The Puppet Show by M. W. Craven: The debut of one of the best pair of characters I can think of in a truly compelling novel.

The Puppet ShowThe Puppet Show

by M. W. Craven
Series: Washington Poe, #1

Paperback, 352 pg.
Constable, 2018
Read: July 23, 2018

‘First impressions?’ Flynn asked.

He studied the slash marks again. Not including the messy number five, he counted forty-two. Forty-two wounds to spell out ‘Washington Poe’. Forty-two individual expressions of agony. ‘Other than the victim wishing I’d been called Bob, nothing.’

‘I need you to come back to work,’ she said. She looked around at the desolate fells he now called home. ‘I need you to re-join the human race.’

He stood up, all previous thoughts of resigning dismissed. There was only one thing that mattered: the Immolation Man was out there somewhere, selecting victim number four.

Washington Poe was a Detective Inspector who either made a very, very, very horrible mistake or is a DI or did a very, very, very bad thing — it depends who you ask. Either way, he’s on suspension until he either quits or the internal investigation is complete. He doesn’t quit, but he doesn’t expect to be brought back to work anytime soon.

Until his former DS, now his replacement, shows up — there’s a serial killer afoot, burning people alive — after some torture, it seems. What led to him being brought back (aside from being the kind of investigator who will be able to track this guy down) is that the last victim had Poe’s name cut into him before he was burned. This is a message to him — and possibly a threat. So, potential bad cop or not — for his own protection, he needs to get reactivated. Sure, it’ll be a little awkward, he’ll be acting as a subordinate to his former DS — but he frankly knows he was better at that anyway, so he’ll get used to it.

One of the first things he does is meet an analyst working with the police — she’s the one who developed the model to make sense of the wounds and found his name on the corpse. Tilly is a fascinating character — she’s a mathematical genius, a whiz with computers, and socially awkward. That actually is an understatement — clearly from a young age, Tilly’s mom sheltered her from the worst of society so that her genius could flourish. Now an adult, she decides to work with the police so her mathematics could see some immediate benefit to society — but she still is an outsider (and mom is determined to keep her that way).

Almost immediately upon meeting her, Poe shakes up her life. He defends her from some teasing/bullying by some police officers and then he insists that she’s coming to the field with him. Tilly’s never done anything like that before, but jumps at the chance. The two of them build a strange partnership — and a strong friendship — as they work this case, along with DI Flynn and an old friend of Poe’s, Kylian Reid) who is one of the few police officers in the country who aren’t suspicious of him.

Poe is a great character — there’s no two ways about it — you put him in a novel by himself (or with Flynn or Reid) and I’m reading it. He’s in the Bosch/Rebus kind of vein — he’s going to get the job done, and will annoy/offend whoever in the chain of command, city government, press, etc. to get the job done. This quotation describes it best:

He knew some people thought his reputation for following the evidence wherever it took him was because he felt he held some sort of moral high ground. That he had a calling to a purer version of the truth that was unattainable to other, lesser, cops. The truth was simpler — if he thought he was right, the self-destructive element to his personality took over. It frequently allowed the devil on his shoulder to shout down his better angel. And at the minute, the angel couldn’t get a word in edgeways . . .

His face turned to granite. If he didn’t do it, who would? Sometimes someone had to step up. Do the unpalatable so others didn’t have to.

That’s the kind of character I can read any time.

But what makes this book (on the character front, anyway) a must read is Tilly Bradshaw. Actually, no. It’s the combination of Tilly and Poe. Yeah, Poe largely uses her the way he’d use anyone to get the job done (see Rebus/Bosch) — but there’s some genuine affection for her at work, too. He truly seems to like her and wants to protect her — and maybe push her a little to fend for herself. Tilly clearly adores him — I should stress that this is a platonic thing for both — he protects her, treats her like an adult (something her mother doesn’t allow anyone to do), and relies on her brain (which most people do). Tilly is a character worth one’s time, no doubt about it — and I can’t imagine anyone who reads this book to not like her a lot. But the two of them together are as good a pair as you can imagine.

Now, that’s all well and good — but what about the plot? What about the killer? The plot is as intricate as you can hope for in a serial killer novel. As the police start to compile a theory of the case, a profile of the killer, it quickly becomes clear that there’s a dark root, a strong motivating factor behind the killings. At one point, I put in my notes “Okay, I’d be absolutely fine not learning anything else about the killer’s backstory. Can we just get to his arrest now, leaving the rest of the uncovering to the prosecutor’s work after the novel is over?”

Naturally, the answer to that was a resounding no. You learn more about what drove this man to kill — and frankly, it’s hard not to wonder if he’s justified. Not justified in how he goes about the killing, because that’s just horrible. But you might wonder if it’d be okay for him to get away with it. To get to that point — and to find out if Poe and Bradshaw are able to stop the killing — there’s some great twists and turns to the case, and some very compelling reveals to get through. The reader will be hooked throughout.

Not only can Craven create great characters, and tell a good story — but his writing is compelling, too (yes, there is a difference between those last two). The first description given of one of the corpses The Immolation Man left was horrific, it really made me ill. Another description that stood out was an older suspect — and her home — without giving anything else away, Craven’s description of the two together was so well done that I felt I could see them as clearly as I could see the room I was in at the time. I loved the voice, the style, his use of words — really just about everything.

Oh, yeah and when — I can’t believe I almost forgot this — when you figure out why Craven used this title, you’re going to need some help picking your jaw off the ground. There’s at least one other reveal that may require that as well, come to think of it. Any good Crime Fiction is going to have some good reveals embedded in the story — the skilled writer revealing them properly is what makes a good Crime Novel into a great one. Craven delivered the latter.

Craven’s writing, the compelling story, the fantastic characters — you put these elements together and you have an unbeatable combination and the makings of one of the best crime novels — novels, period — that I’ve read this year. I’m not really sure I read it — it was more of a semi-controlled devouring. There are few sequels I’m looking forward to as much as the next Washington Poe book. While I’m waiting for it, you should go grab The Puppet Show so you can join me in anticipating its arrival.

—–

5 Stars

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Pub Day Repost: Dear Mr Pop Star by Derek & Dave Philpott: Hilarious, Unique, Addictive are some Adjectives I use to describe this Incredibly Entertaining Book

Dear Mr Pop StarDear Mr Pop Star

by Derek & Dave Philpott
eARC, 412 pg.
Unbound, 2018
Read: July 24 – August 7, 2018<br/

In my intro post for this Tour Stop, I said that this book was “almost indescribable” and I really mean that — the blurb for the book says, “deliberately deranged letters to pop stars from the 1960s to the 90s to take issue with the lyrics of some of their best-known songs.” And that’s right, but it doesn’t seem to get to the heart of it. The answer to the first question in the Q&A is a pretty good description, though. But if you don’t want to read that (which I get, you’re wrong — but I get it), I should probably try to convey what you’ll find here.

Let’s take a look at the letter they wrote to Starship. I don’t feel too bad about talking about this letter in detail because their take on their song “We Built this City” is common (I used to own, for example, a t-shirt that made the same joke, just in briefer form). Now, their letter goes into a great amount of detail about the nature of foundations, different types of them, etc. and how this makes their “design project” the “most ludicrous” in the history of architecture. This kind of thing is funny, and a collection of these sort of letters — as well-written as these are — would be worth the time to read and would make you laugh — I’d give it a pretty high rating, encourage you to get it, etc.

But what separates this book from similar tomes, what makes it special is that on the very next page, you get to read a response from Martin Page, who co-wrote the song. Page mounts an impassioned defense of the song — full of references to Rock classics as proof. I’ll spare the details so you can appreciate Page’s inspired choise in response. Each letter printed in this collection is answered by a songwriter, musician, or other representative of a musical act. Some of these responses debate the premise of the Philpott’s letter, some answer in the same vein, others take the premise and run with it in their own way — some appear to be in on the joke, others appears to be flummoxed that anyone would take their lyrics in this insane manner.

In particular, Tears for Fears, The Knack, and NuShooz/J. Smith had great responses — Kimberly Rew (of Katrina and the Waves) is my current favorite. EMF must have either absolutely loved or utterly hated writing their response, I cackled at it. The Human League and Wang Chung composed very long responses — some are as short as a paragraph or three. I really could keep listing some other distinctives about the responses, and great ones to look for — but this is already getting pretty long.

They also include some lIttle notes or postcards like the one to ELO, talking about the impossibility of their name; to “Mr. John” about the unacceptability of violence on any night; or to John Parr (involving canonization of a particular Muppet, and the danger of exposing him to flame) — I just reread that one and cracked up, again. These probably couldn’t support being stretched into a letter of any length, and there are no responses printed — but are very likely the most funny parts of the book.

There’s an elevated vocabulary used by the Philpotts — this isn’t an uneducated reaction to lyrics. The letters are frequently erudite and earnest. The letters don’t come across as something written for comedic effect — yes, they’re funny. But that’s not the intention. Somehow, that happens without turning the joke back on them for misunderstanding the lyrics, either. They’re a strange kind of tribute, but this kind of close reading of a lyric is a form of flattery.

Many of the acts haven’t made much of an impact in the States, and I clearly don’t know enough about British Pop Music to understand each of these — but thanks to youtube and lyrics websites, I was able to get the gist of what I was supposed to be reading about (and I was able to enjoy those I was feeling too lazy to look up). But by and large these are acts and songs that are well-known enough that this book is accessible to readers from around the English-speaking world (and maybe larger, I’m not an expert on music listening habits). The acts run the gamut from Herman’s Hermits to Judas Priest and many, many points in between.

I cannot stress enough how much fun I had with this book — I read whole letters or notes aloud to family members, and/or forced them to read one for themselves. These are the perfect literary equivalent of potato chips, you can eat a handful at a time and then leave the bag for later (along those lines, it’s possible to read too many at once). The letters are short enough that you can just dip in and out of the book. And, I can assure you, these are the kind of thing you can return to later and still enjoy — not unlike a good pop song (huh, wonder where I got that imagery?) A combination of satire, analysis, tribute and comedy — without any meanness or cruelty — Dear Mr Pop Star will appeal to music lovers from all sorts of eras. Do yourself a favor and grab this today.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the authors in exchange for my participation in this tour stop.

—–

5 Stars

Dear Mr Pop Star by Derek & Dave Philpott: Hilarious, Unique, Addictive are some Adjectives I use to describe this Incredibly Entertaining Book

Dear Mr Pop StarDear Mr Pop Star

by Derek & Dave Philpott

eARC, 412 pg.
Unbound, 2018
Read: July 24 – August 7, 2018<br/

In my intro post for this Tour Stop, I said that this book was “almost indescribable” and I really mean that — the blurb for the book says, “deliberately deranged letters to pop stars from the 1960s to the 90s to take issue with the lyrics of some of their best-known songs.” And that’s right, but it doesn’t seem to get to the heart of it. The answer to the first question in the Q&A is a pretty good description, though. But if you don’t want to read that (which I get, you’re wrong — but I get it), I should probably try to convey what you’ll find here.

Let’s take a look at the letter they wrote to Starship. I don’t feel too bad about talking about this letter in detail because their take on their song “We Built this City” is common (I used to own, for example, a t-shirt that made the same joke, just in briefer form). Now, their letter goes into a great amount of detail about the nature of foundations, different types of them, etc. and how this makes their “design project” the “most ludicrous” in the history of architecture. This kind of thing is funny, and a collection of these sort of letters — as well-written as these are — would be worth the time to read and would make you laugh — I’d give it a pretty high rating, encourage you to get it, etc.

But what separates this book from similar tomes, what makes it special is that on the very next page, you get to read a response from Martin Page, who co-wrote the song. Page mounts an impassioned defense of the song — full of references to Rock classics as proof. I’ll spare the details so you can appreciate Page’s inspired choise in response. Each letter printed in this collection is answered by a songwriter, musician, or other representative of a musical act. Some of these responses debate the premise of the Philpott’s letter, some answer in the same vein, others take the premise and run with it in their own way — some appear to be in on the joke, others appears to be flummoxed that anyone would take their lyrics in this insane manner.

In particular, Tears for Fears, The Knack, and NuShooz/J. Smith had great responses — Kimberly Rew (of Katrina and the Waves) is my current favorite. EMF must have either absolutely loved or utterly hated writing their response, I cackled at it. The Human League and Wang Chung composed very long responses — some are as short as a paragraph or three. I really could keep listing some other distinctives about the responses, and great ones to look for — but this is already getting pretty long.

They also include some lIttle notes or postcards like the one to ELO, talking about the impossibility of their name; to “Mr. John” about the unacceptability of violence on any night; or to John Parr (involving canonization of a particular Muppet, and the danger of exposing him to flame) — I just reread that one and cracked up, again. These probably couldn’t support being stretched into a letter of any length, and there are no responses printed — but are very likely the most funny parts of the book.

There’s an elevated vocabulary used by the Philpotts — this isn’t an uneducated reaction to lyrics. The letters are frequently erudite and earnest. The letters don’t come across as something written for comedic effect — yes, they’re funny. But that’s not the intention. Somehow, that happens without turning the joke back on them for misunderstanding the lyrics, either. They’re a strange kind of tribute, but this kind of close reading of a lyric is a form of flattery.

Many of the acts haven’t made much of an impact in the States, and I clearly don’t know enough about British Pop Music to understand each of these — but thanks to youtube and lyrics websites, I was able to get the gist of what I was supposed to be reading about (and I was able to enjoy those I was feeling too lazy to look up). But by and large these are acts and songs that are well-known enough that this book is accessible to readers from around the English-speaking world (and maybe larger, I’m not an expert on music listening habits). The acts run the gamut from Herman’s Hermits to Judas Priest and many, many points in between.

I cannot stress enough how much fun I had with this book — I read whole letters or notes aloud to family members, and/or forced them to read one for themselves. These are the perfect literary equivalent of potato chips, you can eat a handful at a time and then leave the bag for later (along those lines, it’s possible to read too many at once). The letters are short enough that you can just dip in and out of the book. And, I can assure you, these are the kind of thing you can return to later and still enjoy — not unlike a good pop song (huh, wonder where I got that imagery?) A combination of satire, analysis, tribute and comedy — without any meanness or cruelty — Dear Mr Pop Star will appeal to music lovers from all sorts of eras. Do yourself a favor and grab this today.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the authors in exchange for my participation in this tour stop.

—–

5 Stars

Flashback Friday: The Summer that Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel: The Devil Goes Down to Ohio?

Long, tiring, but good week. But there’s just nothing left in the tank for something new, so I’m going to repost about couple of books from the past that I loved. I’m pretty sure that it was McDaniel’s prompting that got me to join NetGalley so (was a few more months before I really started using it).

The Summer that Melted EverythingThe Summer that Melted Everything

by Tiffany McDaniel
eARC, 320 pg.
St. Martin’s Press, 2016
Read: July 18 – 19, 2016

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.

Yeah, Keyser Söze’s paraphrase of C. S. Lewis’ appropriation of Charles Baudelaire isn’t part of this book, but it might just encapsulate it. Maybe.

It’s the summer of 1984 in Breathed, OH, and it’s hot. Really hot — and about to get a lot hotter. 1984 is a big year — HIV is identified as the virus that leads to AIDS, Apple releases the Macintosh, Michael Jackson’s Pepsi commercial shoot, and the following advertisement runs in the local newspaper, The Breathian:

Dear Mr. Devil, Sir Satan, Lord Lucifer, and all other crosses you bear,

I cordially invite you to Breathed, Ohio. Land of hills and hay bales, of sinners and forgivers.

May you come in peace.

With great faith,
Autopsy Bliss

Autopsy Bliss is the local prosecutor, who wants to see for himself what evil looks like. Hence the advertisement.

So who shows up in response? A bruised, short black boy dressed in tattered and torn overalls who simply seems to want some ice cream and to say hi to the man who invited him. Autopsy’s son, Fielding, is the first one in town to meet the boy and takes him home to his father (sadly, no ice cream is available in town — unbelievably — for the remainder of the Summer). The Bliss family ends up taking the lad in, and starts calling him Sal. He and Fielding become fast friends and are almost inseparable for the rest of the summer. One by one, almost everyone in this sleepy community is touched by the appearance of Sal — either first-hand or by proxy — demons (figurative), troubled family and personal histories are exposed, latent corruptions come to light, and accidents strike many. No one in Breathed will be the same after the day Sal first appears to Fielding.

The book is narrated by Fielding about 70 years after that summer looking back on the time, thinking of all the regrets he’s had since then and all the ways his time with Sal has overshadowed the ensuing decades. It honestly reminded me of A Prayer for Owen Meany because of this — little kid who talks oddly, is smarter than any of his (apparent) peers, and divides a community, while leaving an indelible mark on his closest friend (who’s not always a friend).

Almost every name (maybe every name, and I’m not clever enough to get it all) is rich in meaning and symbolism — there’s symbolism all over the place, but McDaniel gets her money’s worth with the names in particular. This book will reward close readings, and probably repeated readings as well.

There are so many depictions and descriptions of child abuse and spousal abuse that it’s almost impossible to believe that there households in that world where someone isn’t getting hit on a pretty regular basis. Thankfully, we’re spared watching characters going through it (the vast majority of the time), but there are many mentions of it.

This is not fun read, really, but I loved the whole experience, it is a rewarding read. McDaniel writes with such richness, such depth, there are phrases throughout this that will knock you out. There’s one sentence that I went back to at least a half-a-dozen times one evening — not because I needed to try to suss it out, but because I just liked it so much. The variety of ways she can describe the horrible and debilitating heat wave that struck that part of Ohio those months is pretty astounding — I’m just glad I had some sort of air conditioning most of the time I spent reading the book. Sal’s descriptions of Hell and his fellow prisoners there are full of haunting images that will stick with me for a while (some good haunting, some less-so). I’m troubled by some of what this book said about God, but since the Devil is the one who told about God, I’m not sure we’re supposed to trust his characterizations. On the other hand, just about everything that the book says about the devil seems to be spot-on.

There are no easy answers to be found here — is Sal the devil? Is someone else in town? Is there a devil at all? Are the naturalistic explanations offered here and there throughout enough? I just don’t think you can think about this book without dealing with the Baudelaire/Lewis/Söze thought.

Can’t help but wonder how things would’ve gone if he’d just gotten a little ice cream.

Disclaimer:I received this eARC via NetGalley at the author’s invitation in return for this post. My thanks to NetGalley, St. Martin’s Press, and Tiffany McDaniel for this.

N.B.: As this was an ARC, any quotations above may be changed in the published work — I will endeavor to verify them as soon as possible.

A Mint-Conditioned Corpse by Duncan MacMaster: I run out of superlatives and can’t stop talking about this Mystery that filled me with joy.

This is one of those times that I liked something so much that I just blathered on for a bit, and I’m not sure how much sense it made. The first and last paragraphs are coherent, I’m not really sure the rest is…

A Mint Condition CorpseA Mint Condition Corpse

by Duncan MacMaster
Series: Kirby Baxter, #1

Kindle Edition, 275 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2016
Read: July 27, 2018

Is this the best-writing I’ve encountered in a Detective Novel this year? Nope. Is this the most compelling, the tensest thrill-ride of a Mystery novel this year? Nope. Is this full of the darkest noir, the grittiest realism, the starkest exposure of humanity’s depths? Good gravy, no! This is however a joy to read; full of characters you’ll want to spend days with, that you’ll want to have over for Thanksgiving dinner just to lighten things up and distract you from Aunt Martha’s overcooked yams and dry turkey; a completely fun time that’s very likely most I’ve enjoyed a book in 2018. It is escapist. It is silly. It is clever.

Think Monk at it’s best. Psych at its least annoying. Castle at it’s most charming. Moonlighting season 1 — I’m going to stop now.

So Kirby Baxter is a comic book writer/artist who breathed new life into a stagnant character which led to the revitalizing of an entire comic book company (not quite as old as DC, nowhere near as successful as Marvel — and somehow hadn’t been bought out by either). He was unceremoniously fired just before he became incredibly well-off (and investments only improved that). Following his new wealth, a thing or two happened in Europe and he gained some notoriety there helping the police in a few countries. Now, he’s coming back to North America to attend OmniCon — a giant comic con in Toronto — returning to see a mentor rumored to attend and maybe stick his toe back in the industry that he loves.

While there we meet his colorist and friend, Mitch — a diminutive fellow, convinced he’s God’s gift to the ladies (most of whom hope he comes with a gift receipt), and just a riot to read about. Molly, a fan, former coworker and friend of Kirby’s who wears her heart on her sleeve (it’s not her fault if people don’t notice it). That needs to be better. Erica is many a dream-come-true — an impossibly good-looking model and would-be actress who is sincere and sweet. Her assistant Bruce is a pretty good guy, too. Her best friend and former mentor, Andi is almost as too-good-to-be-true, and married to a renowned DJ who is providing some of the entertainment at OmniCon. There’s comic dealers, a film director, a crazy actress, Kirby’s former boss, and so many other colorful characters that my notes include a joke about a cast the size of Game of Thrones.

And then there’s Gustav. Words I don’t know how to describe Gustav. Imagine having Batman as your Jeeves. He’s a valet/driver/bodyguard that Kirby picked up in Europe, combining the cool and lethal factor of Spenser’s Hawk, Plum’s Ranger and Elvis’ Pike (except he makes Pike seem chatty). I’d include Wolfe’s Saul Panzer, but Saul isn’t the lethal type that the rest are — but Gustav has the effortless magic about him that makes Saul a winner. If the rest of the book was “meh” and Gustav was still in it? I’d tell you to read the book.

At some point, a corpse shows up — and like the comic book world’s answer to Jessica Fletcher, Kirby identifies the death as a murder — not the accident it appears to be to many. For various and sundry reasons — starting with him being correct, and continuing on to the incidents in Europe — Kirby is roped into helping the police with the investigation. Also, like Fletcher, he’s uniquely gifted to help the police in these circumstances. He’s smart, he has a eidetic memory, can catch a tell or a microexpression like nobody’s business. You throw him into a consulting role with the police, with his friends along for the ride and I’m telling you, you’ve got the most entertaining mystery novel I’ve read this year.

This book’s look at comic conventions reminded me of A Hundred Thousand Worlds by Bob Proehl. But where this one is played for laughs, Proehl was serious — but both show an appreciation for, an affection for the culture that surrounds the cons and the people involved. After reading this, I was ready to buy tickets for the OmniCon.

It’s a funny, fast, romp — a very contemporary take on a Golden Age-mystery. Lots of twists and turns, more crimes than you think are happening and more villains than you can shake a stick at. I thought (and still do) that Duncan MacMaster’s Hack showed that he was an author to keep an eye on — this is better.

A Mint-Conditioned Corpse hit the sweet spot for me — a convergence of so many of my likes told with just the right tone (another one of my likes), while maintaining a pretty decent whodunit at the core. I probably smiled for the entire time I spent reading it — well, at least the last 90% once I started to get a feel for things — at 8% I made a note about Kirby “I’m really going to like him,” and a few paragraphs later, I wrote “I already really like him” about Mitch. And I was right about Kirby, and kept liking Mitch — the rest of the characters are about as good as them, and the story is as good as the people in it are. Is everyone going to enjoy this one as much as me? Nope. But I can’t imagine someone not having a ball reading this. Probably the 5-Star-est 5-Stars I’ve given this year.

—–

5 Stars

Lessons From Lucy by Dave Barry: America’s Funniest Human Tries to Learn a Few New Tricks from an Old Dog

Lessons From LucyLessons From Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog

by Dave Barry

eARC, 208 pg.
Simon & Schuster, 2018
Read: July 19, 2018

Before I say anything else, Barry has set up an Instagram page (well, probably not him, actually — he states in the book he doesn’t understand Instagram) for his dog, Lucy. You should absolutely check it out and then come back to read what I have to say about the book. Dog Pictures > my blog. Pretty near always.

With that out of the way . . . Dave Barry has been a dog person for most of his life, one of the many reasons I like him. I distinctly, and fondly, remember columns and/or references to Earnest and Zippy (the emergency backup dog) years ago. Those two make a brief appearance in this book, but they aren’t the focus. The focus (if you can’t tell from the title) is his dog, Lucy. At the time of writing, Barry and Lucy are the same age — 70 (or 7 times 10 in her case), which means that both of them have many fewer days ahead of them than behind — which sounds awfully morbid for Dave Barry to talk about, but he does so frequently and purposefully.

As they’re at similar stages in life, Barry notices a huge difference between the two — Lucy is far happier and seemingly better adjusted than he is. So he sets out to try to learn a few lessons about life from her, which he passes on to his readers. Things like Pay Attention to the People You Love; Don’t Let Your Happiness Depend on Things; and Don’t Stop Having Fun. None of these, Barry knows, are original or ground-breaking — they’re pretty much common sense. Yet, they’re the kind of common sense things that he (like many/most humans) doesn’t actually do a great job at.

The result is a mixture of a Self-Help book and a Humor book — humor about himself, his life, as well as dogs. Sometimes the swing between the two genres can be jarring, but that’s pretty rare. For the most part, he moves easily between the two, taking the readers along with him on this ride. I can’t tell you how many times I went from grinning, chuckling or laughing out loud to getting misty-eyed within a couple of pages. It seems that Barry has learned a little bit about writing over the decades.

I’ve loved Barry’s humor longer than either of us would probably care to admit. One of his strengths is finding a way to take an old joke, or at least a joke everyone’s made before — like, say, I dunno, dogs sniffing each other’s hind-quarters — and make it feel fresh and new. More importantly, funny. He’s also able to make jumps from premise to punchline that no one expects. There is, for example, a Hugh Hefner joke where one doesn’t even come close to belonging — and it works perfectly. Even knowing that, you won’t see it coming until you’re snickering at it.

As for the heart-felt material? It works pretty well, too. I don’t think anyone will walk away from this book thinking “Wow! That was insightful. I never would have thought of it on my own!” Nor do I think Barry was trying for it. But, readers will appreciate the reminders to live like Lucy (or their own dog), and the way Barry phrases things might add some freshness to the concept. Which is all anyone can really ask.

I really don’t know if this is Barry’s best — but it’s up there. The ratio of Attempted Joke to Funny Joke is pretty high, I’m not sure if I can think of a higher one in his ouvre. Lessons From Lucy is, without a doubt, his most mature, thoughtful and touching work (that’s a pretty low bar, I realize — a bar he’s worked hard to keep low, too). Couple that with me being a sucker for a Dog Book — even if it is a semi-Self Help book — and I can’t help but give it 5 Stars. This is a winner, no matter what.

—–

5 Stars

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Simon & Schuster via NetGalley in exchange for this post — which is my honest opinion and pleasure to give — thanks to both for this.

Needle Song by Russell Day: Great characters, strong writing, and a clever solution to the mystery make this one of 2018’s best.


Needle SongNeedle Song

by Russell Day
Series: Doc Slidesmith, #1

Kindle Edition, 380 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018
Read: July 2 – 4, 2018

He’d changed again in some way. Like he had the night in The Jericho putting out The Jive. But this was different again. The Jive was showmanship. The good Doctor Slidesmith in full sail. This was more intense. I’d see him like thus on occasion in the shop, absorbed in the ink and the song of the needle. I wouldn’t say lost in what he was doing. Lost implies lack of control.

For the first time that evening, it struck me he needed an audience, not to watch him but for him to watch. Like a dial on a machine, not part of the process, just a way of monitoring it.

Back when I posted about the short story featuring Doc Slidesmith, Not Talking Italics, I said that if Needle Song was anything like it, “I’m going to have to go down to the superlative store this weekend to stock up before I write anything about it.” I’m fully stocked (now) and ready to go.

I was disappointed — somewhat — and relieved to see that the all-dialogue, no narration, no other description approach of Italics was nowhere to be seen. I could’ve read 380 pages of that (see my love for Roddy Doyle), but I know it’s not that approachable and will turn off some readers.

Now, I don’t know if anyone but Karen E. Olson has envisioned a tattoo shop as a hotbed of crime fighting — or the staff of such to be the source people would turn to for help with legal difficulties. But it works — all because of the owner of the shop, former psychologist, current Voodoo practitioner and Tarot reader, Doc Slidesmith. On the surface, you see a rough-looking — striking, I think, bordering on handsome — but your basic leather-glad biker type, covered in ink — and will underestimate him. Only those who’ve been in conversations with him, those who’ve given him a chance will see the charm, the intelligence, and the indefinable characteristic that makes people come to him for help in times of trouble. In many hands, Doc’s…peculiar resume, shall we say, would end up this cartoonish mish-mash of quirks. But Day is able to make it work — there’s a reason that Doc ended up where he is, we don’t need to know it, but it makes him the man (and armchair detective) that we want to read about.

Andy Miller — known to many as “Yakky” (he’s not a chatty type, his tattoos are all placed so that he can hide them all with this clothing, like a member of the Yakkuza), is the tattoo apprentice to Doc Slidesmith. He lives with his father — a thoroughly unpleasant and manipulative man, that Yakky feels obligated to care for. While clearly appreciative for Doc’s tutelage, and more in awe of his mentor than he’d care to admit, he’s also more than a little skeptical of Doc’s interests, beliefs and practices that aren’t related to his tattooing. He’s our narrator. He’s not your typical narrator — he’s too frequently angry at, dismissive of and unbelieving in the protagonist for that. Which is just one of the breaths of fresh air brought by this book. Yakky is singularly unimpressed by Doc’s playing detective — but in the end, is probably as invested (maybe more) in the outcome.

Jan is brought by Chris Rudjer (a long-time client and friend of Doc’s) for a Tarot reading, which brings her some measure of comfort/reassurance. So that when, months later, her husband kills himself, she comes looking for another reading — which turns into seeking help in general. Not just for her, but for Chris, with whom she’d been carrying on a not-very-secret affair for months. While it seemed obvious that her husband had taken his own life when she found his body, there were some irregularities at the scene. When the police add in the affair Jan was having with someone with a record for violent crime, they get suspicious. Slidesmith does what he can to help Chris prepare for the inevitable police involvement, and enlists Yakky to help, too.

Yakky takes Jan home to stay in his spare room. She can’t stay at home — the memories are too fresh, there are problems with her husband’s family, and (she doesn’t realize it yet) there are people following her and Doc and Yakky are worried. The dynamic between Jan and Yakky, and between Jan and Yakky’s father, end up providing vital clues to her character and psychology. This will end up proving vital to their case.

As Doc and Yakky begin digging around in Jan’s life, it’s immediately obvious that very little is as it seems. Now, if you’re used to reading Crime Fiction featuring serial killers or organized crime, you’ll think a lot of what they uncover is pretty small potatoes. But it actually seems worse — it’s more immediate, more personal — serial killers have their various pathologies, mobster’s are after profits and power — these people are just about hate, cruelty and control. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems worse in comparison.

There’s a depth to all of these characters that I could spend a lot of time thinking/writing/reading about — for example, our narrator, Yakky. I have at least a dozen questions that I feel I need answers to about him. At the same time, I think at least eleven of those answers could ruin the character for me. Ditto for Doc, Gina (another artist in the shop), or Chris. It’s a pretty neat trick — one few authors have been able to pull off, creating a character that you can tell has a compelling backstory, but that you don’t really want to know it (see Parker’s Hawk or Crais’ Pike — or the other mercenary Crais has had to create now that we know too much about Pike). I know who these people are now, and look forward to seeing what happens with them — and that’s good enough. It’s hard to tell, always, just why Doc’s working on this — is it for fun, is it out of a sense of obligation to Chris, does he feel bad for Jan, is it some of all three? Yakky will frequently talk about The Jive — the showmanship that Doc brings to Tarot readings, conversations, and dealing with difficult witnesses — it reminds me frequently of B. A. Baracus’ complaining about Hannibal’s “being on The Jazz.”

The plot is as intricate as you want — there are twists, turns, ups, downs — both with the investigation and in the lives of those touched by it. This doesn’t have the flair of Not Talking Italics, but the voice is as strong, and everything else about the writing is better. It’s a cliché to say that Day paints a picture with his words, so I won’t say that. But he does etch indelible patterns with the tattoo-gun of his words — which isn’t a painless process for all involved, but the end result is worth whatever discomfort endured. Day doesn’t write like a rookie — this could easily be the third or fourth novel of an established author instead of someone’s talented debut.

I’m torn on what I think about the details of the ending, wavering between “good” and “good enough, but could have been better.” It’s not as strong as the 94% (or so) before it, but it’s probably close enough that I shouldn’t be quibbling over details. I’m not talking about the way that Doc elicits the answers he needs to fully explain what happened to Jan’s husband (both for her closure and Chris’ safety), nor the way that everything fits together just perfectly. I just think the execution could be slightly stronger.

Whether you think of this as an amateur sleuth novel, a look into the depravity of the suburbanite, or an elaborate Miss Marple tribute/pastiche, the one thing you have to see is that this is a wonderful novel. I’m underselling it here, I know, this is one of those books that you best understand why everyone is so positive about it by reading it. You’ve got to expose yourself to Doc, Yakky and Day’s prose to really get it. One of the best books I’ve read this year. My only complaint with this book? After reading so much about the “song of the needle,” the shop, the work being done there — I’m feeling the pressure to get another tattoo myself, and soon.

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5 Stars