Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li

Originally published in 2022

History is told by the conquerors. Across the Western world, museums display the spoils of war, of conquest, of colonialism: priceless pieces of art looted from other countries, kept even now. 
Will Chen plans to steal them back.
A senior at Harvard, Will fits comfortably in his carefully curated roles: a perfect student, an art history major and sometimes artist, the eldest son who has always been his parents’ American Dream. But when a mysterious Chinese benefactor reaches out with an impossible—and illegal—job offer, Will finds himself something else as well: the leader of a heist to steal back five priceless Chinese sculptures, looted from Beijing centuries ago…

It will likely come as little surprise to many of you, particularly those well-versed in my love of inverted crime stories, that I also have a great appreciation for heist stories. Whether the job is big or small, there is something inherently entertaining in watching a group of characters – often from quite different backgrounds – come together to plan and execute a crime. Particularly when those characters inevitably mess up, go off script or face an unexpected obstacle or three that will make them have to adjust those carefully laid plans on the fly.

Portrait of a Thief, like many heist stories, is first and foremost a lot of fun. It gives the reader all the story beats they might expect from the genre such as those temporary setbacks and fallings out between the group as well as moments of action, romance and suspense. In addition to the fun however it is also a thoughtful, provocative work that addresses serious questions about colonialism, cultural identity and the need to belong.

Will Chen, an art history student at Harvard, is approached by a woman who offers him a lucrative but seemingly impossible job. She wants him to steal five priceless sculptures looted from China centuries earlier and now located in museums across the globe.

He won’t have to do it alone. He quickly assembles a crew, each member contributing their own special skills to the operation whether that be hacking, driving or sleight of hand. They all hope to get their cut of a fifty million dollar payment should they succeed but several have their own personal reasons for getting involved too which range from the practical to the ideological.

One of the things I loved most about Portrait of a Thief was the sense that though these five characters share some similarities in aspects of their backgrounds, they possess very distinct personalities and concerns. Indeed one of the most interesting things about the book are the range of perspectives we encounter on how each character feels about their American and Chinese identities, reflected both in their motivations for getting involved but also how they intend to live when the job is done. This not only enriches some of the book’s thematic discussions, it also reinforces that these characters are individuals who have had quite different life experiences from each other.

This book digs deep into the lives of these five young people, exploring what has motivated them to get involved as well as their hopes and aspirations for the future. While some begin the book as strangers to one another, several already have connections to one another at the start of the story while other links develop as it goes on. The author does a splendid job of portraying how those relationships slowly evolve and are shaped by the common experience of plotting this heist, and I appreciate that several of those relationships feel really quite deep and meaningful by the end of the novel.

While I liked all five members of the team, the one I found to be the most interesting was Daniel, the only labeled as ‘the thief’ in the blurb. What drew me most to this character is his fascinating personal history and his complex relationship with his father who, as the world’s leading expert on Chinese artwork, is set up to be in opposition to our heroes for a substantial part of the story. I really enjoyed learning more about those characters and their uncomfortable relationship and by the end of the novel I felt particularly invested in what the outcome to that plot thread would be.

The idea that lies at the heart of the novel is that there are many cultural artefacts in the hands of public and private museums that are there because of theft, looting or other illegal trades. The pieces that the team are being commissioned to steal and return to China are pieces of great cultural significance, having originally been displayed as a set, and so for Will at least this is about righting an injustice and it seems to be presented almost as a sense of duty for him.

I found the discussions of those ideas to be quite thoughtful, particularly some opinions voiced toward the end of the novel, and I once again appreciated that the author offers us a range of views not only on the specific matter of ownership but also on the relationships between objects and the cultures from which they were created or developed.

The development of the characters and the themes the novel discusses are closely intertwined with that of the book’s exciting heist storyline. As problems occur we see the different members of the group interact and read how they respond to those central questions about identity and belonging. Often their personalities become clearer in how they react to those adversities, with problems prompting conflicts and introspection. Li does a great job of finding a strong balance between the exciting heist elements and those quieter, character-driven moments.

While I found the result to be both engaging and provocative, there were a couple of elements that were less successful for me. The first were the car racing scenes which felt a little disconnected from the rest of the action and only added to the sense that the action could become rather too slick in places. They are certainly quite exciting and yet they do seem to distract from the other elements of the heist at times.

Perhaps a bigger challenge is the credibility of Will and his friends being approached in the first place. I tried to consider what might prompt a wealthy Chinese woman to hire someone with no practical experience and expect them to pull off a truly difficult job.

My biggest question though left at the end of the novel is pretty simple: why, when we are exploring the lives and desires of all five members, is the title in the singular. It seems quite odd and it makes me wonder which of the characters the portrait is intended to be of.

The Verdict: This entertaining and provocative heist story mixes some enteratining action with some thoughtful development of ideas, and does both brilliantly.

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Originally published in 2020
The Inheritance Games #1
Followed by The Hawthorne Legacy

Avery Grambs has a plan for a better future: survive high school, win a scholarship, and get out. But her luck changes in an instant when billionaire Tobias Hawthorne dies and leaves her virtually his entire fortune. The only catch? Avery must move into his sprawling mansion, full of secret passages, riddles, and codes. Unfortunately for Avery, Hawthorne House is also occupied by the family that was just disinherited. This includes the four Hawthorne grandsons: dangerous, magnetic boys who grew up with every expectation that, one day, they would inherit billions.

Heir apparent Grayson is convinced that Avery is a con woman, and he’s determined to take her down. But his brother Jameson views her as their grandfather’s last hurrah: a twisted riddle, a puzzle to be solved. Caught in a world of wealth and privilege, with danger around every turn, Avery will have to play the game herself just to survive.

The first time I heard about The Inheritance Games it was from a very enthusiastic bookseller who described it as the perfect book for teens who loved Knives Out. That, I thought, was me (well, admittedly not the teen bit) and while I didn’t buy it on the spot I remembered the sales pitch and eventually got around to picking it up a month or two ago. What I should have considered though is that there is more than one reason to love Knives Out and the bit the bookseller was referencing, quite correctly, was not so much the mystery element but the family dynamics.

You see, while The Inheritance Games is a mysterious read with some puzzle elements, I am not entirely convinced you should read it as a mystery – at least, not the sort the reader has much opportunity to solve. Instead I view it as a sort of treasure hunt for the truth with some moments of adventure and flirtation. Which is pretty much what the back cover blurb, quoted above, clearly indicates. Shame on me for not reading it carefully. Still, while the book may not be the neatest fit for this blog in terms of its content, I think it is close enough to make it worth writing about.

The question at the heart of the novel concerns an unexpected inheritance received by Avery Grambs from billionaire Tobias Hawthorne, a man she has no recollection of ever having met. What makes this even stranger is that the he has disinherited his own family to do so. The one stipulation is that Avery must live at Hawthorne House, where the disinherited family reside, for a full year to receive the money. A situation that proves every bit as uncomfortable as it sounds.

Hawthorne had four grandsons who Avery soon comes into contact with. While most of the family wonder over questions of paternity or elder abuse, one of the four, Jameson, reads the situation quite differently. He suspects that their grandfather has left his grandchildren one last great puzzle to solve and thinks Avery must be the key to doing that. Together they begin to piece together the clues that have been left for them.

What follows can be divided into several story strands. The first concerns Avery’s efforts to adjust to her new wealth and position with the new demands and pressures that come with it. This includes managing her interactions with the Hawthorne family, the media and her existing friends and family. Barnes handles this material thoughtfully, particularly the questions around those interpersonal relationships, though I felt that the press interactions and her experiences at her new school were not particularly interesting in themselves. What I think they do however is reveal aspects of Avery’s character.

The second concerns the question of why Tobias Hawthorne selected Avery and disinherited the boys. This question runs throughout the novel and will be answered by its end. This strand of the story contains its strongest mystery elements with Avery and the brothers discovering several puzzles they must solve. Some of these are ones the reader can engage with too, though some of the earliest involve physical steps the reader cannot take for themselves. The nearer we get to the end however the more the reader can do and the answer to the ultimate question is one that I think most will work out before the answer is given to them.

The next involves some information about the Hawthorne family’s past. This is introduced midway into the novel – too late to describe in detail – but I felt that it helped flesh out the characters of some of the boys. It also prompts one of the strongest scenes in the novel which seems to consciously nod to a famous work of romantic suspense fiction, echoing one of its most memorable moments.

To describe the last would be to get into solid spoiler territory but it is alluded to in the blurb as “danger around every turn”. This is initially presented as a mystery though as there is only one character who feels like a credible suspect at that point, I think it doesn’t quite work in that way. It does provide the strongest moment of action in the novel however and it is all quite readable.

Barnes balances these different story strands, weaving them together in such a way that I feel that each gets enough time to develop. The only one that feels a little disconnected is the fourth, given its late introduction and comparatively simple resolution, although I understand that it added elements of action and physical danger that the book needed.

Avery’s background and personality make her an appealing protagonist that the reader will likely want to see survive and thrive in the difficult circumstances she finds herself in. Barnes’ depiction of what it would be like to suddenly find yourself wealthy beyond your wildest dreams is emotionally convincing, even if the descriptions and the details of that lifestyle sometimes feel a little ridiculous.

In contrast, I found the four boys sometimes felt quite flat in spite of the efforts of the author to give them each unique characteristics.

The most interesting of the four to me was Xander, the youngest one who has a much more limited role in this story. His personality is however the most distinct and the author does a good job of explaining those differences. I found myself looking forward to each of his appearances and I was happy that the ending of this novel hints that he will become more important in the subsequent volumes.

Nash, the eldest, I found to be more interesting when he was discussed by others than when he was actually present. His interactions with Avery are largely predictable, though I think his personality is interesting.

We spend most of our time with Jameson and Grayson however and while I enjoyed some aspects of their interactions with Avery, I soon tired of both. This is not helped by the way the book presents them as possible romantic interests for Avery – I certainly wasn’t sensing that these boys were as ‘dangerous’ or ‘magnetic’ as the blurb suggests (for good measure I checked with my wife, who loved this book, and she wasn’t feeling the romantic triangle either).

As for the extended members of the household, many feel quite bland and indistinct, having only limited interactions with Avery. I was a little disappointed by this given the promise of conflict that seemed to come with the idea that they would be forced to live together for a year which turned out to be largely indirect. Hopefully Barnes returns to this idea in the sequels and fleshes these characters out a little more. I think we actually get a much stronger sense of who Tobias Hawthorne was than most of his surviving family members in spite of his being dead before the book even begins.

There are two sequels planned for this book, one of which comes out next month, but this novel does resolve its core question by the end. We learn exactly why Avery was picked and what Hawthorne’s objectives were. The solution is pretty well clued and so unlikely to be particularly surprising but I felt it made a sort of sense given the way those characters had been drawn. It also sets up a promising new question that the next book will apparently address.

I am not sure yet whether I will plan on reading the next one. I enjoyed the puzzle aspects in this first installment, particularly those that we could solve (such as the riddle), but found some of the material with the brothers to be a little forced and I had little interest in the romantic tensions. For those who enjoy teen reads though I think there is some enjoyment to be found here, particularly for those who enjoy a more adventurous storytelling style.

The Verdict: Barnes balances several plot threads pretty well and I enjoyed the puzzle elements, even though I grew a little tired of several of the Hawthorne boys by the end.

You Owe Me A Murder by Eileen Cook

Originally Published 2019

Kim never expected to plot a murder. But that was before her boyfriend dumped her for another girl. Now, Kim’s stuck on a class trip to London with him and his new soulmate and she can’t help wishing he was a little bit dead, even if she’d never really do that.

But when Kim meets Nicki, a stranger on the plane who’s more than willing to listen to Kim’s woes, things start to look up. Nicki’s got a great sense of humor, and when she jokes about swapping murders, Kim plays along—that is, until Kim’s ex-boyfriend mysteriously dies.

Blackmailed by Nicki to fulfill her end of the deal, Kim will have to commit a murder or take the fall for one.

While teen fiction is new to this blog and hasn’t made up much of my reading in the past three or four years, I should say that hasn’t always been the case. Back when I started book blogging about six or seven years ago I shared a book blog and podcast with my wife where we pretty much exclusively talked and wrote about teen fiction.

The subject of today’s post, You Owe Me A Murder, is an example of a type of teen fiction that reimagines or is inspired by works classic literature. Some of these works will do little more than simply transpose the events of a novel into a new setting while others use this approach to discover and develop new themes and ideas, often ending up in quite different places or finding new relevance and connections in a classic story for younger readers.

I have written before about how much I enjoy Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train both in its original form and in the film adaptation so when I came across this new teen novel I couldn’t resist picking up a copy. I was curious to see what elements of the story Cook would retain and how she would rework it to suit today’s younger readers.

The book begins with seventeen year old Kim who is with a small party of students from school who are about to take a trip to London. We learn that back when she signed up for the trip she was excited to spend time with her boyfriend Connor but that since then they have broken up and he is now dating one of her friends. In short, she is dreading the trip, expecting to be uncomfortable and miserable for the next few weeks.

As she waits for her flight to be ready she meets Nicki, a slightly older British girl. The two girls connect and share their frustrations about their lives and situations over a stolen bottle of vodka. Nicki encourages her to talk about her feelings about Connor, inspiring her to write a list of reasons Connor has to die, and shares some of her own complaints about her alcoholic mother. By the time she emerges off the flight she is feeling brighter and more optimistic (albeit with a little bit of a hangover) and is ready for the possibility of a new romance when one comes up. But then Connor falls in front of a train and Kim begins to worry that maybe her new friend is responsible.

And then she receives an anonymous note telling her “You’re welcome”…

The setup is clearly right out of Highsmith though with some updates to account for shifts in the way we travel and to reflect the protagonist’s (younger) age and changing societal norms. Guy was angry at his wife because he was trapped in a marriage preventing him from moving on but Kim’s frustrations at feeling humiliated by her ex, compounded by this being a first boyfriend are relatable. Later in the book we learn further details both of their relationship and how they broke up that add complexity to this aspect of the story which is welcome, helping us understand exactly why Kim is so shaken by the ending of this relationship.

The trip to London is also used quite well because of what it represents for Kim. She is travelling to a place in which she has no support network to fall back on, even if we learn quite early on how inadequate her parents are in this regard, helping us to understand how she will find herself in such a precarious position by the midpoint of the book. It also offers her opportunities however, even if she does not see them at first, to exert some independence and control over her life.

One of the most interesting changes Cook makes to the setup is to have Nicki want her own mother dead rather than a stepfather. Bruno in Highsmith’s original could argue that he was protecting his mother (although I would suggest that he simply doesn’t want to share his mother’s affections or the imposition of control over his drinking and lifestyle) but Nicki is pushing for the elimination of a barrier to her independence. Because she is asking for the elimination of her own kin, the request seems all the more shocking and wrong but it also creates an interesting parallel between Kim and Nicki – the former may be appalled by the idea of killing anyone but she of all people can relate to the idea of feeling that your life is being ruined by a parent (hers is a mommy blogger who has put her whole life up for public consumption on the internet).

On the whole I consider the adjustments the author makes to the initial premise to be successful. She translates the setting and concept well, adjusting it to suit these younger protagonists and to draw out themes of independence and privacy in an internet age that fit comfortably alongside the core plot and feel relevant to today’s generation of teens. Arguably the changes she makes do make Kim blameless in a way that it would be hard to say Guy was in the original story but I think that is fine, particularly given that she blames herself anyway and that the author intends to develop the story in a different direction in the final third.

I have no intentions of spoiling what Cook does differently but I will say that I think the book builds to a strong and exciting conclusion that feels in tune with the themes developed throughout the novel. Cook does a fine job of developing the sense of a teen who feels trapped in a situation that she cannot control. There are a few moments that I think will surprise readers, particularly those who have no experience of the original work or movie. The ending is a little tidy for my tastes but I think it is effective and will satisfy most readers and I loved that there is a surprise mystery element here that is properly clued throughout the novel.

While I enjoyed the work on the whole, there were a few elements that I think missed the mark for me. The biggest issue for me was that there are a few uses of British slang that didn’t quite sound natural. While it has been a few years since I lived in England, a few expressions didn’t feel properly applied or seemed a little dated (I grew up in the eighties and I don’t recall anyone under the age of 30 referring to being ‘on the dole’ – I can’t imagine that this expression has come back). This won’t bother many readers, particularly those enchanted with all things British, but it sometimes made Nicki read a little false to me (though there are plenty of examples of slang used perfectly!).

My other issue with the book is that Nicki, as an antagonist, feels a little flat. Some of this is the result of a direct comparison with Bruno but I think there is also an issue that she exists to manipulate the main character rather than feeling like a fully-fledged character in her own right. While Kim expands as a character the more time we spend with her, Nicki becomes less complex and interesting as we learn more. This probably fits the tone of the book but the more in control Nicki seems, the less interesting and complex she becomes.

In spite of these complaints, I do think this is one of the more successful reimaginings of a classic novel for teen readers that I have encountered. It does a solid job of presenting its themes and ideas for its audience and rather than simply updating the setting or language it does feel like it is its own work that develops in its own way, albeit from a familiar starting point.