Review: All the Old Knives

All the Old Knives
All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All The Old Knives is a masterfully plotted psychological spy thriller. Henry, a CIA operative, and Celia, and ex-CIA analyst, are reunited six years after a disastrous terrorist operation which was never fully resolved. Henry seeks out Celia to find clarity in the events which lead to 120 civilian casualties, her resignation from the CIA, and the end to their romantic relationship. Over the course of a single dinner the novel alternates perspective to tell their individual accounts of the events, both then and now.

This was my introduction to Olen Steinhauer’s writing which combines complex four-dimensional characters with riveting intrigue. I was impressed with the composition of the operatives in the Vienna field office. Each character had a clear role, personality, and flaw. The interior dynamics of the team was rendered deftly to provide for each to contribute, reveal their allegiances and weaknesses. The humanity and vulnerability of the agents sets this apart from so many other books in this genre. Both cinematic and intimate All The Old Knives earns a solid recommendation.

I received this book free from the publisher, Minotaur Books, which is an imprint of MacMillian and St. Martin’s Press through NetGalleyAll The Old Knives will be released for purchase on March 10th, 2015.

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Review: The Pain Scale

The Pain Scale (Long Beach Homicide)The Pain Scale by Tyler Dilts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Pain Scale is somewhat less personal than A King of Infinite Space and A Cold and Broken Hallelujah which are the first and third books in the Long Beach Homicide series respectively. It loses a bit of the intimacy and unique empathy Tyler Dilts infused the other novels with, but this is still a very good book.

Detective Danny Beckett is back on the job after a lengthy leave due to the fallout from A King of Infinite Space. His descent into alcohol, medication and depression continues as he copes with physical and emotional pain (thus The Pain Scale). His focus on the job is the only thing that seems to keep him going. Second novels in a series are difficult to pull off. This time the murders under investigation involve powerful people and it seems everyone gets involved: FBI, congressmen, military, mafia, and more. It almost gets too big and the characters and their intersecting relationships start to blur, but Tyler Dilts keeps it just grounded enough to prevent this from turning into a “thriller”.

I would have been worried about the escalation (and continued depiction of violent crimes against women) if I hadn’t already read the next in the series which is his best yet. Smart, character driven, and compelling – if you enjoy detective novels, this is a series you should be reading.

Also check out my review of A King of Infinite Space [Long Beach Homicide #1] and A Cold and Broken Hallelujah [Long Beach Homicide #3] which made my Best of Realistic Fiction: 2014 list.

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Review: A King of Infinite Space

A King of Infinite SpaceA King of Infinite Space by Tyler Dilts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my second Tyler Dilts book and before I get into the review I just want to acknowledge that Dilts’ book titles are fantastic, lifted from brilliant quotes tied to the theme, and his music tastes are impeccable. If I ever write a book I want Tyler Dilts to name it and make me a mix tape.

Detective Danny Beckett is a thoughtful and diligent cop, haunted by the violence he has seen on the job and the loss of his wife. He can barely sleep for the nightmares and settles himself a little to frequently with vodka. Neither of these things are out of control, but you get the sense that Beckett is on the precipice and only the job and his partner, Detective Jen Tanaka, keep him from giving in.

Generally in a mystery/crime novel I get pretty disappointed if I can identify the killer in the first interview. While I think Dilts played his hand too early, this isn’t a book which relies on the collar for the drama. The characters, especially Beckett, are so well written that it is the methodical, procedural working of the case that sells the story. The work is hard, slow, and takes its toll. I think it is easy to render a detective who stands as witness for the victim as a sap, or a tired trope of the genre, but Detective Danny Beckett’s portrayal feels sincere. There is an honesty and integrity in the Long Beach Homocide novels which makes them well worth recommending.

Also check out my review of A Cold and Broken Hallelujah [Long Beach Homicide #3] which made my Best of Realistic Fiction: 2014 list.

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Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike, #1)The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a great detective story with fully fleshed out characters. The young attractive temp secretary Robin is earnest and resourceful. You can believe she would be endeared to the job and a capable foil to her guarded and intimidating boss, Private Detective Cormoran Strike. Strike is a physically imposing everyman character who is clearly intelligent, diligent and determined. It was truly satisfying to see their respect and trust in each other grow without resorting to sexual undertones. Cormoran Strike is by no means perfect, he slips into the bottle and into a bed as his life descends towards rock bottom, but the case never strays.

The story is appropriately complex, and through Strike’s dogged investigation we get to hear the witness accounts layered over each other with all the subtle differences and personal biases. There are very few aha moments, instead it is like a slowly retracting, slowly focusing lens. The cases expands from a balcony and apparent suicide to incorporate connections, relationships and decades of history. All of which is carefully sifted, categorized, weighed and quantified by Strike. I love the slow methodical pace – the work. Strike meticulously takes notes and records; builds his case in convergent scraps of conversation and miniscule gaps in recollections.

I was impressed with the confidence of the storytelling and strong voices of the characters. All the useful, familiar tropes of crimes stories are represented; including the second floor, two-room office, the hard detective who can handle himself, the beautiful assistant, the agency’s eminent financial ruin, witness backstabbing and red herrings. What has been excised is equally important, namely everything I despised about Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Strike is respectful, disciplined, honorable and doesn’t resort to violence or vice lightly. I very much enjoyed and recommend The Cuckoo’s Calling and look forward to reading The Silkworm and much more from Galbraith.

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Review: Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a beautiful and heartbreaking novel. Celeste Ng’s debut describes love and loss with delicate prose. Everything I Never Told You is told in first person point of view from each of the five members of the Lee family, each feeling so achingly alone.

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . .

As far as opening lines go, this one is crushing. There is never a moment in this novel when you are not under the weight of their loss. Even reading about Lydia’s mother and father’s childhoods, the challenges they faced and their dreams, their discovery of each other – the specter of their daughter’s death precedes them. Everything I Never Told You is an unconventional and superbly paced mystery, piecing together the events of this tragedy. There is a great deal of sadness and frustration in this story, but rendered so honestly and with so much love that it completely enveloped me.

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