Monthly Archives: December 2013

Review: The Tenth Circle by Jon Land

Standard

TenthCircleThe Tenth Circle by Jon Land (Open Road Media, 2013)

Blurb: Blaine McCracken pulled off the impossible on a mission in Iran, but his work has just begun. Returning to the US, he faces another terrible threat in the form of Reverend Jeremiah Rule, whose hateful rhetoric has inflamed half the world, resulting in a series of devastating terrorist attacks. But Rule isn’t acting alone. A shadowy cabal is pulling his strings, unaware that they are creating a monster who will soon spin free of their control.

Finding himself a wanted man, McCracken must draw on skills and allies both old and new to get to the heart of a plot aimed at unleashing no less than the tenth circle of hell. A desperate chase takes him into the past, where the answers he needs are hidden amid two of history’s greatest puzzles: the lost colony of Roanoke and the Mary Celeste. As the clock ticks down to an unthinkable maelstrom, McCracken and his trusty sidekick, Johnny Wareagle, must save the United States from a war the country didn’t know it was fighting, and that it may well lose.

As promised in the blurb, The Tenth Circle is a plot-driven thriller featuring a larger-than-life action-movie hero in Blaine McCracken. In this novel he is up against the denizens of what Reverend Rule terms the tenth circle of hell: “A residence reserved for the most damned who seek nothing but death and destruction during their wasted time as interlopers in the world of our Lord.”

Not having read any previous books in this series (this is the eleventh), for the first third of the book I enjoyed the action and the steadily increasing tension. But fairly soon I reached a point where the action was so over-the-top as to border on cartoonish. Without the undercurrent of humor necessary for it to be tongue-in-cheek, the novel takes itself seriously, but by the halfway point my willingness to suspend disbelief had largely vanished.

What should be nonstop action is hampered in places by clunky exposition; heart-pounding scenes are followed by multi-page descriptions of locations from the past, which both saps the energy from the story and becomes confusing as the POV shifts between characters, and chapters that end in cliffhangers for one character are followed by slow-moving, seemingly unrelated bits of other characters’ history. This is worsened by the author’s tendency to provide character backstory by having two characters literally read each other’s dossiers aloud—which is not only unlikely, especially when the characters are well known to each other, but also renders the dialogue stilted and unrealistic. Then again, Land’s characters don’t always like to speak to each other; instead, they manage to convey entire chunks of dialogue in a smirk, sneer, shrug, nod, beam, grin, or any number of ways that don’t actually involve speech.

If you’re a fan of over-the-top, Hollywood-style action thrillers with indestructible heroes, this may well be the book for you. But if you prefer three-dimensional characters and more realistic storylines, best to give this one a pass.

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

My rating: 2 stars

Review: Game by Anders de la Motte

Standard

GameGame by Anders de la Motte (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2013)

Henrik Pettersson is a slacker. He doesn’t have a job, he doesn’t have friends, he spends most of his time gaming and smoking weed. He lives on unemployment benefits and the occasional petty theft. Then one day, riding the subway, he finds a cell phone. He’s planning to sell it for some cash, but then the intriguing message appears on the screen: “Wanna play a game?” At first he ignores the message, but when it instead says, “Wanna play a game, Henrik Pettersson?” he can’t resist. He presses “yes” and becomes a player in the Game.

The Game involves a series of challenges that are filmed, both by the player (using the cell phone that is the primary means of communication between the player and the Game Master) and by others, and uploaded for fans to see, rate, and comment on. Some of the challenges are simple pranks, but the longer Henrik—or HP, as he calls himself in the Game—plays, the more complex the challenges become. Not to mention risky and illegal. And possibly deadly. When the Game puts the one person HP cares about in danger, that’s when he vows to find out who’s behind it, and he begins his search for the Game Master.

Let me just start by saying the entire premise is unrealistic—a secret game involving participants at all levels of society who all cover for each other?—but as a reader, I didn’t care. I was hooked immediately, and the skillful pacing kept me hooked right up until the end. The two primary characters—Henrik and Rebecca Normén, a young cop with a bright future—are sympathetic and interesting, and their relationship to each other is both complex and believable, and laid the groundwork for their actions throughout the novel. This was a fun, quick, enjoyable read.

Game is the first book in a trilogy; the other books are Buzz and Bubble, both of which I’m eager to read.

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

My rating: 4 stars

Review: Of Fever and Blood by S. Cedric

Standard

OfFeverAndBloodOf Fever and Blood by S. Cedric (2013, Publishers Square)

In this supernatural thriller, a killer uses ages-old dark magic to stalk young women with stealth and cunning—so much so that the police have no idea just how many young women have died in the French countryside.

As the book begins, Inspector Alexandre Vauvert (of Toulouse) is joined by Inspector Eva Svärta in the hunt for the Salaville brothers, two particularly vicious serial killers. Vauvert is intrigued by Svärta, with her white-blond hair and her red eyes—unusual even for an albino—and with her skill as an investigator. From the beginning, he senses a kinship with her: He knew how to spot real cops. Eva Svärta was one of them. A predator hunting predators. When the case is closed after the brothers are killed in a standoff with the police and Inspector Svärta returns to Paris, Vauvert is unable to get her out of his thoughts, even though he knows it is unlikely they will work together again. But then a year later, the murders begin again. And once again they are linked to the Salaville brothers—which is utterly impossible.

Of Fever and Blood has a Stephen King or X-Files feel to it, with that same combination of horror and the supernatural in a world where police tend to look to human perpetrators for the answers. While I found the characters interesting, particularly Inspector Svärta with her mysterious background and her nighttime visions of a white-blond wraith, this is very much a plot-driven novel. The action is fast and furious; with the viewpoint shifting between the murder, the victims, and the investigators, there’s a sense of urgency in almost every scene. The descriptions of blood are quite graphic, and although they’re essential to the story that’s being told, they could be distressing for a lot of readers. If you don’t like scenes of torture, this is not the book for you.

The translation is a bit rough in places, but not enough to be distracting from a pretty good thriller. There is a sequel—The First Blood—and I’m just intrigued enough by this book that I will likely check out that one as well.

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

My rating: 3 stars

Review: Quin’s Shanghai Circus by Ted Whittemore

Standard

QuinsShanghaiCircusQuin’s Shanghai Circus by Ted Whittemore (Open Road Media, 2013)

“Some twenty years after the end of the war with Japan a freighter arrived in Brooklyn with the largest collection of Japanese pornography ever assembled in a Western tongue.” So begins Quin’s Shanghai Circus, a sprawling, intriguing novel that spans some seven centuries and three continents.

At the center of the story is Quin, a man who was born in Japan, orphaned in Shanghai, and raised in the Bronx. After an encounter with a mysterious stranger in a bar, Quin accompanies his friend Big Gobi—simple of mind but pure of heart—on a journey to Tokyo to meet Big Gobi’s guardian. In Quin’s quest to learn about his parents, he encounters a range of truly bizarre characters with equally bizarre stories to tell—prostitutes, sociopathic policemen, a disillusioned Trotskyite, a diabetic Japanese baron who renounced his wealth and moved to Israel to become a rabbi—that initially seem random and disjointed but that ultimately connect.

This was not an easy book to read. It’s a novel of intrigue, of violence and horror, of love and discovery, and at its heart a novel of friendship and connection. But it’s also disjointed, nonlinear, and confusing—which is not necessarily a criticism; not understanding exactly how the pieces will fit together is what makes a puzzle enjoyable even as it can be frustrating.

Much of the book takes place during World War II in Japan and China, and some of the characters participate in and are affected by the horrors that took place during the Japanese occupation, including those in Nanking. None of this is gratuitous, but it is disturbing.

Quin’s Shanghai Circus was originally published in 1974 to critical acclaim but disappointing sales. This reprint edition is worth reading for the extras alone: a foreword, an introduction, and an essay, “An Editorial Relationship,” all by people who knew Whittemore personally and professionally and who give tremendous insight into his life and his writing.

 

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

My rating: 4 stars

Review: I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga

Standard

IHuntKillersI Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga (Little, Brown & Co., 2012)

 

Blurb: What if the world’s worst serial killer…was your dad?


Jasper “Jazz” Dent is a likable teenager. A charmer, one might say.


But he’s also the son of the world’s most infamous serial killer, and for Dear Old Dad, Take Your Son to Work Day was year-round. Jazz has witnessed crime scenes the way cops wish they could—from the criminal’s point of view.


And now bodies are piling up in Lobo’s Nod.


In an effort to clear his name, Jazz joins the police in a hunt for a new serial killer. But Jazz has a secret—could he be more like his father than anyone knows?

 

I was really hoping to like this book because I’d heard so many positive things about it. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for me. While the premise is intriguing, the quality of the writing and the reliance on clichés ensured that the book didn’t live up to its promise.

Jazz Dent is almost 18. His father, a notorious serial killer, is now in jail, and Jazz lives with his (increasingly unstable) grandmother. He spends his days avoiding the social worker who wants to put him in foster care and trying to reassure himself that although he may well be a sociopath (officially he can’t be diagnosed until he turns 18), he isn’t a killer. This becomes increasingly difficult as his dreams—memories?—seem to be telling him this is a line he might have already crossed. Then suddenly there’s a series of murders in Jazz’s town, and since he has Keen Insight into the Criminal Mind, he takes it upon himself to investigate the murders and badger local law enforcement until he is officially made a part of the investigation.

And this is where we get into the clichés: the flashbacks that seem to indicate Jazz is a murderer—or do they?; the missing mother, likely one of his father’s victims (although, this being a series, I’d be stunned if she doesn’t show up at some point in a future book); the safe girlfriend who shows that he may be capable of Real Feelings; the best friend who provides comic relief and the vehicle for Parental Disapproval.

Add to this some major info dump about serial killers—yes, I get that this is a YA book, but teenagers are capable of grasping information the first time it’s provided, and this book was all about repetition, especially when it came to Jazz’s “inner turmoil,” by which I mean whining. I don’t usually mind being inside a character’s head, but this was just too much of the same thing, again and again: Oh no what if I’m evil? I have been shaped to be a super serial killer and all I think about is killing and not killing! It’s exactly the wrong combination of self-awareness and teen angst for me.

 

My rating: 2 stars

Review: The Last Clinic by Gary Gusick

Standard

TheLastClinicThe Last Clinic by Gary Gusick (Alibi, 2013)

 

Police detective Darla Cavannah relocated to Jackson, Mississippi, from Philadelphia a few years back when her husband, Hugh “the Glue,” star wide receiver, decided to go back home after his NFL career was cut short. After his untimely death, she decided to take a year off, but one day she gets a call: the Reverend Jimmy Aldridge has been found murdered, his body draped over a cross in front of the local abortion clinic. Her boss, Sheriff Mitchell, wants the case solved and needs Darla’s big-city expertise, but at the same time, he’s up for re-election, and that means her partner on the case is Officer Tommy Reylander, the mayor’s nephew and the city’s best-known Elvis impersonator, AND an upstanding member of Reverend Aldridge’s congregation.

With a setup like that, a lot can go wrong. It’s easy to slide into stereotypes and exaggerations, attitudes and assumptions. But Gusick deftly avoids those, and instead puts together a story that is at times hilarious and at times infuriating but that drew me in and kept me turning the pages. Darla is wonderful as an outsider’s perspective on a Southern town as she navigates all of the land mines during her investigation guided by her roommate, Kendall, whose ex-husband is a political lobbyist who represents the National Rights of the Unborn. Darla is assisted in her investigation by the improbably named Uther Pendragon Johnson, a computer tech who specializes in crime pattern recognition and who is patterned to some extent on Virgil Tibbs.

There is also a hint of romance, and for me that was the weakest element of the book. The character of Stephen Nicoletti, the local ob/gyn who performs terminations, came across to me as a bit of a smarmy jerk, yet the women of Jackson can’t get enough of him. It was hard for me to understand what Darla saw in him, especially under the circumstances—Reverend Aldridge was murdered in front of Nicoletti’s clinic, making Nicoletti the obvious suspect to most of the city’s residents. Still, this was a tautly written thriller, a solid debut, and I’d read more books with Darla Cavannah as the main character.

 

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

My rating: 4 stars

Review: The Dinosaur Feather by Sissel-Jo Gazan

Standard

Dinosaur FeatherThe Dinosaur Feather by Sissel-Jo Gazan (Quercus Books, 2013)

 

Dinosaurs are “sexy,” and the question of what became of them is glamorous.

Where do you draw the line between birds and reptiles in the evolutionary timeline? This is a debate that has gone on for decades. In the world of academia, where competition for funding is fierce and disagreements over how to interpret evidence can take the form of decades-long feuds carried out in academic journals and at conferences, media coverage means more publicity, and that means more money. Anna Bella Nor has essentially built her academic career around such a feud; she’s days away from defending her PhD thesis at the University of Copenhagen when her academic advisor, Lars Helland, is discovered dead in his office—the victim of foul play. While she’s distressed by his murder, her primary concern is to finish her PhD and get on with her life.

When Soren Marhauge is assigned to investigate, he finds himself with no shortage of suspects. There’s the icy-cold single mother Anna Bella, the elusive Dr. Tybjerg, and finally the murdered professor’s academic arch-rival, Clive Freeman. Solving the crime should be relatively straightforward, Soren believes, but that turns out not to be the case. The answers he needs are not in the present, but buried in the past.

While there’s a lot of scientific detail in the book about bird and dinosaur evolution, there’s not so much that it shuts down the plot, and personally I found it fascinating. It’s also integral to the central theme of the story, which is that only by examining the past can you discover the truth in the present, as Soren discovers once he gains Anna Bella’s trust and begins to put the pieces together (with a lot of help from her!).

The characters were interesting and believable. At times I found Anna Bella to be a little bit obnoxious, but in a very real way; as the mother of a very young child, who struggles to balance her career and her role as a mother, daughter, and friend, she rings true. This is a solid novel from a promising author, and I look forward to reading more from her.

 

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

My rating: 4 stars