The Western Star by Craig Johnson

The Western StarThe Western Star

by Craig Johnson
Series: Walt Longmire, #13

Hardcover, 295 pg.
Viking, 2017

Read: September 15 – 16, 2017


In the last novel, An Obvious Fact, Johnson plays with lines and themes from Sherlock Holmes while letting us get to know that very important woman in Henry Standing Bear’s life while Walt solves a murder. In this book, Johnson plays with Murder on the Orient Express while letting us get to know that very important woman in Walt’s life while Walt solves a murder. It struck me while reading that as large a shadow that Martha Longmire cast over the books (particularly the first few), we really don’t know much about her. We don’t learn that much about her, really, but we see her interact with Walt and Henry — and you walk away with a much better sense of her as a person, not her as the giant hole in Walt’s life.

How do we get this sense? Half of the novel takes place shortly after Walt returns to the States after his time in the Marines, and he’s been employed by Lucian as a deputy for a couple of weeks. Lucian is attending the annual meeting of the Wyoming Sheriff’s Association, and he brings Walt along. This meeting takes place on The Western Star, a passenger train. Shortly after boarding, Walt meets one Sheriff who is convinced that one (or more) of his fellows is murdering people across the state (sort of a Dexter-vibe to the motive), and he needs someone with fresh eyes and a lack of knowledge of the Sheriffs to help with his investigation. This would be Walt, naturally.

Meanwhile, in alternating passages/chapters set in the present, Walt is in Cheyenne for a highly politicized parole hearing (that becomes something a little different) to keep this particular killer behind bars. Johnson’s very good about not tipping his hand about the killer’s identity until Walt uncovers it. While doing so, he stays with Cady and his granddaughter, and annoys some pretty powerful people in the state.

I found the Walt on a Train story entertaining more than intriguing, but the final reveal was well done and made me appreciate it all the more. But while I wasn’t that into the mystery, I really enjoyed watching Deputy Walt and Sheriff Lucian do their thing. It was sad watching Walt’s idealism surrounding the societal/cultural changes that the 60’s promised come into contact with the cold reality that humans take awhile to change. I was really intrigued by the present day story, on the other hand, and wished they could get into more of the details about the case, but it’d have been hard to do while keeping the identity of the killer under wraps.

The events that are revealed after the reveal (in both timelines) will leave fans unsure what to do with themselves until Walt Longmire #14 comes out. I have some thoughts about what that book will end up being, but I’ll hold on to them for now. But it’s going to be something we haven’t seen before.

But this book? Very entertaining, illuminating and the whole time, it slowly but surely reels you in and sets you up for the biggest emotional moments that Johnson has penned to date. Johnson earned the 5th star for me in the last 13 pages.

—–

5 Stars
2017 Library Love Challenge

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The Brightest Fell by Seanan McGuire

The Brightest FellThe Brightest Fell

by Seanan McGuire
Series: Toby Daye, #11

Hardcover, 289 pg.
DAW, 2017

Read: September 6 – 7, 2017

I still couldn’t see anything, which was unusual. Fae have excellent night vision. We’re like cats, able to see in the slightest trace of light. For it to be this dark, there had to be no light at all-that, or something had been done to my eyes. The thought caused a brief spike of panic, until I blinked several times and confirmed that I could still feel my eyes. No one had removed them or sealed my eyelids shut.

It says something about my life that this was a concern.

Surely, at some point, Toby will stop being lulled into a sense that everything is okay with the world — she starts this book by enjoying life, and a night out with her friends. Which is one of the surest signs that things are going to go horribly awry for her. And they do, before she can finish unwinding after the night out, there’s a knock on her door. Amandine, her mother, has stopped by for a visit.

Well, not really a visit. She wants to hire Toby to go find her older daughter, August. Toby’s never met her sister and really doesn’t want to get mixed up with anything involving August (who’s been missing for over a century) or her mother. Amandine has never been one to take no for an answer, instead, she takes hostages.

So, Toby’s off to find her sister August — which makes preventing war (like she’s been doing lately) look positively run-of-the-mill. I’m going to leave the plot summary at that. Because, like others, I don’t know how to talk about this without spoiling things that shouldn’t be. There are a couple of quotations (one from Toby, one from someone else) that illustrate what’s going on beyond this missing person hunt:

All my chickens were coming home to roost, and while I didn’t want them, I had earned them. I had earned them, every one.

“We are the sum of our actions . . . When desperation sets our course, those actions can blacken with remarkable speed.”

If that doesn’t describe the last couple of Iron Druid Chronicles, Dresden Files, and pretty much every Alex Verus book, I don’t know what does. The best of Urban Fantasy ultimately puts their protagonists in this situation — Toby’s been close to it before, but she’s dancing closer to the line here, sacrificing (or at least being prepared to sacrifice) so much to find her sister — and the number of things she won’t sacrifice is pretty small.

There’s not a whole lot of character growth and development here, there’s no time. We do see many of our old friends and acquaintances being themselves — maybe turned up to 11. One character, who will remain nameless, displays a degree of depth that we haven’t seen before. Toby grows a bit through this experience, if only to find out what extremes she’ll go to. She finds herself capable of changing her mind about someone –not easy for her to do (like most of us).

People are complicated. That’s the problem with people. lt would be so much easier if they could all be put into easy little boxes and left there, never changing, never challenging the things I decided about them.

This was a great read — in more than just the story, or characters — there are just some books where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is one of them (though the sum of its parts was pretty good) — everything just clicked. McGuire drew me in and kept me there between the voice, the fact that we have 10 books of history with these characters, and the drama (and little bit of comedy). There was one point, where Toby does something brave, reckless and potentially stupid (especially if it came back to bite her), where I found myself muttering, “Oh, oak and ash! No!” I figure any book that has you under its spell enough that you end up borrowing oaths and curses from the protagonist is a pretty engrossing read. She didn’t listen to me, and she sure should have.

From the fun as all get out opening scene, to the ominous final sentence that should fill every Toby fan with dread (although it promises some great books), McGuire was firing on all cylinders here. Yeah, plenty came home to roost in The Brightest Fell, and it meant that those closest to Toby suffered, but she found a way to be Toby throughout — she didn’t surrender who she was, and she got things done the best she could. All the while bringing the reader along through her highs and lows with her. Can’t ask for more than that. (well..I guess you could, but why?)

—–

5 Stars

Black and Blue by Ian Rankin

Black and BlueBlack and Blue

by Ian Rankin
Series: John Rebus, #8

Hardcover, 391 pg.
St. Martin’s Press, 1997

Read: September 4 – 5, 2017


I wasn’t sure if I should open with:

He went into the toilets again, just to steady his breathing and look at himself in the mirror. He tried to relax his jaw muscles. In the past, he’d have been reaching for the quarter-bottle of whisky in his pocket. But tonight there was no quarter-bottle, no Dutch courage. Which meant for once he’d be relying on the real thing.

or:

…Rebus sat on a char in the interview room, watching his hands shaking.
‘You OK?’ Jack asked.
‘Know what, Jack? You’re like a broken record.’
‘Know what, John? You’re always needing it asked.’

Either one of those works to sum up Rebus’ frame of mind in the latter half of this book (and that’s largely because things had gotten worse for him by that point). Not that things were ever going his way in this book.

Following his gutsy political moves in the last book he’s been assigned to the worst police station in Edinburgh and a case he worked early in his career as a Detective with his mentor has come under increased scrutiny thanks to some media attention, and an underdog convicted of that crime who is able to cast some doubt on the original investigation. Meanwhile, a serial killer from the late 60s (who remains uncaptured) has inspired a copycat. Rebus (like every detective in Scotland, it seems) is on the fringes of this investigation. Oh, yeah, and there’s an unrelated suspicious death that Rebus needs to investigate.

Four cases, with more in common than anyone expects until the most tenacious cop east of Harry Bosch starts doing his thing. He starts following threads that take him far from his desk and home — Glasgow and eventually Aberdeen — and the oil platforms north. While dodging the press (more persistent that he’s used to) superior officers and an internal investigation, Rebus moves around the country picking at clues and hunches while getting under the skin of criminals, cops, oil company executives, and one serial killer.

There are so many police officers running around this book, some we know, some we don’t. Siobhan Clarke has a small, but pivotal role to play. Brian Holmes is around helping Rebus unofficially, while things with Nell are at their worst. Jack Morton, Rebus’ old drinking pal plays a significant role in this novel — he’s clean and sober now, and is convinced that’s what Rebus needs to do, too. Gil Templar needs Rebus’ help, very unofficially. There are new detectives and from Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh for readers and Rebus to meet — the main thing they all seem to have in common is that they don’t want Rebus mucking around in their cities.

I don’t know if I’ve seen Rebus more self-destructive. He’s drinking more than normal (which is saying something) and seems to care less than ever about what his superiors think of him (which is also saying something). Some of his wry sense of humor remains — almost entirely buried under cynicism. Rebus has had doubts about what he and his mentor did years ago, and the renewed attention isn’t helping his sense of guilt. He is far more interested in the serial killer cases than he ought to be professionally, it’s become a habit that threatens to distract him from his actual duties. His personal demons are almost as much of an antagonist than anyone he could possibly arrest in Black and Blue. Yet, he investigates in the same way he always does — and the way he wraps up most of the cases carry his signature style.

Black and Blue is intense, it is ambitious — for most of the book, it’d be easy to see this as being the end of the road for Rebus (if I wasn’t fully aware that 13 other novels had been published with at least one more announced) — not that you’re all that worried about him living through the end, you’re more worried that he’ll be unemployed by the end. It’s one of those novels that makes you want to ignore obligations, work and family — none of which can be as interesting or pressing as the book. You could cut out half the murders from this novel and it’d still be a winner, including all of them makes this something more than that.

I went into this one with a mix of trepidation and anticipation — I’ve heard that this was where the series took a turn for the better. I recently heard an interview with Rankin where he described it that way — sales, awards, critical acclaim, all came with this book. So I was worried that I wouldn’t see what so many had before — but was excited to try. This one lives up to expectations, as high as they might be. Just a stunning work. I honestly don’t know how Rankin will top this — I’m not sure how easy it’ll be to equal it.

—–

5 Stars
2017 Library Love Challenge

Grave Peril (Audiobook) by Jim Butcher, James Marsters

Grave Peril (Audiobook)Grave Peril

by Jim Butcher, James Marsters (Narrator)
Series: The Dresden Files, #3
Unabridged Audiobook, 11 hrs and 59 mins
Buzzy Multimedia Publishing Corp., 2009

Read: July 6 – 8, 2017


Wow. There’s just so much going on in this book — so much that sets things in motion that are still shaping the series. Once a series goes on as long as this one, it’s easy to mix up your internal timeline about what happens when — this reread really exposed how much I’ve done for The Dresden Files. I don’t know how many times I asked, “Wait, what? That happens now? I thought it was ____”

Anyway, we start this one with Harry and Michael on their way to rescue a Maternity Ward full of newborns from a ghost. It takes practically no time at all for Butcher to establish Michael, his relationship with Harry, and place in this world. I gotta say, I was shocked at how easy Butcher made that look — a sure sign that it wasn’t effortless for him. Michael is one of my first examples to use when people tell me that paladins are dull characters. I could go on about this particular Knight of the Cross, but no one has that kind of thing.

It’s not just the witch in the hospital, there are angry ghosts all over town — and much more powerful than they normally are. Something’s afoot, and Harry’s having some trouble figuring out what. It does seem to be targeting Harry, Murphy and some others that were with them when they took down a criminal a few months earlier.

Meanwhile, Bianca is up to something, and Harry’s too distracted by the ghosts to figure it out, which will prove to be very bad. On the other hand, he meets Thomas Raith because of this — and that’s good for us readers, as much as the rest of the night his horrible for Harry.

There is just so much that goes wrong here, you have to feel sorry for Harry. Which is not to say that everything goes wrong, Harry unleashes quite a bit of magic in this one — more than we’ve seen so far (because of reasons), but there are consequences for this — consequences that it’ll take years for Dresden to clean up.

Marsters . . . pick your superlative and apply it to his work here.

A lot of fun, a lot of heart, a lot of evil, a lot of pain. If this isn’t where this series comes together and fulfills the promise of the premise, it’s darn close.

—–

5 Stars

The Hate U Give (Audiobook) by Angie Thomas, Bahni Turpin

There’s just so much I want to say about this book, I know I’m leaving stuff out even as I prepare to hit “Publish.” Also, I know that I’m not doing justice to how good this book is. Given that, here’s my best shot.

The Hate U Give (Audiobook)The Hate U Give

by Angie Thomas, Bahni Turpin (Narrator)
Unabridged Audiobook, 11 hrs., 40 min.
HarperAudio, 2017

Read: July 27 – August 1, 2017

I’ll be honest, the hype around this one turned me off initially. It just didn’t seem like my kind of thing. But my wife bought a copy and tore through it and started telling everyone she came across that they needed to read it (especially those of us she lives with). When I saw the library had a copy of the audiobook, I snagged it, because I hadn’t got that far on my TBR. By this time, I only remembered “YA,” “something about Black Lives Matter,” and “Mrs. Irresponsible Reader said I needed to.” Which is about as tabula rasa as one could get when coming to a book.

Our central character is Starr Carter. She attends a very nice private school in the suburbs of whatever unidentified city she lives in. She plays basketball there, has friends and a boyfriend and seems to be generally well-regarded by all. Then there’s her “other life”, that has almost no relation to that one — she and her family live in a poor neighborhood where almost no one knows her by anything but “Mav’s daughter what works at the store” (or something close to that). She has a friend or two in the neighborhood, but mostly works and then goes home. On one of the rare nights she goes out to do something social, she runs into her childhood best friend, Khalil, who she hasn’t seen for a few months. Their reunion is cut short, sadly, while he drives her home and they’re pulled over by a police officer for a routine traffic stop. I’ll leave the details for you to read on your own, but essentially, her unarmed friend is shot repeatedly by the police officer in front of Starr.

In the days that follow Khalil’s death is a nationwide story, Starr’s being questioned by the police and is trying to keep her psyche intact while the wheels of justice grind slowly. There are problems at school, unforeseen challenges at home and in the neighborhood, add in the involvement with the criminal justice system and activists, and it’s clear that neither of Starr’s lives are going to be the same again.

Yes, this book is about the shooting of Khalil and the aftermath. But it’s about more than that, too. Similar to the way you could say that To Kill a Mockingbird is about the trial Tom Robinson and its aftermath. There’s a whole lot of other things going on in both books that are just as much a part of the essence as the shooting/trial. There’s family growth and change, individual characters learning more about the world and changing, there’s the evolution of localities and best of all, there are characters taking all of this in and exercising a little agency to change themselves — and impact everything in around them.

One thing I didn’t expect was how fun this book would end up being. I laughed a lot — her father’s strange theories about Harry Potter, her Fresh Prince of Bel Air obsession, the teasing between her friends, her family’s very cut-throat approach to watching the NBA finals and trying to jinx each other’s teams, are just a start. Even when it’s not being out-and-out funny, there’s a joie de vivre that characterizes the lives of these characters.

When they’re not grieving, being threatened (by criminals or those who are supposed to be protecting them from criminals), being angered at the way that the system seems to be destined to fail them, or scared about their lives, that is. Because there’s a lot of that, too. All of which is justified. The interplay between the emotional extremes speaks volumes to the authenticity of Thomas’ work, and makes it much more effective than it could’ve been in less careful hands.

There are so few YA novels with healthy — or existing families — that Thomas should probably win an award or three just for having so many in one book. None of the families are perfect (though Starr’s comes close), some push the boundaries of “dysfunctional” into something we need a new word for; but at the very least there were at least a core of people caring about each other and trying to help each other, in their own way.

Yes, there are political overtones — or at least ramifications — to this book, but this is first and foremost a human story and can be appreciated by humans from all over the political spectrum. Thomas, as far as I can tell, went out of her way to be fair and balanced. It’d have been very easy to paint some of these characters/groups as all evil, all good, all misunderstood, all [fill in the blank]. Instead, she took the more difficult, more honest, and much more interesting approach and filled the book with people all over the moral spectrum, no matter their profession, ethnicity, socio-economic background, education, etc.

A few words about Turpin’s work. I loved it. She was just fantastic, and rose to the challenge of bringing this kind of book to life. Looking at her credits just now, that doesn’t seem like much of a stretch for her — she’s clearly a talented heavy-hitter on the audiobook front.

I laughed, I cried . . . it moved me. This is the whole package, really. It’ll challenge you, it’ll entertain you, and give you a little hope for tomorrow (while helping you despair about the time until tomorrow comes).

—–

5 Stars

The Vanishing American Adult (Audiobook) by Ben Sasse

The Vanishing American Adult (Audiobook)The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance

by Ben Sasse

Unabridged Audiobook, 11 hrs., 9 Min.
Macmillan Audio, 2017

Read: July 24 – 26, 2017


I typically don’t like to do this, but in the interest of time, I’m just going to use the text from the publisher’s page to describe the book:
Raised by well-meaning but overprotective parents and coddled by well-meaning but misbegotten government programs, America’s youth are ill-equipped to survive in our highly-competitive global economy.

Many of the coming-of-age rituals that have defined the American experience since the Founding: learning the value of working with your hands, leaving home to start a family, becoming economically self-reliant—are being delayed or skipped altogether. The statistics are daunting: 30% of college students drop out after the first year, and only 4 in 10 graduate. One in three 18-to-34 year-olds live with their parents.

From these disparate phenomena: Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse who as president of a Midwestern college observed the trials of this generation up close, sees an existential threat to the American way of life.

In The Vanishing American Adult, Sasse diagnoses the causes of a generation that can’t grow up and offers a path for raising children to become active and engaged citizens. He identifies core formative experiences that all young people should pursue: hard work to appreciate the benefits of labor, travel to understand deprivation and want, the power of reading, the importance of nurturing your body—and explains how parents can encourage them.

Our democracy depends on responsible, contributing adults to function properly—without them America falls prey to populist demagogues. A call to arms, The Vanishing American Adult will ignite a much-needed debate about the link between the way we’re raising our children and the future of our country.
The first third or so is Sasse laying out the problems with the 30-and-younger set (and the parents and grandparents that got them and their society in the sorry state they’re in). The next two-thirds are his suggested solutions, what he believes parents can do to help raise a generation with the necessary rigor and grit to make it. Nothing here can be implemented like blueprints — these are all just things to get parents thinking. Even if the reader disagrees with Sasse (as I do frequently), you get the feeling that he’s more concerned with people and parents thinking about these ideas and doing something about them, even if it’s what he doesn’t think needs to be done.

There’s a chapter devoted to helping our children and teens become critical readers — talking about the necessity of being more than just functionally literate, but people that interact with books — good books, as well as entertaining books. People reading this blog should find a lot to love (and a little to demur with) in this chapter — I almost listened to it twice in a row it was so good.

The book is largely a-political. Yes, politics does enter into it. Yes, if you agree with him (before or after reading the book), it’ll likely lead to certain political moves — but people on all points on the political spectrum should be able to get something out of this book. Just because Sasse is a U.S. Senator, don’t think that this is a book about that. He does highly value “republican” values — but he usually goes out of his way to stress that it’s “small-R republican” he’s referring to. Ditto for the Christian point of view he writes from — Sasse’s very up-front about that, but goes out of his way to show how non-Christians (or even Christians from different traditions) can agree with much of the book, or disagree constructively.

There was problem with the audiobook — there’s no text to refer to. There’s so much that you want to go back and re-read, notes you want to take, quotations/citations you’d like to double check. The literature chapter alone needs to be re-read. And it’s just such a pain to do all that with an audiobook. Trust me, get the hardcopy. The audiobook is a very effective advertisement for the hardcover. It is good to hear Sasse read this himself.

There’s a lot of this book that I just don’t get — I’m not saying he’s wrong, necessarily, but I don’t think he’s always as right as he thinks he is. But I’m telling you, I thought a lot about what he talked about — I talked a lot about the content of this book. I’m looking for ways to put some of this into practice, and wish I’d done a better job of doing it years ago.

Agree with it or not, this is a book well worth reading.

—–

5 Stars

The Force by Don Winslow

Oh fer cryin’ out loud, after I finished writing this, I noticed that the publisher’s description starts with the same quotation I started my post with. I swear I didn’t steal the idea.

The ForceThe Force

by Don Winslow

Hardcover, 479 pg.
William Morrow, 2017

Read: June 26 – 29, 2017

Our ends know our beginnings but the reverse isn’t true.

If Denny Malone’s beginning knew his ending, would it have prevented anything? Or would Malone have convinced himself he could find a work-around? Probably the latter.

Denny Malone is a one of NYPD’s Finest — a detective sergeant, and the head of a task force (known as “Da Force”) on the front line of the War on Drugs. He and his team — who’ve been together for years — rule Manhattan. Sadly — and perhaps naturally — they’re corrupt. They take (and are given) money, drugs, weapons and more from criminals (of all levels), lawyers and others. They pass on some of these to lawyers, city officials and other cops — and keep a whole lot for themselves. Through their methods, they do keep some sort of peace on their streets — sure, they pass on some of the violence and poison on to other parts of the city, but that’s not their concern.

After doing this for years, the wheels start to come off — it’s tough to say what the first domino (to mix metaphors) was to fall, but once it does, there’s nothing stopping the rest — as much as Malone may try. The result is one of the most powerful crime novels I’ve read in years.

The characters are rich, fully developed and they seem like they could step out of the book onto the streets of NYC with no trouble. You are sickened by them, want to see them stopped — yet start to understand them, like them as people, and — despite yourself — hope at least some of them get away with it all. At one point, I was laughing at their banter like we were all old friends hanging out, and it bothered me how much I enjoyed them as people (that faded somewhat in a few pages).

This book feels like the love child of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy. You really feel like you understand how the city of New York is run — at least parts of it: the police, elements of the criminal world, and parts of the criminal justice system. Not how they’re supposed to run, but the way it really is. He achieves this through a series of set pieces and didactic periscopes. Three quick examples: you get Malone musing on how the way that cops have to learn how not to care about citizens and criminals, because otherwise, they’ll end up hating them. A great section showing how The Force goes out on the town to celebrate. The following quotation about the attitude of a prosecutor and Malone about his creative use/understanding of the truth while testifying:

Because the real truth that they both know is that without cops “testilying,” the DA’s office would hardly get any convictions at all.

This doesn’t bother Malone.

If the world played fair, he’d play fair. But the cards are stacked against the prosecutors and police. Miranda, Mapp, all the other Supreme Court decisions, give the advantage to the skels. It’s like the NFL these days–the league wants touchdown passes, so a defensive back can’t even touch a receiver. We’re the poor defensive backs, Malone thinks, trying to keep the bad guys from scoring.

Truth, justice and the American way.

The American way is, truth and justice maybe say hello in the hallway, send each other a Christmas card, but that’s about the extent of their relationship.

You throw that kind of stuff in with a compelling plot, believable characters, striking details and Winslow’s voice? You’ve got yourself a dynamite book.

If someone had told me this was non-fiction, I’d believe it (maybe I’d balk at some of the details of his personal life being told in a Non-fiction book, but otherwise…). It rings true — and I spent most of the book just hoping that Winslow was exaggerating and fearing that he was holding back. The whole thing feels real, it seems ripped from the headlines, and is beyond engaging — it’s engrossing, it’ll take over your mind, make you see deception and corruption everywhere.

Winslow nailed it. It’s just mindbogglingly good. I’m going to over-hype it if I keep going — so I’ll leave it at that. Get this book and then strap in for one of the best reads you’ll have this year.

—–

5 Stars