Monthly Archives: July 2013

Review: Double Cross, The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre

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DoubleCrossDouble Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre (Bloomsbury, 2012)

Blurb: D-Day, 6 June 1944, was a victory of arms. But it was also a triumph for a different kind of operation: one of deceit, aimed at convincing the Nazis that Calais and Norway, not Normandy, were the targets of the 150,000-strong invasion force.
The deception involved every branch of Allied wartime intelligence, but at its heart was a team of five double agents, one of the oddest military units ever assembled: a bisexual Peruvian playgirl, a Polish fighter pilot, a Serbian seducer, a Spaniard with a diploma in chicken farming, and a Frenchwoman whose love for her pet dog nearly wrecked the entire operation.

These were not conventional warriors, but their masterpiece of deceit saved countless lives, and Double Cross is their story.

I’ve always been interested in history, but at university my focus was on Central and Eastern Europe, so while I studied World War II, it was usually in the context of what came after—the Cold War—and I never really studied the Allied side of things. I’ll be honest, much of what I know about D-Day comes from Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. While I find the politics and the machinations and the analysis of war fascinating, I have a hard time reading about the battles themselves. This book, which focused on the machinations and the analysis, was riveting.

This is the first book I’ve read by Ben Macintyre, and I was impressed with the sheer volume of information he includes without being bogged down in academic-sounding prose. He tells the overall story by focusing on the individuals involved, which both draws the reader in and heightens the drama. The Double Cross System came into being in June 1943, when the British realized they actually controlled every single German spy on British soil, and came up with the idea of using this network not just to learn what the Germans were up to but to actively engage in the dissemination of false intelligence. The spies themselves are an unlikely group—philanderers, gamblers, good-time girls, bit-part actors, “substandard” homing pigeons (I am not making this up)—who confounded their handlers and yet managed to fool the entire German intelligence network (who surely must have been more competent than the book makes them appear).

Over the course of a year, the Double Cross agents built up a network of nonexistent spies and fed their German handlers carefully crafted misinformation about the upcoming invasion. Having broken the Enigma code early on, British intelligence were able to keep tabs on how German intelligence were using the information being fed to them. It was a masterful operation, and one that played a large role in the success of the Normandy invasion:

“D-Day was the reason for the Double Cross system, the grand finale to every preceding deception was a foretaste. The men who fought that day have become lasting symbols of courage and skill. But while they battled their way up the bloody dunes, an unseen force fought alongside them, from many miles away, not with guns, bullets and bombs, but with subterfuge and stealth, to whittle away German strength and confidence, to confuse, surprise and mislead, and shield the invaders with lies.” (p. 320)

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in World War II or wartime espionage.

My rating: 4 stars

Review: The Lewis Man by Peter May

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42985_LewisMan_HB:564x240The Lewis Man by Peter May (Quercus, 2012), Lewis Trilogy #2

 

Blurb: The male Caucasian corpse – marked by several horrific stab wounds – is initially believed by its finders to be over two thousand years old. Until they spot the Elvis tattoo on his right arm. The body, it transpires, is not evidence of an ancient ritual killing, but of a murder committed during the latter half of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, Fin Macleod has returned to the island of his birth. Having left his wife, his life in Edinburgh, and his career in the police force, the former detective inspector is intent on repairing past relationships and restoring his parents’ derelict croft. But when DNA tests flag a familial match between the bog body and the father of Fin’s childhood sweetheart, Marsaili Macdonald, Fin finds his homecoming more turbulent than expected. Tormod Macdonald, now an elderly man in the grip of dementia, had always claimed to be an only child without close family.

 

I’ve always wanted to visit the Outer Hebrides. I’m not sure why–the windswept isolation sounds beautiful to me, in a rugged hardscrabble way, and I’d like to see it for myself. Lewis makes a wonderful backdrop for these novels.

As with The Black House, Peter May has written a taut, compelling novel with wonderful characters. Fin Macleod has returned to Lewis, perhaps permanently, and is discovering that the “simple” life he left behind was anything but—in fact it’s a tangled web of conversations that never took place—and trying to find his way in the new life he’s establishing for himself. Now that Fin is finally coming to terms with the death of his son, he tries to establish a relationship with Marsaili, his teenage love, and her son, who is starting his own family. However, Fin is soon drawn into a mystery when a body is found in a bog—and judging from the Elvis tattoo and the stab wounds, the man was murdered. DNA soon links the body to Marsaili’s father, who has dementia.

The story of Tormod Macdonald is handled beautifully, with sensitivity and pathos. The key to solving the mystery of the bog body is locked up in his memories, which he can relive but cannot articulate. His story, revealed a piece at a time, is heartbreaking, all the more so because it’s based on the true stories of children like him.

It’s interesting to me that the titles for both The Black House and The Lewis Man come from the cases under investigation, because the cases are not really the focus of either book. The trilogy’s focus on character relationships and interactions, and broader social issues, is what makes it so compelling.

 

My rating: 5 stars

Review: The Light Ages by Ian R. MacLeod

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TheLightAgesThe Light Ages by Ian R. MacLeod (Open Road Media, 2013; originally published 2005)

 

Blurb: In a bleak and gritty England, in a fantastical Age of Industry, the wealth that comes from magic is both revered and reviled. Here, an ambitious young man is haunted by his childhood love–a woman determined to be a part of the world he despises.

 

The England in this novel is reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ England, only with a twist: aether, a magical substance that transformed English society. Aether is almost like a magical glue in that it holds things together that would otherwise come apart, which is both good and bad when it is the major component of most of England’s infrastructure, as it short-circuits progress: why search for ways to improve things when you can just fix them with aether? Aether must be mined and used in combination with magic, which leads to a controlling elite of Guilds and Guildsmen, who control the economy and therefore the jobs, and an underclass of miners—who, after years of exposure, are sometimes slowly transformed into hideous creatures: Changelings, also called “trolls,” and are considered fit only for the asylum, where they are used for experimentation.

Robert Borrows is born in a town in Yorkshire that is the heart of aether mining country. It’s said that the residents’ hearts beat in time with the enormous aether engines that power the country. When he is still just a boy, Robert’s mother turns into a troll, which destroys his family. Rejecting a dreary future as a member of his father’s Guild, Robert runs away to London, where he’s able to live a life outside the Guilds, albeit one of poverty and petty crime. He soon becomes a political agitator, arguing that society is at a turning point: it’s time for revolution and a new society, one without the strict social strata imposed by the guilds.

But Robert has also seen the better things in life. Shortly before her death, his mother introduced him to Annalise, who is not quite human—a Changeling?—and whom he encounters on Midsummer’s Day in London. She now styles herself Anna Winters, a part of the upper class. Robert senses that their destinies are intertwined, but he’s not sure how—until he begins to suspect something, something that binds him to Anna, something involving their parents, and the day the aether engines stopped.

MacLeod’s writing is superb. The descriptions are lush, gorgeous, and give a real sense of time and place. His characters are likewise nuanced and multifaceted. But Robert is a very passive character, and slow to make connections; the book, already slow-moving, bogs down under the sheer weight of his passivity and introspection, and sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of the actual events of the story. Which is too bad, because the setting, the characters, and most of all the language are extraordinary, but the story itself doesn’t quite hold up.

 

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

My rating: 3 stars

Review: Faithful Place by Tana French

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Faithful PlaceFaithful Place by Tana French (Hodder and Stoughton, 2011)

Blurb: Tana French’s In the Woods and The Likeness captivated readers by introducing them to her unique, character-driven style. Her singular skill at creating richly drawn, complex worlds makes her novels not mere whodunits but brilliant and satisfying novels about memory, identity, loss, and what defines us as humans. With Faithful Place, the highly praised third novel about the Dublin Murder squad, French takes readers into the mind of Frank Mackey, the hotheaded mastermind of The Likeness, as he wrestles with his own past and the family, the lover, and the neighborhood he thought he’d left behind for good.

I honestly didn’t think it would be possible for me to like this book more than The Likeness. I was wrong. Faithful Place is a fantastic read.

19-year-old Frank Mackey and his girlfriend Rosie Daley were going to escape inner-city Dublin and run away to London together. Only Rosie never showed up; assuming she’d taken off without him, Frank went on with his life in Dublin, joining the police force and avoiding his family as much as possible. But he’s forced to confront all of the what-ifs and the family demons when Rosie’s suitcase is found in an abandoned house on the street where they grew up.

Part of what I like about this series is that it’s not a serial. Each book stands just fine on its own, and while there is an added dimension you get from reading them in order, you don’t get the sense you’ve missed something if you don’t read them in order. There’s a new main character in each book–with the exception of the central character, which is Dublin itself–with an entirely new perspective and history and relationships, and the author is more than capable of creating richly layered and detailed stories that are only peripherally related to the other books.

I’ll definitely keep reading these books!

My rating: 5 stars

Review: Misterioso by Arne Dahl

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MisteriosoMisterioso by Arne Dahl (Pantheon Books, 2011)

 

Blurb: After dismantling a bloody hostage situation at a bank outside Stockholm, Detective Paul Hjelm is dropped into an elite task force assembled to find an elusive murderer with a sophisticated method. The killer breaks into the homes of Sweden’s high-profile business leaders at night, places two bullets in their heads with deadly precision, then removes the bullets from the walls—a ritual enacted to a rare bootleg recording of Thelonious Monk’s jazz classic “Misterioso.” As Hjelm and the rest of the team follow one lead after another, they must navigate the murky underworld of the Russian mafia, penetrate the secret society of Sweden’s wealthiest denizens, and battle one of the country’s most persistent ills: a deep-rooted xenophobia that affects both the police and the perpetrator.

 

Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose. That’s what I was thinking as I read this book. Originally published in 1999 but only recently translated, Misterioso is as relevant today as it was then. Wealthy men are being killed in Stockholm—men who profited greatly while others suffered during the Swedish banking crisis of the 1990s. Could this be the killer’s motivation—payback? It’s a sentiment that resonates in a post–Occupy Wall Street society.

A special task force is formed to investigate the murders—a sort of island of lost toys, if you will. These are not the cream of the crop in Swedish law enforcement, but as the investigation proceeds and we learn more about them, it’s clear why each has been chosen and what special contribution each can make to the group. The interpersonal dynamics are fascinating and well presented, with just the right balance between insight into the characters and procedural details of the murder cases.

Many Nordic crime novels are very dark in tone. Misterioso has its dark moments, to be sure, and some disturbing imagery as well (the Russian mafia is not known for being gentle). But there are flashes of humor throughout that keep the book, and its characters, from being too intense. While all of the investigators have their problems—they’ve been pulled from various regions of Sweden, and one of them actually lives in the police station—these are not the stereotypical tortured detectives that one associates with Nordic crime. This is the first book in a series with an ensemble cast, so we only scratch the surface in terms of getting to know them all, but what we do see indicates that this will not be a solely plot-driven/procedural series and that these characters will continue to develop.

Dahl’s writing is smooth and effective—his descriptions of music are superb, one of the high points of the book—and the translation is unobtrusive and idiomatic. This was a fine debut crime novel, and I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

 

My rating: 4 stars

Review: No Time to Lose by Peter Piot

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No Time to LoseNo Time to Lose: A Life in Pursuit of Deadly Viruses by Peter Piot (W.W. Norton & Company,  2012).

Blurb: When Peter Piot was in medical school, a professor warned, “There’s no future in infectious diseases. They’ve all been solved.” Fortunately, Piot ignored him, and the result has been an exceptional, adventure-filled career. In the 1970s, as a young man, Piot was sent to Central Africa as part of a team tasked with identifying a grisly new virus. Crossing into the quarantine zone on the most dangerous missions, he studied local customs to determine how this disease—the Ebola virus—was spreading. Later, Piot found himself in the field again when another mysterious epidemic broke out: AIDS. He traveled throughout Africa, leading the first international AIDS initiatives there. Then, as founder and director of UNAIDS, he negotiated policies with leaders from Fidel Castro to Thabo Mbeki and helped turn the tide of the epidemic. Candid and engrossing, No Time to Lose captures the urgency and excitement of being on the front lines in the fight against today’s deadliest diseases.

 

In the middle of the twentieth century, the conventional wisdom held that infectious diseases were a thing of the past: vaccination programs and antibiotics had most of them under control, and there was general optimism that others (such as malaria) would soon be eradicated as well. Very few people imagined the challenges that lay ahead: emerging diseases such as Ebola and SARS; drug-resistant strains of bacteria, which made previously curable diseases untreatable; and a deadly new epidemic: HIV/AIDS.

Peter Piot chose to study infectious diseases, going against the advice of his medical school teachers. In doing so, he set himself up for an amazing life: He was one of the first Westerners to arrive on the scene of the 1976 Ebola outbreak—the first known outbreak—in Yambuku, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). After that experience, Piot decided to continue his study of infectious diseases, with a focus on sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In the 1980s, as HIV/AIDS emerged in Western nations, Piot was one of the first to grasp the significance of and the impact the virus would have on Africa, in particular sub-Saharan Africa. Piot spent the latter part of his career organizing the world response to HIV/AIDS, taking care to ensure the developing world was both represented and given assistance.

Dr. Piot is an engaging writer, and the book mirrors the diseases he’s dealing with. The first half is fast-paced and adventurous, the story of a virus hunter in the hot zones of Africa. The second half of the book is much slower, as it deals with the slow-to-develop HIV/AIDS epidemic and the glacial pace of the world’s response to it. All in all, this was a fascinating memoir.

 

My rating: 4 stars

Review: The Never List by Koethi Zan

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TheNeverListThe Never List by Koethi Zan (Pamela Dorman Books, 2013)

Sarah and Jennifer, having survived an accident that claimed the life of Jennifer’s mother, analyze every statistic they can find about danger—what can happen and the odds of those things happening—and assemble what they call “the Never List”: a list of things they must never do if they are to stay safe. They faithfully follow the list, until the night they get into a cab that isn’t a cab, and they wake up in chains in a madman’s cellar. After three years of unspeakable horror, Sarah manages to escape, and she and two other women are finally free—but Jennifer has vanished.

Ten years pass, and Caroline (as Sarah now prefers to be called) has moved to New York City, where she can live and work without ever setting foot outside her apartment. But that madman is up for parole, and without her testimony, he might well be set free. Not only that, but the letters he sends her are more and more intriguing, hinting at a past that isn’t hers but might refer to the two other survivors, neither of whom wants anything to do with her. She finally convinces them that they must follow the clues in those letters, and together the three women—Sarah, Tracy, and Christine—confront what was done to them, and what they did to each other.

Caroline/Sarah is a compelling and sympathetic character; she’s aware of the devastating emotional impact of her imprisonment but seems content to stop at awareness and not delve into the reasons behind it or find ways to move forward. It’s only when she leaves her isolation and discovers that the madman might not have been acting alone that she is able to look beyond her own experience and think about other people. In fact, all of the characters are compelling, if not always sympathetic. There are two interwoven plots in the book—what is going on in the present, and what went on in the past—and it’s through the current shared experience that Sarah, Tracy, and Christine are finally able to discover the truth about what really happened in the cellar ten years ago.

This was a difficult book to read, and it was an even more difficult book to stop reading. Although she’s writing about the (all-too-real) underground subculture that exists solely to exploit and debase women, the author avoids vivid descriptions, choosing instead to rely on emotional and psychological imagery that arguably have more impact on the reader. The pacing is top-notch; the author found the perfect balance between plot development and character development to make this story work.

This is an excellent debut, and I would like to see more from this author.

 

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

 

My rating: 5 stars

Review: Black Heart by Holly Black

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Black HeartBlack Heart by Holly Black (Margaret K. McElderry, 2012)

Blurb: Cassel Sharpe has the most deadly ability of all. With one touch, he can transform any object – including a person – into something else entirely. And that makes him a wanted man. The Feds are willing to forgive all his past crimes if he’ll only leave his con artist family behind and go straight. But why does going straight feel so crooked?

For one thing, it means being on the opposite side of the law from Lila, the girl he loves. She’s the daughter of a mob boss and getting ready to join the family business herself. Though Cassel is pretty sure she can never love him back, he can’t stop obsessing over her. Which would be bad enough, even if her father wasn’t keeping Cassel’s mother prisoner in a posh apartment and threatening not to let her leave until she returns the priceless diamond she scammed off him years ago. Too bad she can’t remember where she put it.

The Feds say they need Cassel to get rid of a powerful man who is spinning dangerously out of control. But if they want Cassel to use his unique talent to hurt people, what separates the good guys from the bad ones? Or is everyone just out to con him?

Time is running out, and all Cassel’s magic and cleverness might not be enough to save him. With no easy answers and no one he can trust, love might be the most dangerous gamble of all.

 

I think the Curseworkers may be my favorite YA urban fantasy series. The writing is crisp and witty, the story line is unique, the pacing is peppy, the characters are well-developed and realistic, and the world-building is superb. These are fantastic books and I can’t recommend them enough.

The first book, White Cat, was the story of Cassel’s self-discovery. Red Glove explored how he dealt with what he’d learned and tried to move forward, and Black Heart is all about Cassel taking control of his life. Romance is front and center in this book, which makes sense—he’s dealt with the fallout of his feelings without ever dealing with the relationship itself.

Over the course of the series, Cassel has grown from a naïve non-magic-worker to a cynical pawn in other people’s games: various crime families, the Feds. But he’s smart, and he’s spent his entire life learning how to run a con, and in this book the elements all come together for Cassel to finally run a con of his own. Once again Black managed to completely surprise me with her plotting. When I look back at the series I can see how she laid out off the elements and how everything fit together, but when I’m reading it, I’m not analyzing at all, I’m just enjoying the ride. That’s the mark of a good storycrafter.

 Black Heart is the third book in the series, and while it read as though it was the final book, I’ve seen a new, fourth book listed. I am curious as to whether this will be the further adventures of Cassel and Lila or the new adventures of a secondary character. Either way, it’s on my TBR list!

 

My rating: 4 stars

Review: The Blackhouse by Peter May

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BlackhouseThe Blackhouse by Peter May (Quercus, 2011)

Blurb: A brutal killing takes place on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland: a land of harsh beauty and inhabitants of deep-rooted faith.

A MURDER. Detective Inspector Fin Macleod is sent from Edinburgh to investigate. For Lewis-born Macleod, the case represents a journey both home and into his past.

A SECRET. Something lurks within the close-knit island community. Something sinister.

A TRAP. As Fin investigates, old skeletons begin to surface, and soon he, the hunter, becomes the hunted.

 

I saw this book and its sequels on a display table in Waterstones and couldn’t pass it up. The cover photo does an excellent job of setting up the book, which is takes place in the bleak, remote Outer Hebrides (off the northwestern coast of Scotland).

Fin Macleod has recently lost his son, and the island functions as the perfect backdrop to Macleod’s grief.  Macleod is sent to Lewis to investigate a murder that bears a striking resemblance to a recent murder in Edinburgh, where he now lives. He finds both solace and further anger in his memories of growing up in this environment—and many of them center on the island’s rite of passage, the guga harvest. Every year, twelve men from Lewis spend a week on the sheer cliffs of Sula Sgeir, hunting gannet chicks. Macleod participated only once, and his memories are hazy—but the disaster that occurred during that year’s hunt has kept him away from Lewis for almost 20 years. Adding to the story’s complexity is the disintegration of Macleod’s marriage and his reunion with old friends—including his first love.

This is a well-written, compelling mystery, and I’m happy that I bought it. It’s the first in a trilogy, and I’ve already bought the other two books.

 

My rating: 5 stars

Review: Safe as Houses by Simone van der Vlugt

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SafeAsHousesSafe As Houses by Simone van der Vlugt (Canongate Books Ltd., 2013)

Blurb: A single mother stands in the garden of her isolated house, hanging out the washing, when suddenly a man appears. When he grabs at her, Lisa runs, but she is not quick enough. Suddenly Lisa and her young daughter find themselves held hostage in their own home. In the following hours and days, Lisa will do the unimaginable to protect her child—all the time wondering why the only witness has not come back to help her…
Simmering with tension and lust for revenge, 
Safe as Houses is a terrifying story of every woman’s worst fears.

 

Lisa is home alone with her young daughter, who is ill, when there’s a knock on the door. A man forces his way inside—and decides to stay awhile with his new “family.”

Senta is lost, and when she comes across a house, she stops to ask for directions. Nobody answers her knock, and when she walks around the house and looks in the window, she sees a woman, a child—and hiding in the corner, a man with a knife. Knowing she has to notify the authorities, Senta runs back to her car and drives away, only to crash her car into the nearby canal.

The setup is fantastic: it’s an intriguing premise with sympathetic characters and a lot of suspense. Unfortunately the book didn’t live up to its potential. Rather than feeling closer and more connected to the characters as the story progressed, I felt more and more distant. The book is written in the present tense, which can bring a sense of immediacy, but for me it just didn’t work in this particular instance. While I knew exactly what was happening to each of the characters, particularly Senta—a good part of her story takes place inside her own thoughts—I didn’t feel like I really got to know the characters or get a sense of what they were thinking and feeling because of the focus on the events rather than on their impact. It’s a psychological thriller that doesn’t quite get far enough into the psychology.

 

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

 

My rating: 3 stars