Afterlife, by Marcus Sakey

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Afterlife

There are hundreds of novels (probably more) that speculate about what happens after death, but I doubt that few authors* have the gumption to reimagine eschatology the way Marcus Sakey has in Afterlife. In this fantastical thriller, protagonists Will Brody and Claire McCoy have to chase a mass murder across the boundary between life and death. For these two, an FBI badge doesn’t expire after they die.

Afterlife opens with a short, disturbing prologue about a murderous boy named Edmund and how he came to the New World before leaping ahead to present era Chicago. Brody and McCoy are trying to track down a serial killing sniper who leaves little evidence behind. After answering a call about suspicious activity at an abandoned church, Brody becomes the sniper’s eighteenth victim. (This in the first quarter of the book, so it’s not a spoiler. Brody wakes up after his death in a curiously abandoned Chicago and has to quickly learn the rules of the afterlife—including why three people wanted to kill him as soon as he turned up dead-side. When Claire is also killed by the sniper, she and Will reunite and team up to take down the sniper.

As I read, Afterlife’s thriller-plot-with-fantastical-elements become a fantasy-with-thriller elements. The afterlife, as imagined by Sakey, is a bleak hunting ground for creatures (like Edmund from the prologue) that have gained enough power to warp their reality. Brody and McCoy have obviously never tackled anything like the antagonist of this story, but their shared hero complex and their soul-deep love for each other keep them from hiding until the danger passes over their dead heads. They just wouldn’t be able to live(?) with themselves if they didn’t try to take down the baddie.

The thriller elements of Afterlife never entirely go away. Even though this is a good-sized novel at 300+ pages, I couldn’t put it down. So many chapters have twists and reversals that kept the plot racing along that I was done with the book before I realized it. If you don’t mind dark stories that get very weird, very quickly, this is a cracking read.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 18 July 2017.


* The hands-down weirdest book I’ve ever read that was set in the afterlife is Mick Farren’s Jim Morrison’s Adventures in the Afterlife. In fact, it might be the most batshit book I’ve ever read.

Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane

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Since We Fell

Marriages are odd things when you start to really think about them, especially when the two people getting married have only known each other for a short time. Even when the couple has been together for a long time, how does anyone know that they will still love—or can even stand—the other person in ten, twenty-five, fifty years? I suppose that couples can comfort themselves with the thought that they, at least, will not have as dangerous time in their marriage as Rachel Childs does in Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane.

Since We Fell opens with a confusing, violent scene, in which Rachel shoots her husband in the chest while he tells her he loves her. We then go back more than ten years, to when Rachel first met Brian. He was a private detective when they met and Rachel wanted him to track down the father who left her when she was just three years old. We also learn about Rachel’s on-air panic attack in Haiti before looping back to the weeks before the shooting.

We learn a lot about why Rachel is the way she is, but very little about Brian. Rachel thinks she knows her husband. After all, he’s been on the edges of her life until he stepped forward to rescue her (literally and psychologically). Rachel is content with her life until small details start to make her doubt. She sees a man who could be Brian’s double, even with the same clothes, when her husband is supposed to be in London. There’re the receipts with the wrong date format. There’s the old friend who hints that there’s something Rachel doesn’t know. A less curious women would have let it go. Rachel, however, is a former journalist and is used to people not turning out to be who they say they are.

Much of this background fills the first half of the book. I was honestly starting to wonder if Lehane had written a dud because the plot so slow at first. But then, just as I was starting to give up hope, things get very interesting. I can’t say much more without ruining the whole book. I can say that nothing is what Rachel (or I) thought it was. I was just as shocked as our protagonist was when I found out the truth. If you can get through the first third or so of the book, the last two third more than make up for the slowness of the beginning. And after reading it, I’m sure a lot of readers will be looking suspiciously at their spouses for a while.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 9 May 2017.

The Language of Solitude, by Jan-Philipp Sendker

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The Language of Solitude

Jan-Philipp Sendker’s The Language of Solitude (translated by Christine Lo) is a strange hybrid novel. Some chapters read like a slightly overwritten literary tale of a Western man and his Chinese lover. Others could have been taken from a thriller. Still other chapters offer some gripping family historical drama. On their own, they work quite well. Together, the effect is of a book that tries to do too many things for no discernible reason. The characters rescue this book from itself, fortunately. Even though it’s messy, I found that I rather enjoyed the tribulations of Paul Leibovitz and the Wu family.

The novel opens in Hong Kong. Paul is worried about Christine Wu, who has become distant over the past few days. After prying, Paul learns that Christine’s astrologer has told her that she might kill Paul sometime during the next year. Paul is not a believer, but he goes to the astrologer himself in the hopes of finding something that will reassure his love. Of course, since this is the beginning of the novel, no such reassurance arrives. Instead, Paul received a fortune that rocks him to his core. Then Christine receives a letter from the brother she thought died during the Cultural Revolution and we’re off to the races, plot-wise.

The tone of the novel shifts at this point from that just a bit too overwrought literary style to thriller. The long-lost brother turns out to be in the middle of a medical mystery with huge political implications. Paul dives in head first, even though everyone warns him away. His conscience won’t let him stay detached. As the thriller plot unrolls, there are moments when the narrative takes us deeper into the Wu family’s history and the compromises they’ve had to make over the decades. (There are still a few overwritten chapters, but the writing got better as the novel moved along.)

While Sendker does manage to wrap up his various plots, I’m not sure why this book pulls from so many disparate genres. I could see these of forgiveness, justice versus compromise, and moving on after tragedy emerge in this book, all linked through Paul, but I’m not sure why the thriller elements were included. I think the book would have worked very well without the medical mystery. The family history alone could have fueled the whole book. It was the characters that kept me reading when I might have given up. I enjoyed Paul (even if he is a bit too good for this world) and loved Da Long, the long-lost brother.

The Language of Solitude is a puzzling book that I think I enjoyed in spite of itself.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 2 May 2017.

The Girl in Green, by Derek B. Miller

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The Girl in Green

Like divine revelation, quests aren’t usually something we see in this day and age. That sort of thing belongs to Arthur’s knights or poor old Don Quixote. At least, that’s what I would have thought before I read Derek B. Miller’s The Girl in Green. The novel follows the serio-comic adventures of Arwood Hobbes, as seen by Times journalist Thomas Benton.

Arwood was an ordinary soldier in 1991—more mouthy than most, but fairly ordinary—when he gets caught in an atrocity committed by Iraqi Republican Guard against a small town in the southern part of the country. Thomas meets Arwood while Arwood is manning a machine gun station near a small town by the Iraq-Kuwait border. They chat about the strangeness of war in the late twentieth century, American culture, and how much Arwood wants an ice cream because it’s damn hot out. Arwood talks Thomas into going into the town (which is closed to journalists) for an ice cream when all hell breaks lose. Then Arwood goes AWOL to try and save a girl in a green dress. He was very close to talking his way to safety for himself, the girl, and Thomas until his lieutenant interfered.

The incident scars Arwood, though he would never admit it. After a not-dishonorable discharge, Arwood disappears for twenty years. Thomas goes back to a fading career as a war journalist for the Times and a splintering family life. He might have disappeared entirely into obscurity when he is suddenly contacted by Arwood. Another girl in green has appeared on the news in Syria, in a video of a bomb attack by ISIL. Arwood is convinced that she survived somehow and that it is his mission to find and rescue this girl, who looks exactly like the young woman killed in 1991.

The rest of The Girl in Green is a series of strange, dangerous, and weirdly funny misadventures as Arwood and Thomas try to get to the site of the bombing and rescue the girl. Along the way, they (and we) reflect on how war has gotten even less clear-cut since the first Iraq War. There are many more players than we realize in a war zone than just the belligerents and the civilians who get caught in their way: NGOs, war profiteers, journalists, terrorists. Everyone’s out to fulfill their own agendas, in contrast to what we’ve been told about how war ought to be fought to restore peace. (Which is a bizarre concept when you think about it.) And in the middle of it all, are stories like Arwood and Thomas’s and their weird little quest to do something right for once. I very much enjoyed this book.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 3 January 2017.

A Fierce and Subtle Poison, by Samantha Mabry

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A Fierce and Subtle Poison

People have always told stories about the house at the end of Calle Sol. They say it belongs to a mad scientist whose wife cursed it. They say a green-skinned witch girl lives there. People throw wishes written on paper over the wall around the house, hoping that the witch will grant them. But no one ever goes there, so no one really knows what’s going on. In A Fierce and Subtle Poison, by Samantha Mabry, protagonist Lucas will get closer to figuring out the house’s mysteries than anyone.

Lucas lives a charmed life in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His father is a rich white developer and Lucas has never had to work. Every summer, he lives in his father’s hotel and lives it up with his three friends, drinking and trying to get into girls’ shorts. He’s spoiled, but at least he knows it. He tries not to be too much of a gringo. He’s always been curious about the house at the end of Calle Sol and, the summer he turns 17, he actually makes contact with someone who lives in the house. One night, Marisol, the girl Lucas is trying to hook up with, makes a wish and throws it over the wall. The next day, she disappears and a note appears in Lucas’s hotel room telling him that Marisol’s wish can’t be granted.

Over the next several weeks, Lucas will end up in the middle of a mystery involving missing girls, the aforementioned mad scientist, and a girl who poisons everything she comes in contact with. This is not a metaphor. The first time Lucas meets Isabel, she demonstrates her condition by blowing on a wasp and killing it in midair.

Isabel ends up being the most interesting character in A Fierce and Subtle Poison, followed closely by her father, Dr. Ford. Dr Ford fits it in nicely to the rich tradition of crazed scientists who are willing to do anything to achieve their goals. Isabel is something special, though. Her condition (for lack of a better word) has left her isolated, raised by her father’s strict rationality and his memories of her Taíno mother. She’s odd, conflicted, and longs to be independent.

I really wish that this novel had been narrated from Isabel’s perspective. Not only would her story have offered a fascinating insight into a juicy ethical dilemma, but I wouldn’t have had to put up with Lucas’s first world problems as much. There was a lot of build up about the house on Calle Sol and its mysterious inhabitants at the beginning of A Fierce and Subtle Poison and, despite Lucas’s very interesting hallucinations, the narrative didn’t do enough with the stranger elements of backstory for me. Instead, I was left with an easily solvable puzzle and a dose of disappointment.

The Hunger Within, by J.M. Hewitt

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The Hunger Within

At the height of the Troubles, one would think that any normal people would keep their heads down and wait for a lull in the general violence. But in J.M. Hewitt’s short novel, The Hunger Within, five people get so tangled up in each others’ misery and anger that it’s just a matter of time before someone ends up dead.

The novel opens with Bronwyn’s husband Danny heading out late one night. She knows he’s involved with the Irish Republican Army, but doesn’t say anything. She’s too weary of her dull, barren life to take much notice of anything that’s going on around her. The next thing we know, a mixed religion couple (something much frowned upon in 1981 in Belfast) is attacked in the street. Protestant Connor is—fortunately for him—unsuccessfully kneecapped. His Catholic girlfriend, Rose, is not physically harmed, but she is deeply shaken by the attack and the fact that their secret is out.

Almost immediately, Danny is sent to the Maze for his crime, just in time to volunteer for the hunger strike. Danny is, curiously, the only first person narrator in The Hunger Within. We get a ring side view as he starts to starve himself to death. He is not repentant about shooting Connor or any of the crimes he must have committed for the IRA. The only thing he regrets is being away from Bronwyn and the mess he helped make of their marriage.

I found in strange that Danny would be a first person narrator when most of the action centers on Bronwyn, Rose, and Connor’s mother, Mary. Once Rose moves in with Connor and Mary, Mary begins a gaslighting campaign to get rid of the girl. Mary goes so far as to agree to Danny’s request that she get Bronwyn to visit her husband if he will help her get Rose to leave. (Mary initially visited just to meet the man who shot her son and maybe find out why he did it.) Meanwhile, Bronwyn struggles with a sudden miscarriage and past due bills.

Mary and Danny are the only characters who know the full story of what’s going on. Bronwyn, Rose, and Connor are very much in the dark. As things escalate with Mary taking advantage of Danny’s IRA connections, any reader can see that someone (probably more than one someone) is going to get killed. Though short, I found The Hunger Within to be a rather satisfying thriller (even if I don’t fully understand some of Hewitt’s decisions).

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.

The Girl from Venice, by Martin Cruz Smith

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The Girl from Venice

Cenzo Vianello has been sitting out the war, fishing his family’s waters in the lagoons off of Venice and avoiding Germans, Italian fascists, partisans, and the war on the mainland. He served in Mussolini’s Abyssinian War and that was enough for him. He might have managed to get through the entire Second World War without getting involved if he hadn’t found Giulia in the lagoon one night. After that night, Cenzo abruptly finds himself right in the middle of everything. Though Martin Cruz Smith called this novel The Girl from Venice, Giulia is only a catalyst for Cenzo to become the hero he refused to be.

The Girl from Venice is very different from Smith’s novels featuring Arkady Renko, the melancholy Russian policeman. This novel is much lighter (even though it’s set during the last days of World War II) and there’s not as much psychological development. Instead, it’s a thriller almost from the get-go, leavened by snappy banter.

The night Cenzo find Giulia, he is almost immediately detained by a German gunboat that’s been lurking around the marshes and lagoons outside of Venice. They’re looking for Giulia, the daughter of rich and connected Jews who had almost managed to escape. Instead, Giulia was the only one to get away. It’s touch and go for most of the night until Cenzo managed to get rid of the Germans. He takes her back to his fishing shack, for lack of any other ideas.

Even though Giulia is educated and a bit snobbish and Cenzo is deeply cynical, they click. I loved reading their dialogue as they alternately sniped at each other and bonded over fishing lore. It was a wrench when Cenzo sends her away with a friend with partisan connections so that she can finish her escape. Still, he believed it was the right thing to do—at least until his brother and a friendly German tell him the friend was killed and Giulia has gone missing in Salò, one of the Italian fascists’ last holdouts.

The rest of the book is chaotic. Cenzo is not a natural detective. His efforts to find Giulia are not so much laughable and just hopeless. Even if he weren’t trying to find one Jewish woman in the middle of a war, Cenzo quickly learns that his brother and the German had their own reasons for bringing him to the mainland. He lands right in the middle of a welter of conspiracies and plots.

The Girl from Venice is an entertaining read (mostly because of the banter), even if it doesn’t have quite the depth and pathos of the Arkady Renko series. I had an excellent time reading it.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 18 October 2016.

A Time of Torment, by John Connolly

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A Time of Torment

Charlie Parker’s quest to rid the world of villains regular law enforcement can’t capture continues in John Connolly’s A Time of Torment. The book opens with a scene that shows us Parker and his allies, assassin Louis and thief Angel, capturing a kidnapper, murderer, and blackmailer and turning him over to the FBI. This scene serves as a reminder of what bigger game that Parker is playing now that he’s returned from the dead, but it’s not part of the main action in the book. Rather, this book is about Parker, with help from his allies, takes down a small, sinister commune in West Virginia that firmly believes itself to be above the law.

The main action of A Time of Torment begins when ex-con Jerome Brunel approaches Parker in a Portland bar. Brunel insists that he was set up. He doesn’t know who put all that child pornography in his house, but he thinks it has something to do with his stopping a robbery at a gas station shortly before his arrest. Brunel gives Parker most of the money he has left and asks the detective to investigate. Brunel also adds that whoever set him up will be coming back to finish the job. Parker has just enough time to start asking some questions before Brunel’s prediction comes true.

While other books in Connolly’s Parker series stick to the detective as he puzzles out the crime and who bears responsibility for it, A Time of Torment bounces around through the perspectives of secondary characters. Through these peripheral characters we learn about the Cut, a reclusive community in West Virginia that everyone for several counties around is afraid to cross. In fact, we learn more about the Cut and its crimes from the secondary characters than we learn from Parker. On the one hand, this technique reveals the broad scope of the Cut’s activities. On the other, it distances us from Parker—so much so that he descends like an avenging angel than like a righteous detective.

I was interested in the villains Connolly created in A Time of Torment, but I miss the tight focus on Parker that we saw in the earlier novels. Now that Parker is something more than entirely human, I want to spend time in his head as he wrestles with his new role as judge, jury, and executioner of criminals that regular law enforcement either can’t detect or can’t provide satisfying justice if they do manage to pick up on one of these evil peoples’ trails. Series fans will still enjoy A Time of Torment; new readers should start from the beginning to get Parker’s whole journey.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John le Carré

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The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

The Cold War was a murky conflict, so murky that it’s hard to tell what one is fighting for or what strategies are beyond the pale. London and Moscow are both convinced that they know what’s right and necessary. The people on the ground, however, have no time for ideology. People like Alec Leamas are doing their best to keep their agents and informers alive. When everything goes wrong at the beginning of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Leamas’s long career gets even more complicated and he has to dance to his master’s awful tune one more time.

When Leamas’ East Berlin network is killed, his career is over and he is furious with everyone, especially the head of the German Democratic Republic’s Counter Espionage Department, Hans-Dieter Mundt. Leamas is recalled to London and pitched one last job: to get revenge on Mundt. The plan is elaborate; London has thought of everything. We watch Leamas get kicked out of British Intelligence, hit rock bottom, and keep digging. It’s all part of the plan, we’re told, but it’s hard to watch a good agent ruin himself.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold races along as Leamas gets deeper and deeper into London’s plan. Things go so well, in fact, that I got very anxious waiting for the twist because things were going too well. It was almost a relief when the twist came.

I’ve only read one other novel by le Carré, The Russia House, and this book had a very different feel. Instead of being full of slow exposition and maneuvering, most of this book is dialog. There are no extra words. Instead, we have a finely drawn portrait of a spy on his last legs and tense drama. The ending of this book floored me.

This book isn’t perfect. I should note that because this novel was originally published in the early 1960s, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is full of casual anti-Semitism and homophobia. The primary female character, Liz Gold, is a pawn and most of the other characters in the book are only briefly sketched out. This book is all about Leamas; as long as you keep your eyes on him, this is a cracking spy novel.

 

Dancing with the Tiger, by Lili Wright

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Dancing with the Tiger

In the hands of a skilled writer, a single object can launch a dozen plots and send characters spinning into danger. Lili Wright, in Dancing with the Tiger, does this with a priceless Aztec funeral mask. Dancing with the Tiger opens with a looter high on methamphetamines accidentally discovering the funeral mask of Moctezuma II, a find that has tantalized archaeologists and collectors of antiquities for years. Before too many chapters have passed, an American trying to redeem her father’s reputation, a drug lord, the looter, and a gardener-turned-hitman will chase each other across Mexico City and across Oaxaca to capture the mask.

Anna Ramsey is our primary protagonist. After breaking up with her cheating fiancé, Anna learns that her father’s collection of Mexican masks is worthless and his book on the subject has been academically shredded. She has no fall back plan, no career, no money. She launches into plan B without stopping to think: traveling to Mexico to purchase a mask her father and his expert have declared to be the lost mask of Moctezuma (referred to as Montezuma throughout the book). If the Ramseys can get the mask, it will make up for all of Ramsey père‘s mistakes. They hope.

Of course, things go immediately to hell once Anna lands in Mexico City. She is robbed almost immediately by henchmen hired by one of her father’s rivals, a feared drug lord named Reyes. The mask will change hands in rapid succession over the course of the book. Following it is as hard as trying to find the lady in a street game of three card monte. Stakes are raised to the point that Reyes’s agents, including the gardener pressed into service, leave bodies all over the place.

Dancing with the Tiger thoroughly explores the consequences of obsession. The collectors, almost to a man, are lost to their need to acquire more and more masks. It’s hard to say exactly what the masks mean to them anymore; they just have to have more of them. The collectors, having money and able to intimidate nearly anyone, try force Anna, the looter, the gardener to give up the mask. It’s a toss up who will end up with it.

While the novel meditates on obsession, we also get an up close look at Mexican art, specifically the mask carvers of Oaxaca. We see them and their customers use them in dances that are hundreds of years old, their meanings syncretically mixed with the Catholicism that came later. Even though I read the book in black pixels on white, I remember this book as being alive with color and sound. Dancing with the Tiger was an incredible experience.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 12 July 2016.