Category Archives: American Crime Fiction

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.

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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: 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: The Tenth Circle by Jon Land

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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: The Last Clinic by Gary Gusick

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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: Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois

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CartwheelCartwheel by Jennifer DuBois (Random House, 2013)

 

Cartwheel begins with a note stating that while “the themes of this book were loosely inspired by the story of Amanda Knox,” it is its own story. There’s an argument to be made that the book is much more than “loosely inspired” by those events, not least because of its narrative focus. We know who Amanda Knox is—the alleged murderer—and many people view her imprisonment and conviction as unjust, even tragic. What many, of not most, of those people don’t know is the name of the young woman who is the real victim in all of this, the Englishwoman who lost her life, Meredith Kercher. The real tragedy, the death of a young woman, has been subsumed by the drama surrounding Amanda Knox.

This book has that same self-absorption about it. Lily, a young American, travels to Argentina for a semester abroad. She and her roommate Katy have a very superficial relationship that is representative of Lily’s relationship to just about everything and everybody. Lily, it seems, is a young woman who just doesn’t pay attention to much of anything. And as such, she’s not a particularly compelling central figure: she’s unlikeable, even to those who love her, and that makes the possibility of her being wrongly convicted of Katy’s murder much less suspenseful than it should be.

The Argentine prosecutor, Eduardo, is—of course—convinced of Lily’s guilt before he even really knows the facts of the case; so much so, in fact, that his questioning of the person implicated by DNA at the crime scene focuses on Lily’s involvement rather than the specifics of the murder. He doesn’t seem to care about the truth except as it fits into his preconceived narrative; ironically enough, this happens to be his primary criticism of others.

Lily’s family—divorced parents, sister—travel to Argentina, but because visits with Lily are limited, they spend more time in their heads than they do supporting Lily. Her parents are aware that they are belittling Katy’s death in their hysteria over Lily’s predicament, but having been through a previous family tragedy, this reaction is something they’ve long since learned to live with, which deadens its impact on the story.

As I was reading Cartwheel, I didn’t get the sense that I was reading something original. It drew on the Amanda Knox story to the extent that it was obvious what role each of the characters would play: the wrongly accused American, the murdered roommate, the boyfriend, the Other Suspect whose DNA is found at the crime scene but who cannot possibly have acted alone in committing the crime because everybody wants the American girl to be guilty. While there seems to be an underlying message about the nature of interpersonal relationships and the truth, it’s lost under the retelling of a story many of us already knew.

 

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

My rating: 3 stars

Review: The Bones of Paris by Laurie R. King

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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