The Swallows by Lisa Lutz: Hilarious and Harrowing Account of Destroying the Status Quo because the Status is Not Quo

The Swallows

The Swallows

by Lisa Lutz

Hardcover, 399 pg.
Ballantine Books, 2019

Read: August 21 – 22, 2019

As I gazed at my students, I had the same thought I always had on the first day. They looked so young and innocent. Then I found a dead rat in the bottom of my desk drawer and remembered the tenet I had learned over the last eight years. The young may have a better excuse for cruelty, but they are no less capable of it.

For someone looking for omens, it’s odd how many exit signs I chose to ignore.

If a century of tradition were the only thing my time at Stonebridge brought to an end, I’d be okay with that. It’s the two deaths that keep me up at night.

How can I talk about The Swallows without ruining the experience? Not easily, and verbosely. Let’s see if I can manage it.

Structurally, it’s a boarding school book—a bunch of well-off (and/or scholarship) kids livingly largely without parental supervision and guidance, getting away with all sorts of things while the adults responsible for the supervision turn a blind eye, are honestly oblivious, or are complicit in the goings-on. At the end of the day, the real power is wielded by the students—a small sub-set of them, anyway—and there’s a split between those wanting to exercise their power for their own pleasure and benefit (largely male at the expense of female empowerment, self-respect, self-esteem, and dignity) and those, well not wanting that.

Largely the book focuses on a small group of female students sick and tired with the status quo (offended and angry, actually) who set out to expose the cabal and the horrible games they play with people in a way to salt the earth so it can’t be repeated. This seems like a tall order, but what choice do they have? They also have male students sympathetic to their cause and are willing to help out.

But also, there’s a teacher (or more) not willing to go along with this, and who knows something’s going on, so she does what she can to track it down to find ways to stop it (either herself or via student/faculty proxies). Her name is Alex Witt and she’s just arrived at Stonebridge Academy following an ignominious departure from Warren Prep. It takes her very little time to determine that something is rotten at Stonebridge and that a couple of her students are trying to do something about it. Instinctively in agreement with them, Alex does what she can to encourage the individuals to find one another and use the strength their numbers and collaboration can bring. One student described her as:

…my friend, my ally, my confidante. She charmed, teased, amused, incited, and befriended us.

Alexandra Witt was the pied piper of Stonebridge Academy.

Chapters are told from the perspective of Alex or some of the other faculty or various students—primarily from the perspective of Gemma Russo (the student quoted above). Gemma was well on her way to a time as a firebrand, but with nudges and aid from Alex, her crusade picks up momentum until upheaval comes to the existing conditions and then all bets are off (see that last line of the opening quotation). Essentially, Alex is John Keating without the stand-up or poetry, making Gemma Neil Perry, I guess.

The book starts off as offbeat, with Gemma as this strange instructor in an alien environment, trying to escape her legacy and to maybe find a little peace while the students are running around pretending to be revolutionaries. But it shifts at a certain point, and while still occasionally comic and never anything but fun to read, it sheds the comedy in favor of earnest emotions and motives and dangerous situations. You don’t notice it happening, but after a certain point, you’ll notice the ground has shifted. Lutz pulls that off really well.

There’s a lot of subtle work to the plot and the prose, and some that’s pretty obvious. But even the obvious is done well. There’s a reveal toward the end of the book that caught me so off-guard, but was so perfect I think I laughed out loud. I think this is technically streets ahead of Lutz’ previous work.

It’s a very different kind of humor than we got in The Spellman Files, but it’s probably as funny as Lutz has been since the third book in that series—but it’s mixed with the harsh realities of The Passenger and the feel of How to Start a Fire. Lutz puts on a clinic for naturally shifting tone and using that to highlight the important stories she’s telling.

There’s not a poorly designed or written character—I can’t say I liked all of them, or even most of them (many of them could use a few days in a pillory while fellow students threw rotten fruit or whatever at them)—but as players in this particular drama, they’re great. I was repeatedly torn between things happening too quickly, and yet not quickly enough—which I take as a sign that she nailed the pacing.

Because I’m really nervous about oversharing here, I’m going to wrap things up—but this is one you really should be reading. If it’s not on one of my Top 10 lists of 2019, I’ll be pretty shocked. I can’t think of many that I’ll put ahead of it at the moment.

From the funny and dark beginning, to the perfect and bitingly ominous last three paragraphs The Swallows is a winner. Timely and appropriate, but using tropes and themes that are familiar to readers everywhere, Lutz has given us a thriller for our day—provocative, entertaining, and haunting. This is one of those books that probably hews really close to things that could or have happened and you’re better off hoping are fictional. Lisa Lutz is always a very good author, The Swallows is Lutz at her best.


5 Stars

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Black Summer by M. W. Craven: A Good Detective Faces Off with a Brilliant Criminal for the Second Time

I’m very pleased to finally get to post about this book—I had more trouble than I’m used to getting a copy on this side of the pond, so I’m a little late to the party. If my copy of the next installment in this series is as delayed, I’ll probably start looking into emigrating.

Black SummerBlack Summer

by M. W. Craven
Series: Washington Poe, #2

Paperback, 388 pg.
Constable, 2019

Read: August 19 – 20, 2019

The door behind her opened and the huge frame of Edward van Zyl, Director of Intelligence, National Crime Agency, filled the space next to Flynn. His expression was as grim as a cancer diagnosis.

‘We have a problem, Poe,’ he said.

Why am I not surprised? he thought. It’s the soundtrack to my life. . .

What a horrible couple of weeks for D.S. Washington Poe. Six years ago, he began investigating a missing persons case that he changed into a homicide investigation and ended up arresting the woman’s father for murder. He was convicted and received a life sentence. But now, a young woman has come forward claiming to be the not-at-all-murdered woman with a tale of being held captive for years by a rapist she just escaped from. DNA appears to back her claim.

The question now is, why did Poe’s investigation go so wrong? Was it because of a grudge against the father? Was he lazy, or just incompetent? Poe has to wrestle with self-doubt, but he knows he did everything right with this case. Worse than not understanding what happened to get the investigation on the wrong track is the idea that if Elizabeth Keaton is actually alive, then her father, celebrity chef, Jared Keaton, will be released from prison. That thought chills Poe.

How on earth did you describe Jared Keaton to someone who didn’t know him?

Charming. Charismatic. Highly intelligent. A genius chef. No conscience whatsoever. The most dangerous man Poe had ever met. He’d taken an instant dislike to him. He was too superficial, too well groomed, too polished. He’d reminded Poe of a fake Irish pub. Pretty, but of no real substance.

Poe goes on to explain to a detective looking into the claims of the woman claiming to be Elizabeth that Jared Keaton was warm and outgoing in public/on TV, but in reality, was cold and sadistic. Not anyone he wants walking free—especially as he’ll be carrying a grudge.

Poe has mere days to prove this woman isn’t who she says she is and keep Keaton in prison (and save his career, or at least his reputation). A few days later, when Elizabeth goes missing and the evidence points to Poe doing something to her, he realizes it’s worse than all that. He’s in a fight for his freedom. He’s going to need some help, so he calls in his new friend Tilly.

She’d already appeared via videoconference, but Tilly showing up makes all the difference. I was already hooked—riveted, really—by the story, don’t get me wrong, but within half a scene or so of her showing up at Poe’s, I was enjoying the book. It’s a fine distinction, but it was something I registered at the time. Poe’s a strong character, Tilly’s delightful—but there’s something about the combination of the two of them that just really ticks all of my boxes.

Bradshaw had spent most of her working life, and a large part of her childhood, in academia undertaking research in mathematics. As brilliant as she was, until she’d joined the National Crime Agency there’d never been any need to learn the social skills that everyone else took for granted, the skills everyone began learning in the schoolyard.

And, as maths was a binary science with little room for selective interpretation, she had never grasped how to express an argument. Maths didn’t have subtlety. It didn’t need discretion and it didn’t need empathy. It was either right or wrong. Maths told the truth and therefore so did she. It would never occur to her to do anything else.

I’m not sure that Tilly’s contributions are as valuable to this case as they were in the previous novel—not that she doesn’t make many, nor that they’re not important—but the clinchers here come from putting the pieces together as Poe does. This is a Poe vs. Keaton showdown, and the big moments have to come from him.

The two jump into their investigation, reworking the original to the best of their ability, while also examining the evidence and circumstances around Elizabeth’s return and disappearance. How could Keaton be orchestrating all this? How could he be succeeding at it? What’s his end game? Yes, it has to be Poe’s working hypothesis that Keaton’s behind it all. If he starts with a position of self-doubt he’ll never get anywhere—or if he does, it’ll be too late to do any good.

Soon, Poe begins to realize that he’s asking the wrong questions as he’s looking at the pile of evidence. But what are the right questions? Once he starts asking those, we’re off to the races for a great finish. Most good mysteries—especially in the police procedural realm—have this kind of moment, but it’s rarely so self-consciously done. It’s generally the result of the ever-so-convenient new witness coming forward, a forensic test finishing at a convenient time, a piece of evidence the detective should’ve picked up on 150 pages earlier dropping out of thin air or something like that. Here, it’s Poe realizing that he’s not getting anywhere and taking steps to fix that. It’s a minor thing, but it’s this kind of minor thing that when combined all the other minor and major things going on that takes a good mystery novel and turns it into a great one.

There are some great supporting characters—D.I. Flynn isn’t in this book as much as she was The Puppet Show, but she’s still as vital to the plot. Ditto for her boss. Detective Superintendent Gamble returns, as well—as a major supporter of Poe. But the best characters (that aren’t Poe or Tilly) are a couple of new ones. The first we meet is DC Andrew Rigg, who’s the one to initially interview Poe about the original case and prosecution, the returned Elizabeth, and everything else. He’s convinced that Poe botched the initial investigation and is disgusted with him and full of righteous anger (Poe understands and assumes he’d act the same way in Rigg’s shoes), but he’s not a simple two-dimensional antagonist, he’s a good cop and that governs his actions and reactions. The second is Estelle Doyle, a forensic pathology lecturer and a pathologist extraordinaire. She’s brilliant, no mistake—but she’s got one of the darkest and strangest senses of humor, an extreme type of gallows humor. She sets Poe on edge (“incredibly sexy and utterly terrifying”), but there’s a mutual trust and affection, too.

I have to talk briefly about Poe’s springer spaniel, Edgar. I mentioned Edgar in my Favorite 2018 Fictional Dogs post, and he’s back again, bringing a little joy into this pretty dark book. The few paragraphs we get devoted to him when Poe goes to pick him up from his neighbor who was watching him might send a few readers to a breeder or a shelter before they finish the book. But Edgar does more than just bring happiness to the book—there’s a huge chunk of story that works only because of Edgar. I can’t get into it, just take my word for it. Which is just one more of the nice moves that Craven executed in the design of this novel.

You’ve got yourself a very clever mystery—or more, actually, most of it depends on how you want to count them. A fantastically creepy murderer (or is he?), some great supporting characters, and a couple of dynamite central protagonists—what more do you need? How’s about a breakneck pace and tension that doesn’t really let up? The first note I made about this book was, I’m “glad Craven gave us all of zero pages to get comfy before getting all morbid and creepifying.” It’s pretty relentless from there—right up until the last interview, which might elicit a chuckle or two from a reader enjoying watching a brilliant criminal get outsmarted.

But beyond the plot and character, Black Summer features some dynamite writing. A lot of book bloggers, myself included, focus on plot and character—or theme—and we frequently overlook the actual writing—the prose, the execution of the book, that sort of thing. I frequently get hung up on voice, style, and tone and don’t get beyond that when considering the writing. But there was something about the quality of this novel that made me pay attention. This is one of the best-written books I’ve read in 2019. A little sample (I’m restricting myself to one example, and I’m not including as much of this as I want to), from Poe and Tilly going to interview a person connected to Elizabeth’s past in a nasty, “grubby pub called the Coyote” (better known as the Dog):

Poe pushed open the door and stepped inside. His nose went into shock. The Dog smelled worse than a toilet. He didn’t want to know what the actual toilets smelled like. The air was hot and smoky and perfumed with the cloying scent of cannabis. The windows and ceiling were stained yellow with nicotine. Fat bluebottles feasted on something wet and organic on the worn, frayed carpet. Poe’s money was on blood. Probably from the bare-chested man using his own T-shirt to stem the flow coming from what looked like a recent head wound. Despite his injury, he continued to drink and chat with the man sitting next to him.

It was that kind of place.

By the time Craven’s really done describing the place (a little less than a page later), you feel like you’re in the room with them and want to hurry home to take a long shower to get the grime off and to wash your clothes to get the stench out. The first three pages are enough to elicit a visceral reaction and may make you consider a vegan diet (for at least a few days). Can I tell you exactly what it was that Craven did that others don’t? No. Maybe if I’d gotten around to getting that post-graduate degree I’d have the tools, but I don’t. Still, as Justice Stewart said, “I know it when I see it.” I see it here.

I was blown away by The Puppet Show last year, and Black Summer shows that it wasn’t a fluke. I’m already losing patience for the 2020 arrival of The Curator, and am only mollified by the repackaging/republishing of Craven’s earlier series this winter. If you’re at all inclined to Crime Fiction, you need to track down M. W. Craven’s work in general and Black Summer in particular.

—–

5 Stars
2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Dark Age by Pierce Brown: The blood-dimmed tide is loosed… / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.

Dark AgeDark Age

by Pierce Brown
Series: Red Rising, #5

Hardcover, 800 pg.
Del Rey Books, 2019

Read: August 9 – 16, 2019

From a distance, death seems the end of a story. But when you are near, when you can smell the burning skin, see the entrails, you see death for what it is. A traumatic cauterization of a life thread. No purpose. No conclusion. Just snip.

I knew war was dreadful, but I did not expect to fear it.

How can anyone not, when death is just a blind giant with scissors?

This will not end well

Lysander au Lune has a few thoughts along those lines pages after falling in an Iron Rain on Mercury, but this was one of the more striking examples. For a “bad guy,” he’s awfully easy to identify with. He’s trying to establish an alliance between the remnants of the Society and the Outer Planets to crush the Rising once and for all, and so has to curry favor with Atalantia by joining in the counter-attack on Mercury. This attack does not go well for anyone—both armies and the civilian population on Mercury took on incalculable losses, provoking a lot of thoughts like this on both sides, I’d imagine. And that’s just how this novel starts

It’s been almost a week since I finished Dark Age and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it—plot, characters, and ramifications of the events of the novel—and I don’t think I will anytime soon. I’ve joked (online and IRL) that I’ve used “brutal” in every post I’ve written about this series (at least once) and I was going to have to get a new thesaurus to help me come up with alternatives before I wrote this—not just so I’d add a little variety to the posts, but primarily because it just doesn’t seem to be descriptive enough about what happens here.

Iron Gold shows us what can go wrong as a society throws off the shackles of tyranny, but is still learning how to act with a replacement for that system. And it wasn’t pretty. Dark Age is all about what happened right after Iron Gold how does Darrow follow-up his dramatic act on Mercury? How do the remnants of the Society react to that? Can Virginia maintain control of the government (and should she?), and what’s going on with the kidnapped children and the kidnappers?

None of the answers to those questions are easy, and it’s hard to like any of the answers you might find. But man, what a book. Brown surprised me time after time after time and I have no idea what to expect for the next volume. You find yourself hoping that Character X will survive whatever dire situation they’re in, but you almost hope they fall now, because whatever is coming up next for them is going to be worse, much worse.

For a change, this isn’t primarily Darrow’s story. But even as I say that I want to object. The opening chapters are full of him, but after the first 100 pages or so (I’m estimating because I had to take it back to the Library already), other characters—primarily on the Moon and Mars—get the majority of the space. At the same time, there’s not one page—not one paragraph, really— that isn’t in the shadow of Darrow. His acts, his movement, his intentions, his affects on various individuals and/or society at large. Even if the Red Rising is put down and the demokracy is defeated, it will be generations before Darrow’s impact is forgotten. So, yes, he’s sidelined for most of this novel, but ultimately, it’s still all about Darrow.

I can’t take the time to talk about everything that I want to, but if anyone’s going to defeat Darrow/the Rising, I wouldn’t mind if it was Lysander. Sadly, Lysander wouldn’t be alone, and his allies aren’t as honorable or noble (actual nobility, not hereditary titles) as he is—so I hope he goes down in flames.

Yes, I didn’t think Iron Gold was necessary—or as good as the initial trilogy (while I did enjoy it)—but as it paved the way for Dark Age (and whatever comes next) I’m not complaining. This was probably the best thing since Red Rising (in many ways, probably superior), and I’m once again invested in this series.

Brown’s writing has never been better—this is his biggest book to date in terms of size and scope. Yes, it’s an investment of time, but not one that’s impossible to surmount (and is totally worth it). It’s a longer book, with more characters, more perspectives and more potential to surprise the reader (both in this book and what comes next). It’s like he took Yeat’s “The Second Coming” and said, I wonder what verse 1 would look like in the Red Rising Universe?

I can’t do justice to this book, I just can’t. There’s not an ongoing SF series that I can recommend as highly as this, and whatever flaws there might be are dwarfed by the strengths to the extent that I can’t even enumerate them. If your interest post-Morning Star has waned, I encourage you to give this a shot. If you’ve never tried this series, do not jump on board here. Go back to Red Rising, and after you’ve endured (and loved) the emotional battering that follows, you’ll see what I’m talking about.

“What does Mars mean to you, Nakamura?” I ask.

The Terran hesitates. “Hope. And you, my liege?”

“War.”

Virginia says a lot in that last syllable (even ignoring the pun). It sounds ominous there, and I think it tells us everything we need to know about the rest of this series.

—–

5 Stars
2019 Library Love Challenge

Pub Day Repost: Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh: Eddie Flynn, a Serial Killer and a “Trial of the Century”

ThirteenThirteen

by Steve Cavanagh
Series: Eddie Flynn, #4
eARC, 336 pg.
Flatiron Books, 2019

Read: July 26 – 29, 2019

I wanted this posted a day ago, but just a couple hours after finishing it, I wasn’t capable of discussing it in a meaningful way—unless you consider gibberish with intermittent “squee”s and a lot of exclamation points meaningful (and, I suppose it is, in a fashion). I think I’m a bit better now, but I’m still having a hard time organizing my thoughts. I’ve discussed each of the prior Eddie Flynn books in the last couple of years here—and each one has been a little better than its predecessor. This is no exception—but I’m not sure if Eddie Flynn #5 will be able to top this one (equalling it will prove difficult enough).

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Before he’s had time to fully absorb—much less react to—some devastating personal news, Eddie Flynn is approached by one of the biggest, flashiest, best-known defense attorneys in New York to be his second chair in an upcoming murder trial. He’s not interested, at all—even after the money on the table is mentioned. But he eventually agrees to meet with the accused to decide if he believes in the client’s claims of innocence.

Robert (Bobby) Solomon is an actor on the verge of super-stardom. He’s one-half of a Hollywood power-couple with a reality show and a couple of movies together that are responsible for this status. He also stands accused of killing his wife and their security chief after finding them in bed. Eddie believes him and signs on. The media (social and otherwise) is abuzz with the killings and is circulating plenty of rumors, innuendoes and speculation about Bobby and his wife at this time, as they cover “The Trial of the Century.”

The prosecution’s case is almost overwhelmingly strong, but with some creative thinking, Eddie and his investigator dive into the case, coming up with a strategy for his defense—including ways to attack the prosecution’s case. His investigator is the FBI Agent Harper from The Liar, who has since quit the Bureau and is doing PI and security work with her former partner (this was a great move by Cavanagh, she’s the best character from that book not named Flynn).

Still, that’s a daunting target and an almost impossible feat. But what makes it worse? The actual killer—a serial killer, mind you—is on the jury and is committed to getting a guilty verdict. What a great hook, right?

It is hard, almost impossible, to give readers a serial killer as unique as this one. He’s not as charming or intelligent as Dr. Lecter (but close on the latter), he’s not as obviously sick and twisted as most fictional serial killers. There’s not a trace of sexual sadism or anything like that to his modus operandi (which is not to say there’s none in his past). He’s smart, he’s careful, he’s strategic and committed to his vision. He’s got some natural gifts that help him—and an ally that assists him (a non-lone wolf serial killer, I don’t know if I’ve seen that before).

What separates this killer from the rest is the motivation behind his killings and victim selection (and how he makes them a victim). Yes, he’s clearly mentally ill—psychopathic/sociopathic tendencies (if he’s not diagnosable with either), and he enjoys his work. But there’s an ethos, an ideology behind his work. He’s got a message for the world, a lesson he’s trying to teach people. Everything he does is toward this goal, toward living out this ethos. I absolutely loved this, and the more Cavanagh showed this was behind the killing (and eventually, killings), the more we saw of the motivation, the more I liked it (and the more impressed I was with the creation of this killer).

I want to go on a few more paragraphs about him, but I can’t without spoiling everything—so let me stress this is a great, and unique, serial killer.

While dealing with this case, Eddie also has some family problems he’s trying to address, and there are some NYPD cops out for him after embarrassing a detective on the witness stand. Eddie spends more time in danger from members of the NYPD than he does from the killer.

Harry, of course, is back—which is great. He’s more involved in this case than he has been since the first book, The Defense. He’s a judge, Eddie’s former mentor and current self-appointed guardian of Eddie’s alcohol intake. He’s a great friend and ally for Eddie. We also see the return of Arnold Novoselic, the jury consultant that caused so much trouble for Eddie in The Defense, this time, however, he’s on Eddie’s side. From a one-dimensional bad guy in book 1, he’s transformed into someone Eddie has to—and then can—rely on. There’s a new prosecuting attorney, and he’s a great character and a worthy competitor for Eddie.

No matter who’s writing the legal thriller, one of my favorite parts of the book is the narrator/protagonist giving the reader insight into how the judicial system functions—the nitty-gritty stuff about scheduling trials, deciding who to put on your witness list, the order you call the witnesses in, and so on. The reader gets plenty of that here—along with two (complementary) explanations why attorneys on either side of the case just don’t want anything to drive a judge to sequester a jury. I’d never thought of that before, but it rings so true. Eddie also gives a very detailed explanation about how the skills that made him a successful con artist make him a successful trial lawyer. Because I enjoy it so much, I could’ve read a whole lot more of this “behind the scenes” material if it’d been possible for Cavanagh to work it in. Still, I think we get more of that here than we have before.

The pacing on this book is intense—Eddie being hired, investigating, the trial and the outcome all take place in a week. A business week, Monday – Friday, to be specific. That’s just insane—and improbable. But you don’t stop to doubt it while reading. Even after finishing the book, I can’t be bothered to spend too much time wondering about that, because Cavanagh sold the timeline so well. It doesn’t feel rushed at all, however, it just feels like an intense thriller.

While driving the pace that hard, no corners are cut in the intricacy of the story. There are surprises, twists and turns enough to satisfy every reader, and enough courtroom shenanigans to compete with Mason or Haller. The penultimate reveal got me calling Cavanagh some pretty terrible names—not because I didn’t like the reveal, not because Cavanagh cheated in the way he told the story, but because he fooled me. It was all there, ready to be seen, but like a good magician, Cavanagh kept my eyes on what he was doing with one hand and ignoring the —he totally hoodwinked me. I admire that in an author but despise myself for falling victim.

Is Thirteen a decent jumping-on point to the series? Oh yeah, a great one—but you might find yourself a bit underwhelmed if you then go on to read the previous books (just a bit, that that’s only in comparison to this). For those of us who’ve been with Eddie for a while? This is a noticeable progression in quality. Cavanagh’s no longer a promising new author, he’s a reliable established veteran. Cavanagh’s been accumulating plenty of awards lately, and Thirteen demonstrates why and absolutely deserves the critical and award attention it’s been receiving. But better than all of that? It’s a riveting and rewarding read—entertaining, tense, and satisfying. Go get yourself a copy now and you can thank me later.

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

—–

5 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Reposting Just ‘Cuz: Golden Son by Pierce Brown

Here we are with the second of today’s Pierce Brown reposts. Even if Golden Son isn’t really volume 2 of a trilogy anymore, everything else I said about it still stands. There are few writers who can jerk me around like Brown can—he plays with emotions and expectations like Yo-Yo Ma on a cello. And I wish he’d lighten up on his readers, but I don’t expect that he will anytime soon (and I really don’t want him to, it just feels like it).

Golden SonGolden Son

by Pierce Brown
Series: Red Rising, #2

Hardcover, 442 pg.
Del Ray, 2015
Read: February 3 – 4, 2015

I glimpse Gray police standing over arrested Brown vandals who covered an apartment complex with the image of a hanging girl. My wife. Ten stories tall, hair burning, rendered in digital paint. My chest constricts as we pass, cracking the walls I’ve built around her memory. I’ve seen her hanged a thousand times now as her martyrdom spreads across the worlds, city by city. Yet each time, it strikes me like a physical blow, nerve endings shivering in my chest, heart beating fast, neck tight just under the jaw. How cruel a life, that the sight of my dead wife means hope.

As you start this book you’re thinking, this is going to be Red Rising continued — Darrow’s got a good steam and he’s going to continue to rise and learn. And then, you finish the first chapter and see how horribly wrong you were.

The important thing to remember while reading Golden Son: this is the 2nd volume in a trilogy. What does that mean about the book as a whole, especially the ending? Think: The Empire Strikes Back, Kinslayer, Catching Fire, The Deaths of Tao, The Two Towers, and so on. It’s going to get dark, it’s going to be messy, things are going to look bad for Darrow and his group.

Time and time again, Brown suckered me with this book. I got comfortable, got in a groove with the narrative, figured he’s about to zig and he’d zag. 30-50 pages later, we’d do the same thing again . . . and again. Up to, and including the final zig when I was sure he was about to zag. The number of times that a narrative gut punch was delivered as Brown was pulling the rug out from underneath you was enough to make you feel like you were one of Darrow’s crew on a bad day.

I read this at what turned out to be a busy time for me, so I couldn’t get to blogging about it then — I don’t remember many of the details (pretty sure the good ones are spoilery anyway), so I can’t get too specific about things. But I do remember the experience of reading it. This was just a brutal read — and each time Brown sent me reeling, I wanted more.

This was the second book in 2015 that I gave 5 Stars to. Since then I’ve read better books — some of which I’ve rated lower — but the way this book grabbed me, the way it made me feel while reading it? It earned the 5 Star then and still deserves it now.

I can’t wait for the conclusion, Morning Star this coming February.

—–

5 Stars

Reposting Just ‘Cuz: Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Time got away from me this past weekend—and not just because I wrote one post that turned about about 3x as long as I’d figured (which is fine, I had a lot of fun with my family, just didn’t write as much as I wanted to). That’s just a nice way of saying that I couldn’t shut up (you’ll see in a couple of hours). But I wanted to get something else up today, and since I’m knee-deep in Brown’s Dark Age at the moment, I figured I’d repost what I wrote about the first two books in the series. Glancing over it, I agree with everything I said, but kept shaking my head like Leslie talking to Ann: “You are a beautiful, naïve, sophisticated newborn baby.” This was one of my Top Reads of 2014 and the series is one of my most beloved. I urge you to jump on this runaway train if you haven’t yet.

Red Rising (Red Rising Trilogy, #1)Red Rising

by Pierce Brown
Series: Red Rising, #1

Hardcover, 382 pg.
Del Rey, 2014
Read: Feb 26 – Mar 6, 2014

I’m having a hard time deciding what to say about this one. To really talk about it would require me spoiling every plot point that I loved (most of which I didn’t see coming). So I won’t. I’ll just say that I really, really dug this book.

I don’t want to just compare this to The Hunger Games, as much as reviews/blurbs/etc. make a guy want to. There are some surface-level similarities, yeah. And you could make the case (as I did when just starting the book) that Brown’s Mars was just the place for people who thought Collins’ Panem was a bit easy. In fact several parts of this feel like The Hunger Games dialed up to 11. The working/living conditions for Darrow and his family are more severe, what Darrow has done to him to prepare him for what’s to come makes what Cinna et al. do to Katniss look like child dress-up, Darrow plays a deadly game on a larger scale than Katniss, and so on. But Darrow’s motivation is different than Katniss’ — she’s trying to survive, he’s trying to do far more (and much of the time, survival’s pretty low on his list) — the stakes he’s playing for are greater, and he will go to lengths that Ms. Everdeen doesn’t have to.

There are a few moments when things seem too slow, or meandering, or even redundant — but each time, I was wrong, and Brown made it all pay off. Visceral was the word that kept coming back to me as I read the book. I had almost visceral reactions to some of the horrors depicted, I could feel the grime and muck (literal and metaphorical) that Darrow crawled around in.

This shows every indication of leading to something epic in the next volume, leaving Mars behind and moving to other planets and/or the space between. As well as seeing if Darrow can retain his self and purpose — and how far will he be willing to go to carry it out.

There is a classic SF reference in Part IV that made me giggle with delight (in the middle of a pretty grim part of a fairly grim book, so I appreciated the placement). I won’t spoil it, but Pierce Brown has bought a lot of loyalty from me with two simple words.

Go grab this one.

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5 Stars

Fletch and the Man Who (Audiobook) by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller: Mcdonald and Fletch at their Best

Fletch and the Man WhoFletch and the Man Who

by Gregory McDonald, Dan John Miller (Narrator)
Series: Fletch, #6 (#8 Chronologically)Unabridged Audiobook, 6 hrs., 14 min.
Blackstone Audio, 2018
Read: May 14 – 18, 2019

“Good morning,” Fletch said. “As the governor’s press representative, I make you the solemn promise that I will never lie to you. Today, on this bus, we will be passing through Miami, New Orleans, Dallas, New York, and Keokuk, Iowa. Per usual, at midday you will be flown to San Francisco for lunch. Today’s menu is clam chowder, pheasant under glass, roast Chilean lamb, and a strawberry mousse from Maine. Everything the governor says today will be significant, relevant, wise, to the point, and as fresh as the lilies in the field.” …

“Is it true you saved Walsh Wheeler’s life overseas?” Fenella Baker asked.

“That’s another thing,” Fletch said. “I will never evade any of your questions.” He turned the microphone off and hung it up.

I think this is my favorite Fletch novel (that spot may actually bounce between this and Fletch’s Fortune), and I could practically recite portions of this with Miller’s narration while driving. This doesn’t mean I didn’t catch anything new, it just means that I enjoyed this time through immensely.

An old Army buddy (and C.O.) of Fletch’s calls him up for a favor — his father, Caxton Wheeler, is running for an unnamed party’s presidential nomination and has just had to fire their long-term press secretary, could Fletch step in? Minutes before Fletch arrives at the hotel the campaign is using a young woman plunged to her death from one of the rooms on the higher floors (later shown to be the candidate’s room). Fletch’s first job is to discover if she jumped or was pushed — and then to make sure that it had nothing to do with the campaign.

Sadly, it appears she was pushed — and she was associated with the campaign. Even worse, it seems like she’s the latest in a string of dead women near the campaign. Giving Fletch a quandary. He needs to figure out who is doing this killing (assuming it’s one person), insulate the candidate — and keep anyone else (i.e. the press) from printing the facts.

Fletch as an obstacle/opponent/facilitator (all at the same time) of the press in any shape is just a lot of fun. His instincts, training, and inclination is to dig into a story, find the facts on his own, and run the story. His new job is to feed information to reporters, keep them from doing any fact-finding on their own, and to hide aspects of the story. It is so fun to watch him struggle in this role.

Particularly because one of the reporters on the press bus is Freddie Arbuthnot, someone who might be a better reporter than Fletch. She’s certainly more employable than he is — as she’s a crime reporter, her presence on the campaign tells Fletch a lot about how serious this string of murderers is. Also, she’s a whole lot of fun as a character, so the reader gets something out of it, too.

Speaking of returning characters, we get Alston Chambers again — I need to do a better job of tracking his career path, but I think he’s moved up in the world a bit since we saw him last, so good for him. Alston served with Fletch under Walsh Wheeler and provides some vital information for his friend. He’s also just a great guy for Fletch to talk to and bounce things off of, helping both the character and reader to process what’s going on.

So who are the recipients for Mcdonald’s critique/satire? There are so many — tabloids (particularly the mid-80s version of them), politics, the press’ political coverage (about the horse race, not the ideas/work), pressures on a candidate (Wheeler is given drugs to wake up, keep him going and then to go to sleep because there’s no way that he could do that naturally with the pressures/pace of the campaign). Given his target-rich environment, the book could’ve been twice as long just to give Fletch the opportunity to tilt at a few more windmills and wouldn’t have lost much of its punch. Like I said with Fletch’s Moxie, it seems like his satire is even more on-point now than it was thirty years ago. Which really shouldn’t be the case.

I appreciated the fact that Mcdonald left party names out of this, and none of Wheeler’s policies can be easily labeled as belonging to one of the major parties. Anyone can read him as being one of their own (or, if they’re so inclined, one of the other guys). There’s not targeting or critique of a particular party, just the entire process.

At one point, inspired by a conversation he has with Fletch, Wheeler has a moment of statesmanship (a no-no for a candidate, Fletch is told) where he talks about the ways that technology is connecting the planet and helping share information in ways unthinkable generations earlier, and talks about how it will increase in that way. Essentially predicting the Internet as we know it. Granted, it’s a more utopian vision of the Internet rather than the dumpster fire it frequently is. But Wheeler/Mcdonald has a vision for what today is in a way that no mystery writer in 1983 should’ve.

Caxton Wheeler and his driver, Flash, will show up in a Flynn book that takes place sometime before this. They’re not there a lot, but I remember the first time I read that and it blew my mind (that was my second Flynn novel and I’d yet to find Confess, Fletch so I had no idea the universes were linked) while in Middle School.

Dan John Miller is great yet again — I’ve got nothing new to say about him. I need to track down some of his other narrations, see what I think of them.

Mcdonald shifts gears with his writing and the series after this, and I really, really wish he wouldn’t have. A few more books in the vein of Fortune, Moxie, and The Man Who would’ve been a boon to his readers, and would’ve solidified Mcdonald amongst the all-time greats. I’m sure he had his reasons, but from my vantage point (now and for the last couple of decades), he shouldn’t have. In the meantime, this work is a great mystery, fantastic commentary on politics and the media, and even a bit of prescience — bundled together with Mcdonald’s sharp prose, winning dialogue and characters that demand to be re-read. I can’t recommend Fletch and the Man Who highly enough.

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5 Stars
2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge