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: 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: 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

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

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.