Pub Day Post: A Bad Day for Sunshine by Darynda Jones: Now that’s a first day on the job

A Bad Day for Sunshine

A Bad Day for Sunshine

by Darynda Jones
Series: Sunshine Vicram, #1

eARC, 400pg.
St. Martin’s Press, 2020

Read: March 31-April 4, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!


We meet Sunshine Vicram on the first day of her new job, Sheriff of Del Sol, New Mexico. It’s truly remarkable that one of the state’s most successful law enforcement officers won the office in the small town she grew up in, if for no other reason than she didn’t run for office. Somehow, she handily defeated the incumbent and now finds herself living in a small apartment in her parent’s backyard with her daughter, leading a small force with her childhood best friend as her Chief Deputy.

Her first day on the job is marred by an ominous basket of muffins (literally), a car crashing through the front of her headquarters, a threat from the mayor, a stolen (maybe?) chicken, escaped prisoners, and a runaway/kidnapped fourteen-year-old-girl. Not the most auspicious start, really.

The missing teenager is the Sun’s biggest focus—Sybil’s a quiet, socially awkward girl with no real friends. Sun’s daughter, Auri, had spent some time getting to know her, and she’s the closest thing she seemed to have had to a friend. It appears that she has been kidnapped (but Sun has to look into the alternative) and that the clock is ticking to find and rescue her.

Auri’s first day at the public high school is possibly rougher than her mom’s. Her mom has to deal with hardened criminals, but Auri has to deal with Mean Girls™ who seem to have taken a dislike to her before she even started school. Also, her one prospective friend seems to have gone missing. On the other hand, it’s not all bad—there’s a hot guy who might as well be named Byronic—brooding, poetic, soulful, with a penchant for physical violence. There’s also the bubbliest, cheeriest character this side of Sumi (from McGuire’s Wayward Children)—we didn’t get nearly enough time for her, and I hope that book 2 uses her for more.

It turns out that at Auri’s previous school, she basically was Veronica Mars—doing small investigations (which may or may not have used her mother’s police resources without Sun’s knowledge) for her classmates. She unleashes these tools in the hunt for Sybil and essentially has to fess up to her mother about what she’s done before.

Speaking of Veronica Mars, from the get-go (I was at 4% when I made my first note along these lines), I was comparing the relationship between Sun and Auri as a mix of Lorelai-and-Rory and Keith-and-Veronica (and that was before we learn about Auri’s extra-curricular activities). There’s a fantastic banter, the two clearly love each other with the kind of love that’s the dream of every parent, they both have intelligent and wicked senses of humor, and reading their interactions is probably the best thing in this really entertaining novel.* One of the first things that Sun tells Auri is a twisted first-day-of-school pep talk/warning about teen boys, that ends with a repeated call to ask herself WWLSD? What Would Lisbeth Salander Do? My daughter leaves for college in a few months, I plan on adapting this speech. That’s probably also the moment I decided I read the sequel to this book.

* As a sentence, that’s a mess, but I like it.

I wish I knew how to work in a mention of Sun and Quincy talking about why they couldn’t be K-9 officers, but I can’t blend it into one of these paragraphs. So I’ll just leave it hanging here awkardly. But man, I loved that part.

There’s actually a lot more going on in these pages—but I think there’s enough to whet your appetite. There is a lot of serious, dark, material here—child abduction, murder. Something happened to Sun, too, while she was in high school and the hunt for Sybil digs up some traumatic memories (and evidence). Yet, without once minimizing any of the dangerous, solemn qualities of what Sun, Sybil, Sybil’s parents, and others are going through—Jones makes this a delightful read.

Could I have lived without the three impossibly attractive men who are all into Sun (and vice versa, to varying degrees)? Yeah, it’s a bit much (but Jones made it endearing, actually). I hope future installments dial back a bit on that kind of thing. I’m giving one of those men short shrift, mostly because of time, but I know that in the next book (or the rest of the series), I’ll get plenty of opportunities to talk about him.

Similarly, Sun’s Chief Deputy, Quincy, and some of the other deputies should probably get a paragraph or three, but you’ll have to read for yourself. They’re plenty of fun, and really help to round out the cast (along with the rest of Del Sol’s residents). Jones’ Del Sol, NM is closer to Stars Hollow, CT than Neptune, CA (but you can find traces of the latter in there)—full of larger-than-life characters that you just want to hang out with. Or sit and watch from across the room (or street).

This is as much fun as you can pack into a police procedural without making it a comedy, but still full of grim, grisly, depravity and darkness. It’s a nice serving of literary comfort food. There’s a freshness to this voice that made me a fan, but my appreciation for this book (and the series it launches) goes deeper. I want to find out more about what happened to the teen-aged Sun (although I have pretty strong theories), but more than that, I want to find out what happens to Sun and Auri—particularly Auri—after this.

I strongly recommend this, you’ll have a blast.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from St. Martin’s 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.

The In Between (Audiobook) by Michael Landweber, Brittany Pressley (Narrator), Mark Boyett (Narrator): When the Unthinkable Happens, What’s a Parent to Do?

A quick Q&A with the author, Michael Landweber, is coming later this morning—be sure to come back and check it out!

The In Between

The In Between

by Michael Landweber, Brittany Pressley (Narrator), Mark Boyett (Narrator)

Unabridged Audiobook, 10 hrs., 7 min.
Audible Original, 2020

Read: February 28-March 3, 2020


A couple of years ago, when mystery writer Brad Parks wrote his first stand-alone thriller, in more than a couple of interviews I heard/read him talk about the struggle getting going. A friend gave him some advice to “write the book that scares you,” which would likely scare his readers. He ended up deciding that as a parent, the thing that scared him the most was something involving trauma to one of his kids. Which resulted in at least two different novels (Say Nothing and Closer than You Know), both of which provided me with a level of fear I don’t usually get from thrillers. I couldn’t stop thinking about that anecdote and those two books while I listened to this, did someone give Landweber similar advice?

We start off meeting Lillian, who works in the PR department of Teleportation Services International. She’s taking her son’s class on a tour of TSIsomething she and his teacher had arranged to help him deal with his anxiety about their upcoming trip via Teleportation. Cole is shy, nervous, and not really assured by this exercisealthough the rest of his class has a blast (and it sounded pretty fun to me, too).

Then we meet her husband, Jackson. Jackson is one of the few drivers around in 2047his clientele is primarily made up of the elderly who won’t trust self-driving cars (and, yeah, it occurred to me that I’d be one of his client base on both of those counts) and those whose mental health or anxiety issues won’t allow them to trust the cars, either. He augments this income by teaching super-rich teens how to drive the smattering of sports cars still around so they can go on joyrides.

TSI gives one employee’s family a month a free week’s vacation to anywhere in the worldand then milks their experience for publicity. They’ve picked Tokyoand none of the family have ever teleported before. This will be a new experience for them all. Lillian steps through the portal in Omaha and stumbles out in Tokyo (the first trip is typically difficult on the destination side). There’s a strange delay that worries her, but before long, Jackson comes out in worse shape than her. But where’s Cole?

No one has an answer. Cole is missing and no one has an explanation. No one can even begin to hazard a guess about what happened.

Not at all surprisingly, Lillian and Jackson are devastated. Heartbroken. Inconsolable. And their individual reactions are so different that they can’t even be there for each other in this time.

Lillian, whose own childhood was marked by tragedy, directs her grief into work. If she can be busy, she can cope. Quickly, her energies are directed into investigating (on her own) what happened that day, and what can be done to prevent it from happening againand maybe finding a little vengeance along the way.

Jackson’s reaction is two-fold. First, he’s an alcoholic who hasn’t taken a drink in six years. He’s not in recovery in any sense, he just stopped drinking to be a father. With Cole gone, he returns to the bottleany bottle. Before taking that first drinkand after ithis question was, “My son is missing, why isn’t anyone looking for him?” For Jackson, Cole isn’t dead, he’s lost. Jackson knowshe can’t convince anyone, but he knowsthat he saw somethingsome place?in between Omaha and Tokyo. He spends his days going back and forth between the two cities, trying to find that In Between again, before crawling back into a bottle.

They haven’t just lost their son, they’ve lost each other. The love is still there. But they just don’t understand the other’s reaction. She can’t cope with his drinking or his denial. He can’t understand why she’s given up on Cole. While he hunts for Cole and she hunts for an explanation, they’re both burdened, distracted and shaped by this other pain. It is heartbreaking to watch their marriage crumbleas with the Parks thrillers, what happens to Cole is terrifying to this parent. But that feeling was frequently overshadowed by my reaction to his parent’s relationship.

Now that I’ve gone on longer than I intended to about the plot (not that I’m cutting any of it), let’s talk about the setting. This is not quite a post-apocalyptic world, but it’s one where the apocalypse could be just around the corner. Environmental changes have impacted coastal cities around the worldmany of what we know as coastal cities no longer exist. We all know that the Midwest gets hit by huge storms throughout the year, their frequency and intensity have grown. There are changes to transportation (air travel as well as the automobile changes mentioned above) in efforts to reduce pollution. New–and deadly–flu strains crop up with a regularity that makes them seem routine, and everyone knows how to react when one comes along.

There’s a lot that could be said about the government (governments?) in this future. Not that Landweber talks about politics at allbut there’s a tremendous lack of civil liberties on the one hand, and yet a very laissez-faire stance when it comes to TSI (at least as evidenced by TSI who really only seem to care about customer perception, not any kind of reulatory oversight). There’s a benevolent totalitarianism at work when it comes to the storms (and reactions to them) in Nebraska, as well as the medical response to new flu strains.

I want to stress here that these environmental and health elements are just parts of the story, and the government observations are only my impressions, and nothing I could really provide footnotes about. Landweber doesn’t take the opportunity to get on a soapbox about any of it, they’re just part of the world he’s describing. Much in the same way that someone writing a book set in 2020 would talk about current cultural trends, technologies or current events. He doesn’t indulge in any real explanation of his world-building, there are no big info dumpsit’s all just the setting.

This is an Audible Originaland I should talk about the audio aspect of this. It’s a gripping listen and wonderfully performed. As you may have guessed Brittany Pressley narrates the chapters from Lillian’s point of view, and Mark Boyett takes Jackson’s. I don’t think I’d heard anything by either of them beforebut I’ll keep my eyes peeled for their names when I browse for audiobooks in the future. They truly did wonderful jobs. They got the emotion of the moment, the tensionand occasional moments of fun, joy, or reliefas well as giving a real sense of the characters. It didn’t happen often, but even when a character usually only seen in a Lillian chapter showed up in a Jackson, you could recognize them (and vice versa)which was nice. Landweber wrote a great story but Boyett and Pressley brought it to life.

The last time I listened to an Audible Original, I had trouble with a couple of the SF-y terms usedmostly because I couldn’t be sure exactly what the narrator was saying (e.g., was that a “d” or a “b”or a “g”in the middle of that word?) It wasn’t that I couldn’t understand the narrator, they were just terms the author invented that was hard to get my head around. Landweber didn’t do any of that, which was a reliefalthough there were a couple of Japanese names I wouldn’t be able to repeat (in print or voice), but I knew what Pressley and Boyett were saying.

Another pair of books that came to mind while I was listening to this were Mike Chen’s novels. Like Chen, Landweber creates a wonderful Science Fiction world, and then tells a gripping family drama. Yes, the science fiction elements are thereand are incredibly well-executedbut the heart of this novel is about parenting, marriage, love. Fans of Chen would do well to check this book out. Fans of this book should give Chen a chance.

I read and enjoyed Landweber’s last novel, Thursday, 1:17 PM, but this is a much better showcase for his talents (not to knock his earlier work). There’s so much to commend about this Audiobook that I have only begun to scratch the surface (truly, I can think of a half-dozen characters I should’ve profiled*, a couple of themes I could have talked about, and other plotlines I should have addressed). There’s something for everyone in this bookan element of a thriller, some great SF Technology, some conspiracy elements, the environmental setting, some media commentary, some Big Business critique, a lot of focus on people with anxiety issues and/or mental health diagnosis, ethical quandaries, parent/child stories, and a touching love story, too.

* There’s a hacker character that I’m going to kick myself for not talking about, for example. He’s one of the most entertaining characters I’ve encountered this year—Top 3 for 2020.

Get this into your ears, folks, you won’t regret ityou may not like it as much as I did, but I can’t imagine you won’t like it.

Disclaimer: I received this audiobook from Audible in exchange for this post and my honest opinion. Thanks to them for the book and Laura Blackman for approaching me.


4 1/2 Stars

(Revised and Updated) Dead Wrong by Noelle Holten: A Detective Struggles to Prove She Made the Right Arrest with Lives on the Line

Updated: I was dead tired last night when I finished this, and ended up not saying everything I meant to. I still haven’t, but it’s getting too long. But still, I missed a couple of points yesterday, and have got them covered now.

Be sure to come back in an hour or so for A Few Quick Questions with the Author, Noelle Holten! Also, this book releases tomorrow–be sure to grab it (still time to pre-order). While you’re at it, get the first in the series, too!


Dead Wrong

Dead Wrong

by Noelle Holten
Series: DC Maggie Jamieson, #2

eARC, 432 pg.
One More Chapter, 2020

Read: March 8-12, 2020


Last year, Noelle Holten blew my socks off with her debut, Dead Inside. It was the first of the Maggie Jamieson novels—although, I mentioned at the time “you’d be excused if you didn’t pick that up until the last chapter,” because it focused so much on a side character. This time out, the focus is almost exclusively on Maggie—her professional side as well as her personal life.

Before Dead Inside, Maggie had been part of a Homicide investigation team but had been reassigned to help her decompress after a stressful investigation that resulted in Bill Raven, a confessed serial killer, getting a life sentence. It ended with Maggie getting a voice mail from her old boss:

‘Your secondment is over at the DAHU. Raven has appealed his sentence, claimed he’s innocent. Timely I’d say as there has been another murder. Either a copycat or the real killer picking up where they left off. Get your arse in here.’

It turns out that it’s a bit more than “another murder.” It’s actually the murder of the woman Raven claimed was his first victim. Which doesn’t seem like a big deal, everyone knew she was dead. The twist comes when the report comes in that she’s been dead two days.

Say what you will, being locked up already for someone’s murder is a pretty good alibi for their actual murder. Many people—including fellow police officers and detectives–and the Press are outraged. Maggie’s previous work is being scrutinized, she’s having to defend her actions in the past while investigating the new murder (okay, it soon becomes murders—including more women that Raven claimed to have killed). She’s also doing everything she can to keep Raven behind bars—but that’s an unofficial goal. Officially, she’s supposed to stay away from revisiting the original investigation.

Now, the idea of a detective having to deal with an old investigation being re-opened because the convicted killer is making a case for their release isn’t new—Bosch had to deal with it in Two Kinds of Truth, Poe dealt with it in Black Summer, even the great Capt. Raymond Holt had to endure this kind of thing. But none of them had to explain how some of the victims turned out to have been recently alive. There’s more to differentiate Maggie’s challenge than that, but it’s a good start. Whoever is behind these killings is clearly some sort of monster, and sussing out the motive and means may prove as difficult as finding whoever’s responsible.

While the brass are inclined to believe Raven’s claims that he was delusional from drugs and a psychiatric condition when he confessed, Maggie only has a couple of sympathetic colleagues—an old friend who is now her DS and a psychologist she befriended on her temporary assignment, Kate Moloney.

Kate ends up consulting for the investigation for the new murders, helping the team think of their evidence in new ways, and helping Maggie better understand Raven and who he may have been working with while incarcerated to do the killing.

We see both women at work and at home—their home situations are almost as troublesome and stress-inducing as the hunt for the “real killer.” But, relying on each other, and their respective strengths, they’re able to muddle through—and even have a little fun. It’s an early Tony Hill/Carol Jordan-type relationship (I want to stress the “type,” because they’re all very different people and Holten isn’t trying for a clone in any sense).

I should add quickly that we do get to see Lucy, who is still working through the issues revealed in Dead Inside, but seems to be doing really well (all things considered). We don’t spend much time with her, but the way it’s done leaves the possibility for her to return to the books.

What about Bill Raven, our potentially falsely-convicted killer? It’s pretty late in the book when the reader gets a firm answer about his guilt. But we learn a few things about him right away. He’s arrogant, confident, enjoys playing with Maggie (and other detectives), and there’s just something about him that’s “off” (for lack of a better description). Whether or not he’s ultimately found to have committed the crimes he enjoys the attention and is hopeful for what the new murders mean for his release. The source of his derangement, and exactly why he’s doing what he’s doing is hinted at—and I think he alters his approach during the novel (or maybe I just don’t understand him enough).

Unlike most of the British Police Procedurals I’ve read the last few months, Dead Wrong primarily uses three characters for the Points-of-View (Maggie, Raven and Kate)—making it really easy to keep track of everyone. We do see a little from Maggie’s DI, and a couple of the victims in their last moments, too.

Speaking of the victims, and I mention this because I know the tastes of a lot of my readers. I should spend a minute talking about what befalls these women (and they are primarily women). However, and isn’t this a pleasant change, there’s nothing sexual about what happens to them. There’s not a hint, suggestion or implication of any rape or similar abuse. They are held captive—and what happens to them is truly horrifying, make no mistake, but it’s not your typical fictional serial killer thing. There’s no torture, either. At least not as you normally think about it. (what happens has to be tortuous, I assure you) we get a couple of pages’ worth of the female victims point-of-view, but even it isn’t as fear-filled as typically portrayed. There is soul-crushing despair, but done in a way I rarely, if ever, see.

I have an idea or three about where Holten is going with this, and if I’m even close to being in the right ballpark, let me say that I’m not a fan. Not that I don’t think it’ll be gripping reading, I’d just like things to go a little better for Maggie than I think they’re going to.

There are a couple of things I’m not crazy about. Once or twice, Maggie’s reaction to something feels a little over-dramatic/melodramatic. And there are a few things that I would have preferred given to us with greater detail (for example, someone is arrested for their role related to the investigations—and we’re only told that and have to make ill-informed guesses about what their actions have done to alter the police’s work).

That said, I really enjoyed this book—it’s a real slow boil of a book, things start bubbling pretty soon, but you have to wait and wait and wait for that to become a full-fledged rolling boil. Holten’s great at making sure you know there’s tension and malfeasance afoot, even if she doesn’t allow it to take over the novel. It’s well-plotted and well-executed, allowing the momentum to build so the reader is fully hooked before the plot really gets moving. Dead Inside concluded with a sentence or two past that voicemail. Dead Wrong ends on a similar note, propelling the reader on to the next book.

Dead Wrong didn’t wow me as much as its predecessor did—for one thing, I now know what Holten is capable of, and expect it—also, the nature of the story was is a bit more traditional than the last one was. While my theories while reading were wrong more often than right with Dead Wrong, I still had a pretty solid idea where the plot was going all along (until the very end, that is)—so it took a little of the luster off. Not much though, I’m still sure this is going to go down as one of the best things I read in 2020. I’ll wager the same is true for you.


4 1/2 Stars
Disclaimer: I received this eARC from HarperCollins UK, One More Chapter via NetGalley in exchange for this post and my honest opinion—thanks to both for this.

Highfire by Eoin Colfer: Enter the Dragon (the Drunken, Netflix-binging, Lousiana Swamp-Dwelling, Crotchety one)

Highfire

Highfire

by Eoin Colfer

Hardcover, 373 pg.
Harper Perennial, 2020

Read: February 18-24, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

He knows where I live. And Momma, too.

Squib was marked and he knew it.

I gotta sort this out, he thought. I gotta get out from under that dragon.

Which is not a problem most people have to solve in their lifetimes. In general, most folk who get to meet a dragon only get to think about it that one time for about five seconds.

Here’s the punchline: I’m not sure I’ve read another book this year that was this much fun. It’s a great mix of comedy and action, with just a smidgen of heart. But best of all, it’s got a dragon. A fantastic dragon character. Sure, it’s been less than 2 months, so that compliment rings a bit hollow. Let me try again: pound-for-pound, this is one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in the last two years.

Vern (short for Wyvern) isn’t your typical dragon. In fiction, dragons tend to be old, wise creatures that act as sages who occasionally light something/someone on fire. Or they’re incredibly violent, greedy things (frequently incapable of thought). Not Vern. He’s over three thousand years old and has lived all over the world. He’s on the small side (relative to dragons, not humans), and is a little sensitive about it—and fictional depictions of dragons. When he’s asked about, for example, Game of Thrones, he responds:

Game of Thrones? Are you tryin to push my buttons, kid Game of [expletive] Thrones! Those dragons are like servants—you see me doing any [expletive] mother of dragon’s bidding? I’d never serve humans!…[Expletive] lapdog CGI [expletive] fire lizards. Heap of [expletive]”

Most of Vern’s time is taken up by avoiding detection by humans, hanging out in a swamp near New Orleans, drinking Vodka and watching a lot of Netflix. He’s doing a Keto diet, loves Flashdance and the music of Linda Ronstadt. Like I said, not your typical dragon.

It’s not a great life, but it’s a safe one. Up until the day a fifteen-year-old known as Squib stumbles onto Vern’s existence while trying to avoid the local constable (who Squib just observed doing something very illegal).

Through some bad timing and a real sign of guts by Squib, Vern doesn’t kill him immediately. He eventually will bring Squib on as his go-between to the outside world. He’ll primarily be responsible for providing things that Vern can’t get— booze, food, etc. From this, a friendship of sorts develops between the two.

Which is great, because Squib needs a friend like Vern. You see, the constable has figured out that it was very likely Squib who witnessed his criminal act on the swamp, and now he hs to get ride of the boy before he finds a more honest legal authority to spill his guts to. While he’s at it, he’ll use Vern to advance his criminal career.

These two are going to have to lean on each other pretty hard if they’re going to get out of this okay.

That’s pretty much all you need to know.

I should talk a little about Squib (and his mother), but I’m not going to—he’s a fun character, but I want to focus on Vern.

In general, Highfire focuses on the biology, the history, and the life of dragons and those associated with them. In particular, it focuses on Vern’s his fire. Typically, I don’t remember getting a whole lot of information about a dragon’s fire. Colfer gives us a pretty thorough description of where it comes from, how a dragon can produce it, how it’s unlike the fire that humans are accustomed to, and so on. For example:

My fire don’t burn slow. No one ever got mildly scalded from dragon flame.

“Fulminated” was the word, or used to be.

A few pages later, he gets into a great description of how Vern lights his breath, and eventually, he’ll describe the effect that it has. We don’t get a lot about his flying ability (Vern doesn’t really get it either, beyond that the practical).

There are two action scenes in this book—they are both fan=fracking-tastic. It’s been months since I’ve read a fight/battle/action scene that grabbed me the way these did (pre-the last Lee Child, possibly the last two). The pacing, the detail . . . everything is just what you might hope it would be. The book is worth the time just for those two scenes.

There’s a great reference to Pete’s Dragon, The Princess Bride, and others. Vern’s a veritable font of pop culture references. Vern may be a crotchety old guy, he’s a great character. I really enjoyed that about him. There’s something to at least grin about on practically every page. Between the voice, the comedy and the great action scenes? This is a must-read for dragon friends (or just about anyone else).

Now, Colfer has written a few other Adult novels—I’ve read three of them. Plugged and Screwed share a similar voice (but are heavier on the violence), And Another Thing… couldn’t be more different, but he was playing in Adams’s sandbox with that one. But for people who’ve read his adult work, you’ll appreciate this if you don’t mind a dash of fantasy. If you’ve read this and liked it–and you don’t mind the lack of fantasy–get on his other adult work. I wouldn’t say that Highfire is appropriate for most of Colfer’s younger readers, but a mature teen reader could handle it as long as he realizes this isn’t going to be along the lines of the Artemis Fowl books.


4 1/2 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.

Reposting Just Cuz: Vanished by Joseph Finder

My plan for today was to post about the new Nick Heller novel: House on Fire by Joseph Finder. But one thing led to another, and . . . well, that just didn’t happen (and I’m not sure when it will). Instead, I’ll be revisiting my posts about the first three in this thriller series. The next two will follow soon.


VanishedVanished

by Joseph Finder
Series: Nick Heller, #1


Hardcover, 384 pg.
St. Martin’s Press, 2009
Read: April 7 – 8, 2015

I lost sleep over this one. Literally. I had to force myself to put this thing down so I could get a little shut-eye. Which wasn’t easy. After about 70 pages or so, I realized two things very clearly: I was hooked on this book and was going to have to get the next one in the series very soon. Neither feeling went away.

Last year, when I read FaceOff, the Jack Reacher/Nick Heller story was probably my favorite, so when I found myself wandering the library last week, with every thing on my “to get list” unavailable, I figured I’d finally give a full-length Heller story a try. Clearly, one of the better moves I’ve made.

Nick Heller is former Army Special Ops, turned corporate espionage hotshot. His estranged brother, Roger, is abducted (at best) leaving an injured wife behind. His nephew, Gabe, freaks out and calls his uncle for help, not willing to trust the police. So Nick, with “a very particular set of skills,” starts looking for his brother.

Heller’s similar to Reacher, but has more of a cerebral approach to things. I’m not sure that’s necessarily fair, maybe it’s that he takes a less direct approach to Reacher’s bull in a china shop approach. That’s not quite it, either. There’s something similar, yet very distinctive about their approaches. It’s more than just the fact that Heller has money and resources (and friends and family . . . ), while Reacher has a fresh set of clothes, a new toothbrush and whatever weapon he can take off a foe. Heller definitely has a better sense of humor — and a cell phone, maybe that’s it.

Heller definitely has to work — suffers some real investigative setbacks, is flat-out wrong on several fronts, blunders a bit, and has to go through some real emotional hardship. Making him human enough to really engage the reader (in a way that Reacher never can — not that I want to keep comparing the two).

Well paced, intelligent, some cool spycraft, some good fight scenes and a lot less gunplay than you’d expect — this is a thriller well worth your time.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

A Beginning At The End by Mike Chen: Love, Uh, Finds a Way in this Optimistic Dystopian Novel

A Beginning At The End

A Beginning At The End

by Mike Chen

Hardcover, 391 pg.
Mira Books, 2020

Read: January 28-February 4, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

“Mommy’s not coming home.”

“No! Mama now! Want Mama!” Desperation had taken over the child’s face, eyes pooling With the Whiplash turn of raw emotions. She tossed the plastic spoon across the prison-cell-turned-living-space, her voice ramping up in volume and intensity. His arms wrapped around his daughter, even though she punched at his thigh in frustration; he held her as if she was the last thing in the world.

Rob blinked as the realization came to him. She was.

His home, his old life was gone. His parents and brother, killed by MGS. Their friends, their community, scattered and ravaged. And now Elena gone too.

Sunny was all he had left.

Well, I really painted myself into a corner with my In Medias Res post about this book a couple of weeks ago. I’m not sure what else there is to say! Oops.

I was more right than I was wrong about where Chen was taking some of the story—but while I had the destination correct the route he took totally caught me off-guard (and it was so good!). The parts of the story I was wrong about, however. I could not have been further off the mark if I’d tried. Both of those results are so satisfying to me, Chen nailed the nuts and bolts bits of plotting—conclusions that seem right and expected (and earned) while being very unexpected.

While Chen knows how to plot a book, characters are his strength (see also Here and Now and Then).
I could absolutely see where Moira was coming from and understood (and applauded) what she did to change her life. I felt like I got Krista’s pain and the way she reacted to her mother and uncle made sense to me (I’m not sure she was fair to her college boyfriend, even if he should’ve known better than to do what he did). And Sunny should win over even the most jaded reader. But Rob? The way Chen wrote him made me empathize with Rob to a degree that I wasn’t prepared for. That sentence I quoted above, “She was,” just about broke me.

I assume that other readers will gravitate to other characters (and Moira is probably my favorite in the novel), and they should. But Rob is going to stick around in my subconscious for a while.

All of this happens against the backdrop of a world trying to recover from a global pandemic that wiped out an unimaginable number of people. Sure, other apocalyptic scenarios seem worse (zombies, whatever lead to Panem, the First-through-Fifth Waves, etc.)—but what makes this scenario chilling is just how possible it really seems. And I’m not just saying that with one of my sister’s kids dealing with being quarantined in Asia around the time I read this.

Nevertheless, Chen’s novel is optimistic. Human beings, human society, human families prevail. Like Dr. Ian Malcolm famously said, “Life, Uh, Finds a Way.” So does humanity in Chen’s world.

Like all good Science Fiction, this is more about our present than it is our future. In a survivor’s group, Rob has a lot to say about living in fear with the source of the past hanging over is and letting the two dictate our lives. Without trying I could think of a dozen ways that could be applied to pre-apocalyptic Americans (who knows how large the number would be with some effort).

There’s more I feel like I should say, if only just to flesh out some of what I’ve put down—but at this point, I think I’ve said enough about this book over the two posts, so I’m going to stop here (so much for that corner I painted myself into). I want to do 400-600 words on the title alone (many of which would be devoted to the indefinite article).

A Beginning at The End is the kind of SF that should appeal to SF readers. It’s the kind of SF that should make non-SF readers (including those antagonistic to genre fiction) think there’s something to the genre after all. Because this isn’t “just” a SF novel. It’s a novel about humans being very human, with hopes, fears, loves, joys, sorrows, failures, and successes—it just happens to be set in a post-apocalyptic future. Chen’s first novel was among the best I read in 2019. I fully expect that this will be among the best I read in 2020. I’m going to jump on whatever Chen has coming in 2021 without bothering to note the title or even skim the blurb. He’s earned an auto-read from me for at least the next two novels.


4 1/2 Stars

2020 Library Love Challenge

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Lost Hills by Lee Goldberg: A Dynamite Beginning to a New Series from One of the Most Reliable Scribes Around

Lost Hills

Lost Hills

by Lee Goldberg
Series: Eve Ronin, #1

Kindle Edition, 237 pg.
Thomas & Mercer, 2020

Read: January 23-25, 2019
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

Mulholland Drive. It was an intersection that generated lots of confusion, and not only because of the nearly identical street names. It was also the intersection of two cities, three neighborhoods, two law enforcement jurisdictions, and on this hot, smoggy Thursday afternoon in December, life and death.

So begins Lee Goldberg’s new series—a story of a young, talented, fallible, inexperienced woman detective in the LA County Sheriff’s Department. Eve Ronin is in this position thanks to being in the wrong place at the right time, and getting herself plastered all over social media just when the Department needed any good publicity it could get. Capitalizing on this, the Sheriff puts her in the high-profile Robbery-Homicide Division where she faces a lot of sexist backlash—and some that’s not sexist, but based on the way she got the job and how unprepared she is for it. Still, Eve knows a good opportunity when she gets it and is determined to rise to the occasion, as hard as it will be.

That’s the novel (and probably the series) in a nutshell—everything else is just window dressing. But man, I tell you, it’s great window dressing.

First off, you’ve got this case. A single mother of two (no longer romantically involved with the man she’s living with, but unable to move out), her kids and their dog are missing. What’s present in their home is a lot of blood. I mean a lot. Enough that there’s little hope that any of them are still alive, but Eve can’t rule out the possibility. So she really has two investigations to get into—the multiple murder case, and a missing persons case. Given the grizzly nature of the crime scene, there’s a lot of public attention on this case, and a lot of pressure on the rookie detective. That there is enough for most novels, but we get more.

What I loved about this book (and, from what I hear in interviews, the series to come), is how it displays that everyone in the L.A.-area is in or adjacent to the entertainment industry. Eve’s mother and the probable victim are chasing stardom, the likely victim’s ex-boyfriend works on a film crew (as does his alibi). There are detectives shopping script ideas around, and clearly will jump on new “material.” You’d think that with the sheer number of police procedurals/PI novels set in LA that this would be well-trodden territory, but it really isn’t. How is that possible? I’m so glad that Goldberg committed to this idea.

At the end of the court was a poorly maintained, unfenced ranch home with two cars in the driveway— an old Ford Taurus with oxidized paint and a Nissan Sentra. A woman in her early thirties paced anxiously in front of the house.

“She’s keyed up,” Duncan said as Eve pulled up to the driveway. “You better talk to her, woman- to- woman.”

“Good idea, because you know we don’t even have to speak to each other,” Eve said, putting the car into park. “Our uteruses can communicate telepathically.”

“I think the correct term is ‘uteri.’”

But what makes this (and any series) work are the characters. Eve is a great character, while her mom was off chasing stardom (and primarily finding work as an extra), she did the heavy lifting when it came to raising her younger siblings. Now she’s taken that sense of responsibility to her career and those she comes into contact with.

Eve’s mom is still in pursuit of the Hollywood dream, if not for her (though that’d be her preference), than for Eve. When Eve shows up on TV being cornered by a reporter, Jen is more focused on how Eve looks than the case in question. When she does think about the case, it’s in relation to how Eve can turn it into a movie deal. I cracked up at Eve’s first conversation with her (and enjoyed the rest), but can easily see where she could be overused on the long-term, and she could easily turn into a one-note joke. I know Goldberg can do something interesting with her if he wants to, I just hope he does.

Meanwhile, Eve’s younger sister, Lisa is a delight. She’s a nurse as well as Eve’s main source of emotional support (and ice cream). The cynic in me thinks she might as well be named Nurse Bechdel Test. But let’s ignore him—she’s a great character for Eve to bounce off of—a sounding board for the emotional beats and struggles that Eve endures thanks to her promotion and career—as well as something that humanizes Eve. She’s not just a cop, she’s a sister with strong maternal instincts/reflexes, who needs someone to take care of her occasionally. I thoroughly enjoyed their interaction and the way they fed off each other, and her continuing presence in the series bodes well for it (and, yeah, probably makes sure these books pass that particular test).

Then there are Eve’s colleagues (who get more real estate in the book than her family does, but I’m going to cover briefly here because I’m rambling). I’ll start with her partner, Duncan—a jaded veteran detective nearing retirement. That gives him a certain detachment from Eve’s catapulting into Homicide, as long as her presence doesn’t interfere with his exit, what does he care. In the meantime, he’ll pass on some wisdom and cynicism. I loved his character and really hope that retirement stays away for a while.

Almost every other detective (both in the Sheriff’s department and the LAPD) doesn’t share his detachment, and will not actively try to derail Eve, but will be skeptical and antagonistic to her. The nicest thing anyone will say about her is that she’s starved for attention and fame. The Sheriff on the other hand, will exploit Eve whenever he can (he needs her to be a star to deflect attention away from serious problems in the department). It’s hard to tell if he has any real confidence in her, or if it’s all opportunistic. I’m not sure it matters much.

I would’ve liked a little more depth to this story, but just a tad. Any more and it would’ve slowed down the fast, driving pace and tension—which wouldn’t have been worth the trade-off. I’d also have liked to gone a bit more in-depth here myself, but if I do, I’d probably not get this posted for two more months, so we’ll call this good.

I haven’t read every novel Goldberg has written, but I have read 26 of them (so far), so I feel like I have a pretty decent idea of what kind of writer he is. There is something distinctly Goldberg-esque about Lost Hills and Eve. At the same time, there’s a freshness and verve to them that is new—it felt like Goldberg has stretched himself to try something in these pages and it worked—a reward for both author and readers. Eve Ronin is a fantastic character that I hope to spend many years reading and exploring the world of. You should, too.


4 1/2 Stars

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