Deep Dark Night by Steph Broadribb: High Stakes Danger for Lori Anderson in the Windy City

Deep Dark Night

Deep Dark Night

by Steph Broadribb
Series: Lori Anderson, #4

Kindle Edition, 320 pg.
Orenda Books, 2020

Read: January 16-17, 2020
Grab a Steph Broadribb book from your local indie bookstore!

I’ve always felt an element of fear about the jobs I do. In the right dosage it can help you. It gets your adrenaline firing, makes you think clearer, faster—gets you alert and ready to tackle anything that comes your way. But if the fear builds too much, all that good stuff swings things around; the nerves make you hesitant, jumpy and too cautious. That’s when you start making mistakes. And mistakes, in my world, can be fatal.

After barely getting to take a breath following the events of Deep Dirty Truth, Lori finally gets the chance to work off her debt to FBI Agent Monroe. This puts Lori and JT in Chicago trying to get the mobster Cabressa to take possession of some stolen goods. Once that’s done, a series of dominoes will fall and Monroe will be able to put him away for a very long time.

So he insists, anyway.

Step one involves Lori getting an invite to an incredibly exclusive Poker game, Step two involves giving her a crash course in playing Poker so she seems mostly credible in the game. (this isn’t presented as a comedic segment, but I chuckled at this part of the book—also, I’m jealous, I wish I could learn how to play like this).

Now, every thriller reader knows what will happen next—no plan, no matter how thorough, how well-thought-out no matter who’s involved, will work. If for no other reason than it would produce a dull novel. But also, every thriller reader has heard the line, “no plan survives first contact with the enemy” and knows it to be true. The questions that need to be answered are: how badly will the plan go awry? and How will Lori and JT react to it?

So let me assure you, when this plan is derailed, it’s derailed in a spectacular fashion, providing a lot of danger for our heroes, peril for those around them, and more than enough tension to satisfy a hungry reader. Lori and JT respond appropriately, not perfectly (which would be boring), but they display the stamina, resourcefulness, and tenacity we’ve come to expect from them.

The poker game collected quite the interesting mix of players—sports figures, politicians, as well as shady characters like Cabressa. When things go wrong during the game, it opens things up for a lot of drama and conflicting interests causing trouble for all involved. Suddenly, Lori and JT can’t focus solely on getting Cabressa to fall into Monroe’s trap—they have to worry about survival—their own, and as many others that they can help. Sure, Cabressa is still their target, but there’s a lot they have to go through before they can make him a priority.

I’m not going to get more in-depth than that, I’ll leave it there and say there’s more than enough going on plot-wise to fuel a book at least half again as long as this one. Broadribb has stacked the deck against the pair and it’s great to watch them try to navigate the situation.

The game takes place at the top of a pretty high building in Chicago and the action centers around that location, stories above the ground. In the real world, I’m pretty acrophobic—and occasionally (okay, more than occasionally), a movie can get me to feel the anxiety that heights can bring out in me. I don’t remember ever feeling symptoms while reading a book, but I did here. It’s not like Broadribb focused all that much on the height and risk of falling (it was there, but she didn’t belabor the point), but something about the way that she told the story, flicked that particular switch in my brain. There’s something very disconcerting about sitting in a comfortable seat (on the ground level like a sane person) but feeling like I was standing in a precarious* location several feet off the ground. I’m not promising that anyone else will experience what I did, I assume the rest of humanity is a bit better adjusted than I am, but for me that was an unexpected “bonus” to the book.

* Yeah, fine, my definition of a precarious location applies to perfectly safe—even benign—spots.

I’m a little worried about the long-term health of Lori’s elbows. She uses them so often as weapons, she probably heads back to Florida with at least one of them horribly bruised. I don’t remember this being the case in the previous novels, maybe I just forgot—or maybe she’s just relying on the technique in these circumstances (I remember more than once the narration in a Jack Reacher novel talking about the usefulness of that tactic compared to the use of a fist).

As far as long-term character development goes, Lori and JT start a conversation they’ve needed to have since, well, since we met the two of them about Dakota and why Lori didn’t tell JT about her before she did. This will prove helpful in the future and provide the opportunity for the relationship to grow and change. The two of them have some sort of plan going forward about their careers and daughter, but we’re going to have to come back to find out what they have in mind. Seeing these two deal with each other and their daughter is almost as rewarding to me as the action-hero kind of thing is, and Broadribb’s featuring both sides of Lori like this is a real strength of the series.

For my money, this is the best of the series—she’s got a real handle on these characters by now and knows just how to put them through the wringer in a way that provides real tension and thrills. I got more wrapped up in this than I expected to (and I had pretty high expectations at this point in the series), and it was absolutely worth it. Book five cannot arrive soon enough for me.

If you haven’t met this bounty hunter yet, you need to—either in the pages of this book or the beginning, either would work (but you might as well just buy the set all at once, you won’t be satisfied until you read them all). Deep Dark Night will win Broadribb some new fans and confirm those readers already along for the ride.


4 1/2 Stars

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Hacked by Duncan MacMaster: A Smart, Fun Sequel that Topped the One that Went Before

Hacked

Hacked

by Duncan MacMaster
Series: Jake Mooney, #2

Paperback, 258 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2019

Read: December 10-11, 2019

Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

“You’re a very different kind of man Jake Mooney,” she said. “It’s almost like you belong here, but don’t belong here.”

“How is that?”

“Your life is like a movie,” she said, “and I think the last thing you want is to live your life like that.” …

“This is my second go-round for this sort of thing,” I said, “and the problem with sequels is that they always have to top the one that went before them.”

I remember really enjoying Hack, our introduction to Jake Mooney. But, I didn’t remember exactly why I did (I guess I could’ve read my post about it, but that sounds too much like research). It took almost no time at all to remember once I dipped into this Hacked (and many of the details about Hack came back to me straight away, too). Hack had a strong voice, fun characters, a clever mystery, with a satisfying conclusion to wrap things up. Hacked gives us more of all that.

For those of you who haven’t met Jake Moody, he’s a former journalist turned ghostwriter. Two years before this novel, he rose to fame by solving multiple homicides. He then finished ghostwriting the autobiography of one of the murder victims. He then writes his own account of what transpired (see Hack for details), as well as a fantasy novel. Now he’s been talked into coming to LA to sell the movie rights to any/all of his books.

Before his days of ghostwriting, Jake lived in LA and still has plenty of friends there and touches base with a couple of them. One of the things everyone is talking about there is the hacking of a movie company and the release of private date from them—supposedly, this is a North Korean retaliation for the portrayal of Kim Jong Un in one of that studio’s movies. A legendary agent who Jake knew years ago inadvertently puts Jake in the middle of the investigation. Not long after that, a P.I. friend of his asks him to consult on the same topic.

When Jake arrives at his friend’s home, however, he finds his friend brutally murdered. The assumption has to be that the people behind the hack are the people who killed his friend. So while he really is content to leave the investigation into the hack to the proper authorities, seeing his friend’s body sets Jake inexorably into finding out who committed the murder (and the hack while he’s at it).

Jake’s assisted in this hunt by his agent friend, his new agent, an accountant turned security guard, a former FBI agent, a ride-share driver who’s always wanted to be up to escapades like this, and an attractive studio exec. Help comes from other directions, too, but I’m not going to ruin the surprise for you.

It’s not long before someone tries to kill Jake, he’s kidnapped more than once, assaulted, and . . . you know what? You wouldn’t believe me if I listed all that happens to this poor writer (also, why ruin the surprise?)—I couldn’t help imagining MacMaster asking himself, “What else can I do to Jake? A tiger attack? Nah, not sure how to get him in the cage, but I do know how to ….”

The LAPD is eager to pin all of the death and destruction on Jake, but the more they press him, the more adamant he becomes that he won’t leave. Given the strong cloud of suspicion that North Korea is behind the hack, and presumably the murder of his friend, the FBI is involved, too. They’re less inclined to suspect Jake of having anything to do with the murder, but they’d like him away from the case.

There are more than the requisite number of twists and turns to this case, none of them feels forced or gratuitous. And even when you’re faster at putting the pieces together than Jake is, you should probably take a beat before criticizing him, because you’re probably not as right as you think you are.

The tone is what separates this from similar mysteries. This is not a comedy —there’s a brutal murder, including signs of torture to start things off. There are threats of violence, actual violence, and more deaths to come. But the way that MacMaster tells it makes it become one of the funniest and most enjoyable reads of the year. Think Marshall Karp’s Lomax and Biggs Mysteries for tone. That’s probably not the most helpful comparison, come to think of it, because I’m not sure how many people are familiar with them (too few for sure). Okay, think of this as a Shane Black story—just a novel instead of a script, and there’s no tie to Christmas. MacMaster’s Kirby Baxter books are more overtly comical than his Jake Mooney books, but both are just flat-out entertaining and laugh-filled.

Typically, in books/TV/movies, Hollywood Agents are not depicted sympathetically. Which is probably a bit of an understatement, really. But Jake’s old friend and new agent are both depicted as decent people that he can rely on. That’s not really a plus or a minus when it comes to evaluating, but it’s so strange that I felt compelled to mention it. I can’t remember another fictional Agent who wasn’t some sort of duplicitous, manipulative, weasel.

The story, Jake and the other characters, the fun had a Hollywood’s expense, the twists, etc. would’ve been good enough to make me rave. But there’s a Chinese gentleman that plays a big role in the novel—I don’t want to say much about him, because you just have to meet him yourself. He pops up repeatedly throughout the novel, yet we really don’t spend that much time with him altogether. But he steals every scene he’s in. He’s one of my favorite new characters of 2019. If there’s a Hacked Again or Hack Harder or whatever, I hope MacMaster can come up with an excuse to use him again.

I just had so much fun with this one (a common theme when it comes to MacMaster)—I can’t think of a single reason why someone shouldn’t read this (you don’t have to read Hack first, by the way). Jake was right in what he said before, the problem with sequels is that they have to top the one that went before. Hacked easily does that. It’s smartly-written, cleverly-plotted and just fun to read. Go run and grab it!


4 1/2 Stars

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Blue Moon by Lee Child: A Very Timely Novel Puts Reacher in One of the Most Dangerous Positions He’s Been In

Blue Moon

Blue Moon

by Lee Child
Series: Jack Reacher, #24

Hardcover, 356 pg.
Delacorte Press, 2019

Read: December 2-3, 2019

Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

“We should be magnanimous in victory. Someone said that.”

“Full disclosure,” Reacher said. “I told you before. I’m a certain kind of person. Is the guy in the trunk still breathing?”

“I don’t know,” Abby said.

“But there’s a possibility.”

“Yes, there’s a possibility.”

“That’s me being magnanimous in victory. Normally I kill them, kill their families, and piss on their ancestors’ graves.”

“I never know when you’re kidding me.”

“I guess that’s true.”

“Are you saying you’re not kidding me now?”

“I’m saying in my case magnanimity is in short supply.”

“You’re taking food to an old couple in the middle of the night.”

“That’s a different word than magnanimous.”

“Still a nice gesture.”

“Because one day I could be them. But I’ll never be the guy in the trunk.”

“So it’s purely tribal,” Abby said. “Your kind of people, or the other kind.”

“My kind of people, or the wrong kind.”

“Who’s in your tribe?”

“Almost nobody,” Reacher said. “I live a lonely life.”

Reacher is on a bus bound for somewhere. He sees an older man being targeted for a mugging (both he and the would-be thief have noticed a fat envelope that seems to be holding cash). When the man and his predator get off at some city, Reacher abandons his planned trip to follow along.

Obviously, he foils the mugging, but the older man is injured, so Reacher appoints himself a guardian and assistant until he can get the man home. He learns that this man and his wife are in debt to a Ukrainian loan shark, and it’s not looking good. They got in this state due to some incredibly believable bad luck, and Reacher decides to take it upon himself to get them out of it. Maybe not permanently, but at least for the foreseeable future. He has essentially one week to extricate them from their current predicament, and Reacher is hopefully going to beat that clock and get back on the road.

We’re not told what city this takes place in, it doesn’t matter—it’s a small-to-medium sized city with two competing crime syndicates. One is a Ukranian mob, the other is an Albanian mob. They each control half the city, with a very clear line of demarcation. They’re currently enjoying an uneasy peace, and are nervous about a new police commissioner coming soon—neither group has been able to find a way to manipulate or bribe him and they’re in his sights. Before I forget, I want to say that I love that both groups speak/write in unbroken English—I get why other authors use broken English for these kinds of characters, but it feels less cartoonish this way.

Once Reacher starts doing his thing, a little comedy happens. Reacher is trying to do X. The Ukrainians see the effects and assume the Albanians are doing Y. The Albanians see the effects and assume the Ukrainians are up to Z. The clear messages Reacher is sure he’s sending aren’t being received by anyone. Before long the two factions are on the brink of war—which is the last thing that anyone wants.

While he’s trying to help out this older couple, Reacher befriends a waitress, Abby. Soon, she leads him to some other allies—a couple of musicians (one a former Marine) and a security consultant who used to be a Company Commander in an Armored Division in Europe during the Cold War. There’s some good-natured chest-thumping between the three veterans which helps lighten to tension.

Abby is tough and smart. She reminded me a lot of Patty from Past Tense—she adapts to the dangerous situation she finds herself in pretty well. She’s not crazy about it, she’s pretty freaked out, honestly. But she pulls herself together enough to help Reacher as well as being his conscience occasionally (she’s less willing than he is to leave a trail of bodies in their wake). Like Patty, once things get rolling, Abby starts analyzing her situation and what’s going on with the Ukrainians/Albanians in a very Reacher-esque way.

What makes this one distinctive from others in the series? It feels very ripped-from-the-headlines. Not in the sense that Law & Order based stories on actual events, but in that it addresses a handful of things that are in the news practically every day lately. Sure, Reacher frequently deals with real issues, but this seems the most timely since Gone Tomorrow a decade ago (I could be wrong about that, but that’s the one that jumps to mind without taking time to review the details of each of the 23 previous novels). I don’t think Child could/should keep that up, but doing something so fresh-feeling every now and then would be a great idea.

Also, Reacher seems a bit different—still Reacher, I’m not saying that Child’s changing him, but he’s not quite his usual self. For starters, he seems more inclined to a “kill ’em all” approach to the various criminals (especially later in the novel). Now, this could be because he wants to ensure the safety of this older couple who really can’t defend themselves, so he’s getting the defense in pre-emptively. The other possibility I can think of is that he assumes there’s only one language both organizations will understand.

The other difference is Reacher seems more mortal, at least more aware of his mortality. He tells Mrs. Shevick that he knows he will be beaten one day—but today isn’t that day. He’s also more obviously lonely (not just because of the semi-joking material quoted above). It’s like being that lone wandering warrior is taking its toll on Reacher. We’ve seen this before from time to time, but it seems to be growing lately. I remember reading in Martin’s Reacher Said Nothing that Child had considered retiring the series around The Midnight Line, I can’t help but wonder if this is a sign of that becoming imminent.

A stronger cast of non-“Bad Guy” characters than we’re used to seeing from this series, a winning female lead, some tragic victims, a bunch of ruthless criminals, a lot of bullets flying and Reacher at his toughest. There’s so little to not like here. One of my favorites lately.


4 1/2 Stars

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Angel Eyes by Ace Atkins: Spenser’s 47th Novel Finds him in L.A. and Feels as Fresh as Ever

Angel Eyes

Robert B. Parker’s Angel Eyes

by Ace Atkins
Series: Spenser, #7

Hardcover, 305 pg.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019

Read: November 20-21, 2019

In the passing light, I noticed the welts on her wrists, chapped and bloody.

She’d been tied up for a long time.

Chollo noticed them, too.

“Should we kill him?” he said.

“Too easy.”

“You will never change, amigo,” he said. When will you learn? Some people live without rules. And sometimes killing a bad man is the only way.”

“I have other ideas for [him].”

Chollo nodded. “And I am listening”

The day that Hawk, Chollo (and a few others) stop trying to convince Spenser to just kill the bad guy and be done with it—or the day that he listens to them—is the day we’ll all know the series has run its course. Which will hopefully be around the time my future grandchildren start reading the series.

But far before we get to that point, we should probably start at the beginning.

A friend of Susan’s is worried about her daughter, who lives in L.A. and has gone missing. She’s beside herself, so Spenser flies out to find her with Zebulon Sixkill’s help. The book opens with Spenser and Z being let into Gabby’s apartment by her ex-boyfriend and still-agent, Eric Collinson. Collinson is typically the kind of twerp that Spenser would enjoy messing with, but he’s on his best behavior (probably to keep Collinson talking).

Collinson keeps insisting there’s nothing to worry about, that Gabby’s probably just off on a quick Mexican vacation or something. Still, he surreptitiously leaves her laptop behind for Spenser to “find.” Between what Z’s tech-wizard friend finds on the laptop, what Z and Spenser get from the LAPD (in the person of our old acquaintance Samuelson) and Gabby friends/former boss, there are two avenues of investigation for them to dive into. A powerful studio executive and a multi-level personal development group that’s somewhere in-between Scientology and NXIVM (far closer to the latter). But before they can dig too far into things, some heavies representing a third party show up and the lead starts flying.

And I ate it all up.

It’s dangerous enough that Z isn’t enough to help Spenser out. Chollo (now a small-businessman), Bobby Horse and Mr. del Rio put in appearances and render assistance in varying amounts.

I could easily keep going along these lines for 6-10 more paragraphs, but I’d better show some restraint and leave things there and move onto other parts of the book.

In addition to the hunt for Gabby, we get a little bit of Spenser’s jaded view of the entertainment industry (largely in the same vein as we saw in A Savage Place and Stardust, just up-to-date); a lot of references to movies and stars that are so irrelevant to contemporary Hollywood that most of the characters don’t get them; and a very jaded (but likely accurate) look at “The Industry” post-#MeToo.

Also, we get a hint or two at what Z’s been up to since he left Boston and Atkins has completely left the possibility open for someone to start a Sixkill series, already populated with a cast of characters to carry a book or two. I’m ready to buy at least 5 of them in hardcover right now.

The last little things that I’ll mention are that we get a nice update on Mattie Sullivan, but we need to see more of her soon. Plus, there’s a cameo that filled my heart with joy here—that’s all I’m going to say about it.

Atkins is in fine form, which comes as no surprise to anyone. I didn’t spend too much time comparing him to Parker as I read it, but you can’t help but do it. It’s a fast, breezy style, but there are depths to be plumbed (unlike several of Parker’s latter Spensers). It’s just a pleasure to bask in the language, dialogue, and characters.

At this point, when it comes to an Atkins Spenser novel, it’s really just a question of how much I’m going to like it, it’d be impossible (I wager) for him to deliver something that I won’t like. I liked this one plenty. A fine story, a setting the character hasn’t been in for a while, a chance to catch up with old friends . . . Angel Eyes is as satisfying as you could ask for. Could you start with it? Sure. You wouldn’t get all of the references, but none of them would impact your appreciation of the story. The only danger in starting with Angel Eyes is that you’d probably feel compelled to go back and read the previous 46. Which actually sounds like a lot of fun to me.

I hemmed and hawed over the stars on this one. If I had a 4 1/4 graphic, I probably would’ve employed it. My initial impulse was 4 Stars, but when I stop and think about: there was one page where I laughed out loud (at least a chuckle) multiple times (I really want to talk about it in detail, but don’t want to ruin anything); the way Atkins pulled in every L.A. reference possible (plus some other Spenser-canon references) without making it feel like checking off a list; and the feeling of dread and worry Atkins was able to elicit (which really doesn’t happen all that often in long-running series)…I’ve gotta give it that extra bump (and now that I’ve actually written that list, I’m thinking of bumping it up another).


4 1/2 Stars

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Fallen by Benedict Jacka: Alex finds power and incredible loss as Jacka ramps up the seriousness of the series.

Fallen

Fallen

by Benedict Jacka
Series: Alex Verus, #10

Mass Market Paperback, 296 pg.
Ace, 2019

Read: November 7-8, 2019

Wars between mages are very different from wars between countries. When countries fight, if they want to attack into enemy territory, they have to go through the other army to do it. Mages don’t. Gate magic let’s strike teams appear anywhere at anytime, attacking and then disappearing back to the other side of the world. You never see mages fighting to take control of a bridge or a mountain pass, because holding those kinds of places doesn’t accomplish anything. When mages engage in combat, it’s for one of two reasons: either they’re fighting over something valuable, or one side is attacking the others base of operations. Otherwise, if one side doesn’t want to fight, they can just leave.

That really sets the tone for this novel—we’re talking all-out war here—the Council vs. Richard Drakh et al. Naturally, because no one really trusts Alex, there are many who still aren’t sure what side of this conflict Alex comes down on.

For the last few books, I’ve been (mistakenly) thinking, “Ah, he’s hit rock bottom now, it’s time for things to get better.” Fallen is, at the very least, Exhibit A for how little I understood things. I was joking the other day with a friend about a theory that Jacka really doesn’t like Alex Verus and is enjoying destroying him bit by bit.

You could make the case that he’s chipping away at Alex’s shell so that he can access who he is at his core. Below how Alex thinks he should act, below how he wants to act—to get to the actual Alex Verus.

That’s probably closer to the truth, but I like my theory a little better.

Early on, Alex tells his readers:

You know things are bad when waking up feels worse than the nightmares.

And that works pretty well as a thesis statement for Fallen. Jacka finds new ways to ruin Verus’ life—up to and including one of the freakiest, strangest and most disturbing magic-induced injuries I can think of.

We’re at the point in this saga where I can’t really say anything about the plot without ruining most of it. So let me summarize it with this: we’re watching that prophecy the Dragon gave Alex work out in his life, he’s figuring out how it’s going to be fulfilled and is working to that end.

Which involves some of the riskiest moves he’s made. Some of which pay off in ways even he couldn’t foresee (some of them don’t work out so well). It’s hard to point to a book when things go as well for our favorite diviner. But as I said before, things go really, really, bad for him, too.

There are two scenes specifically (but, they’re not the only two) that will devastate readers as much as they did Alex. One of which gave us a result I’ve figured was coming (but I figured it would be in book 12, no earlier than 11—again, Jacka shows me how little I know).

While Jacka’s systematically destroying Alex, he weaves in plotlines and characters that you won’t expect, including at least one major magic artifact that you probably assumed we’d never see again. Seeing how Jacka’s using Alex’s past in the way he is was a real plus for me.

You know this was going to be a bad novel for our friends—you don’t call a novel Fallen to fill it with ponies, rainbows and slapstick moments. But man, this was just rough. Hard to read—but totally worth it.

I cannot state this strongly enough—this should not be the first book in the series you read. Horribly entry point, but such a wonderful ride for those who know Alex and his world and struggles. But if you’re a long-time reader, and haven’t had the chance to read this yet—fix that. Pronto.


4 1/2 Stars

✔ A book with a one word title

Maxine Unleashes Doomsday by Nick Kolakowski: Kolakowski Gets His Crime Fiction Chocolate in this SF Peanut Butter

This is one of those books that I’m uber-excited about, yet I don’t think I do a good enough job at explaining why I am. It’s just good.

 Maxine Unleashes Doomsday

Maxine Unleashes Doomsday

by Nick Kolakowski

eARC, 274 pg.
Down & Out Books, 2019

Read: October 29-31, 2019

“You know the trick to surviving? The one thing you got to do?”

“What’s that?” Maxine asked.

“You got to treat every day like an adventure. Like it’s fun, or a challenge, even when everything’s crappy. Especially when it’s crappy. Because otherwise, it’s all going to crush you.”

“I feel like I spent my whole life being crushed.”

“Well, that’s your fault. A normal job, trying to live a normal life, it’s just inviting people to stomp you. And they do.”

“Yeah.”

“But at least in my line of work, sometimes you get to stomp back…”

In case the author’s name looks familiar to you, yeah, you’ve seen me use it a few times this year—3 novellas, 1 short fiction collection, and now this novel, Maxine Unleashes Doomsday. It occurs to me now, that he was the first author I read this year, and he did a pretty good job setting the tone for 2019’s reading. This book is his first step out of Crime Fiction and into Science Fiction—dystopian SF, to be precise (that really should be obvious to anyone familiar with him, I don’t think he’s got a utopian novel in him).

That said, there’s enough of a Crime Fiction flavor to this SF novel, that fans of either genre will have enough of their drug of choice to be satisfied.

This is set in the near-future, at various points along the fall of the US/Western Civilization. While there are plenty of other characters to keep an eye on, our focus throughout is on Maxine. After a rocky start to life with a drug-addicted mother, and an unsuccessful academic career (although she tried for a little bit), she tries to follow her uncle’s example and become a criminal. She has some success in that, but a large failure resulted in life-threatening injuries to a friend and the loss of one of her arms. Following that, she tries to live a non-criminal life, she gets a job, settles down with a guy and has a kid. But her heart’s not in it, and she ends up dabbling in thievery. At some point, she abandons that life and sets her eyes on a criminal career.

Maxine is one of my favorite characters this year—she’s flawed (not as flawed as she thinks), she’s a fighter (not as good as she thinks), self-destructive, optimistic, and driven. She takes a lot of (metaphorical and literal) punches, and while she may not get up right away after them, she doesn’t stop moving forward. Ever. I love reading characters like that.

Her uncle, who goes by Preacher, is one of the most significant criminals in the New York area—and has some cops dedicated to taking him down, and any number of civilians supporting him. Off and on throughout her childhood, Preacher tried to get Maxine’s mother to leave her addictions behind to provide for and care for her kids. Between his power and influence on the one hand, and being just about the only adult to look out for her and her brother, it’s no wonder that Maxine will want to be part of his life. Readers of Kolakowski’s Main Bad Guy will enjoy playing a compare/contrast game with Preacher and Walker.

There are a number of other characters that greatly influence Maxine’s life and desires, but none so much as her uncle. And to get into them would just push this post beyond the length I want (and would end up spoiling stuff to really talk about).

By and large, this is the story of Maxine’s journey from a struggling public school student to being a wanted criminal (and beyond). But that’s not everything that’s going on. For the first chapter, you get the impression you’ll be reading a book about rival groups fighting for supplies in mid-apocalyptic New York. But then you’ll realize that’s not it at all, it’s a story about how Maxine became the tenacious gun-fighter and would-be criminal mastermind that she is. Eventually you discover that yeah, both of those are true, but Kolakowski’s really writing a different story—and boy howdy, you feel pretty clever when you suss it out, and it’s such a brilliant way of telling this story that you don’t mind being wrong about what the book is trying to accomplish. But even then, you won’t really understand everything until the last line of the book (I’m not sure I actually pumped my fist when I read it, but I probably thought about it pretty hard).

Yes, it’s a pretty violent book (this too, should really be obvious to anyone familiar with Kolakowsi), but most of the truly horrible stuff happens “off-screen,” making it a lot easier to take. The prose moves quickly and assuredly, the writing is sone with a strong sense of style and savoir faire. Frankly, it’s too lively and enjoyable to keep the most readers who aren’t into gunfights, etc. from being turned off by the violence.

It’s a well-realized dystopia, one that’s easier to imagine happening than say, Panem. Kolakowski does a wonderful job of littering this book with little details that tell you so much about the world his characters live in and entertain the reader. Hitting both of those notes regularly is a difficult task. For example:

“Someday I want to go to California,” Michelle told Maxine. “Did you know it used to be a state?”

and

This far north, the concept of local government grew teeth and claws. If you stuck to the highway, you would cross into territory controlled largely by the New York Giants, which had expanded beyond its origin as one of the nation’s most consistently mediocre sports teams to control a big swath of towns northeast of Buffalo.

One of the conceits of the book is that the material is a result of an academic study about Maxine. It’s one of the best moves that Kolakowski makes in this book (and it’s full of great moves). Don’t skim over these notes, you’ll be rewarded for your attention.

Oh, I should warn you: This book might put you off popcorn for a while. I’m just saying…

Rob Hart wrote one of the endorsements for this: “Take one of Richard Stark’s Parker novels and throw it in the blender with DVDs of Mad Max and The Warriors. Guess what? You just broke your blender. Find solace in this book, which is what you should have done in the first place.” I repeat that for a couple of reasons—1. I love the last two sentences. 2. He’s right, and says everything in 4 sentences that I tried to above. You should listen to one of us. Kolakowski has outdone himself with this one, it was a pleasure from end to end. You really need to read it.

Disclaimer: I was provided a copy of this novel by the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion. My opinions are my own, and weren’t influenced by this.


4 1/2 Stars
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

Shattered Bonds by Faith Hunter: Jane Yellowrock’s latest just might leave you shattered, too


I’m going to have to spoil a little about Dark Queen, and a little bit of earlier books, too. Read at your own risk.

Shattered Bonds

Shattered Bonds

by Faith Hunter
Series: Jane Yellowrock, #13

eARC, 400 pg.
Ace, 2019

Read: October 24-28, 2019


It didn’t take me too long after starting to read this thirteenth installment in the Jane Yellowrock series to start asking myself: How am I going to possibly write anything about this? I kept asking myself that right up until I finished it this afternoon. Now, an hour past my self-imposed deadline for finishing this post, I’m still no closer to coming up with an answer.

There is simply no substitute for reading Shattered Bonds—no summary, no recap, no review can adequately hint at what the reader will experience. That’s almost always true of any book, but it’s sometimes more true than usual.

Remember Joseph Santana—also known as Joses Bar-Judas, or Yosace Bar-Ioudas. One of Judas Iscariot’s two sons, one of the original vampires? We never saw him at his full-strength, just weak, hungry, and chained up—that is, until he became Brute-chow. He was dangerous and frightening then. It turns out that Sabina was right when she said that Joses was the least-dangerous member of this family. What his brother, Shimon Bar-Judas, does to Jane’s allies and friends before she’s aware that he’s a factor in her life is devastating. What he does once he’s on her radar? Well, it’d take a novel to describe—and hey, that’s what we have here.

Last we saw Jane, she’d basically given up between the grief after the Sangre Duello and cancer caused by using her timeshifting magic and headed off to die. Intervention by Eli, Alex, and Bruiser have brought her back from the edge, but they’re only helping her manage the symptoms (and arguably not doing that much for them). But seeing what Shimon has done, is doing, and what it looks like he will do to her people galvanizes her into action. Sure, she might be dying, but she’s not going to stop fighting—especially if it comes down to protecting those that are near and dear to her, or those that she owes something to.

It occurs to me as I wrote that last sentence—this might be the most I’ve ever admired Jane.

Not only is Jane newly-inspired to keep on living after dealing with Shimon, some of the things she does so she can be/appear strong enough to challenge him gets her thinking of new (and hopefully more effective) ways to fight her cancer. Jane learns new and more ways to use her magic all the time, which has put her in this situation. Now it’s time to see if she can do something to get her out of it.

An unhinged, power-mad, brilliant and cruel predator on the one hand, and seemingly incurable cancer on the other. Yeah, Jane’s got her work cut out for her.

I was musing on things somewhere around the 60% mark, and I started wondering about the title—yeah, sure there were a couple of things early on that you could apply the title to. But I didn’t think Hunter was going to let us get away with anything so simple. So what could she be referring to? And then when I thought about who and what could get shattered? What ties, bonds, or connections could be irreparably damaged in the last 35-40% of the book?

Suddenly, I strongly considered following Joey Tribbiani’s lead and storing this in my freezer. Unlike Joey’s paperback, that would’ve ruined my Kindle, so I really had no choice but to keep reading. I started to compose a list of characters who I’d worried about surviving this novel (up to and including Jane)—and then I abandoned that. Instead, I composed a list of characters in this book (including some who don’t see, just get a second-hand report about), and I came up with one name. Just one. That’s a lot to worry about. I worried less about people making it through Dark Queen—which featured a series of literal duels with some of the most dangerous characters Hunter has created.

Spoiler: Rest easy, Alex Younger fans, nothing to worry about. If your favorite is anyone else? Sorry.

This is actually one of Hunter’s richer titles—you can mine a lot from this one. I don’t want to spend too much time on this point, because Eli does a more effective job than I will (so does Alex, come to think of it), but there’s something striking about the idea that Jane has bonds to shatter. Back in Skinwalker when we met her, she was a lone wolf (sorry, Brute) type of figure—yeah, she liked/loved others (see: Molly) and enjoyed the company of people. But she didn’t need anyone but our favorite witch. She only sought allies when the numbers against her were overwhelming, and even then, she didn’t rely on them much for the important matters. She’s still learning how to. Slowly but surely, Jane has been expanding her social, professional and familial circles—she cares for people, feels responsible for them, and is aided by them.

Ten books ago, there weren’t bonds to be shattered. But now, there’s a wide net of connections branching out from Jane. This makes her more vulnerable, but—when she remembers this—it’s also a source of strength and security. This character development/growth is one of my favorites in ongoing series. Not just because I like seeing Jane grow, but primarily because Hunter’s doing such a good job in depicting it.

I could do a few paragraphs on other bonds, too—think of imprisonment, slavery, history (cultural or personal). But you get the idea.

On a lighter note—only in the Carolinas do you get vamps talking this much about barbecue. It made me smile. Still does.

Last thought—Nell Ingram’s dealing with a lot of changes already, but some of Shattered Bonds is going to spill over into her world and I’m eager to see how that works itself out.

I’ve apparently found some things to talk about—hopefully this whets your appetite enough to grab this (although, I can’t imagine anyone reading this series who needs convincing). A fantastic entry in this fantastic series—action, danger, love, loss, highs, lows, barbecue, and the best hunter—Shattered Bonds has it all.


4 1/2 Stars
My thanks to Let’s Talk! Promotions for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including the book via NetGalley) they provided.