Rogue Superheroes by Matt Cowper: Unintended Consequences Wreak All Sorts of Havoc on the Heroes’ Lives

Rogue SuperheroesRogue Superheroes

by Matt Cowper
Series: The Elites, #2

Kindle Edition, 242pg.
2019

Read: March 7- 8, 2019

When we left Nightstriker at the end of The World Savers, he was trying to apply the new convictions he’d adopted after The Elites encounter with the Giftgiver and his followers. Yes, the primary task for heroes like himself was to take on super-human threats, but other sources of injustice should be in their sights as well. Starting with corrupt politicians and government officials. Nightstriker, who seems to accumulate intelligence on everyone he stands next to in line at Starbucks, had plenty of dirt on them all — and starts releasing some of this information to the Press. Suddenly, officials are forced to resign in droves — and the stresses on the fault-lines of society increase exponentially.

Suddenly, the nation seems on the verge of civil war, and Nightstriker comes clean to the team about what he’s done. Before they can even decide how to react, their HQ is attacked and the President identifies Nightstriker (and because of him the rest of the Elites) as the source of the leaks and exposé stories. As they try to get out of the rubble that was their HQ, a new, government-controlled, team of heroes comes to arrest them. Before the Elites can really wrap their minds around what’s going on they’re on the run, hiding and licking their wounds.

So the Elites have to clean up their image, defeat the new team, and try to help fix the mess that Nightstriker inadvertently created by not thinking things through as he should have. It’s a good thing they’re super-heroes, or this could be very daunting.

That’s not the whole book — like before, a significant portion of the book is devoted to Sam (Blaze’s) continued maturing and the growth of his powers. There are heavy prices for him to pay along those likes I have to say, but especially for the reader — it’s all worth it. The rest of the team have strong storylines — and a good number of people from the previous book make appearances (some pretty significant). It’s easy (and right) to focus on his “Big Three” and what’s going on with them, but without the rest of these characters, the book wouldn’t work.

In the midst of a story where the stakes are so high — Cowper throws in a lot of smaller stories, a good number of scenes that aren’t involved in the overall story, but develop the characters well. It’s a well-balanced story, just enough of things that aren’t the overarching stories to round out things so you can take in all the details of the rest.

I cannot tell you how many times Cowper did things with these characters I didn’t see coming. Things happened to people (powered or not) and then the heroes reacted in ways that were shocking. Despite the fact that this is only the second book in a series, Cowper is clearly playing for keeps and won’t be satisfied with simply injuring some characters. More than once, I had to go back and read a couple of paragraphs again just to make sure that Cowper had the chutzpah to do what I thought he did. “I couldn’t have read that right, because that’s just . . . nope, he did do that.” It wasn’t deconstruction and shocking moves for the sake of it, there was a reason for it all and it served the story, but wow.

But that’s not to say that everything is dark and grim — yes, Cowper’s Super-Hero stories are more like a movie directed by Zack Snyder than one directed by Patty Jenkins or Jon Favreau, but there are moments of joy, of small victories, even a little romance. The moments with Blaze and Metal Girl continue to be enjoyable and are a great break from the Nightstriker drama (even when the moments with the two aren’t happy times). The character Anna, introduced late in The World Savers proved to be another source of relief from the tensions — which is odd, because things don’t really go that well for her for most of the book.

Slab and Buckshot continue (in my opinion) to be under-served, but they both had opportunities to shine here, and we saw more aspects of their character. I do understand why they don’t get the time devoted to them that Metal Girl, Blaze and Nightstriker get — I really do. Also, I’ll probably complain about Slab’s use until Cowper gives him POV chapters that make up at least a third of a novel. Still, Cowper uses the characters well and I like them a lot — he’s probably right to give them the “screen time” that he does. It’s better to leave readers wanting more, anyway, right? Rather than a “I don’t know why we spent so much time with Buckshot, when we could’ve got some more awkward flirtation from Blaze” situation.

A quick note — I thought the original cover for The World Savers was just fine. But the new cover, that matches the look of this cover, is just outstanding (as is this one). It’s a small thing, but the covers are great.

I had a blast with The World Savers, but Rogue Superheroes surpassed it on every front, and I was excited to read it. I’m not sure how Cowper continues the story from where it is — The Elites and the world around them were pushed to such extremes in these pages that topping this book might prove too much to try — but if instead of trying to climb that mountain, he goes around it just right, it could be very satisfying. I am really looking forward to seeing how he proceeds (and how wrong he proves me).

For solid super-hero action, a dash of intrigue and some jaw-dropping outcomes, Rogue Superheroes will satisfy any reader, and I encourage you to go grab it.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this novel from the author in exchange for my honest opinion about it.

—–

4 Stars

LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

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Pub Day Repost: The Last Act by Brad Parks: He’s in the jailhouse now

The Last ActThe Last Act

by Brad Parks

ARC, 368 pg.
Dutton Books, 2019
Read: February 26 – 27, 2019

Inspired by the Wachovia Bank scandal from a few years back, Brad Parks’ third stand-alone is a departure in a sense from his previous two. Rather than crimes close to home for his protagonists, this is crime on an international scale, with most of the figures involved never laying eyes on each other.

Mitch Dupree was a high-level bank executive who was convicted of aiding a Mexican drug cartel by laundering a lot of money. He’s been sentenced to a minimum security prison in West Virginia. If after reading this — or even while reading it — you want a few more details about what happened with Dupree before the novel starts (or more specifics about the events leading up to his arrest), check out the prequel short story, The Whistle Blower. He has made it known both far and wide that he has a large amount of evidence against the cartel tucked away safely — and as long as he and/or his family are alive, that evidence stays hidden.

Naturally, the DEA, FBI and the cartel want to get their hands on it — and are willing to do some above and beyond work to get it.

Enter Tommy Jump — he’d risen to fame and prominence (and a Tony nomination) as a child on Broadway, but as he aged into adulthood the parts dried up. He’s on the verge of calling it quits — at least for a couple of decades. He’s approached by a childhood friend, Danny Ruiz, flashing a shiny FBI badge and an interesting job offer. Danny and his partner, Rick Gilmartin, want Tommy to go undercover with an assumed identity of a bank robber and serve time in the same prison. He has six months to get close to Dupree, win his trust and get the location of the documents. If the intelligence he gathers leads to indictments, he gets a hefty bonus on top of the pretty nice initial paycheck (all the funds come from civil forfeiture, and the well seems to run pretty deep). Given that his fiancé — a painter waiting to be discovered — just told him she was pregnant, any kind of pay-day sounds good to an out-of-work actor, one with a pay-day that could set them up for years? How can he pass that up?

The early stages of the plan go pretty smoothly — Tommy’s given a new identity, develops a cover story and is sentenced to the same prison. He arrives and gets settled — not really making friends, but getting well acquainted with fellow inmates, who show him the ropes and help him get acclimated. It goes so smoothly, actually, that it bugged me a little. Sure, he’s an actor, but this isn’t a play, there’s no script, and it seems easy. But, Tommy’s such a likeable guy, a winning narrator that I just kept shrugging off my skepticism and rolled with it — I wanted things to work out for Tommy and Amanda, I wanted to see what happened with Dupree — so whatever it took to get me to seeing if things would work out for them I could accept.

And then — because this is a thriller, because Parks is good at torturing his readers (that’s why we keep coming back), and because no one is as lucky as Tommy seemed to be — everything got nearly impossible. On a dime, the momentum changes and suddenly thing look incredibly grim for Tommy, Amanda, Dupree and several other characters. Naturally, at the same time the bottom fell out and I was reeling from a pretty significant reveal, my lunch break ended and I had to get back to work with no time to process things. I know it’s stupid, but it felt like Parks planned it that way.

The novel alternates between Tommy chapters and chapters with Amanda, one of the cartel’s higher-ups and his efforts to find the evidence, Danny and Rick, and Mitch Dupree’s wife. I was honestly surprised how much time we got with Amanda and Mrs. Dupree — both of whom had their own character arcs independent of (although influenced by) Tommy and Mitch. I could’ve used a little more of both of them — not that Parks short-changed them in any way, but their stories were so interesting that I would’ve enjoyed it. Alternatively, by the end of the book (especially in light of The Whistle Blower), I was surprised how little time we got with Mitch Dupree — again, it’s not that he was short-changed, I just would’ve assumed we’d have more time with him. And what time we do have with him was by and large mediated through Tommy or his wife.

Beyond that, all the characters are well-drawn, well-developed and the kind that you would like to spend more time with. Parks has always displayed a great knack at creating characters that you can easily imagine coming across in real life — no matter their walk of life. They’re not all good people (particularly those who are aligned with the cartel), but they’re all believable people.

Before I get back to what Parks did right, I have a couple of problems that I want to talk about — as always, I’m afraid that the amount of space I spend talking about them is going to give the idea that I had real problems with the book as a whole. I didn’t. It’s just a couple of issues — issues that take more space to explain than the bits I like take. Still, they’re worth talking about.

I’m not 100% convinced that Parks adequately gets the point across about how dangerous this cartel that Tommy’s mixed up in is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like he portrays them as cuddly or anything. But I’m still not sure I got a large sense of threat and doom from them–Tommy and Dupree carry that sense, they’re adequately scared (especially Dupree), but I’m not sure that Parks gets the readers to be. I know he’s capable of it, I’m just not sure he did it here.

Similarly, I think he could’ve done a better job depicting life in the minimum security prison, the daily ins and outs — the lack of privacy, the loneliness, the hardships. I’m struggling for words here — the deprivations from a life of liberty that make prison a place you want to avoid, even a minimum security prison.. . It honestly felt like Tommy had an easier time getting up to stuff (including out-of-the-building excursions) in the middle of the night than Harry, Ron and Hermione did at Hogwarts. Or to put it in a different light — Say Nothing‘s Scott Sampson’s pretty sizeable home and nice office, felt far more confining than the prison did. And the small house that Melanie Barrick called home in Closer Than You Know seemed much more restricting and frightening than Tommy’s incarceration (as did the county jail she spent time in).

That said — what Parks was able to convey very strongly was the life-and-death nature of the situation that Tommy, Dupree, and Dupree’s wife was in. Also, the questions of identity, the future consequences of everyone’s actions loomed large here and dominated their thoughts, motives and actions. Where Scott and Melanie’s stories were much more immediate in their focus (yes, with long-range repercussions, but a very intense focus on the immediate future), Tommy’s story and his own focus is on the future. He spends very little time thinking about the now of things, most of his eye is on a decade away — which is likely tied in to his sentence.

As I mentioned earlier, when things started going bad for Tommy, they went really bad — and the rest of the book didn’t lighten up on him. It’s almost as if Parks lulled readers into letting their guard down before hitting them hard (actually, it’s probably exactly that). The twists and turns start to come fast and relentlessly. The beginning of the book is interesting and winning — and then once the hook is set, Parks just messes with you and you can’t relax until everything is over. In his previous stand-alones, Parks pretty much kept the tension and suspense going from the first chapter theory the end. In this book, he saved almost all of it until the end, so it hits you harder. So it stops being about characters that you’d like to see succeed or find out more about, to characters that you like and have to know if they’re going to survive with their wits, health and family intact — and you have to know it right now.

About the same time that things got intense, I had a realization — I think I’ve figured out what makes Parks’ novels work so well, how he gets his readers to commit — in The Last Act — and everything else he writes — what matters most is family. Ultimately, all his books are celebrations of family, and what people will go through for the sake of family. It’s tucked away in some of the Carter Ross books — but, without going back to reread any, I’m pretty sure its there. But especially in his stand-alones, this is Parks’ recurring theme. It’s the way he connects his audience to whatever his protagonist is going through and to the protagonists themselves. There’s something instinctive, primal about the way that Parks portrays family and the lengths that individuals will go through for them — whether the family is just starting or well-established. something that Tommy and Dupree have a conversation about made that click with/for me — and thinking about it is the only thing that got me to think about putting this book down for a moment.

I’ve yet to be disappointed by a Parks book, I’ve enjoyed all of them — and this is no exception. I do think there’s something special about this one, both in Park’s construction of the novel and what it’s saying about the characters. He takes some risks, and does some things he hadn’t done before, and I was pleased to see the results. There’s a lot of heart in The Last Act, a lot of tension, and more hope than you might expect. There’s also some things said about the drug war and the prison system that are worth reflecting on. I’m not sure what else I can say to convince you to try this, so I’ll just call that good.

Disclaimer: I received this ARC from Dutton Books, which did not influence anything I had to say about it — it just means I was able to say something about it before the publication date. I do thank them for the opportunity, however.

—–

4 Stars

Killing State by Judith O’Reilly: I Can’t Suitably Encapsulate this Gripping Thriller

Killing StateKilling State

by Judith O’Reilly
Series: Michael North, #1

Kindle Edition, 496 pg.
Head of Zeus, 2019

Read: March 5 – 7, 2019

           “You should come with me.”

He turned over the offer in his mind.

Why would he?

Because she was stop-your-heart beautiful.

Then again, the world teemed with beautiful women. Because he wanted to know how it ended.

Badly, he predicted.

What happens when an assassin doesn’t get the expected reaction from his target? Honor Jones, MP, tells him to let her finish her cigarette and asks him a question, “Where’s Peggy?” The assassin in question, Michael North, doesn’t know who Peggy is, much less where she is. What he does know is that he can’t kill this woman — maybe it’s because (unlike the rest of his targets) he wasn’t given a reason for her execution, maybe it’s her attitude, maybe he’s just getting tired of killing (not to be confused with Martin Q. Blank’s newfound respect for life) — certainly her beauty doesn’t hurt.

His refusal to kill her doesn’t go down well with his employer — an extra-governmental body dedicated to the preservation of the British government. That morning, he’s contacted in person with strict instructions to get the job done or face the (fatal) consequences. Instead, North tried to get her out of the country and ends up saving her from a different assassin. Not very shockingly, North also finds instructions to kill him on this assassin’s corpse. By this point, North is smitten with Honor and is committed (whether either of them consciously realize it) to helping her survive and find her friend Peggy.

At the moment, it’s clear that Honor’s search for her dear friend is tied to the kill order. Peggy’s an astronomer, largely apolitical, and not tied to any endeavor that would normally put her on the radar of anyone outside of astronomical/academic circles. Nevertheless, she’s somehow set these dominoes falling, and now Honor and North are running from killers across the country as they seek to learn why Peggy has disappeared.

This hunt for Peggy will push North and Honor to — and past — their limits. It will see them both injured. Both under threat of grave bodily harm (and death) through violence — and both will have to take steps to defend themselves. Around them, the culture and government face shifts and challenges from within that threaten to change everything that Britons know about themselves. On top of all that — there are some great character moments, real growth and change that happen ways that you can believe — not just the clear result of authorial fiat, but because that’s what happens when people face what they did.

Plots involving large-scale conspiracies frequently leave me cold — O’Reilly not only convinces me that her conspiracy is worth reading, but she’s effective enough with it to make me enjoy it. I struggle to accept plots involving psychiatric professionals and loved ones trying to convince a character that the reality they know (and the audience knows) isn’t real, but is the result of delusion brought on by some psychological condition. Now this one isn’t as involved as say, “Normal Again” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it’s there — and O’Reilly sticks with it long enough to accomplish what she needs to for her story, but she doesn’t milk drama out of it. There are a few other things like this — tricks, plotlines, tropes — that I typically avoid or get annoyed by, but I accepted and enjoyed here.

My notes are filled with “O’Reilly isn’t going to try ___, is she?” entries, followed by “Yeah, she is — and it works.” She squeezes in so many of these things that I’m tempted to doubt my memory about them — and I’m writing this less than a day after I read it! For reasons of space, time, and readability I’ve limited myself in what I’ve addressed in this post. I had a lot of other things I wanted to say, and even had drafts talking about. But I ended up restricting myself — not just because of spoilers (though, as always, that’s part of it) — but because O’Reilly stuffs this novel with so many ideas, plot points and details that I can’t talk about it all without the post becoming unreadable. I don’t know how she manages to put it all in while maintaining the pounding pace. It’s truly noteworthy and laudable that she pulls it off. I can’t even express this without producing an ungainly paragraph.

Michael North is a larger-than-life character, but honestly more grounded in reality than many assassin/lone warrior types in Thriller fiction. Part of that comes from O’Reilly’s restraint in describing him — he’s never depicted as anything superlative. He’s simply a skilled and surprisingly dedicated combat veteran in a series of tight situations that even he is shocked that he survives as long as he does.

Similarly, Honor is one of many beautiful women in the world (as North himself notes above) — she’s one of many dedicated elected public servants, she’s one of many people who’ve overcome difficult pasts thanks to the help of a friend/loved one. She also isn’t depicted as a superlative anything — just the right person in the right place at the right time. Even if that right place is in front of Michael North’s knife. And yes, the name Honor is ripe with possibilities and symbolism — O’Reilly takes advantage of it. Not as much as some authors would’ve, but she gets her money’s worth out of the name.

There is an plausibility-stretching character — a young computer whiz (actually, she’s something beyond whiz, but I can’t think of a term that fits her), who North allies himself with temporarily. But between her attitude and role in the overall story, I can’t see any reader not suspending disbelief enough to embrace her.

Most of this book takes place in moral gray areas (as it almost has to given North’s profession), but that doesn’t stop O’Reilly’s villains from clearly being villains and her heroes clearly being heroic. Killing State doesn’t try to go for some sort of situational ethics or a “yes, but” approach to the morality of te characters — which may or may not have been successful.

The plot moves like the proverbial roller coaster — ups, downs, rushes, and loops all at a pace that you just hope to keep up with. Fair warning — once the hook is set (and it’ll be early on), you won’t want to put the book down and you’ll likely get in trouble with deadlines and schedules. Things won’t really end the way you expect them to — I had a handful of expected conclusions that I had to discard along the way (although some I didn’t have to discard until the last moments) — but when you’re finished with the book, you’ll likely realize that there’s no other way for things to have fallen out.

There’s a sequel expected later this year — I honestly can’t imagine that it’ll be able to live up to this. But I wouldn’t put it past O’Reilly to confound my expectations again. I had a lot of fun with this novel and was regularly impressed with O’Reilly (and North and Honor). I expect that I’m not alone, and soon I’ll see a lot of very positive buzz surrounding this book.


My thanks to Love Books Group for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including the book) they provided.

—–

4 Stars

Head of Zeus
Love Books Group

The Last Act by Brad Parks: He’s in the jailhouse now

The Last ActThe Last Act

by Brad Parks


ARC, 368 pg.
Dutton Books, 2019

Read: February 26 – 27, 2019

Inspired by the Wachovia Bank scandal from a few years back, Brad Parks’ third stand-alone is a departure in a sense from his previous two. Rather than crimes close to home for his protagonists, this is crime on an international scale, with most of the figures involved never laying eyes on each other.

Mitch Dupree was a high-level bank executive who was convicted of aiding a Mexican drug cartel by laundering a lot of money. He’s been sentenced to a minimum security prison in West Virginia. If after reading this — or even while reading it — you want a few more details about what happened with Dupree before the novel starts (or more specifics about the events leading up to his arrest), check out the prequel short story, The Whistle Blower. He has made it known both far and wide that he has a large amount of evidence against the cartel tucked away safely — and as long as he and/or his family are alive, that evidence stays hidden.

Naturally, the DEA, FBI and the cartel want to get their hands on it — and are willing to do some above and beyond work to get it.

Enter Tommy Jump — he’d risen to fame and prominence (and a Tony nomination) as a child on Broadway, but as he aged into adulthood the parts dried up. He’s on the verge of calling it quits — at least for a couple of decades. He’s approached by a childhood friend, Danny Ruiz, flashing a shiny FBI badge and an interesting job offer. Danny and his partner, Rick Gilmartin, want Tommy to go undercover with an assumed identity of a bank robber and serve time in the same prison. He has six months to get close to Dupree, win his trust and get the location of the documents. If the intelligence he gathers leads to indictments, he gets a hefty bonus on top of the pretty nice initial paycheck (all the funds come from civil forfeiture, and the well seems to run pretty deep). Given that his fiancé — a painter waiting to be discovered — just told him she was pregnant, any kind of pay-day sounds good to an out-of-work actor, one with a pay-day that could set them up for years? How can he pass that up?

The early stages of the plan go pretty smoothly — Tommy’s given a new identity, develops a cover story and is sentenced to the same prison. He arrives and gets settled — not really making friends, but getting well acquainted with fellow inmates, who show him the ropes and help him get acclimated. It goes so smoothly, actually, that it bugged me a little. Sure, he’s an actor, but this isn’t a play, there’s no script, and it seems easy. But, Tommy’s such a likeable guy, a winning narrator that I just kept shrugging off my skepticism and rolled with it — I wanted things to work out for Tommy and Amanda, I wanted to see what happened with Dupree — so whatever it took to get me to seeing if things would work out for them I could accept.

And then — because this is a thriller, because Parks is good at torturing his readers (that’s why we keep coming back), and because no one is as lucky as Tommy seemed to be — everything got nearly impossible. On a dime, the momentum changes and suddenly thing look incredibly grim for Tommy, Amanda, Dupree and several other characters. Naturally, at the same time the bottom fell out and I was reeling from a pretty significant reveal, my lunch break ended and I had to get back to work with no time to process things. I know it’s stupid, but it felt like Parks planned it that way.

The novel alternates between Tommy chapters and chapters with Amanda, one of the cartel’s higher-ups and his efforts to find the evidence, Danny and Rick, and Mitch Dupree’s wife. I was honestly surprised how much time we got with Amanda and Mrs. Dupree — both of whom had their own character arcs independent of (although influenced by) Tommy and Mitch. I could’ve used a little more of both of them — not that Parks short-changed them in any way, but their stories were so interesting that I would’ve enjoyed it. Alternatively, by the end of the book (especially in light of The Whistle Blower), I was surprised how little time we got with Mitch Dupree — again, it’s not that he was short-changed, I just would’ve assumed we’d have more time with him. And what time we do have with him was by and large mediated through Tommy or his wife.

Beyond that, all the characters are well-drawn, well-developed and the kind that you would like to spend more time with. Parks has always displayed a great knack at creating characters that you can easily imagine coming across in real life — no matter their walk of life. They’re not all good people (particularly those who are aligned with the cartel), but they’re all believable people.

Before I get back to what Parks did right, I have a couple of problems that I want to talk about — as always, I’m afraid that the amount of space I spend talking about them is going to give the idea that I had real problems with the book as a whole. I didn’t. It’s just a couple of issues — issues that take more space to explain than the bits I like take. Still, they’re worth talking about.

I’m not 100% convinced that Parks adequately gets the point across about how dangerous this cartel that Tommy’s mixed up in is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like he portrays them as cuddly or anything. But I’m still not sure I got a large sense of threat and doom from them–Tommy and Dupree carry that sense, they’re adequately scared (especially Dupree), but I’m not sure that Parks gets the readers to be. I know he’s capable of it, I’m just not sure he did it here.

Similarly, I think he could’ve done a better job depicting life in the minimum security prison, the daily ins and outs — the lack of privacy, the loneliness, the hardships. I’m struggling for words here — the deprivations from a life of liberty that make prison a place you want to avoid, even a minimum security prison.. . It honestly felt like Tommy had an easier time getting up to stuff (including out-of-the-building excursions) in the middle of the night than Harry, Ron and Hermione did at Hogwarts. Or to put it in a different light — Say Nothing‘s Scott Sampson’s pretty sizeable home and nice office, felt far more confining than the prison did. And the small house that Melanie Barrick called home in Closer Than You Know seemed much more restricting and frightening than Tommy’s incarceration (as did the county jail she spent time in).

That said — what Parks was able to convey very strongly was the life-and-death nature of the situation that Tommy, Dupree, and Dupree’s wife was in. Also, the questions of identity, the future consequences of everyone’s actions loomed large here and dominated their thoughts, motives and actions. Where Scott and Melanie’s stories were much more immediate in their focus (yes, with long-range repercussions, but a very intense focus on the immediate future), Tommy’s story and his own focus is on the future. He spends very little time thinking about the now of things, most of his eye is on a decade away — which is likely tied in to his sentence.

As I mentioned earlier, when things started going bad for Tommy, they went really bad — and the rest of the book didn’t lighten up on him. It’s almost as if Parks lulled readers into letting their guard down before hitting them hard (actually, it’s probably exactly that). The twists and turns start to come fast and relentlessly. The beginning of the book is interesting and winning — and then once the hook is set, Parks just messes with you and you can’t relax until everything is over. In his previous stand-alones, Parks pretty much kept the tension and suspense going from the first chapter theory the end. In this book, he saved almost all of it until the end, so it hits you harder. So it stops being about characters that you’d like to see succeed or find out more about, to characters that you like and have to know if they’re going to survive with their wits, health and family intact — and you have to know it right now.

About the same time that things got intense, I had a realization — I think I’ve figured out what makes Parks’ novels work so well, how he gets his readers to commit — in The Last Act — and everything else he writes — what matters most is family. Ultimately, all his books are celebrations of family, and what people will go through for the sake of family. It’s tucked away in some of the Carter Ross books — but, without going back to reread any, I’m pretty sure its there. But especially in his stand-alones, this is Parks’ recurring theme. It’s the way he connects his audience to whatever his protagonist is going through and to the protagonists themselves. There’s something instinctive, primal about the way that Parks portrays family and the lengths that individuals will go through for them — whether the family is just starting or well-established. something that Tommy and Dupree have a conversation about made that click with/for me — and thinking about it is the only thing that got me to think about putting this book down for a moment.

I’ve yet to be disappointed by a Parks book, I’ve enjoyed all of them — and this is no exception. I do think there’s something special about this one, both in Park’s construction of the novel and what it’s saying about the characters. He takes some risks, and does some things he hadn’t done before, and I was pleased to see the results. There’s a lot of heart in The Last Act, a lot of tension, and more hope than you might expect. There’s also some things said about the drug war and the prison system that are worth reflecting on. I’m not sure what else I can say to convince you to try this, so I’ll just call that good.

Disclaimer: I received this ARC from Dutton Books, which did not influence anything I had to say about it — it just means I was able to say something about it before the publication date. I do thank them for the opportunity, however.

—–

4 Stars

Back Door to Hell by Paul Gadsby: Everybody be cool, that was a robbery!

Back Door to HellBack Door to Hell

by Paul Gadsby


Kindle Edition, 213 pg.
Fahrenheit 13, 2019
Read: February 25, 2019

‘Sometimes you gotta take what you need, right when you need it.’

Giving this little piece of brotherly advice might end up being be the worst thing Darren ever did to his younger brother, Nate. Although making a call to his boss back in London for help getting the two of them out of a police cell in Majorca is a contender. Darren’s boss, Crawford, is one of the biggest criminals in London and his help comes with a price. We don’t know what all Darren had to repay Crawford, but Nate had to go to work in a sleazy bar and pool club for a month. It’s nothing major, watch the bar, sell some crisps, wash dishes, don’t ask questions, don’t pay attention to anything.

This would likely be the first step of Nate following his brother’s example and becoming another one of Crawford’s men. But Nate meets Jen, an art student trying to make enough money to go back to school. Unlike Nate, Jen’s figured out that the real reason this dive is still operational is that as a cash business, it’s an ideal way for Crawford to launder money. Not only has she noted this, she’s figured out when the safe is full of Crawford’s various Ill-Gotten Gains and the best time to relieve him of them. She just needs a partner. Enter Nate.

Jen explains the plan to Nate, and drawing on his need for money, his utter lack of a plan for his life, his brother’s bad advice, and the fact that this plan is explained by an attractive young woman with great hair, he’s in.

Here’s the catch: as anyone who’s read Jack Reacher, Spenser, or any number of similar things can tell you, “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Jen’s plan dissolves after first contact, as you’d expect. Sadly, first contact happens a whole lot sooner than she’d anticipated (Jen, the healthy young woman, underestimates the laziness of an middle-aged apathetic fat guy). Undeterred, Nate and Jen grab the money and run. Due more to luck and circumstance than experience and skill (and better mechanics), Jen’s little Fiesta is able to get the pair to safety following a car chase.

As I mentioned the plan is junked by this point — and they trash it even further. They’re supposed to split up for mutual safety, but are so freaked out at this point that they can’t think about going on without each other. So the two work together to get out of London, and make preparations to leave the UK entirely to try to escape Crawford’s reach.

Crawford meanwhile, is turning over every rock he can to get his hands on the two of them — and more importantly, the money. Most of which was promised to some associates. Besides, there’s the principle of it all — what kind of crimelord let’s a couple of twentysomethings driving a piece of junk car rip him off? We end up spending a lot more time with Crawford than I expected — not just him, but his wife and kid, too. Crawford’s son Ollie is on the Autism Spectrum and watching Crawford try to father him, try to communicate with him is both touching and instructive about the character. It does more than humanize the character, but I don’t want to ruin anything with my speculations about Gadsby’s intentions, so just know there’s a lot going on in the scenes with Crawford’s family.

Just because he’s human, doesn’t mean he’s not ruthless or that he doesn’t have a large and violent workforce. Nate and Jen are quite aware of that, and get more aware of it by the moment (although they might debate the “human” bit). They bounce around England, trying to stay off the radar while gathering things like passports and undocumented travel to Europe. There are close calls with Crawford’s men, dealings with less than savory figures, and the kind of paranoia that comes about when they are out to get you — their new life isn’t easy for the pair.

But that doesn’t stop a sweet relationship developing and cementing between the two, while the reader cannot help but sense impending doom, you end up really liking them as a couple and rooting for them — like Jessie and Celine strolling around Vienna for a few hours. Only Nate and Jen are driving around England with (literal and figurative) blood on their hands and a price on their heads. I guess it’s Richard Linklater by way of Chad Stahelski.

I’m not giving anything away, by the way, saying that about sensing impending doom. If you haven’t picked up a sense of impending doom on Page One you aren’t paying attention to Gadsby. How he manages to make you feel that while telling this sweet story, and making you feel how dangerous Crawford is…it’s a great trick.

This is a fast-moving book, and the pages just melt away (not unlike Jen’s plan). It’ll draw you in and keep you riveted through all the twists and turns. And each time you start to think you know what’s going to happen, Gadsby will tell you that you’re wrong. And then he’ll throw a curveball at you. Yes, there’s the looming sense of doom, but there’s a hope shining throughout all that like that green light at the end of the East Egg dock. It won’t be until the very end until you know what to pay attention to — the threat or the hope. Gadsby does yeoman’s work there.

This is a treat folks, you’d do well to indulge.

—–

4 Stars

Fahrenbruary Repost: Rubicon by Ian Patrick: A thrill-ride that will stay with you long after the action ends.

I bought this shortly after it was released, and then let it collect e-dust on my e-reader, and pretty much used Damp Pebbles’ Book Tour for this as my excuse to read it. I wasn’t over the moon with this one, but I liked it a lot. And then I spent months thinking about it until the sequel came out. Batford’s the kind of character that will not move out of your headspace like any respectable character does when you start a new book. Rather, he’ll take up residence — scratch that, he’ll squat there, not allowing the lease holder to get comfortable sharing the space with him…. I think this metaphor has gotten out of hand, so I’m going to shut up and get on with the post.

RubiconRubicon

by Ian Patrick
Series: Sam Batford, #1

Kindle Edition, 232 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2017
Read: May 31 – June 2, 2018

. . . there’s no money in policing unless you cross the line.

But that doesn’t mean that Sam Batford isn’t going to try.

Batford is an undercover police officer who’s after a kingpin of some repute and his guns and drugs importing. DCI Klara Winter is a no-nonsense head of a task force going after the same kingpin, Big H, more directly — phone taps, applying pressure to associates, interrogations, etc. Batford is assigned to her task force to supplement their intelligence. Neither want this assignment, and work to undermine it immediately. They do actually help each other out — but it’s almost despite their best efforts. Their mutual dislike, distrust and antagonism is one of the more interesting dynamics that I’ve run across lately.

We see most of the novel through Batford’s eyes, with the occasional glimpse from Winter’s perspective. It doesn’t take much to get a strong sense of Winter’s personality and thought process. Just from the volume, the reader ends up seeing things Batford’s way — whether or not they should.

Batford infiltrates Big H’s organization — at least to a degree — for one job. A large one, no doubt, one that would secure Winter’s career (and would do his own some favors). Like most undercover officers (especially in fiction), he cuts many legal and ethical corners to do so. There’s some question — as there should be — whether or not Big H really trusts him, and the constant testing, evaluation and insecurity makes for great reading — it’s an atmosphere you can almost feel through the words.

So Batford is doing what he can to get enough information to take down Big H, to gain his trust (and therefore access), to disrupt the flow of drugs and guns — and mostly to stay alive. If he can find a way to make a little money while he’s at it . . . well, he might as well. Winter just wants enough evidence to make some arrests — and maybe some headlines — so she can get the budget to keep her team working.

This is not a book for the squeamish — there are a few scenes I know that would cause some of my friends and readers to throw the book down in disgust (the same scenes will cause other friends/readers to fist pump their excitement — I’m not sure which of these bothers me more). There’s one scene in particular that made me think of the dental scene from Marathon Man (I’ve never watched the movie just in case they nail that scene from the novel).

There were two . . . I don’t want to say problems for me, but things that kept me from going over the moon with Rubicon: Batford works his way into this assignment by worming his way in to the trust of one Big H’s associates while they’re in Bali. Do Metropolitan Police Undercover Officers really get to globe-trot the way that Batford does? Is that a bit of Artistic License? Is it a sign of just how far outside the lines that Batford colors? Does it tell us that he’s not just a Metropolitan Police Officer? It’s a minor point, I admit — and it’s really easy to accept as kosher (but that doesn’t mean I don’t wonder), because watching Batford’s machinations there is fascinating.

Secondly, Batford displays a very particular vocabulary — I’m not sure if it’s London slang, or Ian Patrick-slang. I could believe either. I will admit that there were periods that the slang got in the way of the story. That’s probably on me — and some of it is Shaw’s two countries separated by a common language phenomenon. With a little bit of work, and a small amount of guesswork (and a willingness to go back and revisit a passage later), it was all accessible enough and perspicuous.

There’s a lot about this book that I’m not sure about — I’ve been chewing on it for a couple of days, and it’s going to take a few more at least. Patrick’s characters take a little chewing, I think. It’d be easy to put Batford in the “murky anti-hero” category and move on — but I’m not sure he fits there; I’m even less sure where Winter fits — she’s not the straight-laced cop you’re at first tempted to label her, nor is she just the figure that makes life difficult for our anti-hero to do what he wants (although she functions pretty well that way). But even if/when I decide how to categorize these two — then I have to decide what I think of them as these characters — are they good people? No. That’s easy. Are they good fictional beings in their particular roles? My gut says yes, and my brain leans that way, but I’m still working on that.

Either way, I’m enjoying chewing on the novel and these ideas — and I’m definitely getting my money’s worth out of this book, just having to think about it this much.

There is part of this evaluation that’s easy — the writing? Gripping. The pacing? Once it gets going, it’s a runaway train that you’re just hoping you can hang on to long enough to get through to the end. The narrative voice is as strong as you could ask, and even when you’re thinking this cop might be more deserving of a being handcuffed on his way to a long incarceration than his targets, you’ll need to hear his singular perspective on the events around him.

Strong writing (some of my favorite sentences of the year are in this book), characters that demand thinking about, a plot that you can’t wrap up in a tidy bow — this isn’t your typical thriller. Whether it’s your cup of tea or not, it’s one that you won’t forget easily.

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4 Stars

Fahrenbruary Repost: Blackwater by GJ Moffat: A Brutal and Gripping American Crime Story

BlackwaterBlackwater

by GJ Moffat

Kindle Edition, 292 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2017
Read: December 14 – 15, 2018

           Early went to [redacted]’s body and hunkered down in front of [redacted]. His skin was flaccid and his jaw and face swollen and misshapen from the effects of his injuries. His shirt was entirely soaked in blood.

Early shook his head, thinking: this is what men do.

Take Walt Longmire (Deputy Longmire, before Lucian Connally’s retirement) throw him into Jesse Stone’s Paradise, and then tell a story imbued with the spirit of Fargo (movie or show), your results will be pretty close to GJ Moffat’s stunning Blackwater.

It’s a tale of violence, bloodshed, power, inevitability and death — what men do.

Deputy Sheriff Early Simms of Blackwater County is the son of the previous sheriff and probably the only member of the Department really fit for the job. A tragic accident in High School changed the direction of his life, and as a result he’s in the same dying New England area he grew up in. He’s made peace with this, and even seems to be happy — he’d be happier if his boss (and colleagues) cared a bit more about the job and his father wasn’t battling Alzheimer’s, sure. But this is his life.

And then everything changes in a couple of days — his old high school flame (and love of his life) returns to town, there’s an investigation into a corrupt public official, an investigation into an assault/attempted murder at a nearby jail, and a couple of brothers on a killing spree have come to the region. There’s also some drug running, spousal abuse, a pretty nasty bar fight. I don’t want to say that Early Simms is the only one investigating the crimes, in trying to preserve the peace — there are three (that we know of) other members of the Sheriff’s Department, some other local law enforcement officers and some FBI agents running around. But Early’s the only individual who’s in each of the stories — he’s the region of intersection in the Venn diagram of Blackwater (and frequently the most capable person around).

One of the criminals we meet in these pages (not saying which one) is clearly not an evil man. There’s some sort of undiagnosed (by the author or by any professional this criminal has ever encountered) mental health issue affecting him. Which does not lessen the evil he does and the trauma he inflicts on others. Part of me wants to know more about the whys, hows, wherefores, and whatnot about this disorder and is a little frustrated that Moffat doesn’t give us any of it. The other part of me is so glad that he didn’t succumb to temptation to get into tall that, instead merely showing his readers what was going on with this man, leaving it to us to do the work. There’s someone else who probably has some sort of Traumatic brain injury symptoms — not quite the same, but some of the same results.

We also see crime perpetrated by someone motivated by power, money and meanness. Also, there are some criminals who just don’t seem to have options, means or inclination to do anything but break the law. It’s up to Early to face down these people, no matter where on the spectrum they seem to be found, to prevent them from inflicting too much harm on the community.

How successful he is at that, well . . .

Moffat can write. That’s all there is to it. It took almost no time at all to recognize that. You get a strong sense of every character in just a few lines and his world is as fully realized as you could hope for. He presents the evil Early sees and fights against in this book fairly realistically, in a way that is as capricious and destructive as anything you see on the news.

So many times — almost every chance he gets — Moffat will do precisely what you don’t expect. What people just don’t do in this kind of book. He’ll put the characters in a situation you’ve seen dozens of times before, and just when you think “X will happen right after I turn the page,” B happens before you can turn the page. I realize there’s a danger in saying that — you’ll be looking for that kind of thing. But I expect that the same thing’ll happen to you as it did to me every time he pulled the rug out from under me — you’ll get sucked in by his writing and the characters (and possibly still be reeling from the last shock) and you won’t even think to expect that he’ll do it again.

I finished the book I was reading before this earlier than I expected to, and didn’t have the next on my list with me, so I took the opportunity to pay a visit to what I call my Kindle’s “Fahrenheit Ward” — where I stick all the Fahrenheit Press books that I buy without time to read — and I grabbed this. I’m so glad my timing worked out that way — this is exactly what I needed. I got sucked in by this immediately, and it was practically impossible to put down. Before I got to the novel’s final confrontation(s), I jotted in my notes, “Man, I hope this isn’t the first of a series — I don’t know if the community can survive another book.”

But if Fahrenheit published a sequel today? I’d shell out cash before the end day. I strongly expect you’ll feel the same way once you recover from Blackwater.

—–

4 Stars