Thursday, September 24, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Retribution by Val Mcermid

The Retribution is the seventh book in Val McDermid’s long-running, excellent series of police procedural, mystery-thriller novels featuring DCI Carol Jordan and Dr. Tony Hill, primarily set in the fictional city of Bradfield in Northern England. Hill is a criminal psychological profiler who uses his expertise to assist the police in tracking down lawbreakers (usually serial killers) by extrapolating information about the psychology and motivations of the perpetrators from the nature of their crimes and crime scenes. DCI Jordan leads the Major Incident Team (MIT), a handpicked collection of police officers with special skills (like lucrative computer hacking skills used for crime-fighting instead of profit) who often get results on cases that resist resolution by typical police methods.

The Retribution is centered around two problematic crime sprees. The first is a now-familiar series of horrific murders of “working girls” in the Temple Fields (red light/gay ghetto) section of downtown Bradfield. Each of the three killings is quite different from each other but each victim has the word “mine” tattooed somewhere on the corpse. It takes awhile for the police to recognize there’s only one killer involved because the bodies are in such variable states of intactness when they are discovered. Eventually the police do hand the case over to MIT. However, it will likely be the unit’s last case. Carol’s new boss has decided that having a cadre of specialized officers who work on the hardest cases and get good results is “too expensive” so she’s taken a DCI job at West Mercia and her team’s officers will likely be forced join the regular detective rotation if they stay in Bradfield. West Mercia, not coincidentally, happens to be near where Tony has recently moved into a huge mansion he inherited from his late estranged father in Fever of the Bone.

The second crime spree featured in The Retribution is significantly more serious. It involves one of the key villains from Wire in the Blood, one of the earlier, excellent entries in the Hill-Jordan series, Jacko Vance. Jacko was a television celebrity, one of the most recognizable faces in England when a member of Tony’s "baby profilers" (a group of police officers whom Tony was training to use his psychological techniques to suss out criminal motives) realized that Vance was a likely suspect in the disappearance of multiple teenage girls. Jacko killed the officer horribly just because he could, not because he was in serious danger of being revealed by her, but this event was the break that Tony and Carol needed to realize that Jacko was a serial killer. Now it’s many years later and Jacko manages to escape prison and he has a plan to seek retribution on the people that forced him to lose a dozen years of his life in prison. Jacko was assisted by a guy who never believed in his guilt to set Jacko up with a safe house, surveillance on his potential targets and ways and means to conduct his revenge. Of course, the first thing Jacko does when he’s in the safe house is stick a knife in his benefactor. And then he begins to successfully get his retribution on those who he thinks wronged him, which includes Carol and Tony. But, because he doesn’t attack them directly, but instead targets people and things near and dear to them, it takes awhile for Tony to figure out where Jacko will strike next and by then irreparable harm has occurred to those they love.

McDermid is rightly called the Queen of Crime for a reason. She is a Master at ratcheting up the level of suspense as one reads more and more of the book. One of her strengths is the clever way she doles out information to the reader about her characters and their motivations and actions. For example, we get a lot of first-person perspective from Jacko in The Retribution, so the reader can only watch with horror as we see him successfully commit his crimes while simultaneously seeing his pursuers struggle to even begin figuring out what’s going on. Additionally, McDermid does an incredible job at creating characters whose motivations are clearly described, leading to significant relationships. Access to the inner monologue of Tony and Carol as well as several of the secondary characters is a clear strength of the series.

Of course, the most significant relationship in these books is the one between Carol and Tony. Although it is not romantic, it is both more and less significant than a romantic relationship. For Tony, it is the most important relationship in his life. For Carol, Tony is her most important professional relationship, but she has more family support. The events of 
The Retribution are devastating to their connection, and one of the reasons to read the next book is to find out if their relationship survives and to read what happens next.

Overall, The Retribution is one of the most significant entries in the series, although I would not say it is one of the best. It definitely possesses McDermid’s now-familiar heart-pounding suspense, but both mysteries are not really that complicated since the who-dunnit aspect is minimal. (We know Jacko is one of them, and the second one is revealed pretty quickly. However in both cases it is the chase to see how/when/if the police can capture the perpetrator before they kill even more people which is the primary source of the suspense.)
The most memorable element is the sudden rupture in the Hill-Jordan relationship, but this change is surprisingly not well motivated and could be argued that it comes out of nowhere. Regardless, things will be different in the future for both of them, and I look forward to reading the subsequent books to find out what happens!

Title: The Retribution.
Author: Val McDermid.

Paperback: 413 pages.
Publisher:
 Little Brown.
Date Published: September 1, 2011.
Date Read: August 22, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: 
★½☆ (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.83/4.0).

PLOT: A-.
IMAGERY: A-.
IMPACT: A.
WRITING: A.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Fever of the Bone (Tony Hill/Carol Jordan, #6) by Val McDermid



SUMMARY REVIEW
Another excellent thriller featuring Tony Hill & Carol Jordan solving crimes and catching serial killers in the north of England.


Fever of the Bone is the sixth entry in Val McDermid’s police procedural/murder mystery series starring DCI Carol Jordan and psychologist profiler Tony Hill.

I love the way McDermid can quickly place the reader into a scene to sympathize with a character, even if we know that person will probably become the next victim of a sordid serial killer. She uses this to great effect to produce narrative tension and provide suspense to the reader. Is this person going to become the next victim? Or will they survive? To me, this is a clear example of the author not taking advantage of the too-easy trope of putting their detective in harm's way as a tool for causing the reader to be invested in what happens. McDermid is a master, she has a whole lotta other tricks up her sleeve!

In Fever of the Bone the relationship between Jordan and Hill is as complicated as ever. This time the crime is not as gruesome as McDermid’s typically horrific fare but the hunt for the killer is as gripping as ever. Teenagers are being stalked online and then abducted, drugged, suffocated and sexually mutilated. McDermid lets us experience the thoughts and hopes of several of the kids before they meet the killer, and this is extremely effective at engrossing the reader.

As with most murder mystery/police procedural series that have recurring characters, part of the enjoyment of the book is not only reading how (or whether) they will catch the culprit, but learning more about these characters and seeing what new developments happen to them and how they react to them as time goes by and the events in subsequent books occur.

In the case of Carol Jordan, she has a new boss who is skeptical that her specialized team is worth the extra money it takes to work with a specialized profiler like Dr. Tony Hill. And he’s not sure the difficult (often cold) cases they solve are worth the effort it takes. For Tony, he’s still coming to terms with the fact that he has received a huge inheritance from a father he thought had abandoned him to the abuse and deprivations of his psychopathic mother. There’s also some interesting developments with the important secondary characters in the series. In Fever of the Bone, some clarity is provided about the romantic tension between Carol and Tony, which is refreshing (and somewhat surprising, considering it has previously been a feature of the narrative heft of the books).

Overall, Fever of the Bone is a median entry in this always excellent series featuring Tony Hill & Carol Jordan solving crimes and catching serial killers in the north of England
This time I was able to guess some of the connections between the crimes but I didn’t figure out the eventual perpetrator before Tony, but there definitely were enough clues to do so.
I can’t wait to see what happens next in these books, especially since in The Retribution the series’ most notorious villain will play a prominent role!

Title: Fever of the Bone.
Author: 
Val McDermid.
Paperback: 432 pages.
Publisher:
 Little, Brown.
Date Published: 2009.
Date Read: August 1, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: 
½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).

PLOT: A-.
IMAGERY: A-.
IMPACT: A-.
WRITING: A-.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Consuming Fire (The Interdependency, #2) by John Scalzi

 

The Consuming Fire is the second book in John Scalzi’s The Interdependency space opera trilogy. I wasn’t terribly impressed with the first book in the series, The Collapsing Empire, but then again, I am generally ambivalent about Scalzi’s work. I do think Old Man’s War and Redshirts are his best books by far, and some of his other stuff is just not very good at all (looking at you, Lock In!)

With Scalzi's recent press tour surrounding the release of the third and final book in the trilogy, The Last Emperox, I was reminded of the books’ existence and happily, Kindle copies were readily available at one of my local libraries.

The good news is that the best parts of The Collapsing Empire, are in its sequel, namely lots of snarky commentary, snappy pacing and sympathetic characters (Emperox Grayland II, Lord Marce Claremont and Lady Kiva Lagos). There’s also a ridiculously convoluted plot with internecine palace intrigue taken to the extreme, but clearly points are being made about the nature of elites and concomitant corruption.

I appreciate the difficulty of what Scalzi is trying to do here. He is combining humor with social commentary in the context of a putative space opera about advanced human civilization with near-magical transport methods and an extremely mercantilist society.

I don’t know if I am just in a different place/mindset than I was when I read the first book, but I quite enjoyed the second book. I connected with Marce, Cardenia and Kiva in The Consuming Fire strongly enough that I was invested in what happened to them for the entirety of the book and I am also quite curious to find out what will happen to them next in The Last Emperox. That, at its most basic form, is a description of a successful book. Additionally, there are some interesting developments in The Consuming Fire about the existential threat to human society caused by the imminent collapse of The Flow, the multidimensional space through which most interplanetary travel occurs.

Overall, The Consuming Fire is a very strong sequel to The Collapsing Empire, and an excellent and amusing space opera book in it’s own right.

Title: The Consuming Fire.
Author: 
John Scalzi.
Paperback: 304 pages.
Publisher:
 Tor Books.
Date Published: October 16, 2018.
Date Read: August 14, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A-/B+ (3.5/4.0).

PLOT: A-.
IMAGERY: B+.
IMPACT: B+.
WRITING: A-.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Kill (Maeve Kerrigan, #4) by Jane Casey

The Kill is the fifth entry in author Jane Casey’s British police procedural/murder mystery series starring Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan of the London Murder Squad.

The Kill begins with Maeve and her partner Detective Inspector Josh Derwent being called to the scene of an ambush shooting of a fellow Metropolitan Police officer in a parked car well after midnight. This appears to be the first of a series of fatal attacks on police officers in London, which is currently on edge following the mistaken killing of an unarmed Black youth by police officers recently.

Jane Casey does another excellent job of showing the reader Maeve’s thoughts and beliefs as she navigates being one of the few women in her male-dominated detective squad. All Maeve’s relationships are complicated. Josh is an attractive/repulsive chauvinist who is passionately devoted to catching and punishing lawbreakers so he doesn’t have to think about the demons in his murky military past. Their boss, Detective Chief Inspector Charles Godley, is someone who Maeve simultaneously worships for his prowess as a leader and despises for his personal failings. In The Kill, we find out some very significant information about Maeve's boyfriend Rob, while the status of their relationship is very much in doubt by the end of the book.

As usual, Maeve makes the key connections that lead to the resolution of the main mystery. Happily this time she is not placed in mortal danger as she tracks down the perpetrators but others near to her definitely find themselves in risky situations and this ensures that The Kill has a thrilling conclusion.

Title: The Kill.
Author: 
Jane Casey.
Paperback: 337 pages.
Publisher:
 Minotaur Books.
Date Published: June 2, 2015.
Date Read: August 7, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: 
★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A/A- (3.83/4.0).

PLOT: A-.
IMAGERY: A-.
IMPACT: A.
WRITING: A.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Age of Death (Legends of the First Empire, #5) by Michael J. Sullivan


Age of Death is The fifth and final cliffhanger in the Legends of the First Empire series by Michael J. Sullivan. The idea that most of the characters in this installment spend their time behind the vale of death is pretty cool. It turns out that in this story what happens after you die is far more complicated (and interesting) than the traditional notions of the afterlife most readers may be familiar with. Going in, all we know is that many of the most prominent couples in the last few books, Roan and Gifford, Brin and Tesh, Moya and Tevchin are going to be ‘dead.’ And that includes Tressa, who is obnoxious and nearly universally disliked by everyone, but who has been given the key to unlock the gates between the three(!) different places humans, dwarves and elves can end up when they die.

Not all the action is in the afterlife, however, because another one of my favorite characters (Suri) is captive in the land of the Fhrey, where my least favorite character (Lothian) rules supreme. Suri knows the secret of how to create dragons, which could be the super weapon to determine the result of the war between humans (Rhunes) and elves (Fhrey). Suri was betrayed when she was sent to negotiate a truce between the warring parties as the first Rhune who can practice the Art (i.e. do magic like the Fhrey). However, she’s also on a (probably more important) mission to demonstrate to the Fhrey that humans are not merely short-lived, fecund, animals but potential equals worthy of respect.

Back at the battlefield, Persephone is starting to worry about her friends whom she agreed to let go on a quest, not realizing it would actually mean their deaths. Her husband, Nyphron, who is a Fhrey and the head of all Rhune forces is frustrated by the stalemate that has prevented any progress in the war for over a year. His motives for fighting the war are murky, but primarily rooted in revenge for his class/tribe of Fhrey who Lothian, the current head (or “fane”) had slaughtered and exiled.

There's a heckuva lot of adventure, and quite a lot of mythology and teleology (perhaps too much?) in Age of Death. Overall, these elements combine to make a compelling and thought-provoking read. I’ve already bought Age of Empyre, the sixth and last installment in the series and look forward to reading and reviewing it soon!

Title: Age of Death.
Author: 
Michael J. Sullivan.
Paperback: 342 pages.
Publisher:
 Riyria Productions.
Date Published: February 4, 2020.
Date Read: July 26, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: 
★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A/A- (3.83/4.0).

PLOT: A-.
IMAGERY: A-.
IMPACT: A-.
WRITING: A.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The House at Sea's End (Ruth Galloway, #3) by Elly Griffiths



The House at Sea's End is the third book in the Elly Griffiths' mystery series featuring Dr. Ruth Galloway, forensic anthropologist and lecturer at the fictional University of North Northwich, and DCI Harry Nelson, head of the major crimes unit of the Norwich Police Department. Nelson and Galloway have a complicated relationship, which due to a surprising event in the first book, The Crossing Places, has ongoing repercussions in both their lives.

Now that I have read the first three books, I think I have a better overall sense of the series. There are some common themes and ongoing story elements and repeated plot points. The first common theme is that since Ruth is an anthropologist, the initial crime/mystery is almost always a cold case, sparked by the discovery of old bones. The second common theme is Ruth herself, and her relationships with the primary characters in her life (Nelson; Cathbad, the enigmatic, self-proclaimed Druid who always appears to be in the right place at the right time; her "best friend" Shona the beautiful homewrecker; and Ruth's holier-than-thou Born Again parents). The third theme is the format of the book: British police procedural/murder mystery with a soupcon of romance. These are all features of the book which are done quite well and will probably be the primary reason I continue to read the series in the future.

One of the problematic ongoing story elements is Ruth's relationship with Harry Nelson, whom she works with to solve crimes. Suffice it to say there is significant romantic tension there, and that "it's complicated." Nelson has a beautiful wife named Michelle and two daughters, but the Ruth and Nelson have great physical chemistry, despite Ruth's body image issues (she's definitely on the plump side) and while Ruth is a professor and a scholar, Nelson never finished high school, but is also quite accomplished at his job and used to being in charge. Another ongoing story element is the setting of the books, in the (fictional) town of King's Lynn near the Saltmarsh of Northern England. Ruth loves the area (and so apparently does the author, because rarely do many pages go by before we read more paragraphs about the beauty of the cold, wet sea).

One of my biggest concerns with the books so far has been the repeated plot point of putting Ruth in danger towards the climax of the books when the mysteries are starting to be solved and the identity of the perpetrator becomes reduced to a smaller set of possibilities, until eventually we find Ruth trapped in a confined area with a homicidal maniac while Cathbad and Nelson trying to rescue her. It's true that this plot development amps up the level of suspense to nerve-wracking levels. I am just philosophically opposed to the "damsel-in-distress" trope in suspense thrillers. I know it is quite possible to have exciting suspense thrillers without putting the protagonist in danger, although I do recognize that it may be something that most authors can not resist. I just hope that this doesn't happen in every Galloway book or it would greatly diminish my ardor for continuing the series.

That being said, while the third entry in the series was not the strongest of the first three (the connection between the perpetrator of the cold case murder and the perpetrator of the more recent crimes attempting to maintain their secrecy was somewhat tenuous and unpredictable). The main appeal of The House at Sea's End to me was learning more about the other police officers in Nelson's employ and seeing how Ruth deals with how her new circumstances have (and will) affect how she relates to those around her (and they to her).

Title: The House at Sea's End.
Author: 
Elly Griffiths.
Paperback: 352 pages.
Publisher:
 Quercus.
Date Published: January 6, 2011.
Date Read: July 18, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: 
★★½☆  (3.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).

PLOT: A-.
IMAGERY: A-.
IMPACT: B+.
WRITING: A.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Janus Stone (Ruth Galloway, #2) by Elly Griffiths



Right after I finished reading this book I had drafted a lovely 500-word review (in the Goodreads app) when I suddenly lost the entire thing so I wasn't planning on going to write a full review but I changed my mind because I want to document my thoughts about the series as a whole as I read it.

The Janus Stone is the second book in the popular and long-running Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths. Dr. Galloway is a forensic anthropologist who teaches at the fictional University of Northern Norfolk and lives alone (with a cat or two) in a small cottage on the edge of the marshy waters of the Northern sea. She has helped the police with their inquiries into the discovery of some old bones in the first book of the series, The Crossing Places, and this event was the beginning of her complicated relationship with DCI Harry Nelson. In the sequel, Ruth is again asked to assist the police when a skeleton of a young child and a cat (both missing their heads!) is discovered on a building site where an old house which used to serve as an orphanage is being razed and replaced with condominiums.

Things are even more complicated in The Janus Stone because Ruth has recently discovered she's pregnant, and since she's also very single (happily divorced). The case is also tricky because it seems like someone is deliberately trying to dissuade Ruth from getting involved.

Overall, I liked this second book in the series quite a bit. Ruth (and Nelson) are fun characters, and Griffiths writes them well. As a gay dude, I'm usually loath to combine any taste of romance with my British police procedural/murder mystery but I do feel like Elly Griffiths and Jane Casey are two authors who know how to get the mix, just right. That being sad, I'm not happy about the one of the primary narrative tensions in the book being danger/threat to Ruth. The "damsel in distress" trope is awful. I hope it is not repeated. That being said, Ruth is a strong female character (she's somewhat blase' about her zaftig figure and doesn't really care much about societal norms). The supporting members of the cast are quirky and interesting (if not as diverse as they could be). I'll definitely continue reading the series.

Title: The Janus Stone.
Author: 
Elly Griffiths.
Paperback: 416 pages.
Publisher:
 Quercus.
Date Published: March 1, 2010.
Date Read: July 16, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: 
★★★★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).

PLOT: A-.
IMAGERY: A-.
IMPACT: A-.
WRITING: A-.

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