Friday, November 29, 2013

Not perfect, but close


By Rachel Joyce

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Great literary dramas strive on understatement. From the first few pages of Rachel Joyce's nearly perfect Perfect, we know there will be tragedy. We know it will affect two children in traumatic ways. But the author leads us on oh so slowly, giving us bits and pieces as we need them. We are given a tantalizing premise at the first page. In 1972, James Lowe tells his best friend Byron Hemmings, that 2 seconds were added onto time to keep it in sync with the earth's movement. What James accepts as an exciting bit of trivia, Bryon reacts with fear. Then an unfortunate event occurs that cements Bryon's fear that reality has been thrown out of whack. Everything that follows comes from these occurrences.

But the novel is about much more than tragedy. It is told in alternating stories. One taking place in the 70s and another happening about 40 years later.They intersect well with all the details being filled as we read the novel. As important to the story as Jim and Bryon is Bryon's mother, Diana. She is in a position of privilege but is uncomfortable to it and as delicate to reality as her son Bryon. The British author is taking on the issue of class with some devastating frankness. I was also impressed by Joyce's depiction of the Hemmings family. The father is often absent and while Diana tries to be a good mother, her relation to Bryon is more like equals than mother and son. We find the son often taking the role of dispensing advice to his mother which only heighten the sense of doom as we watch both of them unraveling.

It a delicate and beautiful balancing act. James seems to be on the outskirt of the action but often the instigator. He is seen by others as the troublemaker and maybe a bit unhinged but one of the delights in this novel is in discovering the true connection with the characters and especially the connection to the two individuals depicts in the two alternating stories.

The novel grabbed me from the first page yet some may find it a little plodding and frustrating. I can only say stick with it and you will be rewarded and maybe a little stunned with the end like I was.

Method acquired: Netgalley

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Original, sassy, and scary


By J. Lincoln Fenn

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Let me get straight to my two gripes about Poe, mainly because they involve things not between the covers of this excellent novel. First, that book cover. I took me a little while to get to this book (it was a review copy provided by Netgalley) because the cover screams Young Adult. (It is definitely not YA). Also the title is a bit misleading. While the title does tie into the book it led me to think the plot may have something to do with the author who wrote all those delicious short stories. Sorry, no Edgar Allen. Never shows up. Missing in action. Different Poe.

But once I got over those two nitpicking distractions and dug into the 300 plus pages, I found a delightfully original story that spanned a number of genres. There is horror, mystery, supernatural suspense, plus a slight touch of romance. It is also quite humorous. Here's the bare bones of the plot: Bored obituary writer for the local paper in the small town of New Goshen, Dimitri, is given the chance to write a feature about a seance in the local haunted house...on Halloween of course. Naturally, or supernaturally in this case, things goes wrong, and our protagonist nearly dies and come back with a sort of ghostly hitchhiker he calls Poe. Add to that a string of murders and the plot thickens. Then there's that strange but sweet and quirky romance involving a girl who thinks her brother is connected to the murders.

Poe moves as smoothly as a novel ever moved. Each action leads to another logical action. Characters and strange events are introduced at just the right time. Conclusions are made and acted upon in a realistic manner, which is not an easy feat in a fantasy / horror novel . I am in awe of J. Lincoln Fenn's Rubik Cube structuring and the ease of which she pulls it off. But just as important is her smart realistic dialogue and the depiction of a main protagonist, Dimitri, is mentally smart in words and thoughts. I must admit to a bit of irritation with Lisa, the probable love interest. I found her a little insensitive at first but there is a reason for that and it ended up endearing me to both Dimitri and Lisa.

Overall, I was basically bowled over by Poe. It came out of nowhere and surprised me. Well, sort of out of nowhere. It did win Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Award for 2013 in the category of science fiction, fantasy and horror. The novel jumps into my own top five of my best novels of 2013 and is nipping at the heels of number one. I highly recommend this to anyone who likes great well-paced fiction.

Monday, November 25, 2013

WARNING: Gratuitous clown sex and violence!!

Other People's Shit

By C.V. Hunt

Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

I hate clowns.

I'm not afraid of clowns. I don't have coulrophobia. I just hate the MFers. It probably has to do with the jokers I was subjected to during childhood. Clarabelle acted psychotic to the point that I feared for Howdy Doody's life, Emmet Kelly looks like the adults my parents told me to avoid, Ronald McDonald is a corporate stooge, and Bozo was a...well...Bozo. I used to work with a guy that liked being a clown. He was one of those guys that weighed close to 250 pounds and drove a tiny car in parades. He worked extensively with children charities and was adored by kids. He was, and I say this in all sincerity, a kind, generous, morally upright person. But I never told him that when he was in his clown outfit, he was the spitting image of John Wayne Gacey. Now that's scary!

In Other People's Shit, C.V. Hunt creates a world where clowns are a disease. You wake up one morning and you're a clown. Think Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" with cream pies.You lose you wife, your family, your career, and end up being in the pits of society being harassed and working shit jobs. The author takes her title both figuratively and literally. Very literally.

Hunt sets up her Bizarro world very nicely for the first half of her book. It's very funny but also quite horrific. You can't help but feel some empathy for these unlucky men and women. The new reader to Bizarro lit may find this a little too bizarre. There should be a warning sticker. WARNING: GRATUITOUS CLOWN SEX AND VIOLENCE. But there's a nice balance between funny, gross and sad. Yet the second half, where our protagonists investigate strange overdressed bike messengers who are abducting the clowns, went a little over the funny scale into silly. I lost the social allegory that I suspected the author was making. But for the most part the good outweighed the weak and I enjoyed it in its gross splendor.

This is definitely an experimental read for most people. If you squirm at the scatological and blush at the sexually explicit, you should probably avoid this. For that matter, avoid the Bizarro genre all together since the sole purpose of the genre is to push the envelope. But if you are brave and feel that good writing shouldn't have arbitrary limits, you will enjoy this short and weird novel.

Method acquired: Review copy from Amazon.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Exciting political/corporate thriller

The Candidate: Luxembourg Thriller

By Daniel Pembrey

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Before I review this thrilling novella, I want to say a few words about my love for Kindle Singles. Kindle Singles are short essays or fictional works usually between 30 to 100 pages. They are available from Amazon and usually run between 1 and 2 dollars. I find them to be a perfect brief read between longer novels and a bargain at the price. The basic concept of Kindle Singles is a winner as they present well known authors and often introduce lesser known ones, allowing a cheap way to explore new writers. If you have not checked out these nifty short reads, do so very soon.

In regards to The Candidate: Luxembourg Thriller by Daniel Pembrey, it is a bit longer than the usual Kindle Single at slightly over 100 pages.It is also a very good poli-corporate espionage novel. Corporate headhunter Nick Thorneycroft is working in Luxembourg attempting to lure a Russian executive to his company for the purpose of expanding their business in Russia. When he meets the woman he has a nagging suspicion that he knows her, which might be related to the fact that he woke up alone in bed that morning accompanied by a pair of women's panties with no visible owner in sight. Not to mention that he was obviously drugged and have no memories of what occurred the night before.

At this point, I would be yelling, "Get another job, moron!". Fortunately for the writer and for the reader, he does no such thing. Pembrey has a intelligent and subtle style that moves us along quietly in the development of the mystery. It is to his credit that this novella has a very realistic scenario and easily passes my eye-rolling test. If I roll my eyes over the plot devices more than 3 times, I deem the plot a mess. I was so involved and convinced I didn't roll my eyes once. I could see this sort of thing happening easily...which is why I am not working in an international corporation.

What "this sort of thing" is will not be spoiled. Let's just say that if you enjoyed suspense thrillers with corporate hi-jinks laced with a good dose of paranoia, you will enjoy this novella. Daniel Pembrey is a new name for me and that only emphasizes why I think Kindle Singles are so helpful. I will definitely be checking out Pembrey's other books.

I received a review copy of The Candidate from the author via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. However I would have enthusiastically paid the 99 cents for this exciting read.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Humorous and down-to-earth sci-fi

Have Wormhole, Will Travel

By Tony McFadden

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Have Wormhole, Must Travel is a fun science fiction novel with lots of humor. There's some physics involving wormholes and other wonderfully nerdy things but they are entertainingly explained, which would make this perfect for any teenage science fiction fans. McFadden reminds me a little of Christopher Moore, not so much for the writing style but for his use of pleasantly eccentric characters. The plot hinges around a duo of aliens who have been on Earth for hundreds of year in order to monitor the inhabitants technological advancements. Their own planet becomes worried about a scientist who is harnessing wormholes for planetary travel and they slate Earth for demolition. One of the aliens, who have become quite fond of Earth, wants to stop this from happening. That is a tall agenda for an alien considering that some earth girls are suspicious he is a vampire. It is a clever plot and McFadden has a lot of fun with it. This would be a good novel for someone who likes science fiction but prefers their sci-fi to be more down to earth, no pun intended.

 Method acquired: Netgalley

Monday, November 18, 2013

Terrorists, conspiracies, and WMDs...oh My!

The Tenth Circle

By Jon Land

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

All you need to know about this book is in the description provided by the publishing company:
Blaine McCracken races to stop terrorists from unleashing an ancient weapon of unimaginable power at the president’s State of the Union speech

Contemporary global suspense thrillers like this usually come in two colors. They are either masterfully structured in a less is more style that enable the reader to believe in what is probably an outlandish plot or the author throws a lot of crap against the wall hoping that some of it sticks.

I am afraid Jon Land has a very messy wall.

So what do we have here? A macho hero, a femme fatale assassin, a seriously deranged man of the cloth, a handful of fanatical military types, An Indian sidekick dubiously nicknamed "Indian". I could go on but you get the picture. And I haven't even mentioned the plethora of deadly but unlikely acts of violence that our comic book hero waltzes through. Of course, there are mysterious historical incidents that feed into a doomsday scenario. Actually, I sort of liked how Land merged the Roanoke colony mystery with the Maria Celeste ship disappearance into a deadly modern scenario. I wondered if the author's doomsday scenario was actually based on reality and science in any way. But there were so many scenes that taxed my ability to suspend disbelief that I didn't bother to Google it to find out. My favorite eye-roller in the novel concerns a virtuoso pianist who is commandeering a military raid on her smartphone while she simultaneously plays the piano in a standing room only concert. Try to beat that, Alicia de Larrocha!

I guess it was fun in a comic book sort of way. Those who dig non-stop action thrillers will certainly dig this. Perhaps one can criticize this reviewer for not recognizing pure escapism and just roll with it. But it is hard to roll with the plot when the plot is rolling over you. So if you like this sort of thing, be my guest. I'll just keep searching to find a good contemporary thriller about terrorists and WMDs that doesn't dirty up my walls.

Method acquired: Netgalley

Friday, November 15, 2013

You gonna do WHAT!?

The Trek

By David Schachne

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

David Schachne told me what I already knew. That anyone who would even go near Mount Everest and battle 18,000 ft elevations is either a masochist or a moron. And I say this knowing I get altitude sickness one foot over 12,000 feet above sea level. From the experiences the author had while trekking to the summit of Kala Pathar (elevation 18,192 feet), I think he would agree with me. Yet he also writes about the value of the challenge and fulfilling your dreams. That is the heart of his book. That is the part I took away from reading this entertaining story and why I found it a worthwhile read.

Schachne has a jaunty, also dark humor style in this book, which is mostly a travel diary. He has a pleasant style that looks back, to what must have been a difficult trip, with amusement and maybe just a little nostalgia. But he certainly took away any desire I had, of which there was little, to take a similar trek. I have learned more about Nepalese outhouses then I ever want to know and his depiction of food poisoning were a little too descriptive. But there are also sweet segments like his interaction with a poor but playful four year old girl oblivious to her poverty. I wish there were more scenes in the book like that.

The thing that makes this book different than others written about the same region is that it gives you a look at what the average person would experience on a commercial trek in the Himalayas. So if you are yearning to trek up a mountain in Nepal, you should read this book to get an idea what you will be up against. With a little luck, David will talk you out of it.

Method acquired: Goodreads firstreads

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A hard Rain gonna fall.

Silent Echo

By J. R. Rain

Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

I do not think I've ever read a mystery more depressing than Silent Echo. P. D. James writes some depressing mysteries but she's a load of laughs compared to J. R. Rain.

I guess if your main protagonist has terminal AIDS related cancer and six months to live, you're not going to be writing a comedy. But P. I. Jim Booker is really depressing. He crapped out in the game of life. He blames himself for his brother's death, the love of his life is married to his best friend and now she's missing. So his last goal in life is to solve the mystery of her disappearance...and perhaps the mystery of his brother's death.

Silent Echo, despite the downbeat vibes, is a good novel. Booker never sinks into the abyss of whiny and depressing and he is surrounded by caring concerned friends. The strength of this novel included a realistic depiction of Booker's dilemma(s) and a nice gumshoe atmosphere throughout. The main weakness is a mystery that is too easy to predict, mainly due to the lack of reasonable suspects. But there's no doubt that Rains is an accomplished writer in the modern crime noir style a la Huston and Lansdale.

I guess I like my Rain a little softer, as in the case of the warm and witty Elvis Has Not Left the Building. Yet this is a good novel and does give me a view of a slightly harder and more contemplative Rain.

Three and a half stars.

Method acquired: Amazon First Reads

Monday, November 11, 2013

A thrilling ending to a great trilogy


By Anders de la Motte

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Bubble is the high-voltage finale to Anders de la Motte Game Trilogy. It is a nice little trickster of a novel that continues the conspiratorial mood of the first two and challenges everything the reader thought they knew. HP and his sister are still being manipulated by the organization called The Game...or maybe they aren't. The author has a talent is setting up scenarios and knocking them down. As far as the plot goes, HP is back in the game and Rebecca is now working for a private security firm not knowing that she is also being drawn into the game's mechanics. HP isn't quite sure which side he is working on and Rebecca is busy protecting Swedish royalty while learning secrets about her father. Old characters from the first two novels come back but not in the way we expect and the players have their own "Death Star" that they must tackle.

The author keeps the action and the surprises coming. There is still the quick changes in third person focus from HP to Rebecca and back that I found a little disorienting but they do work for this type of thriller. But I still think the author doesn't need to end every narration with a cliff-hanger. HP and his sister are having their separate experiences only to come together at the end but it is exciting to see how their discoveries merge together to solve the mystery. I especially like how modern this novel feels in light of the current events surrounding the NSA and data collecting. This is the type of book that should thrill tech geeks, suspense lovers and conspiracy fans alike yet doesn't forget how important three dimensional protectionists are in making a tale really work. My 5 star rating is for the entire trilogy as well as the final installment.

The Game Trilogy continues to be one of the best tech thrillers currently around. I received review copies of the American publications of all three volumes from Simon & Shuster, with Game to be released in December, 2013, Buzz to be released in January of 2014, and Bubble in February, 2014.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The second installment in the Game Trilogy.


By Anders de la Motte

Rating: 4 and a 1/2 out of 5 stars

Buzz is the second volume of Swedish author Anders de la Motte's Game trilogy and is due to be published in the US in January of 2014. The Game trilogy involves Henrik “HP” Pettersson and his sister Rebecca's struggle against the conspiratorial workings of something called The Game. In the first book, we learned that a seemingly innocent, if slightly illegal, contest of internet and real life pranks has a much larger and dangerous agenda. In this second installment, HP is on the run from the Game Master and find himself the main suspect in a woman's murder. This leads him to his own investigation which opens up new insights on the Game and the mysterious Game Master. At the same time, Rebecca is leading a police security squad in Darfur and finds herself embroiled in an investigation that may cost the loss of her job or even imprisonment.

Of course their problems intersect and HP manages to be right in the middle of major Game activity. Buzz is more complex than the the first book titled Game, which is no small feat. It takes a program to figure out all the players but, with some attentive reading, it shouldn't be too hard. Some readers found this book too "chaotic." I found it just right. The translation issues regarding odd sentences and language that I found troubling in the first book, were nonexistent in this one. In fact, the language and narrative flowed much better throughout the entire story. The flip-flop of narration POV from HP to Rebecca was still fast and furious but I must have gotten used to it as I found it helped the fast action of the tale this time around. However the new reader should insure himself against mental whiplash.

The best part of this book is how the author used the social networking of the internet as part of the plot. He brings forward a less favorable internet world involving fake trolls, well-organized and disguised PR, and cyber-bullying. I've read other thrillers that used the technology of the internet as part of its plot before but Buzz does it better than any I've read. HP is still a likable character even with his selfishness and slacker ways while Rebecca continues to play super-ego to HP's id. I liked the way the story moved in this second book better than the first and the author made sure we still had plenty of mysteries to solve in the nest installment. It's no spoiler to say this is basically a conspiracy novel. I did find it quite amusing that, even though it was originally published in Sweden in 2011, some of the issues in the plot become suspiciously close to issues in the recent 2013 NSA eavesdropping scandal here in the USA. It's 3 AM in the morning. Do you know where your e-mail is?

The Game Trilogy continues to be one of the best tech thrillers currently around. I received review copies of the American publications of all three volumes from Simon & Shuster, with Game to be released in December, 2013, Buzz to be released in January of 2014, and Bubble in March, 2014.

Since it was slightly better from the 4-star Game, I'll have to give this one four and a half stars. We're not quite in five star territory yet. We'll see what happens with the third and final book, Bubble which I be reading next very soon. I'm hooked.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Book one of a thrilling trilogy from Sweden


By Anders de la Motte

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Swedish author Anders de la Motte has written a high voltage, high tech thriller of a trilogy. It has just been translated into English after having some success in its native land. If the first installment, Game is any indication, I am going to have a good amount of exciting edge-of-the-seat reading in store for me.

Henrik Pettersson, mercifully nicknamed "HP", finds a cell phone on a commuter train. When he turns it on, the text addresses him by name. At first he thinks his friends are playing an elaborate prank on him. But as he follows the instructions, he realizes he is competing in a game where the participants do various tasks, some illegal, for points and cash. At first the tasks seem mildly mischievous but soon they increase to illegal and harmful activities. It becomes clear that the "game" has a more sinister agenda yet HP has become addicted to the fame and adrenaline derived from the game.

Our modern society is fascinated by conspiracies If there is none, we make one up. I think this is partially due to the instant delivery of news through the media and the ease of connections that we perceive from the internet. Everything is connected so there must be hidden connections that control our world. Or so we think.

I think de la Motte picks up on something similar in this riveting novel. While HP gets off on the attention that he receives from the game, his actions have consequences that he can't yet comprehend. Just how far the game affects others and who the Game Master is becomes part of the mystery of this tale. It's an exhilarating quest and soon HP, and the reader, are looking for accomplices everywhere. HP's sister, who works in police security, also becomes inadvertently involved in her brother's game and she has a little baggage of her own.

This first book of the trilogy is fast paced and full of surprises. HP at first is a somewhat unsympathetic slacker but as we get to know him and his sister we understand them and see their strengths. His sister is more mature but she has issues with her past that come into play. The interaction between the two main characters is part of what makes this suspense story so interesting.

I did find some areas that were troubling if minor. Some of the sentences seem stiff and awkward as were some strange wordings that may be due to the different cultures. For example "answering phone" rather than "answering machine". I suspect this may have more to do with the translator than the author. Also, the author alternates the viewpoint of the narrative from HP to his sister Rebecca quite rapidly, often in the middle of an action scene. It a bit disorienting. Not every scene needs to end with a cliff hanger.

But overall these issues do not take away from the fun of this novel. I found it a suspenseful and intelligent read. But how much did I really like it? Let's put it this way. I'm starting the second book Buzz as soon as I finish writing this review.

Method Acquired: Netgalley

Monday, November 4, 2013

A masterpiece of mystery and suspense

Night Film

By Marisha Pessl

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I love intelligent dark fiction. Night Film is both very dark and very intelligent. It is not the kind of novel that spoon feeds you yet it is quite accessible and entertaining in a quietly spooky sort of way. While ostensibly a mystery, horror fans will get right into the groove too. The plot centers around an investigation of the death of a 24 year old daughter of a notorious horror film director. Her alleged suicide prompts a reporter, who was successfully sued in the past by the director for libel after he made allegations against him, to find out what actually happened. Through the reporter's narrative and some magazine and newspaper articles judiciously sprinkled through the book's pages, the reporter is led on a mysterious journey involving suspected child abuse, mysterious disappearances, and devil worship. Yet many of these incidents seem to be strangely similar to the scenes from the director's own disturbing horror films, prompting the question of delusions vs. reality.

I'll leave the rest of the novel for you to discover. I like the way the plot unfolds slowly with a few jerks and screams to break the steady build of tension. The reporter, Scott McGrath is the perfect combination of brave and gullible that is needed for an admittedly convoluted plot as we have here. It's actually a miracle that the author pulls this off so well. In lesser hands it might be a mess but in Marisha Pessl capable hands, it comes of as an eerie and poetic masterpiece. McGrath quickly inherits two young sidekick who at first seem tacked on, but develops into sort of a conscience for the weary reporter. It's a nice touch. The director, Cordova, is a vague and menacing presence and remains so until we find out his dark secrets and even then...

OK. Enough. This is one of those books that you won't want to know much about until you start reading it. There is a lot of hype on this novel and at least this time the hype is deserved. Yet some readers may not be ready from the quietly eerie atmosphere that set the stage for this tale. But rest assured, this is a worthwhile read and one of the best books of any genre in 2013.

Method acquired: Library

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Strange but funny social satire.

The Hangman's Replacement: Sprout of Disruption

By Taona Dumisani Chiveneko

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

While reading The Hangman's Replacement I got the feeling that Taona Dumisani Chiveneko wants to be the African Douglas Adams or maybe the African Christopher Moore. There is indeed an absurd wit in this book that is very much like these two authors.

But Chiveneko is much darker that either. He blends fantasy, horror and social satire in an uniquely African style. Yet the author doesn't quite gain a foothold in being compared to Moore or Adams, at least not yet. He still must find out that great social satire needs more than cleverness and colorful characterizations.

He starts out well. In the first 100 pages, we are introduced to Abel Muranda, a poor and illiterate farmer who comes to the city with the hope of gaining a job as the town hangman. It's not a job not many people want but the noble Abel needs to feed his family and get them health insurance, so he is very willing to take it. The character of Abel is magnificent; a simple man who turns out to be smarter and more honest than any of the people he needs to confront.

Unfortunately, he disappears in the rest of the book. We meet a variety of bankers, lawyers, prostitutes, assassins, carpenters, a insane genius and many more. It is a big unnecessary crowd that muddle a story that would have better spent with less frills and many less pages than the 500 plus that the author uses. The fact that this is one of a series and that we receive no ending payoff just makes this work more puzzling.

Yet Chiveneko does have a talent for setting character and mood. It gets lost in the mess that is a plot but it is there. It will be nice to see some more of his work but I hope he learnw to streamline and stick to one main characters...or least many less than he thinks he needs to tell this story. For the fact that the author shows promise, I give this work a very generous three stars. But I can't recommend it.

Method Acquired:  Netgalley