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.

The Wolf Road, by Beth Lewis

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The Wolf Road

Elka has always done better in the woods, on her own, than in the middle of civilization. She didn’t get on with her nana when she was left there by her parents before they went north. Nana and people just had so many rules that Elka didn’t understand that it was almost a relief to be taken in by Trapper when she was seven. Before you get too cozy with this story of rough man and pseudo-daughter bonding, Beth Lewis has a bombshell to drop in the first chapters of The Wolf Road. The gruff Trapper has a dark secret: he’s a cannibal.

Elka’s world implodes one summer day. She’s been living with Trapper for about ten years when she has to make a trip into town by herself for the first time. In town, she meets Magistrate Lyon. Lyon is hunting Trapper, also known as Kreagar Hallet, who she knows killed her son and several women over the years. Lyon follows Elka back to Trapper’s cabin where they find indisputable evidence of his murderous hobby. After Lyon and her men burn the cabin down, Elka lights out north with a vague plan to find her missing parents, not get arrested, and not get killed by Hallet.

What follows is a tense, slow-burning chance all across a devastated, devolved British Columbia and Yukon Territory. Elka, after spending years mastering woodcraft, has to learn the hard way about who to trust and who to run from as fast as her legs can carry her.

The Wolf Road is one of the best tales of survival and justice I’ve read in a while. What sets it apart from similar books and what really won me over was the issue of Elka’s complicity. She doesn’t remember anything about Trapper’s crimes. For a long time, she thinks of Trapper as another of Kreagar’s victims. But as time goes on, memories of things Elka has repressed start to surface. Elka torments herself by worrying about what she did that she isn’t remembering and how much blame she bears for being Kreagar’s accomplice. The Wolf Road is not True Grit, though it bears some similarity to that novel’s setting and vibe. It’s more like The Reapers Are the Angels in that no one is truly innocent here. It’s just that some people are more guilty than others.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 5 July 2016.

Misery, by Stephen King

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Misery

For years, I have only wholly loved one Stephen King work: Carrie. I’ve read some of his other books, but I’ve always though that there was something wrong with them that kept me from truly loving it. Even my next favorite, The Stand, has a goofy ending after hundreds of pages of tense drama. But now I have a second King book that I can recommend to people without having to include a caveat about something: Misery. I was up until 1:00 AM finishing it even though I had work the next day.

I think that, because of the 1990 movie, most people have a fairly good idea of what the story is. Paul Sheldon is an author who hates that he is more famous for a series of pastiche Victorian romances than for his more “serious” books. He gets into a terrible accident on a Colorado highway and is rescued by Annie Wilkes. Wilkes is not a benevolent rescuer. She takes advantage of Paul’s terribly broken legs and growing addiction to pain medication to coerce him into writing a new book in the Misery series (the one he hates), bringing back the main character. It doesn’t take long for Paul (and us) to learn that there is something very, very wrong with Annie. Within a few chapters, I was as freaked out by her as he was.

What resonated most for me was the way that King captured fans who take fiction too seriously. I linked to a New York Times article by Penelope Green in April, in which Green wrote about fans who had injured author Cassandra Clare physically and emotionally for things they didn’t like about Clare’s books. Paul describes Annie as:

the perfect audience, a woman who loved stories without having the slightest interest in the mechanics of making them. She was the embodiment of that Victorian archetype, Constant Reader. She did not want to hear about his concordance and indices because to her Misery and the characters surrounding her were perfectly real. (62*)

When Paul mentions craft or the business of writing, Annie shuts him down. All she wants is more story. I can understand wanting more story. I am impatiently waiting for new volumes in a few series. But I am also aware that, like George R.R. Martin, authors are not, as Neil Gaiman once wrote, “my bitch.” Authors are not machines. Authors should not be expected to bow to audience wishes. Annie is clearly mentally disturbed, but some of the things she says are no different than things book fans have posted on tumblr or Twitter.

Perhaps because Misery was based so closely on some of King’s own experiences with fans and addiction, this book has a lot more soul than his other books. Paul thinks about his approach to writing and his goals. We get to see him create a new plot for his Misery character, starting as though it’s a game to think his way out of an impossible situation, before he gets sucked into the joy of writing. (There are excerpts from Paul’s new Misery book and it is objectively dreadful. There’s even racist faux dialect for an African character.) Because we get to see inside the sausage factory that produces a novel in between scenes of terror and gore, I felt like King wrote something that had some truth in it rather than writing something to freak us all out.

The scenes about writing and the scenes in which Paul tried to keep Annie on an even keel kept me up far past my bedtime. It’s a little alarming to realize that I had a little bit of Paul’s tormenter in me because I had to know what happened next before I went to sleep. I’m not about to mutilate an author, but I was perfectly willing to sacrifice some much needed sleep to find out how the book ended.


* Quote is from the 2016 kindle edition from Scribner.

The Witch Who Came in from the Cold, by Various Authors

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The Witch Who Came in from the Cold

The Cold War has proved fertile ground for writers, even more than twenty years after the Berlin Wall came down. The pervasive tension, the betrayals, the doubts, the idealism—all of it is perfect for writers. The writers of The Witch Who Came in from the Cold, however, thought that their characters could use even more complexity in their lives. Over the course of the book, Gabe Pritchard (CIA) and Tanya Morozova (KGB) have to deal not just with defections, stealing secrets, and interfering bosses, but a golem, monstrous constructs, and a bigger war than the one between the Communist East and the Capitalist West. The bigger, magical war seems more likely to end the world than the two superpowers launching nuclear strikes against each other.

Tanya Morozova is a veteran of the KGB and of Ice, a magical organization that works to keep agents of Flame from destroying their earth. When we meet her, she and her partner, Nadia (also KGB and Ice), are trying to stop Flame from capturing someone who hosts an elemental. (Hosts and elementals are hoarded by each side because they can boost the effectiveness of magical spells.) The fight is touch and go for a bit, causing some damage to the streets of Prague, but Tanya and Nadia eventually manage to bring the host “in from the cold.” This is just the beginning for Tanya when it becomes clear that the little job leads to open warfare between Ice and Flame.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Gabe Pritchard, a CIA agent who also serves as our entry point into the war between Ice and Flame. He tangled with the weird in Cairo, before he was transferred to Prague. He’s got mysterious migraines that are starting to affect his work; he almost bungles turning a Soviet agent. He needs help, but he really does not like that getting help means working with people who nominally work for the KGB. While Tanya shows us more about Ice, Gabe sticks as close as possible to CIA work. Each chapter flips back and forth between the two characters, so that we always get our fill of magic and espionage.

The Witch Who Came in from the Cold is packed with action. While Tanya and Gabe work for their official bosses (complicated enough), they’re also increasingly caught up in working for Ice. Gabe fights hard with his loyalties and we see just how hard it is for individuals to try and serve two masters. This conflict is the heart of the book. The more I read, the more felt the pressure the characters were under. How were they supposed to get everything done and not blow their covers? It’s almost unbearable at times—though I did get a kick out of how Tanya got revenge on a KGB official from Moscow who spent too much time reading spy novels and wanted to put what he’d read into practice.

The Witch Who Came in from the Cold was originally published as a serial novel. Each “episode” was written by a different author: Lindsay Smith, Max Gladstone, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Ian Tregillis, and Michael Swanwick. Reading all of the episodes as a novel reveals how skilled these authors are at picking up on each other’s plots and characterization, adding to them, and leaving the next author plenty of room to add their own touches. It’s stunning to watch them all work together.

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