thekitchenbrigade_ecoverI admit to suffering from dystopia fatigue. I love the classics of the genre, like Nineteen Eighty-Four, but the last decade has seen so many bleak future/post-apocalyptic/totalitarian government-type stories that it takes a lot for me to pick one up. But after reading Lydia Schoch’s interview of Laurie Boris, I had to give The Kitchen Brigade a shot. And within pages, it won me over.

The Kitchen Brigade is set in 2049, in the remnants of a United States torn by civil war and occupied by Russian forces. Valerie, the daughter of the former U.S. Secretary of State, has been captured by the Russians and forced to work in a kitchen, serving a Russian general and his officers. 

All the women serving in the kitchen are assigned numbers instead of names. Valerie is Three. Gradually, she gets to know the other women, all of whom came there by different routes, and who have different perspectives on the situation; from the foul-mouthed but good-natured Four to the aggressively unpleasant Two, who resents Three and sees her as a threat to her relationship with the main chef, the tough-but-fair Svetlana.

As Valerie gains the respect of Svetlana and the brigade (with the exception of Two) she also begins to realize that the situation is far less stable than it appears, and soon discovers that there are multiple factions jockeying for power, among both the Americans and the Russians, and, as in any good thriller, almost everyone has a hidden agenda.

The prose is clean and the dialogue witty—especially Four, who I think deserves her own spin-off story. Her scenes were a real highlight.

I also loved how Boris gradually tells us the backstory of how the United States collapsed—it’s done in bits and pieces; scraps of information picked up here and there, but at a certain point, it becomes very clear not only what happened, but just how disturbingly plausible the seemingly-unthinkable scenario really is. It’s an all-too-believable vision of how a cyberwar could work.

A few minor gripes: there were a few times when it was hard for me to keep track of where all the characters were during the climactic sequence. It was effective, don’t get me wrong, but I still felt a little confused. It’s a not a big flaw, though; and it could just be that I haven’t read enough thrillers to get the hang of it.

Also–and I’ll be vague here rather than risk giving too much away–there’s one scene where people are oddly reluctant to kill a particularly vile character. Boris did a really good job making this character unlikable, and provided realistic motivation for why the character behaves the way that they do, so major props for that. But this person is so unrelentingly hostile, it’s hard to feel any sympathy, although some characters do anyway.

All in all, this was a very well-crafted dystopia. And Boris has a real knack for describing the elegant dishes the brigade prepares over the course of the book. I probably haven’t given the food preparation scenes their due in this review, because I’m not much of a gourmet myself, but even I could tell they were well-done. (No pun intended.)

Earlier this year, I reviewed the novella Number Seven and the Life Left Behind, by Mayumi Hirtzel. This is another tale of espionage, intrigue, nefarious Russian agents, and people with numbers instead of names. As a fan of old Cold War spy stories like Secret Agent, it’s pretty exciting to me that people are telling stories like this again. If you liked Number Seven, I predict you will also enjoy the Kitchen Brigade. And if, like I was, you’re reluctant to check out another dystopian story, just know that this doesn’t feel like a random tyrant has been inexplicably installed, as is so often the case in dystopian fiction, but is carefully thought-out and well-described. Give it a try.

NondisclosureNondisclosure is a terrific, fast-paced thriller. When a student at Boston Technological Institute is assaulted, Dr. Brad Parker and investigator Karen Richmond are assigned to work together to find the perpetrator. But what they uncover is a confusing, sometimes seemingly contradictory set of facts. When the crimes escalate further, they find themselves struggling to unravel a web of corruption concealed by the political machinations of academia.

As is generally the case when I review thrillers, I’ll refrain from discussing too much of the plot, other than to say it is well-constructed and fast-moving. Fans of Cooper’s first novel The Prize will instantly recognize and enjoy the same engrossing writing style. The two lead characters are both very likable, and the story takes them on plenty of twists and turns along the way.

I highly recommend this book to fans of thrillers–not just medical ones, although there is plenty of interesting medical science interwoven with the plot. But even someone like me, with next to no knowledge of medicine, chemistry etc. will appreciate this gripping tale. 

And that’s not even the best part. What really stands out about the book is its theme. It shines a light on how corruption can happen even in institutions that we normally think of as forthright, honorable, and respectable. As the old adage says, “power corrupts,” and this is no less true of power wielded by people in science and education than anyone else. This is best illustrated by Richmond’s line to Dr. Parker: “You’ve got a lot to learn about how big institutions work. Why do you think universities have their own police forces?”

A word about the book’s subject matter: As many readers know, I don’t like reading stories that involve violence against women, and  so I was a little nervous going into this. But while Nondisclosure does indeed contain some very dark scenes of exactly that, Cooper avoids making it even remotely lurid or sensational, unlike many thrillers. It is not played for shock value, but simply as a horrible consequence of what can happen when people entrusted with moral authority choose to protect themselves and their own interests instead of doing their duty.

[Note: This review is based on an ARC of this book. Nondisclosure releases on July 15, 2019, but you can pre-order it now.]

fireMy Father’s Fire is a well-constructed and clever mystery novelette about a man uncovering dark secrets from his family’s past. If you’re already familiar with Phillip McCollum, all I need to say is that this is a classic example of his work: a fast-paced story which packs a lot of developed characters and plot into a fun and readable package. Despite the short length, there’s plenty of atmosphere, backstory, and conflict here.

If you’re new to McCollum’s work, this is the perfect introduction to his style. Check it out, and I’ll wager you’ll want to pick up his collection of 52 short stories as soon as you finish.

I was just thinking the other day about how much fun these kinds of “bite-sized” tales–what Mark Paxson calls “long short stories”–are, both for readers and writers. For readers, you can gobble them up in a single reading session. And for writers, you get the pleasure of telling a tale and seeing readers’ reactions without having to toil with little or no feedback for the length of time it takes to write a novel.

51DyswFSq-LThere are a couple of small things to note before I get to the substantive part of this review. First, there’s a smattering of typos and spelling errors in this book. I know firsthand that this is practically inevitable in indie books–my loyal readers alerted me to some in my own work when it was first published. But I know it’s something that will bother some people.

The book also hit a pet peeve of mine: the protagonist and narrator of the story is a former U.S. Army Ranger. At one point, he refers to a weapon’s “clip” when he obviously means its magazine. You might excuse this by saying (a) this is a pretty common mistake and (b) sometimes soldiers say “clip” simply because it’s shorter and easier to bark in battle than the three whole syllables of “magazine”. These are fair points, but it still grated on me. (To be fair, the rest of the descriptions of weaponry are quite accurate and logical.)

Now that’s out of the way and I can tell you how much I enjoyed this book, because it really is terrific. The protagonist’s voice is instantly engaging, and his sardonic humor fits the grim circumstance in which he finds himself–a brutal war between rival drug gangs in Mexico.

Make no mistake; this book is extremely dark. I praised Goats’s mystery novel Houses on the Sand for its memorable blend of witty prose and violent subject matter, but this book takes it to another level. The protagonist gets plenty of opportunities for gallows humor–as well as gun humor, knife humor, helicopter gunship humor and so on; because implements of death abound in these pages, and they are put to use frequently.

The style reminds me a bit of Chris Avellone, whose name long-time readers may recognize as one I always mention when discussing all-time favorite fiction writers. Like many an Avellone plot, On the Other Side of the River involves someone trying to play rival gangster factions against one another, and the prose consists of dark musings on mortality and morality, written with tremendous wit.

And the pacing! The pacing is incredible. It’s fast, but not too fast, and there wasn’t a moment when I felt bored. Even during the relative “lulls” in the story, there was tons of tension as I wondered what would happen next. A few times, I got so nervous that I skipped ahead a page or two to see how the situation would be resolved. I just couldn’t take the suspense. I do most of my reading while I’m on the bus to and from work, and when I was reading this I’d get so absorbed I nearly missed my stop more than once.

It’s true that part of this is due to my personality as a reader. I’ve come to realize that I’m incredibly easy to manipulate when reading fiction. Put somebody in danger, and I just have to know how it works out, even if it seems a bit contrived. And if it’s a woman, then I’m really hopeless; the woman-in-peril trope gets me every time.

What’s funny is, I was thinking about what an easily-manipulated reader I am when this very topic came up in the book itself. One character mentions to another how he feels about being manipulated by movies. It was an interesting meta-moment. Incidentally, this scene reminds me of another thing I loved about the book: the repeated references to classic films, including two of my favorites, Lawrence of Arabia and Jason and the Argonauts.

It’s the little touches like this that make On the Other Side of the River so engaging. Goats is great at going the extra mile to really lavish detail on small things. I’m rather in awe of his skill at this, actually, because I’ve often been guilty of impatience in my writing. I don’t want to spoil anything here, but I’ll give a brief and fittingly macabre example of what makes his writing so good: there’s a scene in this book where some people are in a confined space and moving around a corpse that’s lying on the ground. If I had written this scene, I would have treated the corpse as merely an obstacle to be mentioned briefly and then dealt with only as the living characters needed to navigate around it.

But Goats lavishes more attention on it than just treating the deceased character as part of the scenery–he has his narrator describe him almost as a character in his own right. And that adds something to the story–granted, it’s something very grim, but it’s important to give the reader these details. “Meat on the bones of the story,” as my friend Patrick Prescott would say. (And see; didn’t I tell you this thing is dark?)

This is one gripping page-turner, and I say that as someone who normally doesn’t go in for those types of books. This one worked for me; and all the double-crosses (and triple-crosses, and etc.) kept me guessing right up until the last page as to who was good, who was bad, and how it would all end up.

So how does it all end up, you ask? Well, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling that! Even after I thought I was ready for anything after all the twists that had come before, the ending still surprised me, and while it’s not the direction I thought it would go, it absolutely works in the moment. I don’t want to say any more than that, but just know that it’s the kind of ending that you can talk about at length with your friends after you all read it.

And this brings me to an important point, which is that people need to read it. Seriously, according to the author himself, this is his least popular book, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. I would have expected it to be a great hit–it grabs you from the first page and just keeps building the tension from there. I could easily see this being made into a big-budget movie; it’s not like Hollywood has any qualms about violence or dark plots.

Oh well, the book’s usually better than the movie anyway. So I suggest you “get in on the ground floor”, as they say, and check this one out before it becomes such a hit that some studio snaps it up and makes a film of it. They might be able to do the dialogue and fight scenes all right, but they’ll never be able to capture Goats’s witty descriptions on the big screen.

516XMGMHmwL._AC_US218_The Prize is a fast-paced medical thriller with a compelling plot: Dr. Pam Weller has made a Nobel-worthy breakthrough in Alzheimer’s disease research, finding a drug with the potential to cure it. But a more senior researcher in the same field, the ambitious Professor Eric Prescott, will go to any lengths to steal her discovery and gain the Nobel Prize for himself.

And when I say any lengths, I absolutely do mean any—even illegal and immoral methods are on the table for Prescott in his quest to satisfy his ambition. The only thing Pam has to help her against his machinations are her own wits and the help of her boyfriend Jake, a former FBI agent.

So much of the book hinges on its plot that I don’t want to give away too much here. What I found most interesting is how it presents the field of medical research. The researchers rarely seem to think about the implications of curing Alzheimer’s in terms of what it means for humanity at large. For them—both Weller and Prescott—it is a personal challenge with personal rewards. The difference is that Weller is fundamentally an honest person, whereas Prescott is not.

The author is a medical researcher himself, and his experience clearly shows: issues that might seem trivial to the layman, like questions of which author is listed first on a research paper and the details of tenure review processes, take on extreme importance for many of the characters. He captures the nitty-gritty details of research and its associated bureaucratic logistics very well.

My only criticisms of the book are these: first, some chapters are written from the villain’s point of view as he executes his plan, which takes away the suspense. When we already know what he has done, it makes it less exciting when the good characters uncover it. (On the other hand, it was interesting to explore his motivations and see the twinges of guilt he feels as he commits his crimes.)

Second, some of the dialogue was a little awkward and contained lots of exposition. I sympathize with this—it’s very hard to write dialogue that both sounds natural and conveys the information the readers needs to have. This is especially true for a story set in a highly-specialized field like medical research, where there is lots of jargon the characters would presumably know, but that the reader may not.

But these issues didn’t seriously detract from my enjoyment of the book. The Prize is fast-paced and easy to read. If you like medical thrillers, or really thrillers in general, I recommend giving it a try. It will make you look at every press release and news report you hear about “research breakthroughs” in a new light.

The Bone Curse
This is such an awesome cover.

<SOME SPOILERS AHEAD!>

I read Carrie Rubin’s first two books last year and enjoyed them tremendously, so I was very eager to read her latest effort, The Bone Curse. It tells the story of Benjamin Oris, a young medical student who injures his hand on an ancient bone in the Paris catacombs. Soon after, his loved ones begin to succumb to a mysterious illness. Oris, as one would expect of a med student, is a rational and logical sort of person, dismissive of supernatural explanations for the affliction.

But gradually, as more bizarre events begin to occur all around him, Oris discovers that he is descended from a cruel plantation owner who raped the daughter of a powerful Vodou mambo (female High Priest). To avenge her daughter, the mambo placed a curse upon the plantation owner’s bloodline.

Oris stubbornly continues, in spite of his friend Laurette’s urging, to maintain his faith in medical science and reject supernatural explanations, but as more and more of his loved ones begin to fall ill—and as events in his personal and professional life begin to spiral increasingly out of control–he finally has to admit the possibility that there is something beyond a normal illness at work. This leads him into a desperate effort to end the curse through extreme measures, and brings him into conflict with an ancient Vodou conspiracy.

I’ve never read anyone who can write a page-turner like Rubin can, and Bone Curse is similar to her previous books in that it quickly becomes impossible to put down. The last line of one chapter late in the book was an absolute gut-punch, and I just had to keep going to find out what happened. She has a real talent for writing lengthy but well-paced action scenes that hold the reader’s attention. (I’m probably unusual in this regard, but I often start to skim when I read fights or chase sequences in thrillers—but never in Rubin’s books.)

While Bone Curse, like her other books, has many medical elements—including a possible alternate scientific explanation for the mysterious illness afflicting Oris and those he cares about—the book struck me as primarily a supernatural thriller, and it’s clear the author did her research on Haitian Vodou. Many of the eerie rituals are described in some detail, and she does a great job of differentiating between true spiritual practices and the “Hollywood” caricature that the word conjures up for most people.

All in all, The Bone Curse is a gripping and fast-paced thriller. And as it is the first in a series, I must say I’ve been looking forward to reading the next installment ever since I finished it.

[The Bone Curse releases on March 27, 2018. This review is based on an ARC of this book I received from the publisher through NetGalley.]

51lvbVGJfzLThe Seneca Scourge is a medical thriller with science-fiction elements.  It follows Dr. Sydney McKnight as she finds herself in the midst of a seemingly incurable influenza pandemic. Aiding the staff at her hospital is the mysterious Dr. Casper Jones. As the pandemic spreads, Dr. McKnight notices Dr. Jones behaving oddly.

As she investigates in between treating the ever-growing patient population, Dr. McKnight gradually uncovers the shocking truth about Dr. Jones.

That’s the spoiler-free synopsis. If you don’t want to know the plot twist, don’t read after the asterisks below. My spoiler-free review is that it is a very well-paced thriller that successfully combines fairly plausible depictions of medicine and viruses in the first half with science-fiction elements in the second half. If you like either medical thrillers or science-fiction (and especially if you like both) I recommend it highly.

Now, if you want to know more detail, with spoilers, read on.

****

(more…)

eatingbull-book-cover-by-lance-buckley
“Eating Bull” by Carrie Rubin

I rarely read murder-mystery or thriller-type novels, especially not those without supernatural elements to them.  Stories with lots of non-supernaturally-motivated murders rarely appeal to me.  So Eating Bull was a bit of an adventure–not the sort of book I would normally read.

“Eating Bull” is the cruel nickname given to the novel’s protagonist, Jeremy–an overweight teenager who becomes the primary plaintiff in a lawsuit against fast-food companies in Ohio.  He is supported by his good-hearted but overworked mother, Connie and his nurse, Sue–a determined woman with a strong sense of social justice.

Arrayed against Jeremy, Connie and Sue are school bullies, unsympathetic co-workers, and even Jeremy’s own grandfather–an agoraphobic Army veteran. Sue faces the additional difficulty of her loving but extremely protective husband, who dislikes her risking her own safety by courting the wrath of public opinion.

In addition to all of this, a serial killer calling himself “Darwin” commits a series of grisly murders–all of them targeting overweight people, whom he deems “sheep”.

I won’t go through the plot in too much detail and risk ruining the appeal of watching it unfold. I will say that all these elements are combined very well–each chapter is told from the perspective of either Jeremy, Sue or Darwin, and all of them balance out and keep an extremely gripping pace.  For the final fifty pages or so, I couldn’t put the book down, and the ending is very emotionally satisfying.

Jeremy is very sympathetic and likeable, and Sue is an admirable portrayal of a heroic woman who nonetheless has a flaw–she tends to value her concern for Justice over the more immediate concerns for herself or her loved ones.  This is well-done, because such a character could have easily become cloyingly saintly, and Rubin does a good job of making her seem heroic and also still human.

The Darwin chapters are naturally quite disturbing, and a good example of why I don’t normally read this genre.  Not that they are badly-written–rather, that they are so well-written as to make me feel slightly sick just reading them.  The portrayal of the killer’s mental state is quite sharply-drawn–among other things, it’s one of the best depictions of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder that I have ever read.

These chapters are definitely heavy on gore, and that was a little tough for me–which is kind of funny, given that my own books have a fair amount of carnage in them.  The parts with violence against women were especially hard to take. But again, these are my own tastes, and I suspect fans of thrillers will be used to this sort of thing.

All in all, I came away extremely impressed by Eating Bull. In spite of the violence, I enjoyed the characters and the pacing. And Rubin also has a real talent for clever descriptions and almost Chandleresque turns of phrase. There were a few hiccups here and there, but overall it stacks up well against the few modern thrillers I’ve read. (Stephen King’s 11/22/63 and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, in particular.)

I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed the book, since thrillers are normally not my cup of tea.  It was something I pondered for a while as I was reading Eating Bull: “Why am I enjoying this so much? It’s not like me.”

And then it hit me: there’s another side to the book, apart from the engaging plot.

Eating Bull‘s main theme is the problem of obesity–Jeremy is obese, Sue wants to cure the societal causes of obesity, and Darwin wants to exterminate obese people. All the minor characters, in some way or other, comment on Jeremy’s condition–some positively, some negatively–but it’s the central theme of the book.

Now, some would just use that as a cheap “hook” or gimmick to tie everything together.  But Eating Bull goes to some lengths to explore the causes of obesity.

For example, there are several scenes where Connie gets some fast-food for Jeremy to eat after she returns from work.  She knows this isn’t optimal, and is apologetic to Jeremy’s caregivers when asked about it, but explains that it’s cheaper and faster to get bad food–and as a single mother working two jobs, this is no small consideration.

There are many other examples of this throughout the book, all aimed at showing the various factors that contribute to obesity. At times, it raises some serious issues regarding how food is marketed, reminding me of the non-fiction book Fast Food Nation.

In some ways, Eating Bull is really what they used to call a “problem novel”–a novel meant to illustrate and draw attention to some societal problem. These were especially popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of Charles Dickens’s novels are examples of the genre, as is Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

It’s very difficult to write a social problem novel that doesn’t come across as preachy and heavy-handed–the author has to balance all the mundane facts (and sometimes even figures) needed to make the social point with a compelling dramatic narrative that is interesting to read. (In The Jungle, Sinclair seems to simply give up towards the end, leading to entire chapters that are just lectures and Q&A sessions on Marxist theory.)

For the most part, Eating Bull avoids this pitfall, keeping the action going at a brisk pace while exploring the larger social theme through minor incidents and at well-chosen intervals.  When some detailed sociological point needs to be made, Rubin wisely has it said by Sue, for whom it seems logical and in-character.

This social aspect was really what set Eating Bull apart for me–it was something more than just an interesting page-turner.  Whereas most thrillers are normally easy to forget once you have learned How It All Works Out, this one gives you a bit more to think about.

One word of warning: if you enjoy eating chips or similar snacks while reading, well… you probably won’t while reading this one.  You may decide to opt for a salad instead, but then of course it’s harder to eat a salad while reading. And that’s to say nothing of the Darwin chapters, after which you may not want to eat anything at all…

Still, it’s a good book.  Check it out.

[Audio version of this post available below]