Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

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Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer has been on my radar for several years now. The acclaim and notoriety that is received immediately following publication inspired me to instantly add it to my TBR list. Then, as often happens with books on that list, I ignored it for several years. The announcement and intriguing trailer of a film adaptation of the book brought it to the forefront of my list again.

The novel immediately presents itself as an eerie mix of sci-fi thriller and character drama. A group of women explorers have set out on an expedition to Area X, a mysterious portion of land that has been enveloped by a transparent border. Everything within the confines of Area X disappeared, and the remaining ecosystem has been vastly changed ever since. The explorers, made up of a Biologist, Linguist, Psychologist, Surveyor, and Archeologist, set out on a mission that is shrouded in secrecy. They are not even allowed to reveal their names to each other.

We learn of this strange place through journal entries written by the Biologist. As the unit advances deeper and deeper into Area X, the unusual nature of the place is slowly revealed to us. There is a blaring sound that trumpets through the bizarre landscape each night. Much of the novel focuses on a tunnel that the squad comes into contact with, though oddly the Biologist is convinced it is more of a tower than tunnel. The walls are covered in a writing that seems to be alive. More mysterious, it seems as if someone or something is still in the process of writing it.

Despite the allure of the high-concept sci-fi that the novel provides, the slow pace, distant characters, and no real ending really kept me from enjoying Annihilation. The book is only a couple hundred pages long, but I could never find a comfortable rhythm while reading it. We purposefully don't know the characters names, and their backstories and motivations are revealed through small anecdotes provided by the Biologist. I found that this unknown made it difficult to grasp onto any of the characters. The hints of a really great story made what I read all the more frustrating. The novel is the first part of a trilogy, but I'm not sure there are enough redeeming qualities to continue reading. Oddly, I'm still excited about the movie. This may be a rare case where I'm okay with the filmmakers drastically modifying the story from the book.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2018, 6)

The Swedish Girl by Alex Gray

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Another gripping Lorimer novel from Alex Gray, evoking Glasgow like no other writer can


When Kirsty Wilson lands a room in a luxury Glasgow flat owned by Swedish fellow student Eva Magnusson she can’t believe her luck. But Kirsty’s delight turns to terror when she finds the beautiful Swedish girl lying dead in their home and their male flatmate accused of her murder. Kirsty refuses to accept that he is guilty and, inspired by family friend Detective Superintendent Lorimer, sets out to clear his name.
Meanwhile, Lorimer calls on trusted psychologist Solly Brightman to help unravel the truth behind the enigmatic Eva’s life and death. But it is not long until another woman, bearing a marked resemblance to Eva, is brutally murdered. Horrified, Lorimer realises that Kirsty could be right. Is it possible that Glasgow’s finest detective has put the wrong man behind bars? And is there a cold-blooded killer out there orchestrating the death of the next innocent victim?

Book Details:

Genre: Mystery
Published by: Witness Impulse
Publication Date: January 9th 2018
Number of Pages: 368
ISBN: 9780062659255
Series: A DCI Lorimer Novel, #10 (Stand Alone)
Purchase Links: Amazon  | Barnes & Noble  | HarperCollins  | Goodreads 

Read an excerpt:

From Chapter 9
December
Kirsty turned the key in the door and closed it behind her with a sigh. The hall was in darkness and there was no sound coming from the living room. Her shoulders moved up and down in a shrug of resignation; she was alone in the flat again. Then she remembered. Wasn’t there some party that Eva had mentioned? They’d all be there, wouldn’t they? Pulling off her thin raincoat and hanging it on the old-fashioned wooden coat stand, Kirsty sauntered into the bedroom next to the front door, unbuttoning her jacket. It was fair handy having this big room to herself, especially when she was working late shift at the hotel. Nobody would be disturbed by her comings and goings. She took off her shoes and tossed her jacket, bag and mobile phone onto the bed. Oh, it was good to be home. A wee cup of hot chocolate and some of her own gingerbread would go down well, she thought, already imagining her teeth sinking into a thick slab of treacly cake.
She stopped for a moment, listening. There was a swish then a click as the front door opened and closed again. Then, nothing.
‘Colin? Is that you back already?’ Kirsty wandered out into the hall, her bare feet sinking into the pile of the hall carpet, still thick and soft despite all their winter boots tramping back and forth. Eva’s father had spared no expense in doing up this flat for his daughter and Kirsty Wilson was grateful for those small luxuries that were absent from most of her friends’ student flats.
Frowning slightly, Kirsty padded down the unlit corridor, one hand out ready to flick on the light switch as she reached the kitchen. But something made her turn left into the living room instead, just to see if anyone was at home after all.
At first she imagined the girl had fallen asleep, sprawled out in front of the television.
‘Eva?’
Kirsty moved forward and bent down, expecting the girl to sit up and yawn. One hand reached out to touch the back of her head but then she drew back as though guided by some inner instinct.
She stood up again and stepped around the recumbent figure, unaware that she was holding her breath.
Then, as Kirsty saw the expression in the dead girl’s eyes, the thin wail escaping from her open mouth turned into a scream of terror.
* * *
Detective Superintendent Lorimer crouched over the body, aware of the sounds of voices coming from the hall. The dead girl was lying on her back, one arm flung out, the fist curled tightly in the moment of death. Her head was bent to one side, blond hair partly obscuring her features, but Lorimer could see enough to make him wonder about the cause of death.
‘Manual strangulation?’ he asked, glancing up at the consultant pathologist who was kneeling on the other side of the girl’s body. The on-duty pathologist tonight was his friend, Dr Rosie Fergusson. He glanced at her with his usual admiration for her calm efficiency, knowing how different she could be at home as a doting mother and as the wife of Professor Brightman, an eminent psychologist and sometime criminal profiler who had worked with Lorimer in the past.
‘Looks like it,’ Rosie murmured, her gloved hands smoothing the hair from the victim’s face, letting Lorimer see for the first time what Kirsty Wilson had found earlier that night.
Eva Magnusson still had that ethereal quality in death that had captivated those who had gazed upon her: Lorimer saw the perfect oval face with flawless skin and bow-shaped lips that were slightly parted as though she had been taken by surprise. He watched as Rosie reached out to close the dead girl’s eyelids, seeing for the final time those pale blue Scandinavian eyes staring out at a world that had proved less than kind.
***
Excerpt from Swedish Girl by Alex Gray. Copyright © 2018 by Alex Gray. Reprinted by permission of Witness Impulse, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

Author Bio:


Alex Gray was born and educated in Glasgow. After studying English and Philosophy at the University of Strathclyde, she worked as a visiting officer for the Department of Health, a time she looks upon as postgraduate education since it proved a rich source of character studies. She then trained as a secondary school teacher of English. Alex began writing professionally in 1993 and had immediate success with short stories, articles, and commissions for BBC radio programs. She has been awarded the Scottish Association of Writers' Constable and Pitlochry trophies for her crime writing. A regular on the Scottish bestseller lists, she is the author of thirteen DCI Lorimer novels. She is the co-founder of the international Scottish crime writing festival, Bloody Scotland, which had its inaugural year in 2012.

Catch Up With Alex Gray On: Website, Goodreads, & Twitter!

 

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Sunday Silence by Nicci French

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"We are all just leaves on a tree and it's nearly September and autumn is coming."

Frieda Klein is no stranger to darkness. As a gifted psychoanalyst and frequent collaborator with the police, she has seen her fair share of troubled minds and gruesome crime scenes. But now she finds herself in the middle of something much worse. The decomposing body of an ex-police officer has been discovered beneath the floor boards of her home. Freida knows there is only one person capable of such a heinous crime. Authorities believe that Dean Reeve, a serial killer who latched onto Frieda, is dead. With the discovery this ex-cop who was investigating Reeve's murders one thing is certain. Dean Reeve is very much alive and still hunting.

With the investigation into Reeve at a standstill, a new criminal emerges.  Like Reeve, they have taken a particular interest in Frieda and the people who are close to her. First, Frieda's niece disappears for a weekend. She returns completely unharmed, but unable to remember the details of her absence. A photo of the niece from those days shows her on a bare mattress in a nondescript room, completely incapacitated. When another friend is beaten in his apartment, Frieda is certain that someone is trying to send her a message. She knows this person is not Reeve. Reeve isn't as crude as this criminal, but this copycat may be even more dangerous.

This is the seventh and penultimate novel in the series written by the duo Nicci French. Having never read any of the previous novels, I'll admit to being a bit lost at the start. There are quite a few characters in the opening scenes, and I wasn't immediately certain of who they were or their importance to the story. The opening chapters contain more dialogue than action. The characters, it seemed, were coming to terms with not only the revelation that Reeve is not dead, but also with the events of the previous book. This combined with my lack of knowledge about the series' overarching narrative made the opening of this novel difficult to get into.

Fortunately, the book reveals more about the characters and their relationships/motives as it advances. I'm happy that I persisted through the opening portion because Sunday Silence ended up being a chilling thriller that I could not stop reading. Like Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs, Dean Reeve is the "big bad" of the novel with a presence that is felt more through his absence than his actions. Even as Frieda faces the threat of the copycat killer, the momentum of the book is building to something larger that will presumably culminate in the final novel in the series. I've never been a fan of crime novels that end in a dangling cliff-hanger. Despite the promise of bigger things to come, Sunday Silence provides a satisfying conclusion to the events that unfold in its pages. With this book under my belt, I'm eager to backtrack and read the previous novels before the finale drops later this year.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
This review is part of a TLC Book Tour.

(2018, 5)

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Cross the Line by James Patterson

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Despite a diminishing quality in his plentiful output, James Patterson's Alex Cross series has remained an annual reminder of all the reasons I became a fan of his writing in the first place. With Cross the Line, the twenty-fourth installment in the series, I'm reminded again of why I keep coming back for more. Patterson's short chapters make for a quick pace, and his characters, when given the proper time to develop, are the relatable kind of people that you can't help but root for. All in all, the Alex Cross series continues to be one that I consistently look forward to reading each year.

The novel begins with a lone gunman speeding through the streets of D.C. on a motorcycle. He shoots victims in other cars in a response to their traffic violations. Just as the news of these murders begins to surface, the DCPD takes a huge blow when their chief of detectives is gunned down outside of a grocery store. Alex Cross and his wife Bree quickly arrive on the scene. Alex worked closely with the chief, and the chief was Bree's mentor. Naturally they are both emotional about his death. More so, they are bound and determined to bring his killer to justice.

Just as the investigation begins, an even higher priority takes precedence. A commercial-level meth lab has been shot up leaving all those who worked in it dead. Worse, it appears to be the work of professional killers. When another lab is targeted a few days later, Alex becomes certain that someone has started an all out war. As always, he must balance the pressures of family life (his son is beginning college and his daughter is becoming a bonafide track superstar) while facing three high-profile investigations.

After a somewhat disappointing previous book, Cross the Line is a return to form for Patterson. While his plot is full of twists and turns and three seemingly disparate cases, they are unified by Alex's unwavering commitment to solve them and even deeper connections that are revealed as the story advances. I always turn to the Alex Cross series for the breakneck pace and thrills, but it his Patterson's focus on Alex and his family that keeps me coming back for more. It is always a joy to see how Alex's personal life has developed over the course of the series. Cross the Line continues that development and strikes a perfect balance between the mystery and character focus. Count me in for the next installment!


For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2018, 4)


Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

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"Sometimes fantasies are paths to realities."

Walter Isaacson is no stranger to telling the stories of genius. Through his writing about such great minds as Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, Isaacson has gained an understanding of the qualities that these men have mastered. In particular, he notes that the merging of arts and science seem to hold the key in these peoples' success. In his latest book, Isaacson details the life and accomplishments of a man of unparalleled genius, Leonardo da Vinci.

Because da Vinci kept meticulous notes in his notebooks, Isaacson had a wealth of first-hand information about him. As such, the book is a dense portrait of the life of of Leonardo. At around 600 pages and full of illustrations and photographs, the book is quite the undertaking for both the author and the reader. For those willing to spend the time reading it, however, the book is an extremely insightful and rewarding experience. I came away from it with a much greater understanding and respect for the variety of crafts and disciplines that Leonardo mastered.

Isaacson gives Leonardo's masterpieces plenty of page time, but focuses more on the works that we often don't know about. Perfectionism combined with an unyielding curiosity caused many of Leonardo's projects to either remain unfinished or be completely abandoned in favor of something different. Beyond his art of paintings, sculptures and theatrical productions, Leonardo spent considerable time studying engineering, anatomy, and other sciences. This wide variety of disciplines caused his art to inform his science and his science to inform his art, a combination that only further cements his genius. In the end, Isaacson argues that the unfinished ventures of Leonardo provide a clearer picture to the magnitude of his genius.

While I certainly was curious about all of Leonardo's creative endeavors, it was his personal life that kept me invested into this book. Isaacson writes of Leonardo's outsider status and mentality. As an illegitimate child and unabashed homosexual, he never really escaped this perception of himself. Even when his acclaim as an artist placed him in the company of royalty and affluence, Leonardo couldn't shake this mentality. Frankly, he was more interested in investing time in his studies than gaining the approval of others.

As I've already mentioned, Leonardo da Vinci is a thick book that will require a good investment of time to properly read it. Fortunately Walter Isaacson presents the story more as a narrative than a textbook. This was a wonderful change of pace from my normal reading habits. If you are looking for non-fiction that doesn't feel like the typical history book, Leonardo da Vinci is a perfect start. I came away fascinated by the achievements and riveted by Leonardo's humanity.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2018, 3)


The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

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"Look out for the chalk men."

I've seen The Chalk Man featured on several "most anticipated" lists, and every blogger who has reviewed the novel has been enthusiastic in their praise of it. When the publisher provided me a copy of the novel to read and review, I was eager to see what all of the hype was about. I wasn't prepared for the story that I was about to read. I wasn't prepared for the sleepless nights and unproductive days I would spend glued to the pages of the novel. This will, no doubt, be one of the must read thrillers of the year. Just know, you'll have no power in putting it down until you finish. Consider yourself warned.

In 1986, twelve-year-old Eddie and his gang of friends are at the local fair. The waltzer ride malfunctions, sending a car with two girls flying into the pathway. Eddie is one of the first people on the scene along with an odd looking man dressed in all black with white skin and extremely light hair. At the time, both males are hailed as heroes. The man, it turns out, has just moved to town to be a teacher at the school. As time progresses, Eddie and his friends develop a secret code to communicate with each other. They leave little stick figures drawn in chalk for the others to find. The codes start innocent enough, but the kids could never have imagined what would happen if their secret messages could be used by someone else...someone with intentions that are purely evil.

The year is 2016, and Eddie finds himself living in the same house and same town that he grew up in. He watched as his father battled and ultimately succumbed to Alzheimer's. His mother, finally free from the burden of caring for her ill husband, remarried and began traveling. Eddie stayed behind. One day, he receives a letter containing a stick figure drawn in chalk, a haunting relic from his childhood. Eddie thought the tragedies associated with the chalk figures were long behind him. When he learns that each of his former friends received similar letters, he knows those days are back. He must face the realities of secrets he tried to bury years ago.

The Chalk Man is a novel that instantly drew me in and kept be enthralled until the very last page. C.J. Tudor writes chapters that alternate between past and present. I'm not normally a fan of this narrative device, but Tudor uses it to maximum effect here. The juxtaposition between the child and adult versions of the characters brings a greater depth to them, allowing the reader to experience their growth over a longer period of time. Switching between time periods also allows Tudor to end each chapter on a mini-cliffhanger. She deftly pulls the reader deeper and deeper into her eerie story, winding the tension and expectation a bit tighter with each page. Beyond the thriller beats, Tudor weaves in larger themes of love, friendship, and a tense debate of science vs. religion. The Chalk Man concludes with revelations that are sensational, tragic, and completely satisfying to the marvelous story that precedes it. We may only be two weeks in, but The Chalk Man may be one of the best thrillers of the year!

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2018, 2)

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