A Question of Blood by Ian Rankin: Rebus Deals with Gun Violence on Multiple Fronts

A Question of BloodA Question of Blood

by Ian Rankin
Series: John Rebus, #14

Hardcover, 406 pg.
Little, Brown and Company, 2003

Read: April 19 – 21, 2018


I’m torn between quotations to open with, on the one hand, you have this one which captures the environment this novel takes place in — it’s a perfect encapsulation of the frustration of so many civilians. Particularly the ones in the town near the focal crime.

Fear: the crucial word. Most people would live their whole lives untouched by crime, yet they still feared it, and that fear was real and smothering. The police force existed to allay such fears, yet too often was shown to be fallible, powerless, on hand only after the event, clearing up the mess rather than preventing it.

On the other hand, this seems to be the perfect encapsulation of the sentiments of Rebus, Clarke, Hogan and so many (most?) of the police in this novel (and most police novels in general):

He checked the radio to see if anything bearable was being broadcast, but all he could find were rap and dance. There was a tape in the player, but it was Rory Gallagher, Jinx, and he wasn’t in the mood. Seemed to remember one of the tracks was called “The Devil Made Me Do It.” Not much of a defense these days, but plenty of others had come along in Old Nick‘s place. No such thing as an inexplicable crime, not now that there were scientists and psychologists who’d talk about genes and abuse, brain damage and peer pressure. Always a reason . . . always, it seemed, an excuse.

So the story is, an ex-SAS soldier walks in to a school, shoots three students and then kills himself. One of the students — the son of a local politician — survives. His dad sees this crime as an opportunity to get himself out of some PR trouble and some prominence — so he keeps popping up in inopportune places to grandstand and shine a negative light on the police. Which goes a long way to make a complicated situation worse for Bobby Hogan — the detective running the investigation. There’s not much to investigate, the only surviving witness has told his story, the culprit is dead — but there’s a lot of why questions floating around, Hogan’s got to try to answer some of them. Hogan knows two things: 1. His friend John Rebus was almost an SAS soldier, so he might understand the mindset of this man better than the rest, and 2. Rebus could use an excuse to get out of Edinburgh for a few days. The Army’s in town, doing what it can to shape the narrative — i.e. “this isn’t the way we train our men to be, maybe there’s something else going on.” Hogan’s having trouble getting anywhere, the press isn’t helping, and the evidence isn’t doing wonders for anyone at all.

I liked the fact that we’re dealing with Rebus’s military past again — it’s largely been untouched (at least to any real depth) since Knots & Crosses, and conversations between Rebus and Clarke show that he hasn’t talked to her about it at all. As much as the first book might have helped Rebus deal with some of what happened to him, it’s clear that there’s more t do. Hopefully, this is the start of it — at least to help him.

The more this crime is investigated, the less it looks as cut-and-dry as it was at the beginning. This was all wonderfully constructed, a strong multi-layered story that’ll keep the reader glued to the action to find out what happened (or why it happened). And it’s really not the best part of the novel — it could’ve been, easily. But no.

The reason that Rebus could use a few days away from home base is that he has a mysterious injury. One that could have a completely innocent explanation — or one that puts him at the center of a suspicious death investigation. There’s this creep who’s been stalking Clarke, threatening her. Rebus is seen at a bar with him one night, and the next day, he’s dead and Rebus is getting medical care that suggests he could have been present at the time of death. Clarke and Hogan believe him because he says he didn’t do it. Good ol’ Gill Templar isn’t sure (raising the question: who knows him best? Siobhan or Gill?), and frankly, none of Rebus’ legion of enemies in the police or press are less sure than Templar. There’s a little question about letting Siobhan fight her own battles rather than take the avuncular and/or misogynistic approach of helping her. The two get past that pretty quickly, but Clarke harbors a doubt or two about Rebus’ involvement.

Rebus, actually, wasn’t that concerned with protecting Clarke — he just used that situation to help him with another investigation. Which is typical of him. It’s this last story that’s really — in a way — the center of the whole novel. The events investigated, the motives for a lot of it, and the emotional core are all tied (at the very least) to this story. Rankin’s structuring of the novel in this way shows him at his best. And that’s really all I can say without ruining the experience for anyone (in fact, I arguably said too much).

Then there’s the last chapter == which is all I’m going to say about it — I’m torn. On the one hand, it seems to undercut a lot of the emotional weight of the climactic moments. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t believable. It’s probably more believable than the alternative. Still .. . it left me dissatisfied. On the other hand, Rankin seems to be setting us up to revisit many of these characters in the future. I bet that’ll be worth it.

It’s hard to come up with things to talk about in a series that’s 14 books-old. It’s got to be hard to come up with things to talk about with a character that’s 14 books-old. Which might be part of the reason that Rankin circled back for another look at the end of Rebus’ time with the SAS, which definitely could use another look. How he did it — and the situations the characters found themselves in regarding that case,and all the others going on — is what makes Ian Rankin the modern legend that he is. A Question of Blood is one of those books that improves, the more you think about it.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge

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Scourged by Kevin Hearne: The Iron Druid Chronicles conclude with a bang.

This took me longer to write than I intended. Maybe I should’ve talked about it right after finishing it after all.

ScourgedScourged

by Kevin Hearne
Series: The Iron Druid Chronicles, #9

Hardcover, 265 pg.
Del Rey, 2018
Read: April 4, 2018

So, in a fast 265 pages Kevin Hearne gives us: Ragnarok; a lot of dead vampires; environmental crises; a friendly sloth; puppies; send-offs to many, many characters; shocking deaths; less-than-shocking deaths; surprise non-deaths; and more discussion of poots (elven and jaguar) than one’d expect in this kind of book. The amount that he accomplishes here is really staggering. Some of it, alas, could’ve been deeper — explored more thoroughly — if he hadn’t set out to do so much or if he’d taken more time with some things (and less time with others). Still, this was a heckuva way to end the series.

This is not the book to start this series with, go back and read Hounded if you’re curious (one of the best series kick-offs around), and I’m not going to get into the plot much. It’s Ragnarok. We’ve all known it was coming and now it’s here — ’nuff said. Along those lines, however, Hearne also gets bonus points for including a “where we are in the series” introduction, summarizing the first 8 novels and the short stories/novellas that got us to this point. Again, this should be a requirement for long-running series.

There’s no easy way to say it: there was just too much of Granuaile and Owen. Yes, it’s the best use of Owen since his introduction, don’t get me wrong. But it’s the Iron Druid Chronicles — fine, use the others if you want, but they shouldn’t get equal time to the Iron Druid here in the last book. Especially given the number of things — and scope of action — that had to be accomplished in Atticus’ story, it really should’ve had more room to breathe. That said — for End-of-the-World Showdowns featuring deities from multiple pantheons? This rocked. He wrapped up the story he kicked off in Hammered and Two Ravens and One Crow in a fantastic fashion, full of death, blood and tension. At the same time, he maintained the very idiosyncratic characterizations he’d created for the various gods and goddesses.

Speaking of Two Ravens and One Crow, a small, but fun, point from that comes back in these pages in a way that no one could have expected and added just the right level of fun to the battle.

Hearne did a great job integrating the short stories from Besieged into this book — I didn’t expect to see so much from them carry over to this. It all worked well and set the stage for Hearne to get in to the action of Scourged right away and he took full advantage of that.

There were more than a few things that seemed like they needed better explanations — doesn’t the convenient dog sitter find the way that Atticus spoils his dogs more than a little strange? Given that they’ve known the clock was ticking on Ragnarok, why did Atticus wait until the last second to give Granuaile and Owen their assignments? I mean, it works out well for dramatic purposes, and allows certain plot points to be triggered, but that’s not a good reason for the characters to work that way. At the very least, why weren’t his former apprentice and his former teacher pestering Atticus to lay out his plans long before this? While I eventually saw what Atticus and Hearne were up to, in the moment, a lot of the plan just didn’t make sense. When the world is falling apart, why set someone up for an extended training session (for one example)?

I’m not giving away anything about anyone dying — or living — but we know this is the finale, so we’re seeing the end of stories for these characters. Some good, some shocking, some disappointing, some sad. In no particular order: Laksha got a nice send-off, I really didn’t expect to see her here — and I really appreciated what Hearne did with her. It’s not honestly the ending I’ve had wanted for Atticus — but it’s the kind of ending that Hearne’s been building to for a while now, so it’s fitting. I can appreciate the way that Hearne accomplished his goals, even if I think Atticus deserved better. Owen’s ending was everything you could’ve hoped for. Granuaile’s story was fitting for her — and a good reminder that I stopped liking her a few books ago (seriously, why couldn’t she adopt an attitude similar to Owen or Flidias when it comes to their assignments during the battle?). I would’ve liked to have seen Perun one more time, but he got a good send off in Besieged.

Oberon was sidelined for most of the book — I understand why: Atticus wanted to keep his buddy safe, and Hearne needed to keep things ominous, dramatic and threatening, which is hard to do with everyone’s favorite Irish Wolfhound putting his two cents in (it’s hard enough with Coyote around). Still, we got some good Oberonisms, and he elicited more than one smile from me — and you could argue he saved the day ultimately. If I didn’t know that Hearne was writing one more of Oberon’s Meaty Mysteries, I’d be despondent over not seeing him again.

Scourged wasn’t perfect, but it was very satisfying. If I have to say good-bye to these characters, this is a pretty good way to do it. There was enough excitement, drama, and happenings to fill a couple of books and Hearne got it all into one — no mean feat — and it was a great read. It’s not easy letting go of most of these characters and this world (I mean, apart from re-reads), but I’m glad Hearne got out when he did and the way he wanted to. I’m looking forward to his future projects.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

An Ill-Fated Sky by Darrell Drake

This book releases this weekend, go pre-order now (well, not now … wait until you read this).

An Ill-Fated SkyAn Ill-Fated Sky

by Darrell Drake
Series: A Star-Reckoner’s Legacy, #2

eARC, 327 pg.
2018

Read: March 28 – 29. 2018

Honour, at all costs.

So steadfast in its pursuit, Tirdad had never stopped to consider that anything that had to be done at all costs, shouldn’t be done at all. For all his talk of moderation, he had never thought to apply that to honour.

Only now did it dawn on him.

I probably can’t get away with just telling you all to go buy and read this — and the first, too, if you haven’t. So I won’t try. But that’s the takeaway from this.

I’d imagine it’s quite a trick taking a very carefully plotted stand-alone novel and turning it into the first of a trilogy, and I’m often nervous about reading something like that — not so much that I wouldn’t enjoy the new book, but that it’ll take something away from my appreciation for/memory of the stand-alone. Drake has succeeded in making the book feel like something he’d planned all along and a natural outgrowth of the first novel. I can’t bring myself to talk about the events of A Star-Reckoner’s Lot in any more detail than I can the events of this book, which might make some of this awkward, but let’s give it a go…

Tirdad’s cousin has tried to resurrect herself, but the way she died prevented it, instead her memories, her abilities have attached themselves to Tirdad’s sword. He’s now a powerful planet-reckoner (who doesn’t really understand how to use his newfound power). Where some would use this as an opportunity for laughs, Drake keeps things grim and shows what happens when someone wields impossibly great power without the requisite knowledge — disaster ensues. After healing from his wounds, Tirdad sets out to understand just what happened to his cousin, what drove her to the extremes she took. Along the way, he helps and old friend and the King of Kings wage war, has some adventures, kills supernatural creatures that far outclass him, and tries to move on with his life.

A good chunk of this book is just about understanding the last novel — what really happened, what motivated the actions of all the major characters. But it’s not just a rehash, nor a revision of the book. It could probably even be read by someone who hadn’t read A Star-Reckoner’s Lot with little difficulty. But all that is in the midst of the adventuring — and the plot turns and twists enough to keep you guessing as much as Tirdad. This time, the turns weren’t quite as extreme as before, but they were still jarring — and honest, he doesn’t trick you here, everything is justified and supported by what came before.

There’s a sense in which this novel isn’t the fantasy adventure, but a profile of a hero. Or at least a good man. Not just any hero, but a particular one, Tirdad, the ways that his life, his choices, his family and friends shaped him into the person he is and what that looks like action. Particularly when it comes to the way he treats those he loves — and his enemies.

Tirdad, of course, isn’t the only character in the book. The half-div/half-human we met previously as Waray is back, too. When writing about the first book, I’d said: “The banter, the bickering, and friendship between Tirdad and Waray is one of those things that will attract you to this book” — that that’s the core relationship of this novel. What was strong before is now at the forefront — and the reader wins. I loved Waray going into this, and love her all the more now as I’ve got a much better understanding of her past and what makes her tick.

The ending features one of my favorite cliff-hangers in quite a while, to boot.

From start to finish, Drake immerses you in this wonderful world he’s created, with a magic system and mythology so foreign to most of us that it’s great to dive in and experience. The characters are rich and well-drawn, and you feel for them all.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from the author in exchange for this post — I appreciate him saving me the money, but it didn’t alter what I said about this book.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

Magic For Nothing by Seanan McGuire

Something — time constraints, distractions, deadlines, big shiny things in the corner — kept me from finishing this post last year. I tried every now and then to finish it, but at a certain point my copious notes weren’t enough. Thankfully, reading the next book in the series helped me remember enough that I thought I could finish this post. It’s not everything I wanted it to be, but short of a re-read, nothing was going make it that.

Magic For NothingMagic For Nothing

by Seanan McGuire
Series: InCryptid, #6


Mass Market Paperback, 358 pg.
Daw Books, 2017
Read: Mach 18 – 21, 2017

And you shouldn’t believe all the press about Ouija boards. They can’t be used in an exorcism. Trivial Pursuit can, but that’s another story.

This has nothing to do with the story, I just really liked that line. It comes from one of the best (probably the best, I don’t keep notes on that) openings to an InCryptid novel that McGuire’s done yet.

So after Verity declared war on the Covenant in the closing pages of Chaos Choreography, the Price family has to follow suit and step things up. Their first step? Having Antimony go undercover with the Covenant as a new recruit. This could be a suicide mission but she knows it’s the best shot to understand what’s going on with the Covenant and their plans for the United States.

You could make the claim that Annie’s infiltration of the Covenant is a little too easy — but why? It’s far more interesting for her to have infiltrated the Covenant and get assigned for a probationary task quickly than it would be for there to be a realistic screening and training process — I’m sure McGuire could have pulled it off, because what can’t she write? But this was better. Very quickly the Covenant comes up with an assignment that’ll test her loyalty and maybe score them some dead American monsters. Part of Annie’s cover is that her circus family was wiped out by a bunch of somethings and she wants revenge, the Covenant has wind of a monster or two at a circus in the midwest killing people in the towns it visits. Her assignment: infiltrate the circus, find the responsible creatures (and any others) and call in her handlers to wipe them all out.

So she’s going undercover as part of her undercover assignment. Thankfully, she’s had multiple aliases since she was a wee girl, so she’ll probably be able to keep her names straight.

Once she gets there, she finds more than one person that the Covenant will want killed just for being — so Annie has to figure out how to keep that from happening and keep her cover intact long enough that she can learn something for her family.

I loved the circus atmosphere, I pretty much always do, come to think of it. As is her norm, McGuire’s cast of characters for the Price adventures, is a whole lot of fun. But I think she stepped her game up with this one — even her Covenant characters have a bit more going for them than her normal baddies. But the key to this novel being so entertaining is Annie. We’ve seen her a little bit here and there throughout the series, but never for very long. She’s just great. Her attitude, gumption, grit and talents make for a fun character. The complicated hero-worship/jealousy thing she has going on regarding Verity (not so much with Alex, but a little bit) is a nice realistic and humanizing touch. I’m not going to blather on about her too much, but of the siblings, I think she’s my favorite.

The big climatic battle and the aftermath from that setting up at least the next novel? Thick, rich icing on an already tasty cake.

Oh, the mice. How did I get this far without mentioning the mice? The Aeslin mice are a great source of laughs as well as heart throughout this series — but man, this time Mindy (Annie’s Aeslin companion) really got me. I was moved. I . . . well, yeah,let’s just leave it there. Mindy’s just great.

If there’s one thing in this world that I know I can rely on, it’s the joyous cheering of the Aeslin mice.

Ditto, Annie, ditto. Joyous cheering of Aeslin mice and Seanan McGuire’s writing — wholly reliable. If you haven’t gotten around to picking up this volume of the InCryptid series yet, you need to. It’d make an okay jumping on point, too — but a lot of the little things won’t mean as much to you as they should. Still, I think it’d convince you to go read the earlier books.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

My Little Eye by Stephanie Marland

My Little EyeMy Little Eye

by Stephanie Marland
Series: Starke & Bell, #1

eARC, 351 pg.
Trapeze Books, 2018

Read: March 9 – 12, 2018

They say I was dead for three thousand and six seconds. They say that when I woke I was different, but I don’t know if that’s true. What I do know is that my world became a different place once every one of those precious seconds had expired.

No matter how gripping the prologue might have been, when those’re the first words you get from a character’s POV, you sit up and pay attention.

The Lover is a serial killer just beginning to plague London, and a semi-distracted DI Dominic Bell with his team are making little progress in apprehending him (he’s trying his level best not to be distracted by the press and the brass won’t let him leave his last operation in the dust). Given that the Lover’s technique is improving as the time between kills is decreasing, the pressure is mounting for Bell and the police. One group dissatisfied with their achievements are the members of True Crime London — a group of True Crime aficionados from (duh) London. Some of them have decided to take matters into their own hands so they’ll investigate these crimes themselves — some for the thrill, some to show up the Police, some to draw attention to the fact that the Police are understaffed and underfunded. Clementine has her own reasons — she’s spent some time studying these people as part of her doctoral work in psychology; she hopes to get a better understanding of online communities through this group and she has a theory about “crowd-sourcing justice” she’d like to establish.

We meet both groups (through Dom’s POV and Catherine’s) as they begin to look into the third victim of The Lover. The race is on (even if only one group realizes there’s a race) to find and put a stop to The Lover. I wouldn’t mind more time getting to know the individuals in the respective teams as this goes along — we do get to know some of the people involved in the investigation a bit, but this book focuses on Dom, Clementine and their hunts — everyone else doesn’t matter as much. I could talk a little more about the context for Dom, Clementine and the hunt for the killer — but you don’t want to know more until you get into this book.

The killer? We learn exactly as much as we need to in order that we know that the right guy has been taken care. He is not the most interesting character in the novel — I guess he might be, but Marland didn’t give us enough detail. This is such a great change from serial killer novels that dwell on the obsessions/fetishes/compulsions/methods of the killer, that seem to relish the opportunity to revel in the depravity. Marland shows us enough to be disturbed and utterly sickened by him, to believe that he’s capable of the heinous acts he’s guilty of — and no more. I’m not saying everyone has to write a serial killer this way, but I love that approach.

The protagonists are far more interesting — possibly more damaged even — than the killer. They are wonderfully flawed characters and repeatedly — and I do mean repeatedly — do things that readers will not want them to — because it’s unwise, stupid, dangerous, unethical, immoral, or all of the above. And as much as I was saying “No, no, don’t do that,” I was relishing them do that because it meant great things for the book. At times it’s almost like Marland wants you to not like Dom or Clementine, maybe even actively dislike them. Set that aside, because you will like them, because they are the protagonists hunting for a serial killer; because despite themselves they are likeable characters; and because they’re so well written, with so many layers, and nuances that it’s impossible for Marland to fully explore them and you want to know more. Both are in the middle of professional and personal crises as the book opens — and all of those crises are going to get worse before we leave them (yeah, Dom’s professional life is in worse shape than Clementine’s and Clementine’s been in crisis since just before those 3,006 seconds, so they’re not exactly parallel).

Sometimes the police investigation and the True Crime London’s investigation dig up the same information at about the same time, but on the whole the two follow very different approaches — one more methodical, careful and predictable. The other is haphazard, reckless and (at times) criminal. But both get results, and for the reader, we get a full-orbed view of the investigation which is almost as engrossing as the protagonists carrying it out.

The book is able to say a lot about online communities, True Crime (and some of those who love it as a genre), public acts of grief, criminal investigations and the media — and even a little about memory. All while telling a great story.

While I enjoyed the whole thing, the last quarter of the book was full of surprises that kept me leaning forward in my chair and completely glued to my screen as the plot raced from shock to shock to reveal to [redacted]. There’s a reveal that took me utterly by surprise, but made sense when you stopped and thought about it. There’s another reveal at the end that seemed fitting but wasn’t what you expected — and it followed an event that I never would’ve predicted. Oh, and that last sentence? I can’t tell you how many times I swiped my Kindle screen trying to get what comes next, unwilling to believe that was it.

I was a fan (almost instantaneously) of Marland’s alter ego’s Lori Anderson and that series. My Little Eye has made me a fan of the author — Broadribb, Marland, whatever names she’s publishing under, it’s an instabuy. This book got its hooks into me straightaway and didn’t let go, I resented work and family as they distracted me (however good or pressing the reason) from Clementine and Dom’s quests. I can confidently say that I’ve not read a mystery novel like this one — and that’s not easy this many decades into my love of the genre. I have no idea how Marland’s going to follow this one up — there’s no way that book 2 is a repeat of My Little Eye, but beyond that? No clue what she’ll be able to do. I don’t care — I just want to read it soon.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Orion Publishing Group 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.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

PubDay Repost: Smoke Eaters by Sean Grigsby

yeah, yeah I told you that I’d get this up last week, but writing while hacking isn’t that easy. Yes, I’m a hack writer, but that means something totally different.

Smoke EatersSmoke Eaters

by Sean Grigsby

eARC, 384 pg.
Angry Robot, 2018

Read: February 2 – 3, 2018

Really, the case for you (or anyone) reading this book is simply and convincingly made in 13 words:

Firefighters vs. Dragons in an Urban Fantasy novel set in a futuristic dystopia.

I’ll just wait here while you open another tab to put in your order. There’s really nothing more that I need to say, is there? What if I throw in robot dogs?

Since you’re here anyway, I’ll talk a little more about the book. In the early 22nd century, dragons show up (technically, come back) and everything changes over night — cities burn, non-urban areas burn, geography changes, societies change, political/governmental realities change. And so on. Where there are dragons, there’s fire; and where there’s fire, there are firefighters. A special division of firefighters soon develops — Smoke Eaters — who specialize in dragon fighting, while the rest take care of fires, saving lives and property, etc. You know, the basic everyday hero stuff.

One such hero is Captain Cole Brannigan. After decades of fighting fires, he’s a week away from retirement when disaster strikes and he finds himself without his air supply in a dragon smoke-filled room, which it turns out that he can breathe. Which means he’s one of a select few people naturally immune to the stuff and is basically pressed into service as a Smoke Eater. Instead of commanding a squad and their respect, he’s a trainee — worse, a trainee who used to be a fire fighter. I’m not really sure I get the level of antagonism that exists between the two groups, but it’s pretty intense. No one respects his expertise, his experience, his perspective. He’s tolerated at best — and that’s really only because of the whole smoke immunity thing.

I cannot stress how much I enjoyed this dynamic — stories about someone learning their way through a new reality, or new abilities, etc. are a staple of the genre. But a fully-realized adult, in a long-term, stable marriage (as stable as they can realistically come), successful already and sure of his place in the world being thrown into a new situation like this is unique. Cole spends as much time fighting his instincts about assuming leadership roles (and assuming people will follow) as he does trying to understand his new teammates and duties. Naturally, his perspective and experience will prove important to understanding a new challenge facing the Smoke Eaters.

I’m not going to get into everyone else, because this is Cole’s story, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the most interesting character (he probably is, though, your mileage may vary). The rest of the characters aren’t quite as well drawn — mostly because we see everyone through Cole’s eyes — but most are close enough that you don’t notice.

I should probably mention that when he’s not writing about fire-breathing lizards, Grigsby’s an actual firefighter. So he knows his stuff — when he says fire behaves a certain way, it’s not because he’s read a lot about that or watched Backdraft a few dozen times (well, both of those may be true, but neither is the primary reason he can say that fire behaves a certain way). The authenticity about this kind of thing shines forth and adds a layer of reality to this novel. He knows guys just like Cole — and probably most of the other firefighters and Smoke Eaters — he knows the devastation that fire leaves behind (both to structures and people), and what it takes to keep pressing on in the face of that.

There is a lot more that I want to try and cover, but this is one if those books that if I said everything I wanted to, it’d take a week to write and an hour to read – so let me wrap this up (man, I didn’t even talk about Grigsby’s Canada…the book is worth a look just for that). This is full of action, and some of the ways a gentleman of Cole’s age keeps up with the action are pretty smartly conceived, but there’s some thinking involved, too. Still, you’ll be kept leaning forward in your seat. It’s a good story; with great, developed characters; a wonderful concept; all executed like a seasoned pro was behind it all. There are some little details that will make you chuckle as you read them (the misunderstandings of barely remembered 20th century culture, for example). Smoke Eaters is going to be one of the best UF reads you find this year.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from the good folks over at Angry Robot via NetGalley in exchange for this post and my honest take on the book — thanks to both for their generosity and this rockin’ read.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

Pub Day Repost: Closer Than You Know by Brad Parks

I’m afraid this comes across as a collection of backhanded compliments — I hope I’m wrong about that. If so, I didn’t mean it.

Closer Than You KnowCloser Than You Know

by Brad Parks
eARC, 416 pg.
Dutton Books, 2017
Read: December 6 – 8, 2017

When you read a book about a dog — from Marley & Me to Where the Red Fern Grows — you’ve got a pretty good idea what’s going to happen near the end. Same goes for a Nora Ephron movie. Or a Horror flick. But you still read or watch them, and you cry, or laugh and “awww”, or jump in your seat when you’re supposed to. Even on repeat reads/viewings. But when done right, those things just work. Similarly, think of a roller coaster — you may stand outside the fence watching the thing go around the track while standing in line (some lines give you plenty of opportunity to study), and armed with that study, as well as the your own eyes, you know that track is going to drop from in front of you in a couple of seconds — or the coaster is about to hit the loop — that doesn’t stop your stomach from lurching when it does.

Why do I bother with that? It’s a thought that kept running through the back of my mind while reading Closer Than You Know. By the time I hit the 10% mark, if you’d made me write down what I expected to happen — the reveals, the twists, the story beats, etc. — I’d have gotten an A. I’m not saying I’m smarter than the average bear or anything, anyone who’s read/watched a handful of thrillers would’ve been able to, too. And it worked. It absolutely worked. How Parks pulls it off, I do not know, but he does. He’s just that good.

And all the stuff that I didn’t guess? Oh, man, it was just so sweet when Parks delivered it, there were a couple of scenes that just left me stunned. And, I should rush to note, the way Parks made a couple of reveals that I’d seen coming from the start were so well done, it was like I hadn’t called the shot.

In his previous stand-alone, Parks said that he wanted to write about the thing that scares him the most — his children being kidnapped. Closer Than You Know taps into a very similar fear — Child Protective Services taking your child from you, leaving you to the mercies of the machine where you’re presumed guilty. This time instead of “the bad guys,” faceless criminals, taking someone’s kids, this time it’s the forces of justice, of law and order, taking the child — they’re celebrated for it, they’re doing it “for the best interests of the child.”

What’s worse is that no one will tell Melanie Barrick why her infant son had been taken from his daycare. Melanie spent most of her childhood in the Foster Child system, and most of that time in the worse situations that system has to offer. This isn’t the stuff of nightmares for Melanie, mostly because I don’t think she has enough imagination for her subconscious to cook this up. And then she’s arrested for possession of cocaine and paraphernalia suggesting distribution — a felony that will guarantee she’s about to lose her little Alex for good.

Melanie is a “good person” — she’s one of the success stories that we don’t see as often as we’d like from the Foster Child system. She worked to put herself through college; has a great, supportive husband; a lousy job (but with benefits) — but one that will help her family get somewhere; and is a devoted, doting, loving mother. The kind of person we all want to think we’re surrounded by, but fear we probably aren’t.

From this point on, it’s a cyclone for despair as every part of her life — her job, her husband, her brother, her friends, her finances, her sense of privacy and security — is affected, is under siege during this ordeal. Can Melanie maintain her hope, maintain her innocence, maintain her conviction that she’ll hold her baby boy again?

In charge of prosecuting “Coke Mom” (the press is always so quick with these nicknames), is Amy Kaye. Amy Kaye could easily be the protagonist in any legal thriller, she’s just the kind of character you want to read in that kind of thing. She’s smart, dedicated and driven — at the moment, she’s primarily concerned with a serial rape investigation that she’s doing pretty much on her own. Amy starts to make progress for the first time in years when she’s put on this prosecution (largely for political reasons) — which she’s more than willing to do, but she hates to take away time and attention from the rape investigation. What really makes this difficult for Kaye is that Melanie is one of the most recent victims in this investigation.

So basically, things are not going well for these two women. There are occasional moments where there is hope, where there is a hint of humor, or life for them and it’s just enough to get you to let your guard down before the gears turn again and life gets bad. Melanie seems to be a living embodiment of Murphy’s Law — things just never go her way in this book. As she notes herself, addicts talk about hitting rock bottom — she isn’t like them, she keeps finding new bottoms. It’s during this part of the book, where the gears keep grinding away, where the Justice System seems most like a machine, and least like a method for determining (not presupposing) guilt, that things will really get to you. That stomach lurching I mentioned earlier? That image came from somewhere. It feels so real, it feels like this is something that actually happened to someone that Parks spent hours interviewing. I don’t know how you read these parts of the book and not get demoralized — but unable to put the book down, because you just have to, have to know what happens next.

As I’ve said before, I’ve been a Brad Parks fan since the first time I read his debut novel — and I miss Carter Ross, the star of his series. The bad thing for me reading Say Nothing and Closer Than You Know is that these are so good, he’s going to spend years doing books like this and I don’t know if he’ll be able to get back to Carter. On the other hand, I can’t complain really if he’s putting out reading that’s this compelling. Yeah, I said the book was largely predictable — and you’ll likely find it the same. But you will be wrong about some things and you won’t know how he’ll show you that you’re right. Think of a NASCAR race — we all know that it’s basically a series of guys going fast and turning left — but it’s how they go fast and turn left that makes all the difference. Parks delivers the goods — the word riveting doesn’t do this book justice. It’s compelling, riveting, gripping, exciting, and will make you rethink so much of what you may believe of the Criminal Justice and Child Protective systems. You will laugh, you will be stunned (in good and bad ways), you will give up hope for this poor mother.

And you will hate when the book ends — as much as you breathe a sigh of relief as you know you have some degree of closure.
Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Dutton Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

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4 1/2 Stars