Fan Review: The Driver (No spoilers)

(Blog housekeeping: In a perfect world, where I had unlimited time and no need to sleep, I’d blog about every book I finish, every show I enjoy, every film I go see, and then, when bored, would make random observations about fandoms. Since we’re stuck with this world, but I do want to keep the blog going, I’ll be posting occasionally about…whatever catches my fancy. Read at your own risk.)

For many years now, the books I’ve looked forward to the most were the next installment in JD Robb’s In Death series, but that’s not quite been true in 2017. Since its upcoming publication was announced last fall, The Driver, by Bones showrunner Hart Hanson, has been the book I was most eagerly anticipating.

This is not solely due to Bones, but rather because I loved Backstrom and The Finder, and, for that matter, the Stargate SG:1 season one episode “The Nox,” which was also written by Hart way back in 1997-98.

Stories, regardless of medium, are about three things for me: tone, characters I can connect with, and relationships:

  • Tone: A mix of drama and humor works best. The humor doesn’t have to be over the top (lighter moments of comic relief are fine) and the drama can be anywhere on the spectrum, but for me to truly enjoy something, I need both.
  • Characters: Likable but flawed. There’s a continuum here, too, in that I don’t mind characters who are new to their journey of being their best selves as long as we see that potential early on. (I saw it with Backstrom, others apparently didn’t.)
  • Relationships: Those characters have to care about other people and/or have other people who care about them, or be working toward that.  Complicated is fine, new is fine, biological, non-biological, romantic, platonic…it’s all good, as long as it’s there.

In other words, Hart’s shows have always given me everything I enjoy the most in stories, so I was definitely looking forward to his first novel. This is particularly true given that as a rule, I prefer novels to film, anyway.

(One thing I find fascinating is that while I like his stories, quite often the shows and books Hart enjoys (based on comments on Twitter), don’t work for me.  I find this a bit baffling.)

Anyway, getting back to The Driver...having anticipated the book for months, I was not disappointed.

Michael Skellig is a wise-cracking vet/limo driver who hires other vets (and his former Afghan interpreter) for his limo company. Broken in different ways and to various degrees, they’re His People, and that alone is enough to have me falling a little bit in love with him.

And if that weren’t enough, Skellig speaks Snark – my native language – fluently. Seriously, how can I not love that?

Another thing that worked particularly well for me is that the book is written in first person, but not in a style I’m used to.  Last weekend, I finished the latest in a long-running cozy mystery series, and was thinking that first person should be the most intimate voice to read, because – in theory – it’s as if the main character is sitting next to you, telling you a story. Authors seldom seem to capitalize on that, though (or maybe I’m just reading the wrong first person stories) but Hart does, and I was delighted by Skellig’s asides. I have a friend who avoids first person altogether, so I can imagine readers who wouldn’t enjoy it, but for me, those comments upped my investment in what was going on even more.

For me, books fall into four categories: “Can’t put it down,” “I’m taking my time finishing it,” “Maybe I’ll get back to it some day,” and “I’m not going to make it to chapter four.” I finished The Driver in two days, while navigating a fairly complicated week on both the work front and the home front. (Who needs sleep? Seriously? Who needs it?) I was going to say that I’d read the sequel right now if it was available, but I’m afraid of jinxing things, so…I’m totally not saying that. Nope, not me. (Offers up a lament for stories that should have continued and didn’t.)

(Oh, and Bones fans? There’s a quote in there that’s nearly word for word something one of the main characters said on the show in season nine. Did you catch it?)

 

 

 

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Fan Review: The Iron Druid Chronicles

I have a happy place, a place of peace, and rest, and good food, and great stories. No, it’s not Rivendell (though seriously, it sort of is, in my head.) Rather, it’s where my BFF lives, now two hundred-odd-miles from me. Close enough that I get there a few times a year, too far for it to happen as often as I’d like.

When I’m there, we talk (and talk, and talk…) and then watch stuff, and make and eat good food (well, generally, they make it and I help eat it) and when we’re tired of talking and eating and watching, we retreat for a while to our own devices because we’re all introverts.

This is what heaven on earth looks like for me.

Anyway, I was there a while back, and my godson was reading one of the Iron Druid Chronicles, an urban fantasy series by Kevin Hearne. My BFF had mentioned them to me a couple of times – enough that it registered on my mental “list of books people are talking about.” But that’s a big list.

So we were sitting there in one of our quiet moments – all of us reading, writing, or – in my friend’s case, knitting (I have eight thumbs) – and my godson chuckled.

A little while later, he laughed.

I read the occasional urban fantasy (well, to be fair, I read about everything occasionally, save horror) and one of my favorite things is humor in unexpected places, so the following week, I checked the first one out of the library.

I fell in love.

When I say ‘humor in unexpected places,’ what I mean is that I don’t like comedy. I can’t tell you the last time I went to see a funny movie, and there’s only one sitcom I’ll even occasionally watch, but at the same time, I don’t like straight drama, either. I think it’s because in real life, I’ve seen people cope with truly horrible things with humor, so it makes sense to me that the best fiction, or at least the truest fiction, would be the same way.

At the time, there were seven novels and assorted short stories in the series, and I read them all in a manner of weeks. I’d planned to do this review then, and got distracted, because at times, I have the attention span of- “SQUIRREL!”

Ahem. Anyway, my goal here is to do a non-spoilery overview of what I love about these books rather than the kind of review I usually do – though I might yet do one of those, too, for the eighth book in the series, which I just finished.

The titular character of the series is Atticus O’Sullivan, the last of the Druids.  When we first meet him, he’s running a bookshop, hanging out with his best friend – an Irish Wolfhound named Oberon – and trying to avoid the Celtic god who’d like to make him the final Druid.

The god finds him, and mayhem ensues. And then completely reasonable-at-the-time choices Atticus makes in that book lead to more mayhem in the following installments.

It’s all good stuff, but in broad strokes, here are three reasons for their appeal to me:

Mix of drama and humor:

Yeah, yeah, I already mentioned this, but it’s worth expanding upon.  The humor isn’t of the slapstick kind, which is so un-funny to me that I can’t even think of any examples, but rather, humorous ways of looking at the world. Much of this comes via Oberon, whose thoughts we’re privy to due to his bond with Atticus; some of it comes via the pop culture references, which are mostly scifi/fantasy/gaming based. I’m not a gamer, but the Tolkien, Star Wars, and Star Trek tributes crack me up. (If there’s a scifi or fantasy franchise not yet mined for humor in these books, I don’t know what they are.)

But…there’s drama, too. People die. Characters we come to care about don’t always survive, which leads to the next thing I like:

The conflict works:

By conflict, I mean the tension that drives the plot.  I realized a long time ago that if a story doesn’t work for me, it’s nearly always because the conflict – whatever problem the protagonist is facing – feels contrived, or dumb, or illogical.

A number of years ago, I took an online writing class where the instructor said some version of this: “Things need to get progressively worse for your hero. Much worse. Make your reader frantic. Is your hero running from bad guys through a field? Have him realize he’s also being chased by wolves. Then have him run up a tree for refuge, only to discover there’s a bear above him, snarling. And just when he thinks things can’t possibly get any worse, have lightning set the tree on fire.”

No. No, no, and no.

The problem isn’t that things are getting progressively worse – that’s good drama. The issue is when the writer seems to have taken that same plotting seminar (and I’ve seen versions of it all over the place) and thinks that throwing one disaster after another at the protagonist is the way to tell a good story.  If you like that kind of thing, either as a reader or a writer, more power to you; it’s the fastest way to get me to chuck the book through the nearest window.

Hearne doesn’t do that. Things get worse for logical, character-based reasons. Atticus tries to do the right thing, and it turns out to be the dead wrong thing, for reasons he couldn’t foresee. Or he chooses the least-disastrous option of three bad choices, lives to fight another day…and then the consequences for that against-the-wall choice turn out to be worse than he could have imagined.

There’s never a point when I’m annoyed because I can so clearly see another choice, one that won’t obviously have dire consequences down the road. The closest we get to that is when he chooses to keep his word even when a lot of very wise people are saying, ‘bad idea. Really, really a bad idea.’ Only…I like that keeping his word matters that much to him. Conundrum!

Appealing, imperfect characters:

And that brings me to the final reason these books are now must-buys (rather than must-borrows): the characters are likable despite their flaws. Atticus is wise and good-hearted, but capable of making bad decisions he then has to live with. As the series goes on, other people come into his life, people just as interesting in their own right. They, too, are making choices which may or may not work out, and the result is that while the most recent book (“Staked“) seems to have wrapped up some significant story lines, it’s not hard to see plenty of places for the next one – and there had better be a next one, because I’m not done with this crew yet – to go.

The Iron Druid Chronicles are by Kevin Hearne. The first book in the series is Hounded; there are currently eight novels and some novellas available.

Fan Review: Devoted in Death (In Death #41)

If I had to sum up the essence of the series for myself, it would be that love is complicated and damage is permanent. And that while love may not conquer all, it is still our saving grace. (Mary T. Wagner)

Mary Wagner said that about Bones in her blog a few days ago, and I loved it – it might be my favorite description of the show, ever.

But while reading Devoted in Death, the 41st entry in the In Death series by JD Robb, I kept thinking about how true it is of Eve and Roarke as well.  Eve still has nightmares; she still thinks of her mother when confronted with another woman’s contempt for her own child. The damage is permanent – Eve will never not be the eight year old victim in Dallas.

And yet…love has saved her, and allowed her to have a rich, full life, even while she remains dedicated to finding justice for the dead. The nightmares no longer wake her screaming, and instead of being disabled by the memories of her mother, even temporarily, she uses her experiences to gain insight into a killer.

On the surface, this volume in the series felt pretty low-key in a number of ways. There’s no big Eve and Roarke story here; nothing intense going on for Peabody. Instead, the drama is driven by the case, particularly the concern for the kidnapped victims, with subplots involving the more minor characters (Santiago and Carmichael’s adventures as NYPSD West, Trueheart’s detective exam, the visiting Deputy Banner.)

And, yet…and yet.

Eve and Roarke, and their relationship, are actually dead center here.

I think it’s possible, as long time fans of the series, to take their love for granted, because, well, duh. Eve and Roarke. But in this one, all the way through, it serves as a counterpoint and context to the demented, destructive love of Ella-Loo and Darryl.

At one point, Eve notes that Ella-Loo always had the makings of a serial killer inside her, and that, sooner or later, that would have come out. But Darryl unleashed it in her, sooner rather than later.

By contrast, Eve and Roarke bring out the best in each other, something no less true for being a cliche. We see it in every book, of course, but here, it’s the focus. It’s subtle, since we expect to see it, but it makes for a powerful contrast to the killers.

Eve has acknowledged before that without Roarke, she would have burned out on cop work, would have hit a point  where she could no longer face the victims and violence, and that, not being able to do what she’s driven to do, would have been the end of her.

But Roarke has done more than simply save her from that – she’s a better cop because of him. He’s a sounding board when she needs to talk through the case and a source of respite when she needs a break from it, even if only for an hour.

Two moments in particular strike me as showing the contrast between the two couples the strongest. The first is this one:

“Would you kill for me?”
“I would, yes, of course.”
“Jesus, don’t say it without even a second’s thought.”
“I don’t need a second’s thought. Consider who we are, Eve. We’re both capable of killing, and have done so. But there’s …criteria. Would I kill to protect you, to save your life, to save you from harm? Without hesitation. Would I kill because you said, Do me a favor, I’d like this person dead? I don’t have to give it a second thought as you’d never say that, want that, ask that.”
“If I did.”
“I think we’d have to have quite a conversation.”

We know even before the conversation starts what he’ll say, that of course he’d kill to protect her. It’s the rest of the conversation, set against the backdrop of Ella-Loo and Darryl, that’s revealing, both in his certainty that she’d never ask him to kill for any lesser reason, and that he trusts her enough not to give a flat no, even when she pushes it. That fascinates me.

The second moment is at the end, when Peabody gives them a bit of time because she knows Eve needs Roarke, needs a moment with him to steady herself.  This, knowing how to turn to someone else for strength to face the world’s ugliness, is what love truly is, and I particularly enjoyed that Eve didn’t hesitate. In the past, she’s resisted turning to him when other cops are around, I think out of a fear of being perceived as weak by her men. And now, I think she’s beginning to accept the degree to which she’s a stronger cop, a better cop, because of him.

Part of the focus on Eve and Roarke’s relationship comes through the eyes of the visiting deputy, Banner.  I liked him very much, and hope we meet him again at some point. But much of why I enjoyed his story so much is his outsider’s view, not only of Eve and Roarke, but of their world.

Often, other cops we meet are antagonists to some degree – someone who’s opposing Eve, or complicating her investigation, and when they’re not that, they’re nearly always minor characters – cops she reaches out to in other states, before moving on based on whatever they’ve given her.  Banner breaks that pattern, in an interesting, creative way. Out in the land of the cows, there are cops just as obsessed dedicated to the truth as Eve is, and meeting one of them was fun.

My favorite non-Eve and Roarke scene was between Eve and Feeney, when she gives him the gift of the magic coat. The fact that they’re awkward with their deep affection for each other is part of the charm, and that’s never more so than here, when the queen of awkward-gift-giving gives a phenomenal gift to the man who is her father in every true sense of the word. A bonus to the scene was McNab’s for-her-ears only comment about how much the coat would mean to his mentor.

The balance of humor and drama felt spot-on in this one, despite the body count and the torture the victims were experiencing.  Eve’s bafflement over time zones, the snarky comments about winter drivers (and drivers in general) …such bits serve as necessary breaks from the horror of the plot.

I started a different book last night, the first in another long running suspense series, and, three chapters into it, I can feel the utter grimness taking a toll on me. There’s not been one even mildly lighter comment, and everyone the main character works with is a source of conflict and tension.  I’ll give it a couple of more chapters, but my hope is waning that it might be another go-to series.  I get why such stories are popular, with the constant escalation of problems on all fronts, but they exhaust and depress me. I need the lighter moments, the comic relief, which is often the truest reminder of what the characters are fighting for.

Robb has never failed me on that balance of laughter and tears, which is why I’ve already bought the next two entries in the series.

The next In Death story is a novella in the Down the Rabbit Hole anthology due out on Tuesday, September 29th.

Bonus Quotes:

A thin snow started to spit out of grumpy gray skies. Which meant, Eve knew, that at least fifty percent of the drivers currently on the road would lose a minimum of one-third of their intelligence quota.

***

“New Mexico.”
“Why did those map people, or state-naming people go with so many New Wherevers?”
“So speaks the New Yorker.”
“Question still holds. If they were so attached to the Mexico or the Hampshire or the York, why didn’t they just stay there? Anyway, about there, or that part of Texas or Oklahoma. That gets a higher bump from me, and so does the first possibility. Up from southeast Texas, hit Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas. And why is S-A-S pronounced S-A-W? It should be Ar-Kansas. Did Kansas object?”
Oddly enough, Roarke found the question perfectly just. “I can’t tell you.”  (Eve and Roarke discuss state names while tracking the possible route of the killers.)

***

“You are love to me. You are love.” (Eve, to Roarke)

***

“My one thing I wanted long before I knew to want her.” (Roarke, to Eve)

***

“Driving in this city’s crazy, and everybody doing it always seems more than a little pissed off.”  (Banner, about NYC traffic)

***

“Peabody knew you could do with a bit of alone with me. Use it.” (Roarke, to Eve, after the arrest)

***

“Whatever came before, whatever comes after, I know what love is because of you.” (Eve, to Roarke)

 

Fan Review: Obsession in Death

(There be mild spoilers here.)

Forty. Four-zero.

That’s the number of full-length novels Nora Roberts (aka JD Robb) has written centering around the character of Eve Dallas, her husband Roarke, and their ever-expanding made-from-scratch family.

That’s an impressive feat. But what makes it astonishing is that the books continue to land on the bestseller lists, every single time – and to keep me up late reading them on the day they come out, more often than not.

There are a number of reasons for that, and all of them are on display in this latest outing, which is why I cooked supper on Tuesday night with a spoon in one hand and my Kindle in the other: I couldn’t put it down.

Having finished my re-read now, here are four of those reasons and why, forty in, they never feel stale or repetitive to me:

Lack of Predictability:

The cases vary, from the classics (greed, revenge) to psychopaths, from a single victim, to hundreds (two of the books have dealt with terrorism); from powerful and important victims, to those on the lowest rungs of society’s ladder – all of whom matter equally to Eve.

The lack of predictability continues with the characters themselves. That’s an odd thing to say, since part of the point of a continuing series is that we know these people, know who they are, how they respond to things. And yet, in the real world, humans aren’t completely predictable, particularly as they change and grow – and neither are the best-written fictional people. (Which is another reason I get impatient with fan cries of ‘out of character,’ but that’s a different post.)

Case in point: knowing from the description of this one that it would involve an obsessed fan killing for Eve, I assumed she would be desperate to protect those around her by re-focusing the killer on herself. And I was right on that point.

But I assumed a by-product of that would be a fight, or at least tension, with Roarke, unhappy with the idea of her as a target, a theme they’ve explored before. And here, I was wrong, in part because he understood Eve was already in danger, and in part because he gets her  – both in her ability to take care of herself, and her need to protect.

I love being both right and wrong, love knowing these two well enough to know how they’ll feel, but not necessarily how they’ll respond – and yet to find that their reactions make perfect sense for who they are.

Family:

When the series began, Eve had two people in her life who mattered: Feeney, her former partner and stand-in father, and Mavis, the wild child former con who’s her best friend. And now? She has an extended, often unwieldy family, comprised of everyone from her partner, to a crime beat reporter, to the chief medical examiner, to the cops in her squad.

Not every character appears in every book, and several are referenced in this one without making an appearance. But the fact that they exist, are part of Eve’s life and growth, is one of the reasons for the success of the series, I believe. When new characters are introduced, people who influence or challenge Eve (or Eve and Roarke) in new ways, it allows the story to go in different directions.

This is not the first installment in the series to look at that family as whole, nor what it means to Eve. But it showcases certain relationships in a way we’ve never seen before:

It’s been clear since the beginning that Feeney is Eve’s father in every sense of the word, but here, we have this exchange, where ‘Dad’ pulls rank – literally – and she responds the way any kid does, no matter their age or maturity:

“People kill for any damn reason, Dallas. Who knows that better than you and me? Sit down.”
“I’ve got to-”
“Sit. I still outrank you.”
“Ah, hell.” She sat, sulked.

He then grills her about encounters she may have had and misunderstood, in a way that few others could.  There’s a similar encounter with Mira – her de facto mother – and I love seeing both her ‘parents’ responding that way.

There’s a dynamic that exists between good parents and their adult kids, one where the parents respect their kids’ maturity – while maintaining the right to play the mom or dad trump card: Sit down, shut up, and listen, because I love you, and still have some years of wisdom on you.

That they respect Eve as an adult and a cop is never in question, but the love they have for her as a adoptive daughter gives them rights no one else has.

Another relationship that’s emphasized in this one is that of Eve with the men and women who make up the Homicide division she leads. Over the course of the series, we’ve come to know some of them pretty well, particularly Baxter and Trueheart, but here, we see all of them highlighted in different ways, especially Reineke, who not only is instrumental to saving them all, but who verbalizes what they are to one another:

Eve got to her feet, turned first to Reineke. “Nice shot, Detective.”
“Nice jump, boss. Ah hell.”
To her shock, he threw his arms around her, lifted her to her toes in a giant bear hug.
“Okay, okay. Hey.”
“Just went back for a cup of christing coffee. Stuck back there, my family out here. I can’t do squat.”
“Going for christing coffee and keeping your head saved your family.”

Continuity:

The books have often referenced events that happened in an earlier installment, particularly the Icove case (Origin in Death) and Nixie Swisher (Survivor in Death.) But this is the first to revisit several earlier cases (Rapture in Death, Conspiracy in Death, Portrait in Death) in such a deliberate way, to revisit them as part of the plot of the new story.

But the book wasn’t all backward-focused: It answered a question I’ve long wondered about: who, exactly, are the ‘sweepers’? Eve calls them in, or refers to them as a group, seldom even addressing them, and when we’ve encountered people from so many other departments, that seemed odd. Here, that’s addressed, both giving us an overview of the department and introducing us to the department head, Dawson – who I suspect we’ll meet again in future stories.

And then there’s Ivanna, Summerset’s companion, introduced late in the book. She serves no purpose in this story, so I assume this means we’ll see her again, when she’ll have a bigger role to play. I love that continuity, that in book forty of a series, we’re both looking backwards and forwards.

Eve and Roarke

On some level, it’s odd to use the word ‘authentic’ about a fictitious couple from a story set in the future. But however fantastic the characters and setting are, their relationship feels just that: authentic.

We see Eve struggling to balance being a murder cop with being the wife of a powerful man – not because the power matters to her, but because the man does; we see Roarke, who loves his wife because of and in spite of her being a murder cop, shifting from business tycoon to civilian consultant – because that’s what they both need:

“I have a feeling I’m overdressed for what we’ll be doing this evening,” Roarke commented.
“I’m sorry. I need a minute.” She scrubbed her hands over her face, then just left them there.
“Eve.” Amused resignation shifted to concern as Roarke went over, sat next to her. “Is someone hurt?”
“Bastwick. Leanore Bastwick. She’s dead.”
“Yes, I heard that on the media bulletin, assumed you’d caught it, and that’s why you were late. But you barely knew her.”
“It’s not her. Of course it’s her,” Eve corrected. “But it’s me. I didn’t let it hit me until just now. It can’t get in the way.”
“What can’t?”
“It doesn’t make any sense. But that’s nothing new, is it? You have to remember a lot of the time it doesn’t make sense.”
“You’re not.” And that concerned him. “Tell me.”

They get each other, in all their moods and roles, and that allows them to find ways to mesh their separate, very different lives. (Granted, the fact that he’s accepted by the cops as a civilian consultant makes some of that easier.)

One of the high points of this one for me is when Eve says to him, “I don’t think I could live without you anymore.” It’s not that she loves him more than she did in earlier books, but so much changed for her when he came into her life, for the good, that she can no longer imagine her old life, and we know, though it’s unspoken here, that the same is true of Roarke.

That bald truth is another aspect of the story that works better because we’re so far along in the series. Said too soon, it could sound melodramatic; said forty books in, when we’ve seen them change and grow, seen her face the things she’s faced and come through stronger because he’s at her side…it fits. It’s been earned.

The Case:

As a rule, I don’t read these for the cases, but rather for what it gives us in terms of character growth, relationship and interaction. But this one hooked me, because some of it resonated a bit too much, felt too similar to what I see in various fandoms.

The line between being a fan and in building a life around another a person you’re unlikely to even meet can be thin, and seeing Eve put words to how weird that is only emphasized how troubling is our celebrity-fixated culture: Was there anything more exhausting than having complete strangers build fantasies and scenarios around you?

I’ve already ordered book 41, due out in September.

Bonus Quotes:

“We’ll get through this, Eve.”
“Yeah, we’ll get through it.” (Roarke and Eve)

*E&R*

“Candidates.” She managed a short laugh. “For Dallas’s new best friend. I’m not really clear on how I ended up with the friends I actually have, but I do know a top requirement is no murdering lunatics need apply.” (Eve)

*E&R*

 Love turned everybody’s brain sideways, just like a stunner. (Eve)

*E&R*

“Too many people. How the hell did there get to be so many of them?”
“You changed your life. You opened your life. And it’s made you a better cop. A steadier person, in my professional opinion. This woman hasn’t done the same. She can’t let go of whatever eats her inside.” (Eve and Mira)

*E&R*

“And Mavis got us all full-access passes, so we get some VIP treatment and get to hob and nob with celeb and music stars.”
“I’d rather be flayed alive and force-fed my own skin.”  (Peabody and Eve)

*E&R*

“All my people, Mira. All of them. My family. Reineke said it. You do whatever you have to for family.” (Eve)

Festive in Death (Fan Review)

I don’t read as much as I used to.

This has caused me quite a bit of consternation lately because you see, I self-identify as a reader. As a kid, I was one of the ones who hid whatever fiction book I was reading underneath my math book so I could read while I was supposed to be doing fractions, and as a teenager, I spent spring break my junior year of high school reading twelve novels. And lest you think I outgrew it, as an adult, I once took fifteen books with me on a ten-day trip to England.

Because reading.

Only somewhere along the line, I’ve stopped reading like that, and didn’t realize it, until I became friends with a woman who still does. (*waves at Jaime*)

And as if it I needed more proof, the publishing stars aligned in a certain way and all six of my must-buy authors released new titles between August 26-September 9th. I have this deal with myself, you see: I only buy books I know I’ll re-read (the rest are borrowed from the library) and that’s slipped and slid its way to being these six writers.

I like all these authors. I do. And will probably be blogging about all of them at some point. But it’s taken me over a week to read two of them, and I don’t know why.

But Festive in Death, the new JD Robb, I finished in about six hours, give or take.

Because Eve and Roarke.

What always strikes me about the books in the In Death series is how different they are. Oh, sure, there are similarities from book to book – how could there not be, when they’re stories about the same characters, solving the same basic problem (finding a killer) in each one?

But they never feel repetitive to me, for a number of reasons.

First, due to Robb anchoring them so firmly in the lives of the characters, the seasons, changing from book to book, guarantee a different feel. New York just a few days before Christmas makes for a very different book than New York in March.

Second, the cases don’t all revolve around serial killers, which I especially like. Here, I wasn’t even certain there was going to be a second victim until the very end, though it made sense to me that there was. And though this wasn’t the first time Eve’s searched for justice for an unsympathetic victim, I thought the gradual reveal of just how much of a monster he was, was well-handled. There appears to be a nearly infinite number of ways and reasons that people kill, and Robb explores them all.

Similarly, there’s also no pattern to how the mystery is solved. Some rely more heavily on Roarke’s financial and technical skills, while others, like this one, hinge more on Eve’s ability to get inside the head of suspects. Even there, there’s another difference, as sometimes, Eve’s gut identifies the killer early on, and the rest of the book explores how she proves it, while here, it was a process of sorting through various clues, gradually narrowing down the suspect list.

Plus? I’d have to research it, but I think this might be the closest Eve has come to actually failing, in that the book was (according to Kindle) 97% of the way finished, with Eve still assuming she’d get a confession out of the guy she’d arrested, when she figured out the truth.

I like that. I like that Robb skates as close to the edge of failure as she can, because it makes Eve more human.

Another thing that varies from book to book is the nature of the subplot. Sometimes, as with Mavis’s back story the last winter’s Concealed in Death, it’s a substantial story about one or more of the characters. But other times, the secondary story about the characters is quieter and less focused. Here, it’s preparing for Christmas. There’s no real conflict (beyond Eve’s shopping battles and negotiations with the devil, er, Summerset) but there are some truly lovely moments between Eve and Feeney, and Eve and Peabody.

With so much history behind the major players, it’s easy to work in those small moments of pay-off, scenes that wouldn’t have worked as well twenty books ago. In this one, I particularly loved Eve and Roarke having a family style breakfast with Peabody and McNab the morning after the party.

But quieter doesn’t mean there’s a lack of character growth, and I saw that on two fronts with Eve. First, there was this conversation:

“You’ll stand for her, too, if she’s killed. Because it’s always more than just the job, more than duty.”

“It’s not about me.”

“Bollocks. Investigating objectively doesn’t remove you. Your experiences, your understanding of victimology from the viewpoint of the victim is as much a part of what you do, who you are, as your training and your instincts. You are, forever, all points of the triad, Lieutenant: victim, killer, cop. And you know each section intimately.”

“Because I’ve not only been a victim, I’m not only a cop, but I’ve killed.” (Roarke  and Eve)

 

Eve’s come a long way from the days when she couldn’t distinguish between herself and a murderer. And I think her realization after her dream, that if she faced her father in the flesh now, she’d arrest him, not kill him, was another part of the same thing she and Roarke are exploring here.

The other bit that struck me as growth for her was her willingness to take an active role in the party preparations. She’s made her home with Roarke for nearly three years at this point, and is still surprised by the house’s features, but gamely takes charge of the decorators – while in the middle of an active case, no less. Granted, she’s coerced into doing so by her deal with Summerset, but still, it’s a shift for the woman who’s decidedly uninterested in the trappings of Roarke’s money, and even less so in playing the role of the business mogul’s wife.

She may not want any part of his business empire, but it’s her home, too, and as the series has told the story of Roarke becoming her partner in crime solving, it’s also telling the story, albeit more slowly, of her becoming his partner in all that Being Roarke entails.

Finally, I’ll note that Eve’s continuing concern for Morris delights me. Having established that she and Roarke are looking forward to a quiet Christmas together, I get a little gooey inside when she asks Morris to spend the day with them because she doesn’t want him to be alone. It’s been twelve books now since that tragedy, and watching him change from book to book as he figures out life without the woman he loved is another joy for me. (Also? I’m totally rooting for him and the new forensic anthropologist.)

That, right there, is why I love this series. Although I enjoy the cases and like trying to figure out who the murderer is, the reason these are drop-everything-and-read books for me is the characters. They’re real to me, and spending time with them is like reuniting with friends I’ve not heard from in six months. I’m honest enough to admit that in real life, Eve would intimidate the hell out of me. But because I’m in her head when in the books, I can be amused by her snarkiness and entertained by her observations about life.

Bonus Quotes:

Why would people do that? What could they possibly need to buy the day after Christmas, in the middle of the night the day after? Her second thought was she believed she would self-terminate if she had to make a living in retail. – (Eve’s thoughts about day-after-Christmas sales)

***

“Bullshit. There’s always a way out. You just have to pay the price, whether it’s money, status, the emotional hit, or all of that and more. Cheating’s cheap and it’s lazy. It’s not just about sex,” she said. “Marriage a series of promises. Maybe you can’t keep them all. The whole till-death-do-us-part business. Maybe you can’t keep that one. Life can be long, and people change, circumstances change, so okay. You realize you don’t really want this life or this person, or the person you made the promises to isn’t who you thought, or they’ve changed in a way you can’t accept or support. Whatever. You make a choice. Stick and try to work it through, or don’t. But don’t give me the boo-hoo I’m not happy so I’m getting naked with somebody else on the side. It insults everybody. Walk, or work,” she concluded. “But don’t make excuses.” (Eve on cheating)

***

“If I’d gotten up ten minutes later, they’d have been naked and humping like whales.”
“Do whales hump?”
“It sounds right.”
“Oddly enough.” (Eve and Roarke)

***

“When I was a kid, in the whole foster/state school cycle, I sometimes wished I had a sibling. Did you ever?”
“I had my mates. That was family for me.”
“Mates. You think of that word first as lovers, that two-person connection. But it’s a good word for friends when you mean it.” (Eve and Roarke)

***

Why did rainy days require more money than dry ones? she wondered. Really, how much did an umbrella cost? (Eve, musing about saving for a rainy day)

***

“People aren’t flawed, Peabody. People are deeply fucked up.” (Eve)

Fan Review: Night Broken, by Patricia Briggs

Night Broken, the eighth book in the Mercy Thompson urban fantasy series, was released on March 11. I bought it that same day…and finally read it yesterday.  As odd as it sounds, the delay wasn’t an insult to the book, but rather a compliment: I like knowing that I have a treat waiting for me, I enjoy stretching out the anticipation just a little longer.  (Plus, these books fall into the ‘unputdownable’ category for me, meaning I needed a day where I could safely ignore the real world long enough to finish it.)

I’m not quite sure how to review new books in an established series – if I just comment on the latest installment, I’ll spoil earlier books for anyone who might not have read them. So I’m starting here with an overview of the Mercy Thompson world; if the books sound like something you’d be interested in, go read the earlier ones rather than finishing the review for this one, okay?

(I said ‘world’ because there are actually two series set in the same universe, interconnecting at points: the original Mercy Thompson books, and the Alpha and Omega series, which started a bit later but is on a slightly earlier timeline.)

It’s a world where pretty much anything you’ve ever had a nightmare about exists (bad fairies, werewolves, vampires, witches, as well as uncategorized bumps in the night), so there’s plenty of story fodder for two series. When we first meet Mercy (in Moon Called, published in 2006), the less powerful – and thus perceived to be less threatening – fairies (called fae here) are out to humans. None of the others are.

Mercy herself is a shapeshifter, compliments of her half-Native American heritage: she was born able to change into a coyote at will. Distinct from the werewolves who begin human and are changed through a vicious attack, Mercy was nevertheless raised by werewolves because her human mother didn’t know what to do with the coyote in the crib.

Here’s what I like about the books in general:

Evil exists, even unqualified evil. But it’s not stereotyped: there are good and bad werewolves, good and bad vampires, good and bad fae…and good and bad humans.  And sometimes, we come to understand the motivation of the ‘bad’ characters, and sometimes we don’t. That’s pretty much the way the real world works, and it gives an authenticity to the world-building and thus an overall credibility to the books.

Similarly, the characters change as a result of what happens in the stories. There are no reset buttons here. Mercy isn’t the same person she was when we first met her, and neither are the other recurring characters (in either series, though I’m focusing more in this review on Mercy’s time line rather than the one in Alpha and Omega.)  There’s love, of both the romantic and platonic varieties, and friendship, and acknowledgement that relationships can be both complicated and beautiful.

Plus, the most important thing of all: I like these people. All of them.

There. That’s my introduction to the series…if you think you might be interested in reading them, and don’t want to be spoiled…stop now.

(If you’re like me, and don’t mind knowing where a story is going, carry on.)

One of the reasons these stories work, I think, is the way Briggs built her world. Put werewolves, vampires, fae and other Unclassified Things together, and there’s no end to the things that can go wrong – and thus provide the setup for the story – whether it’s a Mercy book, or a Charles-and-Anna story.

Here, what goes wrong is that Adam’s ex-wife is being stalked by a particularly nasty piece of work.  As an Alpha wolf, Adam would be incapable of not helping her, even if she wasn’t the mother of his daughter, so she comes to stay with them. Mercy’s understandably not thrilled, but here’s one of the things I really, really like about the story, and their relationship: she’s not worried about Adam. There’s never a point where Mercy wonders if Adam would rather have Christy, or doubts him or his love for her.

She does, however, worry about the effects on the pack, some of whom would trade her for Christy in a heartbeat. Ah, pack politics.

Relationships in books (and TV, for that matter) are quite often drawn in black and white – they like each other, they hate each other – when real relationships are frequently very murky, and that’s what Briggs writes, whether it’s other wolves in the pack, or Mercy’s relationship with Stephen.

Meanwhile, there’s another problem: Beauclaire, the Gray Lord who effectively declared war on the U.S. at the end of Fair Game, wants the walking stick that periodically attaches itself to Mercy. The one she’s tried to give back to various fae, without success, before finally giving to Coyote. Oops.

In a lesser writer, those two problems would have somehow turned out to be connected. Instead, Briggs uses the walking stick situation to shed light on the stalker, while giving us more information about Beauclaire (who I personally like, by the way), Coyote, and finally introducing Mercy to another coyote walker.

The books are suspense, building to a climax – that’s expected. But if I have one criticism of them, it’s that I feel like Briggs is trying too hard to up the ante from book to book in terms of how badly the heroes, particularly Mercy, are injured.  While it makes complete sense that she’d be more vulnerable than the werewolves, I did have to resist an eye roll in the last two scenes of this in that respect.

And yet…we’re still learning new things about Mercy and Adam, and their relationship, including the circumstances under which Mercy will avoid battle (for all the good it did them.) That thrilled me, as did watching them face the reality that they might actually be facing a foe they couldn’t defeat.

Next up in Mercy’s universe is an anthology of short stories (some new, some previously published) due out this fall, and a return to Anna and Charles next spring.

I’ll just be over here re-reading the series from the beginning. It’s that good.

Bonus Quotes:

If she tried anything, she would be sorry. Adam was mine. She had thrown him away, thrown Jesse away – and I had snatched them up. Finders keepers. (Mercy)

***

Daryl’s voice sounded like it was coming from the bottom of a very deep barrel. It was the kind of voice I imagined a dragon might speak in – if there were dragons. Which didn’t exist. As far as I knew. (Mercy)

***

Coyote’s road had looked and smelled exactly as I expected – but real life doesn’t do that. Real life is full of surprises, big and small. I’d keep that in mind the next time Coyote showed up. (Mercy)

***

Love means leaving yourself vulnerable, knowing that there is someone to catch you when you fall. (Mercy)

***

“I am not sure this is a fight we can win. But there is one thing I do know, and that is that we will not, we cannot, wait around until he kills another innocent. We might die fighting him, but if we do not try and stop him, we are already defeated.”  (Adam)

***

I prayed as fervently as I ever had. I had faith that it would help. But death isn’t a tragedy to God, only to those left behind. (Mercy)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fan Review: The Collector

I’m unapologetic about Nora Roberts being my favorite living author. (Yeah, okay, if I was going to be stranded on a deserted island and could only take one work of fiction, it would be The Lord of the Rings, but I’d be pretty put out over it.)

That doesn’t mean I like all of her books. Some of them simply don’t engage me and a few of them I’ve never been able to get into at all. But on the whole, I trust her. I know there’s a good chance I’m going to like the characters, and be interested enough in their problems to want to come along for the ride.  I only buy books I’m reasonably sure I’ll re-read, and I buy all of hers.

My trust in her as a writer comes down to four things:

1. I almost always like her characters, and sometimes I simply fall in love with them. They’re imperfect, but decent and good-hearted. And often funny, even in the midst of murder and mayhem.

2. I said a couple of weeks ago that when a plot doesn’t work for me, it’s usually because the conflict driving the plot feels false, confusing or contrived, and that’s seldom the case with Roberts’ books. Whatever is keeping the hero and heroine apart isn’t going to be something stupid (a secret, a misunderstanding, something that could be solved if they’d only talk to each other) or something that flat-out doesn’t make sense if you look at it too closely.

3. I’m all about relationships, and not just between the two main characters. Roberts’ books tend to have other people in them – best friends, complicated families, friends that have become family – and I wallow in those stories as much as I do the romance.

4. Because her characters are often funny, the books tend toward the lighter in tone, without being silly. Humor is hard, because while I love to laugh, outright comedies seldom amuse me. But witty dialog gets me every time.

All of these things are true to greater and lesser degrees with her books. Dark Witch, the first book in her paranormal trilogy that came out last fall, disappointed me on both the character and conflict fronts, but did have the other relationships. (It’s just unfortunate that the relationship I was most interested in was a platonic one between the heroine and the like-a-brother friend to her, not because I wanted it to be romance, but because it so clearly wasn’t.)

But the new standalone, The Collector, hit every note for me, not just working on all those levels, but doing so superbly. It’s just shot toward the top of my list of Roberts’ books, and may even have unseated Jewels of the Sun as my favorite.

The setup for the story is that Lila, a professional housesitter/YA novelist who amuses herself by spying on people, sees a murder. (à la Rear Window.) The murder was more complicated than it appeared, and one of the people trying to understand it is the hero of the story, Ash.

It’s really more Lila’s story than Ash’s, as she changes the most, but her journey is a believable one. I like her, and why she does the things she does, from the spying, to the nomadic life she leads, to a foolish choice she makes midway through the story, all make sense to me.

But I’m in love with Ash. I’m a flat-out sucker for the loyal older brother who can always be counted on, and Ash, a successful painter, has a lot of siblings – and others – counting on him. Both of his parents have done the marriage/divorce dance a number of times, resulting in such a big family of halves, steps, and related-by-marriage, he keeps track of them on a spreadsheet.

My family’s so complicated I once drew a family tree – on a very big piece of paper – for a roommate, so there’s automatic appeal there for me. (A spreadsheet works much better, I’m thinking, and the paper wouldn’t have to be so large.) But that the factions of Ash’s family aren’t all at war fascinates me further, because so often that’s the knee-jerk story with this kind of setup, and it’s not, here. Not only does Roberts’ story tension not often fail me, it’s seldom found where I expect it to be.

In addition to the family, there are also friends – close friends, of the ‘always count on them to come through’ variety – for both Lila and Ash. There’s a twist there that I won’t spoil, but it left me grinning in delight when I read it.

And the humor? You wouldn’t think a book involving multiple murders, grief, and even a brief torture scene to be light in tone, but this is, at least in places. (Then again, you wouldn’t expect that of a forensic procedural TV show, either, would you?) It’s not laugh out loud slapstick funny – which I wouldn’t enjoy, anyway – so much as dialogue which amuses me, in part because I know that it’s possible to survive stress and tragedy with the ridiculous.

If there’s a weakness to the story, it’s that the villain tends toward the “I’ve been so successful I’m now arrogant to the point of the stupidity” variety, but there’s so much here I love, I can overlook that.

There’s also New York in the summer and a side trip to Florence, both described in Roberts’ rich style; history, Fabergè eggs, a cat named Thomas and a dog named Earl Grey. Plus? One of the characters references the “I love you”/”I know” scene from Return of the Jedi at a critical point – how could my geeky, nerdy self not love that?

Bonus quotes:

“Fictional people are people, too, otherwise why would we care what happens to them?” (Lila)

***

“When you write, you have to figure out what makes sense.”

“High school werewolves make sense?”

“It doesn’t have to be possible so much as plausible within the world you create.” (Lila and Ash)

***

“How long have you been married?” Lila wondered.

“Twenty-six years.”

“And it’s still a song.”

“Every day. Some days, the music is not in tune, but it’s always a song worth singing.”

“That’s the best description of a good marriage I’ve ever heard.” (Lila and Bastone)