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REVIEW: Galveston

galvestonAuthor: Nic Pizzolatto

2010, Scribner

Filed under: Thriller, Literary

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 3
Depth..... 7

I don’t know what happened to Nic Pizzolatto, but I’m sorry about it.

This is the most distressing novel I’ve ever read. I don’t mean it’s the most violent, although there is some gut-churningly intense violence. I mean the effect of reading this novel is that of having a heavy weight of despair slowly suffocate you. By the end, I was emotionally exhausted and long since ready for it to be over.

That’s not such a far cry from Pizzolato’s more well-known work, HBO’s True Detective, which airs the final episode of its first season on Sunday. That show might be the finest mystery drama I’ve experienced in any medium. It features a tangled mystery at its core, but with a bleak, bizarre, and disjointed telling of that mystery. True Detective’s characters are outstanding, simultaneously unlikeable wrecks of humanity, and fascinating, magnetic alter-heroes boasting a uniqueness rarely seen in a police procedural.

While Galveston has a few of the same tics, and a lot of similarly great prose, as True Detective, its premise isn’t nearly as captivating and its ending is more devastating than satisfying or anything else.
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REVIEW: Dominion

dominionAuthor: CJ Sansom

2014, Mantle

Filed under: Historical, Literary, Thriller

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 5
Depth..... 7

I’m still on my audiobook kick, and I’m still sorting potential titles by length. Dominion weighs in at a solid 21 hours, or just over 700 pages in print. In an odd way, that’s its downfall: length. If this were a short novel, or better yet a short story, its side-story plot arc would be interesting, if still not worth all the world-building. As it is, this is a very well-written alternate history novel that manages to realistically document a quite boring back corner of an epic war.

The premise, or at least the advertised premise, is a great one. In 1940, in real life, when Neville Chamberlain stepped down as prime minister of Britain, Winston Churchill became prime minister, and led Britain and the free world to stand up against the Nazis.

In Dominion, when Chamberlain steps down, Edward Halifax is made prime minister instead. Halifax immediately surrenders to the Nazis and Britain becomes a territory of the Third Reich. Churchill goes into hiding and leads a far-reaching Resistance against the occupation of the Nazis. The first chapter of the book depicts that pivotal moment in history with vivid realism and gravitas befitting it.

Unfortunately, that’s almost the only time we see Churchill in the entire novel, and it’s the last time the actual action in the book matches up with the enormous scale invoked by writing an alternate history of World War II.
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REVIEW: Harvest

harvestAuthor: Jim Crace

2013, Nan A. Talese

Filed Under: Literary, Historical, Thriller

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 5

I’ve been sitting on this review for a couple of months now. That’s in part because I’ve been crazy busy, and in part because I really don’t have much to say about this book. I don’t mean that as a knock, Harvest is a quick and pleasurable read, a historical fiction quasi-thriller by a very talented author. It’s a good book, but in the end a pretty unremarkable one. So apologies ahead of time that this review is as much summary as anything.

Crace’s novel is set in a post-Medieval English barley-farming village, in the days immediately following the yearly harvest. Some youths get a little carried away in the festivities celebrating the occasion, and what was intended as a minor prank ends up burning down the barn of the property’s lord.

Their lord, however, is in the process of losing his rights to the land to an in-law’s inheritance claim, and the new guy is a Sheriff of Nottingham type, who wants to leave his impression upon the peasants swiftly and forcibly. So some drifters found on the outskirts of town are scapegoated, and punished for the boys’ crime.
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REVIEW: Fur People

fir peopleAuthor: Vicki Hendricks

Winona Woods Books, 2013

Filed Under: Thriller, Chick-Lit

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 10

Dubbed by no less an authority than Megan Abbott as “the Queen of Noir,” Vicki Hendricks specializes in violent characters and bleak settings.  Her new novel, Fur People, is almost  almost – a departure from this and might even veer slightly into the fuzzy feelgood world of chick lit.

Where characters like Sherri in Miami Purity or Ramona in Iguana Love or Renata in Cruel Poetry  are hard-edged, unsentimental femmes fatales, with whom you associate at your own risk, the women in Fur People are idealistic do-gooders with noble, humanitarian impulses – but with whom you still associate at your own risk!  Not for fear of getting shot or killed, but like all Hendricks’ characters, these women exist outside the mainstream.

Sunny Lytle, the main protagonist, is described as a “hoarder”:  she never saw an animal she could turn away.  As the novel starts, she is being evicted from her apartment in Louisville by her landlord when he comes to collect the rent, horrified by all the animals she keeps – cats, dogs, gerbils – and of course all the shit and stink and fur they leave behind.  Sunny is involved with Bear, an older married man who has taken her under his wing, part protégé, part lover.  Bear, whose hobby is collecting and refurbishing cars, offers to let Sunny use his bus to transport her “fur family” to DeLeon Springs, Florida, where she grew up.  
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REVIEW: In the Miso Soup

In_the_Miso_Soup_by_Ryu_MurakamiAuthor: Ryu Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Ralph McCarthy

2003, Penguin

Filed Under: Thriller

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 6

If you’ve got a weak stomach, this book is not for you; In the Miso Soup is one of the most graphic and brutally violent things I have ever read. But beneath all that gore is a pretty taut thriller, as well as a worthwhile commentary on modern Japanese cultural values–and how their views of Western society inform their own cultural identities.

Kenji is your pretty typical aimless college graduate. Not ready to settle into a career, he makes his living as a sex tourism guide of sorts. Foreigners hire Kenji to take them to seedier parts of Tokyo, or get them into higher-end hostess clubs (where non-Japanese are not typically admitted), and function as guide interpreter–or just general Japanese-friend-for-rent.


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REVIEW: The Shining Girls

Author: Lauren Beukes

2013, Little Brown

Filed Under: Literary, Thriller, Sci-Fi

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 5

With The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes joins the increasingly crowded list of authors attempting to bridge genre writing with the literary novel. She manages to be more successful than most, turning the occasional brilliant phrase or description, and exercising above average characterization with her protagonists. This lit-thriller’s sci-fi twist is mostly satisfying, and the story succeeds in being just creepy enough to keep the reader hooked, but it doesn’t quite elevate itself to something more memorable than a beach read.

These genre-blending novels face a tough conundrum. Over-explain the uniqueness of the setting or rely too heavily on tropes and readers are left bored or feeling their intelligence insulted; under-develop the premise and rely on the more literary writing and the uniqueness of setting begins to feel arbitrary and unnecessary. There’s a fine line between the two that most authors aim for, even if they miss the mark.

Beukes errs on the side of the latter scenario: her writing is strong, and the sci-fi time travel stuff is interesting and creepy, but not fully developed. These genre elements are rendered and used to good effect, but unfortunately feel as if they exist only to serve the plot.
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REVIEW: Lexicon

Author: Max Barry

2013, Penguin Press

Filed under: Thriller, Fantasy, Sci-Fi

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 6
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 7

Max Barry’s last novel, Machine Man, was one of my favorite books of 2011, and while I tried not to expect another favorite book, I was still pretty disappointed by his return to boring cookie-cutter thriller writing in this latest work.

Lexicon’s in-vogue premise—young magicians gone awry—has already been played to death in recent years, since it’s the obvious counterpoint to the Harry Potter phenomenon. And though I’d rather read a Barry thriller than a Ludlum, Barry’s prose alone isn’t good enough to make a book great. Machine Man reached excellence because it focused on a unique (and very funny) character. Lexicon’s characters are neither unique nor funny. They’re barely even rememberable, partly because Barry’s plot devices actually force them to be as boring as possible. There’s simply not enough here to make this better than slightly above average.
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REVIEW: Snow White Must Die

Author: Nele Neuhaus

2013, Minotaur

Filed under: Mystery, Thriller

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 5
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 3

Nele Neuhaus is evidently the reigning queen of Germany mystery fiction, and it’s not terribly hard to see why. Neuhaus, like other European mystery writers (Stieg Larsson in particular), has a dark view of humanity, and a boring hero to face off against it. In both Snow White Must Die and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a flavorless investigator looks into a crime that leads to a group of seemingly normal citizens. As the investigator digs deeper, he or she discovers that nearly every one of the people he or she meets has a terrible secret, almost nobody has a conscience, and the overall effect of victory is the relief of survival, not the pleasure of triumph.
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REVIEW: This Bright River

Author: Patrick Somerville

2012, Little Brown

Filed under: Literary, Thriller

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 6

In the third act of This Bright River, Patrick Somerville’s enjoyable but uneven second novel, the leading lady tells the main character: “’Maybe you should stop mumbling through the world. Or complaining about privilege. I feel like you may not quite understand how unbearable a trait that is.’” She should’ve spoken up three hundred pages earlier.

Patrick Somerville is a writer of rare talent, and he’s especially gifted with an ear for lively dialogue and a pitch-perfect sense of humor that adds energy to his fiction without capsizing it into farce. His most recent story collection, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature was the funniest, most charming book I read in 2010. But even a great writer can turn out a bad novel, and through the first fifty pages, that’s what I feared This Bright River would be. Luckily, I was wrong.
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REVIEW: Angelmaker

Author: Nick Harkaway

2012, Knopf

Filed under: Literary, Mystery, Thriller

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 6
Depth..... 6

Nick Harkaway is an undeniably ambitious writer, a romantic, and an effusive stylist. These qualities can add up to a rollicking read like The Gone-Away World, where the characters and plot never stray far from established genre territory, but the vivacity and fun of the storytelling carries the day.

Or a romantic, ambitious stylist can turn in a bit of an overworked dud. Unfortunately, that’s what’s happened with Angelmaker. This time around, Harkaway entirely reinvents his voice and his subject matter, and winds up missing the mark.

The Gone-Away World follows a gang of post-apocalyptic heroes-for-hire as they try to save the world from an evil corporation/government. Harkaway packs the story with comedy and adventure, and he succeeds in making it a hell of a ride.

Angelmaker follows a clockmaker whose primary goal in life is to not become a gangster. Harkaway, staying true to the voice of a staid clockmaker, reigns in the rambunctiousness, and the whole thing feels much flatter as a result, more like a chore than a rollercoaster. It took me three months to finish reading it, and I’m one of Harkaway’s biggest fans.
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