Category Archives: 3 stars

Review: Blue Monday by Nicci French

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BlueMondayBlue Monday by Nicci French (Pamela Dorman Books, 2012), Frieda Klein series

Blurb: Frieda Klein is a solitary, incisive psychotherapist who spends her sleepless nights walking along the ancient rivers that have been forced underground in modern London. She believes that the world is a messy, uncontrollable place, but what we can control is what is inside our heads. This attitude is reflected in her own life, which is an austere one of refuge, personal integrity, and order.

The abduction of five-year-old Matthew Farraday provokes a national outcry and a desperate police hunt. And when his face is splashed over the newspapers, Frieda cannot ignore the coincidence: one of her patients has been having dreams in which he has a hunger for a child. A red-haired child he can describe in perfect detail, a child the spitting image of Matthew. She finds herself in the center of the investigation, serving as the reluctant sidekick of the chief inspector.

 

Frieda Klein is an interesting character: the psychotherapist who is reluctantly drawn into a murder investigation via a new patient. She’s at the center of a bizarre cast of characters: the police officer she approaches with her suspicions about her patient’s role in the kidnapping; the world-weary colleague who’s turned to alcohol as a means of escaping the conclusions he’s drawn after years of practicing psychotherapy; the self-absorbed sister with the precocious daughter; the wacky Ukrainian émigré who announces his presence by literally falling at her feet. These characters and their relationships with each other and with Frieda are where the book shines, and if I keep reading this series it’s to see how this develops. I’m particularly intrigued by Josef, the Ukrainian, who manages to effortlessly work his way into almost every aspect of Frieda’s life.

The central mystery under investigation is the abduction of a five-year-old boy, which may or may not be connected to the similar abduction of a young girl some twenty years back. (I got the impression that there was supposed to be an analogy here with the hidden rivers of Frieda’s nighttime meanderings, but if so, it was a bit too oblique, and left me with the feeling of a lost opportunity more than an added layer.) The book starts slowly and jumps around a bit, but about halfway through the pace picks up and the various story elements start to come together. Unfortunately for me, I figured out fairly early on where everything was headed and so I never really felt a sense of suspense or urgency, and I genuinely could not tell if this was down to the storytelling or down to me just being good at guessing these things.

I wanted to like this book, and I did, but not nearly as much as I’d hoped. It’s a psychological thriller that doesn’t quite manage to build up and sustain enough tension to make up for the disjointed storytelling. Still, the characterization was good enough to make me want to check out the next book in the series.

 

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Review: The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel

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TheMurderFarmThe Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel (2014, Quercus)

Blurb: The Murder Farm begins with a shock: a whole family has been murdered with a pickaxe. They were old Danner the farmer, an overbearing patriarch; his put-upon devoutly religious wife; and their daughter Barbara Spangler, whose husband Vincenz left her after fathering her daughter little Marianne. She also had a son, two-year-old Josef, the result of her affair with local farmer Georg Hauer after his wife’s death from cancer. Hauer himself claimed paternity. Also murdered was the Danners’ maidservant, Marie.

An unconventional detective story, The Murder Farm is an exciting blend of eyewitness account, third-person narrative, pious diatribes, and incomplete case file that will keep readers guessing. When we leave the narrator, not even he knows the truth, and only the reader is able to reach the shattering conclusion.

 

As soon as I read this book’s description, I knew I wanted to read it. However, I found the book itself to be a bit of a letdown. While the description uses words such as “exciting” and “shattering,” for me the book was a short, bare-bones, sparse narrative, somewhat fleshed out by the eyewitness accounts, that didn’t have the emotional impact I’d been expecting, given the nature of the crime.

The story is set in 1950s, in a rural German village. The setting was, for me, by far the best part of the book; I got a real sense of the isolation of the village and the impact of the war on its inhabitants. The Danners’ neighbors sense that something is amiss on the Danner farm, and upon further investigation discover that the entire family has been murdered. The narrative isn’t always linear and was a bit confusing in places, but bit by bit the reader learns about the family and its secrets, of which there are many. The focus on the characters’ flaws backfired a bit for me; rather than making each of them the possible target of the killer’s anger, it made them all unlikeable and distant—the book is so short and the characters so undeveloped that it read more like a case file.

There isn’t a lot of detail about the exact nature of the crimes—it’s not a gory book. The impact is intended to be more psychological. However, this approach didn’t really work for me because the murderer is revealed in the same matter-of-fact narrative approach as the rest of the book, without any real insights, and ultimately I felt a bit let down.

 

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars.

Review: A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell

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ATraceofSmokeA Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell (Forge Books, 2009), Hannah Vogel series

Blurb: Even though hardened crime reporter Hannah Vogel knows all too well how tough it is to survive in 1931 Berlin, she is devastated when she sees a photograph of her brother’s body posted in the Hall of the Unnamed Dead. Ernst, a cross-dressing lounge singer at a seedy nightclub, had many secrets, a never-ending list of lovers, and plenty of opportunities to get into trouble.

Hannah delves into the city’s dark underbelly to flush out his murderer, but the late night arrival of a five-year-old orphan on her doorstep complicates matters. The endearing Anton claims that Hannah is his mother… and that her dead brother Ernst is his father.

As her investigations into Ernst’s murder and Anton’s parentage uncover political intrigue and sex scandals in the top ranks of the rising Nazi party, Hannah fears not only for her own life, but for that of a small boy who has come to call her “mother.”


The premise of the book was too intriguing for me to pass up. Hannah Vogel is a journalist, a crime reporter. During her weekly visit to the Hall of the Unnamed Dead, she is stunned to see a photograph of the body of her cross-dressing brother, a lounge singer whose lovers gift him with fine clothing and jewels. Although she has connections within the police department, Hannah cannot make use of them: a Zionist friend and her son have used Hannah’s and Ernst’s identity papers to escape to America, and until Hannah knows they are safe, she cannot allow anyone to know her brother is dead.

A Trace of Smoke is wonderfully evocative of interwar Berlin: the precarious financial position of city’s population, the uncertainty regarding the Nazi party, the growing intolerance of and discrimination against the city’s Jewish population. Cantrell incorporates actual people and events into the story, which infuses it with a strong sense of time and place. The book is well plotted and well paced.

As capable as the author is with description, she has a tin ear for dialogue. The lack of contractions made the characters sound stilted and overly formal, and this coupled with the lack of variety in the characters’ speech patterns took away from their individuality. This is Cantrell’s first book, so I am hoping the dialogue improves as the series progresses.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Review: A Curious Madness by Eric Jaffe

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CuriousMadnessA Curious Madness: An American Combat Psychiatrist, a Japanese War Crimes Suspect, and an Unsolved Mystery from World War II by Eric Jaffe (Scribner, 2014)

Blurb: In the wake of World War II the Allied forces charged twenty-eight Japanese men with crimes against humanity during the Tokyo war crimes trial. At their conclusion, seven were hanged for their war crimes and almost all the others served lengthy prison sentences. Okawa Shumei, a brilliant ideologue, was the only civilian among the indicted “Class-A” suspects. In the years leading up to World War II, Okawa had outlined a divine mission for Japan to lead Asia, prophesized a great clash with the United States, planned coups d’etat with military rebels, and financed the assassination of a Prime Minister. Beyond “all vestiges of doubt,” concluded a then-classified American report prepared in 1946, “Okawa moved in the best circles of nationalist intrigue.”

On the first day of the trial, Okawa made headlines around the world by slapping star defendant Tojo Hideki on the head. Had Okawa lost his sanity? Or was he faking madness to avoid a grim punishment? A US Army psychiatrist in occupied Japan—the author’s own grandfather—was charged with determining whether Okawa was fit to stand trial. He’d seen madness his whole life, from his home in Brooklyn to the battlefields of Europe, and now his seasoned eye faced the ultimate test. A Curious Madness is the suspenseful tale of each man’s journey to this climactic historical moment.

I’ve included the blurb above because I found it utterly intriguing. Now, having read the book, I realize I overlooked the importance of the final sentence: it’s the story of these two men before the slap, which is much less intriguing, at least for me.

The book describes both men’s lives, Okawa’s and Jaffe’s, by alternating between the two biographies. While I found Okawa’s story to be interesting, Jaffe’s was less so, in large part because the story is being told by his grandson, and the family history isn’t all that relevant to what is posited as the central question of the book: Okawa’s sanity (or lack of it). There’s a lot of discussion of the mental illness of Jaffe’s mother and its effect on the family, but because Jaffe was apparently a very private and taciturn man, the author is unable to shed light on Jaffe’s thoughts and reactions, so he remains a distant figure, and I didn’t feel as though I gained any real insight into him at all. The author also gives some consideration to the history of combat psychiatry, which I did find interesting, but again, because combat was not ever posited as or considered to be the basis of Okawa’s sanity, it wasn’t necessarily relevant to the book’s central question.

Okawa’s history, on the other hand, is relevant, because his actions and his philosophy were what resulted in his being on trial in Tokyo. Understanding exactly what role he played in the decades leading up to World War II helped me understand how he could be the only civilian at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal to be charged with crimes against humanity. I did feel as though I learned a lot about Okawa and his beliefs about the role Japan should play in Asia, although I felt the author glossed over the sheer brutality of the Japanese in China and Korea in his discussion of Japan’s role in the pan-Asian movement (which no doubt was a major consideration in Okawa being charged).

Because of the author’s focus on the two men’s lives before the slapping incident, which was the only thing they had in common, and the lack of any discussion about the two interacting, I never really got a sense of cohesiveness while reading the book. I felt the author’s family history took too great a role, and the title doesn’t really reflect the actual content. The question of Okawa’s sanity is almost an afterthought, and while I agreed with the author’s conclusions, I didn’t feel that it was nearly as much of a mystery as I did before I read the book.

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

My rating: 3 stars 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.

Review: Of Fever and Blood by S. Cedric

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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: 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