Monthly Archives: October 2013

Review: BZRK Reloaded by Michael Grant (BZRK #2)

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BZRK ReloadedBZRK Reloaded by Michael Grant (Egmont USA, 2013): BZRK series

 

The first book in the series, BZRK, was a true thrill ride: nanobots, biotech, mass murder, espionage (both political and industrial), good vs. evil, and a hit of romance. The book ended with the failure of the BZRK mission: to stop the Armstrong brothers, Charles and Benjamin, conjoined twins who want to make the world a perfect place through technological enslavement.

BZRK Reloaded is even better.

The book picks up where the previous book left off. Having failed in their mission, the BZRK group is left to pick up the pieces. The president is under the secret control of the Armstrong brothers—maybe—who are using government resources to track down what remains of BZRK. Olivia has suffered horrific injuries; Vincent, having lost one of his biots during the battle, teeters on the brink of insanity; Nijinsky has become the reluctant leader; and Plath and Keats have realized the true stakes of the battle. In fact, part of what makes BZRK Reloaded better than the first book is the transition of BZRK from a group of loosely affiliated gamers who enjoy the action at the nanolevel to a group of individuals with a personal grudge against the Armstrong brothers. Yes, they oppose the utopia the Armstrong Fancy Gifts Corporation would impose upon everyone, but more than that, they have a score to settle with Charles, Benjamin, Burnofsky, and Bug Man. And Anonymous makes a guest appearance as a minor annoyance that turns out to be not so minor.

The characters develop nicely in this second book in a planned trilogy. The book is still full of action, but as with the Gone series, the shifting alliances and perfectly timed conversations reveal motives and secrets of each character without becoming mired in introspection. Grant uses these devices to explore philosophical issues (What makes a good leader? Can battles or wars ever really be cast in terms of black and white, good and evil? Can a person employ tactics he despises for what he believes are the right reasons, and still be a good person? Where and how is that line crossed?) in a way that preserves the book’s rapid pace.

The battle scenes are not as frequent as in BZRK but are no less fascinating; microscopic nanotech making its way around the human body makes for great description, and the in-depth view of what goes into “wiring” the brain—and how the brain reacts—is as compelling as it is cringe-inducing.

This is clearly a second book; while it stands alone, it does so within the context of the series and would be utterly confusing to anyone who didn’t read the first book. It’s setting up the final battle in the third book, BZRK Revolution, so while the ending is a resolution of sorts, I’m left anticipating what is to follow. I’ve got questions, and I’m looking forward to the next book so I can get some answers.

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

My rating: 4 stars

 

Review: Midnight in Peking by Paul French

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Midnight in PekingMidnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French (Penguin, 2012)

Blurb: In the last days of old Peking, where anything goes, can a murderer escape justice?

Peking in 1937 is a heady mix of privilege and scandal, opulence and opium dens, rumors and superstition. The Japanese are encircling the city, and the discovery of Pamela Werner’s body sends a shiver through already nervous Peking. Is it the work of a madman? One of the ruthless Japanese soldiers now surrounding the city? Or perhaps the dreaded fox spirits? With the suspect list growing and clues sparse, two detectives—one British and one Chinese—race against the clock to solve the crime before the Japanese invade and Peking as they know it is gone forever. Can they find the killer in time, before the Japanese invade?

 

From the afterword, “The Writing of Midnight in Peking”: I first read of Pamela Werner in a biography…a footnote made reference to Edgar’s wife Helen feeling nervous after Pamela’s mutilated body was found not far from the Snows’ house in Peking…the footnote also mentioned fox spirits, a “love cult,” the fact that Pamela’s father had once been a British consul in China, and that the murder was never solved.

Inspired by that footnote, French began the research that resulted in Midnight in Peking. While the book focuses on the murder of Pamela Werner, French places that event into context: the lead-up to the Sino-Japanese war, which resulted in the occupation of parts of northern China by the Japanese during World War II. The murder investigation was complicated by the ever-changing political and social situation in the city and was essentially abandoned after the Japanese invasion, with no real attempt to identify the killer.

Pamela’s father, however, was unwilling to accept that his daughter’s murderer could not be found, and he conducted his own private investigation, sending updates to the British government in the hopes they would take action. During his research, French uncovered many of those updates and the responses, which seem to indicate that the British authorities not only failed to conduct a proper investigation into Pamela’s murder, but in fact engaged in a cover-up: among the participants French identifies in his “reconstruction” of the murder was a well-known Western expat.

French is able to incorporate a lot of detail into the book without letting it bog down the story. He gives just enough political and social history of Peking to allow the reader to understand how the murder of a white girl—the daughter of a former British consul, no less—could be shocking, yet not a priority for the British or Chinese police after the initial investigation.

The one major flaw in this book is the lack of a good map. There are so many references to Peking’s streets and major landmarks, and having a visual reference would have been extremely helpful. An antique map (I think; couldn’t get a good look at it) appeared on the endpaper, but as with many hardcover library books, was obscured by the book jacket, library labels, etc. and was unusable as a reader reference.

 

My rating: 4 stars

Review: Countdown by Michelle Rowen

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CountdownCountdown by Michelle Rowen (Harlequin Teen, 2013)

Kira Jordan awakens in a pitch-black room, chained to a wall, with no idea how she got there. She soon realizes the room’s other occupant is Rogan Ellis, convicted murderer, and that he holds the key—literally—to her survival.

Kira soon discovers that she and Rogan have been thrust into a world of underground entertainment—it’s like Survivor on steroids, a brutal series of challenges where contestants have no choice but fight to the death. Theirs is a society where the very wealthy, the Subscribers, are willing to pay for brain implants so they can access “the Network” and watch programming such as Countdown. Kira, who has lived on the streets since the brutal murder of her parents and her sister, is stronger than she thinks, and she soon realizes the benefits of having Rogan on her side outweigh the risks of teaming up with a murderer.

At first the story moves at a breakneck pace, setting aside world-building and characterization for the sake of building tension and suspense. Information about Kira, Rogan, and Countdown and who’s behind it is given out slowly and only when necessary. This works well for the first three-quarters of the book. It’s a thrill ride, and I couldn’t put the book down because I needed to know what happened to Kira and Rogan. But then the story seems to lose its way. Rather than focusing on their own survival, Kira and Rogan suddenly become pawns in a game of industrial espionage, and the action slows almost to a halt. The characters whose survival has depended on quick thinking and immediate action suddenly start agonizing over every decision, hesitating before they do anything, and because there’s been no narrative preparation for such a drastic change, the introspection and need for approval from each other comes across as forced.

There’s a lot going on in Countdown—it’s a dystopian society where a plague has wiped out much of the population but somehow has allowed for the development of psi abilities in some girls, and there’s this forbidden world of ultra-violent “entertainment”—and unfortunately there’s just enough of that to be fun, but not quite enough to make for a complex, compelling read. This is a perfect airport thriller: fun and quick to read, but doesn’t really stay with you once you’ve finished.

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

My rating: 3 stars

Review: The Last Winter of Dani Lancing by P.D. Viner

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LastWinterofDaniLancingThe Last Winter of Dani Lancing by P. D. Viner (Crown Publishers, 2013)

 

Twenty years have passed since Danielle Lancing was kidnapped and murdered. Twenty years in which the case has gone cold, in which her family has been torn apart, her friends’ lives forever changed.

Dani’s father Jim speaks to her on a daily basis. She is there with him, reassuring him, helping him cope with each new day. Dani’s mother is a woman on a mission. Having given up hope of ever finding justice for her daughter, she has learned that Dani’s case is going to be re-opened due to advances in forensic science. But that means more waiting, and waiting is not something Patty Lancing is willing to do. It’s slight comfort that DS Tom Bevans, who has loved Dani his entire life, is heading the investigation. He’s devoted his career to solving this kind of case: the murders of young women. How far is he willing to go to solve Dani’s murder?

We gradually learn about Dani from her ghostly interactions with her father and her observations of the other people she still visits, through their idealized—and not so idealized—memories of her, and through a series of flashbacks that gradually illuminate the real Danielle, who is far more complex than we are first led to believe.

Telling a story in reverse chronology can be a very effective strategy. There are two primary pitfalls to avoid: First is when the structure becomes the story, when a mundane plot is told in reverse, thereby making it a little more interesting than it might otherwise be. The other is when the device is used to withhold information that is known to the characters from the reader, to create a mystery where one doesn’t necessarily exist. This is the strategy that is employed by Viner. While it’s generally successful, it’s also frustrating; while some characters’ reasons for their actions rang true, others didn’t, and there are perhaps a few too many twists and turns that make the plot more complicated than it needed to be.

The writing is somewhat uneven. Viner is best when he is focusing on his characters, whose motivations and emotions come across as genuine and imbue them with depth and purpose. It’s when Viner is trying to provide a sense of narrative tone that he stumbles; in particular, there is a nod to Peter Pan that seemed out of place. The epilogue is likewise puzzling—is it intended to be a resolution or a continuation of the story? Still, The Last Winter of Dani Lancing is a solid thriller, and I look forward to Viner’s next book.

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

My rating: 4 stars

Review: Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois

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CartwheelCartwheel by Jennifer DuBois (Random House, 2013)

 

Cartwheel begins with a note stating that while “the themes of this book were loosely inspired by the story of Amanda Knox,” it is its own story. There’s an argument to be made that the book is much more than “loosely inspired” by those events, not least because of its narrative focus. We know who Amanda Knox is—the alleged murderer—and many people view her imprisonment and conviction as unjust, even tragic. What many, of not most, of those people don’t know is the name of the young woman who is the real victim in all of this, the Englishwoman who lost her life, Meredith Kercher. The real tragedy, the death of a young woman, has been subsumed by the drama surrounding Amanda Knox.

This book has that same self-absorption about it. Lily, a young American, travels to Argentina for a semester abroad. She and her roommate Katy have a very superficial relationship that is representative of Lily’s relationship to just about everything and everybody. Lily, it seems, is a young woman who just doesn’t pay attention to much of anything. And as such, she’s not a particularly compelling central figure: she’s unlikeable, even to those who love her, and that makes the possibility of her being wrongly convicted of Katy’s murder much less suspenseful than it should be.

The Argentine prosecutor, Eduardo, is—of course—convinced of Lily’s guilt before he even really knows the facts of the case; so much so, in fact, that his questioning of the person implicated by DNA at the crime scene focuses on Lily’s involvement rather than the specifics of the murder. He doesn’t seem to care about the truth except as it fits into his preconceived narrative; ironically enough, this happens to be his primary criticism of others.

Lily’s family—divorced parents, sister—travel to Argentina, but because visits with Lily are limited, they spend more time in their heads than they do supporting Lily. Her parents are aware that they are belittling Katy’s death in their hysteria over Lily’s predicament, but having been through a previous family tragedy, this reaction is something they’ve long since learned to live with, which deadens its impact on the story.

As I was reading Cartwheel, I didn’t get the sense that I was reading something original. It drew on the Amanda Knox story to the extent that it was obvious what role each of the characters would play: the wrongly accused American, the murdered roommate, the boyfriend, the Other Suspect whose DNA is found at the crime scene but who cannot possibly have acted alone in committing the crime because everybody wants the American girl to be guilty. While there seems to be an underlying message about the nature of interpersonal relationships and the truth, it’s lost under the retelling of a story many of us already knew.

 

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

My rating: 3 stars

Review: The Burning by Jane Casey

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TheBurningThe Burning by Jane Casey (Minotaur, 2011)

Blurb: A serial killer who wants to watch you burn…

The media call him The Burning Man, a brutal murderer who has beaten four young women to death before setting their bodies ablaze in secluded areas of London’s parks. And now the fifth victim has been found…

Maeve Kerrigan is an ambitious detective constable, keen to make her mark on the murder task force. Her male colleagues believe Maeve’s empathy makes her weak, but the more she learns about the latest victim, Rebecca Haworth, from her grieving friends and family, the more determined Maeve becomes to bring her murderer to justice. But how do you catch a killer no one has seen? And when so much of the evidence they leave behind has gone up in smoke?

 

The blurb above is a bit misleading, as the investigation into the Burning Man murders is really more of a subplot rather than the main focus of The Burning. This isn’t a fast-paced, plot-driven book about capturing a serial killer, but rather a slow-to-develop, character-driven book about betrayal and punishment. That is not a criticism, just a statement of fact.

The real focus of the book is the investigation of the murder of Rebecca Haworth. Maeve Kerrigan is given the responsibility of learning about Rebecca, and she can’t shake the feeling that there’s something not quite right about linking this murder to the earlier Burning Man murders. The more she learns about Rebecca’s life—this golden girl, loved by all who knew her—the more she realizes how far the image is from the truth, and how many people might have had reason to kill her, opening up the possibility of a copycat killer.

The story is mostly told in first person POV by Maeve and Rebecca’s best friend Louise North. It was a bit jarring to have other characters jump in later in the book, in situations where neither Maeve nor Louise was in a position to report on the action, but that was a minor annoyance. More annoying is the way the solution to the mystery is revealed; I’d have preferred something a little more organic to the story.

As with many first books in new series, this one is full of characters who are introduced only briefly, and even the main characters are only developed to a limited extent. Maeve Kerrigan and her colleagues are an interesting bunch, with the usual politics and in-fighting that appear in most crime fiction series. I look forward to reading the next book in this series, as I’m told it continues to improve as it progresses.

 

My rating: 3 stars

Review: The Bones of Paris by Laurie R. King

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The Bones of Paris by Laurie R. Bones of ParisKing (Bantam, 2013): Harris Stuyvesant series

It’s September 1929, and Paris during the Jazz Age is filled with artists—painters, photographers, writers, and filmmakers—and their hangers-on, many of them beautiful young women. When one such young woman goes missing, her American parents contact private investigator Harris Stuyvesant to make sure she’s all right. There is a slight wrinkle: Stuyvesant is more than just an acquaintance of Philippa Crosby, having had an affair with her some time back. Although he’s fairly certain Pip is just off having fun somewhere, he agrees to take the case (not least because he’s just arrived in Paris flat broke).

Stuyvesant begins by visiting Pip’s apartment. There he meets her intriguing roommate, which leads to even more complications not only because his previous relationship with Pip makes his growing attraction to her roommate awkward, but also because of the unexpected return of the woman he’s been trying to forget for the past three years. The complex web of relationships—everybody knows everybody, it seems—makes for a compelling investigation, as does the setting. Paris is a living, breathing entity. The pacing is deceptive; although the plot seems slow to develop with perhaps too much attention given to the visual arts, in fact the suspense steadily builds and the immersion into the artistic mind-set of the time is vital to solving the mystery of Pip’s disappearance.

Stuyvesant’s journey into the Paris art world is fascinating, and the integration of real artists and their work is seamless. There’s enough background and description of surrealist art to bring the art scene to life but not enough that my eyes glazed over. The horrors of the Great War opened up to a time of decadence and selfishness; within certain circles, Art was elevated above all else and the human body was just another medium. There’s a growing sense of desperation as the story unfolds, and knowing what’s around the corner—the Wall Street Crash is just a month away—makes the reader all too aware that this is a society headed straight for a cliff.

This is the second book in a series. I read the previous book, Touchstone, several years ago. While the events of Touchstone are referred to, I think The Bones of Paris stands up on its own. Anyone planning to read both books should read Touchstone first, however, not only to preserve the order of the series but also because it’s a weaker book, and readers who are impressed with The Bones of Paris might feel let down a bit by Touchstone.

 

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

My rating: 5 stars