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.

Déjà Vu, by Ian Hocking

Déjà Vu, by Ian Hocking
(The Saskia Brandt Series #1)
Publisher: Unsung Stories
ISBN: 9781907389221
312 pages, eBook
Published: 30th June 2014
(Originally Published 2005)
Source: NetGalley

 It is the near future. European detective Saskia Brandt arrives with a foggy mind, despite a vacation, back into her office where she discovers the corpse of her receptionist. With all evidence pointing to her as the killer, Saskia is given mere hours to find a way to clear her name. This seemingly impossible task opens a door of revelation to Saskia, indicating that her identity, purpose, and past may not be what she now believes.
In the meantime, academic scientist David Proctor receives a strange visiter and message from his inventor daughter drawing him back to a research site where his wife died decades prior in a bizarre explosion. Accused of that explosion, but having no memory of it, Brandt travels in flight from European agents, including Saskia.
Shrouded in uncertain identity and memory, the pasts of Saskia and David mix together with their present and future in Déjà Vu, a self-described technothriller that mashes up science fiction and crime thriller genre tropes.
The opening chapters of the novel caught my attention, and Saskia Brandt and her predicament in this book regarding her identity and uncertain past hold a great deal of potential. The shift in narrative to Proctor was therefore a bit jarring, for the remainder of the novel remained on this protagonist. This is especially unfortunate because he isn’t a particularly fascinating or likable character. Also it ends up negating the potential of Saskia, who the series is named after. The female protagonist ends up never having any self-definition. Instead she remains something created and manipulated, within the story as much as by the writer. By the time she returns to the novel after the chapters of focus on David, her purpose becomes fully tied to David’s, and there she basically remains.
Beyond disappointing with the wasted potential of a strong female character, Déjà Vu, doesn’t find any other way to significantly impress either. It is not a bad novel; it’s just rather ordinary. Nothing in the plot is particularly novel in terms of technology or twist. The mystery of how the various plot strands come together between past and future of course involves time travel, again not something new to science fiction. Here though time travel is kept to strict rules of causality, so that if something happened in the past, it will happen in the future. No exception.
So, if you try to shoot Hitler to prevent him from rising to power, it won’t happen. The gun will jam. The bullet will fly off at a ninety-degree angle and hit a wall instead. Etc. This ends up effectively making a deus ex machina situation where the plot advances simply because that is how the past was written – quite literally here, by the author.
There are concepts within Déjà Vu that while done in science fiction plenty of times, could be handled anew in a fresh significant way. The start of Saskia’s story had me excited that this might be the case, but unfortunately that isn’t what the novel became. Again, Déjà Vu isn’t terrible and there are nuggets of creative quality here, that even writer Ian Watson gave it praise. But with a generic plot and characters that never became captivating or profound the work just comes across as flat.

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

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

The Wrong Quarry, by Max Allan Collins

17797436The Wrong Quarry, by Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime #114 (Quarry Book 11)
Publisher: Hard Case Crime
ISBN: 1781162662
221 pages, paperback
Published January 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

I’ve read a few of the Quarry novels featured in the Hard Case Crime series and they are always a hard-boiled pleasure. Rich pulp at its finest, Quarry is a captivating antihero despite his predictable qualities of a good conscious down deep, a pride in his work, and that weakness for women. Coupling his wit with sleazy, sinister characters up to no good, you have all the ingredients for a good noir.

Compared to other books in the series what is enjoyably unique about this one is just how far off course the character of Quarry is driven by being fooled into losing sight of who the bad guys are, and the truth behind the situation in which he find himself. Knowing that our protagonist assassin is on the trail of the ‘wrong quarry’ ruins the surprise of the existence of this final twist in the novel, however the interesting aspect for the reader switches from being about the existence of the twist to more about how Quarry is being fooled.

Overall another great entry into the Hard Case Crime series, a novel that takes retro pulp trashiness and delivers a pure little guilty pleasure for fans of the genre.

Five Stars out of Five

The Last Dead Girl, by Harry Dolan

The Last Dead Girl, by Harry Dolan
David Loogan Series Book 3
Publisher: Putnam
ISBN: 0399157964
416 pages, hardcover
Published January 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Aside from a few pages at the start, and a handful of pages at its close, I devoured “The Last Dead Girl” in one gulp, late into the night, unwilling to put the story down. That is simple testament in itself to Dolan’s talent in crafting a superb thriller. There is nothing here but seriousness, a gritty, raw, and at times disturbing look into criminal horrors. Some mysteries are part comic, filled with witty dialogue and over-the-top characters who cut like knives. Dolan has a talent for dialogue that keeps things taut and dark, foreboding. There is no extraneous fat in this book, no sentences other than that to serve the purpose of providing a solid thrill, telling a captivating tale.

Filled with twists and turns, the story is built around the common mystery framework of deep personal secrets. The characters in “The Last Dead Girl” are all interconnected by their secrets and lies. Some of these secrets involve acts both immoral and illegal, some immoral but legal, and some moral but illegal. Yet regardless, these secrets have the power to destroy. Dolan relates these secrets to the reader in small steps, by stepping back and forth in time and through point of view. The majority of the book is written in first person, from the point of view of the protagonist, David, but this is interspersed with sections from the third person point of view of a murdered character, and of a killer. At times this provides revelations to the reader before they are made to the protagonist, thereby making the continuing mystery about how David will arrive at the knowledge himself before it is too late.

I haven’t read any of the previous works by Dolan, so was unfamiliar with the character of David. Thankfully this is a prequel to the existing novels, so reading this first is easily feasible. I’m looking forward to checking out the others now.

Four Stars out of Five

Return of the Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett

Return of the Thin Man,
by Dashiell Hammett
Publisher: Mysterious Press
ISBN: 080212156X
256 pages, paperback
Published October 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

The “Thin Man” movies are among my favorite, and I can always go for a good film noir, but I haven’t yet read Dashiell Hammett, the writer responsible for so many of the classic characters and styles of these movies. It was a pleasure to finally read some of his work, though when it says “novella” it really does mean the ” “.

The two stories here are really informal scripts, written in a distinctive simple style intended for film production, in this case what became the movies “After the Thin Man” and “Another Thin Man”. The eventual films produced (that you should see if you haven’t) are not far removed from these treatments by Hammett. The witty dialogue was left largely intact in the screen version and surprisingly few details of the plot were taken out or altered.

As such, reading these is just as fun as watching the movies. So, if you are a fan of “The Thin Man” series and are open to experiencing them in a slightly different version in a different medium, then I’d highly recommend reading these. Similarly, if you haven’t seen the films but like crime mysteries and good humor and wit, then these will be entertaining stories to read, particularly the first, which is a bit more original than the second ‘novella’, which is largely a re-working of another Hammett story.

If you are familiar with the movies inside and out, then I’m not sure how much will be gained from reading these, other than that experience through a different form or getting to note the deviations from the final film product where they occur. It is interesting to note that those in control of enforcing the Production Code of the day were just as arbitrary and illogical as the MPAA today.

Three Stars out of Five