I am an armchair paleoanthropologist, so any novel that even hints at early man gets my attention. What a rich time in human history, when nature rule...moreI am an armchair paleoanthropologist, so any novel that even hints at early man gets my attention. What a rich time in human history, when nature ruled and man--without the ferocious mammalian tools of claws, ripping teeth, and thick skin--survived thanks only to that most ethereal of body parts: the brain. Man's ability to problem solve--create tools, plan ahead, devise an effective hunt--meant the difference between life and death. I so love watching people invent solutions to problems they have never before faced.
When Jeff Carlson's latest book Interrupt (47North 2013) showed up, I grabbed it and wasn't disappointed. It is a perfect mix of science, mystery, and non-stop action, not to mention a fresh plot on a timely topic. In a nutshell: The US is simultaneously zapped with electro-magnetic pulses from the sun and a Chinese attack. With all electrical equipment and defenses knocked out, the country struggles to protect its people from the deadly effects from the Sun as well as defend our shores from a probable Chinese attack. What no one expected was that the Sun's electromagnetic radiation would also short-circuits parts of the brain causing anyone exposed to it to revert either to the mental state of an early Homo sapien--more like Homo habilis in brain functions, lacking creativity and higher-level thinking skills--or for about one in ten, a Neanderthal with fundamental hindbrain instincts that required each individual put life and procreation of the tribe above all else. Once again, as so often in man's evolutionary history, civilization's survival depended upon the mind's ability to solve unimaginable problems.
Sound far fetched? Yes, but not as 'science fiction' as you might think when you consider that mtDNA (the other DNA every person carries inside their cells, inherited from mothers) links us to ancestors as far back as 100,000 years ago. Neanderthals lived as late as 25,000 years BCE. It stands to reason that, given the right set of circumstances, those traits could be activated.
There are some beautiful scenes in the book, too, of the world as it might be without the noise and clutter of a 'civilized society':
"He felt hunger. He tasted blood and roots. Friends were constantly around him, and danger, and with each step he walked a balance between those two states--sometimes safe, sometimes at risk. Sometimes he increased the risk to himself in order to protect his companions, but never was there a deliberate thought. He did not consider his choices. He acted."
Perfect. This is an original book that you'll need to set an evening aside--or a cross-country plane ride. You won't want to stop reading.(less)
Sophie Hannah's thriller "Kind of Cruel" (Putnam 2013) never lets up. From the opening scene when Amber Hewerdine--an insomniac going to a hypnotist a...moreSophie Hannah's thriller "Kind of Cruel" (Putnam 2013) never lets up. From the opening scene when Amber Hewerdine--an insomniac going to a hypnotist as a final gambit to end her sleeplessness--is arrested in connection with a murder, to the final surprise ending, the story wraps mystery into plotline into psycho-drama. We readers scrabble frantically to figure out the origin of the words 'kind of cruel' and whether they are the fulcrum to who killed two seemingly unconnected women. In the usual British way, the characters are difficult and acerbic, hard to like thanks to their lack of social skills, but intriguing because of their intellect. For example, Amber Hewerdine is cranky, opinionated, and judge-jury to everyone she meets, but unlike Ellie Griffiths' Ruth Galloway, is literarily saved because she is just as hard on herself.
The story's voice is as confusing as the plotline. We sometimes see the world through Amber Hewerdine's eyes, in first person present. Other times, we jump into another character's head (Amber's sister-in-law or one of the detectives or another pivotal individual including the narrator) and switch to third person present or past. Then, there are times we are in an unnamed point of view, this always identified by italics--actually two fonts of italics (this we finally figure out half way through is the hypnotherapist whose character ties all the disparate story threads together). This final viewpoint provides the psycho-analysis of motives, tie-ins, backstory where needed, and an insider perspective on a complicated and tightly-woven plot. But that's a lot of switches and caused me no small bit of confusion. I never could quite relax into the story.
One piece that will appeal to many readers is the comparison of homemaking styles between Amber Hewerdine and her sister-in-law Jo Utterly. The former is haphazard but loving, while the latter is Martha Stewart. Who c an not hope that Jo will get her comeuppance in the end? One other noteworthy piece: This is supposed to be from Sophie Hannah's detective series starring Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse. When I started the book, I was excited in hopes I'd find another character-driven thriller/mystery series I could munch my way through. Well, yes, they are in this story, but events do not revolve around them as you would expect from series characters, nor do we spend a lot of time with them. The one scene where we get to know them as a married couple--and discover some of their relationship oddities--I found myself wondering how they could survive emotionally for the next book (if there is a next).
Carsten Stroud's "The Homecoming" (Knopf 2013) is the second in the "Niceville" trilogy. It picks up where "Niceville" left off, with our hero Nick Ka...moreCarsten Stroud's "The Homecoming" (Knopf 2013) is the second in the "Niceville" trilogy. It picks up where "Niceville" left off, with our hero Nick Kavanaugh, called in when a flock of crows brings down a private jet of Chinese nationals by mucking up their engines. Nick is already knee deep in a dozen other police problems (many carried over from the first novel), including the disappearance of his father-in-law, several mysterious deaths, and a bank robbery no one can solve. To add to the confusion, his wife Kate is guardian for a ten-year-old orphaned boy who comes to live with them--and brings with him a whole new set of ghosts, voices, and personal agendas. As Nick wades through the clues, the only thread he can find to explain everything that has happened is supernatural forces preying on his quiet sun-dappled community.
Let me stop here: I don't ordinarily go for paranormal, and before "Niceville", Carsten Stroud didn't write that type of book. I got interested in Stroud through his military novels--"Cuba Strait" and "Cobraville"--so was excited to find a new novel by him. He didn't so much change genres as create a new sub-category of 'paranormal thriller'. If I were interested in that genre, there's no one better to write it than Stroud. He has a light-hearted approach ("Speaking of painful, he was aware of Deitz looming at his shoulder, smelling lemony fresh" and "In short, from the ground up, he looked pretty damn good, like a designer refrigerator or like one of those retired NFL linebackers who get jobs as halftime commentators on Fox and CBS--hyper-snazzy in a vaguely alarming way"), a down-to-earth believability even of the unbelievable. Plus--and this may be the most important element--the ghosts and goblins in no way rule the plot; there are lots of 'regular' thriller/mystery pieces to keep the story moving along the traditional genre tracks. In his competent hands, this blending of two genres works. Consider this quote at the beginning of the novel:
"Among the dead, there are those who still have to be killed."
Who could not keep reading after that?
The setting is the southern town of Niceville, a slow-moving, friendly place where most people know most everyone. Stroud recreates this tight, got-your-back community expertly with dialogue, descriptive detail, and chapter titles like 'Zero to Sixty in Four Point Three is Good but Sixty to Zero in One is Not'. Every character Stroud introduces fits perfectly, and there are many. If you didn't meet them in the first book, you might feel overwhelmed by the volume of people it takes to move this plot along. If you read "Niceville" first, you'll be OK. In fact, Stroud often refers to events covered in the first book. Yes, he tries to explain them, but it's a complicated plot with lots of twists and turns and murders and oddities. Consider:
"Plus remember that guy, the guy who found out Twyla's dad was taking pictures of her in the shower, got ahold of them and emailed them to Twyla?"
Yeah, I do, from the first book. There's a lot of backstory that adds a ton of color to the story. If all you get is that one sentence, you might be left shaking your head.
Don't let my whining discourage you from buying this book. Stroud is a top notch story teller. I'll be reading Part III.(less)
It's a challenge as a writer to build believable characters. Your readers must relate to them, grow to understand them, maybe even empathize with. Tha...moreIt's a challenge as a writer to build believable characters. Your readers must relate to them, grow to understand them, maybe even empathize with. That requires a cautious mix of reality (unless you're writing fantasy, readers demand characters, setting and plots that could happen) and fiction (a world that could be theirs if only). Together, these two ingredients build a story that readers can get lost in.
What if those reader memories (the 'fact' in this scenario) are false? That's what writers face in setting their stories in post WWII, when "all the women are strong, men good looking, and children above average". Because none of that is true. Yet, this type of false memory is so pervasive, it's been christened the Lake Wobegon effect. It afflicts everyone from CEOs to college students to parents. The effect is closely related to the Confirmation bias, a tendency to search for, interpret or remember information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions.
So the question is: Should your characters behave in a manner that matches people's memories or as life was?
Here are some examples, from Stephanie Coontz's book, "The Way We Never Were":
The Ozzie and Harriet Family
That loving nurturing family where Dad always had a job and Mom never had to. Where the 2.2 kids went to school without question, never dropped out, did their homework and helped with chores. Where was I?
My Mother Was a Saint
Mom was always patient, wise, with eyes in the back of her head and time for kids and dad whenever they needed her. She was brilliant despite not going to college and rarely leaving the house to go to the gym, take an evening class, hold down a parttime job, those places where moms get to talk to adults. She cooked, cleaned, gardened, helped with projects, PTA'd, ironed, entertained friends. All with a calm equanimity that taught her children that every girl could be SuperMom.
We Always Stood on Our Own Two feet
No one was on welfare. Everyone's family took care of themselves and those around them. Kids got paper routes to buy their extras and Dads got raises just in the nick of time.
We Never Did That
talked back to our parents or teachers did drugs or alcohol parents never argued in front of kids families always had heart-warming reunions The other guy always got laid off and lost his job Big Business was kind and generous to its employees
What do you remember as fact that has later been disputed by history?(less)
"Rules of Crime" (Thomas & Mercer 2013) is the tenth Detective Jackson mystery by L.J. Seller and the first I've read. It won't be the last. It op...more"Rules of Crime" (Thomas & Mercer 2013) is the tenth Detective Jackson mystery by L.J. Seller and the first I've read. It won't be the last. It opens as Detective Jackson is trying to relax and wind down on a Hawaiian vacation with his girlfriend, bored by all the easy-going life and manana attitude that is part and parcel of island vacations. He is horrified (but secretly thrilled) to receive a frantic call from his daughter that his ex-wife and the mother to his child is missing. Though he isn't too worried--his ex has an alcohol problem--he uses this to escape paradise and return to the rush and tumble of an active investigation.
From, there, the drama never stops as we join his efforts to follow clues, chase down suspects, interview reluctant witnesses, quickly determining this is not an alcoholic binge, but a kidnapping with a time clock on it. He realizes it's up to him to save the life of a woman he has divorced but whose death would devastate his only child. Add to this, the mystery of Lyla Murray, college freshman dumped at the Emergency Room, almost naked, beaten, and close to death. Seller's does a great job weaving the two plots together, developing a cast of characters who seem as real as an prime time TV show. I found myself wishing the book wouldn't end.
Now, excuse me while I go order the other nine Detective Jackson mysteries.(less)
Jamie Michele's second novel, "An Affair of Deceit" (Montlake Romance 2013) is as much thriller as a romance novel--and that's a compliment. In fact,...moreJamie Michele's second novel, "An Affair of Deceit" (Montlake Romance 2013) is as much thriller as a romance novel--and that's a compliment. In fact, she does such a good job of weaving the two genres together, you will consider it pretty close to real-life.
Let me provide some backstory. After two decades, Abigail Mason no longer hopes her father will return to the daughter he abandoned. She has become a top-notch criminal attorney and uses whatever anger she holds against the man she barely remembers against opposing lawyers. She would have left life to follow that path--hard-working, focused, few if any friends--except for the arrival of (here's the romance part) tall dark and handsome CIA agent James Riley. From their first encounter, in true romance fashion, she feels an unusual tingle of emotion, one which she resolutely ignores because it is not on her agenda. Events intervene and she finds herself chasing the shadows of her past side-by-side with this man she can't quite ignore, right up to the dramatic life-threatening ending (which, of course, includes a harrowing rescue).
Michele is a good writer. The plot is well-paced and keeps me interested without the constant intrusive references to love and lust found in most romance novels. The characters are well-drawn, though a bit flat. Abigail is logical to a fault, not unlike Temperance Brennan in Bones, but Michele does get a bit carried away with the caricature of Ice Princess Abigail who imposes her will on everyone--including the CIA (really? Would they buckle to her forceful approach?). Abigail isn't particularly likable, always thinking of herself, her approach, with little consideration for others.
James is drawn as her exact opposite--charming, warm, empathetic (with unruly, sandy hair, a crooked smile, and slightly wrinkled suit). He's almost bumbling, despite being described as brilliant, as he constantly is out-thought by the untrained civilian Abigail. The latter pushes credibility. I kept waiting to hear that she was undercover, but instead, the author vaguely explained it by saying Abigail had been on the CIA 'recruit' list since high school because of these very traits.
Despite the occasional over-review of information we the reader already know (Michele has some trust issues with her audience), this is a good book from a new author. I look forward to her future stories.(less)
Taylor Stevens gets better with each book. This--"The Doll" (Crown 2013)--is her third in the Vanessa Michael Munroe series, and in my estimation, the...moreTaylor Stevens gets better with each book. This--"The Doll" (Crown 2013)--is her third in the Vanessa Michael Munroe series, and in my estimation, the best. Her Munroe character is unlike any other out there in the thriller genre. She is severely damaged by events in her life, but uses those scars to thrive as an informationist--finding information and sometimes people for others. With spot-on instincts, the ability to connect the dots even when she can't see them, and a facility with both mental and physical weapons, she is not someone you want to anger.
In this third book, she has found a level of peace with Miles Bradford, a man who cherishes her for what she is, watches her back, and understands her needs. That is shattered when she is kidnapped by the Doll Maker, an international human trafficker, to deliver another kidnapped woman into the hands of a psychotic misogynist. The Doll Maker knows threatening Munroe's life won't work for she cares little whether she lives or dies, so instead, dangles the life of one of her few friends, promising to release them both once she has succeeded in her mission. She complies, hoping Bradford will rescue her friend while she figures out how to save the second kidnapped woman. Munroe uses the full gamut of mental and physical tricks in an impossible quest to bring everyone out alive, barely maintaining control of the voices in her mind insisting she solve the problem with extreme violence, not mental canny.
And then the Doll Maker makes a mistake. He kills Noah, the rare man Munroe allowed into her life. The last man she loved, if she let herself admit that. Now, Munroe will not be satisfied with simply escaping with the life of her charge. Now, she must destroy the Doll Maker, his organization, and everyone around them.
Stevens is a unique writer, with an almost stream of consciousness approach to the life-and-death plot. When the reader is with Munroe, we feel her pain, her battle to do what must be done while tamping down the demons that constantly lurk below the surface of her consciousness. Every minute of the day, she struggles to control her self-conscious, her addictions, the fury at injustice that becomes a visceral presence trying to control her thoughts and actions. Where the story could be considered a fairly typical plot, Vanessa Michael Munroe make it anything but.
If you haven't read the first two books, read those before Doll Maker. Then, sign up with Crown to be notified every time Stevens publishes a new book. (less)
As the title intimates, Andrew Gross' latest thriller, "No Way Back" (William Morrow 2013) is about those bells we ring that can't be unrung, those se...moreAs the title intimates, Andrew Gross' latest thriller, "No Way Back" (William Morrow 2013) is about those bells we ring that can't be unrung, those self-inflicted wounds that are so venomous, we feel them for the rest of our lives. The most we can hope for is to move on.
This story starts with a simple marital spat, an argument between two people who love each other deeply, but let emotion control them for just a day. Not much time, but in that period, Wendy Gould (the wife) almost sleeps with another man. Almost--she stops herself in time, but can't get out of the hotel room before her potential paramour is murdered and she must kill a Federal agent to save her own life. She flees for home and confides in her husband--the bad and the ugly--but before they can tell her story to the police, he is killed and she must run for her life from a rogue federal agent.
To make it worse, Wendy is framed for her husband's murder and that of the agent. She quickly determines her only salvation is to find out why the man she didn't have an affair with was murdered and why it is so important she not tell what she saw.
This is a fast-paced race through one failed solution after another, as Wendy attempts to unravel clues and extricate herself before she is found by those chasing her. It is fascinating to see how ordinary people handle life-threatening situations. Though Wendy is an ex-cop, she is now a housewife of two adult children. Fighting armed killers and drug lords (part of the second plot line) is not in her daily domestic duties. Early in the book, I was annoyed by the overlapped plot lines. They jumped around in time without clear notice to the reader, but that resolved itself by the halfway mark and I never thought of it again.
For anyone who loves to read problem-solving thrillers, where a jumble of clues must be sorted by a deadline, you will love this book. And, you'll want to go back and pick up his other novels, also. Every one of them is as good as this one. (less)
This may be the last of Elly Griffiths' Ruth Galloway series I read. It has nothing to do with Griffiths' writing skills--she's wonderful. Her dialogu...moreThis may be the last of Elly Griffiths' Ruth Galloway series I read. It has nothing to do with Griffiths' writing skills--she's wonderful. Her dialogue is crisp, her settings vibrant and enticing, her plot engaging. I even love most of the characters--who couldn't be enchanted by the Druid Cathbad with a heart of gold and the easy-going attitude toward life we would all love to emulate. I can easily understand why it's a Mary Higgins Clark award-winner.
The problem is Ruth Galloway--the main character. I don't like her.
But I'm ahead of myself. This latest book penned by Elly Griffiths, "A Dying Fall" (Houghton Mifflin 2013) dwells on that rich content we armchair anthropologists love--ancient bones with stories to tell. In this case, a colleague of Galloway's (Dan Golding) discovers them, contacts Ruth, but dies in a mysterious house fire before he can discuss his find. As luck would have it, the friend's employer (a struggling college) invites Galloway (a well-known expert in this field) to evaluate what should be a 1500-year old skeleton. She quickly realizes the bones that likely caused her friend's death have been replaced by worthless substitutes. It doesn't take long for Golding's killer to set his/her sights on Ruth and worse, her toddler daughter, Ruth uses her considerable intellect, her enigmatic friend Cathbad, and the father of her daughter DCI Nelson to unravel the mystery even as other lives are claimed in the murderer's effort to stop Ruth from uncovering the truth.
Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? And it is, despite being one of those present tense books that always take me a few chapters to get used to. Griffiths, like Elizabeth George, puts you smack amidst the English landscape in her scenes, characterizations, language, customs. Here are two examples:
"They eat takeaways in front of 'Doctor Who'"
"Beyond Ruth's fence, the long grass is tawny and gold with the occasional flash of dark blue water as the marsh leads out to the sea. In the distance, the sand glimmers like a mirage, and further still, the sea comes whispering in to shore, heralded by the seagulls flying high above the waves."
Griffiths seamlessly weaves Ruth's personal life into the plot--a daunting task that many author's cannot do--without being distracting. And archeology is a thread always present:
"She loves the mixture of painstaking order and backbreaking work, hauling earth about like a navvy one minute and dusting the sand away from a shard of bone the next. She loves the sight of a neat trench, its sides perfectly straight, the soil below exposed in clear layers."
"You can't go backwards, only forwards. Every archaeologist knows that. Time is a matter of layers, of strata, each firmly fixed in its own context."
But quickly, I tired of Ruth Galloway's short-tempered, curmudgeonly approach to life. Where she started out smart and clever, quickly she became whiny and opinionated, escalating to close-minded. Is that the English stoicism gone amuck? Or is she so full of herself, so wrapped up in the World of Ruth, she can't find room to be understanding, patient, or even consider that others might have a thought worth listening to? When I asked my PLN whether they considered it a mistake to craft an unlikable main character, many thought it was OK if that character was interesting enough.
So is Ruth? You decide. If you don't mind difficult main characters, there is an awful lot to recommend this book.(less)
I read my first Timothy Hallinan book about a month ago ("Crashed"), fell in love with the author's voice, and kept on the look out for another chapte...moreI read my first Timothy Hallinan book about a month ago ("Crashed"), fell in love with the author's voice, and kept on the look out for another chapter in the life of Junior Bender, petty thief with a solid gold core and a sense of humor about everything that enters the gravity pull of his personal world.
I found it.
"Little Elvises" (Soho Crime January 2013) is the unlikely title (unless you're an Elvis Fan; otherwise, you might be tempted to skip this one--don't) for a multilayered, fast-moving crime drama. Junior Bender, the good-natured, light-hearted and very clever burglar who sometimes finds himself PI to the criminal element--as his most recent employer labeled him, the 'crook's cop'--finds himself once more dropped in the middle of a mystery he would rather avoid. But can't.
In this story, he is tricked (not really tricked, more like talked into by hanging a sword over his head) into finding the murderer of a despicable man to clear the name of another almost-as-despicable. Bender doesn't care if he helps bad guys. It's more about what downtrodden souls he can help along the way. As he follows the clues, almost getting killed several times, he discovers 1)there's good in a beat-up widowed hotelier who decorates for Christmas all year, 2) there's good in a beautiful but used thirty-something siren who marries men she should run from, couldn't care less that her current mate is dead, and now has her sights on Junior--which he doesn't mind, and 3) he and his 13-year-old daughter reach a new understanding as she helps him unravel the clues in this case--from a safe distance.
I've read so many crime novels, there aren't a lot of new plots out there for me. What makes them intriguing is the characters, and Junior is fascinating. He's not scholastically education, but has unlimited common sense and one of the sharpest brains for connecting the dots since Jack Reacher. He is self-educated, reading what he required to make sense of his world and it seemed to work. Here's a sample:
"Fronts was a nightmare wrapped around a void; if you peeled his skin off in a spiral, as you might an apple, there'd be nothing underneath it. A little darkness, a few dead moths, some sour-smelling air. All of it gone in seoncds, dissipated like a musty odor when you open a closet door."
Who writes like that? And having found the one person who does, how can you NOT read on?
If you're looking for something more traditional to convince you this is a worthy read, he has that too. Throughout the book, Hallinan's authorial voice is strong, worthy. Dialogue is crisp and interesting, always moves the plot forward and never wastes your time. The settings are well-defined, with the kind of detail that immerses you in their world. Nothing cookie cutter about this book.
**spoiler alert** I was so excited when I started Linda Stasi's newest novel The Sixth Station (Forge 2013). Her voice is wonderful, personal and beli...more**spoiler alert** I was so excited when I started Linda Stasi's newest novel The Sixth Station (Forge 2013). Her voice is wonderful, personal and believable, Her first person narrative pulled me in immediately, putting a human face on the world of journalists who often seem to wallow in a reputation less about seeking truth and more about the 'at all costs' rejoinder to that mantra. Here, Stasi's main character is a struggling journalist who has had some bad breaks, was out of work for too long and really needs her current gig (who can't relate to that?). The plot is a Dan Brown look-alike, but I'm open to those. There have been a few I loved (i.e., the Pandora Prescription).
But somewhere around page 44, the plot meandered from 'believable though extreme' to just 'extreme'. By page 125, it had found its new over-the-edge path.
Let me back up a bit. Alessandra Russo, struggling forty-something journalist, finds herself plopped smack in the middle of the story of a lifetime when she is asked to cover the trial of a world-renowned terrorist. Her first day, something (no spoiler) makes Ali the story as much as the man reputed to have killed thousands. When events lead to Ali being fired and wrongly accused of murder, she is forced to flee and seek answers to a two-thousand year old puzzle. Intertwined with this is timeless and current question: Is the civilized world ready to convict a man of heinous crimes when he denies his guilt and his followers claim he is the modern-day Jesus?
What if they posit he is a clone of Jesus Christ?
Still fine to this point. Extreme plots are what make many thrillers tick. But then Stasi made a few errors. One is more a writing stylization--she foreshadows a lot of the action in the book. It's a technique some authors use to keep you reading. They want you to know that while things might look calm (not a trait you want in a thriller) right now, there's danger in the future. I can ignore that if the writer is fresh and substantive, which Stasi is.
Then, she made another mistake: She made Ali unlikable. The more Ali got into this mystery, the more flippant, disrespectful, and judgmental this woman with her spotty journalistic background became--toward people she should listen to. It's not that I disagreed with her. My mind was open, waiting, curious, but I pick my mentors carefully, and a woman with an attitude and a personal agenda didn't seem like a good choice.
Books rarely survive if readers don't like the main character.
Over all, if you like an extreme plot, a Brown on steroids, and can forgive Ali both her chosen profession and her inability to see where the facts lead her, you'll enjoy this book. Me, I had to give it a three stars.(less)
I read a lot--four-eight books a week, primarily thrillers (because that's what I write). After a while, they start sounding alike:
* powerful but fla...moreI read a lot--four-eight books a week, primarily thrillers (because that's what I write). After a while, they start sounding alike:
* powerful but flawed hero stands against evil * a crisis storms in that only s/he can solve and s/he is pulled out of retirement/another job/a satisfying domestic life to assist his/her country/a friend/a stranger * despite herculean efforts, it threatens to destroy him/her * at the last minute (sometimes, literally), s/he prevails, a better person because of this trial by fire
I'm always on the look out for a writer who can break out of that template and still provide the fast-moving, gut-wrenching action that makes thrillers the favorite of millions of readers.
I've found him.
Enter Victor Robert Lee and his debut novel, Performance Anomalies (Perimeter Six 2013) where Mr. Lee sets the stage for what could be one of the most riveting series in recent years. I'm not a fan of opening a novel with a dream sequence, but in this case, it worked.
The story is about an unusual man-without-a-country named Cono NLN. Cono has the gift of a hyper-fast neurological system (a genetic mutation), which he uses for good and evil, ambivalent to the purpose. As the book opens, he finds himself haplessly helping a criminal mastermind whom he calls 'friend' to destroy the world. It's not faceless death that forces a second look from this unexpected crime fighter, but that it would destroy what few friends he has, and thus, Cono finds himself re-evaluating his life path. There is lots of back story, but it is so instructive in understanding this man who considers himself a freak, it doesn't detract from the momentum of the plot.
This is a character-driven story, the plot interwoven with the hero's essence. Don't misunderstand: This isn't an introspective account of a man's moral evolution. Yes, that does happen, but what keeps the reader turning pages is the action, the adventure, the power of Lee's voice. The author--through Cono's eyes--treats everyone who populates this fictitious world as though he knows them, with a sense of place and a respect for their culture and attitudes. His writing is crisp, tight, with lots of sensory details to put readers right in the middle of Kazakhstan, a torture session, a sensuous walk along exotic streets. The words are magnetic, making readers want to get to know this man who can slow time like a stop-motion camera, despite his questionable morals and bias for violence. Quickly, readers feel connected to this world, one which most of us will never experience.
A side note: I was curious about Mr. Lee so Googled him and found a wonderful website sharing insight into his world, aka Cono's world. It includes pictures (see below) and sources he uses for his writing--real world performance anomalies, the works of Dr. Oliver Sachs (a personal favorite), brain research. If you are the reader who wants to learn from what you consume rather than escape reality, you will love this.
It is clear from the construction of this story, this is no stand-alone novel. Cono has metamorphosed and we will see the future Him as a protector of good, enemy of evil. I can't wait.(less)
I've been waiting for this book a long time, though I didn't know it was Timothy Hallinan's "Crashed" (Soho Crime 2013). What I wanted was more Elvis...moreI've been waiting for this book a long time, though I didn't know it was Timothy Hallinan's "Crashed" (Soho Crime 2013). What I wanted was more Elvis Cole, but Robert Crais only writes about one book every two years. I need one a week.
Now, I have a worthy alternative. Junior Bender, the hero in Hallinan's thief-who-solves-crimes series, is a good-hearted burglar who is at peace with his lifestyle. On his most recent job, Junior is set-up. To escape with his freedom, he must use his clever brain to make sure a porn movie being produced by one of LA's biggest crime bosses successfully wraps. He's OK with that--nothing judgmental about his nature--until he decides that the female lead (a child star who's fallen on hard times) shouldn't be doing porn. To untangle her and himself takes considerable intellect, conniving, and wit. No problem. Junior has all that and more.
This was my first Junior Bender novel. I'm always hesitant with new authors/new series. Will they be worth my time? Can the writer weave a tale that is engaging yet quick? Can he take his character over a cliff without killing him--or my interest? "Crashed" did it in the first scene, so strange it had me flipping along to see how it made any sense at all. Hallinan completely won me over when I read Junior's philosophy of life:
'There's something about those warm yellow rectangles [windows lit at night] with the unavoidable implication that there are families inside, still whole and complete, safe and comfortable, living by the rules and loving each other. I know it's not always that way, I know that terrible things can happen in a lighted window, but that's not what I see. What I see is one of the candles that holds the world together.'
Right here, we know this is not the usual mindless, amoral thief. And that's not Junior's only quirkiness, but you'll have to read the book to discover the rest. Plus, he has a sense of humor (much like Elvis Cole). At one point, he's describing the clothing of his porn movie employer:
'...along with a pale-yellow silk business suit that would have turned heads at a Braille convention'
Suffice it to say that by page 81, I was pretty sure this was a guy I'd be happy to travel a couple hundred pages with. The plot, too, lived up to Junior's creativity, with lots of quick twists, unexpected developments, and traumas that tested the problem-solving skills of our unlikely hero. If the other three books in the Junior Bender Series don't show up on my Vine list this week, I'll be using my Christmas gift card to buy them.(less)
With "Snow White Must Die" (Minotaur Books 2013), Nele Neuhaus shows the reading world that she can spin a tale steeped in small town politics, local...moreWith "Snow White Must Die" (Minotaur Books 2013), Nele Neuhaus shows the reading world that she can spin a tale steeped in small town politics, local culture, European geography, and that places the reader at the epicenter of a grisly mystery. Does that sound easy? It's not, proven by how many failed authors litter the literary highway. If Neuhaus keeps writing like this, she won't have to worry about failing.
This is the tale of a double murder where a high school boy is found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison. While he served his time, the small town that had nurtured and protected him for twenty years drove his parents out of business and treated them as pariah--despite that he never confessed to the crime, didn't remember doing it, and the bodies were never found. The story begins with his return when it becomes clear someone is not only unhappy he is back and afraid of the truths that might still come out. This mystery is a rich interweaving of setting and story. The taste and scent of European village life permeates everything and the characters provide a window on a world most of us will never experience.
Although the book nicely wraps readers into the drama of a high school wonder boy who falls from grace, is convicted of murder, and returns home to try to restart his life after paying his societal dues, there were a few bumps along the way:
* Despite the sensational name, it doesn't encapsulate the story. Yes, there is a character nicknamed 'Snow White', but she's dead. No one runs through the plot figuring out how to kill her. In fact, the story unravels why she did die. Since publishers name novels, I wonder what Neuhaus originally called this one--Why Did Snow White Die? or Tobias Must Die. Granted, neither of those has the sensationalism of the current title. * I found it hard to believe Tobias would have a second black out just in time for another girl to disappear. When it happened, I figured someone was causing him to black out, but no, it was coincidence. Hmm... The last 25% of the story bogs down in drama that doesn't move the plot forward. I ended up skimming chunks of the late chapters without missing anything. What Neuhaus thought to be tension-building was actually pace-stalling. * the book never ended. Every time it reached a natural conclusion, something else popped up. * Why is it set four years in the past? Is this intended for some reason that isn't explained or did it take four years to get the book from the author's computer to my early-reader hands? If the latter, that's frightening for would-be writers and one measure why publishers have difficulty competing with Indies.
These are likely new author issues. What can't be argued is that Neuhaus is a talented, expressive writer who knows how to tell a story and is the reason I gave it four stars. I look forward to more of her work.(less)