The Late Show by Michael Connelly (audio)

We have another mediocre showing from Connelly here, I’m afraid. This one is a departure from the Bosch series: The Late Show features Detective Renee Ballard, who is also a renegade anti-establishment figure who gets shit on by the LAPD, but with an added woman-in-a-man’s-world angle. (She is also younger.) I was once more a little indifferent as to plot for most of the novel, but I was pleased with some significant twists and reveals in the final denouement, so that was nice. The narrator again felt awfully wooden – what is up with this trend? And why are there so few contractions? (I am instead of I’m, can not instead of can’t) …Connelly’s writing feels consistently awkward over the last many books. I wonder, is it him or is it me? I keep meaning to go back and read some early Bosch (in print!) and investigate this question, whether Connelly’s writing has become less good or I have become harder to please. But devoting that time feels like asking a lot at this point.

Ballard is appealing in some ways but doesn’t quite feel fully fleshed. She has interesting relationships with other cops, and an interesting backstory, referring to various traumas; but all of this feels told and not shown. I kept feeling like I was waiting for the story to ramp up, but instead it ended.

Maybe one more experiment with this formerly beloved author before I give up, with deep regrets.


Rating: 6 and a half black buttons.

Lee Child shorts: “Public Transportation” and “Wet with Rain” (audio)

“Public Transportation” was available from Audible as a standalone short (originally from the collection Phoenix Noir), and “Wet with Rain” comes from Exit Wounds: Nineteen Tales of Mystery from the Modern Masters of Crime. They were, I think, 13 and 28 minutes respectively, give or take. Just a few quick indulgences during a drive to the next county to my local bike shop.

Classic Child, so not much to report here, but in the best ways. “Public Transportation” offers a surprise twist and no serial characters. A cop is talking with a journalist about an old unsolved murder case; we get a fairly quick summary of the crime, the investigation (in hindsight, botched), and the problematic conclusion eventually settled on by the police department. “Wet with Rain” is also Reacher-free, but slightly more involved. We get a little less context, but eventually understand that two Americans with a certain agency have traveled to Ireland to run a secret operation, about which information is doled out slowly and out of order, so that we’re still putting things together even as they happen. Each of these stories represents a sort of puzzle – for the reader and for the players involved. Only one has a quick punch of a surprise; the other is more of a slow burn. And, again, neither involves our hero Reacher. But each serves as a good example of Child’s skill with intrigue, detail, and apparently effortless storytelling (which actually may be the hardest kind), as well as a certain dark side of human nature. I enjoyed both as quick jaunts, and would love to have access to more of the same: quick, punchy stories by authors I know I love. My lifestyle doesn’t support longer audiobooks these days. Look for more podcast reviews to come, I guess…

did not finish: Horns by Joe Hill (audio)

Horns is a horror novel by Joe Hill, son of the horror novel empire of the world, and author of Heart-Shaped Box and NOS4A2. So I had high hopes, and indeed was moving along smoothly enough, feeling engaged and interested, until about the halfway point of this audiobook’s 14 hours.

This is the story of Iggy Perrish, who wakes up at the beginning of the book with dim memories of the night before, and horns growing out of his temples. His (apparently perfect) girlfriend was brutally raped and murdered a year prior, and although Ig was never proven guilty or innocent, his community assumes his guilt; this, on top of his loss, has quite ruined his life. When the newly horned Ig encounters anyone at all, they go into a sort of trance of perfect honesty, mindlessly confessing their worst desires and asking his permission to act them out. He’s become sort of everyone’s personal demon. Then the story flashes back to when he first met the late girlfriend, ten years previous, when they were just kids; and occasionally forward, to later in their relationship; and back to the horned present, where adult Ig tries to figure out what to do with his horns and unwanted magical powers, and solve the mystery of his girlfriend’s murder.

This was intriguing, if often awful. It’s a horror novel. And I have a taste for the occasional horror novel, as evidenced by previous Hill and King novels I’ve enjoyed; I certainly have a high tolerance for graphic violence and horrific acts in fiction, as evidenced by the fiction I love by Connelly, Child, James Lee Burke and others. I was okay with Ig’s sad story right up until a scene involving a decapitated snake, bullying, and a nasty nickname. It’s weird what will turn me off. (I’ve noticed before that it’s often cruelty to animals.) But there was a moment, listening to this book, and hearing the bleating of the bullies, when I just really didn’t want to hear any more. So I turned it off.

Fred Berman’s narration was a solid performance, I guess, which is to say often off-putting in the way that this scene was off-putting – as Hill intended? I know that sounds like faint praise. Berman does different voices and accents that I found effective; the effect was not pleasant. I wonder if I would have tolerated this book better on the page.

No accounting for what works for me. I thought I had a stronger stomach for the awful than this! But Hill wins this round? Or loses? As ever, your mileage may vary.


Rating: think I’ll skip this one and leave it at ‘DNF.’

The Crossing by Michael Connelly (audio)

The first, good news is that this one went over better than my last Connelly effort, Two Kinds of Truth. I found the plot absorbing throughout. I repeat my criticism of Titus Welliver’s narration, though – I’d forgotten until I reread that earlier review, but I again find him uninflected or occasionally putting the emphasis in what feels like the wrong place in a phrase or sentence. I like him onscreen but not here.

Harry Bosch has been retired from the LAPD for a few months, having been pushed out against his will; his half-brother and lawyer Mickey Haller is suing the Department on his behalf, so the blood is generally bad. (To place us in time, Bosch’s daughter Maddie is finishing her senior year of high school and getting ready to go off to Chapman for college.) Haller then asks Bosch to do some investigation work for a client who Haller is sure is innocent of the murder he’s accused of. Bosch has a strong reaction to the idea: working for the defense would be crossing a line. Defense = bad. (I easily believe that many officers feel this way, so I don’t doubt the realism, but it rankles. The whole point of the adversarial court system is to push back against all charges, forcing their proof, and protecting against false convictions. No one is served by law enforcement’s insistence that it never ever gets anything wrong [even leaving aside purposeful wrongdoing].) Bosch does come around to the idea: if this accused client is innocent, that means there’s a murderer out there roaming free. This activates his sense of justice; plus he’s gotten pretty bored with his motorcycle rebuild project. We all know Bosch needs to be crime-solving. So he agrees to just take a look at the case for Haller. And we’re off and running.

For a little added plot interest and complication, the novel mostly follows Bosch, but also switches over to the bad guys here and there, so the reader has more information than he does (although far from all), which is a fun narrative device.

I like that the title has several meanings within the story. The narrator makes reference to a crossing between murder victim and murderer, where events get set in motion; a crossing over from public heterosexual lifestyle to same-sex relations; and the crossing over that most troubles Bosch throughout this story, as he moves into investigative work for the defense. There are a number of other crossing-the-line references, which might even be considered heavy-handed – I again feel that Connelly flirts with over-explaining – but in the case of the title’s role I ended up appreciating the multiple connections.

There’s something just a little stilted about the dialog and characters here, like Bosch’s (and I think Haller’s) avoidance of contractions, but I’m not even certain how much is Connelly and how much is Welliver. There was again a bit much explaining, especially between Haller and Bosch. I understand that it’s a trick, as the writer, to let your reader in on need-to-know information without having your (expert) characters explain in dialog. I just didn’t remember Connelly being as clumsy about it as I find him here.

That’s nit-picking, though. The plot and intrigue was sufficient to keep me engaged and generally distracted from minor quibbles. Neither Connelly’s best nor his worst work; a perfectly serviceable listen.


Rating: 7 references to Walmart.

The Searcher by Tana French (audio)

Tana French never disappoints. This 2020 novel (her latest to date) reminded me quite a bit of her second book, The Likeness (2008), which is still my favorite, I think. In line with all her work, The Searcher boasts intriguing characters with shadowy pasts; a very strong sense of place; and some of the most atmospheric writing I know. What most reminded me of The Likeness was a general, foreboding suspicion about the people around our protagonist, a low-level nagging sense that we’re not sure who everyone is really and what their motivations might be.

It’s still set in Ireland, now in a rural area of tiny villages, but in a departure from her past work, French’s protagonist is American. Cal Hooper is a recently retired detective from the Chicago Police Department, trying to renovate the dilapidated little farmhouse he bought from afar, not too hopeful of making new friends but amenable to the gifted-in-gab locals like his new neighbor Mart. He talks to his adult daughter about once a week. He misses his ex-wife. The reader has to wait to find out what these dim shapes, back in the States, exactly mean to Cal. Meanwhile, he’s getting cautiously adjusted to no longer looking over his shoulder for crime all the time, but somebody’s definitely been watching him – aside from the rooks in the tree out back, whom he rather appreciates – and it’s creeping him out. His peeping tom turns out to be a 13-year-old kid named Trey. What does Trey want, exactly? It will take Cal a certain amount of interview skills to find out. And what he discovers threatens to launch him back into the kind of crime investigation he’d hoped to leave behind.

There are many layers to absorb here. In its handling of gender, The Searcher subtly offers commentary or at least food for thought; the tensions of changing times in a rural setting (technology, employment options, young people moving away, the urban/rural divide, options by gender) are a minor but important focus. Moral ambiguities and the importance of having a “code” feature throughout – other reviewers have placed this novel at least partly within the Western genre. Another slight but important thread deals with police brutality and race in the United States, too, for currency. I appreciated the natural world as… more than backdrop. Events play out against a natural world that can be cruel but only in the ways of nature, with parallels that inform the human dramas. Those rooks, which (tellingly) open the book, provide a keystone for Cal’s experiences. Finally, this rural Ireland made me think repeatedly of small-town Appalachia where I’ve settled. And of course many Scots and Irish settled in Appalachia, so it’s not too strange to think of cultural threads crossing over. But it felt a bit uncanny, and comforting.

Roger Clark’s performance on this audio edition wound up feeling perfectly pitched, although it took me a while to get used to the American accent when I was expecting an Irish one, based on past experience with French. I think Clark performed the accents well all around. There was a brief howdy-partner backwoods bit that felt put upon to me, but I’m ascribing that momentary awkwardness to French and not Clark. I still love her work in this format.

This novel has lots to sink into for the discerning reader. And there’s a compelling plot regarding young Trey and the mystery Cal finds himself roped into, and all the fine work of suspense and mood that French does best. If this isn’t her finest novel yet, it’s right up there, and more multifaceted than most mysteries. Strongly recommend.


Rating: 8 rabbits.

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore (audio)

This audiobook, also part of my cross-country travels, was a birthday gift from my mom. Thanks, Mom!

Valentine is a powerful novel. It’s set in Odessa, Texas in 1976: a central West Texas oil town in a harsh environment filled with hard-edged, struggling people. The setting is definitely part of the appeal, as I know Odessa a little and its region a little better, and Elizabeth Wetmore’s striking writing about place I found very affecting and authentic. Mostly, this place comes across as rough, stark, unbeautiful; but a close read will reveal appreciation for the natural world and the people who find something to love in it. These characters are really well done, too. Chapters shift between the points of view of a number of them, with a firmer focus on three or four. All are women: men are only viewed through their eyes. As a woman, in a world of books historically over-focused on men, I appreciated this, too.

Let me get in a content warning before we go too much further: the event the book opens with, which is also the event that the entire narrative centers around, is a brutal and violent rape. It’s described in what I’d call moderate detail, which is plenty disturbing. Readers for whom this may present a problem should avoid the whole thing.

This rape and its aftermath affects all our characters in various ways. Even those who are initially unsympathetic become three-dimensional and complicated when they get their own chapters, in that way that I love: all people are complex, no one all good or bad, no perfect heroes or villains. I love a complication like nothing else. There is even a brief – failed – attempt to understand the perpetrator of the rape; that impulse and its failure both feel real and right to me.

Gloria, or Glory, Ramirez rightfully opens and closes the book. Fourteen years old, the US-born child of an undocumented Mexican immigrant mother, Glory’s life brings race and racism into the story. Valentine is centrally concerned with women’s lives and violence against women, but this layer is important and (of course) related. Then there is Mary Rose Whitehead, young mother of a young daughter, drawn into Glory’s life by circumstance. She rebels against many of the structures of the world around her, in ways that we applaud, but this is no fairy tale, so she will not necessarily triumph. Next comes Corrine Shepard, an older woman, recently widowed and handling her grief with booze, cigarettes and not giving two sh*ts what you think about any of it, which serves her well, to a point. I think of these three women as the core, although there are probably other interpretations – I haven’t counted chapters. Again, there are others who get less spotlight but make important contributions: I’m thinking of the bartender/babysitter/waitress we get to hear from near the very end.

This book covers so much. Race and racism and immigration, women’s lives and violence against women, economics patterns and the dire straits it puts all kinds of people in; the cultural and ecological milieu of a particular place, in a particular time, including what it looks like for an oil boom to hit a town like Odessa, which my friends who live in the region today tell me about: it sounds like it looks awfully the same after more than 40 years. Valentine‘s contents contain a lot of ugliness, brutality, violence, hate, tragedy: beware. But it’s also a beautifully rendered novel. And I appreciate its glimpses of beauty even in Odessa in 1976. It’s masterful, in other words. I’m very impressed, and I’ll be thinking about these characters for a long time.

Thanks again, Mom. Good pick.


Rating: 8 pistols in purses.

Before the Ruins by Victoria Gosling (audio)

On a recent cross-country drive, I lifted this year’s ban on audiobooks, obviously. This one took me two days of driving – a much more favorable pace at which to take in an audiobook, especially one involving suspense. Before the Ruins isn’t lightning-paced – it’s not that kind of thriller – but there was a steady building of tension.

Andy’s feeling pretty safely distant from her own past when she gets a phone call from the mother of her childhood best friend, Peter, saying that he’s gone missing. She hasn’t seen Peter in six months or so. They’ve grown apart. Asked to look for him, though, she finds herself drawn into the events of their youth. Andy and Peter were part of a close-knit foursome, with Em and Andy’s boyfriend Marcus, then joined by an outsider fifth, David, during the fateful summer that they were 18 and 19 years old. The events of that summer were followed by a nasty winter a few years later, in which everything changed. Now Andy finds herself pulled back to the old manor estate where it all went down, back when she was a disadvantaged kid with an alcoholic single mom, quick to fight and slow to trust. Perhaps less has changed than she’s realized.

The novel slips back and forth in time, flashing back to the summer of Andy’s late teens and the winter of her early twenties, and back to the present, when she is nearing 40, finally financially secure but personally unmoored. Searching for Peter means reopening old wounds that never healed, and reconnecting with people she hasn’t missed.

In its actual events, the story often left me just a little disappointed, because the conflicts felt so unremarkable: young people, hormones, sex, hurt feelings. It sometimes felt like a lot of dramatic trappings for fairly humdrum activity. The word for this one is definitely atmospheric – driven not by plot but by feeling, and somewhat less so by character. I was reminded, at its best moments, of Tana French. In the final denouement, there are indeed surprises, but it’s the sense of foreboding, the magic of place (that old manor estate, and certain locations in Italy and France late in the book), and the mystery of character that carry this novel. We only get Andy’s perspective, and because of Andy’s trauma, her self-deceit, her constant bid to reinvent herself, and her caginess, we remain unclear on much of her own internal workings; certainly the other characters are enigmas. The slow reveal of each friend’s motives, what they knew and didn’t know, makes for the most interesting mystery of this thriller.

The audio production by Kristin Atherton is lovely, with voices and accents and reinforcement of that all-important atmosphere. I definitely recommend this format.

Final verdict? Not the most masterful thriller I’ve ever encountered, but absorbing and entertaining, and did surprise me at its end. Worth the time.


Rating: 7 sodden-looking sheep.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (audio)

Following on Ward’s excellent (nonfiction) Men We Reaped, I found her earlier novel Salvage the Bones, read by the same narrator, Cherise Boothe. This one I loved less for a while in the middle, but I loved it at the end. And I’m afraid my one real criticism of this novel is my fault and not Ward’s. I’ve read 14 and a half books since I started listening to this audiobook – the shape of my life involves so little listening time these days. The long middle of the book dragged for me; I felt the pacing was off, but it might be the pace at which I took the story in, and not the pace at which the story is told.

Esch is fifteen years old, the only girl in the family. She has three brothers. Skeetah, sixteen, is entirely consumed by his love for his fighting pit bull, the china-white China. Randall, seventeen, is a gifted basketball player, whose friends occupy much of Esch’s attention – especially Manny, who she can’t keep her eyes off of. Then there’s Junior, seven, fed and diapered by Esch and Randall after their mother died giving birth. They live in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and their father is present, but only physically. He is drunk and a bully, and more concerned with hurricane season than his four children. Only halfway into these pages do we hear the name Katrina for the first time.

The novel opens with China giving birth in a poorly lit shed to her first litter of puppies. The whole family gathers round. Skeetah is rapt; his dog and her puppies are his whole world. Esch watches him watching them. He is the brother she is closest to, but China’s motherhood also holds new meaning for the girl, who is just realizing she is pregnant. In the novel’s twelve day span, from the birth of China’s puppies to the aftermath of Katrina’s devastation of their coastal town, that pregnancy feels like the subtext of every other story: Daddy’s obsession with the approaching storm; Skeetah’s obsession with his dogs; Randall’s focus on his sport; Junior’s low-level whining and neediness; Manny’s distance from the girl he treats as sex toy and not human; Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, which Esch is reading for school. This thread makes a significant contribution, even though its screen time (if you will) is brief. Esch is captivated by the strength and singlemindedness of Medea, the crooked model of motherhood she presents. In the world of Bois Sauvage – poverty, lack of parenting, the closeness of siblings who care for each other when no one else does – Medea offers a surprising outside point of reference. Also, I read the same book for school at the same age (under very different personal circumstances), and I found the parallel striking.

There is a stagnant time in the novel’s middle, again, where I got a little adrift. And again, it may have been my slow reading (listening) pace. But Esch takes her time acknowledging her pregnancy; she vomits and can’t get enough to eat; China’s puppies begin to die one by one; Daddy behaves badly; the weather hangs heavy and humid. Actually, the weather and restiveness feel a lot like the time before a hurricane hits. Also, Manny is such a terrible guy that I got sick of him very quickly and was forced to spend more time considering his awfulness than I’d have liked. So there was a hard bit for me in the middle.

But once Manny’s betrayal becomes clear, and the storm begins its approach, things pick back up. The stakes rise before the water does; there is a dog fight, and a human one (or several). In the end, this novel considers the profound effects of Katrina and the fierce love of kids who look out for each other. The account of the storm itself is striking and impactful. Esch is a hero, not a victim.

Katrina: the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive. Left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sunstarved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and saltburned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is a mother we’ll remember, until the next mother with large merciless hands committed to blood comes.

Motherhood is bloody when it is taught by Medea, and by China, the mother who fights and rips, whose white coat is streaked with blood in her victories. Her own mother is gone, so Esch learns this fierceness. It’s not romantic or pretty, perhaps, but it is something to marvel at.

There is no question that this story is beautifully told and I think masterfully told, my problems with pacing notwithstanding (again, perhaps mea culpa). Ward continues to impress. I am hypnotized by the storm, and the storm in Esch. I do recommend this novel, and Boothe’s narration here.


Rating: 8 shoes.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (audio)

A classic whodunit from Agatha Christie, starring Hercule Poirot, but told through the first-person narration of a character that (as far as I know) appears for the first time in the Poirot-universe. This means we get to see him from afar at first, and recognize him before the narrator understands who we’re dealing with. It’s pure fun. I love the humor and the characters – all of whom, admittedly, are a bit cartoonish, but in entertaining ways. Perhaps the best part of this audio production is the reading by Hugh Fraser, who plays Hasting in the long-running television series I was raised on. The protagonist and first-person narrator of this novel is a Hastings-like character, a stand-in if you will, during the period that Hastings is off living in the Argentine. To have the Hastings actor playing the Hastings-like character, bouncing off Poirot in the loveable way that they do, was just a harmonic moment for me.

Also in classic fashion, the mystery here is clever, ever-twisting and chock-full of red herrings, and the murder takes place in a literal locked room. Everyone is hiding something and harboring overlapping and hidden loyalties. The plot is far from central, however, at least to my enjoyment. (As an aside, I might be a special kind of mystery reader. I can reread the same mystery with no memory of the solution; the plot-level puzzle is rarely my focus; I’m there for characters and relationships. But I might be weird in this regard.) It’s all in the people – here, the caricatures – and the humor. Christie is comfort food, and this is quintessential Christie.


Rating: 7 dropped items.

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke (audio)

I reviewed Heaven, My Home, which comes second in this series. My father reviewed the highly-regarded first novel Bluebird, Bluebird, and now I’m finally catching up.

Pops did a good job with the high points of this one, and I remember Heaven very fondly (I rated it 8 fingers). There’s no question in my mind that Locke is at her best in handling the complex, nuanced, contradictory nature of Texas history and relationships (particularly in regards to race, but of course there’s more there too). The social justice questions, with no easy resolutions, are Locke’s greatest strength. I found the murder mystery part of this novel less compelling. And I should acknowledge that this audiobook took me way too long to finish, so maybe I didn’t give it the fairest shot in terms of my slow reading (listening) pace. It did get a little draggy for me in the middle; I think the contemplative interiority of Ranger Mathews’ thought processes and turmoil was a mite slow for my personal tastes. Which is related to my bigger concern with the book: I had trouble believing in Mathews (as a fictional character who ‘rings true’), and I had trouble caring deeply about his problems, because he exasperated me.

I had trouble with some of his unprofessional behaviors. Not morally, but in terms of believability: does he really get away with it? The drinking on the job, and the blurred boundaries with the murder victim’s widow, and with Geneva, a powerful matriarch in the small town where he’s investigating a couple of murders. It often felt to me like he was amateur at his job – I expected him to have it together more, or at least be better about hiding his boozing. He sure does rush off half-cocked. And while the widow’s character also made me a little impatient, I bought that this is who she would be. Everyone else feels believable; it’s just Mathews. I’m familiar with the self-destructive, loner, problems-with-authority police detective in fiction – it’s a type, and one I rather specialize in. But this one feels like he’s not very high-functioning in his self-destruction, if that makes sense, and it just rang less true for me.

I do not require that I like a character in order to care what happens in a plot. But there has to be some stakes that I can engage in, and I struggled with that here. My problems with Mathews were distracting.

More compelling was the conflict Mathews feels about the law, nicely encapsulated in his two role models, twin uncles who respectively work(ed) as a lawyer and a Texas Ranger. He’s been drawn in both directions, and still feels the pull of the law, although most of all in the pressures applied by others.

It made him sad, the degree to which this kind of credit hogging mattered to Greg, that three years behind a desk had made him so desperate for the climb that a double homicide was seen as an opportunity first and a crime against nature second. But wasn’t Darren a little guilty of this, too?

…Maybe justice was messier than Darren realized when he’d first pinned a badge to his chest; it was no better or worse than a sieve, a cheap net, a catch-as-catch-can system that gave the illusion of righteousness when really the need for tidy resolution trumped sloppy uncertainty any day.

And,

He got it confused sometimes, on which side of the law he belonged, couldn’t always remember when it was safe for a black man to follow the rules.

Point very well taken. Although, Mathews can occasionally feel like a mouthpiece for these musings, rather than a fully human character.

I did really enjoy the local culture of Lark, Texas, the blues and the home cooking at Geneva’s. And the complex relationships, which Pops refers to in his review, were well drawn (and feel very real).

Narrator J. D. Jackson has a nice voice but sometimes plays this one with a hair more drama than I needed – again, a little distracting.

Some good stuff here, but a lot that bothered me, too. If I’d started here I wouldn’t have read Heaven, My Home, which I think is a superior book. It’ll be interesting to see what comes next for Ranger Darren Mathews.


Rating: 6 plates to go.
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