Monthly Archives: January 2014

Review: Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo by Anjan Sundaram

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StringerStringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo by Anjan Sundaram (2014, Doubleday)

Anjan Sundaram, a twenty-two-year-old graduate student at Yale, turned down a good, safe job offer and instead decided to spend a year in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a reporter, focusing on the 2006 presidential elections. An Indian national who grew up in Dubai, Sundaram has experience with being an outsider; even when he finds Indian enclaves in the Congo, he’s never quite able to fit in. But being an outsider—in particular, not being a white Westerner—serves Sundaram well in many ways, as he’s able to make connections and gain access that many others wouldn’t have. He’s also used to byzantine bureaucracy (meaning he knows what’s being said behind the words that are actually spoken) and analyzing situations from the outside, which makes him extremely effective as a reporter.

That being said, this is not a book about the Congo or the war or even the elections; it is a book about the development of a journalist in perhaps the largest war zone since World War II—which many would argue has gone largely unnmentioned in the mainstream Western media. The big-picture events are very much in the background—the focus is on daily life, both urban and rural, and on the people Sundaram encounters during his stay; and also on his transition from naïve cub reporter to cynical journalist who realizes that long after he’s gone, life in Congo will stay the same—the difference being nobody will be there to report it.

The quality of the writing is what sets this book apart. When I first saw the comparisons to Naipaul I was skeptical, but Sundaram has earned them. He’s able to convey so much emotion in his writing, and honesty: he’s writing about the real Congo, the struggles of everyday Congolese with whom he’s lived and worked. This is a story about humanity. Yes, Sundaram is still an outsider—he makes no claims to the contrary—but I was fascinated by his account. While I wish there had been more completeness to the story, I think maybe that was the point: in a society where nothing really changes other than the person in charge, can the big questions (such as how to end these conflicts) really ever be answered?

I definitely recommend this book.

This ARC was provided via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4 stars of 5

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Review: The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler

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TheHypnotistThe Hypnotist by Lars Kepler (Blue Key, 2012; originally published 2009)

Blurb: Tumba, Sweden. A triple homicide, all of the victims from the same family, captivates Detective Inspector Joona Linna, who demands to investigate the grisly murders—against the wishes of the national police. The killer is at large, and it appears that the elder sister of the family escaped the carnage; it seems only a matter of time until she, too, is murdered. But where can Linna begin? The only surviving witness is an intended victim—the boy whose mother, father, and little sister were killed before his eyes. Whoever committed the crimes intended for this boy to die: he has suffered more than one hundred knife wounds and lapsed into a state of shock. He’s in no condition to be questioned. Desperate for information, Linna sees one mode of recourse: hypnotism. He enlists Dr. Erik Maria Bark to mesmerize the boy, hoping to discover the killer through his eyes. It’s the sort of work that Bark had sworn he would never do again—ethically dubious and psychically scarring. When he breaks his promise and hypnotizes the victim, a long and terrifying chain of events begins to unfurl.

This is a monster of a book, and I mean that in the best way possible. The plot seems simple: the discovery of a man’s body leads police to his home, where his family has also been murdered, but somehow the son, Jack, has survived—barely. Hoping to find the boy’s missing sister—is she a suspect? is she another target?—Detective Inspector Joona Linna calls in Dr. Erik Maria Bark (and yes, there’s a “Boy Named Sue” joke in there) to help get information about the brutal attacks. And that’s where things get interesting. The last time Bark used hypnosis on a patient, the results were tragic and he was disgraced, both personally and professionally. In helping Linna, Bark breaks a promise, and the consequences are horrific and extend well beyond what anyone could have anticipated.

As with many Nordic crime novels, this one has multiple interwoven plot lines, and it’s not clear until the very end exactly how they fit together—or if they’ll fit together. This is a book where the subplots add depth and suspense to the main plot rather than detracting from it. What seems to be a relatively simple crime with a known perpetrator having complex motive turns out to be a series of crimes with equally complex motives, and no clear suspect. It kept me guessing right up until the end. The ending in particular was satisfying; in a book as dark as this one, that delves into the worst parts of the human psyche, sometimes it’s nice to have a bit of light at the end.

Although this is the first book in the Joona Linna series, as the title suggests, the central character is Bark, the titular hypnotist. I’m curious to read the next books to see how Linna’s character develops as the series progresses.

As an aside: “Lars Kepler,” actually a husband-and-wife writing team, was another of the new Swedish authors to be hyped as “the next Stieg Larsson.” I am hoping this need to compare everything to the one Swedish author most Americans have ever heard of will stop, and soon; I also enjoyed Larsson’s books, but the more Nordic crime fiction I read, the more tempted I am to go back and lower my ratings of the Larsson books. Just because they were my (and many other readers’) introduction to Nordic crime fiction doesn’t mean they’re the best examples or even that they’re representative of the genre.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review: Buzz by Anders de la Motte

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BuzzBuzz by Anders de la Motte (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2014): Game #2

Four months after Henrik Pettersson (HP) got out of the Game, he finds himself bored silly. He’s spent time in Thailand and India, smoking weed, having sex, and lounging around. He meets up with some acquaintances in Dubai, and that’s when things take a strange turn: a fun day out with friends ends in murder, and HP is the prime suspect. He manages to prove his innocence, but his appetite for hedonism is gone, and he returns to Sweden. But now he has a mission: to find out who really killed Anna Argos. Assuming the identity of his good friend, an IT whiz, HP takes a job at ArgosEye—and realizes the Game is even bigger than he’d imagined.

Meanwhile, HP’s sister Rebecca is trying to pick up the pieces of her life and her career following a disastrous assignment in Africa. Bad enough that her team isn’t backing her up, but Becca discovers she’s the target of a vicious online attack aimed at ruining her credibility. Who is this mysterious attacker, and why is he trying to destroy her? And more important, who can she trust to help her find out more?

Buzz has multiple subplots that only slowly come together to tell the whole story. HP’s and Rebecca’s stories are intercut in a way that adds to the tension and the sense of confusion; like Game, the first book in the series, this is a quick-moving story that would be absurd if it weren’t on the fringes of what is possible. The depiction of social networking and professional “trolls” rings true—and if that kind of targeted online action works to sell products and services, who’s to say it couldn’t be used to further a political or military agenda?

HP is still a slacker, still making all manner of bad decisions, but he’s a little older and wiser than he was in Game. If nothing else, he’s realizing that his actions have very real consequences for the people he cares about, and that sense of loyalty endeared him to me. The two siblings seemed to have little, if anything, in common in Game, but Buzz makes clear that Becca is just as much of an adrenaline junkie as HP. She’s got a dependable boyfriend and the option to be a career cop. Instead, she’s a bodyguard for Swedish diplomats who’s sent on assignment to places like Darfur, and she cheats on her boyfriend at just about every opportunity. I found myself wondering what would happen if Becca ever got curious enough to ever play the Game.

The final book in the trilogy is Bubble, and I’m excited to see how it ends.

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

Review: Defy by Sarah B. Larson

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DefyDefy by Sara B. Larson (2014, Scholastic Press)

Blurb: Alexa Hollen is a fighter. Forced to disguise herself as a boy and serve in the king’s army, Alex uses her quick wit and fierce sword-fighting skills to earn a spot on the elite prince’s guard. But when a powerful sorcerer sneaks into the palace in the dead of night, even Alex, who is virtually unbeatable, can’t prevent him from abducting her, her fellow guard and friend Rylan, and Prince Damian, taking them through the treacherous wilds of the jungle and deep into enemy territory.

The longer Alex is held captive with both Rylan and the prince, the more she realizes that she is not the only one who has been keeping dangerous secrets. And suddenly, after her own secret is revealed, Alex finds herself confronted with two men vying for her heart: the safe and steady Rylan, who has always cared for her, and the dark, intriguing Damian. With hidden foes lurking around every corner, is Alex strong enough to save herself and the kingdom she’s sworn to protect?

After reading the above description, I was really excited to read this book. I expected a strong female character, an action-packed fantasy novel, and a lot of in-depth character interaction. Sadly, that is not what this book is. If you want a strong female character who is decisive and self-confident and a leader, this is not the book for you. Alexa is defined, both by others and by herself, solely in terms of her relationships to other (male) characters: she is Marcel’s twin; one of Damian’s elite guard; Rylan’s friend. This evolves or devolves (depending on how you choose to look at it) into Alexa as the love interest of both Damian and Rylan, and as the pawn of the Men with the Plan. At no time does Alexa come up with a plan of her own—virtually all of her actions are the results of orders given to her by men. The only reason Alexa lives to the end of the book is that men perform heroic actions, they protect her, save her life, and tell her what to do to stay alive. That’s not really my idea of a strong female action character.

The world-building in Defy is minimal; it’s a romance novel with swords and magic and a generic fantasy setting, not a fantasy novel with a romance. I didn’t actually mind that so much because so many books go overboard with world-building. What I did mind were the places where the world-building slipped, for example, when one character tells another that “pride goeth before a fall.” I couldn’t quite work out how a character in a fantasy setting with no real mention of religion was able to quote the Bible.

The focus on the romance rather than on a plot is also responsible for the wildly uneven pacing of the book. The plot-based scenes do have a fair amount of action in them, but the minute the action stops, all Alexa does is moon over the dudes. Seriously! If she’s not actively fighting, during her weeks-long journey through the jungle, while being held captive, the most efficient, skilled soldier in the king’s army thinks not about survival or escape tactics, but is instead unable to produce a single coherent thought that does not involve her attraction to Rylan and/or Damian.

The author uses the gender-swap device solely as a means of getting Alexa close enough to Damian and Rylan that she can fall in love with them. There’s no exploration of gender roles in society—theirs or ours. The same-sex aspect of the love triangle, which I was looking forward to, was completely sidestepped. I would have wondered if the issue of same-sex attraction was deemed inappropriate for the target YA audience were it not for the vivid descriptions of the breeding houses—oh, didn’t I mention that? All captured children are separated by sex: boys train to be soldiers, girls are forced to bear children who will then be subjected to the same fate. Although this is disturbing enough just on the face of it, what’s even more disturbing is that their inclusion seems to be more to evoke in the reader a reaction against the current regime than to serve any real function within the story. The characters themselves just accept the breeding houses as the way things are rather than as, you know, a reason to actively oppose a vile regime instead of being part of the elite guard ensuring the regime’s survival.

All in all, this book was a huge disappointment. Between the lack of a plot, the lack of any real character or relationship development, and a fair bit of what seemed to me to be anti-feminist content (I won’t go so far as to call it misogynistic, but others have), based on this book I’m going to give the rest of the series a pass.

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

My rating: 2 stars out of 5.

Review: In the Blood by Lisa Unger

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InTheBloodIn the Blood by Lisa Unger (Touchstone, 2014)

Lana Granger is a senior in college, taking a light course load (only three classes), and at her aunt’s suggestion she takes a part-time job babysitting a young boy named Luke. Luke goes to a nearby school for troubled children, and he is manipulative and controlling. As a psychology major, Lana has experience working with kids like Luke, and she’s careful in how she engages in Luke’s game-playing. But just as she’s getting to know Luke and his mother Rachel, Lana’s roommate Beck disappears—and the last anyone saw of Beck, she was fighting with Lana at the university library. Is there more to the story than Lana is telling?

In the Blood is all about secrets and lies, and the whole story is told in fits and starts, with teasers and hints dropped here and there in amongst the main action. Lana is an interesting character, which is good as much of the book takes place deep in her POV. However, it’s is also problematic because Lana keeps referring to her behavior and how others perceive her—she’s nothing if not self-aware, even when it comes to her self-deception—yet we don’t ever really get a sense of what she’s like from an outside source; while reading the thoughts of a character with a rich psyche full of vivid memories and details, I found it difficult to visualize her as externally emotionless.

As always, Unger has written a competent thriller, a good airplane book. I’m not sure whether too much information was given out or if my mind happened to go just the right way at just the right time, but about halfway through the book all the parceling-out of information stopped being intriguing and instead became annoying, kind of like a kid’s knock-knock joke that’s gone on a little too long. There’s nothing particularly new in In the Blood, but it is a fun read—even if you figure out where the twists are going to take you, it’s worth the read right up to the end.

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars.

The 2014 TBR Pile Challenge

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The 2014 TBR Pile Challenge

As a way of clearing out some space in my To Be Read bookcase (and yes, it’s a full bookcase), I decided to sign up for the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge. This one is fairly straightforward:

  • Books must be published no later than 2013 (so no new releases or ARCs)
  • Books can be any length or genre (fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, etc.)

This challenge is being hosted by the folks at Bookish.

There are 6 levels to choose from, starting with 1 book and going all the way up to 50+. I don’t want to be too ambitious, so I’m going with the second level, which is A Friendly Hug: 10–20 books.

Also, I’m going to try to make this a true TBR Pile activity and only read books I’ve already got on hand rather than including books I might pick up during the year that were published in 2013 or earlier. I’ve got plenty of books, but I keep getting distracted by the shiny new ones that seem to pile up in front of the others!

If anyone’s interested, sign up here! It’ll be fun, I promise 🙂

Global Reading Challenge 2014

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I’ve signed up for the Global Reading Challenge 2014: Reading 21 novels from 21 different countries on 6 continents (plus the Seventh Continent as described below).

I found out about the Global Reading Challenge through Ms. Wordopolis Reads. She had participated in the 2013 challenge and it sounded interesting, so I signed up for this year, at the expert level. The Global Reading Challenge is managed by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

From the website, what I’ve signed up for is this:

The Expert Challenge

Read three novels from each of these continents in the course of 2014:

Africa, Asia, Australasia/Oceania, Europe, North America, South America (please include Central America where it is most convenient for you)

The Seventh Continent (here you can either choose Antarctica or your own ´seventh´ setting, eg the sea, the space, a supernatural/paranormal world, history, the future – you name it).

From your own continent: try to find a country, state or author that is new to you.

Select novels from twenty-one different countries or states if possible.

I chose the expert level because I tend to focus on the same types of books, and I’m hoping this will expand my reading horizons a bit. There are two other levels–Easy and Medium–with fewer books as their goals, if anyone is interested in participating along with me. You can click on the map above to go to the sign-up page. I’m going to set up a couple of Goodreads shelves for myself to keep track of challenge books, and of course I’ll tag the reviews here of books that I selected specifically for this challenge.

I’m looking forward to this! So many books to choose from 🙂

I’m looking around for other reading challenges as well for the year. There’s a TBR pile challenge that I might sign up for. Heaven knows I’ve got plenty of books that I need to read before getting even more new ones!