Category: General Fiction

“Blood Memory” by Greg Iles Review

blood memory

Blood Memory

Author:  Greg Iles

Released:  2005

Blood Memory tells the story of a Forensic Dentist named Cat Ferry. What does that mean? Cat is called into murder scenes to analyze bite marks and other dental related evidence. It sounds like a very specialized field, and it must be because every other character in the book tends to enable Cat to run around like she is the most important person in the universe. While the New Orleans Police Department and FBI are working together to solve a serial killer’s string of crimes leaving bite marks on nude men, Cat goes rogue throughout the novel confronting witnesses, discovering clues and eventually solving every mystery in this story packed full of them.

I can’t discuss much further in the plot without revealing a big component of the story, so if you want to go in blind skip past this paragraph. **Spoilers follow** The bulk of this story deals with child molesters, and links the killer, victims and protagonist together at various points. Cat must figure out how her own history relates to this subject as she does not remember, as well as solving the murder of her father when she was eight years old. **End of mild spoilers** Cat’s own history ends up serving as a crutch and an excuse for her to put herself in dangerous situations, disregard law enforcement and even get involved in fatal situations herself because she MUST solve the mystery of her childhood. Therein lies my biggest problems with this book.

Despite trying to assist the FBI and New Orleans police department, Cat will put herself in situations when she must escape from police custody, confront known murderers on her own, and jeopardize the evidence in a serial killer case with regularity. Her boyfriend, a married detective enables her because she is attractive and awesome at sex. The FBI agent enables her because… I don’t know, he knows the rest of the characters in this book got ZERO DRIVE and won’t be solving any crimes on their own.

The dangerous situations she puts herself in end up getting multiple people shot and killed, for no apparent reason other than to hype up the drama in villain monologues and a rape sequence. If you have problems reading about sexual abuse, incest, or rape this is not a book for you. I don’t fault Iles for using those devices, as the entire plot of the book depends on several characters having depraved sexual appetites. However at 800 pages, the repeated revelations on who was molesting who got tedious.

That’s not to say the book was all bad. Iles did a nice job of pacing in this book, making it feel like we lived with the protagonist over a series of several days and didn’t miss anything in her life. The whole thing felt like 24 at times. He also sets out plenty of mysteries, and ties them together in a satisfying fashion. The entitlement of the main character as well as the plethora of wooden supporting characters however really dimmed my enjoyment of the book overall.

2-star

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“The Fever” by Megan Abbott Review

The Fever

The Fever

Author:  Megan Abbott

Released:  2014

This was the second book I’ve read by Megan Abbott, following the entertaining Dare Me. Based just on these two books, I would describe her genre as adult fiction focusing on teenage girls involved in murder plots. Nick Hornby turned me on to Ms. Abbott, and I’m glad he did. Abbott has a habit of making the locations and setting of the books feel like they could take place anywhere, and any time (after the invention of cell phones). I’m surprised more of them haven’t been turned into movies yet.

The Fever is follows around several characters with very connected lives. The main character is Deenie, a teenage girl whose best friends (Lise, Gabby), occasional rival (Skye) and family (dad Tom and brother Eli) comprise the rest of the perspective characters. When Lise has a medical emergency in school, everybody is shocked and worried as she ends up in a coma with life threatening symptoms. However, when Gabby also has a medical episode at school the worry spreads to panic. When a third girl begins to get sick, the titular fever has become a craze among the students, parents and faculty of the school.

My biggest complaint with this book was that despite the seriousness of the situation for all the girls involved, they preferred to keep everything so secret that it really hamstrung everybody from finding out what was wrong. In particular, there is a huge reluctance to discuss having swam in a possibly contaminated lake. I understand the characters were not supposed to swim in the lake but when it looks like people could be dying it seems like the type of detail you’d want to mention to a medical professional. (I won’t spoil whether that ends up being pertinent or not.)

Abbott delayed providing answers for so long that I started to get antsy about whether the payoff would be worth it. Surprisingly it was, and I didn’t find it as predictable as the ending of Dare Me; here I guessed what was wrong with most of the girls but did not figure the initiating event ahead of time. The character that really stood out to me was Skye, particularly with how Deenie was instantly jealous of/threatened by her. It was the sort of thing that felt much more authentic that what I find in books with teenage characters. There was also a very sexual component to the book that was handled much better than I usually find in writing. The characters are all aware of/interested in sex, but Abbott doesn’t spend time detailing the exploits beyond telling the reader what’s happening.

I’ve read some other reviews where people have problems with the character Tom, particularly how he leers at some of Deenie’s teenage friends. While each of Abbott’s characters was flawed in certain ways in this book (jealousy, selfishness, dishonesty being the most common), Tom’s flaws seemed to revolve around his relationships with women. The leering behavior amounted to three or four sentences throughout the book (much more, if you count an adult french teacher) and contributed to his feeling like a fully formed character instead of just the great dad that stuck around when mom didn’t. All of the characters felt like real people, likable at times but not all the time.

4-star

“The Valley of Horses” by Jean M. Auel Review

Valley of Horses

The Valley of Horses

Author:  Jean M. Auel

Released: 1982

My favorite book I read last year was The Clan of the Cave Bear, so I was very excited to dive in to its sequel The Valley of Horses. While I still enjoyed this book, it was definitely a notch below in my enjoyment level. I can pinpoint exactly why it didn’t work for me, and the reason is spelled J O N D A L A R.

Before I complain more about him however, I’ll sing some more praise for this series. I love the character of Ayla. A human child raised by Neanderthals, she is Tarzan and the Cesar Milar rolled into one. Auel does a fantastic job of explaining how Ayla comes to be so special in all her skills, as a way of compensating for how her mind worked differently from those that raised her. Over the course of this novel, Ayla comes up with new weapons and tools unlike anything used by either form of man, and continues her tradition of taking in small animals (but this time with much larger creatures). Even without the supporting cast of characters from the first novel, Ayla can carry a story on her own just fine.

Half of the novel follows Ayla, the other half follows two normal (cro magnon) men named Jondaloar and Thonolan. These are our first characters from our race that we meet in this series, and the two brothers are taking an extended journey together over a period of three years. We always know that one or both characters is on a collision course with Ayla, but unfortunately until that happens the two men are nowhere near as fascinating as the book’s other protagonist. Thonolan is OK. He’s a normal man who has a good sense of humor and is looking for love. I found him to be fairly easy to relate to.

His brother is Jondalar. I can only describe him as Christian Grey from prehistoric times (minus the bondage) (so far). Jondalar is tall, blonde, with blue eyes and every woman wants to have sex with him. It’s a good thing too, because if there’s one thing Jondalar is awesome at it’s having sex. For starters, he’s got a giant penis, which Auel references frequently throughout the book. More importantly though, he’s an expert at pleasuring females. Jondalar is often called on to be the first mate for young females because he is a generous lover and makes it so wonderful for them. Sure he also makes tools and is a good brother, but as somebody calls him later in the book he is a “woman maker.”

There was sex in the first book of the series, however it was almost animal in its quality (and considering Ayla was 11 when it took place the sex was particularly awful in its circumstances). In The Valley of the Horses Jondalar brings pleasure to virgins, widows, and everything in between, with a seeming special circumstance for every intercourse interlude. It was so much sex at times that I longed for another discussion of tool making with stone and sinew. In addition, Jondalar was particularly understanding and sensitive for all other issues. Compared to the men of the first books Clan, this particular character didn’t feel real for his time period.

If this book was just the pages with Ayla, I’d probably still give it a five, even with the end of the book having some of the over the top issues mentioned above. If it was just the Jondalar and Thonolan story, it’s be closer to a 2. I’m giving the book a four, but it’s actually more of a 3.5 for the exact scorers out there.

4-star

“Funny Girl” by Nick Hornby Review

 

Funny Girl

Funny Girl

Author:  Nick Hornby

Released:  2014

I never read the backs of books prior to reading them, but based on the title Funny Girl by Nick Hornby was not really what I was expecting. Beginning the book, as it followed a young woman in the 1960’s named Barbara who wants to follow in the footsteps of Lucille Ball, I was expecting a story that followed her as the protagonist as she dealt with the trials and tribulations of that pursuit. While there is some of that to be found here, Barbara strikes it big pretty early and then the perspectives shift to include her co-star Clive, two show writers Bill and Tony and director Dennis as well.

As Barbara leaves small town Blackpool, she comes to London where she gets a job in a department store before finding an agent to send her out on prospective modeling and acting jobs. The funniest scene in the entire book happens early on in this phase when Barbara goes out on a double date with a married man whose buddy brings along his wife in what was obviously a miscommunication between the two men. After Barbara’s tv show hits it big, Clive has to deal with being the (and Jim) of tv show “Barbara (and Jim),” Dennis has to come to terms with his wife sleeping with his professional enemy, and Tony and Bill must juggle their professional life with their secret private ones.

The result of the shifting perspectives is that the plot moves fairly briskly in this book but it is difficult to get invested in the plight of any one character. The love triangle of Barbara (Sophie), Clive and Dennis in particular did not feel fully fleshed out. I get that Dennis would fall for somebody like Sophie right away, but Sophie’s relationship with both Clive and Dennis sometimes felt like a male fantasy of what pining for a woman can result in.

That’s not to say that the book was not an enjoyable read, because as with most of Hornby’s writing the best part about it is the humor interspersed throughout. The setting of creating a comedy show, writing for it and developing it allowed for plenty of great scenes (particularly, having two closeted gay writers responsible for handling a long form story about a newly wed straight couple). The book also featured a flash forward Six Feet Under style ending that provided some great finality to the story and added some much needed pathos. This was middle of the road Hornby, certainly not as great as something like High Fidelity but a delight nonetheless.

4-star

“The Terror” by Dan Simmons Review

Terror

The Terror

Author:  Dan Simmons

Released:  2007

He knew something that the men did not; namely that the Devil trying to kill them up here in the Devil’s Kingdom was not just the white-furred thing killing and eating them one be one, but everything here — the unrelenting cold, the squeezing ice, the electrical storms, the uncanny lack of seals and whales and birds and walruses and land animals, the endless encroachment of the pack ice, the bergs that plowed their way through the solid white sea not even leaving a single ship’s length lee of open water behind them, the sudden white-earthquake up-eruption of pressure ridges, the dancing stars, the shoddily tinned cans of food now turned to poison, the summers that did not come, the leads that did not open — everything. The monster on the ice was just another manifestation of a devil that wanted them dead. And that wanted them to suffer. Pg. 198

The Terror by Dan Simmons tells the story of the missing ships from Captain John Franklin’s expedition through the northwest passage in the mid 1800’s. If you’re like me and don’t know anything about the actual event from history, this just reads like great historical fiction. The fact that most of the characters are based on real life figures adds to the intrigue. I routinely found myself surprised when important characters would die violently and suddenly. And oh, how many ways there are to die in this book.

The very first chapter of the book begins with the ships stuck in ice and the expedition already gone terribly wrong. I don’t consider it spoilers to say that this is a book where a lot of people die in a variety of ways. The two ships are frozen in the ice for the bulk of the novel, and the crew are forced to deal with all the usual threats of being alone at sea (storms, starvation, scurvy) as well as a seemingly invulnerable beast that can appear and disappear at a moment’s notice. Although it’s tempting to shelve this book next to something like Jaws, I’d say it actually belongs more with the werewolves and vampires section.

For me, that distinction is where The Terror dropped off from a phenomenal book to merely a very good one. I was totally on board with everything that was going on in the book, but felt the ultimate explanation via history of the world of Eskimos took away more than it added. Despite my love of David Lynch, one thing I’m not a huge fan of in books is a dream sequence. I kind of rolled my eyes through the Sir Francis Crozier dream sequences early on, but by the time he’s living folklore in his dreams it was way too much abstract storytelling for my taste.

That minor complaint aside, this was a really great book. The details about the weather, jobs on the ship, and packing for a long trip all felt authentic. It’s the type of fiction that probably left me with a more memorable impression for the era than a non-fiction book because the imagery was so vivid. For a book with over a hundred characters, there were several great characters to stand out among the plethora of red shirts. However, the characters were always secondary to the unique atmosphere. The shifting perspectives throughout the book made sure that no character was more important than the struggle for survival. The Terror is a great title for the book, both he namesake of one of the two ships and an accurate summary of the final years of the expedition as described by Simmons.

4-star

“The Vain Conversation” by Anthony Grooms Review

Vain conversation

The Vain Conversation

Author:  Anthony Grooms

Published:  2018

I ain’t the one to tell you to go or not to go. You the only one can do that. But I can tell you this. It ain’t so easy as you might think to kill a man… If you go, even if you don’t so much as throw a pebble, you are in it as much as the man who ties the noose. You might just be a bystander, but nobody is innocent, son.

In 1946, two black couples were lynched in Georgia. The Vain Conversation by Anthony Grooms is inspired by those events but is also an entirely original story. Told through the perspective of three characters, Grooms is able to to focus a tragic story into three compelling narratives from very different perspectives. For those worried about the potentially graphic content, the actual murder of the four individuals is more of an ominous event in either that past or present of the three character’s story arcs.

The first character spotlighted is Lonnie, a young boy whose father has just returned from World War II. The second is Bertrand, a teacher who also has returned from a tour of duty and befriends Lonnie’s father. The third is Jacks, a man that Bertrand trusts but his mother does not. I won’t spoil their roles in the killing of four people. I went into reading this without knowing anything ahead of time and it made for a very tense experience trying to speculate how things would escalate and who would die when they did.

The book is also broken up into four parts. The first three are about one of each of the characters listed above, and the fourth is revisiting two of them decades later. The first and third sections (about Lonnie and Jacks respectively) drew me in instantly and had me very invested in the characters. The second section got a bit more bogged down by a long philosophical discussion between Bertrand and his wife, however it ended in the most tense pages in the entire book.

I was reminded a bit of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing while reading this, as both books jumped around with character perspectives and timelines and dealt prominently with racial issues. I enjoyed this book even more than Homegoingthough as the characters were more fully developed. Insightful commentary on heavy issues (often through common sense dialogue like the quote at the top of this review) is for the most part handled in a way that feels organic. Even when it drifts beyond that, I could forgive it for how thoughtful it was.

Much like the Best Picture Winner Moonlight from a few years back, the last time jump didn’t entirely work for me. The vendetta that young Lonnie has developed over the years did not feel entirely earned and the final few pages ended so abruptly that I had to reread them just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. The result is a near miss from a five star book. Still, for fans of historical fiction, race relations, or thrilling Rashomon style storytelling, The Vain Conversation is a great book and well worth checking out.

4-star

“Nether Isle” by Nicoline Evans

Nether Isle

Nether Isle

Author:  Nicoline Evans

Published:  2015

I picked up a copy of Nether Isle by Nicoline Evans at C2E2 last month. Ms. Evans had an entire booth promoting the multiple books she had written which was the most impressive independent author set up I’d seen at a comic convention. Her books all featured very beautiful cover artwork and fantastical plot elements that also drew my attention. As a big fan of buying books directly from authors I talked to her for a bit and settled on Nether Isle, which she described as a supernatural story that was also her dad’s favorite book that she’d written to this point. As I was pushing my son around in a stroller at the time, I thought “ah, that’s the one for me.”

More broadly, Nether Isle tells the story of a remote village off the coast of Maine where it seems things are just a bit more depressing and anti-social than normal. The reason for this is quickly revealed, but honestly my favorite part of the book was the reveal so I’m not going to get into it here. The protagonist of the book is Theodore, a teenage boy who recently moved to the neighborhood with his drunken abusive father. Theodore is a loner, never staying anywhere long enough to feel connected to other people. At his new school, he is an outcast until a new student named Bianca arrives. Bianca befriends Theodore and the two immediately begin to get close. Everybody else at school though seems to hate Bianca for no reason, and even adults close to Theodore warn him not to get close to her.

Again, the reveal for what’s wrong with the town and basically everything else happens pretty early on. My favorite parts of the book were Theodore’s discovery of the town’s secret, followed by the progression of his relationship with Bianca. Once Theodore has finally chosen sides about halfway through the book, the remaining story did not maintain the same momentum. The mystery of the early chapters is replaced primarily by training/gathering of allies. While Evans was trying to likely trying to increase the stakes of the story, the opposite effect resulted. The more new characters that were introduced, the less I ended up caring when a terrible fate would befall one of them.

Evans was completely successful however in creating a very memorable and interesting world for the characters to live in. There is an excellent balance of rules of magic for what is going on, and mystery for what becomes of the village’s special residents when they leave. The things I’ll most remember about this book are the distinct settings: the lighthouse, the fish market, the small school. The result was a timeless quality that could exist both before or after the invention of smart phones and the internet. A few other random notes:

  • Cadence, Bianca’s little sister, flipped between one of my favorite characters and one of the most frustrating. It’s hard to imagine how somebody her age and life experiences would act, but the switch between strong willed and victim had be invested and frustrated at the same time.
  • Evans touched on some difficult issues in introducing characters affiliated with tragic events from human history but did a nice job of avoiding their purpose just being shock value.
  • The spell that involves a blessing bothered me when it was introduced. It seemed a bit too flippant to wait until so late in the game to inform Theodore about this alternative, and then the ethics of using it seemed to be given minimal thought. (I suppose you could explain this away by saying the mystery of where its recipient was sent makes it rather pointless, but obviously some of the casters believed it very much mattered.)
  • I got a bookmark for another book by Evans about a man made of stone, and after seeing it every day while reading this book I’ve decided I should track that one down to. Free bookmarks are awesome people!

Overall this was a quick read, even at 463 pages . I would recommend taking some time on the first half of the book and letting the mood and mystery linger before marathon-ing the end. I give this one 3 ½ stars, which I haven’t created barrel artwork for, so I’m forced to make the tough call. There was enough here that I really enjoyed however, that I am definitely down for reading more of Ms. Evans’ books in the future.

3 star