Thursday, June 28, 2012

Historical Fiction Thriller

The fourth book in a series of historical thrillers, A City of Broken Glass by Rebecca Cantrell is a blend of the mystery/intrigue and noir genres. It is a well written story that takes place in what many (myself included) consider the darkest period in the modern western world.

Set in Nazi Germany in 1938, the story follows Hannah Vogel, a journalist sent by the Swiss newspaper she works for to cover a fluff piece about pastries during a festival in Poland. But soon after she and her son Anton arrive in Poland, Hannah discovers a real story to cover: the deportation of Jews from Germany. The Jewish refugees Hannah finds are housed in a stable under deplorable conditions and guarded by Polish soldiers as if they are prisoners. When Hannah recognizes one of the refugees as the wife of a former lover, Hannah goes to her and sees that the woman is about to give birth. The woman begs Hannah to ensure the safety of her two year old daughter who has been hidden in a cupboard in the woman's home in Berlin. As Hannah agrees to help, she faces not just the mystery of why the toddler was left alone or where she is but also Hannah's very own  mystery - how she herself becomes trapped in Berlin with her son and how it all ties together with her past. The suspense is built carefully through both the fictional events created and the actual historical events leading to the Holocaust and World War II.

The story is told in first person from Hannah's point of view and in that respect it's very well done. The writing is a little on the colder side but almost exactly what the reader would imagine to be written by a journalist. It also fits well with the bleakness of the time period. Although there is a lot of internal dialogue and self criticism (for not doing enough to fight the Nazis) within Hannah and surrounding the other characters, the characters themselves still struck me as a little cold. Most of the emotion I felt arose from the events rather than the characters - even though the author does a good job of making the main characters a little more likeable towards the end (and they are probably realistic for the time).

As I mentioned earlier, this is the fourth book in the Hannah Vogel mystery series but it can easily be read as a stand alone thriller. There is a lot of historical information behind it and the author even provides additional information from her research at the end.

For a suspense thriller, it's a very good story. It also has an interesting but very disturbing setting. So it's probably just me, but I did feel a little discomfort when I read the novel. Yes, I know there were German citizens who did stand up against the Nazi Regime and their inhuman laws. The author even points this out at the end with real examples. However, as history tells us there were so many who didn't. It gives the reader a lot to think about. I think if the storyline was in a different setting and the characters just a little different, it would have been an easier novel to like.

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City of Broken Glass

Friday, June 22, 2012

I really never imagined I'd be writing this in a review: It's the werewolf apocalypse!

City Under the Moon by Hugh Sterbakov is a very unique thriller that returns the werewolf firmly to the role of monster. For me, this was a welcome change from the recent trend in popular fiction where the werewolf is cast as more of a tortured romantic hero, doomed or otherwise. I also enjoyed the shake up from the hordes of undead leading us to our peril thing - although humanity meeting its end at the shredding hands (claws) of a hairy wolf-like human might not be much of a step up.

From start to finish, the werewolf infection in this story is terrifying. The creatures are nothing but driven killers, cannibals really, controlled by a single leader. They live to eat, kill and spread the infection. To become a werewolf is a fate worse than death.

And of course, that is the fate facing New York city.

As the potential doom of mankind - the werewolf plague - descends on the city; it soon becomes clear that options are limited.The madman behind the plague is demanding a cure from the U.S. government. But is a cure even possible? Will the  government attempt to find a cure or will it take far more drastic measures? The author does a remarkable job of creating suspense throughout the novel, particularly at the end. There are a number of possible  outcomes for the reader to guess at that pop up along the way.

For many thriller fans, this will be a great read. There are plenty of heart racing action sequences to keep the reader glued to the pages. There is a variety of character types - from a geeky young werewolf expert to an atypical FBI anti-terrorism specialist that is something of a science experiment herself. The novel even takes on different sub genres: at times it can be anything from medical  to political thriller, science fiction and horror suspense to historical fiction.

I think this thriller will be a five star book for many action horror fans. For me however, there were some very significant things holding me back.  I did find myself having to go over a couple of passages to re-read some of the action, and I did get a little lost in the middle. It could just be me and other readers might not experience this. My other, more subjective stumbling block was the writing style. Course language can be used effectively and in the case of this novel it's used well with humor. But for me, less is often more and it did take away from my overall enjoyment of the book. Although, I think it would work well as a movie.

Available for purchase on Amazon.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

TraffickedTrafficked by Kim Purcell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's difficult to rate this well told story about such an important subject when the ratings are based on how much a reader enjoys the book. Human trafficking isn't a subject anyone can enjoy. However, this book does a very good job of exposing human trafficking in one of the least expected places: an average American neighbourhood. The author has also done an amazing job of bringing this problem to light for the YA audience. While the story is horrifying and there is content that might be more suited for a mature teen audience, the author has done an excellent job of presenting it.

Trafficked is the story of seventeen year old Hannah who is given the opportunity to go to America and work as a nanny for a Russian family. From the very beginning (i.e. her meeting with the 'bad' agent) Hannah has a terrible experience but remains hopeful when she finally arrives in America. In only a matter of weeks she realizes her dream of making a new life is shattered. Beyond the endless hard work she does for the family, she has no freedom and faces regular mental/emotional abuse from the mother in the family. After several months her situation escalates to the point where she may not just lose all hope of a life in America, she may in fact lose her life.

The story has a measured pace and I think, very well developed characters. Hannah is naive and realizes it, but she has hidden strength. Oddly, the adult family members (Lillian, Sergey)and even their friends/associates (Paavo, Rena)seem realistic (for villains). They're all monsters, yet don't view themselves that way. It's easy to get emotionally involved when reading.

I do recommend this book. I think it is unique as a YA read and very worthwhile. Luckily, the book arrived on my doorstep on my day off so I had the opportunity to sit down and read it. It only took me a few hours and I didn't put it down. This is a book for more serious reading and I imagine the reality is far worse than Hannah's story. It's definitely worth picking up. I'm undecided on an actual star rating - I give it five for the author's skill in turning this subject into a young adult read and bringing much needed attention to it.

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On Amazon

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Undead: Organ Harvesting, the Ice-Water Test, Beating Heart Cadavers--How Medicine Is Blurring the Line Between Life and DeathThe Undead: Organ Harvesting, the Ice-Water Test, Beating Heart Cadavers--How Medicine Is Blurring the Line Between Life and Death by Dick Teresi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fascinating and chilling. Every bit as engrossing as a best selling thriller, the author has done a superb job with his research, life experiences and skill as a journalist. I won't say this is an entirely unbiased account of organ harvesting and life cessation, but it does offer a good deal of information rarely covered or reported in the media. The Undead is terrifying and in that respect the author has done a phenomenal job.

It strikes me that journalists and reporters - including the author - often claim that they are 'just reporting the facts' when they present their story. That may be true; however, that doesn't mean they have to report all of the facts. It also doesn't lay claim to how those facts are reported. Good journalism isn't dry. It fires the reader up. It creates a strong emotional response. It's controversial.

This book does all of that and more. It's witty. It's snarky. The writing is effective. All around, it's a very entertaining read. None of that should minimize it's worth. The book provides a balance to the constant pressure being applied to the general populace of how valuable organ donation is and how it saves lives. It's a highly contentious balance.

Strong proponents of organ donation may view much of what is said in this book as unfair, but I wouldn't agree. Many highly thought provoking points are brought up throughout. Here are a couple (these are over simplified examples from the book - not exactly quoted):

- The ICU has become a place to die (a study of two ICUs). In 1988 51% of ICU patients perished as a result of medical treatment being withheld (because those patients were written off). By 1993 that number rose to 90%.
- In the US the "standard for brain death" does not appear to be universal. It's up to the doctor. Where there are uniform policies in place that justify the withholding of life support, in practice it is "all over the map."

While I enjoyed this book immensely, I doubt it will change the views of most of the readers who pick this up. Organ donations do save lives (even in a best case scenario where it's only one out of two very sick people). Someone very close to me donated a kidney to save a life (live donation) and will forever be a hero in my books. I have helped neighbours with fundraising efforts to get someone onto the recipient list (and yes he is a middle aged man with a less than shiny health preservation history).

However, the people I know who aren't registered donors are also strong believers in organ donation. They simply doubt the effort that would go into saving them first. And unfortunately this book does little to allay their fears. (Although, I seriously doubt anything would. It's like believing a doctor when he or she asks for your medical history and claims there's 'no judgement.' Of course there is. Everybody judges.)

I don't live in the US, so I can rest comfortably in the blissful ignorance of what brain death and organ donation procedures are in place in my country. That doesn't mean the book didn't make me think about it. I do. But mostly, I think about what the author could do with a sequel. Perhaps he could dive more deeply into the lives of organ recipients and their perspectives on the matter? Or, if organ donation is already billion dollar industry in the US what is the incentive to researching and developing alternative life saving measures? I would love to see a follow up to Mr. Teresi's work. Hopefully the author will live long enough to do so.

I recommend this book to anyone who likes a good read, particularly those who might hate it.

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NOTE: This isn't an indie read. It's traditional. I just thought it was such an entertaining read I'd share it from my Goodreads account.