Safe Houses, by Dan Fesperman

36463975Helen Abell heard something she wasn’t supposed to hear at the beginning of Dan Fesperman’s Safe Houses. In fact, she hears two things she wasn’t supposed to hear. Also, she was taping the people speaking in one of the Berlin safe houses she monitors for the CIA. Even worse: some of the people who were saying things they shouldn’t know she has incriminating tapes. This is the set up for a thrilling mystery that spans almost four decades and two continents.

Helen’s half of Safe Houses follows her as she pisses off the wrong people trying to right a wrong and root out some possible treasons in 1979. Thirty-five years later, Henry Mattick helps Helen’s daughter, Anne, solve the mystery of Helen’s 2014 murder. (This isn’t a spoiler. The murders happen very early in the book.) Henry also works for the government and has special skills, though he’s not as official as Helen was. He’s already in the small Virginia town where Helen lived for decades, keeping track of her visitors, when she and her husband are suddenly and brutally murdered. Anne does not believe the official narrative, that her developmentally disabled brother murdered their parents with a rifle. Someone gives her Henry’s name and she hires him to basically double-down on the job he was already doing.

Once all of this is set up, we’re off to the races with Helen, Henry, and Anne. I loved all the twists on the standard spy and mystery plots. Helen isn’t fighting the Russians or the East Germans; she’s up against the good old boy network of American intelligence. Henry isn’t sure which agency he actually reports to, but it’s clear there are factions and rot. Anne is not as strong a character, but that may be because she’s not a point-of-view character. (There is also a shoe-horned-in romance plot that was unnecessary and kind of irritated me.) I had a great time keeping track of all the double-crosses and sinister henchmen.

Aside from the romance subplot, I liked Safe Houses. It’s got gripping action scenes and original conflicts. Fesperman did a great job creating two settings in which the characters feel like they have no where to turn. Because Helen, Henry, and Anne are pretty much completely on their own, we have to wait and hope that they will find a way to survive with only the slimmest chance of rescue. I’d recommend this for thriller readers who’d like something other than the usual spy v. spy or spy v. terrorist fare.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, fore review consideration. It will be released 3 July 2018.


The Talented Ribkins, by Ladee Hubbard

32873790Johnny Ribkins is too old for this shit. He’s 72 and he has to crisscross Florida, digging holes all over the place, to pay off a debt he owes to a man who has no problem going after his kneecaps and more. This is a hard enough job as it is but, at the beginning of Ladee Hubbard’s The Talented Ribkins, Johnny discovers a niece he never knew—one who has special abilities like the rest of the family. Together they hit the road for a long trip through family history and into deep, deep trouble.

Johnny has been on his own for fourteen years, ever since his brother died, and he’s been working for Melvin Mark creating his special maps. Then he gets caught embezzling and has no choice but to revisit his past. In the bad old days, Johnny and his brother were thieves. Johnny buried his takings all over the state. It should be a simple matter to dig up all that money, but then he finds out about his niece. Because she’s special, too, Johnny offers to help her get to know her Ribkins family. As long as she stays in the car, Eloise should be fine. Because she’s special and a Ribkins, of course she doesn’t stay in the car.

The Talented Ribkins moves back and forth through time the way Johnny and Eloise drive across the state. We learn, along with Eloise, about Johnny’s Justice Committee and his criminal career. We learn about the talents the Ribkins have, from the original Rib King and his quest to find out who burned down his town to the tangle Johnny and his brother found themselves in trouble after accepting a job from a local politician. There is a lot of plot in this book; I loved the way it all tied together in the end. I wish, though, that there was more about the Justice Committee. I would have loved to read a book about super-powered African Americans fighting in the Civil Rights Movement.

Apart from my disappointment in the way the Justice Committee was glossed over, I was hooked by the way the family mirrored African American history from the 1930s to the present. And I loved that all of the Ribkins had unusual abilities that I’ve never seen in fiction before. The twisty thriller plot pulled all of the lose threads together in a way that satisfied me, even if I didn’t get quite the story I wanted. I can’t fault the book for that, but I will tell readers I recommend it to that The Talented Ribkins is a thriller with a touch of historical fiction and a dollop of science fiction.

Summerland, by Hannu Rajaniemi

27272632What would it be like to exist in a world where death doesn’t really matter? For the British Empire, it means colonizing the afterlife and continuing to play the Great Game forever. Summerland, by Hannu Rajaniemi, is a spy versus spy story set in an alternate 1938 where the Spanish Civil War might lead to another world war. Rachel White works for the Winter Court, the lively side of the British Secret Service. Peter Bloom is a Russian double agent undercover in the Summer Court, the afterlife version of the British Intelligence Service. Rachel knows there’s a mole and Peter knows that someone knows—neither of them knows that there might be a larger, deadlier conflict about to kick off.

As one of the lone women in the Secret Service on either side of the veil, Rachel is underestimated by everyone. She does not appreciate it. When she uncovers the identity of a Russian mole and is ignored, her disgruntlement blossoms into full blown fury. Rachel decides to go rogue enough to try and track down Peter Bloom. Bloom, meanwhile, is on a mission to join the Presence (a shadowy hive mind of Soviet ghosts—which is the most communist thing I have ever heard of). While the two spies chase each other around London and Summerland, they slowly learn that their governments are playing a much deeper game than Rachel or Peter could have realized.

The plot is entertaining, but what I enjoyed most about this book was the world-building. Rajaniemi put it in a lot of thought to ecto-based technology, the Presence, and the big question of what it would mean if people could look forward to a long afterlife. In Rachel and Peter’s world, medicine is a half-hearted pursuit and people (especially young college men) do stupid things because it doesn’t really matter if they die. Sure, some ghosts fade away to nothing, but if you have your Ticket, you’re in like Flint. I imagine that Peter is utterly weary of the fact that he has to keep fighting for the foreseeable future. Rachel, meanwhile, starts to have second and third thoughts about the way her superiors throw away lives. Without death, live doesn’t mean as much in this world.

Even though Summerland has a lot of dead characters and is set half in the afterlife, this is a lively read. There are spies, chases, betrayals, secrets within secrets, and sacrifice. There are parts of this book that meander, so I had to trust that the spy v. spy plots and the secrets would lead so something. I am happy to report that the ending of Summerland knocked my bookish socks. I really liked this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 26 June 2018.

A Million Drops, by Víctor del Árbol

36755919There is a maxim by Francis Bacon that lodged itself in my head as I read A Million Drops, by Víctor del Árbol and translated by Lisa Dillman. The maxim is, “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune, for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.” In this novel about human monsters, characters are constantly stymied when their children are threatened. Great wrongs are allowed to go unavenged for a long time because no one has the strength—or the arrogance—to tell their enemies go to hell.

This achronological novel takes place in two different times. In 2002, in Barcelona, Gonzalo Gil is dreading having to merge his fledgling law firm (consisting only of himself) with his father-in-law’s rich and powerful firm when he learns that his sister has committed suicide after being accused of killing the man who kidnapped and killed her son. In 1933, in the Soviet Union, Gonzalo’s father, Elías, is sent to the gulag after being betrayed by men he thought were his friends. On the train to far eastern Russia, he encounters a psychopath who will emotionally torture him for the rest of his life. These plot-paced sentences should be a good indication of just how much happens in A Million Drops. So much happens between 1933 and 2002 that it’s little surprise it took del Árbol almost 700 pages to describe the conspiracies and revenges that connect Gonzalo to his father, as well as explain the decades of violence that Elías and his nemesis caused.

In addition to all the plot (seriously, guys, there is so much plot in this book), A Million Drops gives us numerous portraits of men who face horrible choices about what they would be willing to do to get what they want. Elías wants to be a good Communist, but he quickly realizes that the Soviet leadership are more interested in power and bloodshed than they are about building the Worker’s paradise. His nemesis, a truly monstrous individual named Igor, takes full advantage of the chaos in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. In 2002, Gonzalo has the chance to finish the good work his sister started, but only if he can find a way to stop people from ruining his family. Over and over, men are asked to compromise their ethics. Some struggle. Some gleefully compromise. Some make what they think is the right choice, only to be twisted by guilt and anger.

A Million Drops is, I think, a good read for characters who like thrillers blended with historical fiction, served with a big spoonful of ethical and moral dilemmas and plenty of evil machinations. Some of the dialogue is a bit clunky and there are some things that could probably have been cut. Unlike some of the other books I’ve read lately, I can promise that this book has an ending in which all questions are answered and we get to learn what happened to everyone. I ended up being more satisfied by this book than I thought it would as I was making my way through all that plot. This book was grim and fascinating at the same time.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 15 May 2018.

The Vanishing, by Sophia Tobin

36415770One of the most difficult skills to learn in life is discovering who one can trust. I daresay it’s a skill that takes a lifetime to learn, even though some people say they are a good judge of character. Annaleigh Calvert learns this lesson the hard way in Sophia Tobin’s The Vanishing, a gripping thriller set in Yorkshire in 1815. By the end of this book, I had had my socks knocked right off. I had no idea what I was getting into when I started it. And I loved every chapter of it.

The Vanishing opens as Annaleigh makes her way to her new place of employment. She has just been turned out of her home in London by her foster family. She has no one else to turn to to help her make her way in the world, so she takes a position as a trainee housekeeper at a remote Yorkshire country house called White Windows. When she arrives, there are ample clues that things are not right. The master of the house often flies into rages and can only be soothed when his sister dips into her medicine box. There are only two servants and Annaleigh has to get dispensation to hire extra help on laundry days. It doesn’t help that other people are constantly warning her not to trust either the master of the house or the handsome, kind man who all the local girls seem to be in love with.

Novels like Jane Eyre might lead us to trust the troubled Mr. Twentyman. He broods. He clearly has reasons for his inappropriateness. But Mr. Twentyman is a lot more sinister than Mr. Rochester. As the chapters progress, we learn just how far he is willing to go to get what he wants. The tentative expectations the novel set up with its similarities to a Brontë novel go right out the window as the novel gets darker and darker. For all its similarities to those Gothic classics, this book goes places that none of the Brontës would have dared to go.

The Vanishing is a roller coaster. The longer I read, the more I liked it because it kept me guessing. This book is packed with atmosphere and Annaleigh is a fascinating character. I felt like I was riding on her shoulder as she struggles to work out who she can really trust—and who she can love—over the course of this novel. This book was such a great read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 5 June 2018.

Madagascar, by Stephen Holgate

39864975Robert Knott has reached what he considers the end of the line for his diplomatic career. He’s finally fetched up in Antananarivo, in Stephen Holgate’s Madagascar, after years of bouncing around third world postings across the world. He occupies himself with gambling and doing the bare minimum at the American Embassy, resigned to an ignoble existence at the end of the world. But when his debts are called in, he’s assigned to getting an American out of prison, and unrest starts to sweep the country, Knott discovers hidden depths.

Knott has been in Madagascar long enough to know how things work. Corruption is the only way to get things done. It drives his fellow Americans nuts, but suits Knott down to the ground. Knott knows nothing will get done when he’s tasked with passing on messages and requests from his government. There’s no reason for the Malagasy to kowtow to the United States. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t bother Knott, but shortly after we meet him, Knott visits American Walt Sackett, a cattle rancher who ran out of money to pay bribes and “taxes.” Knott can’t get Sackett released without cash—and he has also just been informed that his credit at the Zebu Room has run out.

The pace of Madagascar speeds up, chapter by chapter, as Knott gets more invested in helping Walt and Walt’s girlfriend, Nirina, and as he tries to figure out how to get out of his money predicament. His live and let live attitude sputters out and, suddenly, he has to learn how to use all of the tricks he’s picked up over the years. Perhaps the biggest trick that he learned is that, Knott explains, little mistakes will get you sent back to the states. But a big fuck up, with lots of publicity, might mean that he can be a hero for once in his life.

I liked this second trip to Madagascar (after reading Naivo’s Beyond the Rice Fields), for the most part. I was annoyed by the way that Malagasy people are generalized. There are only three Malagasy who get significant screen time, so we never get the opportunity to make up our own minds. Mostly we see Americans who are either unwilling to adapt or who are all to willing to try and create their own Kurtz kingdom. Readers who are looking for diversity and sensitivity will have issues with Knott. Readers who are willing to let the vazaha (Malagasy for foreigners) slide a bit and want to read an adventure in a setting that doesn’t appear much in fiction, will enjoy Madagascar.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 29 May 2018.

Cult X, by Fuminori Nakamura

Trigger warning for rape.

36278938I found Fuminori Nakamura’s Cult X (translated by Kalau Almony) infuriating. I requested it because I am fascinated by cults. Being an atheist, I want to understand what draws people to religion. Cults are the most extreme versions of religion; charismatic leaders with a good story suck people in for various reasons and followers stay even if it all goes wrong. What leads people to do that? Cult X does answer that question, as well as tries to answer what it is that drives those charismatic leaders to try and lead people off the cliffs with them. My problem with the book is that it is packed with lectures by male characters, with barely any attention paid to the women who appear in the novel. By the time I got to the end, I was sick of mansplaining and female characters who were treated as little more than sex dolls. There were some interesting ideas here, just not enough to make up for those two major problems.

Cult X opens when a detective gives Narazaki the bad news about the woman he wants to be his girlfriend. She’s in a cult, a mysterious cult that no one knows anything about. This short prelude dumps us straight into Narazaki’s attempts to find Ryoko, which quickly evolves into something that reads like a handful of characters being tossed into a tumble dryer on high. Narazaki follows Ryoko’s trail to a guru who has ideas about atoms, brains, and the Big Bang—but who also keeps asking to poke women’s breasts. The guru leads Narazaki to the guru’s rival and enemy, plus something a lot more sinister. Narazaki disappears as a lead character for a while so that we can follow Ryoko’s lover, Takahara, as he wrestles with his conscience.

As the novel jumps from character to character—and lecture to lecture—we get hints about what the religions of these cults are. While the guru is more philosophical and wants to share ideas about where the universe might have started and how atoms and the brain and quantum physics interact. The rival leader is downright evil. He has essentially created a sex cult, with ambitions to turn it into a terrorist organization. But instead of exploring these cobbled together theologies, the book devotes more time to letting these “great men” expound on their thoughts and their traumatic histories. While there are some interesting echoes and themes in Cult X, I started to loathe their expository dialogue the more I read, especially once I learned how depraved the rival leader was.

The ending of Cult X offered a little bit of an apology after slogging through the lectures and self-tortured men, but not enough to make it up to me for all the pretentious male characters who run roughshod over everyone to achieve their destructive goals. Some readers might enjoy the thriller aspects of this novel. The terrorism plot ratchets up to a fever pitch over the course of the book. I actually kind of liked how big of a mess the putative terrorists managed to create. I just didn’t like the lectures or the misogyny.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 22 May 2018.