THE ECHO WIFE by Sarah Gailey

The Echo Wife
By Sarah Gailey
Tor Books — February 2021
ISBN: 9781250174666
— Hardcover — 256 pp.


If you haven’t read anything yet about the plot to Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife, you might consider starting it without indulging in any summaries, not even what’s on the cover jacket. And long story short, I strongly recommend The Echo Wife. I received the novel and placed it on the ARC shelf with all the others, entering into my notes for potential review. As time passed I saw more word-of-mouth posts praising the novel; mentions included it being featured on several Best… or Most Anticipated… of 2021 lists, both within the SF genre and pop-culture wide. I still didn’t read what the book was actually about, and as for Sarah Gailey, I couldn’t recall ever reading their work before to know if I would like it. Despite the broad hype (which always makes me leery), I decided to start reading The Echo Wife – probably because specific authors and reviewers I’m fond of also hyped it. I cracked the ARC open and began reading, still without even reading the back cover synopsis, only expecting something SF that somehow involved genetics.

Not until approximately page 50 of the novel does the The Echo Wife fully reveal one of its major themes and plot elements. It takes a few more chapters still for an event to occur that sets the rest of the novel into motion. For certain there are hints to these things earlier in the novel, but Gailey gradually reveals details about their protagonist and the speculative world, details that the synopsis just flat-out states, lessening the reveal.

Now this is understandable, potential readers have to be told something about what this book is about, and even knowing these details, there are still a lot of surprises and discoveries for the rest of the novel until its ending. But, if a reader can be convinced to give this book a try without knowing any details, well, it makes it even all the more a satisfying read. Prior to any plot ‘reveals’, here is what Gailey establishes in the earliest pages of the novel:

The novel begins with genetics researcher Dr. Evelyn Caldwell attending an awards reception/banquet in her honor. Brilliant, but feeling out-of-place in this social setting, Evelyn cooperates in the engagement only because of its necessity for securing continued support for her ground-breaking research in growing human tissues in the lab. While tolerating the spectacle of the present by keeping her eyes on her future plans, Evelyn also reflects upon her past struggles to get here. Throughout professional and personal hurdles, including recent separation from her husband Nathan, Evelyn has persevered, sacrificed, and found success.

Following the reception and rest to recover, Evelyn returns to her life: the laboratory. Fired up to keep things moving forward and squashing all uncertainties or self-doubt that still rear their heads in her psyche, Evelyn gives orders to her lab assistant, the only other person that Evelyn trusts as competent and reliable. About to start on the research, Evelyn’s assistant informs her that she has received a phone message from a woman named Martine. This stops Evelyn with a shock: Martine, the new fiancée of Evelyn’s former husband Nathan, a woman whose existence she has even kept secret from her trusted assistant. Hesitant, Evelyn decides to go meet Martine, where she – and the reader – find their first surprise.

If you happen to still know nothing more of this novel, do consider leaving it at that. The Echo Wife is a speculative fiction thriller that predominantly focuses on themes of women in research and the personal life that a woman is expected to have versus that which they may choose to have. The speculative aspect involves genetics, though do not expect it to be fully fleshed out science. Dr. Caldwell’s award-winning research and techniques are vaguely described in terms of epigenetics and development, but not in believable detail that a biologist could imagine this speculative technology as actually existing. The reader is just asked to accept the science (fiction) as a set up for the social issues and character relationships that lie at the heart of the novel. That seems intentional by Gaiely, and that’s perfectly fine to a reader like me. In fact, a lot of the details in the science are things that Evelyn herself doesn’t at first understand completely, things she’ll have to look into further. The unexpected, seemingly ‘impossible’ aspects of the speculative elements in the novel are thus kind of the point, part of the mystery.

And mystery/crime/thriller is a category that The Echo Wife fits into just as comfortably as science fiction. However, it is not about solving a mystery, nor is it filled with taut action. It’s about how characters deal with secrets, mysteries, and uncertainties; how crimes can be covered up, and with resilience, moved past to still find some sort of success. It’s a psychologically driven thriller around the characters of Evelyn and Martine, women with a shared history, yet very unique. The Echo Wife speaks a lot to the experience of women in science – or professional lives in general. It raises a lot of moral questions, but doesn’t seek to provide trite answers. Again and again Evelyn writes: I am not a monster. The reader is left to conclude the truth to that statement. Gailey writes their characters in ways that blur the lines between hero and victim and villain, and they capture them with prose that never becomes oppressively dark, yet always has a foreboding shadow of secretes and deception lying behind it.

If you have already read other reviews or synopses of The Echo Wife to know more specific details, I’ll go into a few of those things, particularly biology aspects I find interesting as a biologist, here after this Gram negative:

SPOILER OUTER MEMBRANE

SPOILER PEPTIDOGLYCAN (PERIPLASM)

SPOILER CELL MEMBRANE

So, Martine is a clone of Evelyn; after voicing resistance to Nathan’s desires for her, and then being attacked by Nathan, Martine kills Nathan. Evelyn is willing to help, both in physically hiding Nathan’s body in the garden, and supporting Martine, who Nathan has biologically programmed with limitations and kept in ignorance. Bodies in the garden will return in multiple ways before novel’s end.

Gailey handles all of these twists fantastically well, plus others like Evelyn’s betrayal in the lab and Evelyn’s relationship with her parents. All disparate elements filter in for the same theme, the formation of a woman. Who is Evelyn/Martine, and why? How much is her and how much is conditioning and the will of others? Gailey takes this beyond the whole nature/nurture kind of debate when it comes to speculative genetics in a more modern way.

What I mean is: Clones are not a new theme to science fiction. The term ‘clone’ in this context means an organism that is genetically identical. Science fiction has used clones – even furthered to include the copying of memories and experiences. What Gailey does a bit differently here is playing with that term ‘identical’, in ways that more closely match actual biological reality. In that classic SF sense of ‘clone’ Martine isn’t really a clone of Evelyn at all. She is a genetically modified creation built upon an Evelyn template. And really, that is what all human cloning would result in.

After all, all of our cells are clones of each other. They all contain the same DNA (or lose it). Yet one cell can form part of heart tissue, another lung, another a neuron, another a leukocyte, another osteoclast. Very, very different, yet with the same blueprints. And that’s just in one organism through developmental variations in gene expression. Between two that share 100% of the same genetic material there is a complicating factor of epigenetics – changes that occur through DNA modifications, inherited protein structures, inherited microbes, etc.

Somehow, Dr. Evelyn Caldwell has found a way to not just let those processes proceed, that create variability even in a 100% DNA identical genetic clone, but to exert directed changes in them. Moreover, she has somehow found a way to map memories and selectively impart those. Nathan has taken her techniques and purposefully made changes she explicitly set out to not allow in the clones. This creates a lot to ponder regarding bioethics, even if Gailey doesn’t really go that classical direction in their novel.

Instead Gailey takes it to that level of the ethics of Nathan purposefully making an Evelyn replacement adhering to his desires and plans that the actual Evelyn did not make a priority. These physical actions mirror what men (or really spouses or even relationships in general) do to one another in s symbolic sense all the time. Within a relationship, what are the balances between sacrificing versus selfishness? Are professional concerns different from others? And what are the differences between the genders for these decisions/expectations?

With the foundation of speculation around ‘cloning’ Gailey forms all of these questions (and more) through their fascinatingly flawed characters and engaging plot. Whether all, or just some of it, represents a surprise to readers shouldn’t affect one’s overall appreciation of the novel. If you go into this expecting an action-driven SF murder thriller, you might be disappointed, because that’s not what it is. If one lets The Echo Wife speak on its own terms, I believe readers will find it has a lot to say and provide one to consider, and it will entertain. And that is what good speculative fiction and a thriller does.

I’ve now had the chance to also read a short story by Sarah Gailey in the Escape Pod anthology, which I’m reviewing for Skiffy & Fanty. I’ll definitely keep my eyes open for more of their future work, and hopefully have a chance to also read some of that prior.


THE HUNT FOR FOXP5: A GENOMIC MYSTERY NOVEL by Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer

The Hunt for FOXP5: A Genomic Mystery Novel
By Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer
Springer Publishing — May 2016
ISBN: 9783319289601
— Paperback — 251 pp.


Writing balanced science fiction can be a real challenge, particularly if an author is trying to keep the science 100% accurate and the speculation 100% plausible. At least, it’s hard for me to find ‘hard SF’ that I enjoy. Some may be fine with a work from the sub-genre even if it has little literary merit going for it, or a lack of thematic depth beyond the scientific concepts. The science alone isn’t entertaining and interesting enough for me – especially when it is the fields of science that seem to dominate that label ‘hard’: technology, physics, and astronomy.

“Hard” SF featuring biology definitely exists, though it is more rare, I feel, to find stories where the amount of biological science/speculation in the story equals other elements like plot and character. When I have seen it (for example with Peter Watts) I still don’t end up enjoying the work as much as other books that put less emphasis on the science. I guess I just always want more of the literary or entertainment than the science fact and education in my fiction.

I still look for potential reads in the sub-genre though, especially when it falls in my field of biology, and I was intrigued when I found biology-related titles in the “Science and Fiction” series from Springer, which publishes novels written by scientists about their field. One of these, The Hunt for FOXP5: A Genomic Mystery Novel by Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer turned out to be one of the most successful merging of science and fiction that I’ve read, a story that could easily have been serialized to acclaim in Analog Magazine. The creation of the novel comes through the combination of Kaufman (a writer and translator) and Deamer (a research professor in Biomolecular Engineering at UC Santa Cruz)

After the mysterious death of her husband, genetics researcher Dr. Michelle Murphy is left to raise her adoptive daughter Avalon, a brilliant eight-year-old they had adopted from Kazakhstan. Dr. Murphy receives an invitation from a prestigious Kazakh scientist Dr. Akenov to attend and present her research at a genetics conference in Kazakhstan, and invites her to bring along her adoptive daughter as an opportunity for Avalon to learn more about her proud homeland, so unlike what the film Borat portrays. Dr. Murphy’s skepticism regarding the timing and motivation of the invitation become confirmed with a visit from the CIA. They inform Dr. Murphy that Dr. Akenov is on their radar as potentially being involved in the development of a biological weapon. While they warn Dr. Murphy and express fear for both her safety and Avalon’s, they also hope that Dr. Murphy’s attendance to the conference will give them an opportunity to use her as an information-gathering spy.

Agreeing, and still taking Avalon with despite the risks, Dr. Murphy and her daughter arrive in Kazakhstan. There, they gradually unravel links between Dr. Murphy’s research into the FOX family of genes, the death of her husband, Avalon’s heritage, and Akenov’s plans. The story combines anthropology, biology, politics, and national identity into what could be best called a scientific thriller, despite the use of the term ‘mystery’ in the novel’s subtitle.

The FOXP5 of the title refers to a fictional allele (flavor of gene) in the very real family of FOX genes. The FOX family of genes encode proteins that bind to DNA and act as transcription factors, that is to say they regulate when and how genes are expressed. First discovered and researched in the model fruit fly organism (Drosophila), these genes are conserved throughout vertebrates, including humans. One member of the family, FOXP2, is responsible in bird species for controlling the development of call mimicry, and in humans that same gene plays a role in the development of speech and language. As I understand it, scientists believe that mutations in FOXP2 may have contributed to the evolution of modern H. sapiens from ancestral populations through additional abilities of language, and thereby culture, that these mutant alleles permitted. The Hunt for FOXP5 speculates additional FOX mutant alleles occurring and what the implications of that could be if selected for in the human population. A section in the back of the book following the story highlights the science behind the fiction of this novel, presumably primarily by Deamer.

Some might find it surprising that Dr. Murphy agrees to go to the conference despite the dangers admitted by the CIA. Even moreover, how could she possibly also still take her daughter? I actually didn’t find this too implausible. Scientists can be stubborn, and everything about Dr. Murphy and Avalon point to them as not backing away from threats, responsibilities, or opportunities to do good. Showing maturity well behind her age (for reasons we eventually see) Avalon is likewise someone that Dr. Murphy is not going to shelter away, though she will take all precautions she can.

The plot and action of the novel stay engaging throughout, as one would expect from a thriller. The writing is by no means fancy or awe inspiring, rather by-the-book and generally unadorned. I would have loved it to be a little deeper and more interesting in its language (especially given the scientific concepts of language featured here), but I see this as no different from best-selling thriller novels. Similarly, Akenov and his grand plot reveal to be cartoonish and silly from the perspective of scientific speculation realism – but again, this seems to me no different than what large selling thrillers typically are.

Meaning, if you like political thrillers with a good dose of science and aren’t particular about them being works of art, this is a book you might find very entertaining and worth a read. That kind of thriller can go either way for me, sometimes I find them too silly, or too badly written in language. For me this kept those at an acceptable/adequate level. What really brought the novel slightly higher for me to enjoy more than, say, the average thriller are two factors: the protagonists and the setting.

Kazakhstan provides an excellent unique element to The Hunt for FOXP5 to set it apart from competing thrillers that may stick with the usual US – enemy relations. (To clarify, while Akenov, a Kazakh is the villain, he’s not really acting on behalf of his government per se.) Kaufman, who has previously worked in Kazakhstan contributed this aspect, I would assume, and it allows for details for readers to discover that decorate and enrich the plot and science backbone of the novel.

Dr. Michelle Murphy and Avalon also make fantastic protagonists. It is nice having two female stars being both heroes in a political action thriller AND brilliant scientific minds at the same time. Young women who might think that science or global affairs isn’t something they could be involved in would find inspiration in this.

This review comes long after the initial publication of the novel, which I regret. I didn’t like a previous novel from this Science and Fiction series, so I didn’t rush to read this one as quickly as otherwise. But now finally the review. I hope it encourages some who have an interest in genetics and/or thrillers to find a copy of this.


TARGET IN THE NIGHT by Ricardo Piglia (Translated by Sergio Waisman)

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Target in the Night
(Emilio Renzi #2)
By Ricardo Piglia
(Translated from Blanco nocturno by Sergio Waisman)
Deep Vellum Publishing — October 2015
ISBN 9781941920169 — 288 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


As unique a piece of crime/detective fiction that one will likely come across, Target in the Night is an acknowledged literary masterpiece, winner of the 2011 Premio internacional de novela Rómulo Gallegos and other prestigious prizes for Spanish language literature. In the few years since its translation into English by Deep Vellum Press, it has gotten even further positive reviews in multiple outlets. However, I found the novel to be a nigh impenetrable puzzle that I could never quite capture in the cross-hairs of my focus or enjoyment.
Set in a small, insular Argentinian town, the novel begins when Puerto Rican visitor Tony Durán is found murdered in his hotel room after flamboyantly arriving in town and sleeping with the twin Belladonna sisters, members of a powerful family that gained its wealth in the crooked industry of horse racing. Authorities make an arrest, but Police Inspector Croce remains unsatisfied, convinced there is something buried and committed to discover the truth behind Durán’s murder, no matter the cost. Emilio Renzi, a reporter who appears as a character in other novels by Piglia joins Croce in the investigation, and in this way Renzi serves as the point-of-view narrator of events, recounting them years after their completion in a nonlinear pattern.
While the plot of Target in the Night seems rather straight-forward and conventional for a crime thriller, it’s style is decidedly the opposite, from the aforementioned nonlinear structure to an unconventional focus away from details of the crime, or its resolution, themselves to a postmodern meditation on the politics of an intricate web of characters, on seeking interpretations of truth in a corrupt society where nebulous, authoritarian forces spin individuals into intractable realities.

There is nothing inherently problematic with this unconventional approach. Were I to have read up a bit more on the novel prior to my starting reading, it may have lessened my frustrations with finding its rhythm, because all my expectations of a ‘detective novel’ would have been shed. But even so there remain some significant potential impediments for readers. One is an ignorance of its historical context. Target in the Night is rife with not just abstract philosophical strains, but also with specific metaphor and commentary on Argentinian political unrest. The Spanish language here may be translated with fidelity, but I have no basis for making the full cultural connections the novel paints. The slow paced building of Piglia’s ideas through novel combined with a cold, almost emotionally distant personality of his characters exacerbates this inability to connect. Given the large number of eccentricities that Piglia gives his characters, I was surprised how hard it became for me to get into them, and the text.

Piglia, who sadly passed away in January of last year achieves some staggeringly impressive writing, that while not easily approachable is evocative and at times poetic. Despite that, this particular novel simply did not work for me. Readers who appreciate intellectual literature still might want to check Target in the Night out, particularly if more familiar with the history of Argentina than I. The mystery and detective aspects of the novel provide an adequate backdrop of plot for Piglia’s craft, just don’t expect that plot to become more than a means to an end.

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

WHAT DOESN’T KILL HER by Carla Norton

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What Doesn’t Kill Her
(Reeve LeClaire Series #2)
By Carla Norton
Minotaur Books – June 2015
ISBN 9781250032805 – 313 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Publisher


A sequel to Norton’s debut novel The Edge of Normal, this continuation of Reeve LeClaire’s story can still be picked up and enjoyed by any who haven’t read its predecessor. I reviewed the first novel here last year, and was impressed with how well Norton handled an intense, traumatic subject matter in a responsible way while also keeping the book honest, well paced, and suspenseful. For better or for worse, What Doesn’t Kill Her consistently matches all the notes of that first novel. The writing, plot, and characters are just as engaging as in the first book. What Doesn’t Kill Her continues the storyline of its predecessor, and Reeve LeClaire evolves in significant ways from her past and the events of book one.
However, themes of the first novel reappear in the sequel and the threats that face Reeve are at least partially a rehash of the conflicts in The Edge of Normal. For new readers getting introduced to the character – the scars of her past and the brave steps she takes to move on – this sequel will be approachable and a complete discovery. Fans of the first book will certainly enjoy it, but perhaps find it a bit familiar in terms of what the plot is throwing at its protagonist.
The Edge of Normal introduced Reeve LeClaire, a young woman in her early twenties who a decade prior was the victim of kidnapping and captivity by a sexual predator. Living with memories of this traumatic past, Reeve hesitantly answers a call from her psychiatrist and her own conscience to help a young girl just saved from similar captivity, whose kidnapper remains at large, watching the escaped girl and Reeve from the shadows. In What Doesn’t Kill Her, Flint, the man who abducted Reeve, has managed to escape from prison. With her former tormentor evading capture and targeting her anew, Reeve feels that she must bear the responsibility of stopping Flint.
This plot depends on Reeve believably going after an escaped criminal and killer who she has a personal, horrible, history with. A bit of a stretch, Norton makes it work based on the insights that Reeve has on Flint’s psychology and life, based on what she overheard and experienced during her captivity. The authorities involved in Flint’s capture don’t have this insight, so to force Reeve into action Norton has to make the police somewhat unresponsive to following up on Reeve’s memories and feelings. This does provide a nice impetus for Reeve’s growth as a character, as she begins to have bad memories return and is forced to face and overcome them. It also continues Reeve’s independence, of not being reliant on others, particularly male authority figures, to simply step in and protect/save her.
This plot also returns to putting Reeve in physical danger, kidnapping situations where she is again faced with an evil captor. It ends up feeling like a retread of the climax of the first book, and now the cat-and-mouse game leading up to confrontation doesn’t have that element of the first book where Reeve is primarily acting to protect another young girl. Now it is completely about her, her past, her safety and future. I do look forward to future books in this series, and despite some familiar situations that brought me some disappointment from this novel relative to the first, it overall is still an excellent read.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher 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.

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

19286651

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.

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.