Paper Son by S.J. Rozan: Lydia and Bill in their most foreign setting yet — Mississippi

Paper SonPaper Son

by S. J. Rozan
Series: Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #12eARC, 352 pg.
Pegasus Books, 2019

Read: June 12 – 17, 2019

One thing I’ve said (possibly too often) as I talk about this series is how much I enjoy the conversations between Lydia and Bill — but I think one of the conversations between Lydia and her mother tops anything the partners have to say (until the last conversation, anyway), and the rest weren’t far behind. We start off with Mrs. Chin telling Lydia that she has to go to Mississippi — and take Bill along — to investigate a murder. Long-time readers of this series will be forgiven the need to re-read that sentence, I assure you that it’s correct. One of Lydia’s cousins (yes, she has cousins in the Mississippi Delta — she’s as shocked as you are) is accused of murdering his father. Her mother wants Lydia to go down and prove his innocence. That he’s innocent isn’t ever in doubt for a moment — he’s related to Lydia’s father, ergo, he’s innocent. Lydia doesn’t accept her mother’s logic, but feels obligated to try to help this cousin she’s never heard of before now, so she and Bill set off for the Delta. It’s simply a dynamite first chapter, and the hook was set immediately.

Upon their arrival, Lydia and Bill find themselves neck deep in a tangled web of history, race, meth, gambling (both your more traditional varieties and purely 21st Century versions), politics and a even more race (it is Mississippi). Lydia’s cousin Jefferson is in his mid-20’s, a computer whiz of some sort with questionable ethics. He’s called to come to his father’s grocery store for some reason — they argue, and Jefferson leaves to cool off. When he returns, he finds his father bleeding out from a knife wound. Naturally, that’s when the police arrive, taking him into custody immediately. He’s bloody, standing over the victim and weapon — and sure, his fingerprints are all over the knife. Seems like an open and shut case, right?

Jefferson’s uncle, Captain Pete, is at the front of the line of those who doubt this — which is why he called his cousin’s widow to get her PI daughter down to help. Pete’s a professional gambler — precisely the kind of person Mrs. Chin wouldn’t like to acknowledge, but is friendly, hospitable and charming. Lydia and Bill warm to him quickly and he becomes a source of comfort as well as a source of information for the duo as they dive in to the investigation. Soon after arriving in Mississippi, they also meet another of Lydia’s cousins — a nephew to Pete, who is running in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Lydia can’t believe she’s related to a candidate for governor and she’s never heard of him. What else has her mother been keeping from her? Just from her conversations with Pete and Raymond Tam (the candidate), Lydia’s overwhelmed with family history that she didn’t expect to exist, much less be able to understand it all. It doesn’t derail the work that she and Bill are doing at all, but it threatens to distract her more than once. Adding the candidate into the mix guarantees that the water will get a lot muddier before it starts to become clear.

Lydia’s voice is as strong, engaging and entertaining as ever — possibly better than ever. I want to compare it to vintage Spenser, but that seems wrong (I’m not sure why I want to compare it to Parker at his best or why I shouldn’t — but that’s where I am). She’s funny, she’s smart, she’s insightful, she’s in a very alien place and is doing her best to acclimate. Bill seemed under utilized a little bit this time around — but (as he himself would point out), this was Lydia’s family, her case — he was just around for support. And he did come to her aid at pivotal moments — laying his native Southern accent on a little thick to help pave the way with some of the locals and to diffuse tense situations. Captain Pete is a great character, and I wish he wasn’t designed to be a one-and-done kind of guy, but I can’t see him coming up to Chinatown anytime soon to have tea with Mrs. Chin. Actually, I could easily read another novel or two with this cast — from the Public Defender staff to the people that hang out at the grocery store and all points in between. I’m not sure how Rozan could orchestrate those novels without feeling a bit contrived, but I’d be in for them.(*)

(*) Sure, I’d be in for Lydia and Bill Go Grocery Shopping or Bill and Lydia’s Day at the Recycling Center, but that’s beside the point..

I enjoy tea, but I’m no expert on it — I’m no where near the tea aficionado that Lydia is (even keeping Bill’s cupboards better stocked than he understands), but I loved her reaction to Sweet Tea (not just because I think she’s right). Using food is a great shortcut to revealing character traits, and Rozan does a great job throughout this book, but particularly on this point, of using that peculiar Southern version of tea to show us sides of Lydia.

Rozan’s at her strongest when in addition to the mystery, she’s using the circumstances around it to have Lydia and/or Bill explore another culture/sub-culture. She’s displayed this strength when helping her readers understand the Jewish refugees in the 1930’s who fled to Shanghai (The Shanghai Moon), Hong Kong (in Reflecting the Sky), Small Town High School Football (Winter and Night), the Contemporary Chinese Art scene (Ghost Hero), and so on. Here we get a Yankee perspective on Mississippi black/white relations (and a glance or two at how it differs from neighboring states), as well as a fascinating look at the Chinese in the Mississippi Delta in the late Nineteenth Century (which left me almost as shocked as Lydia). You give us that kind of history and commentary while delivering a solid mystery? It’s hard to ask for more.

As interesting as that is, the heart of the novel is in the idea of family. It’s a strong theme throughout the series, actually — whether it be Lydia’s strong sense of family, or the found family in the partnership of Bill and Lydia — or the many damaged families they encounter in their work. In Paper Son family shapes the warp and woof of the narrative — it’s Mrs. Chin’s confidence in the innocence of her husband’s relations, and Captain Pete’s call for help that brings the duo to the Delta. Lydia fights the impulse to believe Jefferson and Pete (and others) just because they’re family, yet wants thing to be the way her mother believes they are (even when — particularly when — the facts don’t seem to support it). Bill even encounters a fellow Smith, and while no one believes for a second they share anything beyond the name in common, there’s a connection. At it’s core, Paper Son is a story about the sacrifice, support, trust, and dysfunction that comes along from strong family (blood relation or found family) — not to mention all of the unintended consequences of that sacrifice, support, trust and dysfunction. I’m tempted to keep going, but I’d end up revealing too much.

The mystery itself is up to Rozan’s high standards — you may guess the identity of the killer fairly early on (and you may not), but you will not see the motivation coming until it’s past the point of inevitability. The ending feels a little rushed, but I can’t think of a way to improve upon it — and any rush was actually probably just me trying to discover how things would play out. The first half of the denouement with Lydia’s family is heartwarming — and, sure, borderline cheesy, but Rozan earned it. The second half is less cheesy and will fill even jaded readers with hope and joy. It’s just a great way to close the book.

If Paper Son isn’t S. J. Rozan and the series at their best, it’s hard to tell. For book 12 in a series to be this good almost defies the odds, the years that separated this book from it’s predecessor didn’t slow her down a bit (I honestly was afraid we’d be looking at something like Lehane’s return to Kenzie and Genarro in Moonlight Mile after 11 years). Long-time fans will be delighted in the return of this pair. I don’t know that this is the best introduction to the series, but it’d work just fine — you learn everything you need to know here. Fans of PI fiction starring smart, capable (and yes, mouthy) women will find a lot to reward them in these pages.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from W. W. Norton & Company via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

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State of the Union by Nick Hornby: Love on the rocks, Ain’t no surprise

State of the UnionState of the Union: A Marriage in Ten Parts

by Nick Hornby


Paperback, 132 pg.
Riverhead Books, 2019

Read: June 4, 2019

           [Louise says,] “Underneath it all, I love you.”

“Underneath it all.”

“Yes.”

“Great.”

“To be honest, I think you should be happy with that. You’re lucky there’s anything still there.”

Tom and Louise are in trouble — they’ve been married for years, have kids, and on the outside seem to be doing fine. But the marriage is in trouble — and it has been for awhile. Recent events have demonstrated just how bad the situation is, and Louise has talked Tom into counseling. Each week before their session, they meet in the pub across the street for a quick drink and to talk about what they’ll discuss in the upcoming session — also reacting to the previous session, what’s gone on in the week since, and discuss their future — if such exists.

Ten sessions. Ten very short chapters. More than 10 pints and glasses of white wine. 10 fantastic, intriguing, character revealing, entertaining conversations.

I guess I tipped my hand a bit there, didn’t I? It’s not much of a surprise that I loved this book because it’s written by Nick Hornby. And even when I’m not crazy about the novel in the end, there are few writers out there I enjoy reading as much as Hornby (alas, most of his novels predate this here blog, so you’ll have to take my word for it).

But it’s Hornby that takes what could be a maudlin exercise, a too-jokey experience, or an all-around failure and turns it into an experiment that’s successful, entertaining, and emotionally rich. I see Tom’s point of view, understand his pain and get his reluctance to do the work he needs to. I also understand Louise’s take, I get (don’t approve of, but get) her reaction to Tom, and appreciate her willingness to do the work (while seeing her own weaknesses — at least some of them). A lot of times in this kind of scenario, the reader will end up “taking the side” of one of the characters (frequently the one sharing their gender). But very quickly I noticed that I wasn’t rooting for Tom or Louise here, I was rooting for Tom and Louise.

But best of all? I loved reading their conversations — open, honest (an honesty borne from realizing they’ve got no choice at this point, what could would anything else do?) full of that love that’s “underneath it all” for both. And somehow, still entertaining for the reader.

I typically limit myself to one quotation from a book, but I there’s another I want to share to give a flavor for the way the book works on the mechanical level.

           “How are new starts possible?” Louise says. “When you’ve been together for a long time, and you have kids, and you’ve spent years and years being irritated by the other person? But if they stop being irritating, they’re not them anymore.”

“My text was me not being me.”

“Exactly.”

They walk to the door.

“So I’ve got to stay as me.”

“Yes.”

“While at the same time being different, somehow.”

“It’s a conundrum.”

One, count ’em, one dialogue tag. Five words of description. Which is pretty typical of the book (maybe a little heavy on the description). That’s practically nothing — and dialogue tags pretty much only show up after description so you know who’s starting the back and forth — it could easily be a page or more before the next one. It’s like Hornby’s version of an acoustic recording — a story stripped down to its essence. Maybe that’s not the best metaphor — it’s the literary equivalent of espresso, the bare minimum, concentrated. Ian Shane called it “a literary play.” I like that, too.

The minimalism makes this a deceptively quick and easy read — you start flying through the text, caught up in the conversation and then realize just what it was they’re being breezy about, just in time for a line that emphasizes just what’s at stake.

This was also a show on Showtime recently — ten 10-minute episodes, as I understand. I don’t know which came first — the show or the book. If it was the book, I don’t know that a script would really be necessary — just hand them this book and say “go.” And if it was the other way around, it’d be about the easiest adaptation from a script ever.

At the end of the day, this is exactly what you want from a Nick Hornby book (except the length — I wanted more, always): funny, heartfelt, charming, (seemingly) effortless, and makes you feel a wide range of emotions without feeling manipulated. I loved it, I think you will, too.

Note: I won a copy of this from Riverhead Books via Goodreads — and I thank them both for that. But my library got me a copy first, so I haven’t read it yet. But it will be the copy I re-read (and I think I’ll be doing that a lot).

—–

4 1/2 Stars
2019 Library Love Challenge

The Liar by Steve Cavanagh: Another Fantastic Ride with the Wiliest Lawyer in Print!

The LiarThe Liar

by Steve Cavanagh
Series: Eddie Flynn, #3

Paperback, 327 pg.
Orion Books, 2017

Read: May 6 – 9, 2019
Eddie’s being sued in a way to attack the legacy — and the finances — of his friend/mentor Judge Harry Ford for a case he had back in his days as a defense attorney. Harry’s client was found guilty — and insane — and died about a decade later in a treatment facility she’d been sentenced to for murder. This is an important case for Eddie and Harry for multiple reasons, but as interesting as this case is, it takes a backseat to the main case in this novel.

Leonard Howell’s a former marine who runs a security company — who specializes in K&R (kidnap and return) — that Eddie knew back when they were both kids. His nineteen year-old daughter was recently kidnapped herself and Howell has a plan to retrieve her. He just needs to get around the FBI to pull it off. Enter his need for his old acquaintance Eddie Flynn — both to help him trick the FBI and to represent him because he’ll no doubt be arrested for carrying his plan out. But he doesn’t care too much about that, as long as his daughter is saved.

Eddie remembers what it feels like to have your daughter kidnapped and signs on — let’s be honest, he probably would have anyway. It’s a good thing he does, because Howell’s plan goes awry in fairly significant ways and he finds himself arrested for a lot more than anyone expected. Which is just the beginning of the book — it gets a lot more tangled, interesting, and exciting after that.

You know, for legal thrillers there’s a lot of action in the Eddie Flynn books. Sure, a good deal happens inside the courtroom — but Eddie’s not Perry Mason. What happens outside the courtroom is frequently more interesting than what happens inside. Which is saying something, because Cavanagh captures what’s most exciting about the cases and trials procedures as well as anyone does. As exciting — and important — as what happens outside the courtroom can be, for me, a legal thriller needs to land the courtroom stuff, or why bother? When Eddie is playing to a jury, interacting with a judge, messing with opposing counsel or questioning a witness? He’s fantastic (not infallible, as he proves here) — I’m not sure Mickey Haller could’ve handled this one any better (and likely not as well).

Just because the title uses a definite article, don’t make the mistake of thinking there’s only one in the book. You’d be better off not trusting anyone, including our beloved protagonist — well, almost anyone (I’ll have to leave that vague so as not to ruin anything).

One thing I want to note, and can’t think of a smooth way to work this in — what Eddie accomplishes in this book have more to do with his being a good lawyer and a smart guy than his past as a con man. He gets opportunities to flex those muscles, yes, but it’s not what defines him as a character here. Eddie the mostly-reformed con-man is a great character, don’t mistake me. But Eddie the scrappy lawyer, appeals to me more.

That said — early on, Eddie does something to help his client using the principles of Three Card Monte — and the wise reader would learn from this, because Cavanagh does the same thing. You will think that Cavanagh is doing one thing — and if you’re the type to try to figure out ahead of time where the mystery is going, whodunit, etc. (like I am), you will think you know where he’s going. And then when a Major Reveal happens which is pretty surprising, but really confirms all your theories — you start to feel smug and confident. Which is when Eddie and his creator probably start smiling — because within thirty pages of that, another Major Reveal comes along and totally blindsides you. I really never recovered from that for the rest of the book, honestly. Most of my theories remained largely intact, but they all had to be interpreted differently, and the motives behind them all changed.

I’ve never had a complaint about Cavanagh’s writing before now, but I didn’t realize he was nearly as clever as he is. I absolutely loved the way he fooled me — without cheating — and kept the tension mounting throughout this book in unexpected way after unexpected way. It’s just a great ride — right up to the point where Eddie demonstrates, again, just how stupid it is for people to make him angry. You’d think word would get around NYC courts about what happens when people challenge Eddie… A good series that gets better every time — do yourself a favor and pick this up. It’s a decent jumping on point to the series, too — you don’t have to know the first books, I shouldn’t forget to note).

—–

4 1/2 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Fletch’s Fortune (Audiobook) by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller: Possibly the Most Entertaining Entry in this Great Series

Fletch’s Fortune (Audiobook)Fletch’s Fortune

by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller (Narrator)
Series: Fletch, #3 (#7 Chronologically)

Unabridged Audiobook, 5 hrs., 51 min.
Blackstone Audio, 2018
Read: March 26 – 29, 2019

           “I.R.S.,” the man said.

Fletch slid the door open. “How do you spell that?”

“Internal Revenue Service.”

. . .
“As a matter of personal curiosity, may I ask why you have not filed returns?”

“April’s always a busy month for me. You know. In the spring a young man’s fancy really shouldn’t have to turn to the Internal Revenue Service.”

“You could always apply for extensions.”

“Who has the time to do that?”

“Is there any political thinking behind your not paying taxes?”

“Oh no. My motives are purely aesthetic, if you want to know the truth.”

“Aesthetic?”

“Yes. I’ve seen your tax forms. Visually, they’re ugly. In fact very offensive. And their use of the English language is highly objectionable. Perverted.”

“Our tax forms are perverted?”

“Ugly and perverted. Just seeing them makes my stomach turn.”

It’s conversations like this that make this possibly the most entertaining Fletch novel. My memory suggests there’s a one or two challenges to that coming up, but at least one of them gets too preachy and disqualifies itself (I’ll try to mention that when we get there). Fletch, shed of his fiancé from the previous book, is enjoying life in his home on the Riviera and puttering along on his biography of Edgar Arthur Thorp, Jr. One day, he’s accosted by a pair of CIA agents who blackmail him (using the above referenced lack of tax filing) into bugging the rooms of the most influential journalists in the US at a journalism convention.

He’s not crazy about this assignment, but at the very least he figures there’s a good story in there somewhere. So he heads back to the States and plants his bugs and starts to tape many of the most illustrious members of the press. The catch (of course there’s a catch) is that the president of the American Journalism Association and owner of many, many major newspapers is murdered the morning as conventioneers start to arrive.

So, not only does Fletch have to put up with attending a convention, and–under duress–to listen in on his colleagues — but he also has to compete with some of the most story-hungry people in the US to be the first to break the story unveiling the murderer.

We also meet for the first time Fredericka “Freddy” Arbuthnot — one of my chief complaints about this series is that we don’t get more time with her. She’s fun here, and her fans should rest assured that we see her again soon — used in a better way, too (not a complaint about her appearance in Fletch’s Fortune, I rush to say). She’s just one of the incredibly colorful characters assembled at this convention — which allows McDonald to skewer all the foibles and weaknesses of the contemporary media (at least for the late 70’s, which just sets the stage for now). I couldn’t guess how many times I’ve read this book, and I still find them all wonderfully fun to watch.

There’s a blink and you missed it moment that’s incredibly important for the future of the series, and it can’t have been planned. But decades later, McDonald is able to use to open up whole new avenues for telling his sores.

It’s so easy to get distracted by the fun conversations, the satirizing of the press and the general Fletch antics, to the point that you miss just how clever McDonald is to pull off one of his most clever whodunits. I’d rank this among the best mysteries that McDonald penned, too.

Once again, Miller delivers this one just right. I don’t know what else to say — he was the perfect choice for this series and I’m so glad I gave them a chance.

I’m just repeating myself now, so I’ll stop. Between entertainment value, construction of the mystery, social/media satire, and audiobook narration I can’t say enough good things about this audiobook. McDonald is at the height of his powers here and it’s a sheer pleasure to pick up again (no matter the format).

—–

4 1/2 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

You Die Next by Stephanie Marland: The latest Starke & Bell thriller is a tale of obsession that may leave the reader feeling a little obsessed, too.

If you have not read Stephanie Marland’s My Little Eye, you shouldn’t read this post, because I don’t know how much I might let slip, and while you probably can enjoy this book without having read it — you won’t appreciate it the way you should. Also, you should reconsider your life choices from the last year or so, because My Little Eye was one of the best things that was published in 2018.

You Die NextYou Die Next

by Stephanie Marland
Series: Starke & Bell, #2

Kindle Edition, 336 pg.
Hachette Book Group, 2019
Read: April 18 – 22, 2019

The tunnel would be pitch-black without the safety lights, but even with them Dom, Parekh and Timber have to tread carefully, using their torch beams to scan the rails for signs of blood. Back on platform five, the CSIs are working their magic. Once Dom’s established the route taken by Thomas Lee, they’ll start work on the tunnel as well. They need to move fast, find leads as to what the hell happened here. This has to be one of the most bizarre crime scenes that Dom’s attended.

Given the crime scenes we know Dom’s seen? That’s saying something.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure how Marland was going to proceed with Starke and Bell. Sure, teaming up the amateur and the Police Detective once is believable, but how do you do it again without it coming across as contrived? It’s not as if DI Bell can call her up, “Say, Clementine…I’ve got this real puzzler of a case that’s got me stumped, you think you and your pals can take a crack at it?” without violating so many rules and regulations that he wouldn’t have a job long enough to arrest anyone. Marland makes the smart choice — she put them in each other’s rearview mirrors.

Starke’s off on her next research project, lamenting the notoriety that she earned (and enjoyed) after the events of My Little Eye, dealing with university politics, deadlines, and continuing to research her father’s death with the True Crime online group. She’s currently studying thrill-seekers and voyeurs, the genesis of their obsession and what feeds it. A fan of her work (for lack of a better term), keeps trying to get her to look into Urban Explorers. She finally gives in, just to get him off her case about it (she hopes), and watches a video he insists she watch. While doing so she sees two things — first, that he’s probably right, they’d make good subjects for her research; and second, she’s pretty sure she sees a murder. Which settles things — Clementine Stark dives into the world of Urban Explorers in general and those on the video in particular.

Bell’s working various cases, trying to decide what to do with his DS post-My Little Eye, and worried about the internal investigation about that case that went so wrong before the last book that still wreaks havoc on almost every relationship in his life. He’s called out to the scene of a car striking and killing a pedestrian — not really his kind of case, if not for the fact that the pedestrian probably would’ve been killed by the stab wounds all over him if the car hadn’t sped his death along. Meanwhile, as I said, the look into Operation Atlantis continues and the strain on his relationship with his sister is such that it’s at the breaking point, and Bell’s ex is pushing him for information on the investigation into the operation. Bell’s close to putting things together, and when he does, this ugly situation is probably only going to look worse for everyone.

It’s on the back-of-the-book blurb, so I feel I can say this without giving away too much — Bell’s pedestrian is one of the Urban Explorers that Starke’s looking into. So again, they’re working the same case, but don’t know it — and are approaching it from very different angles. But Starke also observes some of the people involved in that Operation Atlantis raid that went so horribly wrong, clearly plotting and planning about what to do about Bell — how to exploit him at the very least. Whatever went wrong between them, Starke’s not going to let anything happen to Bell if she can help it. So, again, the two are working the same case from different angles. There’s another thing they will have in common, too — but I’m not going to get into it beyond saying it exists. But let’s just say there are really three mysteries being investigated in this book, and both Starke and Bell have a stake in all three, but aren’t really working together on any of them.

That sounds confusing, maybe like a little narrative overkill, too. But it’s not, Marland weaves these six storylines together perfectly — actually, there are more than six, but they can be boiled down to six without losing much, if I tried to diagram it exactly, I’d end up with something looking like one of those cork-boards covered in newspaper clippings, note cards and photos tied together with strings between connections that were so popular on TV a few years ago. (and that Starke has in her apartment, come to think of it). I lost my point there — Marland artfully weaves/juggles the various stories into a cohesive whole in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the reader and keeps the reader engaged with all the various mysteries, plot advances, character moments, etc. It’s a real feat that she pulls off with aplomb.

I’m going to be haunted by the conclusion for a while. It reminds me of something I read in December 2017, and frankly, haven’t shaken yet (I’ll not mention the title, because doing so might tell you more about the conclusion than I want to). It’s the only way this book really could end — and I’m not complaining about it at all — but it’s going to linger longer than most do in the back of my mind.

I want to talk about some of the supporting characters — and Bell’s DS and DC, in particular, really deserve more attention than I’m paying them. But I’m going to skip that this time. I just don’t have enough time to do them justice. While Starke and Bell are fascinating, complex characters that any reader will enjoy digging into, the same is true for the people around them. They’re pretty well fleshed out, and you can easily imagine that Marland has plans for their future use. Any of the secondary or tertiary characters in this series could become very important in future events and should probably be paid attention to by readers (which is easy, because even the one who might as well be named Lecherous Scumbag is a character you can enjoy reading).

I’ve managed to only use the word “obsession” once so far — which is surprising. Not only is it the focus of Starke’s research, obsession can be used in some way to talk about every story, every idea, every character in You Die Next.. The person hunting down Urban Explorers is clearly obsessed with whatever their motivation is. Bell’s obsession over whatever investigation he’s pursuing has damaged romantic relationships, his relationship with his sister, and even his career. Starke’s obsessions with her work, Bell, her father’s death, this possible murder she saw, and . . . well, really — what isn’t she obsessed with? This book is permeated with notions of, examples of, and the repercussions of obsession.

In both concept and execution, Marland tried to accomplish a lot in My Little Eye and succeeded. You Died Next strikes me as more ambitious than its predecessor, making it harder to pull off — the bar was set pretty high and she moved it up. I’m not sure Marland was as successful with this novel as she was with My Little Eye, but I can’t point at any part of this book and say “this could be better here.” I think my hesitancy about this book comes from so much of the conclusion of this novel pointing to the third installment. My Little Eye told a story, with the potential for more. You Die Next told a story, but kept the resolution to much of it dangling. If we didn’t get You Die Next, for whatever reason, My Little Eye could stand on its own. Without Starke & Bell #3, You Die Next is the novel equivalent of “Shave and a Haircut”/Tum-ti-ti-tum-tum without the “Two Bits”/Tum-tum.

And by not as successful, I think I’m saying this is more of a 4.25-4.35 than a clear 4.5.

I may not be the biggest fan of every choice that Marland made for these two in this book, but they were honest choices entirely consistent with the characters — and will lead to a whole lot of exciting narrative possibilities in Starke & Bell #3 (and beyond, if there is a beyond). Either of these characters could anchor a pretty decent series on their own, together they make a special kind of magic. Their continued interaction may not do them a lot of good, but it will prove destructive to more than one criminal in London — and a whole lot of fun for readers. You Die Next brings the two characters together in a way that highlights their strengths (and weaknesses), pitting them against a cold and clever killer and a criminal conspiracy (or two) more widespread and powerful than they yet realize. I haven’t read a whole lot this year that I’d call a must, but this is. Stop wasting your time on my stuff and get this in front of your eyes.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge 2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Pub Day Repost: No Country for Old Gnomes by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne is a very foine booke that surpässes the original while showing full respect to the umlaut

I’ve tweaked and retweaked this to the point that I can’t read it any more. Hope it’s mostly coherent.

No Country for Old GnomesNo Country for Old Gnomes

by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne
Series: The Tales of Pell, Book #2

eARC, 352 pg.
Del Rey, 2019
Read: March 9 – 12, 2019

As much as I loved 2018’s Kill the Farm Boy — and talked about it everywhere and repeatedly — I wasn’t sure how much I really wanted to pick up the sequel. There’s no way it would be as good, the humor would be a little stale, and the whole approach wouldn’t seem as novel. Still, I knew curiosity would get the better of me — and it’d still have its moments. Also, I’m not at the point where I can live in a world with a Kevin Hearne book in print that I haven’t read.

I was so, so wrong. Having established their off-kilter world, strong voice, and approach to the stories of Pell, Dawson and Hearne have come back to play in it. The result is superior in every way that I can think of. I lost track of how many times I said to myself while reading something along the lines of, “how did they improve things this much?”

So this book happens in different corner of the kingdom than Farm Boy did. The Skylar is a choice piece of the land that is home to two diminutive races — halflings and gnomes. Gnomes want to live in their nice little homes, tinker with their little projects and inventions, and wear brightly colored cardigans (well, there was one gnome who wanted to wear a black cardigan, but let’s leave that aside for now). The halflings have found their government hijacked by criminals and those particular halflings are waging a war of sorts on the gnomes, driving them from their homes for unknown reasons. Driven by desperation, two of these displaced gnomes are part of our questing party here. A halfling — committed to (some may say obsessed with) the law that is being ignored by his people is another member of the party.

These three join themselves to an ovitaur named Agape — an ovitaur is like a faun, but is humanoid with sheep characteristics (feet, legs, ears, etc). She’s the last of a long family line serving as teh guardians of a rare treasure, and needs guidance. A gryphon, named Gerd, outcast from his people has been accompanying the halfling for some time, but is devoted to protecting Agape now. The last member of the party is a dwarf named Båggi Biins. Båggi is on his Meadschpringå — a time when young dwarves leave their homes to purge the violence from themselves so they can return to their homes to pursue an ascetic life of creativity. He joins the others certain that journeying with them, protecting them along their way will provide all the outlet required to use his violence in a noble cause.

Their quest? To go to the Great Library, where the founding documents of the gnomeric and halfling civilizations are located — which should prove invaluable to re-establish the peace and help the two societies get along. Agape should find resources to direct her in her guardianship, and hopefully provide Gerd with the proof that he broke no laws of the gryphons.

The fact that most people on Pell consider the Great Library to be a myth shouldn’t be taken as an argument against this quest. What better place than a possibly mythical library to provide the answers they seek?

While these characters are on their quest, working for peace — the king and his advisor are trying to solve the problems between the halflings and gnomes in a more direct approach. We also see (briefly in most cases) other characters from Farm Boy. We see just enough to know how things are going for them some months later — and on the whole, it’s just as you’d hoped/expected it to be for them. It is not essential to have read the previous volume to get 95% of this book. It’s safe to hand this one off to family, friends and coworkers who are wondering what you’re cackling about without making them do homework first.

Along the way, these characters meet a cult of cabbage worshipers, who have the ability to read prophecies in the vegetables; some very frightening mermaids (that look nothing like anything anyone expects); a very Tom Bombadil-esque character (and a few other Tolkien-inspired jokes). As in Farm Boy, the authors manage to use these ideas as sources of comedy and to propel the plot along in meaningful ways. Similarly, they use racial and personal characteristics of the characters to play with, play against and mock genre standards. But almost none of the characters are mere jokes, they’re well-developed characters that happen to be able to comedic. This is not an easy balance to achieve — and Hearne and Dawson are almost flawless on this front.

For example, gryphons are convinced that they perceive greater nuance and details in colors, sounds, tastes and the like and adjust their pronunciation of words via capital letters, umlauts and extra syllables. Gerd’s dialogue is littered with these. It starts off as a joke that just won’t stop, and instead of it getting tired or annoying (which I assumed it would), it becomes just part of the way that Gerd talks. His own particular dialect, that occasionally will strike you as amusing — maybe even just funny occasionally. I wouldn’t say it’s because the authors show restraint with it, employing it just when needed to keep it funny. Quite the reverse, they seemingly take the approach of drowning you in the joke, figuring that it’ll be funny often enough to justify it.

If you’re like me, you have a tendency to skip chapter titles. Doing so with The Tales of Pell would be a mistake. The titles are long, fitting, and insanely goofy. The only thing better are the chapter epigraphs I imagine the drafts going back and forth between the authors, each trying to top the other with the next chapter title/epigraph. And generally succeeding.

These books are noted (as I’ve focused on) for their comedy — as is right, because they are funny. But as anyone who’s read other works by Dawson and Hearne know, they’re about a lot more than comedy. The battle scenes are exciting. The emotional themes and reactions are genuine and unforced. And tragedy hits hard. It’s easy to forget in the middle of inspiring moments or humorous aftermaths of battle that these kind of novels involve death and other forms of loss — and when you do forget, you are open to getting your heart punched.

In case I haven’t made it clear here, Dawson and Hearne knocked it out of the park here. I thought Kill the Farm Boy was outstanding, and No Country for Old Gnomes surpassed it on every front. I don’t expect that the third volume of The Tales of Pell will continue this trend — but I’m more than open to being proven wrong next year. But for 2019? I’m just going to revel in the goodness — the laughs, the pathos, the excitement — brought by this adventure and the wonderful cast of characters. Get your hands on this one.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this, I really appreciate it.

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4 1/2 Stars

Pub Day Post: Postgraduate by Ian Shane: A Funny, Nostalgic, Touching Novel about Maybe Finding Lost Loves/Dreams/Friendships

PostgraduatePostgraduate

by Ian Shane


Kindle Edition, 409 pg.
45rpm Media, 2019

Read: March 25 – 26, 2019

“. . . you did a bad, bad thing.”

“Then why are you helping me?”

“Because that’s what friends do. Someone needs to stand next to you when the world falls down around your ankles, and the other starting players seem to be leaving you one by one. You’re still my boy, but I question your decision-making skills.”

We meet Danny Jackson on one of the worst days of his life — the day his marriage legally ended (it was over long before). Danny’s quick to assure us that he’s had worse days, and not just because he doth protest too much (no matter what it looks like at the moment). He’s 44, about to be kicked out of his house, in a job he hates (many reasons are bigger than being forced to use Comic Sans, as bad as that is) and really has no idea what the rest of the year will bring — much less anything after that.

One of the many accommodations Danny made to get along with his wife was to trim his 4,000+ CD collection down to 150, and now that he finds himself without a real home or family and a strong need to fill up his time so he can’t dwell on that he starts rebuilding that collection — not with current music, either. But with the songs and albums that defined him at that age where music is so important to define, mold and express one’s identity — college. Before long, Danny’s investing some real money in stereo equipment as well as CDs. At one point a neighbor/friend from the apartment building says something about Danny having enough of both to start his own radio station.

This idea sparks something within Danny and he sets to do just that — not a real radio station (or even a pirate station), but an Internet radio station modeled on the one he learned all about Radio on in college, “The L.” While putting in the work necessary to launch an Internet station, Danny starts dreaming and scheming. I was honestly a little surprised to see how much work was involved, but after reading this I realize that’s just because I know so little about radio (even online) and hadn’t given it any real thought before.

He doesn’t just want to launch this passion project, he’d like to bury the hatchet with a bunch of people from his college days — and what better way to do both together than by launching the station in their old studio while they’re all returning to say goodbye to a mentor as he prepares to retire. Danny’s already speaking for the event, so that part will be easy. He trusts the others will be there, too — getting them to go along with his plans will be the trick.

Danny doesn’t know what kind of audience his online version of “The L” is going to have, but he figures there’s some audience — he’d listen to the kind of station he’ll be launching, why wouldn’t others his age? So kicks off (and then some) this story of friendship, lost loves, abandoned dreams, the love of music, and the attempt to recapture what we’ve lost (through fault of our own, or not). While we follow Danny’s rebuilding in 2017, we also get (in alternating chapters) the story of how the magic was assembled back in the day, and how it primarily fell to pieces (Danny had a significant roll in that, it turns out).

Danny’s glory days really were that (until they weren’t) and it was a lot of fun reading about them — especially when Sam’s on the scene. His 44th year wasn’t that great for him (it did improve from that inauspicious start), but it was almost as much fun to read, especially when Sam’s on the scene. Sam’s the one who got away from Danny, the love of his life, etc. She’s close to idealized, but Shane’s careful not to let Danny do that to her (more than anyone would in memory).

The focus of the novel is (rightly) those two, but Danny’s friendships with Marty — the Program Director of the L — and Tom are easily as important. The novel could’ve worked almost as well with the Danny/Tom relationship as the center instead of Danny/Sam. Tom was Danny’s high school friend who came to college with him and developed a radio show with him, both planning to keep doing radio together after college. One of my few problems I have is that I think we needed a bit more of Tom early on. I know he’s Danny’s partner, and the emotions both have toward each other (in the 90’s and 2017) indicate that, but he always seems to be playing second fiddle to Sam or Marty. Marty’s sort of the older brother figure to Sam, Danny and Tom — down for a good time as well as advice, and is just cool to read.

Mindy, Marty’s co-host, is a character I could’ve used a little more of, too — just because I really liked her. The narrative nowhere needs more of her, but I just liked her and wanted more. The professor, Dr. Black, they assemble to honor is a perfect mentor figure. Even Angela, the adulterous ex- that derailed Danny’s career, is a pretty well-designed and used character — but she’s about the only one in the book I don’t want to see more of.

I don’t mean this next sentence as a negative, no matter what it sounds like. There are few narrative surprises for the reader — by a certain point, you know pretty much how each storyline is going to go. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t surprises (pleasant and otherwise) for the reader, but it’s not that kind of story. You may not know exactly where Plot X will land, but you’ll know the ZIP Code for it early on. And that’s fine — the pleasure’s in the journey, and Danny ending up where you know he will is just a satisfying confirmation.

If you like Danny, you’ll like this book. I’m not sure why you wouldn’t like Danny, but I have to admit it’s possible. I think we clicked almost instantly, I was definitely on board in the first couple of pages. It’s possible you may not like Danny as a person, but would like his voice (well, Shane’s voice), I suppose. That should carry you through, too.

On his website, Shane talks about the impact Aaron Sorkin has on his writing — when you get to passages like this, it’s pretty obvious:

“Why didn’t you tell us?”

“I didn’t think you’d find out.”

“Really?”

“Did you have any idea before today?”

“None.”

“Then it’s a mystery to me as to why I’d think that.”

I can’t help but hear that last line in a Richard Schiff voice. But the book doesn’t only read like the work of a Sorkin-devotee. It has the general feel of Hornby, Tropper, Norman, Weiner, Russo (in his lighter moments), Perrotta, etc. The writing is engaging, catchy, welcoming. Shane writes in a way that you like reading his prose — no matter what’s happening. It’s pleasant and charming with moments of not-quite-brilliance, but close enough. Unlike Sorkin, Shane’s style doesn’t draw attention to itself, if anything, it deflects it. It’s not flashy, but it’s good. I could’ve easily read another 400 pages of these people without breaking a sweat.

You know how maybe the best thing about Zach Braff’s Garden State was that killer soundtrack? That’s almost the case here. Shane has assembled a great playlist on Spotify to go with the novel — stuff that Danny refers to in the book, and stuff he’d listen to. I’ve been introduced to a lot of music that I probably should know through it. Most of what I’ve written in the last week (and some of what I’ve read) has had it as a soundtrack, and that’ll likely hold true for a while longer. I’m embarrassed to admit how little of it I knew going in — Danny, Tom and especially Marty would be ashamed that someone who went to college in about the same time as they did wouldn’t know this stuff. Maybe I should’ve listened to more college radio. Unlike, Garden State, Postgraduate can be read without it (and without knowing the music), but this is a great touch. If for no other reason than there’s going to be a couple of songs you’re going to be curious about after reading about them, this is a great resource.

How much did I like the book? Despite being given a copy (which I’m very grateful for), I bought one. I might give a few away. Danny feels like an old friend, the world is comfortable and relaxing to be in (I should stress about 87.3 percent of what I know about radio comes from this book, so it’s not that). This belongs in the same discussion with the best of Hornby and Tropper — it’s exactly the kind of thing I hope to read when I’m not reading a “genre” novel (the problems with that clause deserve their own post, but you all know what I mean). There’s an eleven year gap between Shane’s first two novels, after reading this you can only hope that his third will arrive much sooner. While I wait for whatever’s next, you should go read Postgraduate. You’ll feel better than James Brown if you do.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of this book by the author in exchange for my honest opinion.

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4 1/2 Stars

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