The new year got off to a bit of a slow start. I fell into a reading rut after the holidays. Started and stopped a number of books, never finding anything that really captured my attention. In the end, I read mostly thrillers, typical for me, but nothing that really snapped my head back.
Turned to a couple of John Milton thrillers mid-month to try to jumpstart the mojo as I knew they would be solid and propulsively plotted and would get me back in the habit of reaching for a book.
The one big outlier this month was Victoria, the book club pick this month. I put off reading this one as it fell well outside my typical fare, but I ended up really enjoying it and would recommend people give it a try.
The Wanted by Robert Crais
To say the whole month was a slog isn’t fair to Crais’s latest. The common refrain for judging a restaurant is to order the simplest thing on the menu. There is little room to hide with a roast chicken or pizza margherita. If the kitchen can get that right, you know you are probably in good hands.
The same could be said with an author. Do they need a lot of high concept hooks or narrative sleight of hand to hold your attention? They might write one good book or two, but they likely won’t have a long career. Crais’s latest Elvis Cole is a simple story told in a straight ahead style that earns its addictiveness through good, solid storytelling. Sure, it helps these are established characters, but it also doesn’t leave a lot of room for digression. At this point, these guys are known to us and demonstrate it through their actions.
The tag team bad guys are fun and some of the more interesting characters Crais has come up with in awhile. It never felt like he was delaying unnecessarily when he switched POV to them for a chapter. My only complaint would be wanting more Pike, but I always want that and realize he’s a weapon best deployed with restraint.
Exit Strategy by Steve Hamilton
This is the second Nick Mason thriller. After all the hype and buzz about the first one, I was mildly disappointed. I loved Hamilton’s initial Alex McKnight PI series, but less so some of his later, standalone stuff. The Lock Artist excepted, that was excellent.
I liked this second Mason better than the first. Maybe because all the set-up with Cole and the agonizing over what he was capable of were over. This had some good, if slightly repetitive, set pieces and showed some of the personal costs with the secondary characters. I will say the twist at the end has me a little apprehensive about where this will all ultimately end up.
Saint Death by Mark Dawson
The second John Milton has a surprising amount of pages without Milton. This outing finds him wandering South America, up into Mexico and getting inadvertently involved some cartel business. Depending on how you felt about Milton in the first book, maybe you welcome the break.
Dawson spends a lot of time with other characters on both sides of the border, the best of which is an aging bounty hunter and the worst, or most generic, was the cartel boss’s son, who felt too over the top without much reason. The last honest cop in Mexico wasn’t much better but at least he wasn’t brutalizing women on each page.
These books and this series in general are squarely in the action thriller genre and don’t aim for larger themes or statements. I believe Dawson’s aim is to get you hooked, reading and make it hard to put down. In that respect, he succeeds. His hero is still a little flat and derivative, but the varied settings, research and plot-craft lift these above the pack for me.
The Driver by Mark Dawson
Perhaps reacting to how little page time his hero got in book #2, the third Milton keeps the spotlight squarely on the hero and I think it’s better for it. This time, after escaping Mexico and the events of Saint Death, Milton has been scraping by with two jobs in San Francisco. When one of his customers goes missing, Milton looks into it and finds lots of trouble. Of course.
In general I found this one less over the top (as these types of books go) than book two. Again, Dawson does a solid job with the SF setting and location details. Even if they aren’t 100% correct, they feel right and add, not distract, from the narrative.
While the mystery and conspiracy seem a bit generic (especially in today’s political climate), they work well enough to drive the plot forward and give Milton something to react and ultimately fight against.
I thought the smaller moments worked well in this book to flesh out Milton a bit more, too. The AA meetings and his small relationship with the lawyer did a good job of showing the personal cost of his current AWOL status.
Hellbent by Gregg Hurwitz
This is the third Evan Smoak/Orphan X book from Hurwitz and a definite improvement over the second one for me. I thought this series got off to strong start and did enough in book one to separate Smoak from a lot of the other Knight Errant-type heroes populating thrillers today. I thought the second book, almost a locked room thriller if there is such a thing, didn’t give Smoak enough to do, stalled out and ultimately had to resort to an almost a deus-ex ending.
This third outing, while it got off to a bit of a shaky start, really nails the middle build and the ending and puts the future of the series on firmer footing. The first half of the book drags a bit. There are some good set pieces as Evan begins his quest for revenge, but I rarely had trouble putting it down after each chapter. This must be the reason that the book starts with a very random in media res prologue from later in the book! I can’t think of another reason other than the editor/publisher/author though they needed to juice the start.
For those that push through, the second half starts to gel and I was impressed as the two narrative threads, one involving the ongoing series mythology and one involving Smoak’s in-book mission, tie together in one finale that both satisfyingly wraps things up and sets up future endeavors.
And what initially feels like a generic pixie hacker sidekick ultimately comes into her own and I hope we might get a glimpse of her again in future books. She gave Smoak, by design, pretty taciturn, a nice foil.
Victoria by Daisy Goodwin
The one outlier this month is the book that the ongoing PBS series is based on and not to be confused with Netflix’s The Crown (different long-serving monarch!). Way outside my typical comfort food reading, I ultimately really enjoyed this book. It was much more accessible than I thought it might be. It was an engrossing and engaging read about a time and a person that I didn’t know much about.
I realize that learning your history from narrative fiction might not always be the best choice (I did some light wikipedia checking at certain points!) to learn strict facts, but if it gets more people familiar with history, who am I to complain. It certainly works for me. I wouldn’t likely pick up a standard Walter Issacson citation-style biography about Victoria, but this ended up being a great, quick read and I learned some things as well. Recommended for royalty-lovers or Crown watchers.
Up Next the TBR Pile: