JADE DRAGON MOUNTAIN by Elsa Hart

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Jade Dragon Mountain
By Elsa Hart
Minotaur Books – September 2015
ISBN 9781250072320 – 336 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


This debut novel by Elsa Hart was a real pleasant surprise, a book with a captivating story, characters, and prose. The second of two mystery/crime novels that I recently read to feature a non-Western setting and Jesuit characters, Jade Dragon Mountain stood out as giving a strong sense of historical setting and avoiding genre clichés while keeping a traditional murder mystery structure. The sequel comes out this September, so now would be a perfect time for mystery fans to discover this notable new series.
It is the early 1700s on the border of China and Tibet, a little over half a century since the founding of the Qing dynasty. Exiled imperial librarian Li Du arrives at a remote Chinese border town among a diverse host of citizens and travelers gathered for an extraordinary ceremony: a solar eclipse commanded by the authority of the Emperor himself. When a Jesuit astronomer is found murdered in an official’s home the authorities are quick to point fingers at bandits, but Li Du suspects the murder is far from random. Surrounded by strangers who hide secrets and divulge lies, Li Du struggles between the choices of departing his homeland in acceptance of his exile, or following his instincts and conscious through an enquiry that could lead to repercussions both personal and imperial.
The pacing of Hart’s writing for this historical Chinese murder mystery is spot on. Her plots, character developments, and sentences neither rush nor needlessly delay.
“He imagined then that the shifting clouds contained thousands of years, and that he had seen the same tree in two different times. What if every moment of that tree’s existence, the whole of its past and its future, existed at once, here in this blank and infinite cloud? An eerie suggestion of his own insubstantiality pulled at him. He, too, was inside the void.”
Measured, flowing prose such as this make much of Jade Dragon Mountain a story to savor, without sacrificing readability or the entertainment of the plot’s twisting surprises. Hart’s style also manages to successfully merge disparate elements – historical realism, an ‘exotic’ locale, folklore, romance, comedy, politics, social commentary, and of course mystery – into one cohesive whole.
I’ve mentioned the good character development in Hart’s debut novel, and this is certainly true for its protagonist Li Du. The other novel I recently read with surface similarities to this one had a Jesuit scientist in the role of detective, a ‘casting’ that echoes with familiarity for the crime genre. Aside from giving that Jesuit protagonist background training to make him of use for catching a killer, his existence as a Jesuit within the setting of that novel wasn’t much explored. With Jade Dragon Mountain the Occident-styled Jesuit is the victim, and the detective is a man solely immersed in Chinese culture, a man of high intellect – but not one you would immediately pick to fill the role of investigator. Hart augments that unlikelihood by making Li Du an imperial exile, a Chinese man now separated from a huge part of his culture while still being emotionally and spiritually linked with it. And that makes Li Du very fascinating. Seeing his further development through events and interactions keeps holding the reader’s interest.
The weakest aspect of Hart’s debut novel though stems from her inclusion of so many characters. It is important for upping the level of unknowns the story needs as a mystery and it allows for a diversity of character points of views and interactions across cultures. However on the more individual scale these secondary characters often lose resolution. Aside from Li Du, a story-teller named Hamza is the character who stands out in memory; the other supporting cast intermesh, and keeping track of may could take some effort in the early parts of the novel. I do also wish the female characters had greater presence, though by the final portion of the novel Li Du does interact with one more – and therefore so does the reader. Hamza is just delightful. He lends a light comic relief to the story and spins secondary tales that are just as fun to experience as the novel as a whole. I hope he appears in future stories featuring Li Du.
The White Mirror, the second book of this ‘Li Du mystery series’ comes out on 6th September 2016; I wish I hadn’t gotten behind in reviewing because I would have eagerly jumped on an early copy of it. This is a series I definitely plan to continue with and I will be purchasing a hard copy of this first novel. Hart’s novel offers a fresh setting and a variety of cultures to explore from multiple perspectives, so I don’t predict it is the kind of mystery series that would easily slip into tired formula.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES by F.H. Batacan

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Smaller and Smaller Circles
By F.H. Batacan
Soho Press – August 2015
ISBN 9781616953980 – 368 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads First Reads


 Set in the slums of Payatas, just outside Quezon City of the Manila metro area, Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles is a bit of a contradiction. On the one hand it is rather unique: a crime procedural novel written by a Filipino author with a plot steeped in local politics and culture, and featuring two Jesuit priests committed to identifying a serial killer preying on the indigent tween boys living amid the neighborhood trash warrens. However on the other hand the novel is exceptionally ordinary: routine in its text and familiar in its protagonists, antagonist, and suspense despite the unique setting and perspective.
 As a respected forensic anthropologist, Father Gus Saenz serves as an asset for the National Bureau of Investigations, particularly surrounded by the corruption of local police and his personal connection as priest to a flock living in abject squalor. Together with his psychologist protégé, Father Jerome Lucero, Father Saenz begins to investigate the appearance of eviscerated young local boys, seeking an end to the horrible crimes of an apparent serial killer and justice for the victims, vulnerable members of humanity that their society would rather ignore.
 Most significantly, I found descriptions of local atmosphere lacking in Batacan’s writing. Though descriptive passages are present, the large chunk of Smaller and Smaller Circles consists of dialogue and stage direction. This is typical in crime novels, but unlike something like Hammett, Batacan’s dialogue and focus on the mundane seems remarkably tedious. To be fair, other readers may see this type of realism to be refreshing, and it may draw them into the story more than it did in my case. Given the expectations I had in viewing this book as a rare Filipino literary take on the crime genre, I was left wanting much more.
 More about the procedure of investigation, the novel can’t really be described as a mystery, as the identity of the killer is not something the reader could arrive at. Yet, there is the element of discovering the killer’s motivations behind the gruesome murders. Again, as with the sociopolitical commentary provided by the setting, the psychology and past of the killer is an aspect to Smaller and Smaller Circles that holds so much untapped potential. Just as Batacan doesn’t pursue the politics of her novel to much depth, so too is the serial killer’s psyche not fully explored. Moreover the ‘reasons’ for the killer’s impulse never believably syncs (in my mind) with the details of the murderous acts.

Identification of the serial killer and the ultimate conclusion to capture them proceed with little twist or surprise, and the reader will likely realize how the killer gains access to victims before the Jesuit pair. This slow predictable plod to resolution, coupled with the unremarkable dialogue, made this hard to get into. Certainly not badly written, fans of police procedurals may still find something to enjoy in this novel, particularly if they appreciate the genre familiarity within a slightly unfamiliar setting. Plenty of readers have connected with Smaller and Smaller Circles, and depending on your interests/expectations you might too. But my expectations for something really new and different were unfulfilled.

In an odd convergence this is actually one of two crime novels I’ve just read featuring Jesuits and an ‘exotic’ locale (compared to those in typical crime novels published in the US). The other succeeds far stronger, so look for its review coming soon.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via the Goodreads First Reads program in exchange for an honest review.

THE INSECT FARM, by Stuart Prebble

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The Insect Farm
By Stuart Prebble
Mulholland Books – 7th July 2015
ISBN 9780316337366 – 320 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads’ First-Reads


A foul odor is noticeably growing, emanating from a shed and attracting the attention and concern of neighbors. The police are called in. Within they discover an elaborate insect farm and the remains of two people, picked to the bones.
So begins Stuart Prebble’s The Insect Farm, the English author’s first novel published in the US. After the grisly discoveries of the novel’s prologue, the story begins from the point of view of elderly Jonathan Maguire: an everyday, normal kind of fellow who is writing down past recollections of his family and life. Jonathan hints at some significant event compelling him to relate this past, an event – figures the reader – related to the mysterious bodies discovered in the prologue.
 For all his his life, Jonathan has been close to his older brother Roger. Loving and protective of one another, the Maguire brothers have a normal childhood. But as Jonathan begins to grow into young adulthood, he begins to notice that Roger’s mind has remained in adolescence. Roger’s mental disabilities and related social insufficiencies leave him in a relatively simple, but happy, life of reliance on his brother and their parents. While Jonathan starts to get an interest in girls, Roger develops an interest in insects, starting an insect farm in the yard shed as a hobby.
As Jonathan begins to focus more on his studies and a relationship with his attractive girlfriend Harriet, circumstances force him into greater responsibility for caring for Roger, whose insect farm has grown into a beloved obsession. But Jonathan’s commitment to caring for Roger limits the time he has with his now-wife Harriet, the only woman in a small musical ensemble that works long-distance. Only seeing Harriet during the weekends, Jonathan lives in constant jealousy that his stunning bride is away with a bunch of other men, one of whom makes no secret of his desires for Harriet.
Two brothers with different sorts of obsessions and dependencies: one with mental/social defects and eccentricities the other with near-stifling responsibility and pangs of resentment. A wife away with a man who fancies her. One can imagine that things can go wrong with such tension. But what will happen exactly? And which of these characters correspond to the two skeletons that end up with the insects in the shed?
There lies the mystery and suspense of The Insect Farm. It’s important to stress to potential readers that these genre tensions do not form the bulk of the story. Prebble’s novel is somewhat hard to characterize and it is easy to go into this expecting one type of story only to be disappointed that you’re getting something else. This isn’t a thriller with some cat-and-mouse chase toward discovery of identities. It isn’t about fulfillment of justice for a crime. The resolution to the prologue of The Insect Farm will not be revealed until the reader completes the last page, and there will be some surprise twists right before the final, appropriately subtle, one.
But it takes a lot of text to get to this point of revelation. The majority of that text (3/4 of the novel roughly) is taken up with the rather everyday family drama of the characters. It thus more closely resembles a contemporary ‘literary’ piece of fiction than something from the mystery or thriller genre. At it’s heart, it may be more aptly described as psychological suspense, heavy on the psychology. The psychology of the Maguire brothers is the meat of The Insect Farm, most particularly that of the point-of-view narrator Jonathan. And Jonathan is not a particularly likable person. I have no issues with needing characters in fiction to be likable, but I know some readers do. For me, this is what makes The Insect Farm an actually interesting piece of fiction.  To what degree is Jonathan selfish? How honest is his devotion to his brother? How alike are these two brothers? Does Roger have greater understanding and capability than one might at first think? What moral culpability does Roger have for social transgressions given his mental development?
The characters here – including Harriet – may not be likable, but they are interesting. They are people whose motivations aren’t always clear-cut, but they do have them. These complex motivations, and the psychology of characters’ decisions are the elements a reader can focus on here, forming questions and opinions that can be debated with other readers. People who appreciate this type of thing will find a lot to love in Prebble’s novel. But if you don’t want to get into the character’s minds – or don’t care to – then you will likely get rapidly bored as a seemingly normal mix of human dysfunction ‘drags on’ until finally turning to crisis and fall-out management in the last quarter of the book. For me, the character details that lead up to that end point were largely worth reading.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via Goodreads’ First-Reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

DIVIDEND ON DEATH, by Brett Halliday

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Dividend on Death
(Mike Shayne #1)
By Brett Halliday
Open Road Media – 16th June 2015
(First published 1939)
ISBN 9781504012737 – 218 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


This is the first of the Miami-set Mike Shayne noir novels, written by Davis Dresser under the pseudonym Brett Halliday. The style of the novel will be familiar to anyone who has read pulp crime or seen film noir. There is a hard-boiled private investigator, murders, a beautiful woman in distress, thugs, and dangerous twists and turns for the hero.
A young woman named Phyllis Brighton shows up in PI Mike Shayne’s apartment/office in psychological distress. Both her doctor and her new step-father believe that she has a mental complex that could lead her to unconsciously harm – even kill – her mother. No sooner does she leave with Shayne’s guarantee that he will work for her to prevent her from killing her mother than the step-father also shows up at the door to hire Shayne to protect his wife from Phyllis. Two payments for one job, what could be better? But before Shayne can even start the job(s), he finds Phyllis covered in blood and her mother lying dead with a knife in the back.
Dividend on Death is primarily interesting as a curiosity from its age and as the first Mike Shayne novel. The psychological, medical aspects of the story are influenced from the theories of the late 1930s, and are nice to see played out here. In a way the novel falls into the ‘mad scientist’ genre perhaps as equally as the crime fiction one. So readers interested in that historical perspective, or the role of psychology in fiction, could find something of great interest here. I wasn’t previously familiar with the character of Shayne. Given that the character is one of the giants of the field (featured in novels to the late ’70s and appearing in radio, TV, and film) some readers might consider the start of the series worth checking out.
As a pulp crime novel, however, Dividend on Death isn’t anything exceptional; the character of Shayne doesn’t have any personality traits that make him particularly compelling compared to other well known characters of that age or of more recent decades. (Perhaps the character is fleshed out and develops more unique personality in later books?). The story and the writing in this are neither superb nor poor for the genre. Dividend on Death in most respects is just average: a decently entertaining read.
Compared to some pulp of the era and beyond this novel doesn’t focus on a femme fatale relation or steamy scenes, instead featuring the criminal action and Shayne’s attempts to find the truth and ‘capture’ those responsible. Fans of the genre who favor action and punching over the sexploitationesque elements in crime fiction may then appreciate this.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

THE EUTHANIST, by Alex Dolan

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The Euthanist
By Alex Dolan
Diversion Books – 2nd June 2015
ISBN 9781626815490 – 315 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


Do people have the right to die when their lives approach their end filled with unbearable pain? Is it murder to assist them? Conversely, do remorseless, monstrous criminals deserve death? Should they be inflicted with pain as punishment for the worst of human crimes? Is torture justified to gain answers to save the innocent?
These are the kinds of questions at the heart of Dolan’s debut novel, The Euthanist. Kali is the pseudonym chosen by an EMT who has taken up the off-hours job of assisted suicide under the umbrella of a clandestine right-to-die movement. She meets the illegality and moral grayness of her occupation by adhering to a strict code that includes a long process of meeting with clients, ensuring this is a well-considered decision and that their terminal disease is indeed certain and without hope.
Slight laxness in her process traps Kali in a situation gone horribly awry when a supposed client slaps her in cuffs and announces that he is an undercover FBI agent. Kali finds this hard to believe with his odd behavior as rather than arresting and bringing her in, he holds her captive and begins probing into her identity and psychological rationalizations for her actions. Kali soon learns that this FBI agent is not just looking to capture her, but to blackmail her into helping in his own mysterious goals towards revenge against the people responsible for kidnapping his son.
As a thriller and mystery, The Euthanist stands fairly well. The plot takes several twists and turns, and if you don’t know much of the plot going into it things will likely proceed in many ways you didn’t expect. Those big moral questions at the heart of the plot are also fascinating, making the premise of Dolan’s novel at first very captivating.
Unfortunately I felt that Dolan didn’t explore the various moral quandaries fully as the novel progressed and the action of the plot began to thicken. The debates over these questions don’t necessarily have a clear-cut answer, and the characters themselves don’t even need to come to any firm conclusions. But within the overall arc of the story, their are firm beliefs at the start, a lot of complexity enters in, and that complexity doesn’t really go. I never got the sense of the characters coming to any sort of solid ground by the end, particularly problematic with Kali, who in general comes across as a very indecisive person.
That characterization by far though was my greatest difficulty with The Euthanist. I had an incredibly hard time buying the things that the FBI agent put Kali through, particularly given the similarities to what the agent’s son went through. His vision seems incredibly narrowed, and that vision primarily is simply allowing the author’s plot to unfold. It thus ends up feeling unnatural, authorial design. Meanwhile Kali, a supposedly strong-willed protagonist battling her own demons of the past, comes across as remarkably ineffective in most situations at asserting herself, at maintaining control over her decisions. She allows the FBI agent to control her actions, and eventually begin to guide her thoughts, in ways that I found hard to swallow.
These problems with The Euthanist made it ultimately a disappointing read for me, but it still clearly has its merits. Other aspects of writing Dolan has down very well, from atmosphere and tone, to sharp dialogue, and a thrilling plot based on great moral questions. Thriller fans may still consider it worth a look, particularly if passionate about euthanasia or punishment against perpetrators of crimes against children. Reading the first handfuls of chapters of the novel should give a reader a fair sense of whether they will enjoy the remainder.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

THE EDGE OF NORMAL, by Carla Norton

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The Edge of Normal
(Reeve LeClaire Series #1)
By Carla Norton
Minotaur Books – 30th September 2014
ISBN 9781250032775 – 384 Pages – Paperback
Source: Goodreads


If I would have had the fortitude, I would have gone through all the pages of Norton’s debut thriller in one night’s sitting. Alas, sleep beckoned and I had to settle for devouring it in thirds. The Edge of Normal is a remarkably tense novel with excellent pacing, a disturbingly twisted predator threat, and an inspiring formal victim protagonist. Because of its subject matter a warning of trigger factors for potential readers is needed up front. In Norton’s own words:
“The main character’s scars speak to what she has suffered, but the abuse is never described in detail. There are brief scenes of girls being held captive, but without anyone else in the room. Most of the suspense comes from the dread of what might happen next, and what the criminal plans to do. Several reviews have mentioned that I’ve handled a difficult subject without sensationalism.”
— Carla Norton in response to a question posted on Goodreads
The novel features a sexual predator who kidnaps and holds young girls captive for his own deviant desires. Diabolically this very real horror exists to inspire the plot of the novel, but it is important to reaffirm here that Norton handles the horrors with a commendable balance of honesty without sensationalism or exploitation. At heart the novel comes down to more than the evil deeds. Its plot is ultimately concerned not with who is committing the deeds, but to how they can be stopped. And the predominant theme focuses on the possibility of recovery and healing.
Reeve LeClaire is a young woman in her twenties who is trying to adapt to a life of normalcy ten years following her fortunate escape from a four-year captivity by a sexual predator who kidnapped her. With the support of her family and the capable professional care of psychiatrist Dr. Lerner, Reeve has slowly made significant steps of recovery, despite still bearing significant scars both physical and mental. Reeve now answers a call from Dr. Lerner to take a further step in her healing. The parents of a young girl named Tilly who has just been saved from a captivity resembling Reeve’s have asked for Reeve to help mentor and guide Tilly through the jarring first days of her restored freedom, her presumed safety back at home.
Though Tilly is rescued from captivity and a confessing suspect has been captured, authorities are still concerned about a pair of girls still missing under similar circumstances, and hope that Tilly will open up to Reeve in shedding light on the remaining mystery. Reeve soon discovers that the captured abductor of Tilly merely acted under the control of someone else, someone far more powerful and devious who continues to exert powerful control over Tilly, a monstrous man who represents a threat to Tilly’s entire family and now to Reeve herself.
Norton is previously known for her works in the true crime genre of nonfiction, accounts of actual events that correspond to this fictional novel. Her subject familiarity is evident in how authentic the plot and characters of The Edge of Normal come across. Reeve’s building involvement in a criminal investigation is handled reasonably and the resolution of events through a combination of skill, persistence, and luck adds to realism overall. The villains by the nature of their crimes are very difficult to sympathize with, particularly the man in control, Duke. Yet Norton manages to give humanizing, sympathetic aspects to the other criminals, despite their monstrosity. By far Reeve is the most impressive, a complex character of both weaknesses and strengths, but certainly of resolve.
The ability of Duke to control his victims rests on his carefully structured double life and system of predatory surveillance. He has created a highly structured life for the goal of preying on others. Norton shows this in contrast to the carefully structured life of Reeve who is using the order instead to overcome her victimhood and to aid others. What is really interesting in this thriller is that a large drive in the plot involves a reversal of control, as the carefully laid plans and systems set in place by Duke are overcome and overwhelmed by the intelligence and commitment to healing (Tilly’s) that Reeve holds. Duke’s control (including of self) begins to slip and the erraticism of his psychology begins to manifest just as the erratic uncertain psychology of Reeve begins to find stability, despite the resurfacing of painful memories and monsters from her past.
The strengths of The Edge of Normal lie not just in what the novel provides with its characters, pacing, and page-turning suspense, but also in what Norton wisely chooses not to do. The critical avoidance of exploitation I already mentioned. Norton also allows Reeve to stand on her own. There are people of support and inspiration in her life, including men. Yet, at no point are these male figures the source of her rescue or salvation. Given her abusive past, Reeve understandably finds physical touch, romantic relationships – indeed any deep relationship – difficult. Her character grows in this novel, but Norton doesn’t absurdly rush Reeve ahead in anything. Reeve develops the start of a close relationship with a young male police officer in this novel – merely in that they talk honestly, a bit deeply, and there is an obvious attraction on the part of the man. But it thankfully stays at this level. There are hints to how Reeve may develop for future novels, but it is clear that much growth is still possible to provide a satisfying series.
The giveaway from Goodreads that provided me a copy of this novel from the author seems organized to coincide with the upcoming release of the second Reeve LeClaire novel, What Doesn’t Kill Her (entitled Hunted in the UK). I am hopefully getting a copy of that soon, so look for a review on that coming. Another giveaway for The Edge of Normal is now running on Goodreads, so go there to sign up if you haven’t yet read this first novel and are interested.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the author via the Goodreads First-Reads Giveaway Program in exchange for an honest review.

THE HONEST FOLK OF GUADELOUPE, by Timothy Williams

20691206The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe
(Anne Marie Laveaud Mysteries #2)
By Timothy Williams
Soho Crime – 13th January 2015
ISBN 9781616953850 – 336 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads


 This mystery novel, more accurately perhaps a police procedural novel with a strong sense of setting is filled with fascinating parts, but unfortunately the sum of these together doesn’t add up to much, none of them are explored to their potential.
Set in the former colony, and now département of France, Guadeloupe, this is the second book featuring character Anne Marie Laveaud, an investigating juge of French-Algerian descent. I haven’t read the first book featuring Laveaud, which I am sure covers some of the family and professional details that form a part of this book. That previous book seems unnecessary for following the plot here, or appreciating Laveaud. However reading that prior book may make some of the side plots in The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe a little more complete.
In this novel, Laveaud is investigating a pair of deaths in 1990. One is a supposed suicide of a prominent businessman, a case with apparent political ties that leads Laveaud’s superiors to try and push her away from looking into it. Instead they want her to look into the other death, the murder of a young woman, a presumed white tourist, due to its potential ramifications on the tourist industry of the small islands of Guadeloupe.
The title of the novel comes from a common local saying regarding the relationship between Guadeloupe and Martinique, Guadeloupe being more rustic and ‘working class’ in a way (honest folk), compared to the fancier, more well-to-do ‘gentlemen’ of Martinique. Class differences come into play with each of the deaths that Laveaud investigates. And with the second, the murder of the young woman, issues of race and colonialism also rear their heads. As a woman born with connections to the French colony of Algeria, Laveaud is familiar with these issues, but doesn’t allow them to interfere with her simple, constant search for the truth.
Williams writing here is question-laden, as so much of the story is related, and moves forward through the simple barrage of queries to potential witnesses and sources by Laveaud. For fans of procedural detail over action or keen danger this could be welcome, but for readers who go for other types of mystery genre tales, they may find the conversation and subtleties to be dull. Most of the novel passes from conversation to conversation with brief moments of descriptive passages either highlighting local flavors of the islands, or biographical details on Laveaud.
For me the largest difficulty lies in the fact that none of the elements at play here felt fully explored, or properly linked together. I was attracted to this largely due to my interest in things French, and of French colonialism (and just generally enjoying mysteries). But the racial and colonial issues at heart here are background decor, there is not much serious reflection or exploration of the issues. When one brief incident involving a standoff and attack by a dangerous man is used to provide tension and further sociopolitical relevance, it ends up being an aside, not linked integrally with the plot.
Another element present in The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe is the family life of Laveaud, who is dealing with separation from her husband and caring for the children as a single parent, when one of them is becoming increasingly rebellious. This personal part of the plot (as well as interesting personality conflicts/rapports with colleagues) never reach any sort of conclusion, and I can only guess that they form a continuous background plot that would develop throughout multiple books of the series. Within the confines of this novel though they are unresolved and seem completely irrelevant, again an issue running parallel to the story, but not a key part of it.
Fans of police procedurals in general and those with an interest in this particular setting would find the most interest in this novel, and even then I’d only recommend delving in if open to following the entire series.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Soho Press via the Goodreads’ First-Reads Giveaway Program in exchange for an honest review.

NEAR ENEMY, by Adam Sternbergh

22078949Near Enemy
Spademan Series
#2
By Adam Sternbergh
Crown – 13th January 2015
ISBN 0385349025  – 306 Pages – Hardcover
Source: NetGalley


Near Enemy does everything that you could ask from a sequel, and it does it all well. If you are new to Adam Sternbergh’s Spademan protagonist and post-terrorist-dirty-bomb New York City setting, then do yourself a favor and go find Shovel Ready, which I reviewed here previously. If you enjoyed Shovel Ready, chances are you’ll like this even more.
 The second novel takes something that is introduced in the first, the limnosphere, and expands upon its implications into a plot. As a virtual world where the affluent can escape from dilapidated reality, the limnosphere is not a new concept to science fiction universe. But Sternbergh does explore it in interesting ways that make Near Enemy a fun kind of mystery/cyber punk mashup. The novel opens with the morally ambiguous Spademan contemplating the target he has been hired to kill, a young ‘bed-hopper’ who is part of an underground that effectively hacks into other people’s limn experiences. Spademan’s hesitance over carrying out the hit turn dangerous when this limnosphere voyeur informs him that someone has worked out a way to kill people within the virtual world so that the physical body dies too. Spademan soon finds himself further involved in a situation that threatens one of the only pillars of stability holding up the post terrorist attack society of the city.
The previous novel in this series focused mostly on Spademan as a character, and was cast in a distinct noir tone with the standard femme fatale to get mixed up in the protagonist’s business. These noir stylings remain here, but Near Enemy goes a bit further in exploring the state of this devastated near-future New York City, where the leaders and officials maintain a rough order through corruption and conspiracy.
The plot from the first book is further developed alongside the main threads of this novel, with key characters returning and progressing further, in interesting ways. Most notably, one of the villains from the first book becomes increasingly apparent as an actual ally, creating a morally ambiguous character complementary to (and distinct from) Spademan’s ‘hitman with a heart’ persona.
As with Shovel Ready, this will likely appeal to people that go for mystery/crime thrillers inthat classic vein of gritty protagonists, and to readers that appreciate the speculative plot built around these limnospheres, both in terms of their societal role and potential to be abused for nefarious purposes/power. A fun read with well handled plot twists and characterization, Near Enemy proves Sternbergh does have a series in him, and I look forward to enjoying it continue.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Crown Publications via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

CRUDE CARRIER, by Rex Burns

21822369Crude Carrier
(Touchstone Agency Mystery Series #2)
By Rex Burns
Published by MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Media – 7th October 2014
ISBN1497641543 – 242 Pages – Paperback
Source: Goodreads


Here is a case where verisimilitude kills a book for me. I recall being in college back in the late ’90s hearing a talk from an alumni who had become an FBI agent. He explained how after Silence of the Lambs and particularly The X-Files they had to explain that life of an agent was not that exciting. Mystery novels similarly frequently have far more intrigue, action, and sex than the average life of P.I. or detective would enjoy. If nothing else, the novels skip over the dull minutia of the job, the routine of paperwork, checking facts, making phone calls without repartee.
Crude Carrier is about a family hiring a pair of detectives (father and daughter, James and Julie Raiford) to investigate the mysterious death of their son on a shipping vessel (oil tanker) while at sea. Receiving unsatisfactory explanations from the company as the parents did, James goes undercover on the ship to discover the truth while Julie stays in the office to handle the paper trail and business record side of things.
Readers are then treated to the tedium of leg work in researching the shipping industry and the daily life aboard one of its vessels. For someone that is really intrigued by oceanic matters, boats, etc, then maybe this would be fascinating. But I just wanted the action to get going. While it eventually does, Burns’ straightforward, no frills approach makes even the mystery and danger so routine that the realism of it all just couldn’t win my interest.
Though I really didn’t care for this, fans of mysteries and thrillers who do appreciate this kind of realism in how investigations would really proceed with a hint of very honest danger looming overhead from going undercover will enjoy the detailed minutiae of Crude Carrier. This is my first Rex Burns work, so while I think the overall style is what he known for, I can’t say if this is typical of his writing, or if it sits on one end of a spectrum. If you are interested in nautical tales, technology and learning about shipping then this also should be a book you’d enjoy.
The setting for Crude Carrier is definitely uncommon, and I admit that is refreshing to see, I just wish the story moved a little earlier with a bit more flare and less technical detail.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Open Road Media/MysteriousPress.com via Goodreads’ First-Reads Giveaway Program in exchange for an honest review.

300,000,000, by Blake Butler

300,000,000, by Blake Butler
Publisher: Harper Perennial
ISBN: 0062271857
456 pages, hardcover
Published: 14th October 2014
Source: Goodreads’ First-reads

Written in a manic stream-of-consciousness flow as diary entries from minds fractured and deranged, 3000,000,000 is at times poetic and profound, vulgar with visceral gore, illuminating, and impenetrable. The main characters are Gretch Gravey, a psychopathic mass murderer/cult leader, and Detective E.N. Flood, the officer tasked with combing over Garvey’s rambling writings and testimonies to penetrate the meaning behind his horrific crimes.
As Flood struggles to understand the insanity of Gravey and his alter-egos his colleagues (and the reader) begins to witness Flood’s own life and mind descend into a similar vortex of madness where rational sentences devolve into surreal images of raw contrasting emotions. Reality and imagination in the minds of the protagonists blur, as do the lines between the plot and the social commentary of 300,000,000 on the fabric of America.
I try to avoid statements such as this, but this novel if any will hold to that idea that most people will either love or hate Butler’s novel. The near incomprehensibility of much of the text, read more for the poetry, frantic cadence, and general feeling of unease that it elicits will not be for everyone. At times I found it fascinating, but as the novel wore on I became increasingly bored and uninterested, dulled to the violence and disturbing heart of it all, which perhaps is an effect and commentary Butler desired to convey to some degree.
Just as Flood becomes affected by the crazed mind of Gravey, so too does the reader. The effect is chilling. In moments where I spent time focused on the novel, and in the dark quiet of the night, my mind tried to construct some logic around the surreal, and began to feel a growing sense of paranoia and discomfort. Butler succeeds well at making this truly creepy for the reader able to immerse into the pages of 300,000,000, particularly in the start of the book. I also appreciated how the horrific depravity and bloodbath behind the minimal plot of the novel seems at times supernatural in nature, yet also reads like that would be a cop-out, denying the utter evil capable by humanity itself.
Eventually, however, the novelty of that experience became old, the effects dulled. After a certain number of times reading dehumanizing words like ‘flesh’ and ‘meat’ to describe people loses its effect. The fragmentation of characters and the unreliability of who is ‘real’ and who is a fragment of Flood’s imagination start to become repetitive and the social commentary on America grows a bit too literal perhaps. A little over halfway through the novel I was ready for it to end. The remainder just reinforced responses I’d already had and there isn’t enough of a ‘plot’ here to really make the latter portions of the thick novel fulfilling from the angle of story.
Readers who really enjoy surreal, bizarro fiction will find this worth checking out, but this is certainly not for those who want a more traditional kind of novel or those put off by disturbing horrors. While I remained welcome to it, the experimental nature of the novel wore thin on me. Finally finishing it I felt far more displeased and unsatisfied than I feel now with the passage of some time. Butler’s 300,000,000 is certainly unforgettable.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.