Book Review: Made Safe by Francis Sparks

Murder comes to Des Moines in Francis Sparks’ Made Safe. And things are just getting warmed up at that point in this wintry Midwestern neo-noir debut.

Made Safe by Francis SparksMade Safe starts with the familiar elements of crime. Moses Winter, a middle-aged, down-on-his-luck private detective gets in over his head while investigating a cheating husband.

He forges an unlikely, and sometimes too trusting, partnership with Raif Rakić, a Bosnian immigrant who’s earned his way to detective on the city police department. Rakić steals the show at first. He bends the rules to protect his cousin, who is the dead husband’s mistress. He stifles anger and old trauma from atrocities in the old country.

Winter seems flatter at first, stumbling from one clue to another and taking a beating for it along the way, but his depth and drive blossom as Sparks reveals more of the Des Moines locale and Winter’s native born familiarity with it. He’s less familiar with the Bosnian underworld he discovers, including the vampy Majka, who has more to do with the conspiracy than Winter wants to admit when she starts up a love affair with him. Winter is sharp and good hearted, and he grows into an likable guy.

Winter’s relationship with Majka mirrors his with Rakić. They warm to Winter a little too abruptly, but they’re necessary strands to make the mystery drive on. Drive on it does. Winter discovers a human trafficking ring — young girls from Europe herded literally like cattle with a chilling amorality. There are surprises here, though at the expense of a too-connected string of characters.

Winter time Des Moines provides a unique backdrop. Sparks crafts what seems at first a plain city and straightforward place, but becomes a murky setting that takes on the sturdy grays of film noir, suffering, and uncertain resolution. His ending teases readers a little too harshly, but the crime story holds up.

Book Review: The City & The City by China Mieville

Imagine a tale of two cities separated not at all by distance but by perception. Now insert a murder. This is China Mieville’s formula for The City & The City.

The City and the City by China MievilleThe novel carries the reader through this fantastical framework by means of the familiar – a police procedural, complete with aging police detective Tyador Borlú, a slightly cynical bachelor with enough curiosity to prod around the edges of a murder mystery no one wants him to investigate.

On its face (faces?), the city is absurdity. Mieville constructs a fabulous mosaic of a city, a modern thing drenched in a dual history. Its details are rich and raw and completely fabricated. The conjoined-twin cities occupy some uncertain spot, perhaps between Turkey and Bulgaria. They are fictional uncertainties, yet vibrant ones with the hallmarks of Mieville’s proclivity for settings richer and more engrossing than his characters. Mieville unveils this veiled place one neighborhood at a time, taking his time with the strange culture required to ignore the parts, pieces, and people of a foreign city that uses the same streets. He invents names and histories, even archaeological artifacts, that seem at once plausible and strange.

Mieville inserts twists on these real-world analogs — where Ul Qoma seems Muslim in spirit, it’s a strictly secular place with a recently thriving economy. Beszel is the run down eastern European world of bureaucrats, nationalists and “unificationists” who wish to see the split personality of the city obliterated. These tweaks give the cities more character, and thankfully skirt around the black hole of allegory.

The book is more powerful for it. The metaphor outgrows a tired East versus West analogy, and instead explores polarized identities so hard set against one another that they literally refuse to see, hear, and smell each other. The book seems prescient since its 2009 debut, though that’s more a testament to Mieville’s ability to capture human division more than current events.

Lurking in the cracks of it all is the Breach, an Orwellian threat everyone seems to fear should they break the convention of recognizing anything in the mirror image of their city. Breach’s strict and arcane law is prime, and Tyador comes face to face with it.

The mystery itself is intriguing, though not pulse-racing. More interesting are the perceptions Tyador and his rival city cohort wrestle with as they investigate. The book avoids navel gazing, but the thick and inventive writing force one to pay attention. This is a book to savor, layered with metaphor and intrigue, spiced with fantastic perspectives, without becoming intellectual medicine. It is a book not everyone will enjoy, but a rich and unique read for those who do.

The City & The City by China Mieville: ★★★★

Book Review: The Nix by Nathan Hill

Two decades ago, by means of which I remain skeptical, I managed to write my way into a selective creative writing class at the University of Iowa. I knew one other classmate whose writing immediately impressed and confounded me. I knew two things: I had no idea what I was doing, and Nathan Hill could write like a son of a bitch.

the-nix-by-nathan-hillI was right on both counts. Hill’s debut novel, The Nix, impresses and confounds me again. It’s a brilliant, hilarious, prescient book that has nothing and everything to do with me. My meager history with Hill has nothing to do with the book’s greatness, but my generational and Midwestern kinship drive its home as one of the finest books I’ve read in years and years.

The book is a sprawling daisy chain of generations fighting the tide of their anxious culture. Hill playfully shifts eras as much as he does voice, viewpoints, and structure. He’s treading dangerous ground more like a literary veteran than debut novelist. He reveals the saga in ten parts, and within each toys with chapters that reveal his skill as a short fiction writer as he sneaks us into the head of minor characters like Laura Potsdam, the spinning top of coed destruction that sets main character Samuel spinning out of control. Hill’s mastery with these sections compels the next, but he lets the story reveal itself, cheating perhaps slightly in the very last chapter in what may be my only slight reservation about the book.

Samuel, for his part, is a sensitive, anxious failed writer whose life collapses when he – along with the rest of the country – watches the mother that left him at age eleven in her fifteen minutes of fame throwing gravel at a presidential candidate. The encounter sends him on a path crossed by characters pitiful and grandiose to reckon with his lost youth.

Faye, the mother, begins an enigma, but with each piece of the book, the story truly becomes hers. She’s the richest character in the book, real and complicated and recognizable for all her faults. Characters and deliberate caricatures surround her and Samuel both, and the effect is a book teetering between sublime and satirical. Her arc from anxious, even cruel mother to naïve daughter and do-gooder, are a time-reversing wandering into a tragic, lovable soul.

Then there’s Pwnage, Samuel’s newfound friend and hopeless addict of World of Elfscape, a fictional analog of World of Warcraft. Pwnage is at once virtual master and real life disaster. He is a paradox so absurd as to be unreal, but Hill makes us adore him anyway, and pity his useless bouts with self-improvement. Pwnage doesn’t even have a real name, but his frustrations with diet and success and divorce are as real as his physical pain and deterioration.

The moments of Samuel’s strange suburban childhood and Faye’s troubled counter culture coming of age have more emotional truth than historical verisimilitude, though Hill’s frantic portrayal of the Chicago riot in ’68 captures the moment well and simultaneously reveals more about 21st century life than 20th.  But those moments in the modern day, when Hill observes the absurdity and anxiety and dysfunction of our current life capture exactly my amusement and consternation. There are no secret truths here, and I expected none. But neither did I expect the foresight in reading it during the fall of 2016 and the insanity of the election. Hill writes as one of us secularized people who want the world to make sense when it can’t. When it doesn’t, and what it all represents. (Read it. You’ll get it.)

This is a book more about my lived culture than any work I’ve ever encountered. My forays into video games show up, along with Hill’s tongue-in-cheek section written as a Choose Your Own Adventure book, one of the fads of my (and Samuel’s, and obviously Hill’s) youth. The dehumanization of social media and 24-hour news cycles seethe under the anxious gooseflesh of characters overwhelmed by their addictions to their own culture. Somehow, despite all that, I laugh right along with them, relieved that I’m not alone in trying to make sense of the senseless. This is a novel that matters to me in a way like nothing I’ve read. It relieves me of the condition that my culture is plain to the point of shameful. That Hill’s prose and elastic characters are skillful makes this all the better.

Hill is keen on one running theme – that the things we love the most cause us the most harm. That’s something of a half-truth and partial wisdom. I’d wager that Hill would agree, and that’s partly why I’m able to count him, however distantly, as an old friend and kindred spirit. What he does not say, but crafts over and over again in the telling is that honesty and language arm us against that anxiety and harm, along with a healthy shedding of shame. Those are hard lessons for real Midwesterners to accept, including the fictional Samuel and Faye.

The Nix by Nathan Hill: ★★★★★

Book Review: The Killing Kind by Chris Holm

Chris Holm’s The Killing Kind is a hit man tale with a twist. He’s an assassin who hunts others like him, an effort to redeem his mysterious past and failure to come home from war to a woman he loves.

The Killing KThe book is a solid thriller with well paced chapters. Holm’s action scenes flow, sometimes at breathless pace, and he grounds everything in a practical detail that brings real clarity to the action.

The primary characters of the novel work well for the concept and situation they’re all facing, but each needs more depth and nuance to justify their larger than life calamities. Then at other times, lesser characters come to life only to disappear with insufficient resolution (the casino ventriloquist, for example).

The book takes a dark twist with a mostly convincing psychopath villain, and Holm builds a little sympathy for the FBI characters trailing the hero hit man. But it’s too little too late for the book’s otherwise well paced structure. The ending is momentous, too much so. The hitman earns his explosive climax, but it’s hard to justify his choice.

All told, The Killing Kind is an entertaining read with a hard edge that needs just a little honing.

The Killing Kind by Chris Holm: ★★★

Book Review: Inspector of the Dead by David Morrell

Inspector of the Dead is David Morrell‘s second successful effort to resurrect Victorian London in prose. In this second novel, he improves upon his own formula for a much more gripping read.

Inspector of the DeadLike Murder as a Fine Art, the previous book, this one centers on Thomas De Quincey, a real life writer of the period who Morrell drags into fictional detective work. Opium-addicted De Quincey and his doting daughter pair up with detectives Becker and Ryan, and the four of them annoy the aristocracy as they unravel the rampage of a murderous “revenger.”

De Quincey works as a pitiful old genius who challenges London’s sensibility with radical ideas of perspective and reality. It’s one of the book’s greater charms for modern readers already familiar with his ideas enjoy the reactions of Londoners who find the ideas so strange — including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

The book spends slightly less time exploring on De Quincey’s idiosyncrasies than its predecessor, and shines less spotlight on the physical Detective Ryan. The detective quartet bounces about London at an enjoyable, often exciting clip, practically inventing detective work and psychological profiling. It’s one of the books charms as De Quincy and his daughter challenge Victorian sensibilities with new ideas modern readers recognize, like Immanuel Kant’s notions of perspective and subjective realities. There’s still time for Emily and Becker to become more familiar with one another. But the pace of the book rises above. It’s full of surprises and shocks, and the pages turn easily with the well-crafted action.

The revenger, the villain at the heart of a long conspiracy, has a woeful tale that Morrell divulges bit by painful bit. He does share several similar characteristics with the villain from the previous book’s villain. But, Morrell creates a more developed, even more sympathetic antagonist, one that expands rather than strains the immersive setting of the book.

Morrell’s fascination with and exhaustive research on Victorian London underpins everything about this enjoyable book. He captures incredible details, political sentiments, and even the form of the novel itself to immerse readers in a foggy-bound world that breathes and seethes London at the murky dawn of the modern age. Mimicking Victorian novels, he combines the narrative with explanatory passages and first-person journal entries from De Quincey’s daugther, Emily.

Inspector of the Dead is an expertly paced historical thriller and a joy to read.

Inspector of the Dead: ★★★★★

Book Review: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

I first encountered master spy novelist John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in high school. My librarian recommended it to me, but like a fool I never read it, but knew it’s considered a masterpiece. Quite rightly.

the-spy-who-came-in-from-the-coldThe novel begins tense, with an agent fleeing the border crossing at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. He’s gunned down, and his handler, Alec Leamas, falls into a master plan to recover the loss.

Leamas begins a subtle gambit, masterminded by Control, his boss at MI6. This ruse sends him on a tailspin of alcoholism — less a ruse than Leamas would like to admit — unemployment and bitterness. He discovers a new love, gets recruited by the East Germans to turn against the British and Americans, and finds himself interrogated, imprisoned, and then on trial before the East German Praesidium.

Each step, le Carré crafts fascinating spies, a cast of heroes and villains more disheveled than dashing. While some, like Leamas’ naive lover who is central in Control’s plan, border on the caricatured, others are captivating.

The story is brief and constantly tense. For those unfamiliar, le Carré is all tension and inference, not action and adventure. The Cold War seethes here, and the characters become players of a cerebral game, themselves imagining narratives of what their adversaries are plotting. Still, there is action and violence that’s suddenly urgent and vivid and ultimately tragic.

But, above all, I find le Carré an astounding writer of prose. Yes, his characters and his narratives rise above, but his sentences are genius here. It’s a tightly written book of beautiful shadows and gorgeous light amid gray upon gray characters and their ashes, literal and figurative. Le Carré isn’t so much painter as he is photographer.

I can’t yet speak to his other works, many of which are famous — Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Russian House, The Constant Gardener, and many more. I’m only a little disappointed it took me this long to discover his work. It’s extraordinary.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carré: ★★★★★

Book Review: Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell

For his canvas, veteran writer David Morrell recreates 1854 London in Murder as a Fine Art. It’s an ambitious book, and Morrell immerses himself and, thus, readers into not only a detailed era but a forgotten mindset.

Murder as a Fine Art by David MorrellThis detective novel stabs higher than mere Victorian whodunnit by latching on to historical figure Thomas De Quincey as protagonist. Morrell gets recursive within the mystery genre. The real-life De Quincey, who penned On Murder as Considered One of the Fine Arts and Confessions of An English Opium Eater, inspired Edgar Allan Poe directly, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle indirectly. Thus, Morrell invents the inventor of detectives, and explores an era where detectives have to fight against not only criminal masterminds but also unsympathetic attitudes.

De Quincey is the brains of the investigation. He’s an aging writer and laudanum addict — part genius, part wretch. At his side is his progressive daughter, Emily. They befriend an Irish detective named Ryan and an ambitious constable named Becker. Together, the team are like parts of the mind, the gutsy id and sensible super ego. Morrell smartly dabbles in early ideas of the subconscious. How conscious, I wonder, was his assembly of these detectives with their investigative minds working as one?

They investigate a terrible murder, a recreation of a decades-old murder that scared London into panic. De Quincey’s writings about the first event thrust him into suspicion, but Ryan and Becker quickly determine De Quincey and Emily’s dedication to solving the mass murder before worse happens.

And worse does indeed happen as the murderer “paints his art” across London. While fascinating, the villain and his back history intermingle grand political effort and deep family tragedy. The mix doesn’t quite blend on the canvas, and the art itself becomes mere mess. Is he an artistic sadist? An avenger? A political rebel? The answer is there up to the end of this tense and delightfully action packed Victorian escapade, but the villain encompasses too much to be believed.

No doubt, the novel captures interest as a good, historical thriller. Like his characters, Morrell is ambitious. His research of 1850s London shines, and his wonderful afterword explains well the techniques he used.

It’s a fine work well worth reading, but in the end the realities of this murder spree don’t quite rise to the level of art and the subconscious breakthrough it “inspects.”

Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell:★★★★

Book Review: A Kill in the Morning by Graeme Shimmin

Here is a spectacular, speculative thriller worth  every page. Graeme Shimmin’s A Kill in the Morning is a wild ride of alternate history, hard-edged British spy homage, and Nazi super villainy.

A Kill in the Morning by Graeme ShimminThroughout, Shimmin’s tight prose delivers and plot twists abound. The author’s love of thriller fiction from the post-war period soak into each chapter. Here are fond echoes of Flemming, MacLean, Higgins, and more.

But, the novel is no mere homage. Shimmin constructs an alternate history of 1955 that if not exactly plausible, pulses with excitement and rich detail.  The Nazis control much of Europe in a double-front cold war with the British and Soviets — the Yanks are largely absent from the situation.

The book’s unnamed protagonist is a veteran special agent with a knack for killing, and a license to go with it. He’s hyper-competent and hard-edged. Shimmin peels back his unnamed history. The poor bastard does all for queen and country without feeling like a robotic superman. His exploits are exciting, but tempered in the face of incredible opposition.

Along side him are two women that shape and soften his determined suicide missions. Molly is a fellow agent with a hard, lonely heart that softens for the hero. Kitty is a German revolutionary who suffers at the Nazi’s base cruelty. Both are likable and headstrong, if perhaps a little too defined by their sexual charms and suffering.

The book is filled historical figures, especially Nazi leaders like Heydrich, Hess, and Canaris. Heydrich is the aggravating villain of the book, and the target of the protagonist’s main mission. He’s over the top and a wonderfully aggravating character, even for his rival Nazis.

Shimmin makes no bones about his speculative thrill ride that boils ever higher into crazed Nazi super-science fiction. There are parts and pieces of the book that feel obligatory for sub-genre fans. Wewelsburg castle and the Black Sun occult appear, as does Nazi ramblings about Aryans, Hyberboreans and Ultima Thule. And, there is some wry humor and cheek, but it remains a serious and violently real book, to its credit.

The reader can keep both feet on the ground through the grit of the British agent and his compatriots. They meet Nazi absurdity and cruelty to the end with fortitude and blood-and-guts action.

In short, this is an extraordinary engaging read I highly recommend. A gorgeous cover certain doesn’t hurt its appeal!

A Kill in the Morning by Graeme Shimmin: ★★★★★

Note: The recently published book is available in the UK, but not widely available in the US. You can order on Amazon UK or get a hard copy on


Book Review: The Last Bayonet by Steven Hildreth, Jr.

In his debut novel The First Bayonet, Steven Hildreth, Jr. tackles kinetic action head on. It’s an urgently paced action thriller that never lets up, sometimes to its detriment as a rugged, sassy read.

the-first-bayonet-steven-hildrethHildreth is an Army veteran who deployed to Iraq, and it shows. The novel’s rich with military hardware details down to the millimeter. Dialogue dives in to spec ops lingo and headset protocols. The attention to details gives the action heft and should please aficionados.

Central character Ben Williams is a retired special operations machine of a man who has turned to clandestine mercenary efforts. He’s hired to rescue Zaina, a fiery Egyptian intellectual and agitator, from an Egyptian prison and exfiltrate her from Mubarak’s oppressive state.

The novel’s set in 2006, well before recent tumultuous events in Egypt, which Hildreth leans on for whiffs of discontent and heavy-handed mukhabarat (secret police) activities. It is a tense, violent, and tough-as-nails book. Hildreth propels his hero from one impossible mission to another, and that hero shoots, punches, races, and chokes his way through each one, collecting an incredible body count along the way.

Williams is something of an intellectual himself, but unapologetic about his “direct action” approach. He doesn’t quite earn the warrior-poet mantle, but he’s no blunt instrument.

The book touches too briefly on much needed softer scenes as Williams and Zaina discuss politics and philosophy, cleverly bantering with one another through thoughtful references and a taste for cigarettes. Through Zaina, Williams almost reveals himself. But, readers are left with too much perfect action and too little insight into what makes Williams tick.

But, hard action waits for no man, especially not Colonel Agha. He’s the counterintelligence mastermind who pursues Williams throughout the novel, coolly directing his torture at particularly tough point of the book. Hildreth constructs a suitable villain for his man of action, and Agha’s progression from respectable spy-hunter to rage-blinded avenger is the best character writing in the novel.

When the dust settles and smoke clears, Hildreth accomplishes what he set out to do. It’s a hard-edged page turner that raises no questions or doubts about its too-accomplished hero. The result is a work this reader respects but wants to see a crack in that hero’s armor and a pause on that body count.

The First Bayonet by Steven Hildreth, Jr.: ★★★

Book Review: Hekura by Nate Granzow

In Hekura, author Nate Granzow has created a commentary on adventure fiction with a long tradition of rollicking paperbacks and horror-tinged thrillers. Here is homage to Crichton and Cussler with a new generation’s twist on action hero, beaten to a pulp.

hekura-by-nate-granzowHekura is a tale of science and corporate greed gone wrong, all in a soulless pharmaceutical company’s quest to capture rare Amazon plants to cure cancer. The titular creatures are nature’s revenge for its overreach. Deep in the Amazon jungle, researchers have transformed into brutish creatures who attack viciously at night like modern-day morlocks.

At the center of this mess is Austin Stewart. He’s a gun-running, drug running English flyboy who spouts English cliches and carries a distinctive Webley revolver. He smokes, drinks, swears, and turns on the charm for ladies. Granzow’s best character work is driving this stereotypical adventure story figure into a sympathetic sort who, through action, closes the tale with something to say about the genre and its importance beyond titillation.

Granzow paces chapters in staccato succession with tight, tense action interspersed with playful interaction, like Austin Stewart wooing divorcée Olivia, a smart scientist who seeks a fresh start. It makes for a grabbing, swift read and keeps interest.

The book is more than a monster mash in the jungle with its cast of troublesome characters, including a power-mad executive, her deadly mercenary contractor, a sadistic drug lord, and a sketchy group member who’s sabotaging the affair. Granzow puts the bad actors into a bestial blender and keeps the story moving.

The book stumbles at times with repetitive prose patterns that kept me recognizing the writer over the immersive action. It’s hardly an egregious flaw for the otherwise entertaining romp, but surfaces enough to itch.

The book regains its step with a satisfying string of closing surprises, including a fun cameo for any reader familiar with Granzow’s other books. And in those surprises, Granzow shares his vision for adventure — episodes of luck and daring in the face of indifference and injustice.

Hekura by Nate Granzow: ★★★★