Category Archives: 4 stars

Review: The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War, by Tim Butcher

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Trigger

Blurb: On a summer morning in Sarajevo a hundred years ago, a teenage assassin named Gavrilo Princip fired not just the opening shots of the First World War but the starting gun for modern history, when he killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Yet the events Princip triggered were so monumental that his own story has been largely overlooked, his role garbled and motivations misrepresented.

The Trigger puts this right, filling out as never before a figure who changed our world and whose legacy still has an impact on all of us today. Born a penniless backwoodsman, Princip’s life changed when he trekked through Bosnia and Serbia to attend school. As he ventured across fault lines of faith, nationalism and empire, so tightly clustered in the Balkans, radicalisation slowly transformed him from a frail farm boy into history’s most influential assassin.

 

I’ve read several of Butcher’s books, which combine modern travelogues with historical journeys (I recommend all of them, by the way–they’re fantastic). In The Trigger, the author retraces the journey of Gavrilo Princip, the young man who assassinated Franz Ferdinand, providing the spark that ignited World War One. The writing style is, as always, wonderful; Butcher is a journalist and his prose is compulsively readable. This book is set in the former Yugoslavia–a country whose very name means “land of the South Slavs”–and Butcher was there 20 years ago reporting on the wars as the nation was torn apart. The blend of history and personal narrative was, as always, fascinating reading, and I’d recommend the book to anyone who has an interest in the history of this part of the world. That being said, I didn’t find The Trigger to be as compelling as the author’s other work, likely because there’s so little information about Princip himself around which to built the rest of the book. That’s not the fault of the author, though; as the book itself explains, competing ownership of Princip and his motives over the last hundred years make any attempt to get to the truth very difficult indeed. And that’s Butcher’s strength–in Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart, Chasing the Devil: The Search for Africa’s Fighting Spirit, and now The Trigger, Butcher recognizes the complex history and politics of these regions and presents them as such; he doesn’t attempt to make it simple and easy to understand.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Review: Glass by Ellen Hopkins (Crank series)

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GlassGlass by Ellen Hopkins (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2007), Crank series

Have You Ever Tried

To quit

            a bad habit, one

            that has come to

            define you?

 

Kristina has been clean and sober for months now. She’s living at home and taking care of baby Hunter. She’s studying for her GED and looking for a job. She’ll be eighteen in just a few weeks. Things are looking good, right up until she starts thinking about how boring her life is, and how much weight she gained during her pregnancy, and how nice it would be to have a boyfriend again, and she thinks maybe, just maybe, if she stays in control, she can start using again.

This is the first in a long series of bad decisions that Kristina makes. At first things seem to be going just fine: she’s losing weight, she’s got a job, and it’s easy to score high-quality crank that is perfect for a pick-me-up to get her through the day. But of course, things aren’t just fine, and the last straw for Kristina’s parents comes when she crashes hard and doesn’t wake up even for her screaming baby. Kristina is thrown out of the house and her parents tell her she won’t see Hunter again until she cleans herself up.

That’s when things spiral out of control. Kristina moves in with her boyfriend’s cousin, who is also their drug dealer. She’s living from paycheck to paycheck, spending all of her money on drugs. She’s engaging in risky behaviors—driving while she’s high, having unprotected sex, stealing money—and on the rare occasions when she does talk with her family, she keeps pushing them away—and, she realizes after she hangs up the phone, she keeps forgetting to ask about Hunter. She’s shut herself off from her former friends, her family, even her own child.

While Crank focused on how seductive drugs can be and how anyone can start using and become addicted, Glass is about the impact of addiction on users and the people around them. Kristina’s life revolves around drugs: when and where she’ll score, how she’ll pay, when and how much she’ll use. Her relationships all revolve around drugs: the people she buys from, the people she sleeps with while she’s high. The book is written in free verse and is told entirely from Kristina’s point of view, so it’s left to the reader to imagine what her family must be going through (Kristina, of course, is too lost in her addiction to be able to see anything outside of herself). This is not an easy book to read. It’s utterly heart-wrenching. But it’s an amazing depiction of the destruction wrought by addiction, and the way in which the story is told—Kristina’s words break your heart because you can see what’s happening and know what’s coming, and you know she’s going to keep making bad decisions as long as she continues to use—is unique and compelling.

 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review: The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

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WeightofBloodThe Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh (2014, Spiegel & Grau)


Lucy Dane lives in Henbane, a small town in the Ozarks, where families stick together and outsiders are always suspect. Her father’s side of the family has deep roots in Henbane; her mother’s, not so much. In fact, Lily Dane was the kind of outsider who always invites suspicion: a beautiful young stranger who married a local, gave birth to daughter Lucy, then walked into a cave one day with a loaded gun and was never seen again.

Having grown up without Lily in her life, Lucy is now seventeen, and it’s been a year since her best friend Cheri vanished. When Cheri’s dismembered body is discovered, Lucy resolves to find out what happened to her. As Lucy digs deeper into the mystery surrounding Cheri’s disappearance and death, she begins to realize that there might be a connection to her own mother’s disappearance. And in a town where family is everything, she begins to discover her own family’s secrets.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints, primarily Lucy’s and Lily’s, both in the first person, but later in the book there are others, in third person. At times this became confusing, especially later in the book, but for the most part it was well done and helped to maintain the plot’s tension throughout. Lucy’s coming-of-age narrative is particularly well told as she grapples with questions of kinship and loyalty.

Most of all, though, I was impressed by the atmosphere of this novel. This is Southern noir: an isolated mountain town steeped in myth and superstition, and where poverty is a way of life and very few people manage to make it out.

 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Review: Crank by Ellen Hopkins

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CrankCrank by Ellen Hopkins (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2004)

 

Life was good
before I
met
the monster.
After,
life
was great,
At
least
for a little while.

 

Crank is the story of an ordinary girl who becomes a meth addict. It’s told in free verse form, so there’s not much in the way of narrative or dialogue, but that makes the story all the more powerful because it’s stripped down to its bones.

Kristina is an ordinary teenager. She’s sixteen and it’s the summer before her junior year in high school. She’s a straight-A student with an older sister and a younger brother, a mother and a stepfather. The book begins when she goes to stay with her biological father, who is an addict, for three weeks. While in Albuquerque she discovers Bree: the side of herself that is reckless, a vamp, who likes attention and who is willing to break all the rules that Kristina lives by. As Bree, she attracts the attention of the boy who introduces her to love—and to crank, the monster that changes her life forever.

I can understand why parents wouldn’t want their children to read Crank. But this is the kind of book I would have loved as a teenager precisely because Kristina was someone I could relate to; she could have been any one of my friends. The underlying message—that drug addiction can happen to anyone, and escaping the monster is almost impossible—is a powerful and important one, and the unique structure and the power of the storytelling resulted in a book I read in one sitting.

Hopkins wrote this based on her own experiences with her daughter, who was addicted to methamphetamines, and that gives the book a very real feel. It’s honest and it’s harsh and it pulls no punches about the consequences of drug abuse. Kristina/Bree’s inner conflict is heart-wrenching: she wants to be a good girl, a good student, a good sister and daughter and friend, but the pull of the monster is stronger. She makes one bad choice after another—almost all of them based on her need for crank—and the consequences are life-altering in a way she never could have imagined before she started using.

 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review: The Runner by Patrick Lee

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The RunnerThe Runner by Patrick Lee (2014, Minotaur)

Sam Dryden, ex-special forces, goes out for a run one night and encounters a young girl who’s being chased by heavily armed men intent on killing her. Drysden, who lost his wife and daughter in an accident several years before, saves Rachel—and she, in turn, saves him, as for the first time in a very long time Dryden’s life has purpose: finding out who this girl is (she has no idea), who’s been holding her captive and why (again, she doesn’t know), and perhaps most interesting, how it is that she seemingly can read his mind.

This book is all about pacing. It’s roller-coaster action from start to finish, and what a ride it is: paramilitary super-soldiers, sophisticated weaponry, high-level conspiracies, and a hint of paranormal super-powers. But in the midst of all of the action, Lee creates complex, memorable characters. Dryden isn’t a cardboard cutout action hero. Sure, he can take on the best the military sends after him, but he can also show genuine affection and concern for a frightened preteen.

The storytelling is uneven in places. Because the book is so action oriented, sometimes there’s not enough attention given to motives. People did things and I wasn’t entirely sure why. While no words were wasted, I felt a bit could be added to flesh things out a bit. But this is a nitpick, because this book was a lot of fun to read.

I’ve read the first book in another series by this author: The Breach, which has an even bigger science fiction element. After reading The Runner, I’ve added the next books in both series to my TBR pile.

 

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

Review: Merrick by Ken Bruen

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MerrickMerrick by Ken Bruen (2014, Premier Digital Publishing)

Ryan was a cop in Galway before being fired for being on the take. When he lost his job, his wife left him for another man, taking their daughter with them. Having no reason to stay in Ireland and a head full of memories urging him to go, Ryan headed for New York City, where he works building skyscrapers, fearlessly walking the girders as they build the highest floors.

Once in New York he meets Merrick, another former cop turned private investigator and bar owner. Merrick quickly recognizes the cop in Ryan, and the two become friends. Soon Merrick begins to confide in Ryan. His former partner, it turns out, is in a coma: they’d been working on a case involving a man who did unspeakable things to young boys before killing them. Merrick thinks he’s got some leads, if Ryan would be interested in helping out?

The relationship between Ryan and Merrick is a rocky one—both have explosive tempers and a chip on their shoulder, but generally speaking it’s nothing that can’t be overcome by an apology and a bottle of Jameson. The development of the friendship between the men is the heart of the novel, and it’s solid, enough so to allow for future books and a series.

As with Bruen’s other books, this one is full of pop-culture references, mostly movies and music but some books, that Ryan uses to define himself. When I finish one of Bruen’s books, I almost always have a list of names to look for, and this is no different (I’ll be checking out a couple of new bands this evening).

Merrick is a thriller in stream-of-consciousness, almost free-form verse. It’s a quick read, and a good one.

 

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review: Cockroaches by Jo Nesbø (Harry Hole #2)

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CockroachesCockroaches by Jo Nesbø (2014, Vintage): Harry Hole #2

I began reading this series about four years ago starting with book 3, and I’ve kept up with it ever since. I was frustrated at being unable to read the series in order, starting with the first book, but now that I’ve finished the second, I’m beginning to understand the logic behind leaving these until last.

Cockroaches begins some time after Harry Hole solved a serial killer case in Australia and returned to Norway (this takes place in book 1, The Bat). He’s back to his old ways—drinking and brooding—which is exactly what Norwegian authorities are looking for. A diplomat has been murdered in Bangkok, and the situation is delicate; a known drunk should give the Norwegian authorities just the surface-level investigation they need. Clearly they didn’t know much about Harry Hole! As always, his amazing ability to notice inconsistencies and things that aren’t quite right help to solve a complex case.

The book is a good balance between the investigation, the various players (Thai police officers, underworld characters, and the city of Bangkok itself), and Harry. He lacks the hint of optimism that briefly glimmered in The Bat and is developing into the tormented Harry Hole of the later books, but this is an intermediate step on that journey.

The first two books, The Bat and Cockroaches, are set in sun-drenched, exotic locations, while the rest of the series takes place in Norway. In a way, this makes sense: part of the reason I enjoy Nordic crime fiction is its setting, which is so different to where I live, so I’d expect that perhaps Norwegians feel the same way. But as an introduction of a long-running Nordic series to English-language readers, the first two books—both of which take place halfway around the world from Norway—perhaps aren’t the best choice. Nesbø’s writing gets better and better as the series progresses (especially his use of alternating POV and complex interwoven plot lines), so Cockroaches was a step back in that regard, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying it.

I’d recommend the Harry Hole series to anyone who enjoys crime fiction with a strong character development arc. These books are fantastic.

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars