Unknown Unknowns – Adam Bromley

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Unknown Unknowns Adam BromleyKat Foster, a British junior diplomat, finds herself in hot water after punching an American captain. To regain her status, Kat agrees to take a top secret fact finding mission for the CIA. She must interview an international drug dealer known as the Chemist and find out what information he might have to trade about a mysterious Cold War Soviet weapon known as Pandora. The only catch? The Chemist claims to be in Ozerkistan, a country that doesn’t exist.

Unknown Unknowns is a fantastic thriller that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. Transitioning between narrators and story lines until they eventually converge in an explosion of action, Unknown Unknowns manages to stay several steps ahead of its reader, never really giving its trajectory away. With so many predictable spy thrillers on the shelves, Unknown Unknowns is a pleasant change of pace.  Never taking itself too seriously, there are even moments of hilarity that feel utterly more real than most spy thrillers.

A woman once violated, Kat Foster remains a strong, independent force of nature who throws herself into her work and is remarkably capable. After she was attacked, Kat spent a few years training in Krav Maga, making her anything but the damsel in distress when things inevitably start to go awry. Though Kat might look like a mix of cliches, Bromley manages to make her feel deep and rich, and by far the best drawn character in the book.  If Unknown Unknowns has weaknesses, it lies mainly in its villain and the almost unbelievable motives that drive the narrative.

I did feel that the ending was a bit abrupt, and yet, I am certain that was Bromley’s intention. Maintaining that realism with the spy world, answers won’t come wrapped in neat packages with endings that explain it all. It might be a bit unsatisfying, especially for some readers, but it certainly leaves you wanting more from Kat Foster and the others that populate Unknown Unknowns.

Rating: 7/10


Mistborn Trilogy – Brandon Sanderson

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Mistborn Trilogy Brandon SandersonVin lives in a repressive empire where the nobles have everything and the slaves, also known as the skaa, live in slums and are constantly afraid of the oppressive mists and what may happen to them.  Sixteen years-old and part of a thieving crew of skaa, Vin gets a break in her depressing life when the legendary Kelsier comes to tell her she is a mistborn, an allomancer who can burn ingested metals for incredible powers.  He also has a job for her and other mistings in the city – overthrow the Lord Ruler who for one thousand years has led the people into oppression. Vin agrees, and she and the other allomancers put into motion a set of events that changes the face of the Final Empire.

I had actually never read Sanderson before (I know, I know, throw rocks at me) and decided to test the waters a bit with The Final Empire. Dozens of hours listening to the three audiobooks later and I am a converted fan.  Sanderson somehow manages to craft a world so real that you are left wondering if we could swallow metals and burn them ourselves.  His explanation of allomancy, the ability to burn metals, and feruchemy, the ability to store abilities in metals, are so detailed that you understand the concept completely. It seems perfectly logical and scientific that if you give Vin the right blend of pewter she can burn the metal to become incredibly strong. Sanderson does a great job of making his world grounded in some kind of science, keeping it real and never too “out there”, which can often make fantasy feel a bit too, well, fantastical.

Vin as our heroine is standoffish, untrusting, and the last person in the Final Empire who would want to wear a dress.  At sixteen, she has already witnessed her mother kill her baby sister, her mother die, her brother beat her and then disappear, and suffered beatings by several thieving crew leaders over the years.  But she has born them, is hard because of her trials, and suffers no fools.  And I love her.

In a world of fiction – both filmed and written – where women are so often shallow or two-dimensional, it was refreshing to have such a strong character be the hero of the story. Vin progresses fast with allomancy, becoming a great warrior who causes fear in the hearts of those who come against her path. But it is not her violent abilities that really appealed to me, but rather that she was not just the assassin or body guard. As part of their plan, Vin must imitate a noblewoman, wearing intricate gowns and attending parties where dancing and idle gossip gets you in the door. She might hate the idle gossip, but Vin proves to be a fine dancer, skilled conversationalist, and even begins to love the gowns she wears. Secretly. She maintains a tough exterior, but the reader gets to witness Vin transform into Lady Valette and her love for the other side of her new life.  Vin never really softens, but over the course of the trilogy, she begins to accept and understand that she can be more than the assassin; she can like beautiful gowns and still relish a good fight. Definitely not something you see every day.

It’s hard to talk about The Well of Ascension or The Hero of Ages without giving away plot details from The Final Empire, but they were so in keeping with the first novel that they all felt like a separate volume in one giant story. The books are undoubtedly long, but if you want a great, sweeping fantasy epic, Sanderson is definitely the way to go.

Rating: 8/10

Audiobook Rating: 7/10

Read The Mistborn Trilogy

The Shock of the Fall – Nathan Filer

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The Shock of the Fall cover Nathan FilerMatthew is a nineteen year-old man writing directly to his reader, telling us his story in little pieces.  We soon learn that Matthew suffers from schizophrenia and he is writing this journal/book/set of letters as part of his self-appointed therapy.  Though Matthew attends a day centre where he gets mental health help, he constantly struggles to stay in the present and to find the need to keep seeking help.

The Shock of the Fall has won several awards and it is easy to see why.  Filer’s narrative style is engrossing and fast-paced, keeping you pulled into Matthew’s thoughts and struggles.  Perhaps the most incredible part of Filer’s writing is that he manages to present this schizophrenic mind in a way that is relatable even to those who do not suffer from the mental illness, evoking our sympathy when he starts to struggle, and keeping us cheering for him to get better.  In a world where mental illness and schizophrenia in particular are increasingly stereotype and stigmatized, Filer’s incredible novel can help to pave a pathway to understanding an incredibly difficult disease.

We learn in pieces of Matthew’s ill older brother and learn in snippets that his brother died and Matthew still blames himself ten years later.  It is Simon that Matthew hears when his schizophrenia gets bad and it is for Simon that Matthew begins his special project of which he writes so much about.  As the reader learns and is allowed into Matthew’s past and pain, you are given a window like no other into the mind of someone whose mind is twisted by disease.  Filer drips and dribbles information in slowly enough that you can easily believe in Matthew’s reticence to speak of his brother, especially because speaking of Simon can often lead to his illness getting worse.

If you read the book on an e-book, make sure to leave the publisher’s set fonts. The varying typefaces were particularly intriguing to me, helping to connect the parts of Matthew’s story and it allowed the reader to see exactly where he was mentally when he was recording that section.  I would highly recommend this book be read instead of listened to because the visual adds a vital dimension to Matthew’s story.

I found The Shock of the Fall truly compelling and in many ways cannot believe Filer is a debut novelist.  If this is the level of sophistication, deftness, and depth he can continue to grow throughout his career, I am truly excited to see what is next.

Rating: 9/10

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Saints of the Shadow Bible – Ian Rankin

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Saints of the Shadow Bible Ian RankinRebus is back in the police, demoted and a bit angry. While Rebus investigates a car accident, he learns that a case he and his mentors worked thirty years ago is about to be reopened. That investigation is led by none other than Malcolm Fox, and Rebus is caught between his sense of justice and loyalty to the men who helped him start his career in the police.

Standing in Another Man’s Grave was the first time Rebus and Fox, both Rankin creations in their own series, went head to head, but that stand off was just a teaser to the action in Saints of the Shadow Bible. While Rebus ostensibly is working with Malcolm, you as the reader are never sure if his loyalties lie with the truth or with his old comrades. While many Rebus books have let the famous Edinburgh cop toe the line, in Saints of the Shadow Bible, Rebus appears to have let his post-retirement demotion and treatment force him over once and for all. As a long-time reader of Rebus, even I was sitting on the edge of my seat, wondering what decision the veteran cop was going to make.

Rankin is in great shape in his most recent work, and it was great to see the contrast of Fox and Rebus when they were placed side by side.  I felt that Saints of the Shadow Bible was much stronger than Standing in Another Man’s Grave or Exit Music, putting Rebus back into some of his best form in years.  Rankin raises the tension, keeps the reader guessing in the two central mysteries, and showcases the growth of his characters over the years. Now if only Siobhan could be more settled and happy and less like Rebus in her personal life (I would also read a book centered solely on Rebus’s apprentice).

I am more excited to see where Rebus and Fox are heading, and hopefully we’ll get to see more of Fox finding his way in his new reality as well.  Rankin is taking this next year off, so no new books will be hitting our shelves until at least 2015, but I cannot wait for what’s next for Edinburgh’s craziest cops.

Rating: 8/10

Read Saints of the Shadow Bible (Inspector Rebus)

The Haven – Carol Lynch Williams

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The Haven Carol Lynch WilliamsTeenager Shiloh lives at Haven Hospital and Halls where she and others like her are protected from the dangers of the world. They are Terminals and one day they will die from the Disease, but the Hospital keeps them protected, happy, and healthy for as long as they can.  While Shiloh realizes that her world is different than that of the Whole, she struggles to deal with her friend Amelia’s new outlook of their stay in the Hospital and their ability to one day be Whole.

This easily could have been yet another dystopian YA novel, but it manages to elevate itself above the tropes and cliches that have begun to litter the book stores’ shelves.  There are hallmarks of the genre – regimented schedules, little free agency or choice, and a repressive regime.  However, The Haven manages to be creepy and thrilling in its short 200 + pages, and Williams manages to yet again provide deep, well-rounded characters with fewer words.  Watching Shiloh and her transition as she begins to listen to Amelia, for instance, is fascinating as she fights the change and yet fights for her personal change as well.  Not since Matched have I seen a character who felt so realistic for having been raised in their society.

I did feel that the beginning of the book took some getting used to to really understand what was going on, and once the reveal came I had already begun to guess at what the twist to Shiloh’s story might be.  That does not lessen the reveal in any way, though.  I loved seeing how Williams took an idea that is not new and yet made it completely her own, original, and utterly terrifying in how easily we could slip into that way of thinking in the near future.

That is perhaps what is most chilling about The Haven – the realism.  While I do not want to give away the end of Shiloh’s story, Williams manages to bring up some complicated moral issues and questions that are possibly in the immediate future for the human race.  And once we begin to chip at those walls, how far will we go for our own selfish interests?

If you are looking for a new dystopian YA thriller that doesn’t involve love triangles, battles, or the tired plot lines from other books, give The Haven a read.  It’s fast-paced enough that you won’t be able to put it down until you’re done.

Rating: 8/10

Read The Haven: A Novel

The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith

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The Cuckoo's Calling Robert Galbraith

I use Grammarly for English proofreading because they’re not going to win their fight over there.

Cormoran Strike is a military vet turned private detective who has had a recent string of bad luck – between crippling financial trouble and parting with his fiance, his world is in an emotional upheaval.  After a temporary secretary, Robin, bowls into his life and he is given the high profile case of solving the assumed-suicide of a young model, Strike’s life gets even more complicated.

I am ashamed to say that I had only heard of this book after it was leaked that J. K. Rowling wrote it.  Because she was so disappointed that the sales were going to skyrocket based on her name and not the novel’s own merit, I decided to give it some time before I read it.  Honestly though, this book or potential crime series would have taken off without her pseudonym being revealed.  Strike, like so many Harry Potter characters, is a well-drawn, three-dimensional protagonist who continuously draws you in and captures your attention.  Robin, who might have been a stereotypical secretary and assistant, steals the show as the mystery-solving assistant who just won’t leave Strike’s side.  She finds herself instantly drawn to the gruff man and to his chosen career, but she struggles internally with the expectations her new fiance has for her and her career prospects.

Perhaps what I loved most about The Cuckoo’s Calling was that while it contains so many of the same tropes you would expect in British crime fiction, Galbraith/Rowling manages to write it in her same magical way.  There is a quality to her writing that is nearly fantastical, even when she is talking about the mundane, that lifts the words right off the page.  While I am not sure she achieved this same quality in The Casual Vacancy (a book I gave a miss), she nails it in The Cuckoo’s Calling.  Her writing is simple and accessible, but the story never feels boring or tired.

The Cuckoo’s Calling moves at a rapid pace, keeping you plugged into the case and the strange relationships that filled up the dead model’s life.  While the central mystery is intriguing, the real magic of The Cuckoo’s Calling lies in the draw of Strike and Robin’s platonic friendship and chemistry, along with their individual lives.  While I have yet to hear of an announced sequel, I would gladly read more Cormoran Strike novels.

Dissolution – C.J. Sansom

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C. J. Sansom DissolutionHenry VIII is now Head of the Church of England and Reformation is in full swing.  Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer who is particularly liked by Thomas Cromwell and works with him on various cases.  When a monastery inspector is found decapitated in the monastery’s kitchen, Cromwell dispatches Shardlake to find the murderer and to get the Abbot to agree to close the monastery down.  Though a hunchback, Shardlake shoulders the extreme responsibility and makes his way out of London with his young assistant.

This book was recommended to me by a local bookshop in Grantown-on-Spey and it was a fantastic recommendation.  Though it takes place in the 16th century, the reader is almost instantly thrown back into that time, the scenes and characters painted so vividly you feel completely jarred out of reality.  When reading a historical fiction book, you want every little detail to feel tangible, and Sansom does that with great aplomb.  The concept of a hunchback lawyer solving crimes in the 1500s seemed a bit far out there to me, but I am glad that I gave the book a read.

Shardlake himself is a very likeable, sympathetic character.  Self-deprecating because of his hunchback, you never are asked to pity him but you find yourself wanting to give him a hug so that he knows he is loved.  He values his intelligence and knows his strengths, but especially because of his place in time sees his physical deformity as an impediment to the possibility of real love.  It’s especially this little detail that makes you feel attached to Shardlake and makes him incredibly alive on the page.  He is a character of his time, and yet his growing understanding of what really fuels the dissolution of the monasteries and other acts of the Reformation under Cromwell makes his thinking feel a bit more modern, allowing the current reader to connect with him yet again.

Even the “side” acts on the page are well-drawn and fleshed out, and the who-done-it of the story has a great number of twists and turns.  I devoured this big book over a few days (in front of a roaring wood fire in the Highlands) and could not put it down.  Every time I picked it up I stepped back into the pages so completely that to stop reading it, to stop being in that Sussex monastery with Shardlake, almost felt wrong.  C.J. Sansom has done something incredible with Dissolution.

Rating: 9/10