The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh by Jenn Stroud Rossmann: A Great Read about the Less-Glamorous, Less-Successful Side of Silicon Valley

The Place You're Supposed to LaughThe Place You’re Supposed to Laugh

by Jenn Stroud Rossmann

eARC, 330 pg.
7.13 Books, 2018

Read: November 5 – 7, 2018

Those inclined to irony might find it in the Palo Alto Farmers Market assembled on asphalt, where there had once been an apricot orchard. Each weekend from May through December, the workweek parking lot filled with vendor stands and umbrellas protecting bins of trucked-in garlic cloves, avocados, tomatillos, et al. The University down the street was known as “The Farm,” though it hadn’t been one since the Stanfords donated their country estate and chartered a college in the 1880s. Stanford grads and especially its dropouts had been transforming the Valley ever since; the fruit came from further and further away.

It’s really hard to grab a representative quotation from this novel — but this comes close. There’s a hint of the humor, the capturing of a moment in time, societal observation, a hint of wistfulness, and even a modicum of critique.

It’s 2002, in many parts of the country the shadow of 9/11 looms large. It’s present in Palo Alto, but not to the degree it is other places — what looms larger is the bursting of the dot-com bubble, everyone around them has been impacted in some way by it — most people have been impacted in significant ways, although the ripples are still going out from them and affecting the lives of everyone in their community in some way.

Our focus in this novel is on the life of Chad Loudermilk and those who are near him. Chad’s 14 and is enduring his first year in high school. His best friend since . . . well, forever, Walter Chen attended there briefly, but was pulled out by his parents to attend the Roman Catholic academy nearby — for a greater focus on academics, and fewer active shooter drills. Life’s hard without Walter around. Chad’s mother works with “at risk” youth, on making wise decisions, while she’s still reeling from her mother’s death a few months earlier. Chad’s father, Ray, is dealing with ripples of the burst — the advertising agency he’s part of his dealing with a shift in clientele. There’s Scot, Chad’s next-door neighbor, the creator of Latte (wink, wink) — the Macromedia tool — a big brother figure, dispensing non-parental advice and playing video games (his wife really doesn’t have any time for Chad). There’s a new girl in school that Chad can’t stop talking about, and a couple of guys from the proverbial other side of the tracks that he met at a record store and is spending time with. The major focus of the plot is following Chad’s interactions with them over the course of a few months — we get chapters focusing on his parents and what’s going on in their lives, but on the whole, the rest of the characters are seen filtered through Chad’s experience.

The other major thread follows Chad’s maternal aunt, Diana, a physics professor we meet as she registers for a conference in Barcelona. She’s trying to re-establish her career after pressing pause on things to have a child with her best friend. It’s not easy for her to get back into the swing of things, but she’s close. As Chad’s aunt, there’s a lot of opportunity for the plotlines to intersect and overlap — but the sisters aren’t that close, so it’s not as frequent as it could’ve been. By the end of the novel, events have transpired enough that Diana’s as large a fixture in Chad’s life as Scot (maybe larger), so it’s easy to intermingle the story lines. But for the first 1/2-2/3 or so, there a clear distinction between the two — and it’s not clear why we’re getting both stories.

Another thing that’s not clear is what exactly is Chad’s story. This is close to a Bildungsroman, but we only really see the beginning of Chad’s development — it’s like the first Act of Chad’s Bildungsroman. Which isn’t to say that it’s an incomplete story, it’s not. It’s just about Chad starting adolescence. You don’t want to get the details from me, you want to get them from the book, but a lot of stuff happens. Nothing major like a school shooting, a terrorist attack, or anything. Just life, the ebbs and flows of people’s lives. I could actually sum up the major events of the novel in 2 sentences. One of them might be long-ish, but just two sentences.

Don’t get me wrong — there’s a plot to this book. But really, you don’t see it (well, I didn’t see it) until toward the end — maybe even after the end. This is not a bad thing, it just means you have to think about things a lot. My notes are filled with comments along the lines of “I really don’t see where this is going” or “I’m not sure what the point of all this is” — and they’re always followed with, “Don’t care, great stuff.” I really didn’t care where Rossmann was going, I was too busy enjoying the ride — the voice, the characters, the atmosphere, the little bits like the Farmers Market (above), were enough to keep me engaged, entertained and turning the pages.

I’m not going to drill down and talk about the various characters — or even just one. I could do a post just about Ray, or Scot, or a long one on Chad or Diane — I think I’d have to do a series on Chad’s mom. Instead I’ll talk about them as a collective whole — they’re people. There are things to like about them all, there’s plenty to dislike about them all (particularly the adults). A lot of what they do seem inconsistent with the characters as Rossmann has presented them, but that just makes them more human. There’s not one character in this book that isn’t a human — no one larger than life (Scot kind of is, but he’s larger than life in the way that we all know someone who seems to be that way). Any person in this book could easily be the person next to you in the bagel shop, sipping on their caffeinated beverage of choice. They’re delightful in that perceived realism, also in the way that Rossmann talks about them. Without approval of anything, you get the feeling that she has affection for every character in the book.

The clergymen who appeared — however briefly — in this book were a couple of the least objectionable depictions of clergy I can remember seeing lately. Not hypocritical, they actually seemed to believe in what they were saying, and were actually trying to help those they encountered. It’s not often you get to see that anymore, and it should be acknowledged when you see it.

I’ve been struggling for a few days — and I’m not sure I’m succeeding at the moment — to put into words the experience that is The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh. I think I was hooked by the end of chapter 1 — definitely by some point in the third chapter. I liked the book, I liked the characters, I liked the writing. It’s a pleasant, thoughtful experience. It’s what reading a book should be like — skillful writing, wonderfully drawn characters and prose you enjoy immersing yourself in.

The novel talks about a lot of things — one of the biggest themes is forgiveness. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the topic discussed in quite the same way in any format. I won’t suggest that Rossmann exhausted the idea, obviously, but she talked about it, depicted it, and had her characters think about it in ways I found refreshing and encouraging.

I’m not sure what else to say — The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh is a great read. It’s a strong novel that will make you think, will make you feel, and will leave you satisfied. Rossman writes with sensitivity, wit and skill. What else are you looking for?

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of this novel by the author in exchange for my honest opinion, which is seen above.

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4 1/2 Stars

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Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly: Bosch and Ballard Team Up in one of Connelly’s best

Dark Sacred NightDark Sacred Night

by Michael Connelly
Harry Bosch, #20/Renée Ballard, #2

Hardcover, 433 pg.
Little, Brown and Company, 2018
Read: October 31 – November 1, 2018

In a series that’s over twenty books long, there’s a lot of character development, recurring faces and names, and the like — there just has to be. But on the whole, there’s not a lot of connective tissue between the books, most of what happens in one book stays in that novel, and the next very likely won’t even mention those events. Which is really kind of odd, when you think of it. But that’s not the case here — this picks up the action from Two Kinds of Truth a few months later and the central case of this novel is one that Harry had reopened in it. This really is a sequel to Two Kinds of Truth in a way that Connelly really hasn’t given us since The Poet/The Narrows.

LAPD politics has moved Lucia Soto off from the case that Harry asked her to pick up — a murder of a fifteen year-old prostitute, Daisy Clayton — so she can devote time to something more pressing, but Harry doesn’t have to play that game. His own work on that cold case brings him back to the Hollywood Station, where he tries to look at some old files (without anyone knowing what he was up to). He’s caught by our new friend, Renée Ballard. Renée being the curious type quickly figures out what he’s looking into and pushes her way into the investigation — unlike Soto, she has time; unlike Harry, she has standing; it’s really the best thing that could happen for the case.

While she’s poking into this cold case and developing some sort of relationship with Harry Bosch — Renée has her own active cases, and regular Late Show duties to perform. I really like the way we get several little cases along the way with her in these two books — sure, there’s the big murder mysteries, but there’s also a robbery, a rape allegation, and other crimes that she has to deal with. This adds variety to the book (as it did in The Late Show), a touch of realism, and gives the readers multiple ways to see her in action.

Harry also has an official investigation to pursue — a cold case in San Fernando is heating up thanks to Harry’s work uncovering a witness. His prime suspect is now a high-ranking member of a pretty serious gang and the consequences for this witness are potentially huge — and things go quickly wrong with this case. So wrong that Harry’s future with SFPD — and his own safety — are in jeopardy.

There are so many balls in the air in this novel that it’s a testament to Connelly’s skill that they never get confused, he devotes time to each as he should, in a way that does justice to each storyline and the book never feels over-populated. If Dark Sacred Night had nothing else going for it, just the construction would be enough to commend it. But there’s so much more to commend the novel, too. There’s a little levity, a lot of darkness, a lot of solid procedural material, a couple of bent rules, and some satisfying story telling — just to name a few of the commendable things. I’m leaving a lot off that list, if only for reasons of space and time.

There’s one criminal here — I’m trying not to spoil anything — who spouts off about his victims not being anyone, of not counting. He’s the philosophical opposite of Harry’s “Everyone counts” mission. It’s an excellent way to highlight just what makes Harry — and maybe Renée — tick and what separates them and some of the gray areas they walk in from those on the other side of the law. We have multiple murderers in this book for whom their victims are just tools, just objects, things go be used. While for Harry, Renée, and those like them — these are people with hopes, dreams, pain and suffering that need to be protected, defended and avenged.

A downside for me was how little non-case work time we got with Renée. Harry had time with Maddie, Cisco and Elizabeth in addition to all the police. Renée got almost no time with Lola, nothing with her grandmother, and only a little time with anyone outside of the Hollywood Station that wasn’t involved in a crime she was investigating. I liked her non-police world just as much as I like Harry’s and wish we’d have gotten time in it.

Like many, I knew that Bosch and Ballard would team-up eventually. But no one expected it so soon. Before reading this, I’d said that I would’ve liked another book or two just to get to know Renée a bit more before bringing Harry in. However, having read this — I’m glad it happened now (still, wouldn’t have minded the other). Having the two of them together emphasizes the non-Bosch-ness of Renée, which is good. Also, it gives her someone she can count on, not overly-influenced by her history, department politics, or any of the nonsense that will follow her for the rest of her career. This also gives Harry a way away from cold cases and San Fernando. Altogether, it’s a smart move on Connelly’s part. Now I guess we just wait on the inevitable involvement of Mickey.

Between the merging of the two worlds, the strong emotional tie Harry has to Daisy and her mother, the upheaval the other case brings to his life, and the continued development of Renée Ballard as a character — there’s just so many positives to this book that it’s hard to enumerate them all. I think this is the best book that Connelly has done — in any of his series — in years. It’s been ages (if ever) that he’s had a clunker of a novel, but this one seems more effective, more entertaining than most. It’s just so well done. This is a must-read for Bosch fans, Renée Ballard fans, Connelly fans or anyone who likes seeing one of the masters of the genre at the top of his game.

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4 1/2 Stars

Video Killed the Radio Star by Duncan MacMaster: A Murder Mystery as Fun as The Buggles’ Song

(or the cover by The Presidents of the United States of America, either will work)

Video Killed the Radio StarVideo Killed the Radio Star

by Duncan MacMaster
Series: Kirby Baxter, #2

Kindle Edition, 261 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018
Read: October 15 – 16, 2018

“I fear we will never be mistaken for the Algonquin Round Table.”

“We’ll have to work on our witty repartee,” said Molly. “I plan on taking a course on banter, ripostes, badinage, and persiflage.”

“Even persiflage?”

“Especially persiflage,” said Molly. “There is nothing worse than sub-par persiflage.”

“You might need to get a sub-par persiflage lanced.”

“We’ve hit the nonsense phase of the night earlier than usual.”

“I like nonsense,” said Kirby, “it distracts me.”

Kirby Baxter just wants to live a quiet life out of the spotlight: hanging out with his girlfriend, Molly, when he can; restoring a car with his valet/bodyguard/etc.; and drawing his comics. And now that the excitement about the murder he solved at Omnicon dying down, he’s on the verge of doing that. But the mayor of his hometown knows Kirby, and has no shame in extorting his cooperation with a small problem that he’s having.

You see, one of the town’s major landmarks — an old, abandoned mansion — is in dire need of upkeep and remodeling. And a reality show full of C-List celebrities (maybe D- or E-list) have recently set up shop to do that work. But the city’s having second thoughts and they want Kirby and his über-perception skills to find a reason to shut down production and send them packing to disrupt another locale.

Kirby visits the production, talks to the cast and producers, looks around and comes up with a lot of observations and conclusions — and could cause a lot of inconvenience and embarrassment for everyone involved from those observations — but he can’t find what the mayor wants. That accomplished, he gets back to pursuing his best life now — which lasts just a few hours. Because before he can start to collect from the mayor for the work, one of the celebrities is found dead.

So, it’s back to the mansion for Kirby, this time to act as a consultant ot the local police as they investigate this suspicious death. Which is soon followed by another. And an attack on another cast member. And . . . well, you get the idea.

It’s nice that MacMaster didn’t repeat the whole “Kirby has to win over a skeptical and antagonistic police officer” thing — this time, thanks to most of the force having grown up with him, they all accept his talents and skills — an expect him to deliver.

The cast of the reality show, “Million Dollar Madhouse,” is filled with the typical collection of has-beens, almost-weres, and celebs trying to stage a comeback. Initially, I rolled my eyes at each of them, but the more time I spent with them, the more I appreciated and enjoyed them. In particular, the Kardashian-esque character totally won me over. Like in the previous book, there’s a large cast of characters that MacMaster juggles expertly — there are so many suspects to the murders, as well as witnesses for Kirby and the police to wade through.

Almost every serious suspect has the same defense — they didn’t want the initial victim dead. They wanted him to make a fool out of himself on national TV, possibly seriously injuring himself with a power tool. Some would follow that up with some other form of revenge — but if he’s dead, no one could get the revenge they wanted. It’s not ideal, but it’s an honest defense.

Gustave was slightly less super-human this time out — but he’s still in the Ranger/Hawk/Joe Pike nigh-impossible stratosphere. As much as I like everyone else in this series, it’s arguable that Gustave is MacMaster’s best creation — not just the character, but how MacMaster uses him.

I did miss Mitch. But was glad to see Molly and Kirby talk about him — and even make a joke he wasn’t around to make himself. It’s probably good that he wasn’t around — it’ll mean when we see him again, it’ll be easy to appreciate him without worrying about over exposure.

In the place of Mitch, we have Molly’s assertive and cunning cousin — she runs a gossip-website and wheedles her way into the investigation in order to land a story big enough to put her and her site on the map. Kirby clearly vacillates between finding uses for her and finding her distracting.

Molly and Kirby are cuter together than they were previously, and I could watch the two of them banter any day. It seemed harder to incorporate Molly into the story this time, and hopefully it’s easier for MacMaster in Kirby #3, but as difficult as it was, it was absolutely worth it.

I’m not sure exactly what it is about MacMaster’s writing that works so well for me, but it does. Just before I started writing this, I started to draw some parallels between these Kirby Baxter books and Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game and The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). I didn’t have time to fully flesh this idea out, but Raskin’s work definitely was formative for me and if the comparison hold up, that could explain a lot. The mix of humor, real emotions and complex mystery is the sweet spot for me and MacMaster consistently hits it. It’s not easy, there are precious few who try — and fewer that succeed. This is the third novel I’ve read by him and it seals the deal, I’ll buy everything he writes as soon as I can without really looking at what the book is about.

I was a little worried that this book wouldn’t live up to A Mint-Conditioned Corpse, and I don’t think it did — but I don’t know what could have for me. I’d enjoyed the other so much that it’s almost impossible to live up to — and the reality show setting didn’t do anything for me — they just leave me cold. The fact I’m rating Video Killed the Radio Star as high as I am is all about how effortlessly charming and entertaining this seems. Effortless always, always, always equals blood, sweat and tears — or at least a lot of work. This must’ve taken a great deal of labor, and it was absolutely worth it. A clever mystery, clever dialogue, and very clever characters in a funny, twisty story. The Kirby Baxter books are must reads, no doubt about it. Give this one a shot — I don’t see how you can’t enjoy it.

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4 1/2 Stars

Stoned Love by Ian Patrick: No Sophomore Slump in Sight with this Thriller.

Stoned LoveStoned Love

by Ian Patrick
Series: Sam Batford, #2

Kindle Edition, 246 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018
Read: September 14 – 15, 2018

I need to blend in where I shouldn’t belong. The best undercover officers have no air of ego or the appearance of a police mannequin. After all, one sniff of pig and your ass is bacon. I’ve no intention of being served up at any criminal’s barbecue.

How do you follow up 2017’s Rubicon, the twisty, morally ambiguous (at best) tale of an undercover cop? Well, if you’re Ian Patrick, you do it by bringing that shady cop back and putting him in a tighter spot with threats (physical, legal and career) on all sides.

Sam Batford has had a little time off to recuperate and get his head on straight after Rubicon — hopefully giving the heat on him a little time to cool down, and maybe give Big H time to move on from the setback Batford dealt him.

The Met has a new assignment for him — working with the same DCI as he did last time, DCI Klara Winter. During the last assignment, she wasn’t sure she could trust Batford — now she’s convinced that she can’t. In fact, while she wouldn’t mind taking down the criminals that Batford infiltrates, her main objective is to arrest Batford and his Superintendent Mike Hall, a pair she’s convinced are dirty. She’s right, of course, but that’s beside the point.

Ostensibly, Batford’s assignment is to infiltrate a group that’s supposedly planning a major armed robbery and will need a driver of some sorts. But the clock is ticking so he doesn’t have time to do this carefully. Winter has someone already embedded with the crew giving her information, and their primary purpose is to get dirt on Batford and Hall. Which sounds good, but when you get a couple of guys as cagey and wily as this pair, that’s no easy task.

At the same time, Hall’s told Batford that between family and work stresses, this is his last hurrah. Now, he’d like to start his retirement with a sizeable bankroll, and trusts that Batford will find a way to make the both of them some money from just whatever it is that this crew is up to. The crew’s leader, who goes by the cuddly moniker of Razor, is a long-time “unauthorized informant” of Hall’s. And now, he’s sending Batford in to get him arrested. Which seems odd, but it does give Hall enough of an inside track to help Batford.

So, essentially, Batford needs to find a way to get rich off these criminals, hopefully get enough evidence for some arrests, stop them from pulling off whatever they’re trying to — and avoid getting arrested himself (not that he knows he’s being targeted for that). Oh, yeah, and Big H hasn’t moved on, forgotten or forgiven him — in fact, he has an active contract out for Batford’s life, and there are people trying to collect on that. Sounds like a pretty rough time for him.

In Rubicon, there was a question (at least for me) throughout — just how bent is Batford? Will he actually do law enforcement, or is he just out for himself? What are the limits for him? Will he have any success in either his criminal or police activities? In Stoned Love, the questions are different — we know he’s bent pretty far. So it’s just will Batford survive? Will Winter arrest him? Will Hall use him to save his own skin? Will Razor do something to him? Will Big H’s killers eliminate him?

This changed the dynamic of the book for me, and made it a lot easier for me to enjoy this novel and cheer on Batford. There’s no moral or legal gray area any more. Like Michael Corleone or Hannibal Lechter, Sam Batford is a despicable character that the reader wants to find success. Thankfully, he’s nervy enough and clever enough, that there’s a pretty good chance that he will. At least for a while.

Winter is manipulative, deceptive and devoted more to her career than anything else. But she’s, technically, the good guy here. Everyone else is the kind of criminal that the police are supposed to stop, not become. But because we’re in Batford’s head,and Winter’s primarily seen as an obstacle for him to overcome, the reader roots for him and against her — knowing the whole time that it should be the other way around.

There’s frequent and repeated commentary on the effects of Brexit, budget cuts, personnel cuts and other moves by the British government that are impacting the police services throughout the novel. Patrick is a former police officer and if these aren’t his actual views coming forth through Batford, he’s a better author than I think. If Batford’s diagnosis of what’s going on with the police in Britain is accurate, it sounds pretty frightening.

It’s a minor thing — I only noticed this as I started to write this post, and I’ve recently had a bad experience with reading a novel that couldn’t pick a verb tense, so I was primed — but Patrick’s use of the present tense for these books is a subtle, and incredibly effective way of cranking up the tension, propelling the action forward, and pushing the reader to keep up with the pace of the book. I should’ve picked up on it with Rubicon, and am a little annoyed with myself for taking this long to notice.

I enjoyed Rubicon, but I appreciated what Patrick was doing and how he was doing it more. With Stoned Love, I still admired and appreciated his skill and aims, but I enjoyed the story more — I resented things like work and family for preventing me from finishing this as quickly as I wanted to, and absolutely relished an airline flight that meant I had uninterrupted reading time*. I think Stoned Love is an all-around better effort (which is saying something) and makes me very excited to see what comes from Ian Patrick next.

Not everyone enjoys reading books where the police are just as dirty as those they’re supposed to be stopping — and I understand that — but if you’re someone who can embrace a tarnished knight, someone who seems to be law enforcement malgré lui, you don’t want to waste any more time, get your hands on Rubicon and Stoned Love and prepare to be impressed.


* I also really appreciated having this to focus on rather than the fact that I was in a giant metal tube that has no business being that far off the ground, but that’s another story.

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4 1/2 Stars

Pub Day Repost: Colorblind by Reed Farrel Coleman: Jesse Stone is Clean, Sober and in Dire Straits

ColorblindRobert B. Parker’s Colorblind

by Reed Farrel Coleman
Series: Jesse Stone, #17
eARC, 368 pg.
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018
Read: July 18, 2018

This is Coleman’s fifth Jesse Stone novel, the seventeenth in the series overall and Coleman has really put his stamp on the character here. He’s made the series his own already, adding depth and shades of color to characters that’ve been around for years, don’t get me wrong. But everything he’s done could be changed, dropped, or ignored in the next — like an old Star Trek or Columbo episode. But following up from the closing pages of The Hangman’s Sonnet, in Colorblind he’s enacted permanent change on Jesse — yeah, things might not go smoothly from this point — he may stumble. But things won’t be the same — cannot be the same without some sort of Star Wars Expanded Universe level retcon. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

First we need to start with the crime part of the novel — it’s ostensibly what people are buying this for, and the novel’s focus. I can absolutely see this happening in Real Life ™ — a white supremacist group from New York is attacking mixed race couples (and by “mixed,” I obviously mean one white person and one person from another race — they wouldn’t care if an Asian man and a Hispanic woman were together) and spreading propaganda in Paradise, of all places. There’s a reason Paradise was chosen — several, actually, and it actually makes sense in context — it’s not just a convenient way to get it into a Jesse Stone novel. Only one of the crimes involved is technically something that Jesse is supposed to be investigating.

Once one of his officers becomes embroiled in this series of crimes — and the possible target of an elaborate frame job — Jesse stops really caring about things like jurisdictions, and will stop at nothing to find the truth. If there’s a connection between the different crimes, he’ll find it. The question he has no answer to is: for what end? Why are these people in Paradise? What do they have to gain from framing his officer?

Yes, certain elements of this story stretch credulity a bit — but in context it absolutely works. And while I say something stretches credulity, I can’t help but wonder if it really does. The actions of this particular supremacist group might not be that much different from the dreams of too many. Also, the race-based crimes, the murders, the vandalism — everything that Paradise or Massachusetts can prosecute people for — are not the biggest evil perpetrated by the members of that group. There’s a deeper darkness working here, something that people with radically different views can also perpetrate — Coleman could’ve gone the easy route and made it all about “Them,” but he points at something that everyone can and should recoil from.

While Jesse works to prevent things from getting out of hand in Paradise, he is struggling to prevent himself from doing what he’s so often done before — retreat to the bottle. He has several reasons to, several excuses to — and decades of experience telling him to do so. Fresh (Very, very fresh) off a stint at rehab, Jesse starts attending AA meetings (in Boston, nothing local that could cause problems for himself or anyone else in the meeting). I absolutely loved this part of the book — I think Coleman’s treatment of Jesse’s drinking (and his various attempts to limit/stop it) has been so much better, realistic and helpful than anything that came before. Colorblind takes that another step up, and sets the character on a path that he needs to be on. Jesse’s not a rock, but he’s working on becoming one when it comes to this addiction. I don’t know (don’t want to know) where Coleman is going with this — but I love it. Character growth/development, an actual healthy approach, and Coleman’s own stamp on the series. Even if Jesse relapses in the future, he’s actually been sober (not just taken a break from drinking) — I love it (have I mentioned that?). It may have been a little too on-the-nose to have Jesse’s new AA friend be named Bill, but, it made me smile.

As for the regulars — we’ve got some good use of Healy (retirement can’t stop him!); Lundquist is settling in nicely to this world (very glad about that, I’ve liked him since his intro back that other Parker series, whatever it was called); Molly was outstanding (it’s hard to mis-write Molly, but it’s very nice when it’s done correctly); and Suit is still the guy you want riding shotgun when things get harry (ignoring the fact that someone else was actually carrying the shotgun when it came to it — it’s a metaphor, folks!). Surprisingly enough, given the B-Story, Dix doesn’t make an appearance — but Jesse can’t stop thinking about him, so he’s here, he’s just “offscreen.” That was a nice touch (and hopefully not too much of a spoiler), it’d have been very easy to have almost as much Dix in this book as Jesse. Coleman has not only got the original cast of characters done well, he’s introduced a few of his own regulars and has merged them into this world well (e.g., Mayor Walker, Monty Bernstein). And it’s not just characters he’s blending, this book is full (not overstuffed) of call-backs to the oldest Stone novels as well as Coleman’s — this universe is alive and well and whole.

As far as the writing — it’s Reed Farrel Coleman, I really don’t need to say anything else. I will say a little bit, though, he balances the various stories and tones of these stories well — the book feels like a natural outgrowth of every book that came before, however minor the stylistic choices and depth have changed over the last few years. Parker could have written this. I don’t think (especially in the latter years) he would have, but he could have. Yet, it’s undeniably a Coleman book. It’s impressive the way that Coleman can do this (see almost everyone that’s tried a Bond novel [honestly haven’t tried one in years, maybe someone has], or Robert Goldsborough to see that not everyone is capable of it). There is one moment, I thought, that Coleman faltered a bit and got into some pretty heavy editorializing — if this was a first person book, it would have worked; or if he had been obviously channeling one of the characters, I wouldn’t have said anything; but when your omniscient third-person narrator gets that opinionated, it’s not good.

A solid crime story that resonates near the too-close-for-comfort zone given the cultural events (which probably is how some people felt with 1970’s Parker), some great character development — and plenty of fodder for Coleman’s next (I ignored one storyline above because I don’t think I can talk about it without ruining it). This is a must for Jesse Stone fans and a decent entry point for new readers, too — it’ll get you to go back and read at least a few older books (I’m more than willing to help a new reader with an “Essential Jesse Stone” reading list — just let me know). Give this one a look folks, it deserves it.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Putnam Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

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4 1/2 Stars

Flashback Friday – Thank You, Goodnight by Andy Abramowitz: A book about a one-hit wonder by an author who I hope has a few more in him.

Long, tiring, but good week. But there’s just nothing left in the tank for something new, so I’m going to repost about couple of books from the past that I loved.

Thank You, GoodnightThank You, Goodnight”

by Andy Abramowitz
Hardcover, 338 pg.
Touchstone, 2015
Read: June 30 – July 3, 2015

In most instances, space between people grows like mold, neglected just long enough to be noticed. You intended to wipe it clean, but the more of it there is, the more daunting a task it becomes to erase it. Not so with me and the band. I’d discontinued those people as if they were a premium cable channel that I’d finally realized was broadcasting nothing I wanted to watch.

From passages like that, a nice mix of thoughtful, sentimental, with a bit of a grin; to the out-and-out funny, like the funniest suicide attempt I’ve read in a long time, possibly ever (something worthy Save Steve Holland’s Lane Myer, but longer); this book covers the spectrum. Not only covers it, but does so with assurance and panache. It’s one of those first novels that makes you wonder what could possibly be done as a follow up.

Teddy Tremble is a successful enough lawyer for someone who’s heart isn’t really in it, while still being good at it. He’s sort of coasting through life — being good enough at his job, good enough with his girlfriend of forever, good enough for his social circle, but not good enough for his father (but after meeting him, you understand that’s just a given). He’s forty-ish and realizes that life is going to pretty much stay this way. On the whole, he seems okay with that — but in the back of his mind he knows he’s not. He won an Academy Award. His band was huge for a little while in the 1990’s, before his hubris ruined things. Sure, things are good enough now, but once upon a time they were great.

Then through a truly humbling and bewildering set of circumstances, Teddy comes across a group of huge Tremble fans. Seriously, die-hard doesn’t begin to describe these people. Think something akin to the kind of people that organized the first Star Trek convention back when it wasn’t a cultural phenomenon, just a short-lived and then canceled show. This changes everything. The adulation, the attention, the satisfaction of performing gets under his skin and he starts writing music for the first time in a long time.

Pretty soon, he’s (forgive the cliché) trying to get the band back together — his agent and producer are on board, convinced that what he’s written exceeds his former quality. Incidentally, both of these characters are the kind that we readers hope to come across — supporting characters that threaten to steal the entire novel, but when used properly just make the whole thing better.

Anyway, with these two on board — Teddy just has to convince the rest of the band to give it a shot, to trust him. Maybe even to forgive him for what he did to them so long ago. Then he has to convince music fans to take them seriously. Neither of these tasks is going to be easy. Both are practically impossible, really.

The book starts out as pretty entertaining, definitely amusing. But it doesn’t stop there — it gets better, deeper, emotionally richer all the while. By the time I got to (and through) Chapter 20, I tweeted that, “Not sure I need to read another word (am going to), but that was as close to perfect as it gets.” I’m still thinking about it a month later.

At various places through the novel, Teddy observes: “One day I’ll die, and this will be one of the things I did with my time.” I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen one sentence used so many different ways with so many different meanings depending on the context. Sometimes he’s says it wryly, sometimes caustically, sometimes wistfully, sometimes with pride. It’s one of those writerly things that when you see it in action, you wonder why more people don’t try it.

Each of these characters — the agent, the producer, the bandmates, their (sometimes very odd) families, Teddy’s girlfriend, associates in the law firm, and others — are well-drawn. Occasionally familiar, without being stock characters or cliché, each character ends up being strong enough that you want to spend at least a little more time with them. But Abramowtitz is too capable of steward of his resources and gives us just enough to leave us wanting more.

I’ve seen a lot of comparisons of Thank You to Hornby’s High Fidelity and Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You. I don’t get that. Maybe it’s just because these people haven’t read anything else by these authors — they should be comparing this to Hornby’s Juliet, Naked and Tropper’s One Last Thing Before I Go (to be fair, I have seen a little of this comparison, but no one else that I’ve seen has tagged Juliet). These three cover some of the same territory, and Abramowitz comes out looking really good in that company. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked Juliet, I know I liked it more than most people I know. But I don’t think it was as good as it wanted to be or as it thought it was. Thank You seems to do the things that Juliet was wanting to do but didn’t get done. I’m not necessarily saying it’s a better book (I might lean that way), but this is more successful in the areas they overlap. Similarly, while I wouldn’t say that One Last Thing is a bad book, it can’t hold a candle to this one. I’m not trying to make this a competition, but for this first-time novelist to get things better than old pros like Hornby and Tropper says so much about him.

One day I’ll die, and reading this will be one of the things I did with my time. I’m so glad it was.

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4 1/2 Stars

The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie: A Near-Perfect Thriller Debut that You Won’t Want to Miss

The DrifterThe Drifter

by Nicholas Petrie
Series: Peter Ash, #1

Trade Paperback, 371 pg.
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015

Read: August 16 – 17, 2018

Peter pushed the truck hard toward downtown, the city roads rough with potholes, trying to get to Lake Capital begot they closed the doors for the day.

One eye on the rearview, watching for the black Ford. But it would be easy to miss in heavy traffic. And Peter’s truck would be easy to follow. Unless he was willing to rent a beige sedan, he couldn’t do anything about it.

He didn’t have a plan for Lake Capital. But the principle wasn’t complicated. It was the same principle he’d operated under for years.

Poke a stick into something and see what happened.

This approach to problem solving isn’t new — Philip Marlowe employed it, Spenser loves it, Harry Dresden has invoked it — and I’m pretty sure a certain homeless former MP has mentioned it a time or two. It may be tried and true — but that’s only because it works really well (at least in fiction). Peter Ash is one of the leading candidates for “the next Jack Reacher,” so he might as well employ it, too. It’s a very effective stick in this instance, I should add.

Now Reacher, as you probably know, was a career Army MP, the son of a career Marine officer — he’d spent his entire life living on military bases until his discharge following the Army’s downsizing after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In reaction to that kind of living, he’s taken to walking all over the US, getting to know the country. Peter Ash is a recently discharged Marine Lieutenant, with a couple of degrees in economics, who is wandering around the country a little bit. His reason for it differs from Reacher’s, since coming back to the States after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Peter has panic attacks anytime he’s indoors — he calls it “white static.”

This has led to him essentially living in the woods for the past few months, until he heard that his former sergeant and friend, Jimmy Johnson, has killed himself. Peter quickly came to Milwaukee to visit Jimmy’s wife, Dinah. He wasn’t around to help his friend, but maybe he can assuage his guilt by helping out with some much needed home repairs on his behalf.

He starts with the front porch — and while he’s working on it, discovers a hidden suitcase filled with money, and four bricks of plastic explosive. This seems strange, Peter hides the bricks, and gives the money to Dinah. Around the same time, a mysterious figure comes by looking for something (probably the suitcase, but he never mentions is). The two of these together gets Peter’s curiosity piqued — and he sets out to find out what his friend was up to before he died. He barely beings this before someone tries to kill him.

Peter survives, and becomes even more certain that something is going on — Jimmy was on to something just before he died. Peter has to find out what — to honor Jimmy’s memory, protect Dinah and her two sons, and maybe get a little peace for himself — maybe find some forgiveness for failing to help Jimmy.

This isn’t just guy wanders into town, finds trouble and starts hitting/shooting things and people until the problem is solved. Peter has to think, he has to investigate, he takes wrong paths, he really needs to find a shower and a way to clean a very large dog — which isn’t saying anything about the investigation, it’s just another thing he has to do along the way (still, harder problems than you might expect when you throw in his white static). There’s plenty of hitting and shooting, but it’s not the focus.

Yes, Peter is very much in the Reacher mold — but he’s different in very significant ways. The ways in which he’s not Reacher make him a fascinating character on his own. He has a sense of humor, he’s lonely, he’s a bit more self-reflective — he knows that he didn’t come back from the wars whole and intact, and is seeking to fix that. Maybe. He’s got a different kind of education, and a different way of looking at the world. The ways he’s similar to Reacher (good with weapons, devastating to hand-to-hand combat opponents, fast thinking, strategic, etc.) simply ensure that he’s fun to read about. Both of these sides together give us a Thriller protagonist that’s a sheer pleasure to read.

So Peter has “White Static”, Jimmy clearly had problems adjusting to being back home, but they’re not treated as the only ones — there are many others seen and talked about in this book. It’s not done exploitatively, it’s done to highlight the problems and the many, various ways they can be addressed successfully. Nor are they talked about in a way that suggests everyone who comes back from combat service comes back damaged. Nothing is universalized or generalized. I’m certainly not speaking from any kind of first, or even second-hand, experience here — but it appears to me that Petrie dealt with these psyches in just the right way — compassionate, understanding, and accepting.

As there is an element of mystery to the story, I’m not going to talk about the villains much. But they are just as good as the rest of the book — wide-ranging motivations, differing levels of commitment to the enterprise, they’re not all cookie-cutter types. They are not cartoonish, they are not super-villains. They are straight-from-the-headlines evil though. I could absolutely see something like this happening and it working.

I could have spent more time with just about every other supporting character — not in a “hey, you could’ve developed them better” way, but in a “I liked them and enjoyed Peter’s interactions with them” kind of way. Sure, that would’ve involved more character development, but not because they were lacking anything, it just would have worked out that way. Dinah’s an ER nurse with a lot of grit, and isn’t sure what to think of her late husband — but is dedicated to being the best mom she can to their kids. Charlie, their oldest, has learned a lot from his dad and is trying his pre-teen best to live like he should and be “the man of the house.” There’s a woman from the Veteran’s group that tried to help Jimmy who is a wonderful character, too. I could say more about her and the other supporting characters, but you should meet them yourself.

The last advantage that this one has over any of the Jack Reacher novels — and frankly, most Thrillers, is Mingus. He’s a very large dog that Ash finds living under the porch at his friend’s house (that porch led to the discovery of a lot) — he’s a bigger, nastier version of Walt Longmire’s Dog. Just as friendly, too — toward people not being threatening, anyway.

Okay, I obviously found this fantastic. The tension was high throughout; the pacing was fantastic; the actions scenes were fast, furious and believable; the story was clever and yet sensitive to current events, and the people represented by the characters; the stakes were real and believable; Peter’s code and the code(s) of those around him are wonderful to think about, examine and possibly try to adopt. They don’t get much closer to perfect than this — I’m definitely picking up the next two in the series as soon as I can, and I can’t wait to talk about them without nearly so many references to Jack Whatshisname.

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4 1/2 Stars