Monthly Archives: July 2013

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

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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

Review: The Bat by Jo Nesbø

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TheBatThe Bat by Jo Nesbø (Vintage, 2013), Book 1 of the Harry Hole series

Blurb: Inspector Harry Hole of the Oslo Crime Squad is dispatched to Sydney to observe a murder case.  Harry is free to offer assistance, but he has firm instructions to stay out of trouble. The victim is a twenty-three year old Norwegian woman who is a minor celebrity back home. Never one to sit on the sidelines, Harry befriends one of the lead detectives, and one of the witnesses, as he is drawn deeper into the case.  Together, they discover that this is only the latest in a string of unsolved murders, and the pattern points toward a psychopath working his way across the country. As they circle closer and closer to the killer, Harry begins to fear that no one is safe, least of all those investigating the case.

Generally speaking, I prefer to start with the first book when I’m reading a series. I first picked up one of Jo Nesbø’s books purely by chance; I was staying in a hotel that had a huge book exchange and happened upon The Redbreast. That was my introduction to Harry Hole—and indeed to Nordic fiction beyond Smilla and Lisbeth Salander—and this continues to be a favorite series for me, with Harry Hole being an iconic figure in Nordic crime fiction. The Bat, the first book in the series, is finally available in the U.S. It’s a good debut, a very good debut, but having read six books in the series, each of them written and published after this one, I find myself comparing it to Nesbø’s later, more polished work, which I think is probably a bit unfair. At the same time, it’s wonderful to finally have the full story of Harry’s visit to Australia because those events have a major impact on Hole’s life and career and are referred to throughout the series, and it’s been frustrating not to be able to find out what happened.

Harry Hole has just arrived in Sydney to assist in the investigation of the murder of a Norwegian woman. He’s newly sober, and this is an opportunity for him to take stock of his life and try to get his career back on track. I enjoyed getting to know young, idealistic, and even—dare I say it—happy Harry, who still believed in love and the future and the possibility of a successful career. He meets some amazing characters in Australia (which is such a far cry from gloomy Scandinavia that the very feel of the book is different from the later books in the series). Working with the Australian police, Harry navigates the twists and turns of what turns out to be a surprisingly complex mystery. As with his later books, Nesbø is able to integrate multiple subplots into a cohesive whole; however, unlike his later books, this one is told almost exclusively from Harry’s POV, which makes it a little simpler than later books in the series (which, again, makes sense for a debut).

Alas, as always seems to be the case with Harry, things fall apart—and thus continues Harry’s struggle with his demons and his endless downward spiral. And even though I knew what was going to happen in Harry’s life (the frustrating part of translating books 1 and 2 only after books 3-9 were translated), I found myself hoping that he’d avoid temptation. Of course, then he wouldn’t be the dark, tortured Harry Hole who’s kept so many readers so intrigued over the years.

If you enjoy dark Nordic crime fiction and haven’t read any of Jo Nesbø’s books, I would suggest starting with this one. While the plots of the books aren’t necessarily interconnected, the central focus of the series is Harry Hole, and Nesbø has done a brilliant job of character development, as well as increasingly complex plot lines, and it would help to start at the beginning of all of that rather than hopscotching around. The Cockroaches, the second book in the series, should be available soon in English, which makes me very happy indeed.

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

My rating: 4 stars