guest review: Night School by Lee Child, from Mom

I’m so glad to have my mother around to review Lee Child along with me – or in this case, to review one I haven’t read yet! (For the moment, this is his newest, but I’m sure there’ll be another along shortly.) Night School follows my most recent Reacher read, Make Me, although the two are not chronological sequels. My mother sent this as an email to me, not intended as a formal review, but I appreciated it and she gave her permission to post.

Here’s Mom.
night-school

I really liked this book, especially compared to Make Me, which I finished afterwards. (And found excessively cruel and graphic, although well-plotted.) The story line carries us along beautifully. Another working of what’s up?, as in Make Me, where we don’t know quite what the deal is, but we have enough info to be looking hard at the details. And of course we get to tangle with some bad guys in number, and whip their fascist asses in entertaining variety.

Here Reacher is still in the army, which means a lot of structure and conflict built in from the bureaucracy. (In Make Me, he’s a bit of a drifter looking for adventure – and I know that’s a claim to fame for his fans.) So the Army sends him to Germany in this quest for the problem they need to solve. He bumps against the neo-nationalists so much you start to wonder if they are part of the plot. Hmmm.

So the plot is the thing, but Child’s writing is beautifully not present. I noted at first the short declarative sentences. After a 50-page warm-up, the story just flowed through. Some of the great stuff: He says to the German adversary, So why do you suppose you speak my language but I don’t speak yours? (Something to do with how important your language/country might be?) Or – the Germans thought they were uniting under one umbrella, but the West saw it as an arrangement of military bases with the people there efficiently manning the hotels and cafes.

I remember that Child is originally British, not to suggest he has an ax to grind. His character is man of integrity without a lot of allegiance to the system. His assistant in this is Neagley, the sergeant in War Games (the short story included at the end of Make Me). She’s perfect here, completely at his command (“adores him,” someone says), but has some complex that doesn’t allow any touch. So the sex interest is his boss, and of course the sex does not get in the way of the plot advances.

I could do some more page-turning like this, and I can’t help but like this impossible character.

Well said all around, in my opinion. I like what you said about the bureaucracy and the foil it provides. Cruel & graphic, yes: this is an important note for prospective new Reacher readers. Must have high threshold for blood. And the plot is indeed the thing. Lee Child excels at several things, I think: that invisibly expressive writing you mention, and action sequences (suspenseful fights I can really see), and a hell of a charismatic lead man. You said it: he’s an impossible character but we just can’t help but follow him. But the plots are nice and complex, filled with technical details and enough to challenge the experienced mystery/thriller reader. That is what I think you’re saying here, anyway.

About that “beautifully not present” writing, I find Reacher’s voice to be distinct and entertaining. Some of the books in this series are written in third person and some in first. And perhaps since I’ve listened to so many as audiobooks (and I highly recommend what narrator Dick Hill does with them!), I think that voice is a big part of the charisma. Those short, declarative, sarcastic, witty deliveries, even just inside his own head, really serve to characterize him.

Well done and thanks. I look forward to Night School and more of the page-turning and impossibilities.

Make Me by Lee Child

make-meWhen my grandmother was visiting Bellingham, in the final days of my residence there, we took a walk through the new location of the local indy bookstore. I was excited at the prospect of having time to choose a book to read on our big drive south, a book just for me and just for fun; so I bought myself a paperback copy of Lee Child’s latest. I read this book in a day and a half, in Durango, Colorado and on the road from there to Santa Fe. It was a deeply pleasurable time.

It’s been a while since I read any Lee Child, and Reacher was just as I remembered him. The formula is perhaps getting a little see-through at this point; but I love it no less.

Reacher gets off the train in the little town of Mother’s Rest, in the middle of nowhere. (I suspect Mother’s Rest is in Kansas, although it is never stated, and it is, of course, a fictional place.) When he steps off the train, he is greeted by a woman clearly waiting for someone, and disappointed Reacher isn’t that someone. He’s really just curious about the name of the town, though none of the locals can or will explain it to him. Instead, he finds them oddly surly, even antagonistic. What’s going on in Mother’s Rest? And what happened to the man Reacher was mistaken for at the train depot?

The locals are up to something, of course, and of course Reacher is the man to figure out what. Following the formula, he teams up with an attractive and highly competent woman, beats up on the baddies, and untangles the plot. He is at once a do-gooder, motivated to defend the world’s innocents, and an isolationist, apt to keep moving unless dragged into things by outside forces–like the bad guys trying to mess with him. The tagline for this novel’s title: “But as always, Reacher’s rule is: If you want me to stop, you’re going to have to make me.”

Like I said, the formula is clear to me. But this fast-paced, involved and involving, smart plot; Reacher’s big, handsome, smart (if a little fantastic) superhero powers; and the detailed, fully-formed world of Mother’s Rest are totally compelling. I scarcely put this book down, and was so sorry when it was over. On the other hand: in my paperback copy, Make Me was followed by a Reacher short story “Small Wars,” and then by an excerpt from the next Reacher novel, Night School, due for publication just next month. Lee Child really knows what he’s doing, cranking them out like this, and keeping us teased along the way. And, happily, the quality does not decline. My fandom is again confirmed.

To review: more of the same Reacher, except different in its particulars, so Child’s fans are never bored. You could start here or anywhere in the series, as they all jump around in time. But beware that once you start, you may not want to stop.


Rating: 8 hogs.

book beginnings on Friday: Make Me by Lee Child

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

Hooray! We’re back to Reacher again!

make-me

The big move south yielded the possibility of spare moments of reading time just for me, and I was delighted to pick up the latest Lee Child (note that he has another out just next month!). It begins:

Moving a guy as big as Keever wasn’t easy. It was like trying to wrestle a king-size mattress off a waterbed. So they buried him close to the house.

If this were not a Reacher novel, I might imagine that this burial strategy was merely practical, even possibly respectful, a la Gilbert Grape. But because this is a Reacher novel, of course, I suspect more nefarious dealings. I also like that Child gets us right into the action: in three sentences we assume we are deep into a murder case. And, action!

The Trespasser by Tana French

Tana French surpasses herself with character nuance and plot twists in her sixth gritty, Dublin-set murder-mystery.

trespasser

Tana French’s sixth novel, The Trespasser, revisits the burgeoning careers of Dublin Murder Squad Detectives Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran, introduced in The Secret Place. As atmospheric and intricate as French’s past work, this engrossing mystery succeeds in both style and plot. Fans and new readers alike will be captivated.

Conway and Moran are partners now, but they are far from fitting in with the rest of the Murder Squad. The guys–and they are all guys–give Conway more than the usual rookie hazing. In the opening pages, she and Moran are assigned what looks like yet another boring domestic homicide: a beautiful young woman has been killed, apparently in a fit of passion during a romantic dinner at home. A little too perfect, she “looks like Dead Barbie,” and her apartment “like it was bought through some Decorate Your Home app.” But most disturbingly, Conway is sure she’s seen the vic somewhere before. The young detectives may be a little overeager to find links to organized crime or something more involved, but as this case unfolds, the ambitious Moran and much-beleaguered Conway find wider-reaching connections than they’d bargained for. As an added headache, the obnoxious veteran Detective Breslin has been assigned to “assist” Conway, who is ostensibly the lead detective, though Breslin seems to think he can call the shots.

French’s fans will recognize of the hallmarks of her mystery novels: intense interior struggles afflicting the protagonist detective; a potent undercurrent of class tensions; a case that appears to have a mind of its own; a victim whose personality haunts those who are seeking justice. The oppressive mood of the Murder Squad threatens to overwhelm Conway, who’s barely holding it together under the stress of workplace harassment; the incident room she is assigned becomes a character unto itself. The Trespasser is told in Conway’s voice, giving the reader full access to her troubles and offering perhaps a hint of the unreliable narrator to sneak in.

It is a testament to French’s talent that she more than matches her established achievements in characterization, dialogue, atmosphere and detailed setting, while also surprising her reader at every turn. She offers layers of possible betrayal, hypothetical events and convoluted stories, even an upheaval in Conway’s private life that echoes an element of the case at hand. More than 400 pages pass by almost without blinking, as The Trespasser‘s momentum presses forward to a finish that staggers Conway and Moran as much as it does the reader. This is a complex, compulsively readable novel; French keeps getting better and better.


This review originally ran in the August 29, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 stories we tell ourselves.

Among the Wicked by Linda Castillo

A gutsy police chief goes undercover in Amish country, reentering a life she thought she’d left behind.

among the wicked

Linda Castillo’s Among the Wicked continues the serial adventures of a likable detective with an unusual background. Kate Burkholder is chief of police in Painters Mill, Ohio, a community more than half Amish. Her relationship with that faith, which she left as a teen, both pervades and complicates her work. She speaks Pennsylvania Dutch and understands the culture, but many resent her desertion. When a young girl dies under suspicious circumstances in the particularly insular Amish community of Roaring Springs, N.Y., Kate is the obvious choice to go in undercover. Her boyfriend, also a cop, has misgivings, but as her fans know, Kate won’t step down from a challenge–or a chance to help.

To enter this secretive society, which is led by a powerful, charismatic and possibly dangerous man, Kate must assume an identity that closely resembles one she might have lived. She poses as a widow, making new friends as well as new enemies. As she nears the frightening truth of Roaring Springs, Kate’s experience among the Amish drives her to reconsider her decisions regarding the faith.

Romantic developments in Kate’s personal life sweetly offset the disturbing events in this engrossing novel. Castillo’s skills are broad. Despite its deceptively quiet setting in Amish country, Among the Wicked is a high-speed, adrenaline-filled case of terror and intrigue: fast-paced and plot-driven, but with nuanced characters and an eye for detail where many thrillers slack off. This gritty mystery will equally satisfy fans of the Kate Burkholder series and first-time readers.


This review originally ran in the July 19, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 stitches.

Personal by Lee Child (audio)

personalWhat else can I say about Reacher? In some ways, my review of this book is going to say “this is like all the other Reacher books,” but I mean that in the best possible way. He is still a whiz, a he-man, a polymath expert – although I do like the odd bit where he is lacking. For example, we’ve heard before that he’s not a very good driver: it’s not a skill he had much time to develop in his Army-based life. I also found it refreshing that in this installment (minor spoiler here) he does not sleep with any of the beautiful women. I mean, I enjoy those scenes; but it’s more realistic for him to bat less than 1.000, don’t you think?

Briefly: in Personal, Reacher is tracked down by an Army contact to whom he owes a favor. There has been an assassination attempt against the French president, and all the major world powers are pitching in to help solve the crime, because they fear for their own leaders’ safety at an upcoming G8 meeting. The shot was taken so accurately from such a distance that only a few snipers in the world could have done it, making the list of suspects very short. Reacher resists the conclusion, but it does seem likely that an American took the shot – specifically, a man Reacher sent away to prison for 15 years, just 16 years ago. He is paired up with a young woman from the State Department (…or is she?) to investigate, and travels from Seattle to North Carolina to Arkansas to Paris and London, etc. It is, typically, an exciting and blood-splattered storyline, and I loved every minute of it.

I’m not saying much new here – if you know and love Reacher, you’ll be pleased by Personal, another chapter in the longer story and not at all Lee Child’s weakest. Next!


Rating: 7 pills.

Death on the Riviera by John Bude

A quirky cast and scenic setting characterize this long-out-of-print British classic mystery.

death on the riveria

The British Library’s Crime Classics series, with Poisoned Pen Press, presents a mystery that was out of print for decades: Death on the Riviera by John Bude. Originally published in 1952, Bude’s novel benefits from an introduction offering context and a brief biography of the author.

The titular death does not occur until late in the story, which is mostly concerned instead with a counterfeiting ring. Scotland Yard’s Detective Inspector William Meredith and inexperienced Acting-Sergeant Freddy Strang take an alluring trip to the French Riviera to track down an Englishman suspected to be an expert engraver of false bank notes. There they enjoy sunshine, food and drink, and Strang pursues a potential romantic interest. Meredith and Strang contemplate their case aloud, sharing their investigation with distinctive French colleagues like the rotund and self-indulgent, but able, Inspector Blampignon. They’re repeatedly drawn into the household of a complacent, moneyed widow, her estate peopled by eccentric hangers-on: a romantically bohemian artist, a bored niece, a spoiled young playboy and an unwelcome beauty.

Bude employs period-specific usages and references, which add color and amuse. Death on the Riviera is recommended particularly for fans of classic or playful mysteries seeking a nostalgic experience. The mystery itself is less puzzling than its modern counterparts; rather than presenting a true challenge as a whodunit, it gives Meredith and Strang the opportunity to explore an appealing setting and a cast of whimsical characters. Bude offers a funny, light-hearted read, and marks a point in the historical development of the murder mystery.


This review originally ran in the March 11, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 sunny days.
%d bloggers like this: