Category Archives: 5 stars

Review: Cross and Burn by Val McDermid


Cross and BurnCross and Burn by Val McDermid (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013): Tony Hill & Carol Jordan series


Tony Hill and Carol Jordan finally defeated their nemesis, Jacko Vance, but not before they paid a staggering price: the murder of Carol’s brother and his partner. Cross and Burn begins with an ending: Carol’s elite MIT squad has been disbanded, its members reassigned. Carol herself has quit the force and has seemingly vanished. Tony is back to clinical practice. Paula McIntyre is now the second to DCI Alex Fielding (yes, from the TV incarnation of Wire in the Blood), and on her very first day she finds herself pulled in two directions: officially she’s investigating a series of murders, and unofficially she’s trying to locate her partner’s colleague, who has gone missing and whose teenage son insists she’s met with foul play.

This is a novel about relationships. Carol’s absence has left a gaping hole in Tony’s and Paula’s lives, both personally and professionally. Tony struggles to adjust to life without Carol and to his overwhelming guilt over her brother’s murder, while trying to maintain his friendship with her former colleagues. But it is Paula who forms the heart of this novel as she attempts to balance her new working relationships with her reliance on Tony Hill and Stacey Chen, as well as her relationships at home. Paula has always been a talented investigator, but as she investigates the murders of several women—who, disturbingly, resemble Carol Jordan—Paula realizes just how much of an influence Carol has been on her and just how big a loss Carol’s resignation really is.

As always, McDermid is able to create situations that are emotionally charged without begin melodramatic. Through skilled plotting and pacing, she keeps Tony and Carol apart for more than two-thirds of the book before they are both inexorably drawn into Paula’s investigation, and while solving the murders is important, it’s the impact it has on Tony and Carol that makes for a riveting story.


Cross and Burn is the eight novel to feature Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, and I can only hope there are many more to come.

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

My rating: 5 stars

Review: The Bones of Paris by Laurie R. King


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

Review: Broken Harbor by Tana French


BrokenHarborBroken Harbor by Tana French (Viking, 2012)

Blurb: Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy plays by the book and plays hard. That’s what’s made him the murder squad’s top detective—and that’s what puts the biggest case of the year into his hands.

On one of the half-built, half-abandoned “luxury” developments that litter Ireland, Patrick Spain and his two young children are dead. His wife, Jenny, is in intensive care.

At first, Scorcher and his rookie partner, Richie, think it’s going to be an easy solve. But too many small things can’t be explained. The half dozen baby monitors, their cameras pointing at holes smashed in the Spains’ walls. The files erased from the Spains’ computer. The story Jenny told her sister about a shadowy intruder who was slipping past all the locks.

And Broken Harbor holds memories for Scorcher. Seeing the case on the news sends his sister Dina off the rails again, and she’s resurrecting something that Scorcher thought he had tightly under control: what happened to their family one summer at Broken Harbor, back when they were children.


This book is like the big bad wolf. It draws you in to a nice cozy cottage with promises of hot chocolate and a warm fire, gets you all bundled up and cozy, then pulls off its mask to reveal its truly wicked, sharp teeth.

Mick Kennedy, the central character, appeared briefly in the previous books in this series before taking center stage in Broken Harbor. He’s a cop who sees things in black and white; he may never be able to create order from chaos, but he’ll never stop trying. When he and his rookie partner are assigned to investigate the murder of a young family in a seaside housing development, Kennedy’s primary question is why. He begins with Why would someone murder this picture-perfect family and moves on to Why would someone punch holes in these brand-new walls, then clean up around them but not patch them and eventually Why are video monitors strategically placed beside these holes, and what was being recorded? What went on in this house?

The area now calling itself Brianstown was previously Broken Harbor, where Kennedy’s family rented a caravan for two weeks every summer. And just as homeowners lined up to buy homes based on glossy brochures showing model houses and then found themselves in a half-built ghost town when the Irish economy collapsed and the builders abandoned the development, Kennedy’s perception of Broken Harbor as the one place that made his mother happy was forever changed when she walked into the ocean one night and never returned. He arrives at the murder scene with a sense of betrayal that carries over into the investigation, which is only complicated by the arrival of his sister Dina, who never recovered after their mother’s suicide. His new partner Richie has his doubts about the guilt of their prime suspect, and it’s partly because of this that Kennedy is compelled to keep digging, trying to find the answer to his question: Why?

The first half of the book is interesting, as French sets up the crime and the crime scene, and provides the procedural details that allow Kennedy and Richie to find a viable suspect, but in the second half of the book you get the payoff. Little things that seemed tangential suddenly are put into context, and when the consequences of everyone’s actions become obvious, the overall picture is breathtaking.

As with her previous books, Tana French is able to create a unique and multidimensional character at the center of a complex crime investigation where no ground is as solid as it appears. The crime itself is almost a secondary concern to French; this book is an investigation into the dark side of the human psyche, and it’s very dark indeed.


My rating: 5 stars

Review: The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon


TheBoneSeasonThe Bone Season by Samantha Shannon (Bloomsbury, 2013)

One of the great joys of being a reader is finding a book that incorporates familiar elements in a way that is completely original. The Bone Season is such a book.

Paige Mahoney lives in 2059 Scion London, where “voyants”—people with special mental abilities—are hunted down. Some are imprisoned, some are executed, and some are forced to join the security forces and use their powers to capture other voyants. Paige is part of an underworld group called the syndicate, which is kind of like a mafia protection racket: the voyants go to work for the syndicate, and the syndicate looks out for the voyants. Paige is the group’s “mollisher,” the second in command; and although she recognizes her powers are somewhat unusual, she doesn’t fully understand what they are and what their limits might be. One day, riding home on a subway, she has a run-in with the Scion security forces that changes her life forever: she’s captured and sent to a penal colony run by the Rephaim—an alien race who control the Scion—where voyants are the soldiers in the Rephaim war against their own enemies.

If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. But Shannon has an incredibly deft hand at world-building: the descriptions of London and Sheol I, the prison, are richly layered and full of details. And it’s not just the places. The societies are also fully realized—the human world, where ESP is viewed as a potentially curable illness and people volunteer for “treatment”; the voyant underworld and the syndicate; and then the world of Sheol I—each with its own set of rules and hierarchies. All this information is presented in a way that is effortless for the reader. There’s no slogging through background information or paging through excessive description, and as a reader I never got the sense that I was being given more information or detail than I needed.

Paige is an engaging and incredibly frustrating character. She’s smart, she’s passionate, and she’s intensely loyal, which means that she makes a lot of decisions that an outsider can instantly identify as bad ones, but that Paige is going to make every time because that’s who she is. Paige is also endlessly curious, and at Sheol I she’s got a lot to explore: the prison itself; the Rephaim; her own powers, which she is beginning to realize are even more unusual and special than she ever imagined; and her relationships within the prison. Her master is a Rephaim called Warden, who manages to be simultaneously cruel and sympathetic. The relationship between Paige and Warden is very well drawn; Paige, so slow to trust but so incredibly loyal, doesn’t know what to do with this Rephaim whose motives are so unclear—is he trying to help her or destroy her?

To sum up: I loved this book. It’s richly layered, complex, and compelling. I plan on re-reading it when the sequel is published because I know there’s more under the surface that I’ve missed.

The Bone Season is the first book in a planned series of seven by debut author Samantha Shannon.  Apparently Andy Serkis has already optioned the film rights; if so, I hope this book makes it to the screen, because it has the potential to be amazing in a visual medium.


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

My rating: 5 stars

Review: The Lewis Man by Peter May


42985_LewisMan_HB:564x240The Lewis Man by Peter May (Quercus, 2012), Lewis Trilogy #2


Blurb: The male Caucasian corpse – marked by several horrific stab wounds – is initially believed by its finders to be over two thousand years old. Until they spot the Elvis tattoo on his right arm. The body, it transpires, is not evidence of an ancient ritual killing, but of a murder committed during the latter half of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, Fin Macleod has returned to the island of his birth. Having left his wife, his life in Edinburgh, and his career in the police force, the former detective inspector is intent on repairing past relationships and restoring his parents’ derelict croft. But when DNA tests flag a familial match between the bog body and the father of Fin’s childhood sweetheart, Marsaili Macdonald, Fin finds his homecoming more turbulent than expected. Tormod Macdonald, now an elderly man in the grip of dementia, had always claimed to be an only child without close family.


I’ve always wanted to visit the Outer Hebrides. I’m not sure why–the windswept isolation sounds beautiful to me, in a rugged hardscrabble way, and I’d like to see it for myself. Lewis makes a wonderful backdrop for these novels.

As with The Black House, Peter May has written a taut, compelling novel with wonderful characters. Fin Macleod has returned to Lewis, perhaps permanently, and is discovering that the “simple” life he left behind was anything but—in fact it’s a tangled web of conversations that never took place—and trying to find his way in the new life he’s establishing for himself. Now that Fin is finally coming to terms with the death of his son, he tries to establish a relationship with Marsaili, his teenage love, and her son, who is starting his own family. However, Fin is soon drawn into a mystery when a body is found in a bog—and judging from the Elvis tattoo and the stab wounds, the man was murdered. DNA soon links the body to Marsaili’s father, who has dementia.

The story of Tormod Macdonald is handled beautifully, with sensitivity and pathos. The key to solving the mystery of the bog body is locked up in his memories, which he can relive but cannot articulate. His story, revealed a piece at a time, is heartbreaking, all the more so because it’s based on the true stories of children like him.

It’s interesting to me that the titles for both The Black House and The Lewis Man come from the cases under investigation, because the cases are not really the focus of either book. The trilogy’s focus on character relationships and interactions, and broader social issues, is what makes it so compelling.


My rating: 5 stars

Review: Faithful Place by Tana French


Faithful PlaceFaithful Place by Tana French (Hodder and Stoughton, 2011)

Blurb: Tana French’s In the Woods and The Likeness captivated readers by introducing them to her unique, character-driven style. Her singular skill at creating richly drawn, complex worlds makes her novels not mere whodunits but brilliant and satisfying novels about memory, identity, loss, and what defines us as humans. With Faithful Place, the highly praised third novel about the Dublin Murder squad, French takes readers into the mind of Frank Mackey, the hotheaded mastermind of The Likeness, as he wrestles with his own past and the family, the lover, and the neighborhood he thought he’d left behind for good.

I honestly didn’t think it would be possible for me to like this book more than The Likeness. I was wrong. Faithful Place is a fantastic read.

19-year-old Frank Mackey and his girlfriend Rosie Daley were going to escape inner-city Dublin and run away to London together. Only Rosie never showed up; assuming she’d taken off without him, Frank went on with his life in Dublin, joining the police force and avoiding his family as much as possible. But he’s forced to confront all of the what-ifs and the family demons when Rosie’s suitcase is found in an abandoned house on the street where they grew up.

Part of what I like about this series is that it’s not a serial. Each book stands just fine on its own, and while there is an added dimension you get from reading them in order, you don’t get the sense you’ve missed something if you don’t read them in order. There’s a new main character in each book–with the exception of the central character, which is Dublin itself–with an entirely new perspective and history and relationships, and the author is more than capable of creating richly layered and detailed stories that are only peripherally related to the other books.

I’ll definitely keep reading these books!

My rating: 5 stars

Review: The Never List by Koethi Zan


TheNeverListThe Never List by Koethi Zan (Pamela Dorman Books, 2013)

Sarah and Jennifer, having survived an accident that claimed the life of Jennifer’s mother, analyze every statistic they can find about danger—what can happen and the odds of those things happening—and assemble what they call “the Never List”: a list of things they must never do if they are to stay safe. They faithfully follow the list, until the night they get into a cab that isn’t a cab, and they wake up in chains in a madman’s cellar. After three years of unspeakable horror, Sarah manages to escape, and she and two other women are finally free—but Jennifer has vanished.

Ten years pass, and Caroline (as Sarah now prefers to be called) has moved to New York City, where she can live and work without ever setting foot outside her apartment. But that madman is up for parole, and without her testimony, he might well be set free. Not only that, but the letters he sends her are more and more intriguing, hinting at a past that isn’t hers but might refer to the two other survivors, neither of whom wants anything to do with her. She finally convinces them that they must follow the clues in those letters, and together the three women—Sarah, Tracy, and Christine—confront what was done to them, and what they did to each other.

Caroline/Sarah is a compelling and sympathetic character; she’s aware of the devastating emotional impact of her imprisonment but seems content to stop at awareness and not delve into the reasons behind it or find ways to move forward. It’s only when she leaves her isolation and discovers that the madman might not have been acting alone that she is able to look beyond her own experience and think about other people. In fact, all of the characters are compelling, if not always sympathetic. There are two interwoven plots in the book—what is going on in the present, and what went on in the past—and it’s through the current shared experience that Sarah, Tracy, and Christine are finally able to discover the truth about what really happened in the cellar ten years ago.

This was a difficult book to read, and it was an even more difficult book to stop reading. Although she’s writing about the (all-too-real) underground subculture that exists solely to exploit and debase women, the author avoids vivid descriptions, choosing instead to rely on emotional and psychological imagery that arguably have more impact on the reader. The pacing is top-notch; the author found the perfect balance between plot development and character development to make this story work.

This is an excellent debut, and I would like to see more from this author.


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


My rating: 5 stars

Review: The Blackhouse by Peter May


BlackhouseThe Blackhouse by Peter May (Quercus, 2011)

Blurb: A brutal killing takes place on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland: a land of harsh beauty and inhabitants of deep-rooted faith.

A MURDER. Detective Inspector Fin Macleod is sent from Edinburgh to investigate. For Lewis-born Macleod, the case represents a journey both home and into his past.

A SECRET. Something lurks within the close-knit island community. Something sinister.

A TRAP. As Fin investigates, old skeletons begin to surface, and soon he, the hunter, becomes the hunted.


I saw this book and its sequels on a display table in Waterstones and couldn’t pass it up. The cover photo does an excellent job of setting up the book, which is takes place in the bleak, remote Outer Hebrides (off the northwestern coast of Scotland).

Fin Macleod has recently lost his son, and the island functions as the perfect backdrop to Macleod’s grief.  Macleod is sent to Lewis to investigate a murder that bears a striking resemblance to a recent murder in Edinburgh, where he now lives. He finds both solace and further anger in his memories of growing up in this environment—and many of them center on the island’s rite of passage, the guga harvest. Every year, twelve men from Lewis spend a week on the sheer cliffs of Sula Sgeir, hunting gannet chicks. Macleod participated only once, and his memories are hazy—but the disaster that occurred during that year’s hunt has kept him away from Lewis for almost 20 years. Adding to the story’s complexity is the disintegration of Macleod’s marriage and his reunion with old friends—including his first love.

This is a well-written, compelling mystery, and I’m happy that I bought it. It’s the first in a trilogy, and I’ve already bought the other two books.


My rating: 5 stars

Review: The Likeness by Tana French


The LikenessThe Likeness by Tana French (Viking Adult, 2008)

Blurb: Six months after the events of In the Woods, Detective Cassie Maddox is still trying to recover. She’s transferred out of the murder squad and started a relationship with Detective Sam O’Neill, but she’s too badly shaken to make a commitment to him or to her career. Then Sam calls her to the scene of his new case: a young woman found stabbed to death in a small town outside Dublin. The dead girl’s ID says her name is Lexie Madison (the identity Cassie used years ago as an undercover detective, and she looks exactly like Cassie.

With no leads, no suspects, and no clue to Lexie’s real identity, Cassie’s old undercover boss, Frank Mackey, spots the opportunity of a lifetime. They can say that the stab wound wasn’t fatal and send Cassie undercover in her place to find out information that the police never would and to tempt the killer out of hiding. At first Cassie thinks the idea is crazy, but she is seduced by the prospect of working on a murder investigation again and by the idea of assuming the victim’s identity as a graduate student with a cozy group of friends.

As she is drawn into Lexie’s world, Cassie realizes that the girl’s secrets run deeper than anyone imagined. Her friends are becoming suspicious, Sam has discovered a generations-old feud involving the old house the students live in, and Frank is starting to suspect that Cassie’s growing emotional involvement could put the whole investigation at risk.


I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of identity. Who determines our identity—are we who we believe we are, or are we who others believe us to be? Is it possible for someone to truly assume another person’s identity, and if so, wouldn’t that mean we are what other people project onto us, rather than the sum of our own emotions and experiences?

This is the story of four people who have developed an incredibly close bond—only one of them isn’t who the others think she is. And when Lexie Madison is found murdered near the home where she’s living and, with her friends, renovating, the police immediately realize she’s been living a lie, one they plan to continue, with the help of the undercover officer who created Lexie’s identity years ago. As Lexie, Cassie is able to slip right into the murdered girl’s life and routine, or so it seems.

Cassie is a fascinating and complex character, and French does an amazing job of keeping Lexie and Cassie completely separate even as they are unavoidably intertwined. Ireland itself, as it always is, becomes a primary character in this novel, which is almost Gothic in flavor with the old, drafty estate house as its main setting. But by far the most intriguing character in this book is Lexie, the “real” Lexie, precisely because she is entirely the product of other people’s memories. She’s lived her entire life pretending to be someone else, and French has written a remarkable psychological thriller around discovering who Lexie might actually have been.


My rating: 5 stars

Review: The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe by Peter Godwin


TheFearThe Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe by Peter Godwin (2010, Little, Brown)

Blurb: Journalist Peter Godwin has covered wars. As a soldier, he’s fought them. But nothing prepared him for the surreal mix of desperation and hope he encountered when he returned to Zimbabwe, his broken homeland. 

Godwin arrived as Robert Mugabe, the country’s dictator for 30 years, has finally lost an election. Mugabe’s tenure has left Zimbabwe with the world’s highest rate of inflation and the shortest life span. Instead of conceding power, Mugabe launched a brutal campaign of terror against his own citizens. With foreign correspondents banned, and he himself there illegally, Godwin was one of the few observers to bear witness to this period the locals call The Fear. He saw torture bases and the burning villages but was most awed as an observer of not only simple acts of kindness but also churchmen and diplomats putting their own lives on the line to try to stop the carnage.

THE FEAR is a book about the astonishing courage and resilience of a people, armed with nothing but a desire to be free, who challenged a violent dictatorship. It is also the deeply personal and ultimately uplifting story of a man trying to make sense of the country he can’t recognize as home.

Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) was, for many years, Africa’s success story. After a bloody war of independence, under the new government Zimbabwe’s infrastructure and educational and health-care systems were excellent (the country’s HIV/AIDS prevention and education programs were routinely referred to as models for the rest of Africa), corruption was relatively controlled, and racial tensions seemed to be a thing of the past. But as the new millennium began, this all came apart: race-based “land reform” led to the collapse of the country’s agriculture—no longer a major exporter of grain and other crops, Zimbabwe’s economy foundered. Human rights abuses were common—systemic, even—with journalists and opposition party members being targeted. Inflation skyrocketed, measured in the quintillions by 2008, when Robert Mugabe and his ruling party, ZANU-PF, blatantly manipulated election results in order to maintain power.  Zimbabwe became a failed state.

Peter Godwin grew up in Zimbabwe—then Rhodesia—and was drafted into the army during the civil war. His book Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa tells this story. Godwin left Zimbabwe and became a journalist (he was foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times and has worked with the BBC, the New York Times, and other publications). He returned over the years to visit his aging parents, and he chronicles the nation’s slide into economic and political chaos in When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir. Both books are well worth reading, and both are intensely personal. The Fear is political: Godwin describes the events of 2008–2009, known locally as “the Fear,” the presidential elections and the violent aftermath leading up to the formation of the Government of National Unity, or GNU. This is not the story of Godwin or his family, who have all left Zimbabwe; this is the story of the people who remain, and who continue to fight against Mugabe’s dictatorship. As Godwin says: “I am bearing witness to what is happening here—to the sustained cruelty of it all. I have a responsibility to try to amplify this suffering, this sacrifice, so that it will not have happened in vain.”

The Fear is a difficult book to read. It’s full of violence and horror and injustice. As the oldest head of state in Africa, Robert Mugabe continued to maintain a high level of respect for liberating Zimbabwe: African leaders would not censure him. Because the violence was one-sided (i.e., not a civil war), the international community was unwilling to intervene. Godwin doesn’t make any claims of impartiality—he is solidly against Mugabe’s dictatorship, which he describes as a guerilla movement that maintains its military tactics, seemingly unable to make the transition to a system of law and order.

The Fear was published in March 2011. In March 2013, after a delay of almost two years, the voters of Zimbabwe approved a new constitution, one that would allow a president only ten years in office (two five-year terms) and that would eliminate veto powers over the parliament. The country’s courts have mandated that presidential elections be held before 31 July—and Robert Mugabe is a candidate.

My rating: 5 stars