Monthly Archives: August 2013

Review: Kill You Twice by Chelsea Cain

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KillYouTwiceKill You Twice by Chelsea Cain (Minotaur Books, 2012)

Blurb: Nothing makes Portland detective Archie Sheridan happier than knowing that Gretchen Lowell—the serial killer whose stunning beauty is belied by the gruesome murders she’s committed—is locked away in a psych ward. Archie can finally heal from the near-fatal physical and emotional wounds she’s inflicted on him and start moving on with his life.

 

To this end, Archie throws himself into the latest case to come across his desk: A cyclist has discovered a corpse in Mount Tabor Park on the eastern side of Portland. The man was gagged, skinned, and found hanging by his wrists from a tree. It’s the work of a killer bold and clever enough to torture his victim for hours on a sunny summer morning in a big public park and yet leave no trace.

And then Archie gets a message he can’t ignore—Gretchen claims to have inside knowledge about this grisly murder. Archie finally agrees to visit Gretchen, because he can’t risk losing his only lead in the case. At least, that’s what he tells himself . . . but the ties between Archie and Gretchen have always been stronger, deeper, and more complex than he’s willing to admit, even to himself. What game is she playing this time? And even more frightening, what long-hidden secrets from Gretchen’s past have been dredged up that someone would kill to protect?

 

I think this might be the end of the line for me regarding this series. While the premise is original and compelling—male detective develops twisted yet romantic relationship with female serial killer—I think that aspect of the series has been played out. While I do still enjoy the relationship between Archie and Gretchen, the increasingly contrived means by which Cain forces them into face-to-face confrontations requires a little too much in the way of suspended disbelief for me to enjoy them. In my review of The Night Season, book four in the series, I said, “As much as I enjoyed the interplay between Archie Sheridan and Gretchen Lowell in the previous books, it was starting to feel forced and I didn’t think the author could sustain a series based purely on their relationship.” Unfortunately, this proved to be true in Kill You Twice. By the end of the book my main reaction was eye-rolling; it was like watching a Hollywood movie that was big on explosions, thin on story.

 

My rating: 2 stars

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Review: Bones of the Lost by Kathy Reichs

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BonesoftheLostBones of the Lost by Kathy Reichs (Scribner, 2013), Temperance Brennan series

Blurb: When Charlotte police discover the body of a teenage girl along a desolate stretch of two-lane highway, Temperance Brennan fears the worst. The girl’s body shows signs of foul play. Inside her purse police find the ID card of a prominent local businessman, John-Henry Story, who died in a horrific flea market fire months earlier. Was the girl an illegal immigrant turning tricks? Was she murdered?

The medical examiner has also asked Tempe to examine a bundle of Peruvian dog mummies confiscated by U.S. Customs. A Desert Storm veteran named Dominick Rockett stands accused of smuggling the objects into the country. Could there be some connection between the trafficking of antiquities and the trafficking of humans?

As the case deepens, Tempe must also grapple with personal turmoil. Her daughter Katy, grieving the death of her boyfriend in Afghanistan, impulsively enlists in the Army. Meanwhile, Katy’s father Pete is frustrated by Tempe’s reluctance to finalize their divorce. As pressure mounts from all corners, Tempe soon finds herself at the center of a conspiracy that extends all the way from South America, to Afghanistan, and right to the center of Charlotte.

 

Like Reichs’s last book, Bones of the Lost is an “issue” book, by which I mean Reichs is using her well-established series to educate readers about an issue she is passionate about, in this case human trafficking. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; properly done, such a book can encourage discussion and change people’s thinking. However, Reichs isn’t very good at it. Rather than present information in a way that is organic to the story, Reichs, without fail, does one of two things: either she has her main character, Tempe Brennan, give a wordy explanation to someone (often when that someone would already know the basics of what she’s explaining), or she has Brennan go online to look something up, then regurgitates a bunch of statistics and factual information (in other words, several pages of info dump). The problem with this style of presentation is that rather than read and absorb the information, many readers will simply skim over these pages to get back to the action.

While I admire Reichs’s commitment to the issues she brings up in her books, and I agree that human trafficking is a major international problem that needs to be addressed, I wish she’d spend some time studying and perfecting the craft of integrating research into her writing. It surprises me that she isn’t better at it; Reichs herself, like her central character, is a forensic anthropologist who is used to testifying in trials, meaning she is able to successfully present complex information in a manner that most people can understand. But with Bones of the Lost and her previous book, Bones Are Forever, the action comes to a screeching halt when it’s time for the lecture, taking away from what would otherwise be a pretty good mystery.

The story is, as always, driven by Brennan’s need to find justice for a victim who is unable to speak for herself. The Jane Doe at the center of the case has a special significance for Brennan, whose daughter Katy has just joined the military and been sent to fight in Afghanistan. She can’t help but see Jane Doe as kind of a surrogate. Brennan is at a bit of a crossroads: her daughter has become self-sufficient and very strong and independent; her almost-ex-husband Pete is getting remarried in a matter of weeks and is pushing Brennan to sign divorce papers; and her on-again off-again lover Ryan (are they finally off again for good?) won’t return any of her calls or emails.  It will be interesting to see how Brennan moves forward in the next book. Personally I’d like to see some new characters in her private life because Reichs does such a good job with secondary characters generally (Dew, the Customs agent she works the mummified dog case with in this book, is a hoot), and it seems like Brennan’s personal life has been stuck in a bit of a rut lately.

Fans of this series will likely enjoy this book, which I thought was stronger than the previous book, Bones Are Forever. Anyone who is new to the series should start at the beginning, with Déjà Dead, to get a feel for Tempe Brennan (who is completely different from her television counterpart on Bones). It’s a wonderful series.

 

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

 

My rating: 3 stars

Review: It Happens in the Dark by Carol O’Connell

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ItHappensInTheDarkIt Happens in the Dark by Carol O’Connell (Putnam Adult, 2013), Kathy Mallory series

Blurb: The reviews called it “A Play to Die For” after the woman was found dead in the front row. It didn’t seem so funny the next night, when another body was found—this time the playwright’s, his throat slashed.

Detective Kathy Mallory takes over, but no matter what she asks, no one seems to be giving her a straight answer. The only person—if “person” is the right word—who seems to be clear is the ghostwriter. Every night, an unseen backstage hand chalks up line changes and messages on a blackboard. And the ghostwriter is now writing Mallory into the play itself, a play about a long-ago massacre that may not be at all fictional. “MALLORY,” the blackboard reads. “TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT. NOTHING PERSONAL.”

If Mallory can’t find out who’s responsible, heads will roll. Unfortunately, one of them may be her own.

 

Kathy Mallory might just be my favorite fictional detective. A feral girl-child living on the streets of New York, she was taken in by a New York cop and his wife when she was ten, and she’s now one of the best Special Crimes detectives in New York. She’s also borderline sociopathic, completely independent, eerily smart, and impeccably tailored. In spite of her detachment, she’s fiercely loyal, and her adoptive father’s friends are now her family. And although she turns her nose up at their poker games, Mallory does enjoy a good game of Heart Attack Express, in which the goal is to sneak up on your opponent, poke the back of their neck and whisper, “You’re dead.”

One of the biggest pitfalls of writing a character who maintains a strict distance from everyone around her is that she will become one-dimensional. O’Connell is able to avoid this by surrounding Mallory with a cast of sympathetic characters, who love Mallory even as they respect and maybe even fear her, and it’s through these relationships that we see Mallory as a more complex, layered character who is able to create and sustain one-on-one relationships with a certain kind of person—in this case, a young, brilliant stagehand who is as mysterious as she is—and who will act as a fierce guardian for anyone she deems in need of protection.

The story moves along nicely, with a lot of twists and turns along the way. Although this is the eleventh book in the series, it works as a stand-alone. Because I’m so fond of these books I’d suggest reading them from the beginning, but it’s not necessary. The characters are all introduced and enough backstory given to clarify their relationships. I’d recommend the entire series to anyone who loves a good crime novel.

 

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

My rating: 4 stars

Review: The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

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TheBoneSeasonThe Bone Season by Samantha Shannon (Bloomsbury, 2013)

One of the great joys of being a reader is finding a book that incorporates familiar elements in a way that is completely original. The Bone Season is such a book.

Paige Mahoney lives in 2059 Scion London, where “voyants”—people with special mental abilities—are hunted down. Some are imprisoned, some are executed, and some are forced to join the security forces and use their powers to capture other voyants. Paige is part of an underworld group called the syndicate, which is kind of like a mafia protection racket: the voyants go to work for the syndicate, and the syndicate looks out for the voyants. Paige is the group’s “mollisher,” the second in command; and although she recognizes her powers are somewhat unusual, she doesn’t fully understand what they are and what their limits might be. One day, riding home on a subway, she has a run-in with the Scion security forces that changes her life forever: she’s captured and sent to a penal colony run by the Rephaim—an alien race who control the Scion—where voyants are the soldiers in the Rephaim war against their own enemies.

If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. But Shannon has an incredibly deft hand at world-building: the descriptions of London and Sheol I, the prison, are richly layered and full of details. And it’s not just the places. The societies are also fully realized—the human world, where ESP is viewed as a potentially curable illness and people volunteer for “treatment”; the voyant underworld and the syndicate; and then the world of Sheol I—each with its own set of rules and hierarchies. All this information is presented in a way that is effortless for the reader. There’s no slogging through background information or paging through excessive description, and as a reader I never got the sense that I was being given more information or detail than I needed.

Paige is an engaging and incredibly frustrating character. She’s smart, she’s passionate, and she’s intensely loyal, which means that she makes a lot of decisions that an outsider can instantly identify as bad ones, but that Paige is going to make every time because that’s who she is. Paige is also endlessly curious, and at Sheol I she’s got a lot to explore: the prison itself; the Rephaim; her own powers, which she is beginning to realize are even more unusual and special than she ever imagined; and her relationships within the prison. Her master is a Rephaim called Warden, who manages to be simultaneously cruel and sympathetic. The relationship between Paige and Warden is very well drawn; Paige, so slow to trust but so incredibly loyal, doesn’t know what to do with this Rephaim whose motives are so unclear—is he trying to help her or destroy her?

To sum up: I loved this book. It’s richly layered, complex, and compelling. I plan on re-reading it when the sequel is published because I know there’s more under the surface that I’ve missed.

The Bone Season is the first book in a planned series of seven by debut author Samantha Shannon.  Apparently Andy Serkis has already optioned the film rights; if so, I hope this book makes it to the screen, because it has the potential to be amazing in a visual medium.

 

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

My rating: 5 stars

Review: Narcoland by Anabel Hernandez

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NarcolandNarcoland by Anabel Hernandez (Verso, 2013)

Blurb: The definitive history and anatomy of the drug cartels and the “war on drugs” that has cost more than 50,000 lives in just five years, Narcoland explains in riveting detail how Mexico became a base for the megacartels of Latin America and one of the most violent places on the planet. At every turn, Hernández names names—not just the narcos, but also the politicians, functionaries, judges and entrepreneurs who have collaborated with them. In doing so, she reveals the stunning corruption of Mexico’s government and business elite.

 

In the early 1980s, the Reagan Administration broke with previous U.S. foreign policy to embrace the Reagan Doctrine and actively support anti-communist resistance movements. In Central America, this took the form of backing the anti-Sandinista rebels, the Contras. The U.S. Congress had blocked funding of the Contra rebels, so the CIA turned to other money sources, one of which is alleged to have been the trafficking of narcotics from Colombia to the United States via Mexico. When the U.S. began covert operations to use drug money to fund anti-communist rebels, the organizations that controlled the drug routes into the U.S. gained a lot of influence and power and eventually developed into the cartels as we know them today. In Narcoland, Hernandez argues that the current Mexican Drug War is a direct result of those Reagan-era policies.

Hernandez traces the history of collusion between the drug cartels and government and police officials to expose the massive corruption that exists at virtually every level of Mexican business, politics, and law enforcement. The narcos had been around since the 1970s, and Hernandez describes the drug traffickers and the political and judicial systems then as being separate entities; the traffickers respected government authority, paid their “taxes,” and maintained a low profile, and government and police took their cut and turned a blind eye to the narcos’ activities. As the drug trade exploded in the shift from marijuana to cocaine and the profits rose exponentially, this separation began to fade, and no longer willing to simply turn a blind eye, politicians and law enforcement officials took an active role in drug trafficking. Rather than paying money into the system, the narcos were now buying favors directly from the individuals they worked with, and political campaigns were funded with drug money. Under Presidents Fox and Calderón, the author argues that the federal government chose sides, protecting the Sinaloa cartel in its struggle with the other cartels, such as the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas.

For someone who is not familiar with the history of the various cartels and their major players, the level of detail can be overwhelming. Names are sometimes given in the English tradition (father’s surname) but sometimes are given in the Mexican tradition (father’s surname, mother’s surname) and it can be a bit confusing. Also, the author uses a lot of acronyms and it’s easy to get lost. There is a list of acronyms and a list of names at the end of the book—many times I wished I were reading a physical copy of the book and could flip to the back for easy reference (this is personal preference: I don’t find glossaries, indices, etc. to be user-friendly in ebooks, for the most part). But these are relatively minor quibbles.

This is a very thoroughly researched and documented book, and because it goes into the history of drug trafficking in Mexico and how the cartels gained so much power instead of simply presenting the situation as it exists today, it doesn’t just expose the corruption, it provides an explanation of its roots and how and why it became so widespread. Understanding the reasons is essential to finding a solution and bringing about major change.

This book was originally published in Mexico in 2010 under the title Los Señores del Narco. It’s been updated to be current through the end of the Calderón presidency in November 2012. Apparently Hernandez has received death threats and is always accompanied by bodyguards; I’m not at all surprised—though obviously I’m saddened and dismayed—to hear that after reading this book.

 

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

My rating: 4 stars

Review: The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

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The5thWaveThe 5th Wave by Rick Yancey (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013)

Blurb: After the 1st wave, only darkness remains. After the 2nd, only the lucky escape. And after the 3rd, only the unlucky survive. After the 4th wave, only one rule applies: trust no one.

Now, it’s the dawn of the 5th wave, and on a lonely stretch of highway, Cassie runs from Them. The beings who only look human, who roam the countryside killing anyone they see. Who have scattered Earth’s last survivors. To stay alone is to stay alive, Cassie believes, until she meets Evan Walker. Beguiling and mysterious, Evan Walker may be Cassie’s only hope for rescuing her brother—or even saving herself. But Cassie must choose: between trust and despair, between defiance and surrender, between life and death. To give up or to get up.

 

I have a confession to make: I love postapocalyptic and/or dystopian novels. Always have done. From Brave New World to We to A Canticle for Liebowitz, to The Stand and The Passage, and on up through Divergent and Gone and The Hunger Games, I love ’em all. Yes, they have certain similarities. Yes, they might indicate a certain cynicism in my attitude toward humanity’s future. But for the most part, these books highlight things I like in my books: sympathetic characters, engaging plots, and a look at the question of what it means to be human.

The 5th Wave does have certain elements that have become clichés in YA dystopian/postapocalyptic fiction: the destruction of society as we know it; the virtual elimination of the adult population; the strong female lead character who’s been taken from her loved ones and has to fight her way back; the hint of romance with a boy she doesn’t necessarily trust. This book, like many others in the genre, is about survivors—what it takes to survive and the toll it takes, both on individuals and on humanity as a whole. But that’s OK, because these are themes I happen to enjoy. A formula isn’t a problem if a writer finds a new and unique way of presenting it, and for me, The 5th Wave is a prime example of that.

By shifting POV between the main characters, Yancey is able to keep the reader unsettled and just a little bit confused about what’s going on—much as the characters themselves must be. There’s a lot of action, but there’s also a lot of waiting, but because the book is character-driven the slow parts don’t bog down the overall pace. The focus is on the characters: on Cassie and her search for her little brother Sammy; on Evan, who may or may not be her savior; and on Ben Parish and his band of fighters.

A lot of reviews on The 5th Wave have focused on the hype around it (it was being called “the next Hunger Games”). I don’t know or care if it’s going to be the next big thing. To me, The 5th Wave was a well-crafted story about the invasion of the planet, and what a kick-ass heroine will do to save her loved ones in the aftermath. I think this is the first in a series, but I enjoyed it as a stand-alone.

 

My rating: 4 stars

Review: Bad Blood by Arne Dahl (Intercrime series)

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BadBloodBad Blood by Arne Dahl (Pantheon, 2013)

Bad blood always comes back around.

It’s been a year since the Power Murders, and the A-Unit of the National Criminal Police in Stockholm is trying to justify its existence. There haven’t been any “violent crimes of an international character” lately and so the various group members have been loaned out to other units. None of them necessarily want such crimes to occur in Sweden, but if one did, at least then they’d have something to do.

Enter the Kentucky Killer, an American serial killer who has just murdered a Swedish national before boarding a flight to Stockholm. Thus begins a fast-paced and intriguing investigation. Rather than being a simple matter of identifying an individual and tracking him down, the situation almost immediately proves to be much more complicated: there was a fifteen-year gap in the American murders, and the death of the primary—really, the only—suspect almost ended the career of the American FBI agent assigned to the original case. Why did the killings resume, and why kill a Swedish literary critic? Within days of arriving in Sweden, K commits more murders in his signature style, which is particularly gruesome and which was developed as a method of interrogation during the Vietnam War by the American armed forces.

Dahl doesn’t provide the details of the torture, but instead paints in broad strokes the instruments used and their effects on the body, as well as the investigators’ reactions to seeing the results. This, to me, was far more effective; seasoned detectives breaking down in tears while reviewing the case files had a bigger impact on me than a vivid description of what they were seeing would have. As with the previous book, Dahl infuses the story with humor, which provided a welcome relief from the never-ending Stockholm summer rain and the A-Unit’s frustration with their inability to quickly solve the case.

The A-Unit is made up of an interesting group of characters, who have their flaws and eccentricities but are all excellent investigators. There was only a hint of their personalities in Misterioso, the first book in the series, but they are more developed in this book, both individually and in their relationships with each other, which adds another dimension to the storytelling. So far the series is a compelling mix of well-paced, complex plotting and strong, unique characters. I’m looking forward to the next book!

 

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

My rating: 4 stars