I snuck a non-fiction title in there and a few genre benders, but it was mostly more thrillers and mysteries as I slowly try to get back into writing. No NaNoWriMo this year for me, but I am using the hype to get me excited to write again. I’m working on my annual October short story and using that kickstart my way back into a full length novel over the winter. I’m aiming for 1,000 words a day or about 6k per week, however I get there. In the downtime I’m reading as much as I can.
Standouts for me this month were: Sourdough, a slim literary novel about a technology worker turned back. The Blinds, a high concept thriller executed with intelligence. The Hit, a commercial thriller from Baldacci’s backlist.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neil Stephenson & Nicolle Galland
If your book blurb promised time travel, magic, witches and Neil Stephenson, yet at the end my overwhelming impression is of bureaucracy and office space then something has gone awry. Like all of Stephenson’s books this one is long and crammed with ideas. To his, and his co-author’s credit, they are almost all interesting ideas. It’s in tying these ideas to the engine of plot where things messy. The book moves in fits and starts and characters, beyond the core four, come in and out of focus as the chugging lot demands.
In the last quarter when the narrative seems to find it’s footing and starts driving toward a resolution, it bails out. Or sets up a sequel. Either way, it was frustrating after putting in the time and effort for all those pages. If you are looking for a long comedic satire on red tape and modern office politics, this might be the book. If you are looking for brainy cross-genre thriller/sci-fi/fantasy, you might want to try another Stephenson novel.
Hour Game by David Baldacci
After re-discovering the fun of David Baldacci and the commercial thriller through his Amos Decker series, I went back and requested a few more of his backlist from the library to see if his other series could hook me as well as the Decker one. The Hour Game is the second King and Maxwell and layers in enough back story that I didn’t feel like I missed much reading them out of order.
This was solid, but not quite as good as Decker, for me. It felt a bit long and the ending dragged on a little too long, maybe hamstrung by a few extra side plots and red herrings that could have been left behind. I did enjoy all the characters and found them well rounded. Maybe more work was put into the first book, but I actually found many of the secondary characters more well drawn than the two leads. I would read another King/Maxwell, but I’m not in any rush. Solid entertainment when I need a thriller fix.
Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick
This is the story of the relationship between George Washington and Benedict Arnold and how Arnold’s betrayal may have ultimately saved the American Revolution. What sounds fascinating in blurb form did not totally translate for me to the page. I felt like I needed a bit better understanding of the history, context and battles of the War to grasp the impact of all the decisions and movement. There are also a lot of names and a lot of now obscure towns referenced.
For some of the larger, more well known events and people, it does provide a lot of compelling details and character traits. Washington, Arnold, their aides and other founding fathers are shown to be more human, for better or worse, through their actions and correspondences. For Philbrick the biggest villain were not the English or the Hessians, but the Continental Congress with all the in-fighting and inaction. Some of the more pointed parallels are hard to miss.
1000 Yards by Mark Dawson
I’ve been listening to a lot of Self-Publishing Formula podcast the last few months, signed up for Dawson’s newsletter and in return received a few free books. 1000 Yards is a short novella (100-ish pages) that introduces his main series character, John Milton, on a mission in North Korea.
There is no background. It’s very self contained, almost a bottle episode version of a book. It’s a good preview of the character and the strengths of Dawson’s writing. It moves quickly and relatively straightforward with few twists and turns. There’s a goal, there’s action and there’s a resolution. A good way to spend a commute or two.
The Cleaner by Mark Dawson
This is the first novel length book featuring John Milton. The parallels to Child’s Reacher are clear and easy to recognize. Dawson has also stated previously that The Equalizer was a big inspiration. These are knight errant tales. A lone man with dangerous skills dropped into situations where an injustice needs correcting.
There isn’t a lot original here, but there’s a reason these types of stories are so successful and Dawson knows how to set up the pins and knock them down. There’s plenty of action, solid writing, sympathetic secondary characters and some lingering back story.
The Hit by David Baldacci
Another Baldacci thriller, this one the second in the Will Robie series. It appears the first in each series have a much longer waiting list at the library. Again, while this second one had a few holdover ties to the first, it didn’t inhibit reading them out of order. Like the Dawson books, this is essentially a lone hero tale. In this book, Robie is still employed by the government, but it’s clear he’s not likely long for that world when his morals come in to conflict with the government’s objectives.
While the ultimate plot driving the antagonist’s action is a bit of a MacGuffin that never really comes into complete focus, the two leads (it’s clear they will end up on the same side pretty quickly) are compelling enough that it ultimately doesn’t matter, you just want to see them succeed and see what they do next.
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Best known for his young adult series and his TV work, Horowitz is starting to carve out an adult niche with classic British mystery puzzles. This is an ingenious book and very clever. Maybe too clever. More on that in a second. It’s essentially two interlocking book. one a golden age Agatha Christie-style small town mystery. The other half is a modern day murder mystery. Each book’s motives and actions bleed into the other.
Ultimately, I really admired this book, but never really loved it. I could appreciate the research and planning that must have gone into it, but it feels almost too cold and calculating. I really enjoyed the Christie half, as the second half moved into the modern setting I had trouble connecting with the main character and her motivations.
This is a fun and interesting read for any mystery fan. It’s a must-read for any Christie or cozy fan to see how Horowitz uses and skews those genre tropes. Horowitz has also written two authorized Sherlock Holmes books. I might seek those out given how well he mimicked Christie.
Sourdough by Robin Sloan
Almost a month after reading this and thinking about this book still brings a smile to my face. The best word I can think of is enchanting. Just a fun little book to read and not just because I share the main character’s affinity for technology and baking bread. Just like his previous book, Mr Penumbra, you can feel the authenticity and love Sloan has for his characters and his character’s obsessions whether it’s books, computers or a sourdough starter.
Like a delicate strand of gluten, I felt like the book wobbled and threatened to collapse on itself in the last quarter as it almost shifts into magical realism before it pulled back and stuck the landing.
The Poet by Michael Connelly
I’ve been going back and reading some of the early books by my favorite mystery/thriller authors like Lehane, Pelecanos and Child. The Poet is Connelly’s first standalone and it’s his take on the serial killer thriller using a newspaper reporter as the POV character.
Unlike the humor, which jumped out at me when re-reading Lehane’s Darkness Take My Hand, this time it was the technology that really stuck out. Luckily, it’s the only thing that really didn’t age well. If the book isn’t using law enforcement as the main character, there are always hoops to jump through for that person to get involved the case. Here, that feels a bit rickety. The first third definitely takes its time as the different strands are laid out, but once McEvoy insinuates himself into the FBI’s case things start to move.
For me, this is in my personal top 10 for serial killer books. The different plot threads, the characters, the motivations and the ultimate villain all hold up well. Nothing was pulled out of a hat. I had almost forgotten the red herring ending and imagine if Connelly had gone that route it would have been even more shocking than the ultimate culprit.
The Blinds by Adam Sternberg
I have vague memories of reading Sternberg’s debut Shovel Ready a cross genre sci-fi/hard boiled thriller. This book keeps the high concept hook, but is more a straightforward thriller. And what a hook it is.
Imagine a place populated by criminals and innocents—people plucked from their lives, with their memories altered, who’ve been granted new identities and a second chance. Welcome to The Blinds, a dusty town in rural Texas populated by misfits who don’t know if they’ve perpetrated a crime or just witnessed one. What’s clear to them is that if they leave, they will end up dead.
Of course things begin to happen to disrupt the fragile peace that exists in the small town. I won’t spoil anymore but found the themes of identity, second chances, memory and violence all well incorporated into a book the hums along to an inevitable and surprising conclusion.
Don’t Let Go by Harlan Coben
At this point Coben has moved into that best seller category where he is less a writer and more a brand (Patterson, Baldacci, Grisham). He’s a pro. You pick up a Coben and know what you are getting. It will be a stew of suburbia, family, buried secrets, corny humor and simmering violence.
On the off chance that you haven’t read Coben before, I’d recommend Tell No One as a better starter book, but this one has all the Coben standalone (he also has a long running PI series) traits on display and has a pretty good setup that gets you hoooked and keeps you turning the pages.
Having read a lot of Coben, I had pegged the likely villain early, but the plot and motivations tie up well in a way both simpler and more complicated than we are led to believe throughout the build up. You might know what you are getting at this point in Coben’s career, but you usually leave satisfied.
Blood Moon Rising by Mark Dawson
This is book two of Dawson’s Beatrix Rose trilogy. The setup is basically exactly like Kill Bill, a female assassin is betrayed by her employers and she’s getting revenge working her way through a kill list. This second outing is essentially a re-telling of book one with different targets.
If you liked book one, you’ll probably like book two. The same solid, simple writing combined with a good sense of place and well executed action pieces. These short novels (about 200 pages) move quickly, but still have time to develop the main characters. The premise might be recycled, but the stories are worth reading.
Close to the end of October and I’m at 50 books read for the year. 44 fiction and 6 non-fiction. A little behind my goal on the non-fiction side, but I didn’t anticipate jumping back into writing this year, so ramping up the fiction reading as homework took up much of my time.
Up next on the TBR pile:
Righteous by Joe Ide
Yesterday by Felicia Yap
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
You can come chat about book stuff with me and see what I’m reading over on Goodreads.