#REVIEW: Upon the Flight of the Queen, by Howard Andrew Jones

Back in February I was able to get my hands on an early copy of Howard Andrew Jones’ For the Killing of Kings. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and said so, as I’ve been known to do, and miraculously just recently ended up with an early copy of the second book in the trilogy, called Upon the Flight of the Queen. I finished it today, a few days before release– the book comes out on November 19, next week.

I’ve been a fan of Jones’ for a while; he basically writes modern sword-and-sorcery, which is a genre that’s directly up my alley. The Ring-Sworn books are a bit more European in tone than the previous books I’ve read by him, and the first one basically ended up being a sort of fantasy murder mystery for about the first 2/3 of it, only the setup was that most of the characters were pursuing the rest of them for the murder that the book started with, while the main protagonists were looking for the shadowy villains who were actually responsible for the killing.

Upon the Flight of the Queen is, unapologetically and directly, a fantasy war novel. Killing of Kings ends with an invasion, and the entirety of Queen bounces back and forth between several locations all simultaneously being invaded by a group called the Na’or, who are 1) generally not very nice, 2) have dragons, and 3) are sort of allied with the Queen, whose role in the story I’m not going to talk about all that much because spoilers and I’ve probably already said enough, although if you’ve read the first book you’re already aware that something not quite kosher is going on with her.

The strengths of the first book were the characters and the fact that Jones never stopped stepping on the gas for basically the entire length of the story. This is much the same, really, except that the book’s timeline is really compressed compared to the first book– it takes place over no more than a couple of weeks, at most, I think, and there’s absolutely no point where the author lets the momentum of the book flag at all. Now, one mistake I think I made: I’ve read, conservatively, probably 75-80 books since Killing of Kings, and it might have been smarter of me to have reread it before jumping back into the sequel. There are a lot of characters and a lot going on in this book, and I spent a bit more time trying to figure out what was going on than I generally like to, which I think is more my fault as a reader rather than the fault of the book– which is, after all, book two of a trilogy, which one might not reasonably expect to stand on its own all that well. I also could have benefited from a map. Fantasy books should always have maps, even if they don’t need them. This one involves war and invasions so it needs them.

The first two books in the Ring-Sworn trilogy came out ten months apart, so one assumes Volume 3 will be out sometime next year. I didn’t love this one quite as much as I did the first volume, but I’ll make sure to reread them before the third book comes out. If you enjoyed For the Killing of Kings, I’d go hunt Upon the Flight of the Queen when it comes out next week.

#REVIEW: LAW AND ADDICTION, by Mike Papantonio

I received a free review copy of Mike Papantonio’s Law and Addiction from the same folks who were responsible for me receiving the two Thom Hartmann books I’ve reviewed and Closer Than You Think, by Lee Maguire. There’s been no promises of anything other than a fair review, and … well, read on.

Law and Addiction tells the story of Jake Rutledge, a fresh-from-law-school West Virginian who discovers the week before his graduation that his twin brother Blake has just died from an addiction to opiates that Jake was unaware of. Jake decides to honor his brother by suing the companies responsible for the opiate epidemic, including the three largest (fictional) drug companies in America, and … well, it turns out that’s kind of complicated.

(True story: a relative has recently casually suggested to me that I sue a drug company because of some events related to the Ongoing Medical Calamity last summer. I, uh, declined, because I do not have millions of dollars and unlimited time. Neither does Jake Rutledge, but he is apparently very, very good at gaining allies.)

Now, here’s the thing: Mike Papantonio is a lawyer, and according to his biography (which also describes him as a “skilled musician and athlete”) he has actually sued pharmaceutical companies in connection with the opioid crisis. So there’s very much a John Grisham thing going on here, where this actual lawyer’s actual practice is informing the events in his fictional novels.

Let’s start with the good stuff: I read this novel in two big gulps over two days, so there’s certainly a page-turner in here; Papantonio has a Dan Brown-esque talent for writing books that read quickly and keep you moving through them, and he’s a reasonably talented writer on a sentence-to-paragraph level.

Unfortunately, the novel as a whole has some problems. I was surprised to discover while reading that this book about a lawyer who is suing drug companies for pushing pills, written by a lawyer who has sued drug companies for pushing pills, really doesn’t read like it was written by a lawyer. All the lawyerin’ is sort of pushed off the page, other than some courtroom scenes, and it feels like the action of a writer who doesn’t really want to learn how something like suing a drug company might actually work, and is instead mostly writing based on half-remembered court scenes from Netflixed episodes of Law and Order and L.A. Law.

I mean … the book is really clear several times on the timeline. Jake’s brother dies a week before Jake graduates from law school, and Jake gets home from graduation and immediately dives into this lawsuit.

Take a second and see if you can figure out what’s missing.

If you said “the bar exam,” pat yourself on the back. And I actually looked this up– West Virginia is one of the few states that will technically allow you to take the bar without your JD, but you have to have completed all of your classwork and just not have actually received the degree yet, and I’m pretty certain that’s not what’s supposed to have happened here. The author either didn’t think of it or didn’t think his audience would. Jake meets with one lawyer who is really mean to him for no good reason and then in the next scene has talked two counties into becoming his clients, one in Ohio and one in West Virginia, but we never actually see that conversation and never once in the book does he actually talk to his clients. Frequently what should be big plot points are just skipped over. He talks another big Florida lawyer into working as co-counsel because he needs a firm with resources, and the conversation is literally “I wrote a paper on you in law school and so I know how to ask you about this in a way that will pique your interest.” And then the guy drops everything to basically move to West Virginia for the rest of the book, taking a bunch of his team with him.

At one point I found myself musing about the cover description of the book as a “legal thriller,” and thinking that other than a really ham-handed attempt at a bribe early in the book there hadn’t been a lot of thriller elements in the book. Ten pages later Jake was kidnapped (off-screen, mind you) and crammed into a hog pen somewhere in the woods, where he was injected in the ass with some sort of opioid on a daily basis and also only provided food and drink laced with the drugs, because the idea is you get him hooked and then that discredits him somehow, right? Only once he escapes (because, in this scenario, you either have to let him go or he has to escape) he basically just says yeah, I was kidnapped, and well, yeah, obviously he was fucking kidnapped, and this plan goes nowhere. There was some Sinister Villain Talk about how they couldn’t just kill him, but then just before he escaped they changed their minds, I guess, but he got away.

And then the book ends on a note so abrupt and ridiculous that I’m tempted to spoil the entire thing, but … yeah, the ending is bad, y’all.

Here’s the thing: Mike Papantonio obviously cares very deeply about this issue, and one of the things that is good about this book is that his passion about the subject bleeds through into his characters. I don’t know if he’s ever lost anyone to opioid (is there a difference between “opioid” and “opiate”? I’ve been using them interchangeably) addiction but he’s very clearly emotionally involved in the issue and I have no doubt that he was a fierce advocate as a lawyer. But where I might enjoy reading a book about the twists and turns of the legal case with a little bit of personal jeopardy in there to justify the “thriller” label, what we get instead is lots of speeches and polemics about how awful drug companies are and how opiate addiction has destroyed so many communities in West Virginia and elsewhere. Which is true! This is a huge, real problem! But it’s also not really how humans talk, and a much-larger-than-expected portion of this book is folks tossing facts and figures at each other in a way that is fine for a polemic but not necessarily fine for a legal thriller.

I dunno. This one really missed the mark for me. I didn’t have to force myself to finish it or anything; again, the book has enough energy to carry you through it, but it’s not strong enough to recommend.

Law and Addiction Amazon page
Mike Papantonio’s website

#REVIEW: The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America, by Thom Hartmann

Back in June I was lucky enough to receive an early review copy of Thom Hartmann’s The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment. I mentioned in the review that the book was part of a series– a series that I have since discovered is planned to run ten books— and that the second volume was to be out in October.

That was true! The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America was released on October 1 and should now be available anywhere you might happen to buy books. I was able to snag a copy of the second book in the series through the same folks that sent me the first one, and I sat down and read it tonight after getting home from work.

The book, and as I’m writing this I’m feeling like nonfiction needs a word similar to novella, is 156 pages long plus a dozen or so pages of footnotes and an index, and is divided into three sections. The first section is devoted to the founding fathers’ view of the Court and how the principle of judicial review became one of the Court’s powers. The second discusses the Court’s frequent rulings against the people in favor of the rich and powerful and corporate interests, and the third section– by far the shortest– is about how we might break the current right-wing stranglehold on the Court and, uh, save the world in the process.

I enjoyed Guns and the Second Amendment quite a bit. I was less a fan of this one, to be honest. To begin, it shares many of the weaknesses of the first book, weaknesses that are intrinsic to deliberately writing a book this short– I don’t have a wordcount handy, but I would suspect this book to be no longer than 30 to 40,000 words if it’s even that long, and it took me no longer than an hour or two to read. The sources, again like the first book, are almost entirely to websites, meaning that that entire part of the book will be useless in a few years, and this book feels a bit unfocused in a way that Guns and the Second Amendment didn’t. There’s simply a lot more to discuss when you’re talking about the Supreme Court– and as a result this book feels much more cursory and, to be honest, slapdash than the first volume did. This is, in large part, due to the deliberate decision by the author to write a short book, of course; I leave it up to you to decide if that aspect of it is going to be a problem for you or not.

A second problem is that I simply don’t have much sympathy for Hartmann’s core argument. I don’t believe that the first section ever actually directly states that Marbury v. Madison was decided wrongly, but it’s hard to escape that conclusion after reading it; describing the court as “despotic” in more than one place is pretty clear. And the thing is, I just … don’t care if it was the right decision, to be honest. The Constitution was fourteen years old when Marbury v. Madison was decided. We are, I think, well beyond the point where “The Court shouldn’t be able to overturn acts of Congress!” is a reasonable argument. If we’re talking about rewriting the entire Constitution, then okay, let’s discuss judicial review. But as an argument in what is supposed to be a history book? Meh. I just think it’s a silly discussion to be having.

The book is on stronger footing for the second part, although I’m not sure how hidden any of the history really is. The Court really has mostly privileged the wealthy and powerful over much of its tenure, although it’s not unlike basically all of human history in that regard, and there are certainly places where Court decisions have contributed materially to, well, justice. There is a brief review of judicial appointments to the Court since the Nixon years that was quite interesting– I wasn’t aware just how many of the Republican presidents (nearly all of them since Nixon, basically) initially took office under a cloud of some sort, which makes the hard-right turn that the conservative justices have taken over the last 40-50 years all that much more pernicious. And in more recent history, of course, we have Mitch McConnell stealing Obama’s last Supreme Court appointment, and the current occupant of the White House’s selection of perjuring rapist Brett Kavanaugh for the job.

The book wraps up with the rather grandiose claim that it is the composition of the current US Supreme Court that is causing the global climate crisis, or at least preventing us from fixing it, and goes into a few ways– court-packing and jurisdiction-stripping, basically– that we might choose to combat that. I, uh, kinda feel like Step One on this is to get Congress and the White House back, and if I were to line up a whole bunch of people in order of how responsible they were for the fucking mess human civilization is currently in I suppose the US Supreme Court would be on the list but they wouldn’t be as high as Hartmann seems to want them to be. It’s a bit of a stretch, is what I’m saying, and again the length of the book works against the author’s goals here, because you’re gonna need a few more pages to get me to blame the Supreme Court for climate change, particularly when you also make the point that the Supreme Court allowed the EPA to exist in the first place. We’d be worse off without them, in other words.

So … yeah. I wasn’t a huge fan of this book, although there were definitely some interesting parts to it; the series continues to be intriguing, however, and I’ll happily read the third volume– dedicated to the war on voting, which feels like a better fit to this series than the Court does– when it comes out even if my Mysterious Benefactors choose not to bestow a copy on me.

The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America is available now.

#REVIEW: The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment, by Thom Hartmann

Thom Hartmann’s The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment is the second of two books that I was sort of randomly offered ARCs of in the last couple of months. They asked me to have it read and the review ready today, and I’m happy to announce that unlike the last time I’m actually managing to successfully fulfill that request.

To put it mildly, the gun issue is one place where I am pretty consistently far to the left of anyone I ever talk to about it. I want guns banned, period. I want the Second Amendment repealed. When you hear “moderate, reasonable” gun control advocates say things like no one is coming for your guns to the gun nuts? That’s not true, because I’m totally coming for your guns. I’m sick to death of people thinking the Constitution enshrines a right to murder other people, guns don’t ever make anyone or anything safer, and there is no such thing as a “good guy with a gun.” There is only a dangerous idiot who hasn’t killed anyone or shot his own dick off yet.

So now that I’ve pissed everyone off, this is actually a pretty interesting little book. I used to listen to Hartmann’s radio show back when I was commuting to the South Side and back every day in Chicago, so I’m familiar with how he works– and the fact that he kept me listening to a liberal talk show when I have learned over the years that listening to talk radio from people who mostly agree with me is actually not something that will keep me awake during a drive is a good sign for him. Despite the pull quote on the cover, this is actually a history book and not a polemic about gun control, although it does have a few chapters at the end about what people call “sensible” gun control measures, like registering them similarly to the way we register cars, insisting that gun owners carry insurance, and regulating semiautomatic weapons the same way we regulate automatic weapons.

(Wanna fight about technicalities over what a “semiautomatic weapon” is? No problem; I’ll start pushing to ban anything that uses a controlled explosion to fire a projectile faster than a human being can throw it.)

At any rate, Hartmann traces America’s gun culture back to– surprise!– slavery and Native American displacement and genocide, and discusses the history of (and some interesting looks at early drafts of) the Second Amendment in particular, and probably spends 80% of the book’s text discussing why America is different about guns than damn near the entire rest of the world and how our history affects the gun fetishism that infects our culture today.

(Deletes a rant)

This is at all times a clear and readable book; if anything, my sole major criticism of it is that it could be a bit more in-depth. The book itself is less than 200 pages long and most of the chapters are less than five pages, and while there are several pages of endnotes at the end most of them are to websites, meaning that the index and the sources are mostly going to be useless a few years down the road. I went back and forth on whether this was a fair criticism; after all, it’s not like Hartmann wrote a short book accidentally, and the fact that there’s a companion volume of similar length coming in October called The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America indicates that he’s thinking of this as a series and not a one-off. There is certainly a place for cursory looks at American history, but given how … well, revisionist is the wrong word, but certainly nontraditional this look at history is, I wanted a bit more meat on the book’s bones than I got. For example, he devotes a single intriguing sentence to saying that Texas’ declaration of independence from Mexico was over Mexico outlawing slavery. That’s interesting! I want to know more about it, and I hadn’t heard that before! But it’s literally a single throwaway sentence.

(Note that I am far from an expert on Texan history.)

At any rate: The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment is available now at all the places you might buy books. Those of you with an interest in modern politics and American history should check it out; anytime my only criticism of a book is I want more, that’s probably a sign of something that I can honestly recommend. Check it out.

#REVIEW: CLOSER THAN YOU THINK, by Lee Maguire

A fascinating thing happened a few weeks ago, where within a couple of days I got emails from two different publishers offering me a free book in return for a review on this site. I’ve had individual authors send me ARCs a couple of times, but those were always in “Hey, who wants an ARC?” types of situations where I jumped in and happily claimed a book.

At any rate, they were hoping my review of Lee Maguire’s Closer Than You Think would hit the site on May 8th or 9th, and … uh … yeah, it’s the 11th, so I’m not doing a great job just yet in fulfilling my end of the bargain. Life has been doing an admirable job of getting in the way of my blogging lately, if you haven’t noticed.

Closer Than You Think is about Bryce Davison, a psychologist, who lives in central Pennsylvania with his basset hound, who he shares custody of with his estranged, not-quite-ex-yet wife. Lee Maguire, by the way, is a psychologist who lives in central Pennsylvania with his presumably not estranged wife and a basset hound. Davison’s life is more or less falling apart around him as the book opens; he’s trying to make things work with his wife but it’s not going well, he’s moved out and into his own place, and … oh, someone is stalking him. Someone who clearly is able to get into his apartment whenever they want, and is fond of doing things like drenching his pillow in floral perfume, leaving creepy notes about, hacking into his email, and stabbing his bathrobe to death, a scene that is actually quite a bit freakier than it sounds when I describe it that way.

I gotta be honest; I wasn’t a huge fan of the book. There’s a serviceable storyline in here, and Maguire knows how to pace a thriller– there are 91 chapters in this book’s 306 pages, which encourages binge-reading because finishing just one more chapter is always an easily achieved goal. But … well, look at the cover. See how the words “A BROKEN MINDS” at the bottom don’t look like they’re quite centered, and are kinda spaced funny, and maybe you’re not the type of person to notice and be bothered by that but I absolutely am? The whole book was kinda like that. Nothing terrible, just a lot of little stuff that kept cropping up and kicking me out of my reading. Occasional typos. Dialogue that is definitely consistent but is maybe rotated fifteen degrees or so from how people actually talk. A book that is set in 2019 (or, if it isn’t, never makes that clear) but whose main character takes a paragraph to log into his computer every single time he checks his email — something that happens a lot — and doesn’t really seem to understand how his phone works, and I’m not sure whether that’s supposed to be something about the character or if it reflects something about the author.

It’s not bad, mind you. There are things about the book I like. There’s real tension here, and a twisty-turniness(*) to the plot that I like, and I have to admit I didn’t see the way it ends coming, which I’m going to choose to interpret as a good thing. It’s kind of the Platonic ideal of the three-stars-out-of-five book; if you’re really into thrillers maybe bump that up a point.

(I sigh deeply, as I realize that this review isn’t super likely to get me sent any more free books. I like free books!)

Some links, for your websurfing pleasure:

(*) which autocorrect alters to “twisty-turviness,” which isn’t a word at all.