Paul’s Book Reviews

“On the instrument panel in front of Luke, the Master Alarm light glowed bright red, next to the window where he couldn’t miss it during their upcoming landing on the Moon. He pushed the red light to extinguish it, resetting it for subsequent failures. Several multicolored lights were still illuminated on the Caution and Warning panel.”
The Apollo Murders, Chris Hadfield

apollo murdersThe Apollo Murders
by Chris Hadfield

Wow, what fun, a mystery/thriller set in an alternate timeline of the Apollo era.

As I read, I thought often of Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Lady Astronaut” alternate histories of the Space Race (“The Calculating Stars” in particular). Chris Hadfield’s story is less ambitious than Kowal’s in the social sense, save for Hadfield’s inclusion of Black and female astronauts on a moon mission and brief glimpses of the mission commander’s bigotry and misogyny, more focused on a complex mix of intrigue and secret plots … a cast of characters, politicians, astronauts, technicians, and spies all working to achieve separate and conflicting ends. Hadfield’s alternate timeline is very close to the one the world we live in experienced, not as far removed as Kowal’s … but the more I think about it, “The Apollo Murders” and “The Calculating Stars” ought to be together on readers’ shelves.

“The Apollo Murders” is a terrific read. The characters get enough depth and definition to seem real, the plot surprises and twists keep coming (one every few pages, whew!), the technical detail is as authentic as it gets (no wonder, given the author’s background), and the resolution wraps everything up a most exciting and satisfying manner. It turns out that in addition to his other talents … flying jets, spacefaring, playing the guitar, singing … Hadfield can write!

“Nate Romanowski pushed the driftboat onto the Bighorn River at three-thirty in the morning on a Sunday in early October and let the silent muscle of the current pull him away from the grassy bank. Eight miles downriver was the fortified and opulent vacation home of the notorious man he was going to kill.”
Stone Cold (Joe Pickett #14), C.J. Box

stone cold Stone Cold (Joe Pickett #14)
by C.J. Box

I’m reading C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett novels, which are set in a mountainous, sparsely-populated corner of Wyoming and feature a fish & game warden who finds himself and his family threatened by bad men intent on raping the West. They’re great reads, engrossing and impossible to put down, and I’m devouring the series.

It can be a struggle to write insightful, fresh reviews of individual novels in a series. I’ll start by repeating what I said about “Open Season,” the first Joe Pickett novel:

As much as I enjoy reading Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher stories, Jack is a superhero, a figure of fantasy. When Jack Reacher gets even, people die … but not before a righteous ass-kicking. While C.J. Box brings on Reacheresque tension and villainy, when it comes to his human and relatable hero Joe Pickett, it’s more a matter of luck. Joe prevails, a believable form of getting even. But don’t worry. Asses do get kicked, in satisfying ways. I really like this Pickett guy. He makes mistakes, and plenty of them. He worries about money. He trusts people he shouldn’t. He’s a regular Joe. I really like the depictions of Wyoming, a state I lived in as a teenager and remember fondly. Joe, at least in this first novel, has an almost-too-perfect family, but there are tensions, and I sense troubled teenage years ahead for his daughter Sheridan. Granted that everything in this novel is fiction, it feels real and true.

In “Stone Cold,” Joe Pickett undertakes another dangerous tasking from Governor Rulon, venturing into a remote county in NE Wyoming to do some undercover reconnaissance. The amount of corruption he encounters there, from his Game and Fish counterpart to cops to judges, makes for a scary, edge of the seat read. These stories are generally believable, but I didn’t buy parts of this one, especially Nate Romanowski’s involvement in targeted murders, and that brought it down a peg from the best novels in the series. As often happens in these stories, a figure from past novels is re-introduced, and while most side plots are quickly wrapped up at the end, one is always left hanging for a subsequent novel. I enjoyed the read, which was over before I was ready for it to end.

“’You’ve ridden a little?’ ‘Quite a bit, actually,’ she said. He gave her a paternalistic smile. ‘We’ll see,’ he said.”
Back of Beyond (The Highway Quartet #1), C.J. Box

back of beyondBack Of Beyond (The Highway Quartet #1)
by C.J. Box

Having read every so-far published novel in C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series (with backlogged reviews yet to post), I turned to “Back of Beyond,” Box’s first installment of the Highway Quartet series. If I hadn’t seen a recent TV adaptation of the series titled “Big Sky,” in which Cody is disposed of early in the first episode, I might have wondered why Box didn’t call this the Cody Hoyt series, because Hoyt is the central character in “Back of Beyond.”

I’m a hard sell when it comes to characters with alcohol and addiction issues. I put aside novels and turn off TV shows with alcoholic and addicted protagonists. Just quit drinking already, Cody, and shut your hole about how hard it is. Jesus.

In “Back of Beyond,” Cody goes on a bender at the crime scene that kicks off the plot, and I almost put the book down. The only thing that kept me going was knowing what a good story-teller C.J. Box is, and sure enough, Cody got sober and managed to stay that way through the rest of the novel, so I’m glad I didn’t DNF it.

There’s little contrast between the evil villains of the Joe Pickett series and this one, nor the complexity of their schemes. Cody Hoyt is a darker character than Joe Pickett, but the two series are otherwise much alike. In fact, I think one of the Joe Pickett novels, in which Joe’s assigned to go on an organized hunt with a pack of civilians, may have been a working prototype for “Back of Beyond.”

More to come as I get into the Highway Quartet series (currently a quintet, scheduled to become a sextet in 2022).

“’I wonder why I’m so uneasy naked,’ she said. ‘Maybe it’s the gimlet-eyed lechery of my gaze,’ I said. ‘Probably,’ she said.”
School Days (Spenser #33), Robert B. Parker

school days School Days (Spenser #33)
by Robert B. Parker

Robert Parker’s private eye Spenser featured in a recent New Yorker piece about fictional characters who cook. The article included a passage from “School Days” in which Spenser prepares a light meal to share with his dog, Pearl, detailed enough to qualify as a recipe.

I’m familiar with another of Parker’s characters, Jesse Stone. I read some of those novels years ago; they were okay, but not good enough to send me on a Robert B. Parker quest. The New Yorker article, though, lit a spark, so I checked out a copy of “School Days,” the 33rd Spenser novel (the one with said recipe).

Spenser appears to be a more developed character than Jesse Stone. He’s a glib Shakespeare-quoting private eye with an eye for the dames, who in turn have an eye for him. He narrates this story at least in the first person, mostly deadpan. To hear him tell it, he’s fearless, kicking ass and taking names as a matter of course. He incorporates a bit of noir and a lot of swagger. He loves his dog, and while he appreciates a shapely ass he’s faithful to his girlfriend Susan.

I like Spenser more than I liked Jesse Stone. My plan is to read one more Spenser novel before deciding whether to get into the series, and have put a library hold on a e-copy of the first one, “The Godwulf Manuscript.” As with Jesse Stone, there have been several Spenser TV adaptations, including a movie on Netflix (“Spenser Confidential”), which I’ll be sure to watch.

“’And way across, on the other side, this is crazy, but I thought I saw that hotel you talked about. Then I blinked my eyes — the wind was so strong they were tearing up — and when I looked again, it was gone.’ Bucky doesn’t smile. ‘You’re not the only person who’s seen that. I’m not a superstitious man, but I wouldn’t go anywhere near where the Overlook Hotel used to stand. Bad stuff happened there.’”
Billy Summers, Stephen King

billy summers Billy Summers
by Stephen King

I thought “Billy Summers” started strong: imagine one of the wordier, self-reflecting Jack Reacher thrillers, one in which Jack uncharacteristically decides to jot down a few thoughts for posterity.

Where Jack may occasionally stop at unnamed hardware stores to buy new sets of work clothes, though, Billy haunts Wal-Marts and Shop-Rites, Piggly-Wigglys and Walgreens. He shops. A lot. At least his shopping has a purpose — perfecting his getaway disguise.

I liked the way Billy’s assassination mission unfolded: step by step with no surprises, even as possibilities for twists and unforeseen disasters multiplied. It’s refreshing to read about a master criminal who pulls off a caper exactly as planned.

During the novel’s second half, though, the narrative began to drag a bit. More shopping, now for Alice rather than himself, then a gradual escalation of behind-the-scenes villains for Billy to wreak vengeance upon: first Nick, then the man behind it all (who turns out to be such a cipher I can’t even remember his name, and I just finished the book last night).

With Nick at least, we get to see him doing bad guy things, at least through Billy’s experiences. With Thurston Perv the Third or whatever he’s called, all we know about the evil he’s done is second- and third-hand, and when he finally makes an appearance on the page, he’s only there for the one — page, that is.

Reviewers on Goodreads are either awed or put off by the topical Trump era references in the story, none of which I thought were essential, none of which really added to the story, and I wonder why King took such pains to insert them. They’ll date the novel, and who’ll be reading it 20-30 years from now?

I liked the circle-backs to King’s famous novel “The Shining,” though. That touch of the supernatural helped me get all the way to the end.

Because of the dragginess, something that affects almost every Stephen King novel I’ve read, by the last third of the novel I no longer cared much about Billy, Alice, Bucky, or anyone else. King should have studied Lee Childs’ work harder before trying to write a Jack Reacher thriller of his own.

“The gun she was holding was a Glock 17. One of the most reliable pistols in the world. It had a misfire rate of around one in ten thousand. Great odds from her side of the trigger. Not so good from mine.”
Better off Dead (Jack Reacher #26), Andrew Child (w/Lee Child)

better off deadBetter off Dead (Jack Reacher #26)
by Andrew Child (w/Lee Child)

I’ve reached the end of the road with Reacher, at least the literary version. As I said in my review of the previous Reacher novel, “The Sentinel,” the first one written by Lee’s younger brother Andrew Child, “I finished it because it was a Jack Reacher novel, not because I especially liked it. The elements of a Jack Reacher novel were all there, but they didn’t gel for me. And lordy, did Jack yammer on as much in the earlier novels? Did the bad guys always wait to hear him out before getting their asses kicked? Maybe the formula has worn itself out. Nevertheless, if Andrew Child takes over the family business and writes a 26th Jack Reacher novel, I’ll read it. If it’s as flat and formulaic at this one, I’ll quit then.”

And here we are. I realized, upon reading this, the second Reacher novel by Andrew Child, that the POV has switched to the first person. Reacher’s narrating his own stories now. The stories aren’t all that different from before, but the narrative shortcuts are jarring: bad guys, out of the blue, suddenly making inexplicable mistakes that work to Reacher’s advantage, total strangers eagerly agreeing to take part in Reacher’s complex schemes to nail villains, that sort of thing. None of the characters have depth; that too was an issue with Lee Child’s Reacher, but they’re even shallower now.

I gotta say, one thing in particular bothered me about “Better Off Dead”: conflicting descriptions of the southeastern Arizona/northern Mexico border towns where the action takes place. They have different names in the novel, but they’re clearly modeled on Douglas and Agua Prieta, situated either side of the border fence in southeast Arizona/northern Sonora. Reacher repeatedly describes the American side as a ghost town, left behind since the 1950s. Yet it’s home to the latest in Airbnb hotels and a thriving downtown cafe, the Red Roan, patronized by young professional people in sharp business dress. Has Andrew Child ever visited an Arizona border town?

And the story: really, there are so many jumps and shortcuts I had a hard time following it, and only managed to because Jack keeps yammering on and on, explaining the twists and turns of Dendoncker’s complex villainy. You don’t want Jack to yammer. But if he didn’t, you’d never figure out what Dendoncker’s up to.

Andrew Child’s Jack Reacher is a disappointment, but there’s a TV series coming and I’m looking forward to seeing some of Lee Child’s early novels, which I loved, adapted to the screen.

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