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.

The Genome, by Sergei Lukyanenko (Translated by Liv Bliss)

Never got around to posting my last review for Skiffy & Fanty, on Sergei Lukyanenko’s The Genome, as translated by Liv Bliss. Well-known for his series of fantasy/horror novels that start with Night Watch, his entry into science fiction parody is world’s apart.

“…If given a more serious tone, a science fiction set-up like this plot could be used to explore such concepts as individuality, free-will, class relations, racism, and colonialism within the murder mystery context. In its parody (or perhaps pastiche – it is never quite clear if Lukyanenko mocks or celebrates space operas of bygone years), The Genome doesn’t put much energy into these kinds of explorations. Instead, its focus is on making the characters and their behaviors fit into science fiction (or mystery) novel stereotypes, thereby coming off a lot like a space opera mashup in the style of the 1976 film Murder By Death written by Neil Simon that did similar things with the mystery genre and its iconic characters….”

Read my entire review at Skiffy & Fanty!

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, by Joël Dicker

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, by Joël Dicker
Translated by Sam Taylor
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 0143126687
656 pages, paperback
Published 27th May 2014
Source: Goodreads

The truth about The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is that its hype remains inexplicable to me. This is novel that has gotten a lot of press and fanfare, with huge sales throughout Europe. However, any potential readers out there that are looking into it, I think it’s important for you to consider what the novel really is compared to what the hype and awards may imply. Dicker’s debut novel is an entertaining, easy read. It is a clever mystery, and genre fans could easily enjoy it as I largely did. I’m not convinced it is anything more though.
Marcus Goldman, a successful, young, first-time novelist turns to his friend and former mentor Harry Quebert when Marcus finds himself trapped in the midst of sophomore writer’s block, an impatient publisher, and a public that is starting to forget his celebrity.
Quebert, who went through similar difficulties continuing to write following the literary accolades of his debut novel, reassures Goldman with advice and vague recollections of Quebert’s inspiration to write. Goldman discovers this past inspiration involves a love affair his mentor had with a young girl decades ago, a girl who mysteriously went missing.
Trying to turn his own life around, Goldman is forced instead to question his entire relationship with Quebert when the body of the young girl, Nola, is found buried beside Quebert’s house with a draft copy of Quebert’s famous novel and Quebert is subsequently arrested for murder.
Goldman leaves New York to return to the town of his old college where Quebert teaches, abandoning his responsibilities and again fleeing his writer’s block out of loyalty to his friend. Goldman’s investigations into Nola’s disappearance and Quebert’s secret relationship with the girl opens a web of small town intrigue and secrets and give Goldman’s publisher’s a desperate idea of what his next book can be: a report on his investigation into the truth of the Harry Quebert affair and Nola’s death.
As a mystery novel, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is strong and entertaining. If a bit long, the read is at least straight-forward, engaging, and rapid. The story is kept complex and unpredictable through the inclusion of a small-town’s-worth of characters, all of whom it turns out are keeping some kind of secrets pertinent to the mystery and are keeping important details from Goldman during his investigations.
Dicker nicely makes his protagonist Goldman a brutally honest narrator, whose point of view is conveyed with a fair amount of self-depreciation. The directness of Goldman contrasts nicely with the ambiguous information parceled out by Quebert and the unreliability of all others Goldman interacts with. The murdered Nola is also a deeply compelling character, and despite the danger and taboo of their relationship, both Quebert and Nola are sympathetic and relatable.
Despite these excellent attributes, Dicker’s novel also comes across as disappointing. It’s feel can be best described as slick and hip, written by a young author who the reader can easily (though not necessarily accurately) associate with the novel’s POV protagonist, Goldman. The success of the novel throughout Europe and the awards it has attracted offer parallels to where Goldman sits at the novel’s start, and the reader can’t help but compare Quebert’s advice to Goldman regarding writing and grabbing ahold of readers to the methods employed by Dicker here. Clearly the parallel is something that Dicker intends.
The great mystery that remains for me – and seemingly others – is just WHY this novel has attracted such rave accolades other than it is was a hip item of the moment in Europe. It’s a decent mystery novel with a good voice. Is it particularly ‘literary’ or merit the ‘literary’ awards it has gotten? I often question whether any work was really the ‘best’ choice for awards, but with this the question rears particularly strong.
I make it a point to never read English translations of French books, being perfectly capable of reading them in French. Somehow I either missed that this was a translation when requesting, or made a rare exception because the synopsis sounded so intriguing. (And it is often more difficult, certainly more expensive, to find copies of anything in the original French here in the US).
After starting this I decided to get the original version, because I thought the language was far too simple, direct, and ‘non-literary’ based on how the book was being marketed for this to be a decent translation. Upon finishing it, composing my thoughts, and seeing other reactions, I see that this isn’t a fault of translation, it is how the language in French is as well.
Again, this would be fine if this were sold as a better-than-average mystery alone. But as anything more, I unfortunately just don’t see it. Ultimately the parallels between Quebert’s advice to Goldman that extend through this long novel finish with the point that books should close while leaving the reader wish the story would not end yet. Honestly, after reading the final chapters of the book as all the many secrets held by all the characters were revealed (indeed it seems like every person in town had some hand direct or indirect in Nola’s condition, murder, or its coverup), I was just wanting it to wrap up and end already.
Depending on your expectations when entering this novel,  you could easily either love it or be really disappointed. Regardless, the hype over this is frankly the real mystery of the Harry Quebert affair. However, the one and two-star pans of the novel don’t really do it justice either. If you just like a good entertaining mystery, this is worth a read, and I really do recommend it.
Three Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Penguin Books through the Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero

The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 0385538154
368 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 12th August 2014
Source: NetGalley

“The elusive specter had apparently never had sufficient identity for a legend to crystallize about it, and after a time the Boynes had laughingly set the matter down to their profit-and-loss account, agreeing that Lyng was one of the few houses good enough in itself to dispense with supernatural enhancements.”
– from Afterwood, by Edith Wharton

While I really enjoyed Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House for taking a literary, realist approach to the ‘ghost story’, I have to say it was delicious to read something with ‘supernatural enhancements’ of the literal and classically eerie kind.

Nestled in the isolated woods of Virginia, a creepy estate named Axton House with rumors of a ghost. Its eccentric and increasingly reclusive owner, Ambrose, suddenly dead. A suicide. At the same age and in the exact manner as his equally eerie father years ago. The butler, the last remaining servant of Axton House, vanished. The nearest neighbors recall the bizarre group of men who gathered at Axton House each year just prior to Christmas, upon the winter solstice.Ambrose’s lawyer greets the only recently discovered distant relative who has inherited the Axton House estate. The relative, named only as “A.” in the story, arrives with a younger mute companion, an Irish teen named Niamh with bright dyed hair and a punk style that contrasts here silence.

In communication with an “Aunt Liza” back in England, A. and Niamh begin to explore the physical estate (from the haunted mansion to a garden maze) and the history of its owners and their associates to discover the secrets of Axton House and a special all-seeing crystal eye.

The novel is written unconventionally, in a way that at first I feared would be gimmicky and annoying. Thankfully it felt neither. The story is related through a variety of records: diary entries, dream journals, Niamh’s notepad, letters, and transcripts of audio and video recordings. This creates a very effective situation where the reader is given exquisite details, but only in very limited contexts. These details need to be pulled out and fit together, and one must equally remember what isn’t being told or shown. Hence it is like a puzzle where you don’t know what the big picture will ultimately show.

The press describing this novel with words such as ‘clever’ ‘gothic’ and ‘fun’ are spot on and succinctly sum up the sheer joy that is The Supernatural Enhancements. This book truly felt like reading a children’s story again, but with adult themes within, for the ultimate effect of it all stands on the challenge of puzzle solving and the thrill of unexpected chills. Full of cryptography (messages one can attempt to decode) in various forms, each discovery only opens further mysteries and surprises.

Honestly, not everything was a surprise for me, I easily foresaw the role of certain characters. However, there were enough unexpected revealings of plot and twists to keep me pleased. I don’t want to ruin the nature of the secrets, but I can safely explain that I really enjoyed the union of the haunted/fantastic with a dose of scientific (neurobiology and quantum physics really) theory or speculation. This science element verges at the edge of actual scientific speculation and pseudoscience, the perfect spot for this kind of story.

The measured placement of The Supernatural Enhancements at this zone between the fantastic and that speculative region just beyond the limits of what science currently can describe is referenced throughout the novel with mention of The X-Files and Mulder & Scully’s relationship. The story is set in  the early years of the show’s run, and features other pop-culture references of the time as well. Just as The X-Files references the gothic, occult fantasy of the first half of the novel, a lovely reference to the classic PC game The Secret of Monkey Island gives a perfect nod to the treasure-hunting and puzzle-solving aspects of the second half.

The Mulder & Scully metaphor can also be extended in some respects to the relationship between A. and Niamh. This is not in the sense of faith vs. doubt that the two X-Files characters embodied. Rather, it is in the ambiguity of the emotions in their relationships. Niamh is described as being there to protect A. Yet, A. also shows the drive and ability to protect Niamh. They also obviously have deep connection and the apparent potential for romance, but their relationship seems to be platonic. This ambiguity that Cantero uses with A. and Niamh is absolutely brilliant, particularly given the novel’s ultimate close.

I really can’t think of much that I didn’t enjoy about The Supernatural Enhancements. It is entertaining, it has a good amount of depth, it is clever and challenging in the puzzle solving aspects, it is just all-around well written. Given the inclusion of non-standard elements like mazes and cryptograms and the like, I’d definitely recommend getting this in actual hard copy. I’m really eager to see the cover in reality and not just on a screen too. This is a book that I’m getting my own physical copy of to hold and enjoy again.

Five Stars out of Five

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

NOTE: Ending 28th July, 5 copies of this book are available to win from Doubleday through the Goodread’s Giveaway Program. Go here to sign up for the giveaway or to add this to your To Read list.

Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh

Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh
Publisher: Crown Publishing
ISBN: 0385348991
256 pages, hardcover
Published 14th January 2014
Source: Blogging for Books
(Crown Publishing Group)

I had wanted to review this novel closer to its initial release, but my reading queue was just too full at the time and the opportunity unfortunately had passed. I was happy then to learn about Crown Publishing Group’s Blogging for Books program and request this for my inaugural selection. The plot description seemed like something that would be right up my alley, a genre mashup between the gritty, hard-boiled, noir thrillers you might expect to find in the Hard Case Crime lineup and a dystopian, post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting. Count me in for the fun.

And I wasn’t disappointed. I cracked this open not long after it arrived and finished it within a couple of sittings over the course of the day. If I were able I probably would have just torn through it in one, and would have had just as much fun savoring it. During the opening section of the novel I wondered why it had the sci-fi setting to it, the story could have just as easily existed in a present reality. Thankfully my worry dissipated as the novel continued and the science fiction element became integrated seamlessly into the plot beyond the post apocalyptic setting.

Shovel Ready is set in a near future New York City that has been decimated by a terrorist dirty bomb detonated in Time Square. This event, in conjunction with smaller coordinated bombings and follow-ups has a greater psychological and economic effect on the city in aftermath than the actual physical destruction it causes. New York becomes fragmented between a wealthy upper-class able to hire security and care in high-rise apartments, permitting their retreat into virtual reality utopias, and a lower class seeking to survive in the lawless rubble below. If they choose to stay.

As in Delaney’s Dhalgren, the New York City of Sternbergh’s Shovel Ready is an isolated zone of chaotic culture, an apocalyptic blip within an America that otherwise may be completely ‘normal’. The people who have chosen to stay in New York have nothing else, are committed to its condition and either the opportunities or curses it provides. The novel thus fits into a fascinating area of apocalyptic literature where the disaster and subsequent conditions are relatively localized.

Within this environment is the protagonist and narrator of the novel, Spademan, a former city garbage collector who lost his wife in the initial dirty bomb-related attacks, and who now survives as being a dispassionate hitman operating under a strict professional code. Despite wanting to keep a professional distance from his clients and targets, Spademan finds that his latest client is a powerfully famous religious leader (cultish one may say) involved with providing the hopeless ‘heaven on Earth’ through virtual reality tech. More problematic, the target given to Spademan turns out to be his client’s own rebellious daughter, and she may not fit into Spademan’s code.

Spademan is a fantastic character, worthy to fill the pages of any pulp or ‘serious/literary’ crime novel. Sternbergh does a fabulous job introducing the reader to the flawed and vulnerable character, establishing the rules of his hitman profession, and slowly divulging the details of his past that have led him to his current employment.

Mixed into the great hard-boiled protagonist creation Sternbergh includes many noir hallmarks, from shady thugs, double-crosses, big bad crime leader villains, and a femme fatale. Spademan’s initial target, who becomes an asset he desires to protect fits the femme fatale mold generally well. On a surface level she seems painted the weak female needing a strong male figure (a rather awful misogyny of course on its own), but in reality she is in greater control, and more capable, than one may think, and from the start Spademan learns that she can pack a deadly bite.

In some way these noir aspects of Shovel Ready make it familiar and expected. This could have led it being a decent, slightly above-average hard crime story. The setting and the use of the virtual reality technology as an integral element to the plot make this rise above to something even better. While becoming relevant to the plot, the technology is also used as commentary for class division in this post-apocalyptic New York. While this ‘have vs have not’ kind of message is nothing new or handled rather superficially here, it is refreshing to see it in the kind of entertaining quick read here that could easily still be an enjoyable novel without its inclusion.

By putting the sci-fi aspect in with a dash of blatant social commentary, Sternbergh manages to give a little weight to Shovel Ready without stifling the pure entertaining joys of the thriller. This is a mashup that will certainly appeal to almost all crime/hitman-type story lovers and as a mashup to certain speculative fiction fans. Though I probably shouldn’t encourage more series out there, Spademan and his gritty environment could easily expand into further works, and I’d pick up one of them without hesitation. On the other hand, this makes me curious to see how far Sternbergh’s talents extend.

Four and a Half Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Crown Publishing via their Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.

More info from the publisher

Author bio from the publisher

The Hundred-Year House, by Rebecca Makkai

The Hundred-Year House,
by Rebecca Makkai
Publisher: Viking (Penguin Books)
ASIN: B00G3L163K
352 pages, Kindle Edition
Expected Publication: 10th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

 Somewhere in the first part of Makkai’s impressive The Hundred-Year House there is a line or two referencing classic ghost stories of history that were not really about anything supernatural, but were rather psychological, about the descent of a character’s mind and the loss of their grip on reality or self. And in this first part, set in the late 1990s, it seems as if Makkai is doing something similar here with her characters.

The protagonist of this first part is Doug, a failing academic who (seeking to find a university position) should be working on a paper about a relatively unknown poet, but instead has become involved in writing formulaic children’s books. To aid his chosen (or forced) research and get back on track, Doug takes advantage of his connections through marriage. Zee, his wife and an established professor, who is heir to an estate which once served as an artist’s colony where the poet had stayed. Zee and Doug go to stay in the old house on the grounds, where they are joined by Zee’s mother, step-father, and her step-brother and his wife.

While Doug finds writing about the poet difficult, he becomes increasingly pulled into the mystery of what occurred at the artist’s colony in the past and why Zee’s mother-in-law seems so averse to letting him access any records or memorabilia from the time stored in the attic under lock. As Zee sets in motion a devious plan to create an open position for Doug at her university, Doug enters deeper into guarding his secret investigations into the house’s past and his clandestine children’s book writing from Zee. And unexpectedly, he finds himself drawing closer to his sister-in-law.

This first section is thus filled with secrets and intrigue, deep mysteries, catastrophic assumptions, and lies. Set against the backdrop of an old house where odd things occur and rumors of ghosts abound, all seems poised for the novel to continue down a course where Doug, Zee, and the others fall apart (individually in the psychological sense; and quite literally in their union as family). But rather than continue down this path and allow the characters to fully uncover one another’s secrets and the complete history of the house and estate, Makkai leaves these people and takes the reader back into the past with a step to the mid 1950’s, and in the parts that follow additional steps back, ultimately to the very foundations of the house.

For The Hundred-Year House isn’t just a ghost story with emphasis on the people, it is a story about place, as the title betrays. The novel later contains a comment by a character that living in this house in the presence of ghosts doesn’t feel to them as they would expect or understand. We normally view ‘haunting’ as the past coming to intrude and influence our present, to the point that the phrase “haunted by the past” appears redundant. In this house, the character explains, it is more as if its future is reaching back to form the history. And this is indeed the precise experience the reader is having, most obviously from this backward stepping through time as we learn some of the truth of events or unexpected relations between people we met through stories earlier in the novel, in the future.

This makes it necessary, and rewarding, to pay careful attention while reading Makkai’s novel. It is beautifully crafted, a complex weave of characters that makes the tapestry of this house, this estate, which becomes almost a life in itself for the reader and for those people in the story who feel manipulated by what is to come. Quite ingeniously this playing with time and cause-and-effect is more literally born-out in the sub-plot of the first section when Zee manipulates and creates a false story to try and destroy the reputation of a professor. Though based on lies, the charges end up becoming accepted true by all (even the falsely accused) as if history were rewritten by the future (paralleling the rewriting Zee does of the other professor’s Internet browsing history).

The Hundred-Year House is quite good, and rich. It is a novel that invites rereading to capture all the details – I can only guess the many things I missed through the nature of its construction and my spotty memory. Although I read it on a Kindle due to the format of NetGalley advanced reading copies, I’d recommend buying or checking out a physical copy of this, it is the type of work where you’ll appreciate the physical text and scents of reading in front of you, permitting you to flip back and forth between sections and time periods when those ‘aha’ moments hit. This is a haunting book, in no way supernatural, but surely powerful.

Five Stars out of Five

 

A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, by Adrianne Harun

A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, by Adrianne Harun
Publisher: Penguin Books
ASIN: B00DMCPIQ4
272 pages, Kindle Edition
Published February 2014
Source: NetGalley

Halfway through this atypical novel I immediately marked Harun’s short story collection as something to read. I ended up tearing through “A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain” in a single day between two sittings, and while I’m not convinced that this novel completely works, it still did impress me and evoked a desire to seek out more of Harun’s work, particularly short stories.

Though completed relatively fast, the material in this novel is dense and complex, requiring a certain amount of savor. Although you may be tempted to devour it at once, in retrospect it will probably be more meaningful to take in pieces that can be reflected upon. It is an odd beast in its format. Too long for a novella, but seemingly not a complete novel either. With a relatively large cast of characters and the blurred lines between reality and the fantastic there is a lot of material to cover, and not all of it will be suitably resolved to many readers’ satisfactions. With her previous recognized work in short stories it isn’t too big a surprise that this ‘novel’ thereby exists as more of an intimately joined collection of stories, not even separated by chapter-to-chapter, but within and throughout. The narrative meanders from the main plotline, inspired by actual disappearances of young First Nations girls on a relatively isolated stretch of Canadian highway, to side stories that fit the setting, themes, and style of the work, but could equally exist on their own. Each section thereby isn’t encountered with any necessarily obvious connection to the overall plot.

But you can be sure it will be beautifully written. Just as Harun shifts from plot progression to moments of isolated character introspection or folktale-like asides, so does her style shift from a more simple dialogue-driven narrative to rich poetic descriptions and a more open structure. Again, this could be an unwelcome distraction, it is ultimately hard to make the two styles, the two types of focus merge together into a coherent whole. The merging is most successful in that form of setting and of describing this eerie, chilling environment and situation. It is weakest, however, with the characters. Harun never seems to get a firm grasp on the majority of characters, some of whom seem important, only to vanish. As a result the reader also has a difficult time connecting to, or even following, the characters within the picture of the overall plot. You might get intimate snippets of them from segment to segment, but the tying of it all together fails.

Again, this likely stems from strengths in writing short stories as opposed to novels, or it may be exactly what Harun intends to do here. For me the reading experience could be described as intoxicating and intriguing, producing wonderful atmosphere and some fine writing to appreciate. But tying the plot and character engagement in its overall form never came together for me, leaving the experience strongly magical, lacking a practical physicality, like smelling scrumptious freshly baked cookies without getting that chance to chew, swallow, and feel fully sated.

But it has certainly left me hungry for more and to seek out something more filling in Harun’s other work.

Three-and-a-Half Stars out of Five

Ice Shear, by M.P. Cooley

Ice Shear, by M.P. Cooley
Publisher: William Morrow
ISBN: 0062300709
320 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 22nd July 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This is a very impressive debut genre novel that I didn’t expect to enjoy quite so much. My initial expectations were somewhat low because so many of the elements of “Ice Shear” I would describe with the word ‘average’. The plot is suitably complex. The writing is straight-forward, though very descriptive, with realistically rendered dialogue. The protagonist seems like a regular woman. The pace is constant and the small town setting is well-rendered.

Together this makes an enjoyable police procedural read, a novel that is really good, but where nothing really screams out as being exceptionally unique, innovative, controversial, or profoundly insightful. So what sets it apart from any other mystery novel out there is it is so ‘average’? Why in my heart do I feel like this is a really successful novel that was well-worth reading?

I think the answer to those questions lie in just how effectively Cooley manages to take the ordinary and produce a tight, well-crafted mystery out of it where everything does feel satisfying without becoming dull and mundane. Most impressive to me is Cooley’s protagonist June, a former FBI-agent returned to her hometown to serve on the police force. June is deceptively simple, one of the most realistically rendered female characters I’ve come across. Here strengths and weakness are given subtly, and her personality is one of straight-forward perseverance, simply being a good investigator and human being. Relatable and likable, she is flawed and challenged, but she overcomes and the reader enjoys the experience of seeing how she does so.

Cooley also manages to put in just the right amount of ‘outside’ information and personal conflict outside of the main crime plot thread. You learn a bit about June’s past and her family and professional relationships, but readers aren’t pulled too far down any side-tracks that don’t have bearings on the novel itself. This leaves Cooley room to further develop the character in future novels, hopefully just as effectively.

Four Stars out of Five

The Sound of Broken Glass, by Deborah Crombie

The Sound of Broken Glass,
by Deborah Crombie
Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James Series Book 15
Publisher: William Morrow
ISBN: 0061990647
384 pages, hardcover
Published February 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Normally I don’t sign up to win books that are in a series because I try to use this to discover authors and works that I otherwise wouldn’t discover or read anytime soon. So if it’s a series, I probably haven’t read any of the others. Even if novels are supposed to be ‘stand-alone’ I’d much rather read them all, in order, or not bother reading any of them. This makes getting into mystery novels hard though. So I must’ve read the description for this and decided my interest was worth giving it a try. I’m glad that I did because it was an enjoyable book, but I’m not sure if it is a series that I’d rush to find more of over the others I have in queue.

The primary strength I see in “The Sound of Broken Glass” is atmosphere. Crombie’s characters each exude particular British regions or classes, and the city itself is used almost as a character in defining the roles of the others, their pasts and how those circumstances now collide in the present. These past events are conveyed through italicized, flashback, passages, rather than in-time. This method seems largely employed to keep the secrets of the mystery hidden to the investigators in the novel until the last possible moment. The reader therefore has a greater, though still very vague sense, of what lies behind the murders than the protagonist does. Yet despite revealing more to the reader, Crombie still keeps the mystery unsolved and identities unclear through red-herrings, convolutions, and reader mis-assumptions.

Thus, it stands an effective mystery. The downside as I saw it, was that the structure of the novel with its flashbacks takes away significantly from any procedural aspects. The case is ultimately unveiled not completely through the investigator’s skill, but rather in large part due to chance coincidences and shared acquaintances, well-crafted connections on the part of the author between her characters that leave the entire events partially artificial in feeling. Crombie also uses the story and its themes to try to wedge in side plots involving the protagonist and her family, all of which seem highly tangential and never actually brought to conclusion. I suspect these aspects of the story relate more to the overall series as opposed to the novel itself, highlighting that a series novel never can really be ‘stand-alone’.

Three Stars out of Five

Silent City, by Alex Segura

Silent City, by Alex Segura
Publisher: Codorus Press
ISBN: 0983978360
160 pages, paperback
Published October 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

There are some aspects of “Silent City” that work well for a detective mystery. Foremost is the setting. Murder and Miami spring “Dexter” to mind immediately, colors and vibrance of a shiny city. The Miami here goes beyond that cliché to something darker. The novel is also economical in its writing, scenes are not wasted, and the story stays moving at a good pace through a short read. Moments of inaction (particularly the start) are helped in that Segura creates an interesting protagonist in Pete Fernandez, a man lost in depression, digging his life into a deeper hole, a very unwilling and naive detective.

The problems with “Silent City” ironically stem from some of these potential strengths above. Pete Fernandez is interesting because he is such an ordinary guy, not your typical detective. This is a nice change from the witty, brilliant, and generally lovable hard-boiled detectives of noir. But without that ‘performance’ from a witty protagonist, a Marlowe or a Spenser, there needs to be something else to really make the novel captivating or enjoyable. For “Silent City” there just isn’t. It’s economical in construction, but thereby becomes very standard and predictable. Nothing comes as a surprise. Fernandez is so ordinary that he becomes dull, so clueless that the reader figures things out well before Pete happens to stumble upon the truth. He is so hapless that it simply stretches disbelief to breaking that he wouldn’t be executed by the killer almost immediately.

The setting, culture, and language of Segura’s debut novel are great, but “Silent City” is missing any element to really set it out as a noteworthy mystery or thriller, the sole novelty of its protagonist sadly dissolving with nothing to support it into the predictable plot, becoming a bland paste.

Two Stars out of Five