Monthly Archives: June 2013

Review: Sandman, Vol. 1 by Neil Gaiman

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Sandman 1Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman (writer), Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III (artists). (DC Comics, 1995)

 

Blurb: New York Times best-selling author Neil Gaiman’s transcendent series SANDMAN is often hailed as the definitive Vertigo title and one of the finest achievements in graphic storytelling. Gaiman created an unforgettable tale of the forces that exist beyond life and death by weaving ancient mythology, folklore and fairy tales with his own distinct narrative vision.

In PRELUDES & NOCTURNES, an occultist attempting to capture Death to bargain for eternal life traps her younger brother Dream instead. After his 70 year imprisonment and eventual escape, Dream, also known as Morpheus, goes on a quest for his lost objects of power. On his arduous journey Morpheus encounters Lucifer, John Constantine, and an all-powerful madman.

This book also includes the story “The Sound of Her Wings,” which introduces us to the pragmatic and perky goth girl Death.

 

I haven’t read many graphic novels, so I wasn’t sure if I would like this one. I’m not a visual reader, to put it mildly, and I was concerned that having so much emphasis on the visual aspect of the story would cause problems for me or that I’d miss half the story because I skipped over the images. As it turned out, I shouldn’t have worried. The drawings and the story fit so well that I read this at about the same pace I would a “regular” novel.

Over the years, many friends have recommended this series to me. I was a bit leery because, as mentioned above, I haven’t read many graphic novels and I’m unfamiliar with DC Comics lore. However, again, that turned out not to be too important. I was able to follow along just fine because Gaiman has done such a good job of world-building in this volume.

That being said, the sheer volume of backstory and world-building in this collection (issues 1-8 of the 75-issue series) weighed it down a bit. This was clearly the first entry in a much longer story, and there are some missteps along the way. The story itself is simple: A wizard, attempting to imprison Death and achieve immortality, instead locks up Dream. When Dream finally escapes, he must locate and reclaim his three symbols of power. (In a strange way this kind of reminded me of a WoW character quest.) Although the story is simple, it’s very well told. There are flashes of humor that keep it from being too dark. I also enjoyed watching Dream cope with his “lost” time—much has changed, which allows Gaiman to weave together the ancient and the modern. I especially enjoyed the last story, “The Sound of Her Wings,” in which Dream meets up with his sister Death. She is a fantastic character and I’m hoping to see more of her.

The artwork was good, although apparently it has since been re-colored. I’d kind of like to see the new version, because mine was full of lurid blues and purples that were a bit much at times. But again, I’ve not got anything to compare this book to in that regard, not having read many graphic novels. I thought the actual issue covers were just gorgeous, sort of blended abstract images, but I don’t think I could read page after page of that kind of illustration. The stark spikiness of Dream and Death suited them very well.

Will definitely read on.

 

My rating: 3 stars

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Review: The Square of Revenge by Pieter Aspe

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SquareofRevengeThe Square of Revenge by Pieter Apse (Pegasus books reprint, 2013)

 

Blurb: The beautiful medieval architecture of Bruges belies the dark longings of her residents. When the wealthy and powerful Ludovic Degroof’s jewelry store is broken into, nothing is stolen, but the jewels have been dissolved in jars of aqua regia, an acid so strong it can even melt gold. In the empty safe is a scrap of paper on which a strange square has been drawn. At first, Inspector Van In pays little attention to the paper, focusing on the bizarre nature of the burglary. But when Degroof’s offspring also receive letters with this same square, Van In and the beautiful new DA Hannelore Martens find themselves unraveling a complex web of enigmatic Latin phrase and a baroness’ fallen family and Degroof’s relationship with a hostage grandchild, ransomed for a priceless collection of art.

 

This is a promising beginning to this series of police procedurals set in the gorgeous city of Bruges, Belgium. The primary characters, Assistant Commissioner Pieter Van In and Deputy Public Prosecutor Hannelore Martens, are engaging both individually and as a team. There’s no shortage of humor in this book, the characters are likeable, and the plot winds and twists and finds its way to a satisfying conclusion.

In many ways this book reminded me of Donna Leon’s Brunetti books. There’s the same undercurrent of old money, backroom politics, and widespread corruption; the same enjoyment of food and drink; and the same sense that tourists are seeing an entirely different city from the one the residents live in.

There are some issues with language, and I’m not sure whether those are the author’s or the translator’s. At worst this is a mild annoyance, though, and because this is the first book in a successful series, it’s easy to overlook the occasional clunker in the hopes that the writing will improve as the series progresses. I’m looking forward to more.

 

This ARC was furnished by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 3 stars

Review: Ink by Amanda Sun

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InkInk by Amanda Sun (Harlequin Teen, 2013)

 

Blurb: On the heels of a family tragedy, the last thing Katie Greene wants to do is move halfway across the world. Stuck with her aunt in Shizuoka, Japan, Katie feels lost. Alone. She doesn’t know the language, she can barely hold a pair of chopsticks, and she can’t seem to get the hang of taking her shoes off whenever she enters a building.

Then there’s gorgeous but aloof Tomohiro, star of the school’s kendo team. How did he really get the scar on his arm? Katie isn’t prepared for the answer. But when she sees the things he draws start moving, there’s no denying the truth: Tomo has a connection to the ancient gods of Japan, and being near Katie is causing his abilities to spiral out of control. If the wrong people notice, they’ll both be targets.

Katie never wanted to move to Japan—now she may not make it out of the country alive.

 

I was really looking forward to reading this book: the cover is gorgeous, and the premise is fantastic: American girl moves to Japan, meets Japanese boy whose drawings come to life. Add some romance and the Yakuza to the mix, and you’ve got Ink.

The author has spent time in Japan as an exchange student, and it shows. Katie’s confusion and frustration as she tries to adapt to a new culture are very well portrayed, as is her excitement when she starts getting the little things right. The descriptions of Japan are the book’s best feature; reading about the natural beauty, the food, and daily life prompted me to add Japan to my list of places to visit. Because it’s presented through Katie’s eyes, there’s no sense of info dump; Katie’s discovery of Japan is perfectly presented.

Unfortunately, in emphasizing the setting, the author neglects other vital aspects of the story, namely the plot and the other characters. The central story is very slow to develop and full of clichés, and that’s due primarily to the weak characterization. We never really get to know any of the secondary characters at all; rather than being multi-dimensional beings, they’re clichéd means to an end. We’re told Katie’s best friends and her aunt are instrumental in helping her deal with her mother’s death and her move to Japan, yet we don’t see much in the way of interaction with them, let alone understand why they mean so much to Katie. Instead, she meets Tomohiro, and boom, she’s in love, and there’s kind of a love triangle, and there’s a frenemy, and from that point forward those are the only four characters who seem to get any attention. The action picked up significantly in the last third of the book, as the implications of Tomohiro’s skills became clear. There’s a strong supernatural element to this story and it’s well set up for an ongoing series.

I did have some other nitpicky issues with the story: Would an American girl who can’t read the buttons on a Japanese washing machine really be able to determine in a few seconds that a rapid-fire conversation was in Korean? Katie’s aunt bought her a mobile phone for emergencies, then left Katie alone for a week while she went to another city, so why in the world does Katie’s cell phone not have her aunt’s number in its list of contacts? Most of the dialogue is in English, but some is in Japanese. Because of this, it’s difficult to tell in which language conversations are taking place. Most of the time it doesn’t matter, but sometimes it does, and the way it’s presented can be confusing. None of these are significant, but they’re the kind of missteps that pull me out of the story.

As I mentioned earlier, the cover is gorgeous. I read an electronic version, and it immediately became clear that this is a book that should be read in physical form. The drawings that appear throughout are beautifully rendered, and I’m pretty sure that some of them are clever animations when you flip through the pages. It’s a detail that fits in well with the story and adds to the overall impression.

 

This ARC was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 3 stars

Review: Hunger by Michael Grant

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HungerHunger by Michael Grant (Egmont UK, 2010)

 

Blurb: It’s been three months since everyone under the age of fifteen became trapped in the bubble known as the FAYZ. Things have only gotten worse. Food is running out, and each day more kids are developing supernatural abilities. Soon tension rises between those with powers and those without, and when an unspeakable tragedy occurs, chaos erupts. It’s the normals against the mutants, and the battle promises to turn bloody.
But something more dangerous lurks. A sinister creature known as the Darkness has begun to call to the survivors in the FAYZ. It needs their powers to sustain its own. When the Darkness calls, someone will answer–with deadly results.

 

I’m still enjoying this series. The characters are interesting and the problems are real–a bunch of kids living in a world with no adults, cut off from the rest of the world and dealing with sudden new powers and inequalities is not going to be a happy place. It’s a setup that’s perfect for exploring conflict.

One of the things I continue to enjoy about these books is the realism of the kids’ plight: They would run out of food. And they wouldn’t necessarily understand why that is and what to do about it. Also, the breakneck pacing that made the first book so exciting continues here. There’s a lot of action, and while there are instances of downtime, they’re more of the “eye of the hurricane” variety rather than slow interludes that bog down the action.

For a plot-driven book, the characters have a lot of depth and vulnerability. They’re all individuals, most of them with their own motives and ambitions, although alliances do form, and break, and re-form. I was worried that I’d lose track of who was who, but they are unique, so it’s not a problem.

As the series continues, the lines continue to blur between good guys and bad guys, and right and wrong. I’m very happy I waited until this year to start reading, because I’ve got all the books and don’t have to endure a long wait between installments!

My rating: 4 stars

Review: More Bitter Than Death by Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff

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MoreBitterThanDeathMore Bitter Than Death by Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff (Simon & Schuster, 2013)

Blurb: It’s a rainy evening in a Stockholm suburb and five-year-old Tilda is hiding under the kitchen table playing with her crayons when a man enters and beats her mother to death in cold blood. The only witness, Tilda can’t quite see the murderer or figure out who he is. But she’s still a witness.

Across town, Siri Bergman and her best friend, Aina, are assisting their old friend Vijay with a research project on domestic abuse. They host a weekly self-help group for survivors, and over the course of several dark, rainy evenings, these women share their stories of impossible love, violence, and humiliation. When the boyfriend of one of the women turns out to be a prime suspect in a high-profile murder case, it isn’t long before Siri finds herself embroiled in the investigation. But as she draws closer to finding the murderer, unexpected developments in her own life force her to wonder: Can she learn to trust a man again in spite of being surrounded by women who have been so deeply betrayed by love?

 

The last few years have been difficult for Siri Bergman. She’s lost her husband and she’s been the victim of a vicious stalker. But things seem to be looking up: her friends are supportive as ever, and she’s got a new man in her life who knows firsthand what she’s been through. But when Siri and her best friend/business partner Aina agree to host a self-help group for women with PTSD, Siri is once again forced to confront her own past: she too has been betrayed, and she too must make a decision—to remain on her own, or to take that leap and trust a man, her boyfriend, the detective who investigated her stalking case. It’s a decision made even more complicated when she finds out she’s carrying his child.

Like the first book in the series (Some Kind of Peace), this is a psychological thriller more than a mystery. In fact, the focus of the book is the women in the self-help group, although the murder of Tilda’s mother is always in the background. And like many Nordic crime novels, this one deals with broader social issues rather than an individual crime, in this case, the issue of violence against women—not just the women in the group, but in all of Sweden. However, this also makes the book difficult to read. Violence against women takes many forms, and enough of them were explored in the self-help group, and in enough detail, that I had to set the book aside from time to time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; if the intent is to hold up a mirror to society, the authors have succeeded.

The biggest flaw in this book, for me, and what makes this much weaker than the first book, is that there wasn’t a whole lot of suspense or tension regarding the outcome of the investigation. Like Siri, we’re kept at arm’s length. While I was worried about Siri and what was going to happen to her, I didn’t have the sense of immediacy or urgency about the other characters that I did with Some Kind of Peace. One of the strengths of the series is that the authors have chosen patients whose issues resonate with Siri. But while it’s easy to accept a homicide detective or a crime reporter becoming involved in—or at least closely following—major crime investigations such that they’re personally affected, I’m not certain how well that will work out for a behavioral (i.e., not criminal) psychologist. I’d like to continue reading the series, in large part to see the answer to this question.

 

This ARC was furnished by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 3 stars

Review: The Likeness by Tana French

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The LikenessThe Likeness by Tana French (Viking Adult, 2008)

Blurb: Six months after the events of In the Woods, Detective Cassie Maddox is still trying to recover. She’s transferred out of the murder squad and started a relationship with Detective Sam O’Neill, but she’s too badly shaken to make a commitment to him or to her career. Then Sam calls her to the scene of his new case: a young woman found stabbed to death in a small town outside Dublin. The dead girl’s ID says her name is Lexie Madison (the identity Cassie used years ago as an undercover detective, and she looks exactly like Cassie.

With no leads, no suspects, and no clue to Lexie’s real identity, Cassie’s old undercover boss, Frank Mackey, spots the opportunity of a lifetime. They can say that the stab wound wasn’t fatal and send Cassie undercover in her place to find out information that the police never would and to tempt the killer out of hiding. At first Cassie thinks the idea is crazy, but she is seduced by the prospect of working on a murder investigation again and by the idea of assuming the victim’s identity as a graduate student with a cozy group of friends.

As she is drawn into Lexie’s world, Cassie realizes that the girl’s secrets run deeper than anyone imagined. Her friends are becoming suspicious, Sam has discovered a generations-old feud involving the old house the students live in, and Frank is starting to suspect that Cassie’s growing emotional involvement could put the whole investigation at risk.

 

I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of identity. Who determines our identity—are we who we believe we are, or are we who others believe us to be? Is it possible for someone to truly assume another person’s identity, and if so, wouldn’t that mean we are what other people project onto us, rather than the sum of our own emotions and experiences?

This is the story of four people who have developed an incredibly close bond—only one of them isn’t who the others think she is. And when Lexie Madison is found murdered near the home where she’s living and, with her friends, renovating, the police immediately realize she’s been living a lie, one they plan to continue, with the help of the undercover officer who created Lexie’s identity years ago. As Lexie, Cassie is able to slip right into the murdered girl’s life and routine, or so it seems.

Cassie is a fascinating and complex character, and French does an amazing job of keeping Lexie and Cassie completely separate even as they are unavoidably intertwined. Ireland itself, as it always is, becomes a primary character in this novel, which is almost Gothic in flavor with the old, drafty estate house as its main setting. But by far the most intriguing character in this book is Lexie, the “real” Lexie, precisely because she is entirely the product of other people’s memories. She’s lived her entire life pretending to be someone else, and French has written a remarkable psychological thriller around discovering who Lexie might actually have been.

 

My rating: 5 stars

Review: Burned by Thomas Enger

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BurnedBurned by Thomas Enger (Faber and Faber, 2011)

Blurb: Henning Juul is a veteran investigative crime reporter in Oslo, Norway. A horrific fire killed his six-year-old son, cut scars across his face, and ended his marriage, and on his first day back at the job after the terrible tragedy a body is discovered in one of the city’s public parks. A beautiful female college student has been stoned to death and buried up to her neck, her body left bloody and exposed. The brutality of the crime shakes the whole country, but despite his own recent trauma – and the fact that his ex-wife’s new boyfriend is also on the case – Henning is given the assignment. When the victim’s boyfriend, a Pakistani native, is arrested, Henning feels certain the man is innocent. This was not simply a Middle Eastern-style honor killing in the face of adultery – it was a far more complicated gesture, and one that will drag Henning into a darkness he’s never dreamed of.

 

I picked up this book because it bore the inevitable sticker proclaiming Enger to be “the next Steig Larssen.” Now, I enjoyed the Larssen’s Millennium trilogy, but to be honest, while I love Lisbeth Salander, I don’t think those books represent the best of Nordic crime fiction. Burned, on the other hand, does.

Henning Juul is a truly scarred man, both inside and out. He is tormented by nightmares about the fire that killed his son and he holds to the belief that the fire was intentional—to believe otherwise would burden him with a guilt that would be unbearable. Two years after the fire, he has finally gone back to work as a reporter for an Internet news site, only to find that the world has moved on without him: one of his colleagues is involved with Henning’s ex-wife Nora; his new boss is a woman Henning had once hired as a temporary assistant; many of his contacts and sources are no longer taking his calls.

His first assignment is the murder of a young university student, ostensibly at the hands of her Pakistani boyfriend. However, as Henning quickly discovers, with this case, nothing is as it appears on the surface. Slowly but surely Henning is able to end his self-imposed exile, and through his contact with an old (and very knowledgeable) online source, his colleagues, and his ex-wife, we are able to see glimpses of the capable and bright reporter that Henning was before the fire. This is not merely a flawed character; this is a complex, emotionally damaged man who has a lot of potential as this series progresses. Enger has written a compelling, well-plotted crime story that is full of surprises. This series is going on auto-buy for me.

 

My rating: 4 stars