Review: The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War, by Tim Butcher



Blurb: On a summer morning in Sarajevo a hundred years ago, a teenage assassin named Gavrilo Princip fired not just the opening shots of the First World War but the starting gun for modern history, when he killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Yet the events Princip triggered were so monumental that his own story has been largely overlooked, his role garbled and motivations misrepresented.

The Trigger puts this right, filling out as never before a figure who changed our world and whose legacy still has an impact on all of us today. Born a penniless backwoodsman, Princip’s life changed when he trekked through Bosnia and Serbia to attend school. As he ventured across fault lines of faith, nationalism and empire, so tightly clustered in the Balkans, radicalisation slowly transformed him from a frail farm boy into history’s most influential assassin.


I’ve read several of Butcher’s books, which combine modern travelogues with historical journeys (I recommend all of them, by the way–they’re fantastic). In The Trigger, the author retraces the journey of Gavrilo Princip, the young man who assassinated Franz Ferdinand, providing the spark that ignited World War One. The writing style is, as always, wonderful; Butcher is a journalist and his prose is compulsively readable. This book is set in the former Yugoslavia–a country whose very name means “land of the South Slavs”–and Butcher was there 20 years ago reporting on the wars as the nation was torn apart. The blend of history and personal narrative was, as always, fascinating reading, and I’d recommend the book to anyone who has an interest in the history of this part of the world. That being said, I didn’t find The Trigger to be as compelling as the author’s other work, likely because there’s so little information about Princip himself around which to built the rest of the book. That’s not the fault of the author, though; as the book itself explains, competing ownership of Princip and his motives over the last hundred years make any attempt to get to the truth very difficult indeed. And that’s Butcher’s strength–in Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart, Chasing the Devil: The Search for Africa’s Fighting Spirit, and now The Trigger, Butcher recognizes the complex history and politics of these regions and presents them as such; he doesn’t attempt to make it simple and easy to understand.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review: Glass by Ellen Hopkins (Crank series)


GlassGlass by Ellen Hopkins (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2007), Crank series

Have You Ever Tried

To quit

            a bad habit, one

            that has come to

            define you?


Kristina has been clean and sober for months now. She’s living at home and taking care of baby Hunter. She’s studying for her GED and looking for a job. She’ll be eighteen in just a few weeks. Things are looking good, right up until she starts thinking about how boring her life is, and how much weight she gained during her pregnancy, and how nice it would be to have a boyfriend again, and she thinks maybe, just maybe, if she stays in control, she can start using again.

This is the first in a long series of bad decisions that Kristina makes. At first things seem to be going just fine: she’s losing weight, she’s got a job, and it’s easy to score high-quality crank that is perfect for a pick-me-up to get her through the day. But of course, things aren’t just fine, and the last straw for Kristina’s parents comes when she crashes hard and doesn’t wake up even for her screaming baby. Kristina is thrown out of the house and her parents tell her she won’t see Hunter again until she cleans herself up.

That’s when things spiral out of control. Kristina moves in with her boyfriend’s cousin, who is also their drug dealer. She’s living from paycheck to paycheck, spending all of her money on drugs. She’s engaging in risky behaviors—driving while she’s high, having unprotected sex, stealing money—and on the rare occasions when she does talk with her family, she keeps pushing them away—and, she realizes after she hangs up the phone, she keeps forgetting to ask about Hunter. She’s shut herself off from her former friends, her family, even her own child.

While Crank focused on how seductive drugs can be and how anyone can start using and become addicted, Glass is about the impact of addiction on users and the people around them. Kristina’s life revolves around drugs: when and where she’ll score, how she’ll pay, when and how much she’ll use. Her relationships all revolve around drugs: the people she buys from, the people she sleeps with while she’s high. The book is written in free verse and is told entirely from Kristina’s point of view, so it’s left to the reader to imagine what her family must be going through (Kristina, of course, is too lost in her addiction to be able to see anything outside of herself). This is not an easy book to read. It’s utterly heart-wrenching. But it’s an amazing depiction of the destruction wrought by addiction, and the way in which the story is told—Kristina’s words break your heart because you can see what’s happening and know what’s coming, and you know she’s going to keep making bad decisions as long as she continues to use—is unique and compelling.


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review: Blue Monday by Nicci French


BlueMondayBlue Monday by Nicci French (Pamela Dorman Books, 2012), Frieda Klein series

Blurb: Frieda Klein is a solitary, incisive psychotherapist who spends her sleepless nights walking along the ancient rivers that have been forced underground in modern London. She believes that the world is a messy, uncontrollable place, but what we can control is what is inside our heads. This attitude is reflected in her own life, which is an austere one of refuge, personal integrity, and order.

The abduction of five-year-old Matthew Farraday provokes a national outcry and a desperate police hunt. And when his face is splashed over the newspapers, Frieda cannot ignore the coincidence: one of her patients has been having dreams in which he has a hunger for a child. A red-haired child he can describe in perfect detail, a child the spitting image of Matthew. She finds herself in the center of the investigation, serving as the reluctant sidekick of the chief inspector.


Frieda Klein is an interesting character: the psychotherapist who is reluctantly drawn into a murder investigation via a new patient. She’s at the center of a bizarre cast of characters: the police officer she approaches with her suspicions about her patient’s role in the kidnapping; the world-weary colleague who’s turned to alcohol as a means of escaping the conclusions he’s drawn after years of practicing psychotherapy; the self-absorbed sister with the precocious daughter; the wacky Ukrainian émigré who announces his presence by literally falling at her feet. These characters and their relationships with each other and with Frieda are where the book shines, and if I keep reading this series it’s to see how this develops. I’m particularly intrigued by Josef, the Ukrainian, who manages to effortlessly work his way into almost every aspect of Frieda’s life.

The central mystery under investigation is the abduction of a five-year-old boy, which may or may not be connected to the similar abduction of a young girl some twenty years back. (I got the impression that there was supposed to be an analogy here with the hidden rivers of Frieda’s nighttime meanderings, but if so, it was a bit too oblique, and left me with the feeling of a lost opportunity more than an added layer.) The book starts slowly and jumps around a bit, but about halfway through the pace picks up and the various story elements start to come together. Unfortunately for me, I figured out fairly early on where everything was headed and so I never really felt a sense of suspense or urgency, and I genuinely could not tell if this was down to the storytelling or down to me just being good at guessing these things.

I wanted to like this book, and I did, but not nearly as much as I’d hoped. It’s a psychological thriller that doesn’t quite manage to build up and sustain enough tension to make up for the disjointed storytelling. Still, the characterization was good enough to make me want to check out the next book in the series.


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Review: The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel


TheMurderFarmThe Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel (2014, Quercus)

Blurb: The Murder Farm begins with a shock: a whole family has been murdered with a pickaxe. They were old Danner the farmer, an overbearing patriarch; his put-upon devoutly religious wife; and their daughter Barbara Spangler, whose husband Vincenz left her after fathering her daughter little Marianne. She also had a son, two-year-old Josef, the result of her affair with local farmer Georg Hauer after his wife’s death from cancer. Hauer himself claimed paternity. Also murdered was the Danners’ maidservant, Marie.

An unconventional detective story, The Murder Farm is an exciting blend of eyewitness account, third-person narrative, pious diatribes, and incomplete case file that will keep readers guessing. When we leave the narrator, not even he knows the truth, and only the reader is able to reach the shattering conclusion.


As soon as I read this book’s description, I knew I wanted to read it. However, I found the book itself to be a bit of a letdown. While the description uses words such as “exciting” and “shattering,” for me the book was a short, bare-bones, sparse narrative, somewhat fleshed out by the eyewitness accounts, that didn’t have the emotional impact I’d been expecting, given the nature of the crime.

The story is set in 1950s, in a rural German village. The setting was, for me, by far the best part of the book; I got a real sense of the isolation of the village and the impact of the war on its inhabitants. The Danners’ neighbors sense that something is amiss on the Danner farm, and upon further investigation discover that the entire family has been murdered. The narrative isn’t always linear and was a bit confusing in places, but bit by bit the reader learns about the family and its secrets, of which there are many. The focus on the characters’ flaws backfired a bit for me; rather than making each of them the possible target of the killer’s anger, it made them all unlikeable and distant—the book is so short and the characters so undeveloped that it read more like a case file.

There isn’t a lot of detail about the exact nature of the crimes—it’s not a gory book. The impact is intended to be more psychological. However, this approach didn’t really work for me because the murderer is revealed in the same matter-of-fact narrative approach as the rest of the book, without any real insights, and ultimately I felt a bit let down.


This book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars.

Review: A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell


ATraceofSmokeA Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell (Forge Books, 2009), Hannah Vogel series

Blurb: Even though hardened crime reporter Hannah Vogel knows all too well how tough it is to survive in 1931 Berlin, she is devastated when she sees a photograph of her brother’s body posted in the Hall of the Unnamed Dead. Ernst, a cross-dressing lounge singer at a seedy nightclub, had many secrets, a never-ending list of lovers, and plenty of opportunities to get into trouble.

Hannah delves into the city’s dark underbelly to flush out his murderer, but the late night arrival of a five-year-old orphan on her doorstep complicates matters. The endearing Anton claims that Hannah is his mother… and that her dead brother Ernst is his father.

As her investigations into Ernst’s murder and Anton’s parentage uncover political intrigue and sex scandals in the top ranks of the rising Nazi party, Hannah fears not only for her own life, but for that of a small boy who has come to call her “mother.”

The premise of the book was too intriguing for me to pass up. Hannah Vogel is a journalist, a crime reporter. During her weekly visit to the Hall of the Unnamed Dead, she is stunned to see a photograph of the body of her cross-dressing brother, a lounge singer whose lovers gift him with fine clothing and jewels. Although she has connections within the police department, Hannah cannot make use of them: a Zionist friend and her son have used Hannah’s and Ernst’s identity papers to escape to America, and until Hannah knows they are safe, she cannot allow anyone to know her brother is dead.

A Trace of Smoke is wonderfully evocative of interwar Berlin: the precarious financial position of city’s population, the uncertainty regarding the Nazi party, the growing intolerance of and discrimination against the city’s Jewish population. Cantrell incorporates actual people and events into the story, which infuses it with a strong sense of time and place. The book is well plotted and well paced.

As capable as the author is with description, she has a tin ear for dialogue. The lack of contractions made the characters sound stilted and overly formal, and this coupled with the lack of variety in the characters’ speech patterns took away from their individuality. This is Cantrell’s first book, so I am hoping the dialogue improves as the series progresses.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Review: The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh



WeightofBloodThe Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh (2014, Spiegel & Grau)

Lucy Dane lives in Henbane, a small town in the Ozarks, where families stick together and outsiders are always suspect. Her father’s side of the family has deep roots in Henbane; her mother’s, not so much. In fact, Lily Dane was the kind of outsider who always invites suspicion: a beautiful young stranger who married a local, gave birth to daughter Lucy, then walked into a cave one day with a loaded gun and was never seen again.

Having grown up without Lily in her life, Lucy is now seventeen, and it’s been a year since her best friend Cheri vanished. When Cheri’s dismembered body is discovered, Lucy resolves to find out what happened to her. As Lucy digs deeper into the mystery surrounding Cheri’s disappearance and death, she begins to realize that there might be a connection to her own mother’s disappearance. And in a town where family is everything, she begins to discover her own family’s secrets.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints, primarily Lucy’s and Lily’s, both in the first person, but later in the book there are others, in third person. At times this became confusing, especially later in the book, but for the most part it was well done and helped to maintain the plot’s tension throughout. Lucy’s coming-of-age narrative is particularly well told as she grapples with questions of kinship and loyalty.

Most of all, though, I was impressed by the atmosphere of this novel. This is Southern noir: an isolated mountain town steeped in myth and superstition, and where poverty is a way of life and very few people manage to make it out.


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Crank by Ellen Hopkins


CrankCrank by Ellen Hopkins (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2004)


Life was good
before I
the monster.
was great,
for a little while.


Crank is the story of an ordinary girl who becomes a meth addict. It’s told in free verse form, so there’s not much in the way of narrative or dialogue, but that makes the story all the more powerful because it’s stripped down to its bones.

Kristina is an ordinary teenager. She’s sixteen and it’s the summer before her junior year in high school. She’s a straight-A student with an older sister and a younger brother, a mother and a stepfather. The book begins when she goes to stay with her biological father, who is an addict, for three weeks. While in Albuquerque she discovers Bree: the side of herself that is reckless, a vamp, who likes attention and who is willing to break all the rules that Kristina lives by. As Bree, she attracts the attention of the boy who introduces her to love—and to crank, the monster that changes her life forever.

I can understand why parents wouldn’t want their children to read Crank. But this is the kind of book I would have loved as a teenager precisely because Kristina was someone I could relate to; she could have been any one of my friends. The underlying message—that drug addiction can happen to anyone, and escaping the monster is almost impossible—is a powerful and important one, and the unique structure and the power of the storytelling resulted in a book I read in one sitting.

Hopkins wrote this based on her own experiences with her daughter, who was addicted to methamphetamines, and that gives the book a very real feel. It’s honest and it’s harsh and it pulls no punches about the consequences of drug abuse. Kristina/Bree’s inner conflict is heart-wrenching: she wants to be a good girl, a good student, a good sister and daughter and friend, but the pull of the monster is stronger. She makes one bad choice after another—almost all of them based on her need for crank—and the consequences are life-altering in a way she never could have imagined before she started using.


My rating: 4 of 5 stars