Book Review: Tom Clancy Line of Sight, Mike Maden

Book Review: Tom Clancy Line of SightMike Maden

Tom Clancy Line of Sight, Mark Maden

Fiction Series: Tom Clancy Line of Sight, Mike Maden

Fans of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series know that the world Clancy created continues in a series of novels about Jack Ryan, Jr. Using his cover as a financial analyst, Jack and his colleagues at the Campus serve as an off-the-books intelligence agency for his father, President Jack Ryan. In this latest offering, Line of Sight, from a new author to the series, Jack is sent on a mission of a different sort. His mother, eye-surgeon Cathy Ryan, hears he is heading to central Europe. She asks her son to look up an old patient of hers, Aida Curic. Dr. Ryan had operated on the little girl twenty years earlier and wanted to know how she was doing.

 

Jack’s trip starts in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where he has a financial consultation–and where he faces an attempt on his life by a beautiful hit woman. After successfully turning the tables on her, he flies to Sarajevo to look for Aida Curic. After several days unsuccessfully searching, Curic shows up on his doorstep, and the two of them quickly connect.

 

I do not believe in doing negative reviews, but I do have a couple of criticisms of this book. I am a red-blooded cis straight male, but wow! One character is described as a busty blond girl-next-door. Jack’s would-be assassin, or more accurately his first would-be assassin, is a beautiful woman who attempts seduction as her prelude to murder. When Aida Curic shows up on his doorstep, her curves are described in vivid detail–and in very short order Jack and she begin an affair. Given that both her Muslim faith and his Catholic faith are supposed to be central parts of their characters, and furthermore that Ryan is supposed to be a highly trained and disciplined operative who (we would think) is already on his guard after an attempt on his life, this seems more James Bond than Jack Ryan, Jr.

 

The other is probably more of a general criticism of the entire series, but it does specifically apply to this book. Recent novels in this series have been less overtly political–maybe because they were written during an era when Democrats were in the real White House. This book feels at times like a Republican campaign commercial. Granted, you don’t go into a Tom Clancy novel expecting subtlety or nuance in its politics, but the tone is much stronger in this offering, and I found it occasionally distracting.

 

Those criticisms aside, Maden checks the boxes for a Tom Clancy thriller. Multiple intractable foes, bringing both personal danger and global destabilization. The hero needing to use his spycraft, his brilliance, and his physicality to resolve the situation. Familiar names from the Campus bringing their skills to the party. (Though this book does spend much less time with other characters than other authors in the series have.) President Ryan and his cabinet being on-top-of-everything-in-amazing-fashion. These are expectations that fans of the series have, and Maden delivers.

 

Something else that Clancy fans have come to expect is detailed exploration of challenging subjects, whether that is the specs of a Russian sub or the destructive capability of a jumbo jet crashing into a government building. Maden writes with impressive sensitivity and detail about the aftermath and political consequences of the Balkan wars. NATO, America, and Western Europe may not have had any good options during those wars, but the failure to act and the refusal to protect civilians led to the worst atrocities and genocide seen on the continent since World War II, and the scars are still fresh in the region.

 

Tom Clancy Line of Sight is not a perfect novel, but it is a worthy continuation of a series that has entertained generations of readers since the 1980s. I look forward to seeing how the Ryans and the Campus next save the world–though Jack may want to ask a relative to set him up with dates in future books!

Tom Clancy Line of Sight, Mark Maden

Book Review: Tom Clancy Line of Sight, Mike Maden

The Consuming Fire, John Scalzi

Book Review: The Consuming FireJohn Scalzi

The Interdependency, Book 2

Consuming Fire, John Scalzi

Fiction: Consuming Fire, John Scalzi

Emperox Grayland II is in deep. Most believe she is in over her head. She is the unexpected, unprepared ruler of the Interdependency, a series of worlds held together by their mutual need for each other and their connection through the “flow,” a poorly understood current outside the bounds of normal space which allows travel between select points in normal space. Humans cannot control the flow. They can access it in certain areas, then exit back out from it in other areas, but they are utterly dependent on the direction and current of the flow itself to get from one system to another.

 

But the flow is changing. Places that were connected to each other are losing that connection. Few know this, fewer accept that it’s happening, and fewer still believe the Emperox’s latest pronouncement: she has had a vision of the flow ending. Beset by enemies, facing inevitable environmental catastrophe, ill-prepared for the throne (she became Emperox because of the untimely death of her older brother who was the heir), and now of questionable sanity, it seems only a matter of time before her accidental ascendancy comes to an abrupt and likely terminal end. The question is whether humanity itself will be snuffed out in the consuming fire.

 

In The Consuming Fire, John Scalzi continues the story begun in The Collapsing Empire. We pick up the threads of Emperox Grayland II; of Lord Marce Claremont, the scientist who brought predictions of the flow’s end to the Emperox; of Lady Kiva Lagos, unlikely ally to the Emperox who loves money and sex with near equal fervor; and of Lady Nadashe Nohamapetan, in jail for a failed assassination attempt but still with cards to play in the game for power and control of the Interdependency. Scalzi weaves these threads together against a backdrop of impending environmental doom. Only one planet in the entire empire is self sustaining. All of the others were settled because of their locations near access points to the flow. None of them are naturally inhabitable. They all rely on each other for something: food, air, water. When the flow is no longer there, they will continue for awhile. But the end will come, sooner rather than later, and everyone will die.

 

Scalzi wrote The Consuming Fire in a two-week burst in June, 2018. (He does NOT recommend this as a model for writing a novel!) Given the timing, during a US election year and in the middle of political battles over climate change, it is easy to see parallels between real life and this book. But don’t think this is simply a parable for modern readers. The characters in Scalzi’s works are involved and complex. The universe he has created for them may face environmental challenges, but these are also people who forced hostile planets and empty space to make room for them. The Interdependency has involved and interconnected political, social, economic, and religious systems, and their differences from any current situation are as significant as any similarities we may see.

 

It may be a couple of years before the next book in this series is published. Considering that the author has multiple active series going at this time, he should be able to keep himself busy until then. I look forward to returning to the Interdependency, though. The Consuming Fire is full of the typical Scalzi wit and irreverence, and is a page-turning space opera that hurtles toward an exciting and climactic finish. If the next installment is as enjoyable as the first two have been, it will be worth the wait.

 

Even if it takes him three weeks to write it!

Consuming Fire, John Scalzi

Book Review: The Consuming FireJohn Scalzi

Book Review: Heroine’s Journey, Sarah Kuhn

Book Review: Heroine’s JourneySarah Kuhn

Heroine’s Journey, Sarah Kuhn

Book Review: Heroine’s JourneySarah Kuhn

Book 3 of the Heroine Complex series

 

Bea Tanaka is not just the little sister of superheroine Evie Tanaka. She has super powers of her own: the ability to project emotions onto others and the ability to channel intense anger into a “sonic scream” (or “canary cry,” depending on your taste in comics) which can totally destroy most demon-possessed objects that are attacking. So it’s way past time for Aveda Jupiter and Evie to promote her to full-fledged superheroine and stop treating her like a child. In fact, she has put together a posterboard presentation to convince them of this very thing. To make the point even more compelling, she has used glitter. Lots. Of. Glitter. She even has her own superheroine costume, complete with cape. They totally have to promote her!

 

Heroine’s Journey is the third book of the Heroine Complex series. Like the first two, it is smart, breezy, and snarky. Told in the first person, this time by the aforementioned Bea Tanaka, it follows the ongoing story of our Asian-American superheroines as they protect San Francisco from the threats posed by demons crossing over through portals from another dimension. Bea is now 22, working part-time at a bookstore and hanging out with best friends Leah and Sam. She still lives at the house which serves as HQ for the superheroines Aveda and Evie, but tensions are high between the sisters. Bea knows she is ready to step up. Evie is not so sure. Then, on the same day, two things happen. Demons attack, and Bea is able to step in and make a difference.

 

And, Evie and Bea’s dad returns after 10 years away with virtually no contact.

 

Kuhn really does an amazing job of balancing humor and pathos. Bea’s feelings for her father and her late mother are powerful. Her longing and sorrow drive the character to make some questionable decisions, including hurting people who love her. But Kuhn also shows Bea is usually self-aware, knowing that she is making poor decisions and (usually) able to pull herself back from the brink. She is passionate and proud and simultaneously vulnerable and scared.

 

The characters are the reason to read these books. The plots are cute and funny: demonically possessed rocks and spider-rides from carnivals and killer pens attacking and porcelain unicorns coming to life. (Can anything really surpass the killer demon-possessed cupcakes from the first book in the series? That may be unbeatable.) But Kuhn’s magic is in her characters. I literally cried during one scene near the end when Bea and Evie are having a heart-to-heart. Kuhn writes characters that are truly super. Not just in their fantastic abilities: telekinesis, fire, hair-tentacles, empathic projection, etc. They are super in their feelings, their relationships, their passion, their sexuality, their friendships.

 

Balancing feelings for sisters and lovers and friends and mothers and fathers and enemies is hard in real life. It is seldom done effectively in literature. Kuhn’s characters are transcendent in the power of their emotions. Kuhn is not afraid of conflict or lust or even confusion. Emotions don’t have to make sense. They don’t have to follow a logical progression. Humans, especially those in their early 20s, are allowed to have strong and confusing and sometimes paradoxical reactions to other people. They can and do make mistakes and hurt people and manage to apologize and change and heal those wounds. Seeing it happen on the page makes you really care about these characters.

 

If the Heroine Complex stories are finished, then Heroine’s Journey is an outstanding conclusion. It did not feel like a conclusion, though, and I hope it is not. I feel like there are more stories from these characters, and Sarah Kuhn is the perfect storyteller for them. Read them for the fun, read them for the feels, but read them knowing that in the end you will care more than you thought you would going in.

 

See our reviews of the other stories in this trilogy, Heroine Complex and Heroine Worship.

Heroine’s Journey, Sarah Kuhn

Book Review: Heroine’s JourneySarah Kuhn

Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

Book Review: Little Fires EverywhereCeleste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

Fiction: Little Fires EverywhereCeleste Ng

I went into Little Fires Everywhere blind. I had read no reviews. I had seen no summaries. I knew it was highly regarded: book of the year according to several sources, NY Times bestseller. Nothing, though, could have prepared me for just how good this story is.

 

The Richardsons are a model suburban family living in an idyllic community, Shaker Heights, OH, an actual suburb of Cleveland. They have four children who are active in high school sports, drama, and music. And as the book opens, they are coming to grips with the fact that their house is burning down, and the likely arsonist is youngest daughter, Izzy.

 

Mia Warren and her daughter, Pearl, rent their house from the Richardsons. Mia is an artist, selling enough just to get by with help from part-time jobs, but not likely to become famous. She and Pearl have lived all over the country, moving as Mia’s artistic muse calls. Pearl is a student in high school with the Richardson children, and they are hoping to stay put for a few years so Pearl can have a normal high school life.

 

It’s easy enough to summarize the main plot threads. The families become more and more interconnected, as all of the Richardsons are drawn to one or both of the Warrens. Moody and Pearl become best friends. Trip and Pearl start sleeping together. Mrs. Richardson hires Mia to do some housekeeping. Lexie befriends Pearl and calls on her during a time of personal crisis. Izzy finds in Mia the love and support she cannot get from her own mother. As these ties grow stronger, Mrs. Richardson’s lifelong friend tries to adopt a Chinese-American baby who had been abandoned at a fire station. The baby’s birth mother wants to get her back. And this drama, played out in the courts, drives a wedge through the relationships.

 

There’s more. So much more. But frankly, any summary of the plot leaves so much out that it is unfair to the book and to the author. Celeste Ng has written a story about motherhood, about adolescence, about decisions that you carry with you for your entire life, and has written it beautifully and memorably. Her descriptions of Shaker Heights make it part of the book, another character that plays its own role in the drama. Ng grew up in the real Shaker Heights, OH, and you can tell from the details in this book that it was both a wonderful place to live and a wonderful place to leave.

 

The mothers in the book are all very, very different. Elena Richardson plays by the rules. She grew up in Shaker Heights. She has some liberal views on things, but cannot abide by chaos or entropy. So when her friend runs into trouble with her adoption, that is unfair. Her friend played by the rules. Mia Warren makes up her own rules. Itinerant for most of her adult life, she raised her daughter as a free spirit. When her friend, Bebe Chow, pulls her life together and wants to reclaim the baby she gave up in a moment of desperation, Mia helps. Pearl is drawn to the stability and predictability of the Richardson household, and sees aspects in Elena that she has never seen in her own mother. Izzy is drawn to the freedom and acceptance of Mia, so different from the judgment she feels by being a less-than-perfect Richardson.

 

Little Fires Everywhere describes the destruction of the Richardson’s home. Gasoline poured on each bed, lit, came together in a conflagration. It also describes the process of starting over from scratch. No one thing destroys a relationship or leads to a life-altering change. It is a bunch of small things, seemingly insignificant on their own, that add up to a prairie fire. Celeste Ng. has written a fantastic book that shows these fires being set in the lives of two suburban families. Like most fires, this one is dangerous and beautiful to watch.

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

Book Review: Little Fires EverywhereCeleste Ng

 

Book Review: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and Disturbances, Neil Gaiman

Book Review: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and DisturbancesNeil Gaiman

Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman cover

Fiction: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and DisturbancesNeil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has won many literary awards, including the Newberry, Carnegie, Hugo, and Nebula. He is known for his comics, his novels, his screenplays, and his short fiction. When it comes to putting pen to paper (or more likely fingers to keyboard), he does it all well. Trigger Warning is a collection of short stories, with a few poems thrown in as well, that demonstrates the breadth and power of a master at work.

 

Gaiman warns in the introduction that “There are things in this book, as in life, that might upset you.” His work is often strange and disturbing, and these short stories contain several that are both. Like the author himself says, “I wondered…whether, one day, people would put a trigger warning on my fiction. I wondered whether or not they would be justified in doing it. And then I decided to do it first.”

 

Fans of other works by Gaiman will find familiar characters and settings in some of the stories. Black Dog features Baldur “Shadow” Moon, a character from his novel American Gods. Gaiman won a Hugo for his Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife;” in Nothing O’Clock, Gaiman returns to the Doctor, the TARDIS, and Amy Pond. Although not traditionally associated with Gaiman, The Case of Death and Honey tells of an elderly Sherlock Holmes nearing the end of his life…or is he?

 

Gaiman’s stories travel the lines between fantasy and horror, science fiction and possibly some other genre uniquely his own. They are dark and sometimes macabre, not in an overtly bloody or gruesome way but in the psychological way where the road to your own fears is marked and your imagination takes you down the paths that make you shudder. Gaiman warns us in the title that he is going for triggers. Believe him.

 

An example. Click-Clack the Rattlebag starts so gently. A man visiting his girlfriend meets her younger brother. The younger brother wants him to tuck him in and tell him a story. I read this over Thanksgiving, spending time with my wonderful granddaughters. They like grandpa to read them stories. I like to read them stories. I did not read this one to them–I know that Neil Gaiman is not the go-to source for bedtime stories for toddlers. This story started so gently, so sweetly. A young man, bonding with his girlfriend’s family. Except, that is not what the story is about. The hints are there, near the beginning. Even if I did not know about Neil Gaiman’s work, even if it were not in the middle of a collection called Trigger Warning, the indicators could almost have been in all-caps: THIS STORY IS GOING TO GO SIDEWAYS AND CREEP YOU OUT! I don’t want to give too much away, but let me say that later in the evening when my older granddaughter wanted me to read a story to her, I thought twice about it!

 

(Of course, then I went ahead and read the story–Gaiman will not stand between me and my granddaughters!)

 

This may not be the right book for every reader. For those who love fantasy, horror, and great writing, it is an excellent choice. One thing I love about short story collections is they can be read in small pieces. One story now, another tonight, pick it up later in the week. Skip around, come back to it later. It’s worth the time, and the goosebumps.

Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman cover

Book Review: Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and DisturbancesNeil Gaiman

Book Review: Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward

Book Review: Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward

Fiction: Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award in 2011. It is a powerful story of a poor family near the Mississippi coast. Esch is fifteen, living with her father and three brothers. She has just learned she is pregnant. Her father drinks heavily, but even in his condition he knows that a hurricane is coming. What he does not know is that preparing for that hurricane will become the least of his family’s concerns.

Ward writes vivid descriptions of people, events, and scenery. You can almost feel the humidity in the Mississippi forests where her characters live. Her words bring the scenes to life: teenagers gathered to fight their dogs, the lust and hunger of a young girl giving herself to the boy she adores, the fear and exhilaration of kids breaking into a neighbor’s barn, the terror of cowering in a house that is losing its battle with a category 5 hurricane. You can smell the iron in the blood from fighting dogs and fleeing children, you can smell the rot of the wood, you can hear the roar of the wind and the metronome of a bouncing ball, you can see the debris left by wind and water.

Ward’s prose is song and story. Poetry and primal scream. She writes about forgotten people: poor, African American, rural, southern. She writes with ferocity and tenderness. Poverty and racism have taken their swings at these folks. Childbirth killed their mother, alcohol has ensnared their father, the hurricane is poised to cleanse the land as though they had never lived there, but this family will endure. They may be knocked down, but they will not give up.

Esch is the protagonist, and she is as complex a character as I have seen. Fifteen, she loves sex and she loves Manny. The descriptions of her feelings for him are powerful, vivid, shameless and blunt. The descriptions of their intercourse are hard to read. Manny is selfish and does not love Esch. He is, in fact, living with another woman. But he is happy to take advantage of Esch’s feelings, and the result is basic biology. Esch becomes pregnant. How she deals with this impending hurricane within her own body at the same time as her family deals with the pending arrival of Katrina gives the book an extraordinary power. The tension rises as the storm draws nearer–and as the baby grows within her body.

The descriptions of poor, rural, African American life in southern Mississippi are jarring and difficult. For me, that is a reason to be glad I read them. It is easy to take my middle-class privilege for granted. I have known nothing else. I have never lived in a house that needed to be boarded up for a hurricane. I have never lived in a situation where we had to steal food to survive–or steal a pregnancy test to confirm what my body was saying. I have never watched my father drink himself to forgetfulness. I have never had my hopes set on performing well in a basketball tournament–or had them crushed when my brother got into a fight with my sister’s baby’s father during the game. I have never had my house shifted off its foundation by a storm, nor had to cut a hole in the roof to escape through the attic. I have never had to watch my dog ripped away by the current of floodwaters during a storm. These are not experiences I would ever want to have. Through the power of her prose, Ward shares these experiences in ways that break through the differences in race and economics and geography and identity and speak to our common humanity.

Salvage the Bones is an amazing story about an amazing girl. It is also the story of people who have nothing to lose but each other–yet when it looks like they will lose everything, they somehow find out just how strong they are and how strong the bonds of family, friendship, and survival are. A truly extraordinary novel.

Book Review: Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward

 

Book Review: Clade, James Bradley

Book Review: CladeJames Bradley

Fiction: CladeJames Bradley

Several months ago I was introduced to the term “Cli-Fi.” This breezy abbreviation refers to a subgenre of speculative fiction that tells stories of the world after climate change. BookRiot included several recommended titles in their article about Cli-Fi, several of which we have reviewed on Scintilla.

 

James Bradley’s Clade may be the best one of the group. Clade starts on the summer solstice in Antarctica, where a young scientist is studying the effects of climate change. Adam is also worried about his partner, Ellie, who is home in Sydney awaiting the results of IVF treatment. The book then follows their lives for several decades, from their daughter’s arrival to the dissolution of their own relationship, the loss of Ellie’s father, the challenges of parenting and grandparenting, until finally ending on another summer solstice many years later.

 

First, the novel itself is very poignant. Bradley never forgets the people he is writing about. Adam and Ellie are people who hurt, and in their pain they cannot help but hurt others. They each recognize the pain within themselves, and they see the pain in others, but they cannot break through their own suffering to give peace to anyone else. When they are sad, they lash out. When they are frightened, they lash out. This hurt extends through all of their relationships: Ellie’s father and stepmother, Adam and Ellie’s daughter Summer, their grandson Noah. Regardless of the science fiction or the trauma that is in their world, the human story that carries the novel is achingly real.

 

Hypothetically, in a peaceful world with a stable climate and amazing resources, Adam and Ellie might have been able to get therapy and move into some healthier relationships. That is not the world they live in. Their world is collapsing. Fires and floods, monster hurricanes that virtually wipe out England, riots and government collapses, pandemics. Entire countries lost to encroaching seas. Their personal stories are set on a planet that is roiling and has no time for their personal problems. One interesting speculation Bradley makes in building his world is that the removal of the weight from ice sheets from tectonic plates would cause them to shift, adding earthquakes and volcanoes to the challenges facing the planet. Previous mass extinction events have shown both climate change and seismic/volcanic activity in correlation, though there is no way right now to prove cause and effect (or which way that may tilt), but it does add another layer of complexity to the challenges facing the survivors of this world.

 

Clade is a novel worth reading if you like compelling human stories with very real-feeling characters. There are no heroes here, only survivors. But it is also a novel worth reading if you are interested in science fiction, “cli-fi,” or just want a good book to get lost in. I made the mistake of starting it when I went to bed. I could not put it down until I finished it. Clade is a book I highly recommend.

Book Review: CladeJames Bradley

Book Review: The Fifth to Die, J.D. Barker

Book Review: The Fifth to Die, J.D. Barker

0544973976

Fiction Mystery/Thriller: The Fifth to Die, J.D. Barker

 

He’s ba-a-ack!

 

Considering the cover of the book says this is a “4MK Thriller,” I’m not giving too much away by saying that The Fifth to Die, J.D. Barker’s sequel to The Fourth Monkey, features the return of Detective Sam Porter and his white whale, Anson Bishop, also known as the Fourth Monkey Killer or 4MK. Detective Porter and his team have been pulled off the hunt for 4MK when a body is found in a frozen lake. The body is that of a young girl who has been missing for a couple of weeks…but she is found under the ice, dressed in the clothes of a girl who disappeared just that morning. Chicago immediately fears that 4MK is back to his old tricks, but Porter believes this to be the work of someone else. Serial killers tend to have a unique style, and this murder does not fit the pattern of 4MK. As the body count climbs and the mystery deepens, the question persists: does this have anything to do with 4MK?

 

The hunt for the killer (or killers) expands beyond Chicago, reaching first to New Orleans and then to North Carolina. Bishop is back, but what if anything does he have to do with these new deaths? Why has he sent a picture of a mystery woman to Detective Porter, a woman being held in jail in New Orleans? What clues remain in his diary? And can they catch him in time to prevent whatever plans he has made from coming to fruition?

 

Barker has taken the loose threads remaining from The Fourth Monkey and woven them together to create a new and even more involved story. Tension mounts throughout the book. As the view shifts from detective to victim to killer, we learn more about the mysterious Anson Bishop. But each new revelation brings more questions. By the end of the book we see some mysteries solved. Many more, though, remain tantalizingly unresolved. Bishop remains free to wreak more mayhem. Porter has lost him again. His team is in desperate straits. And the reader, at least this reader, is left with nightmares about an elusive killer and a very satisfying thriller.

 

In just two books, J.D. Barker has become one of my favorite thriller writers. The Fifth to Die could be read by itself. Enough backstory is given that it stands on its own. But it will be more satisfying to read the two books in order. Just, don’t start them if you need to get some sleep. You will have trouble putting either of them down.

 

Again, a warning to more sensitive readers. There are violent scenes depicted in The Fifth to Die. If that sort of thing bothers you, this is not the book for you. And it is not a book I would recommend to children or tweens. The victims in the book include teenagers, which may make the violence even more disturbing to some. For the genre it is not particularly violent, but the thriller genre can be violent and Barker does not shy away from the grittier aspects of his subject.

0544973976

Book Review: The Fifth to Die, J. D. Barker

Book Review: The Fourth Monkey: J.D. Barker

Book Review: The Fourth MonkeyJ.D. Barker

1328915395

Fiction Mystery/Thriller: The Fourth Monkey, J.D. Barker

Hear no evil. See no evil. Speak no evil. Most of us are familiar with the three monkeys and their advice, often depicted with actual images of monkeys covering eyes, ears, and mouth. J.D. Barker’s book tells us about The Fourth Monkey: do no evil. But the monkey in his book does all kinds of evil. He is a serial killer, nicknamed the Fourth Monkey Killer, and time is running out for his latest victim. WARNING: if you have a weak stomach or tender constitution, stop reading and find a different book. The book (and consequently this review) do have descriptions that might upset some readers.

 

Detective Sam Porter has been hunting 4MK for over five years. It looks like they have finally caught a break when a pedestrian killed by a bus is found to be carrying a box wrapped in the distinctive style of the killer. Every previous victim was preceded by the delivery of three carefully wrapped boxes. The first contained the victim’s ear. The second, the victim’s eyes. The third, her tongue. Finally, some days later, the victim herself, always a young woman, would be found. This box contained a young woman’s ear. The man himself also had a diary in his pocket, one that told a grisly tale about a young man growing up in a house of horrors.

 

As Porter and his fellow detectives follow the clues, they start with several unanswered questions. Was the dead man really 4MK? Whose ear was in the box? And, most importantly, where was she? If indeed her kidnapper is dead, she only has a couple of days before dying of thirst. This urgency presses the team to follow every lead, even when those leads come dangerously close to the wealthy and politically connected elite of Chicago.

 

The Fourth Monkey shifts perspective often, usually between Detective Porter and the diary of 4MK. As the stories unfold, we realize that Detective Porter is carrying a great burden, one that inevitably affects his ability to follow the killer’s trail. And we realize that the diary is being told from the perspective of the serial killer–how much of its narrative is reliable? Meanwhile, a girl’s life hangs in the balance.

 

The Fourth Monkey is one of the best thrillers I have ever read. The police procedural rings true. The officers are dedicated, not perfect but not corrupt, frustrated at times with red tape but concerned about following procedure so that the result is a clean arrest and conviction, not to mention rescuing the missing girl. The diary never brought this reader to the point of sympathizing with the serial killer, but it made it easier to imagine how someone might lose his grip on appropriate choices when confronted with a distorted childhood. Of course, it is possible the diary was entirely a fiction within the fictional book–that is a possible interpretation that the author leaves for his readers to consider. All in all, a very well told story that leaves room for many of the characters to return again.

 

Barker tells a story that is both compelling and chilling. He does a superb job of leaving small clues in the story which later bloom into full reveals. There were several times when I realized that “something” was about to happen, only to realize that Barker had left enough clues for my subconscious to go into overdrive but not enough for me to fully figure it out ahead of time. And Barker leaves just enough in the cupboard that even on the final page there is a surprise for the reader. It makes this reader quite eager to see what else this writer has in store for his audience. Despite the occasional gore and graphic detail, The Fourth Monkey is a book I highly recommend to any fans of the thriller or police procedural genres.

 

1328915395

Book Review: The Fourth MonkeyJ.D. Barker

Book Review: The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner

Book Review: The Mars RoomRachel Kushner

Fiction: The Mars RoomRachel Kushner

Considering that The Mars Room is on the short list for the 2018 Man Booker Prize and that author Rachel Kushner has twice previously been nominated for the National Book Award, there may not be much left to say in praise of either the book or the writer. The Mars Room is extraordinary. The plot is straightforward enough, but the characters are rich, deep, compelling, and the voice telling their story (sometimes first person, sometimes an omniscient narrator) is honest and unsparing.

 

Romy Hall is in prison for murder. She murdered a man who had followed her from her home in San Francisco to Los Angeles, where she had fled with her young son to escape his attentions. Despite the stalking, the jury only heard about a young woman beating a physically challenged man to death with a child nearby. Romy was sentenced to spend the rest of her life behind bars, her mother was given custody of her son, and the story begins with Romy on the bus heading to prison.

 

The Mars Room is the name of the strip club in San Francisco where Romy danced and where she met Kurt Kennedy, the man she would eventually kill. The book shifts perspective often, from Romy’s flashbacks to her present situation to other inmates to acquaintances and victims and accomplices of those other inmates and even to Kurt Kennedy in the days prior to his death. Throughout, Kushner is neither judgmental nor particularly sympathetic. Her characters are who they are, they did what they did, and whether the reasons behind the crimes matter is up to the reader to decide. The result is a haunting book that reminds me in weird ways of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The Mars Room has nothing directly in common with The Grapes of Wrath (apart from being set in California), but the unforgiving yet nonjudgmental voice telling the stories of people with no legitimate reasons to hope has antecedents in literature. Kushner just does it much better than most other writers.

 

Romy tells about her broken family. Her troubled, immigrant mother. The father she never knew. The child she had to leave behind. The men she spent time with, including the one who sent her fleeing to Los Angeles and whom she later killed. She does want some measure of understanding, perhaps even forgiveness, but has learned not to hope. After her mother dies and her son is made a ward of the state, Romy does hatch some desperate plans to try to “save” him. She recognizes the plans are foolish and hopeless, but does not let that stop her from trying to implement them. Despite her situation, she is a mother who feels compelled to save her son. Yet as her situation may indicate, her judgment and decision-making are not always the best. Kushner lets Romy make her choices, lets those choices play out, and the reader sees how the consequences affect the characters. It is sometimes harsh and there is no “and they lived happily ever after” but the result is a powerful and moving novel that speaks to the heart.

Book Review: The Mars RoomRachel Kushner