing Candace down (whether she’s guilty of whatever they’re suspecting her for). Not to mention people from Candace’s world—bartenders, waitresses, other hitmen, Candace’s surrogate family, and biker gangs. Candace is starting to not fit into their world as much as it’s clear that she doesn’t belong in Malone’s. In between are friends, classmates, parents of the victim and other associates. There’s a lot of pain and suffering (in various forms) going on with every character we encounter.

The hunt for the killer has more than the requisite twists and turns—and by the time the true villains behind everything are exposed, I was surprised. I was kind of write with one of my theories, but even then I was wrong—and even more wrong about all the details that were revealed in the closing pages. O’Cinneide’s plotting—and the reveal it all led up to—were rock solid and as intricate as you could hope for.

It’s a fun ride, a clever read, and Candace’s perspective on crime, family, and loyalty make this a high-spirited read. I’m struggling (and failing) to come up with a way to describe the gritty, but entertaining; dark, but not oppressive; witty, without being facetious feel to this book. Candace (and her voice) is sort of a hybrid of Huang’s Cas Russell, Ford’s Teagan Frost, and Rucka’s Dex Parios (without the superpowers or super-genius abilities). And even as I write that, I can see the problems with the comparisons. That’s as good as it gets for now. Undoubtedly, about 20 minutes after this posts, I’ll hit on the way I should’ve said it. Hopefully, this is enough of a flavor to tempt you to take a look at this book.

Not only did I enjoy this rollicking ride, I am definitely coming back for the promised sequel. Based on how things turned out here, it is going to be a completely different kind of story, and I’m really curious to see how O’Cinneide is going to tackle it—and hopefully a few more sequels after that. There’s a great kind of chemistry at work in The Starr Sting Scale and I encourage you to sample it.


3.5 Stars
Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Dundurn Press via NetGalley in exchange for this post—thanks to both for this.

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

Winterkill (Audiobook) by C. J. Box, David Chandler: Pickett Battles Winter and Paranoia to Find Justice

I wish I knew what it was about Joe Pickett novels that made them difficult for me to write about. I ended up not writing anything about the first two books in the series and it took me three attempts to get this done (which was followed, naturally, by saving this as a draft rather than scheduling the post…). In the end, I was a bit more spoilery than I like to be, but the book has been out since ’04 (the audiobook since ’14), with 17 more books in the series. I’m giving myself a little more leeway with it than I’d normally grant myself.

Winterkill

Winterkill

by C. J. Box, David Chandler (Narrator)
Series: Joe Pickett, #3

Unabridged Audiobook, 11 hrs., 25 mins
Recorded Books, 2014

Read: January 29-31, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!


Joe Pickett is wrapping up a pretty routine day when he stumbles on to a U.S. Forest Service Supervisor acting in an irrational (at best) manner. While Joe’s trying to apprehend him (I’ll spare you the details, but it’s similar to the incident that kicked off the first book, and will give Joe’s critics plenty to mock him about), he’s murdered in a noteworthy manner.

As he was a witness (and the only one who can lead anyone to the crime scene), Joe’s attached to the investigation that features state officials, the Sheriff’s office and a Forest Service official (who brings a reporter in her wake). They quickly identify a suspect and make a fast (and brutal) arrest. Something in the way that the suspect reacts makes Joe wonder if they’ve got the right guy.

This wondering is compounded when the suspect reaches out to Joe a couple of days later to ask him two favors. Nate Romanowski is, among other things, a falconer who left two birds behind when he was arrested. Favor one is to feed the birds. Favor two is to get him out of jail—Nate and Joe have never met before, but Nate’s read about him and figures Joe’s his best shot after the events of the last two novels.

From a thing or two I’ve read, I think Nate’s going to be around for awhile. Which is fine with me, I enjoyed his character a good deal. He’s a former special-ops guy who wants nothing to do with any governmental entity anymore. He just wants to live on his own terms and take care of his birds. I could be wrong, but at this point, it looks like Box is establishing Nate as Joe’s Hawk/Joe Pike/Bubba Rogowski/Henry Standing Bear-figure. Although really, to qualify as Joe’s lethal pal, is a low standard—it’s not like Joe can use a firearm with any kind of accuracy. If my hunch is right, and he’ll be around more in the future, I’ll be very happy to know him better.

As before, Joe’s daughter Sheridan is a Point-of-View character as well. She doesn’t play as large a role in this novel, but when she shows up, it matters. Her appearances in the narrative are also a pretty good signal that it’s time for something heart-wrenching to happen.

Before I forget, I want to say something about Joe’s family. I love, love, love his family. His wife, Marybeth, may be the best Significant Other in crime fiction—supportive, tough, she’s not a wilting flower nor an obstacle to his work. His other daughter, Lucy, is as cute as you could hope for (am sure we’ll get something more than cuteness from her in a while). And how many crime fiction heroes are plagued by a mother-in-law like his—the dynamic between the two is wonderful.*

* Wonderful to read, that is. It’d be a miserable, unhealthy, and precarious situation to live through.

There are three factors that make it difficult for Joe (or anyone else) to investigate a murder. The first is snow. The novel takes place in the days before and after Christmas and even for this section of Wyoming, the snow is heavy. The second complicating factor is the arrival in town of a large group of people trying to shake off their pasts and find a peaceful place to live (I’ll explain in a bit). The third factor is that one of this group is Lucy’s mother—we saw her last in the first book when she abandoned Lucy after her husband’s murder. In the ensuing two years, Joe and Marybeth had taken her in as a foster daughter and were trying to adopt her. Until Mom showed up with a court order form a crooked judge demanding Lucy be turned over to her.

One of these would be difficult for Joe to overcome—all three? That’s just mean.

The group of people that came to town (technically, a campground outside of town) could be considered Survivalists, I’m not sure the best way to describe them. Most are those who were around during the biggest law enforcement stand-offs in recent history: e.g., Waco, Ruby Ridge, Montana Freemen. Their leader assures Joe (and would assure others if they’d listen) that they’re just looking to live a quiet life outside of Federal control.

But Strickland (the Forest Service official) doesn’t see them that way. She’s convinced that they’re anti-government activists, probably terrorists. They’re a threat that she’ll do anything to put down. And she (and her FBI cronies) are looking for a way to create another stand-off. Given the out-of-the-way nature of their location—and the snow—it’ll be a stand-off they can end without the press interfering. No press means the Feds can do whatever they think they need to in order to stop the stand-off.

By and large, the people working for the Federal Task force looking into the murder, the Survivalists, etc. are decent people trying to do their job—but Strickland and her cronies (and the Sheriff) are focused on their goals. The Survivalists/Freemen/whatever are antagonistic to the government, but they’re not necessarily trying to overthrow anything. Box does a truly commendable job of being sympathetic to their concerns/issues without coming down in their favor. It’s a real tightrope he’s walking along here, and he pulls it off magnificently.

I’ve now read six books by Box—the first three in two series.* And three of those (you could argue four of those, I guess) Box does something almost unthinkable to his protagonists/their family/friends. So many authors would do the kind of thing I’m talking about once very 5-8 books, and it’d be a big deal (think of the Battle in the Ministry in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). But Box does it routinely. Does this lessen the impact? Not for me yet. In fact, I couldn’t believe that he’d done what he did in this book for a few minutes, I kept waiting for something to happen revealing X had only appeared to have happened. It’s just brutal. How Pickett can make it to book 20 boggles my mind given the beating these people take. I’m not sure I’ll survive that long, given only The Highway Quartet Book 2, and Winterkill (I’m honestly still reeling from the first Pickett novel, Savage Run

* Okay, I read a stand-alone back in 2009, but that’s beside the point.

I do not think that Box did a sufficient (or credible enough) job explaining the odd behavior of the victim in the books opening pages. He does spend all of a sentence or two giving us Joe’s theory about it. I don’t buy it. This single point has been driving me crazy since the murder—yes, it’s overshadowed by the rest of a very strong book that shocked, surprised and entertained me so well. But…it’s going to be a long time before I can read a Pickett novel without hoping that he’ll revisit this and explain it better (I don’t expect Box will do so, but I’ll hope for awhile).

I really don’t have a lot to say about Chandler’s narration. It’s good, without drawing attention to itself. I’m pretty sure that when/if I get to the point I’m reading the novels rather than using an audiobook, I’m going to hear Chandler’s voice in my head. He is the voice of Joe Pickett for me.

At the end of the day, most of the “White Hat” guys really were “Black Hats.” The suspected “Black Hats” mostly wore a dirty gray. And almost everyone was just trying to do the right thing with limited knowledge (some of those with the most knowledge were deliberately taking illegal and immoral steps, but they’re the exception). There are a lot of moral questions to wade through in this novel and it’ll keep you thinking about it for a good amount of time.

In the midst of all that, Box managed to tell a pretty decent Crime Story, a compelling family story, and introduced us to a fascinating new character—while developing characters we’ve known and liked (or known and distrusted) already. It’s not going to be long at all before I’m fully addicted to these books if the next few are almost as good as this one.


3.5 Stars

2020 Library Love Challenge

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Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson, Tavia Gilbert (Narrator): An Unusual Mother and Son are at the center of this charming family drama.

Be Frank With Me

Be Frank With Me

by Julia Claiborne Johnson, Tavia Gilbert (Narrator)

Unabridged Audiobook, 8 hrs, 37 mins.
Harper Audio, 2016

Read: January 16-22, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!


A few decades ago, M. M. Banning took the literary world by storm with her first (and, so far, only) novel, married a movie star just before his career died, and then vanished from the public eye. Her novel is still imposed upon students throughout the country/taught in High School.

Banning’s recently hit some financial woes and has reluctantly contracted with her publisher to produce a second novel. To help Banning, her editor sends his personal assistant, Alice, out to L.A. to live with her, digitize her pages, do some minor cleaning, and help out with Banning’s son, Frank.

Alice quickly learns that there’ll be no discussion of (much less seeing and/or digitizing) the book’s progress, but essentially she’ll be Frank’s caretaker, freeing Banning to work on the novel.

The thing is, Frank’s . . . um, a handful. The word “Autism” is never used (I’m 97% sure), nor is any other diagnostic term. But I’d be willing to bet he’s on the spectrum somewhere—think Don Tillman (from the Rosie books). He has a lack of affect, trouble sleeping, an almost encyclopedic knowledge of classic Hollywood films (1930s-60s, let’s say)—which is where all his slang and fashion sense comes from, an amazing memory for things outside of films, and no sense of humor. Frank’s social circle consists of his mother, his school’s secretary (he eats lunch in her office and talks movies with her), his therapist, and a piano teacher/handyman who sporadically appears at the house. How Banning made it through the first nine years of his life is beyond Alice’s comprehension, and she’s not sure how she’ll survive however long it’ll take Frank’s mother to write her book.

Banning herself is pretty socially awkward (whether this is due to constant exposure to Frank, hiding from the rabid public, or just the way she’s been her whole life) and rarely treats Alice like anything but a pest. This whole endeavor is a real trial for Alice, who handles it fairly well (better than I would have, I can say with a great deal of certainty).

The novel is essentially about Alice trying to navigate the mine-field that is dealing with Banning and struggling to connect with Frank and help him develop a social skill or three.

I enjoyed Frank’s character—he’s like Bernadette Fox without the dangerous wit (in a way, so is his mother) mixed with the aforementioned Don Tillman. Banning herself grates a little bit, but I’m almost positive she’s supposed to. Alice is a strong character, as well—she’s not sure what her role is supposed to be, but she keeps trying to do what’s needed. Her response to the imposed social isolation is both realistic, understandable and relatable. I really enjoyed spending time with Alice and Frank, particularly once Frank warmed a little to her.

There’s a good deal of foreshadowing throughout the book to a calamitous event, and once it happens the novel resolves fairly quickly. I don’t think the novel concludes as much as it stops, and that bothered me (it still does, actually)—I’d prefer a better sense of what will happen to any of the characters after the book ends (whether one day, one year, or a decade after—I’m clueless all around).

Gilbert’s narration was impressive—it’d be impressive if only for her delivery of Frank’s dialogue. She perfectly grasps his lack of affect, patterns (and speed) of speech, as well as the ineffable charm that’s part of his character.

Be Frank With Me is a charming novel that faltered a little at the end, but the pleasures of the journey was still worth the time. I’ll keep my eyes out for something else by both Johnson and Gilbert and will gladly give them another try. I expect most readers will enjoy their time with Frank and Alice (and many won’t agree with me about the ending).


3.5 Stars

2020 Library Love Challenge

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.