Night School by Lee Child

My mother also reviewed this novel here. We had similar feelings.

Above-average, even for Reacher. I loved this one. It’s set back in the time when Reacher was still serving as a military police detective – maybe we need more of those; they make up a minority of the canon. Here’s the set-up: fresh off receiving a medal for “the thing in Bosnia,” Reacher is sent back to school for a course in “Impact of Recent Forensic Innovation on Inter-Agency Cooperation.” He finds himself in a room with two guys from the FBI and the CIA, respectively, in similar positions: good competent agents who’d expected better than some bullshit course in cooperation. Luckily it’s not what it seems. Reacher and his counterparts are instead assigned a top-secret mystery involving an unknown American trying to sell something to someone for an unknown reason. They can have anything they need; so Reacher gets Sergeant Frances Neagley, who we know from books like Without Fail and Bad Luck and Trouble (among others). I like her.

The action of Night School takes Reacher and Neagley (and some of his new teammates) to Hamburg, back to Virginia, and back to Hamburg again, where they tangle with some far-right Nazi-types and the mostly pretty good Hamburg police. Plus of course the mystery American and the mystery foreign interest who wants to buy the mystery thing.

I thought this one was excellent fun. I enjoyed seeing Reacher do the kind of mental detective work he excels at (a la Criminal Minds), and I enjoy seeing him still in the Army’s grasp; that system gives him something to push-and-pull with in ways that I think serve the narrative well. There is a little less physical ass-kicking here than in some Reacher novels, and that’s fine with me; that action stuff is fun here and there but it doesn’t make a story the way the mental game does. There’s also a little sex (as usual) but not in a way that takes over the novel, either. And again, I really like Neagley. The mystery itself has elements of unreality, but welcome to Child’s fiction: it’s escapist-realism, not hyperrealism.

Without spoilers, I will say that I often thought this was one of the more cinematic efforts of the series; I especially enjoyed thinking of the final action’s setting onscreen. But as long as they keep Tom Cruise as the big screen’s Reacher, nah.

This is the most enjoyment I’ve gotten out of a Reacher novel in some time. Maybe it just caught me at the right time.


Rating: 8-and-a-half backpacks.

At the Edge of the Haight by Katherine Seligman

In this quietly compassionate novel, a young homeless woman stumbles into a crime scene on the edge of Haight-Ashbury, and eventually reconsiders how she got there.

Katherine Seligman’s gripping debut novel, At the Edge of the Haight, explores a community on the edge of a historic setting and on the edge of getting by, with a compelling protagonist and an array of issues to wrestle.

Twenty-year-old Maddy Donaldo lives in present-day Golden Gate Park, after Jerry Garcia and Janis Joplin are long gone, with a sort of chosen family. There’s Ash, “a skinny upside-down triangle” of a young man, “the most no bullshit guy around” with a talent for effective design of cardboard panhandling signs. Quiet, gentle, strawberry-blond Fleet has a pet rat named Tiny. Spike-haired Hope talks to everyone; she’s good with the tourists, but a bit of an instigator, too. And, most importantly, there’s Root, Maddy’s devoted dog. Together the friends scavenge food, find shelter, protect one another and navigate their tricky streets. It is Root who leads Maddy into the bushes in the first pages of this absorbing novel, where she stumbles upon a young man taking his last breath, and a man standing over him.

Maddy knows immediately that this sight will haunt her, that she is danger. She’s been handed a problem she didn’t earn; quickly the death of the boy named Shane follows her. The cops have questions. A man shows up at the local shelter and identifies himself as Shane’s father and asks for Maddy’s help. She gets to know Shane’s parents, Dave and Marva, and finds her loyalties beginning to split. Dave is a birdwatcher; Maddy observes the creatures, human and nonhuman, who live with her in the park. She investigates Shane’s murder, and along the way alienates her friends and finds herself nudged toward her own past, which she most wants to avoid.

At the Edge of the Haight is told in quiet prose from Maddy’s first-person point of view, so the reader is privy to her thoughts and fears, including an interiority that both protects and isolates her. All other characters are secondary, but this is a novel captivating in both its story and its characters. It is concerned with the social ills of homelessness, including addiction, mental health challenges and economics, without becoming polemic. The mystery of Shane’s death is a side plot, not the central focus; rather, it’s the situation that pressures the tenuous life Maddy has set up in the park. Seligman’s San Francisco is colorful and detailed. Readers are drawn into a challenging world with sympathetic characters, but it is Maddy’s internal turmoil that makes this novel memorable.


This review originally ran in the December 11, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 green apples.

guest review: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke, from Pops

I reviewed the second book in the Ranger Darren Mathews series, Heaven, My Home. Pops is taking us back to the highly-decorated first in that series, Bluebird, Bluebird. He tells me it ends in a classic cliff-hanger.

This is a great, compelling mystery; by a Black author; about a Black Texas Ranger; about mostly Black characters; set in familiar East Texas locations; interwoven with Blues music (songs on Geneva’s jukebox are our playlist, including “Bluebird” by John Lee Hooker, about a man seeking a lost love ‘down south’, alluding to our plot); and with an epigraph from a Lightin’ Hopkins song, “Tom Moore Blues.”

And besides all that, she discreetly includes insightful social commentary about Black roots in the South, White privilege and racism, and the fraught legacy of biracial offspring from conflicted Black-White intimacy. E.g Ranger Darren Mathews’ family is rooted generations-deep in East Texas soil, stolid landowners now become proud and successful patriarchs of a clan determined not to be moved:

It was an arrogance born of genuine fortitude and a streak of hardheadedness six generations deep, a Homeric shield against the petty jealousies and lethal injustices that so occupied white folks’ free time, their oppressive and intrusive gaze into every aspect of black life – from what you eat to who you marry to the clothes you wear to the music you play to the way you wear your hair to how you address them on the street. The Mathews family recognized it for what it was: a fevered obsession that didn’t really have anything to do with them, a preoccupation that weakened a man looking anywhere but at himself.

And: Darren contemplating how to explain to Randie, wife of murder victim Michael Wright, his desire to return home from Chicago.

[Randie:] ‘Michael always wanted to make excuses for these racists down here, had some kind of twisted nostalgia about growing up in the country that made him blind to all the rest of the bullshit down here.’ [Darren:] ‘It’s not making excuses. It’s knowing that I’m here, too. I’m Texas, too. They don’t get to decide what place this is. This is my home, too.’ …this thin slice of the state that had built both of them, Darren and Michael. The red dirt of East Texas ran in both their veins. Darren knew the power of home, knew what it meant to stand on the land where your forefathers had forged your future out of dirt, knew the power of what could be loved up by hand, how a harvest could change a fate. He knew what it felt like to stand on the back porch of his family homestead in Camilla and feel the breath of his ancestors in the trees, feel the power of gratitude in every stray breeze.

And: that troubled sexual intimacy, and even love, amidst entrenched racist culture.

Michael’s and Missy’s murders were race crimes, yes, but that was mainly because of the ways race defined so much about Lark, Texas, especially in terms of love, unexpected, and the family ties it created. [Darren] had forgotten that the most elemental instinct in human nature is not hate but love, the former inextricably linked to the latter. …[These white men’s] lives revolved around the black folks they claimed to hate but couldn’t leave alone.


Rating: 9 blues songs.

I’m not the least bit surprised that this sounds like an incisive novel, with complicated social issues in its heart. What I remember about book two is that the mystery plot is also worthwhile. I’d love to find time for more Attica Locke! Thanks, Pops.

Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood

This classic noir-style mystery recast with humor, female leads and superb style is both satisfying and great fun.

Willowjean Parker (who goes by Will) ran away from home at 15 to join the circus. She’s working on the side, a security job at a construction site–the kind of job women get to do now that “the men who’d usually have taken them were overseas hoping for a shot at Hitler”–when she first meets Lillian Pentecost, the famous lady detective. A few clever deductions and a little knife-throwing skill later, and she finds herself in Ms. Pentecost’s employ, apprentice to the aging lady detective. Stephen Spotswood’s first novel, Fortune Favors the Dead, sparkles with the wit and personality of this bold, unconventional heroine. Will may revere her boss, but readers know that it’s the intrepid younger woman who stars.

In Will’s delightful first-person telling, peppered with vernacular asides, the two women initially clash in a violent midnight action sequence worthy of the kind of pulp novel Will so loves. She now relates this and other stories from a distance of some years, confiding in her readers the difficulties of choosing what to include. The major case she highlights is that of the Collins family: the patriarch dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound, matriarch bludgeoned with a crystal ball following a séance–in a locked room–leaving twins Randolph and Rebecca to tease and manipulate their hired detectives, Ms. Pentecost and Will. The twins’ godfather is now acting CEO of Collins Steelworks; his loyalties are unclear. And the medium and “spiritual advisor” whose crystal ball became a murder weapon is another wild card: she seems to have unusual power to intimidate Ms. Pentecost, which unnerves Will entirely.

This mystery plot has all the twists and surprises a fan of the genre could ask for, but it is Will’s distinctive, captivating voice and background–from difficult childhood to the circus to lady detective–that is Spotswood’s real triumph. Fortune Favors the Dead resets classic noir elements (smoky nightclubs, femmes fatale, unexplained midnight gunshots) in 1940s New York City as experienced by women who like women and men who like men, as Will discreetly frequents a slightly different kind of nightclub, and no one is precisely who they seem. Ms. Pentecost’s expertise and no-nonsense attitude are appealing and entertaining, but gutsy Will, with her snappy, slangy narrative style, ultimately wins readers’ hearts and carries the day.


This review originally ran in the October 2, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pockets.

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

On South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, local enforcer Virgil Wounded Horse is faced with a challenging and personal case.


David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s first novel, Winter Counts, is a gripping story of crime investigation set on the Lakota Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Virgil Wounded Horse is cynical. He can’t imagine not living on the rez, but he’s more than skeptical of Indian spirituality and ritual, and doesn’t feel very connected to his people; his memories of being bullied in school are too fresh. Now that both his parents and his sister are dead, he doesn’t have much family to feel loyal to–but he is devoted to his orphaned nephew, Nathan, now a teenager who shares his home.

Virgil makes his living as a private enforcer. Tribal police have very limited powers, and the feds don’t bother with much on the reservation short of murder, so the Lakota often resort to hiring someone like Virgil to deliver vigilante justice. Now he gets to beat up his former bullies, and earn a few bucks doing so. It’s not necessarily work to take pride in, though, especially in the eyes of his ex-girlfriend’s politically powerful family. So Virgil is surprised when her father, a tribal council member, asks for his help. And he’s even more surprised when the case brings Marie back into his life.

It seems a local small-time pot dealer might be moving up into dealing heroin on the reservation. And when Nathan accidentally overdoses, it all becomes very real, with high stakes. Virgil will end up traveling all over the rez and down to Denver to try to track this latest crime wave. The scope of the case quickly grows beyond this private enforcer’s comfort zone, and he has a renewed romance to manage, while trying to keep Nathan safe at the same time. Out-of-town gangs, heavy hitters and hard drugs challenge Virgil’s skills. To keep all these threads together, he may need to reconnect with his Native roots, after all.

While Weiden’s prose is serviceable, his sympathetic characters and gripping plot keep readers engaged. Action and suspense are special strengths, and Weiden, himself a member of the Lakota nation, brings valuable perspective to the lives and experiences of his characters. The setting of Winter Counts offers an important and overlooked glimpse at the particular challenges faced by Native Americans, especially concerning crime and justice. But make no mistake: at the heart of this crime novel is a fight for the future of Rosebud Reservation and the lives of Virgil, Nathan, Marie and many more for whom this place is home. Tightly paced, compelling, realistic and deeply felt, Winter Counts offers a fresh take on the crime thriller.


This review originally ran in the July 30, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 glasses of Shasta.

Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke (audio)

Housekeeping note: I expect this will be my last Wednesday post of the season, if not the year. I am heading into a fall semester that I expect will be especially stressful, so I’ll return to a twice-weekly format, posting on Mondays and Fridays. Thanks for reading, friends!


This is just the third in the Dave Robicheaux series, dating back to 1989. I’ve been following Burke’s Robicheaux for decades (perhaps not back to 1989, when I was 7 years old). While this one showed some of the qualities I love about the series, I’m not sure it’s aged well in some ways. Or (as usual) maybe that’s me, the reader, needing something different at this time. It’d be interested to check in with a more recent book in the series – there are now 23 – and see how I react.

Dave Robicheaux runs a bait shop in New Iberia, Louisiana. He’s retired from both the New Orleans Police Department and from New Iberia’s; his wife Molly is recently dead, murdered in their bed; his adopted daughter Alafair (a refugee orphan from El Salvador) is a new member of the household. His old college roommate Dixie Lee turns up, mostly drunk and high and talking about overheard conversations about hiding bodies. Dave is haunted by Molly’s ghost and his father’s, and his own sobriety, held carefully at bay by AA meetings. But he can’t resist looking into Dixie Lee’s accusations, which overlap with Dave’s own past entanglements with a certain oil company. Facing murder charges thanks to a frame, Dave takes Alafair and travels up to Montana to track this mystery, getting involved with both the Mafia and the Blackfeet tribe, and plenty of unsavory characters. (Including Clete Purcell, who I’m always glad to see.)

Among the things I appreciate about the Robicheaux books is Burke’s evocative descriptions of the natural landscapes, showcased by landscapes like New Iberia and Montana (the two classic Burke settings). I’ve always found these books to lie at the literary end of the mystery genre’s spectrum; pacing is often sedate, in favor of evocation and atmosphere, and you might say, at the expense of a snappy plot. Dave’s wrestling with his demons (plenty of them internal, without considering his external enemies) treads a fine line between noir moodiness, and tiresome wallowing. He’s a certain kind of classic detective protagonist, like Connelly’s Harry Bosch: self-destructive, deeply antagonistic toward authority, violent, introspective, iconoclastic. Perhaps I am beginning to turn away from this type, as a reader, especially when they have physically satisfying but emotionally problematic sex with younger women.

The mystery plot of this book took far too long to resolve, for me. It was more enjoyable as lovely writing and studies on character and setting. Possibly the audio format was the wrong choice here, because it tends to take me longer than reading. I’m not sure how much of my trouble with this book was about me the reader, and I’m reluctant to criticize Burke, who I have long appreciated, but all I can report on is my own experience. Again, I wonder if this read better in 1989. I did catch one statement about race that I found problematic (to be fair, expressed by the character Robicheaux rather than the author Burke, but still to be considered). Next time I return to this series, I’ll look for a recent installment for comparison.

This audio performance by Mark Hammer is notable for its variety of accents, a different voice for each character. But I feel it contributed to the stately pace, too.

One thing that has not changed: there is no messing with Burke’s sentence-level writing about place. Here’s one sample from each setting.

The sun was above the oaks on Bayou Teche now, but in the deep, early morning shadows the mist still hung like clouds of smoke among the cattails and damp tree trunks. It was only March, but spring was roaring into southern Louisiana, as it always does after the long gray rains of February. Along East Main in New Iberia the yards were filled with blooming azalea, roses, and yellow and red hibiscus, and the trellises and gazebos were covered with trumpet vine and clumps of purple wisteria.

In the Jocko Valley I watched a rain shower move out from between two tall white peaks in the Mission Mountains, then spread across the sky, darken the sun, and march across the meadows, the clumped herds of Angus, the red barns and log ranch houses and clapboard cottages, the poplar windbreaks, the willow-lined river itself, and finally the smooth green hills that rose into another mountain range on the opposite side of the valley. Splinters of lightning danced on the ridges, and the sky above the timberline roiled with torn black clouds. Then I drove over the tip of the valley and out of the rain and into the sunshine on the Clark Fork as though I had slipped from one piece of geographical climate into another.

As for the rest, your mileage may vary, as always.


Rating: 6 ice cream cones.

The Trespasser by Tana French (audio)

The Trespasser is the sixth book in Tana French’s ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ series, starring Antoinette Conway and her partner Steve Moran. Conway is chafing at her mistreatment by the rest of the murder squad, the good old boys’ club that hates her (she interprets) for being a woman, for having brown skin, for not playing their games. Moran’s all right, a good partner, and more or less loyal – she brought him into the squad, after all – but she has trouble trusting him entirely. It’s just a part of her personality, and/or, a result of the continuing abuse and harassment she experiences.

They work the night shift, and keep getting assigned low-level domestics and bar fights. Until Aislinn Murray: a Dream Date Barbie-type in a magazine-perfect flat, with a shadowy past. The squad pushes Conway and Moran to settle this one quickly, by charging the obvious suspect: a new boyfriend who had a date with Aislinn the night she died. But the two young detectives have some more complicated theories in mind. The Trespasser is part “straight” murder mystery, as they race to solve Aislinn’s murder, but it’s also part murder-squad intrigue, and a hefty part psychological drama: Conway has some formidable strengths, but it seems one of her greatest weaknesses is a certain suspicion, not to say paranoia, that makes it hard for her to trust Moran or anyone. In Tana French’s signature style, much of the turmoil of the story takes place not in exterior action but inside Conway’s head, as she argues with herself about what she can believe in.

In the middle, this one got a bit slow for me, and like The Witch Elm could have used some acceleration; but by the end, it zipped along as cracklingly as the best of French’s work. I still hold The Likeness to be her finest, but this one is solid.

And then, holy smokes, talk about amnesia. I just searched this blog for previous Tana French reviews and found that I’d read this one shortly before its 2016 publication. I can’t believe it – not for a moment did it feel familiar. I’m losing my mind. Previous review here, and I’m keeping the rating. This reading seems a bit different from that first experience in that I detected a slow-down in the middle; also, reading vs. listening makes a big difference with French’s atmospheric, heavily Irish stories. I love hearing them done aloud with the accents and the musical lilt and pacing, and wouldn’t want to consider reading them if I had the audio version available!

I can’t believe I forgot this book.


Rating: 8 schemes.

No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Short Stories by Lee Child

All the Reacher short stories! I thought I could take this one in chunks, but no: I stayed up later than I should have to rush through the whole thing, as per usual. I loved it.

I’d read “Second Son” before, but I was glad at another chance. It’s definitely one of those that requires a suspension of disbelief, as Reacher at (I think) thirteen is just a slightly smaller version of himself: badass, a fighter, and very clever. He solves two mysteries for the MPs, which seems a bit unrealistic, although also an excellent backstory for a later MP.

I’d also read “Small Wars,” but I doubted my memory of the ending, which made it fun again. There is an element almost of a Poirot-style detective in Reacher’s intuition, his ability to take scattered facts and build a whole story out of them.

Some of these stories star Reacher in adulthood, in his post-military rambling stage, which is when most of the novels are also set, and some see him still in the Army. But we also have several instances of teenaged Reacher. These are fun for me, although they make that mistake, as mentioned above, of treating younger Reacher as a miniature (still very large) version of adult Reacher. Whatever; it’s a departure from realism, but the Reacher corpus is not about hyper-realism. “Everyone Talks” is told from the first-person perspective of a character who’s not Reacher, and according to my memory, that’s unique. I appreciated the variety, being a bit outside his own perspective. By contrast with longer stories of 40+ pages (“High Heat” runs over 70), some of these stories are very short, almost vignettes, and might serve as character studies of Reacher himself: what does a guy like this do in a particular situation, that sort of thing. He’s a problem solver, he’s a hero, he’s an eccentric, he does the right thing. He’s a romantic, and a sexual creature, and he uses his fists, but with a code.

As a collection, I think No Middle Name is an excellent addition to the Reacher world, satisfying fans’ desires both for plot, storytelling, and action, and the Reacher character himself. (Also the odd romance or sex, which I think is a well-established if secondary element.) Longer, more involved stories come earlier in the collection; it wraps with several shorter ones. The final story, “The Picture of the Lonely Diner” (reference to the Hopper painting), felt like the perfect closer. Again, I thought short stories might help me take smaller sips of the fiction I love, but I ended up binging as usual, so consider that a warning of sorts. Possibly a good entry point for a curious reader. Certainly, a great read for the established fan.


Rating: 8 lines of adult dialog.

Past Tense by Lee Child

I was having a bad day and hit a couple of not-great books in a row, so I checked this one out from my local library and sat back. It’s a wonderful system, to get that ebook on my Kindle in minutes. Fixed my day right up.

Even a mediocre Reacher novel is a fun time, but this is one of the better ones: a real joy ride. Past Tense sees Reacher leaving Maine and aiming for San Diego, more or less, as winter approaches. Why not the beach and some warm weather? But of course he doesn’t make it that far. Instead he takes a spontaneous turn toward Laconia, New Hampshire, because he knows that name: it’s where his father is from. Stan Reacher, who never talked much about his past, whose origins Reacher has never visited before. So why not? And when he gets to Laconia and goes looking for the old homestead – property records and all – thinking he’ll cruise by and see it from the curb at least – the records are dodgy. Where did Stan Reacher hail from, really, exactly?

Also, being Reacher, he gets himself into a scuffle or two right off the bat. First, he’s awakened at 3 a.m. by a cocktail waitress being assaulted in an alley, which he fixes for her, with the result that some people come looking for revenge. Secondly – but that’s a longer story. There’s also a parallel storyline going on with some unrelated characters off in the nearby woods.

This novel (the 29th published, called #23 in the series) has everything I love about a Reacher thriller: hand-to-hand combat, with clever internal monologue; intrigue and fast guesses; front of brain versus back of brain; some great Reacher family history; fascinating twists and surprises; and for a refreshing change, romance that isn’t just about a thin, hot, young woman having sex with our favorite hero. The collision of the two storylines is pretty neat, too. I like that I can see it coming but not precisely how it’ll come. I loved the ending. This is classic stuff here, Lee Child more or less at his best. On the one hand, I can see the caricature pretty clearly at this point – I don’t know if Child’s writing has gotten more over-the-top or if it’s just my having read a few dozen of them. I don’t really mind, but it does require some suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, I am always pleased when a mystery/thriller (especially from an author I know so well) can surprise me, and this one did.

I’m still a huge fan.


Rating: 8 quad-bikes.

The Midnight Line by Lee Child

I read these nearly 400 pages in a single sitting, because that’s how compelling I continue to find Jack Reacher.

At the conclusion of another brief love affair, Reacher takes a bus out of Milwaukee, and gets out to stretch his legs at a comfort stop in a small Wisconsin town. In the window of a pawn shop, he spots a West Point class ring from 2005. It’s tiny; its owner must have been female, and small. He’s bothered: graduating West Point, as a diminutive woman, in 2005 – and whatever might have come afterward in Iraq or Afghanistan – would have been hard, meaningful. She shouldn’t have pawned her ring. Being Reacher, he doesn’t get back on his bus, but instead follows the ring’s tracks backward, through South Dakota into Wyoming.

He liked Wyoming. For its heroic geography, and its heroic climate. And its emptiness. It was the size of the United Kingdom, but it had fewer people in it than Louisville, Kentucky. The Census Bureau called most of it uninhabited. What people there were tended to be straightforward and pleasant. They were happy to leave a person alone.

Reacher country.

Being Reacher, again, he gets into scuffles along the way – in Wisconsin, in South Dakota, in Wyoming – and makes alliances: a retired FBI agent turned PI; a wealthy young woman with a mystery to solve. This installment in the series is satisfying in some of the usual ways. There are brawls and matches of wits, random trivia and landscapes and local color. There is rather less sex than in some Reacher novels (but not none). That last I didn’t mind; I was getting a little sick of Reacher getting laid in the same fashion and with the same type of woman over and over. I’d encourage Lee Child to keep exploring Reacher’s options in this regard. (Although now I have to lobby someone different, don’t I. Fingers crossed for the new guard.) And this time, there are cowboys. Mostly the retired, drug-addicted kind.

I found everything I wanted in this read, which was escapism; action; and the comfort of returning to an old favorite. I’m glad there are still a handful of Reacher books left (written by Child alone) for me to snuggle into.


Rating: 7 hikes uphill.
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