Pub Day Repost: Skyjack by K. J. Howe

SkyjackSkyjack

by K. J. Howe
Series: Thea Paris, #2
eARC, 400 pg.
Quercus Books, 2018
Read: March 26 – 28, 2018

Waiting for the call to be patched through, Thea stared at the black and yellow symbol on the canisters. It wasn’t every day she was in the same room with enough nuclear material to start World War Three.

When it comes to imminent threats in this book, believe it or not, that’s not the worst.

So Thea is escorting a couple of former child-soldiers from their orphanage in Africa to their new parents when the jet they’re on is taken over by the pilot and lands near an out-of-the-way and nearly deserted hanger. Thea is separated from the other passengers — including the boys — who are taken to another site. She soon discovers that this was, in part, orchestrated by an Italian mob boss she’d tangled with before in a roundabout way of hiring Quantum International Security and getting them to adhere to a very strict deadline (I’m oversimplifying, obviously, but that’s the essence).

Both the hijacking and the task set before them put Thea, Rif and the rest of the company right in the middle of overlapping schemes involving secret armies that have been active since the end of World War II. These were originally set up to be the core of the resistance against Communist invasion, but in the intervening decades may have evolved into something else. Something scary.

Howe nails the interweaving storylines — there’s the hijacking story, and the plight of the passengers who aren’t Thea; there’s the tasks that the hijackers impose on Thea for their safe return; there’s whatever else the Italian mob is up to; there’s an Austrian secret army set out to attack a threat they perceive as more dire than the Communists they were set up to fight; and there’s one person who is out to stop the Austrians. These are all grounded by some good interpersonal stories and moments. The plotting and pacing are tight and believable. Howe will suck you in and keep you turning the pages.

Howe can write action scenes that stack up with the best. The events on the plane were dynamite — I knew Thea would make it, but I could’ve believed just about anything else would happen. Also, it’s going to be awhile before I think of those locked cabin doors in the same positive way we’re supposed to. There’s some great combat scenes, a few action scenes that might as well be on a movie screen.

My complaints are pretty minor, really. I thought a lot of the emotional motivations for behaviors were a tad shallow or rushed, all of them were valid and honest to the characters — I just think they could’ve been written better. It’s tough to pick out examples without entering spoiler territory. So let me vaguely mention that the level of hate spouted by the head of the Austrian group, and the way he expressed it, sounds more like a guy spouting off on Twitter than a very successful businessman who is charismatic enough to get many to commit to a cause. The growing/evolving relationship between Thea and Rif continues the path begun in The Freedom Broker. and Howe could’ve been more subtle and less repetitive showing that. I do enjoy watching this — and figure I will over a few books.

I enjoyed this ride — it had the requisite twists and turns, exciting, tense, well-paced — everything you want in a thriller. It ticked off just about every box you want in a thriller. Yes, it was lacking that certain je ne sais quoi that kicks it up into the “I’m excited to read” level, but I’m pleased I did and will keep my eyes peeled for Thea Paris #3.

—–

3 Stars

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

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The Italian Teacher by Rom Rachman

The Italian TeacherThe Italian Teacher

by Tom Rachman

Hardcover, 336 pg.
2018, Riverrun

Read: April 2 – 5, 2018

I am going to say some nice things about this book, but the thing that kept going through my mind — for at least the first two-thirds — was: haven’t I read this before? There are a couple of Richard Russo books hidden here, one Matthew Norman — and I want to say DeLillo, Tropper and Weiner, too, but I can’t put my finger on which of those — and probably a few others that I don’t recall. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — we’ve all read plenty of books that are just variations on well-established themes. What I had to ask myself was: did Rachman have anything new to say with his take? Did he throw in some interesting twists to the mix? Was it a rewarding experience for the reader? I think my answers were: not really, sort of, and not particularly.

The novel revolves around Bear Bavinsky, a painter of renown, an iconoclast, a rock star in a pre-rock star age — and a serial monogamist on his second marriage when we meet him. He’s essentially a Jeff Bridges character. His son, Charles (nicknamed Pinch) idolizes him (many of his children do, but Charles doesn’t get over it the way most do). Bear is mercurial, irresponsible, unfaithful, arrogant, and incredibly charming. Really, the difference between Rachman’s Bear Bavinsky and Russo’s Donald “Sully” Sullivan is that Bear has money (that’s just to help you understand him, not a commentary on the character). When he turns on the charm, he can get seemingly anyone — detractor, fan, or something in between — to feel important, to feel pivotal, captivating, and so on. Most people shake off this effect after a couple of days (although they seem to hold on to a little bit of it for decades) — Charles never does. He spends his life striving for his father’s attention, favor, affection — anything. He shapes his life around those things which will hopefully get Bear’s approval — and when he fails (or at least, doesn’t succeed as he hopes) in the endeavor, and/or doesn’t get Bear’s approval he has a moment of clarity, stumbles into something else and then eventually falls back into the search for his Father’s approbation.

Ironically, compared to the rest of Bear’s kids, Charles has that approval. He just doesn’t realize it — and maybe it’s because the rest have given up and don’t seek him out as much. We follow Charles’ life from childhood, to adolescence (living with a divorced mother now), in college, early adulthood and then in his 50s. Striving for significance, striving for something beyond his reach — and yearning for his father. It’s a decent, if lonely, life — and could’ve been something better if he hadn’t allowed so much of it to be shaped by his father, what Charles things his father wants, and then listening to his father’s input when he really shouldn’t.

As the jacket copy says, “Until one day, Pinch begins an astonishing plan that’ll change art history forever…” It stops being a book that I’ve read before (mostly), takes on its own flavor — and gets worse. But your results may vary.

I thought Bear was an interesting character — but not one I wanted to spend a lot of time with. I felt too much pity for Charles to really get invested in him. No one else in the book was really worth the effort. The story was unimpressive and oddly paced. Which is not to say it’s a bad novel, it’s just not one I could appreciate that much. There were conversations, scenes, etc. that were just great. I kept waiting for there to be a moment (probably the “Until one day…”) that this book turned for me — like Rachman’s last one did — and it never came.

Maybe it was just my mood, maybe it’s my utter incapability of appreciating visual art, maybe it’s actually Rachman stumbling. I don’t know — this just didn’t work for me. Am I glad I read it? I think so — if only because I don’t have to wonder what the new Rachman book is like. I’m still giving it 3 stars because of the skill Rachman displayed — I just didn’t enjoy what he did with it.

—–

3 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge

Good Guys by Steven Brust

Good GuysGood Guys

by Steven Brust

Hardcover, 316 pg.
Tor Books, 2018
Read: March 30 – 31, 2018

Kind of odd, isn’t it? I’m waiting for my chance to kill a complete stranger, and to kill him in an ugly and gruesome way, so I fill in the time by checking out local architecture and museums. How did I become this person? Well, put that way, it was simple: Some son of a bitch had destroyed my life, and he just didn’t give a shit. To him, I’d been another chance to climb a ladder, add zeroes to his bank account, have more people calling him sir. To him, that’s what mattered. Maybe there really is no satisfaction in revenge, but I can tell you one thing for sure: There’s no satisfaction in letting someone get away with ruining your life, either.

And the Museum of Science and Industry is as good as the hype, so there’s that.

In almost every Urban Fantasy series there’s some sort of explanation for how magic/magic beings/magic users/etc. is/are kept under wraps so that we muggles can keep living our lives unaware of what’s going on all around us. Some of it is a by-product of magic/the supernatural that just clouds our minds, some of it is the result of efforts of the supernatural community (or at least part of it) keeping it under wraps. In Steven Brust’s Good Guys, The Foundation is tasked (among other things) with keeping magic off of the radar of mundane people.

Now when you have someone like our above narrator, killing complete strangers in ugly and gruesome ways enabled by magic, that particular task gets more difficult than usual. Here enter our protagonists — a Foundation Investigation and Enforcement team consisting of a very skilled investigator, a young sorcerer, and someone who provides security for them — they might also pick up a little extra help along the way. The team works through a combination of old school detective work, magic, high-tech wizardry and gumption to find the connections between these victims and use that to uncover just who might be behind the killings.

The investigation is well-constructed and keeps the reader guessing and invested. Brust’s jumping between various perspectives is well-done — the touch of only the killer being in the first person is an interesting touch (most authors would have one or more of the Foundation team as first person, with the killer in third) — not just with the team, but with various other individuals within the Foundation, giving a real sense of the scope of this group. The characters are interestingly conceived and executed — the killer’s motivation is easy to understand (not saying it’s easy to sympathize with, but you have a hard time wanting him stopped at all costs). When the pieces finally fall into place, it’s very satisfying.

One of the nicest touches Brust gave this world is a tiny budget for the Foundation — for a global security and research enterprise, they seem to be operating on a shoestring budget — they certainly don’t pay their employees very well. I’m not sure why this tickles me the way it does, but unlike the Men in Black, S.H.I.E.L.D., or any of the other clandestine groups that fill our imaginations — these guys can’t just whisk around the world at the drop of the hat. They have to fly coach at one point, rather than use the teleportation ability of the Foundation.

The members of the team make very little, and live pretty solitary lives (it’s not like they can tell anyone what they do) — there was a humanizing moment for each of them at various points through the story considering a pet to help them fight the solitude (all different potential pets, too).

This was a solid thriller with some great Urban Fantasy touches, a very satisfying solution that rings true. Well-paced, well conceived, and well-executed — in short just what you want out of this novel. A very pleasant way to spend a couple of hours. I don’t think this is the first of a series — but if I’m wrong, I’ll gladly jump on the sequel.

—–

3 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge

Vernon the Vegetarian Lion by John Hughson, Ali Smith

Vernon the Vegetarian LionVernon the Vegetarian Lion

by John Hughson, Ali Smith (Illustrator)

PDF, 32 pg.
Spiderwize, 2017
Read: March 13, 2018

I am thiiis close to spending too much time on this one. I shall try to refrain.

On the surface, this is a cute little story about a lion cub (Vernon) who suddenly decides to become a vegetarian and since he knows he won’t find vegetarian fare at home, takes off (after telling his parents what he’s up to) in search of animals that can help him pursue this idea. He tries this thing and that — none of which get him the nutrients he needs or even works for him. Finally, when he’s too week to go on, his dad shows up and brings him home, where Mom has come up with a vegetarian meal for him. There’s some fun stuff with the various animals he tries to mimic and whatnot and a heart-warming moment at the end.

But something about this doesn’t set right with me. See, lions aren’t vegetarians — it doesn’t work. This isn’t a case of Peter Hatcher’s mother putting his plate on the floor so that Fudge can pretend to be a dog for a few days. Or at least it doesn’t seem to be. Peter’s mom knows that this is a phase for Fudge to go through, and once it’s over, he’ll be back at a table like a human. Vernon’s mother doesn’t seem to be playing along until her figures out that he can’t eat that way (which is what I thought the book was going for initially), she seems to seriously be supporting him in his malnutrition. And that seems to send a strange message to kids.

Honestly, I know that most people reading the picture book aren’t going to think of it as much as I have, but … the rationale behind this book just bugged me. It didn’t seem like good parenting. And I’m uncomfortable with the message of a children’s book being “good parents are supportive even when you’re indulging in self-destructive behavior.”

Most of the artwork is pretty good — occasionally, it gets really good. There’s a picture of a hippopotamus that I cannot stop looking at. I’m not sure what it is about it, but it’s very arresting. Either way, it should keep little ones’ attentions.

If you’re looking for a cute story, this will fit the bill. And for 95% or so of the audience out there, that’s enough. This doesn’t quite work for me though, and I suspect I won’t be alone.

Disclaimer:I received a copy of this from the author in exchange for my honest opinion, which he might regret now.

—–

3 Stars

Wires and Nerve, Volume 2 by Marissa Meyer, Stephen Gilpin

Wires and Nerve, Volume 2Wires and Nerve, Volume 2: Gone Rogue

by Marissa Meyer, Stephen Gilpin (Illustrations)
Series: Wires and Nerve, #2

Hardover, 324pg.
Feiwel & Friends, 2018
Read: March 30, 2018

I’m really not sure what to say about this one. It’s part two of the story begun in Wires and Nerve where Iko is tasked with hunting down rogue Lunar wolf warriors scattered over the Earth. We also see what reforms Cinder is bringing to the Lunar government and what happens to the rest of the main characters from The Lunar Chronicles following Winter.

Honestly, I think I’m going to just copy and paste from the last book, because this is really just part 2 of that same story and my comments stay the same:

The Lunar wolf warriors are not just going to roll over, there are some that are preparing to strike back against Iko — and Cinder.

Throw in a love story, an examination of Iko’s true nature, and some nice catch-up with our old friends, and you’ve got yourself a fun story. It’s fun, but it’s light. If it were prose instead of a graphic novel, it might take 40 pages to tell this story. Which doesn’t make it bad, just slight.

I was shocked to see a different artist credited with this one — maybe my memory is shakier than I realized, but man…I thought it was the same stuff. Gilpin did a great job keeping the look the same. Yeah, cartoonish — but it fits the story. It’s dynamic, eye catching and fun — just what Iko’s story should be.

I’m glad I read these two, but I hope Meyer walks away from this world now to focus on whatever’s next. Read this if you read the first. If you’re curious about what happens after Winter, these two are a fun way to scratch that itch, but totally unessential.

—–

3 Stars
2018 Library Love Challenge

Skyjack by K. J. Howe

SkyjackSkyjack

by K. J. Howe
Series: Thea Paris, #2

eARC, 400 pg.
Quercus Books, 2018
Read: March 26 – 28, 2018

Waiting for the call to be patched through, Thea stared at the black and yellow symbol on the canisters. It wasn’t every day she was in the same room with enough nuclear material to start World War Three.

When it comes to imminent threats in this book, believe it or not, that’s not the worst.

So Thea is escorting a couple of former child-soldiers from their orphanage in Africa to their new parents when the jet they’re on is taken over by the pilot and lands near an out-of-the-way and nearly deserted hanger. Thea is separated from the other passengers — including the boys — who are taken to another site. She soon discovers that this was, in part, orchestrated by an Italian mob boss she’d tangled with before in a roundabout way of hiring Quantum International Security and getting them to adhere to a very strict deadline (I’m oversimplifying, obviously, but that’s the essence).

Both the hijacking and the task set before them put Thea, Rif and the rest of the company right in the middle of overlapping schemes involving secret armies that have been active since the end of World War II. These were originally set up to be the core of the resistance against Communist invasion, but in the intervening decades may have evolved into something else. Something scary.

Howe nails the interweaving storylines — there’s the hijacking story, and the plight of the passengers who aren’t Thea; there’s the tasks that the hijackers impose on Thea for their safe return; there’s whatever else the Italian mob is up to; there’s an Austrian secret army set out to attack a threat they perceive as more dire than the Communists they were set up to fight; and there’s one person who is out to stop the Austrians. These are all grounded by some good interpersonal stories and moments. The plotting and pacing are tight and believable. Howe will suck you in and keep you turning the pages.

Howe can write action scenes that stack up with the best. The events on the plane were dynamite — I knew Thea would make it, but I could’ve believed just about anything else would happen. Also, it’s going to be awhile before I think of those locked cabin doors in the same positive way we’re supposed to. There’s some great combat scenes, a few action scenes that might as well be on a movie screen.

My complaints are pretty minor, really. I thought a lot of the emotional motivations for behaviors were a tad shallow or rushed, all of them were valid and honest to the characters — I just think they could’ve been written better. It’s tough to pick out examples without entering spoiler territory. So let me vaguely mention that the level of hate spouted by the head of the Austrian group, and the way he expressed it, sounds more like a guy spouting off on Twitter than a very successful businessman who is charismatic enough to get many to commit to a cause. The growing/evolving relationship between Thea and Rif continues the path begun in The Freedom Broker. and Howe could’ve been more subtle and less repetitive showing that. I do enjoy watching this — and figure I will over a few books.

I enjoyed this ride — it had the requisite twists and turns, exciting, tense, well-paced — everything you want in a thriller. It ticked off just about every box you want in a thriller. Yes, it was lacking that certain je ne sais quoi that kicks it up into the “I’m excited to read” level, but I’m pleased I did and will keep my eyes peeled for Thea Paris #3.

—–

3 Stars

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

The Armored Saint by Myke Cole

The Armored SaintThe Armored Saint

by Myke Cole
Series: The Sacred Throne, #1

Hardcover, 203 pg.
Tor Books, 2018

Read: February 28, 2018

“My strength is the Emperor and His Holy Writ.”

“Aren’t you pious for one who is so green at the sight of the Order?”

“The Emperor is divine. The Order are just men. You don’t fault a whole faith just because some of its agents take to brigandage. My faith kept me through the war, and it hasn’t failed me after.”

I’ve tossed out a couple of drafts of a paragraph of synopsis, and am tired of trying, so I’m just going to cite the jacket copy:

In a world where any act of magic could open a portal to hell, the Order insures that no wizard will live to summon devils, and will kill as many innocent people as they must to prevent that greater horror. After witnessing a horrendous slaughter, the village girl Heloise opposes the Order, and risks bringing their wrath down on herself, her family, and her village.

Lord Acton famously wrote to Bishop Creighton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This idea drips from almost every page of this book. Not that there was a whole lot of absolute power funning around — one member of The Order was close, and one other liked to act like it. But there’s a lot of people with enough power (of various kinds) that their tendency to corruption is problematic for everyone around them. It’s not the prettiest of worlds, but it’s a good setting for a conflict-filled read.

In the midst of this is a nation(?) ruled by a religion — including a scripture that may or may not be correctly interpreted by the religious authorities (who have plenty of civic and martial authority), although there’s no doubt that their application could use some work. They rule (and protect, if you use the term generously) this region through fear and intimidation. But you have to admit, what they’re doing works. Which doesn’t excuse the terror they inflict, but it suggests that somewhere there is an orthodoxy at work.

There are no really likeable characters here, everyone is flawed, but you cannot help but hope for the best for some of them — because they are unlikable, flawed people. Most of them are just trying to make it the best that they can for themselves and their family — and their neighbors, if possible. There are plenty of characters that you never want the best for (aside from repentance), and a couple of characters who jump from “hope for the best” to “hope they die horribly” column. This includes the protagonist — honestly, the more time we spent with her, the less I was that interested in her survival. Really, I liked her about as much as you can like Anakin in Attack of the Clones — thankfully, I like her friends and family.

Whether the Military Fantasy that we’re used to from him or this traditional Fantasy, Myke Cole knows how to write fight scenes (and other scenes of violence). This is seen particularly in the final climactic battle — it was so exciting that I found myself racing through it and having to pause and go back to make sure I understood what happened and hadn’t missed any details. Visceral is really the only word to use there.

I don’t understand how in the middle of this pretty generic Middle-Ages Europe-y fantasy we get war machines. They’re like what Tony Stark would’ve come up with a couple hundred years ago. They absolutely don’t belong to the setting — but neither does magic, so if the reader can buy one, you might as well buy both. Especially when the exosuits are so cool.

Still, at the end of the day, I was underwhelmed. It’s a rich world with characters that a reader can really sink their teeth into. But you just don’t get enough. Two hundred pages isn’t enough — The Armored Saint almost seems more like a 200 page set-up and/or advertisement for the sequel. Am I planning on reading The Queen of Crows and (most likely) The Killing Light? Yeah, I think I’ve even ordered the second one. But I’m not as excited for them as I should’ve been.

I expect my opinion to be in the minority here, so fill up that comment section with all the ways I’m wrong about Cole’s latest (or at least some of the ways).

—–

3 Stars