BOOK REVIEWS: Part IX

No Safe Place by Mary Head

no-safe-placeI received a copy of this book pre-release after nominating it for publication through Kindle Scout.

No Safe Place is night and day from The Only One, Mary Head’s debut novel.

Whereas one was a romance that bucked many of that genre’s conventions, No Safe Place is a fast-paced thriller in which graduate student Hannah Cole is taken from her own home — leaving her FBI agent father David and his team to put the pieces together in a race against the clock.

One of this book’s chief strengths is its ability to get us to care about Hannah and David without spending too much time on their relationship. Far too many books spend so much time establishing relationships and timelines that by the time the action gets going, readers have already checked out. No Safe Place does not suffer from this; Head does a masterful job of establishing the particulars, getting us to to care about the principal players, while still managing to get the story moving along.

But Hannah is no damsel in distress; she’s fiercely intelligent and — being the daughter of an FBI agent — she’s capable of taking care of herself and has no qualms about doing so. That in and of itself turns the damsel-in-distress trope on its head and is enough reason to give this book a read.

Along the way, Head treats us to heroes whose flaws are readily apparent and villains who are perhaps a bit more sympathetic than we’re comfortable with. These characters are fleshed out and deep without spending time and space on fluff, allowing readers to take part in a journey that perhaps goes by a little quicker than expected.

A sequel is in the offing, but this book doesn’t end on a cliffhanger. The preeminent plot if wrapped up in a sufficiently satisfying manner, with each bread crumbs left over going forward. And, in Head’s continuing tradition of upsetting established tropes, this universes focuses less on Hannah’s abduction itself and more on the emotional ramifications of it — both during and after.

No Safe Place is a thriller with heart — and a tremendous read.

Rating: *****

Preorder No Safe Place on Amazon 

 

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

the-girl-on-the-trainI’m trying to remember the last time I was so disappointed with a book that was so hyped. Probably the time I tried reading Lord of the Rings, but even that doesn’t feel quite right.

The frustrating thing is, there are passages in which The Girl on the Train is so gripping, so intense, that it grabs hold of you and you can fly through dozens of pages without realizing it. The climactic unravel, satisfying as it is, is the only reason I stuck with this book to the end, because this book suffered from two major flaws.

1) For a book so intense, so psychologically messed-up, The Girl on the Train takes its sweet old time getting going. I understand the need to introduce the particulars, but it shouldn’t take north of the first 50 pages to do so. I almost bailed on this book before things actually started happening.

2) There are no genuinely good characters. I suppose that could be considered a strength — and when I say I need to care about the characters, I say that knowing that doesn’t mean I necessarily have to like them. But none of the protagonists — not Rachel, not Anna, not Megan — are easy to root for; the supporting characters aren’t much better.

There are reasons to sympathize with each of the three women through whom we’re told this tale. Rachel is divorced, unemployed, the victim of of infidelity, and she’s an alcoholic. Megan harbors a secret so heinous, she can’t even let her husband in on it. Anna… well, she and Rachel are far more entangled with each other than she would care to admit.

But all three are also insufferable in their own ways, and if it weren’t for the mystery of what happened to Rachel on the night she can’t remember, if it weren’t for the mystery of what ultimately happened to Megan, I would’ve abandoned this book not quite midway through.

Maybe the upcoming film will address some of these issues — cutting the fat from the beginning would be a huge bonus — but this book really frustrated me because of what it could have been. This had the potential to be an impossible book to put down; this could have easily turned into the best book I’ve read throughout 2016. The ingredients were all there.

But Paula Hawkins meandered her way through the beginning, and she left us with characters who reminded us too much of that friend we all have… the person who has been through entirely too much, which engenders sympathy, but they’re also such exhausting people to be around, for one reason or another, that the sympathy only goes so far.

I did root for Rachel, and Anna, toward the end, but for much of The Girl on the Train, I spent much of my time rolling my eyes at them. There were times where I envied Megan, because she didn’t have to wade through this mess.

But in the end, The Girl on the Train frustrated the hell out of me. What could’ve been a classic begging to be read time and time again instead turned into a maddening cluster of messed up people that you’ll wish would just get over themselves.

Rating: **

Buy The Girl on the Train on Amazon

BOOK REVIEWS: Part VI

Lots of books in this batch, including strong entries from Jason Luthor, Andrew Mayne, and Christy King.

Floor 21: Descent by Jason Luthor

Floor 21 DescentI thoroughly enjoyed Floor 21, so much so that I had extraordinarily high expectations of Descent. Fortunately, author Jason Luthor not only met those expectations, but even surpassed them. The result is a fantastic sequel that is equal parts intense, terrifying, and adrenaline-packed.

When I read the first book, I considered this sort of a dystopian type of fiction. But this book really hammers home the horror aspect of things, as Jackie and her crew finally come face-to-face with not just the Creep, but scores of other threats that are, at times, downright unsettling. Which highlights one of the many highlights of Luthor as a writer: he has done a tremendous job of world-building in such a limited setting. I mean, everyone’s confined to one building, yet it’s clear that Luthor is building a world and mythology that is all-encompassing. The macro and micro merge together perfectly in Descent, resulting in a wholy satisfying read.

Jackie grows tremendously in this book, and I love how true to her voice Luthor remains. I’ve read far too many books written in the first person that eventually no longer sound like the protagonist telling the tale, but Jackie is Jackie throughout, changes and all. And whereas there were passages in the first novel from another character to add much-needed context, the same is done in Descent.

All in all, Floor 21: Descent is a wonderful follow-up, and it sets the stage nicely for the next installment — which hopefully pops up sooner rather than later. If you loved the first novel, then I can’t recommend this one enough. And even if you didn’t read the first, I really think you should and then give Descent a read.

Definitely one of my favorites of 2016.

Rating: *****
Dirty Deeds by Christy King

Dirty DeedsDirty Deeds by Christy King is a great many things — badass vigilante chick, undercover saga, heartbreaking love story, and supernatural drama that spans over the centuries, behind the proverbial curtain to the point where the reader doesn’t realize the true ramifications of Cameron James’ life until it’s too late.

Even with all of that going for it, Dirty Deeds never feels rushed or crammed too full. A book this ambitious in vision could’ve easily been bogged down by that vision. Yet King never allows the macro to get in the way of the micro, and even when the macro reveal feels like a “Where did thatcome from?!” punch to the gut, hindsight, and well-placed clues, will paint a much clearer picture.

There aren’t many books that surprise me anymore. Dirty Deeds did just that.

One of the reasons this book jumps back and forth so well through so many styles and genres and twists is that King never loses sight of the characters. Cam is many different things to many different people — even to herself — and we never lose that sense of who she is throughout everything. Even the supporting characters, like Dev, have enough life to them that your concern for their predicament outweighs your own bewilderment.

In a way, I wish there was another book featuring Cam in the offing, because King has created a wonderful, vibrant character — to say nothing of a potentially rich supernatural mythology that’s practically begging to dug into more. But long and short of it, I’m a sucker for tough female characters, and this book fits that bill perfectly.

All in all, Dirty Deeds is a fantastic read, one of the best I’ve had so far in 2016.

Rating: *****
Station Breaker by Andrew Mayne

Station BreakerIf you’re familiar with Andrew Mayne’s Jessica Blackwood novels, I’m gonna warn you right now: Station Breaker is not like either of those books, and David Dixon is not Jessica Blackwood.

But that’s a good thing.

Mayne has penned a fantastic sci-fi thriller, one that throws you into the fire from the word go and doesn’t bother letting you catch up. That’s a good thing in this instance, as what is supposed to be the best day of Dixon’s life — his first outer space mission — quickly turns to his worst. He’s on the run for much of the book, and there’s a Jason Bourne quality to this book that works, even if the main character is anything but a spy.

Action sequences are masterful, and exposition chapters aren’t too massive with the info-dumping. Mayne grows as a writer with each book he writes, and the climatic battle toward the end represents some of his finest work.

Two minor quibbles:

1) LOTS OF ALL CAPS AND EXCLAMATION POINTS!!! I get that some of them are sound effects (this being a first-person narrative, Mayne chooses “BANG!!!” as opposed to “Gunfire from behind startled David.”), but a lot of it is also some of David’s inner monologue. It’s effective in terms of giving David a definitive voice, but I can see where it would get annoying from time to time.

2) This book ends on a cliffhanger. Yes, it makes it clear there will be another David Dixon book, but I’m of the mindset that you can end a book in a series without a cliffhanger (pay no attention to Behind the Badge…).

Still, Station Breaker is a fantastic, adrenaline-packed sci-fi thriller, and proof that Andrew Mayne is not just a one-trick writer.

Rating: ****
Transference by Sydney Katt

TransferenceI feel like Transference would’ve been a much better book if it were longer. It’s a fast-paced read, to be sure, and I don’t doubt that would still be the case if several important things were fleshed out. But as it is, this book feels rushed… and that affected my ability to emotionally connect with either Allison or Brad.

Too much of the transformative events in these characters’ lives were mentioned in hindsight, in sort of an oh-by-the-way manner, and I feel this novel would’ve been much richer, much livelier, if the author had written flashbacks in which these events had actually occurred. Don’t just tell me how Allison found herself on her way to prison in the book’s open — take me on that journey with her.

What is here is well-written, crisp and free-flowing. There’s a lot of potential, a lot of stuff that could’ve been extremely compelling if it had just been fleshed out a little bit more.

Transference is a solid, entertaining enough read, but it could’ve been so much more.

Rating: ***

BOOK REVIEWS: Part IV

In which I review a fun thriller from NCIS‘ Ducky and two forgettable entries from Sir Ian Fleming and Sasha Grey.

OnceOnce a Crooked Man a Crooked Man by David McCallum

As Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard on the long-running CBS procedural NCIS, David McCallum is no stranger to spinning a yarn. It shows in his debut novel Once a Crooked Man, which for all its faults is an entertaining read.

Above all else, it’s clear McCallum had fun writing this book. Because of that, one can’t help but have fun reading it — even on the occasion where characters act strangely or it dawns on the reader that this book isn’t quite what was expected going in.

The prose is occasionally dry and awkward, but the story never lulls. This is a fast read, with short chapters that ensure you’re never stuck in one place for too long. Once a Crooked Man does stub its toe on occasion, but the flubs are few and — a moment of dubious sexual consent late in the narrative aside — there’s nothing too terribly glaring.

The premise is far-fetched — a struggling actor overhearing a mafia plot and taking it upon himself to alert one of the targets — but let’s face it: sometimes, the flimsy, yeah-right premises make for the most fun reads.

Once a Crooked Man isn’t a book with a ton of substance; there isn’t a whole lot of meat on the proverbial bone. But it is a fast-paced, entertaining read — and there are certainly worse ways to spend almost 350 pages.

Rating: ****

Buy Once a Crooked Man on Amazon

CaCasino Royalesino Royale by Sir Ian Fleming

I confess: before discovering the TV show Castle, I never knew James Bond originated as a book character. All I knew of him was the never-ending series of movies with an equally endless series of actors playing the world-famous secret agent.

So I pick up Casino Royale and instantly find that Book!Bond is not much like Movie!Bond. Naturally, there are differences between printed page and moving screen, but the difference in character here is so stark that I spent the opening chapters of the novel trying to get my bearings.

Also, it’s important to bear in mind when this book was written — both because of prose and dialogue that is, at times, stilted and needlessly wordy and because of attitudes toward women that are grossly sexist that even the various Movie!Bonds would duck their heads in shame.

There are a share of solid passages in this novel, but Ian Fleming’s maiden voyage for 007 is too inconsistent to truly be a fantastic read, or anything resembling the character I’ve seen on the silver screen for practically my entire life. This was a good book, but not a great one — and I can’t help but wonder if my opinion in that regard is colored by the fact that, to me, Bond has always been a movie character.

Fictional novelist Richard Castle said Casino Royale was the book that made him want to become a writer. I can’t help but wonder… was it because the book inspired his budding creative nature, or because he knew he could do better?

Rating: ***

Buy Casino Royale on Amazon

The Juliette SThe Juliette Societyociety by Sasha Grey

I’m still trying to make heads or tails out of what I read here.

Full disclosure: I bought this book simply because of who the author is and my curiosity got the better of me. But in a way, already being familiar with the author (and, more importantly, being familiar with her previous career) affected my ability to be immersed in this book; I was never able to separate Catherine the protagonist from Sasha Grey the porn star. Every sex scene, I imagined Sasha, not Catherine.

And there is plenty of sex in this book, perhaps more than you might expect. It’s written well enough, but it feels a bit paint-by-numbers and if erotica is your thing, there are far better, far spicier options out there.

As for the plot itself… this book might be called The Juliette Society, but the Juliette Society itself doesn’t feature heavily. Most of this book feels like a coming-of-age story for Catherine. Much of it feels like a romance novel (though I have to be honest, much of Jack’s behavior makes no sense). It’s not until the very end that we’re fed something resembling exposition regarding the Juliette Society, and then the book ends and I was left with a definite feeling of “…that’s it?”

The most frustrating thing is, there’s potential here. There are ways in which The Juliette Society could’ve been a fantastic, engrossing read. The blurb hints at just that, but the book itself never quite delivers.

Rating: **

Buy The Juliette Society on Amazon