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.

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.