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.

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!


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!

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.

Never Go Back by Lee Child (audio)

never go backI believe I said earlier that this may be the sexiest Reacher novel yet. Possibly it’s just been a while since I read (or listened to) one, but I still think that may be true. He finds a beautiful woman in just about every book, and I appreciate that Lee Child always makes sure that the woman is intelligent, knows her own mind, and enjoys their relations as much as Reacher does; no bimbos or advantages taken. I’ll just say that this installment in Reacher’s saga is no exception, and leave it at that.

Never Go Back follows on the action of 61 Hours, in which Reacher talks on the phone with his successor, a Major Susan Turner, now the commanding officer with his old military police unit. He liked her voice; and now he’s gone looking for her. He travels by hitch-hike and bus to his former headquarters and approaches his old former office, but behind his old desk is not Major Turner but a man who tells Reacher that Turner took a bribe and is now under arrest. He then promptly recalls Reacher to his old command – back to being a major and serving in the army again! (This was a jaw-drop moment for me.) …and tells him about not one, but two cases being brought against him; thus the recall to service, so that the military can arrest him themselves.

This is how Reacher finds himself in a cell in the same unit as Turner; and if we know Reacher, we know he won’t stay there. He breaks them both out and they set out on the road to prove themselves both respectively innocent. There is a matter of a Los Angeles drug dealer with a 16-year-old head injury; a woman who claims to have known Reacher in Korea, around the same time; a bank account in the Caymans; and rogue military officers with access to every level of security. Reacher has to kick a bunch of butt, and Turner is equally awesome. I don’t know what to say about this book that is necessarily new. In fact, these books are absolutely formulaic – but if you like the formula, they remain pleasing. I like this formula. I don’t like romance novels, so I respectfully hand them over to the readers who like that formula; and we can all be happy. And I should point out that despite the formula (we know Reacher will get the girl; we know he’ll win the fight; we know Right will be restored), there is always suspense: we don’t know how the mystery resolves, necessarily. But we do know how it will end.

I did have some concerns. Reacher has always been interested in numbers and calculations, which is one of those intriguing character traits of his, but also contributes somewhat to his implausibly perfect persona. In this volume I think Child overshoots it considerably: there is a running game being played, both within Reacher’s head and out loud, involving 50/50 chances, coin tosses, equal probabilities one way or the other. But Child has the 50/50 concept badly mixed up with having two options. Just because there are two options – binary – does not mean the chances are equal both ways; I think very few of the 50/50 scenarios Reacher plays with in this book are actually equal probabilities.

But all in all, Never Go Back is more of the same, in the best possible way. I hope Child lives a long, long life and produces another 18 Reacher novels (at least); and I hope Dick Hill sticks around and keeps reading them, too. No other voice could ever be Reacher for me. And there is already another Reacher novel promised for this September!! I am content.

Final conclusion: if you like the Reacher model, you’ll be pleased with this installment.

Rating: 7 cars.

Teaser Tuesdays: Never Go Back by Lee Child

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

never go back

Call me crazy, but I think this might be the sexiest Reacher novel yet. It’s early days, of course; I’ve only just begun. I had a long car trip alone up to a mountain bike race at some of my most favorite trails in Texas, and chose to start this latest Reacher book (narrowly edging out Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, which I think is up next). I am not disappointed. For one thing, I was thrilled to learn early on that Reacher has been recalled – he’s back in the army! This can only mean excitement…

My teaser for today:

Reacher led the way. Sullivan went next. The tall guy brought up the rear. They walked in single file, through the dog-legs, left and then right, to the cell door, which was unlocked and unbolted, because Reacher wasn’t in it. Reacher pulled it open and held it for the others. The tall guy smiled and took the door from him and gestured: after you. He was dumb, but not brain damaged.

Stay tuned; I don’t think this will take me long.

movie: Jack Reacher (2012)

To review: I love Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels (no matter how far-fetched); like many “Reacher Creatures,” I was upset to learn that Tom Cruise would be playing him on the big screen. Where Reacher is something like 6’6″ and a looming giant and blonde, Cruise is short-ish and dark-haired. Plus I don’t really like Tom Cruise all that much. Husband is with me on all counts.

therefore this is a little insulting

therefore this is a little insulting

For these reasons we had made a point of not watching this movie up to now; Husband turned it down as the free movie on an airplane last year. But then came a quiet night at home when his channel-surfing was making my teeth grind, and it was free via some sort of movie-playing widget on the television (this is not my area of expertise), so what the hell.

Jack Reacher is based on the Reacher novel One Shot, set in Philly, in which an ex-army guy named Barr is accused in an apparent open-and-shut case: six shots were fired from a sniper rifle in a parking garage, and five civilians lay dead. Barr won’t speak to the police except to ask for Jack Reacher. Retired army cop Reacher is impossible to find, but lucky for the cops, shows up on his own to look into the case. Teamed up with Barr’s defense attorney – despite being rather convinced of Barr’s guilt himself – Reacher investigates, and finds (naturally) that things are more complex than they appear. In fact, there is a conspiracy, something Reacher’s fans will be familiar with. For that matter, Reacher’s fans will recognize all the elements: intrigue – problems with authority – fistfights and gunfights and ex-military camaraderie – explosive final scenes.

I had few and minor quibbles, and my reading of One Shot was so long ago that I didn’t fuss over digressions from the original plot. And despite a slight antipathy for Tom Cruise, Husband and I were both able to sort of …let that go and get into the movie. In other words, I had some hesitations but ended up enjoying this movie more than expected. Reacher’s pithy wit translated well to the screen, and the suspense and action were there and pretty solid – in spite of a totally ridiculous car chase (I mean REALLY ridiculous. besides which, in the books, Reacher is a self-acknowledged poor driver and rarely does it). I especially appreciated the moment when the Marine recognizes Reacher from his shooting skills, and that scene does come from the book.

Conclusion: I had concerns going in, but I confess I enjoyed this film. Cruise was tolerable; the humor, wit, action and suspense were all there; the plot is not to be argued with (says this Reacher fan). Touche, Tom Cruise.

Rating: 7 shots fired.

A Wanted Man by Lee Child

Jack Reacher’s extraordinary expertise intersects full-speed with the FBI and an unknown threat in rural Nebraska.

A Wanted Man is Lee Child’s 17th novel starring retired military police officer Jack Reacher, who roams the country with a toothbrush in his pocket, defeating bullies, defending the weak, solving problems and charming women. Following on the action of Worth Dying For, Reacher is trying to hitch his way cross-country to find a woman whose voice attracts him from afar. But the driver and passengers in the car that picks him up are not what they seem. Soon, Reacher is pulled into a rural Nebraska murder investigation that somehow draws the interest of the FBI, the CIA and the State Department.

Beautiful and talented women, paramilitary threats, an unidentified murder victim, kidnappings, carjackings and a child at risk allow Child’s hero to shine: Reacher knows to use his brains and investigative skills as well as his brawn and weapons training to overcome the enemy. His skill at arithmetic–what Reacher called in an earlier novel a “junior idiot savant” gift for numbers–is particularly useful here.

A Wanted Man delivers expertly paced building of tension, thrilling, full-throttle action and kick-butt fight scenes, all wrapped in a tautly structured mystery with military flavor and international implications. Fans love Reacher because he’s smart, physically unbeatable and chivalrous, and here they’ll find everything they’ve come to expect. Newcomers will have no problem joining mid-series; as usual, the hardest part is waiting for the next installment.

This review originally ran in the Sept. 18, 2012 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 6 shots fired.

Deep Down by Lee Child

Jack Reacher is back. In this e-book-only short story, he’s back in the army, in his 20’s, making it chronologically one of the very early Reacher tales. He’s been called in from Frankfurt to Washington, D.C., where he’s put undercover as a sniper sitting in on a pre-committee… I know, bear with me… of politicos discussing a possible requisition for sniper rifles. Apparently the prior two meetings of these subcommittee politicos with military representatives have resulted in sensitive weapons information being leaked overseas, and Reacher is to find the leak. His handler in this operation is sure the leak is one of four women, and encourages Reacher to use his woman-wrangling skills as he sees fit. As we watch Reacher getting briefed and prepped in a slightly-too-small suit, we simultaneously see one of the women jogging into work. And the action begins. I’ll leave it at that in case you want to read it yourself.

Reacher fans will be able to predict how things play out. There are a few obligatory features: Reacher seems to read minds; he makes observations the average bear would not, and draws correct conclusions. There is flirtation. There is violence. He gets things right in the end. In these ways, it fits within the other Reacher stories we know and love.

What’s different here, though, is the format – and I don’t mean the e-book part, although I’m still not excited about that aspect either. No, I think I’m coming to the conclusion that short stories do not best showcase Reacher’s abilities. This is the second I’ve read, and The Second Son was interesting for the light it shed on Reacher’s past, brother Joe’s personality, and their relationship. I felt that Deep Down had some shortcomings. A lot of what I love in a full-length Reacher novel is development, the careful playing out of string, the stinginess with which we learn details, the way we get to know our characters better, often the development of a steamy relationship to boot: all things we need a full-length novel to do. While this story had all the elements Reacher needs (as observed), it didn’t give them the space they needed to grow. It didn’t do it for me. Instead, Deep Down read to me like what I fear it is: a hastily-produced holdover for Lee Child’s fans to satisfy themselves with while we await his new novel (A Wanted Man comes out in September). It was fun, and Reacher did kick butt, and it only took me 30 minutes to read – but that’s part of the problem. Only so much plot can come to fruition in a 30-minute read.

That last statement makes me wonder – is this really a problem inherent to the short story? And I don’t think it is. I’ve certainly read some very impressive, moving short stories by my favorite master of that genre, Hemingway. But you know, I don’t read a lot of short stories; I do find it a difficult genre, and I think I’m dissatisfied more often with short stories than I am with novels. New question, then: am I a poor reader of short stories, difficult to please? Or is this a difficult genre to do well in? I suspect the latter (although I’ll allow the former): with less space in which to develop characters and plot, an author has to be very precise and economical. This would help explain why Hemingway was so good at them, precision and economy being his hallmarks. And that author may need to take on less, plot-wise, so that he has time to flesh it out.

I have managed to make a rambling mess of this review. Perhaps I am not so strong on precision and economy, myself? At any rate, I found this a fine but decidedly below-average Reacher story; I am anxious for the next full-length book. Many thanks again to my mother for her loan of the e-reader so I could knock this one out on a lunch break!

Rating: 4 tough guys.

Bad Luck and Trouble by Lee Child

I began reading Lee Child in late 2010, with Echo Burning, and loved him. In 2011, I ran through almost the entire Jack Reacher series. I’m glad I saved this one for 2012, because it’s the last one I hadn’t read yet (not the last in the series, you realize, but the last that I got to). It was a treat, and now I’m left waiting for him to write more books. I’m concerned that it may be a little while because maybe he’ll be busy helping make the One Shot movie. I don’t know, are authors involved, or is his work done?

That’s right, they’re making a movie out of One Shot, and so the controversy begins. Like many Reacher fans, I would love to see film versions of the whole series, but: the Hollywood folks have gone in the wrong direction picking a Reacher. For those who don’t know, Reacher is a charismatic, handsome, intelligent, super-strong post-military man, 6’5″ and about 250 pounds, and blonde. And they’ve chosen Tom Cruise to play him. Sigh.

The interwebs are in uproar over this choice; not surprisingly, followers of Reacher don’t feel that the short, skinny-ish, dark-haired Cruise can play Reacher appropriately. Apparently Lee Child has come to terms with this choice, which is something that I, personally, have not come to terms with yet. I will not be able to bring myself to see this movie. I think the movie – and if it goes that far, the film franchise of Reacher movies – will end up having a different fan base than the books. I fear that no one who has come to know and love the written Reacher will be able to love Cruise in that role.

But! Reacher-in-media updates aside, I was writing a book review. Sorry! Back on track.

Bad Luck and Trouble opens with a gruesome death, and then checks in with Reacher. The former military policeman has been roaming the country with a folding toothbrush in his pocket and is not looking for any trouble, but his past catches up with him. Specifically, Frances Neagley (whom we met in Without Fail) makes contact, requesting his help. A member of their one-time elite and closer-than-blood special investigations unit has been thrown out of a helicopter and, as Reacher will repeat, you don’t throw his friends out of helicopters and get away with it. A small group of Reacher-esque badasses thus reunite to avenge their friend’s death and save the world.

This is the 16th Reacher novel I’ve read, and I confess there are a number of predictable elements. For example: Reacher’s side will win. Sorry if this spoils the ending, but he always does. For another, the hot chick will insist on sleeping with him. And finally, he’ll fade out into the sunset rather than settle down at the end, after winning, and sleeping with the hot chick.

But you know what? Predictability in these areas doesn’t lessen my enjoyment. Reacher’s cleverness and the fast-paced action and ass-kicking have never gotten old. And the action itself is not predictable; I was trying right up to the end to figure out whodunit and how we were going to get out of this pickle. Knowing Reacher will get out of the pickle is not the same as knowing how he’ll do it. I continue to eat these books up, and will continue to do so. Child, more please!

Item of interest: Bad Luck and Trouble included a much more math-heavy side of Reacher than I can remember having seen before. We know he’s good with numbers, does complicated arithmetic problems in his head for fun and all that, but this special skill (I believe he calls it a “junior idiot savant” ability) plays a larger role here than usual, which is fun if you’re into that sort of thing.

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