Friday, July 3, 2015

For the Fourth: Review of Kathyrn Miller Haines's Winter in June

Tossing around some books trying to decide what next to sink my teeth into, I spied Kathryn Miller Haines's Winter in June (HarperCollins, 2009). Just the thing for this time of year, I thought. I wasn't intending to seek out patriotic reading but, I hit the bullseye here; it was just perfect for my mood.

I first came across Rosie Winter in Haines's The War Against Miss Winter. Rosie is a struggling actress in the New York of the 1940s. She has a day job working for a private detective. Acting jobs are not jumping her way, and she is a bit worried about losing her room at a boarding house that rooms working actresses.

Rosie begins honing her detectival skills when she finds her own boss hanging in the closet in his office. Standard for mystery novels, the police want to write it off as a suicide, but Rosie suspects foul play. Life isn't easy in those days, with food rationing, blackouts on a regular basis and jobs a little scarce.  But Rosie, who has cut her chops in the dog-eat-dog world of the theater, is more than capable of handling a measly lot of criminals––especially with the help of her sleuthing sidekick and best friend, Jayne. What stands out about this novel is the pitch-perfect way that Haines captures the ambience and the tempo of the early war years.

This carries over to the third book in the series, Winter in June. By now it is 1943 and the war machine is in high gear. Both Rosie and Jayne have been more successful in their careers, but they would like to be more of a help with the war effort. Through some connections, they've been offered parts in a USO show that is headed to the South Pacific. Where they will be going is not exactly to Bali Hai, that perfect island, but to a camp in the Solomon Islands now held by the Allies.

This opportunity sounds like a gift from the gods to Rosie, because she has heard that her ex-boyfriend has been missing in action and was last seen in the Solomons. Visiting this part of the world will give her a chance to try and find him.

Jayne and Rosie travel to the West Coast and are excited to be part of a five-woman group sailing out on a converted former cruise ship repurposed by the Navy for troop transfer to the Pacific Theater. As Rosie puts it, though, she was expecting to get champagne for her bon voyage, but instead she got a corpse. In the waters near the point of departure, the body of a woman is found floating. The victim is unknown at first, but it is soon discovered that she is a former WAC who had been stationed at the same base, Tulagi, that Rosie and Jayne are assigned to.

Arriving at the base after a somewhat dangerous and uneasy ocean crossing, the girls are allocated living quarters. They are told that they are privileged characters because the tent of stitched-together sheets that they are to occupy for a few months actually has a floor and, more important that that, they have a barrel of water for a sink.

These ladies take everything in their stride, including communal latrines, nails in posts for clothes hangers and the sounds of a predator- and pest-infested jungle waiting to sing them to sleep. The ladies aren't the only females on the island, because there is a contingent of WACs that came a short while back.  These WACs don't have the same privileges as the USO, and this causes some friction.  It doesn't help that apparently a member of their troupe used to be a WAC, a fact she kept to herself.

Between rehearsals for their routines for the show, Rosie tries to quietly investigate what has happened to her ex, Jack, and the murdered WAC.

What irks Rosie the most is that after living in New York for two years of the war, she had grown used to being in a part of the world where being a broad meant something different than it had to her mother and grandmother. Because of the war, women were finding themselves in more and more important roles previously dominated by men.

She was used to travelling the streets alone and to seeing women working outside the home, even when there were children. But in the military, it was made pretty clear that this was a civilian phenomenon only. In the world of the armed forces, women were still second-class citizens.

Haines uses the turns of phrase popular in the forties, and the mores of the time to bring authenticity to her story. She made me nostalgic for a time that was before I was born. The women smoked gaspers, batted the breeze, island-hopped to perform sometimes three to seven shows a day and were getting complacent when there was another murder.

The murder investigations do take a back seat to the chronicle of the reality of the women's lives in the USO and in the Pacific Theater of war. But this didn't detract from my enjoyment of the novel. There is one more chapter to Rosie's life, entitled When Winter Returns. That'll probably be when I’ll read it.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

June-July 2015 Preview: Part Nine

I've always loved riding the train, especially when I'm alone and traveling a route I've driven a gazillion times. With familiar views out the windows and no companion, I read. There's something so luxurious about reading when you have plenty of leg room and you can hear the train rumbling along from Point A to Point B. All you need for a pleasant time is the right book.

Maggie Smith as Greene's Aunt Augusta in the
1972 film directed by George Cukor

While you can read all sorts of books on a journey, some seem tailor-made for a traveler. One example is Graham Greene's funny and entertaining 1969 novel, Travels with My Aunt, narrated by retired bank manager Henry Pulling. Pulling's idea of a good time is not dancing on a table while clenching a rose between his teeth; rather, it's quietly tending his dahlia garden. Needless to say, this man is overripe for an adventure, and you're darn tootin' he will find one. Of all places, it's at his mother's funeral, where the book begins, when his eccentric Aunt Augusta introduces herself with the remark, "I was present once at a premature cremation." The tone set, Henry and Aunt Augusta head out to Brighton, Paris, Istanbul, and Paraguay.

My summer travel plans don't include any of Augusta and Henry's destinations, but I do plan to go to 1884 London via a steampunk novel by Natasha Pulley that combines a mystery with an examination of time, free will, and fate. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the similarity of its cover to Nick Harkaway's terrific Angelmaker (see Sister Mary Murderous's review here) is a good sign.

Early reviewers rave about The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (Bloomsbury USA, July 2), which revolves around Keita Mori, a Japanese immigrant who is London's finest and most creative watchmaker. Mori keeps a clockworks octopus for a pet and may be able to "remember" the future.

I think Pulley's soothsayer is Mori, rather than his octopus, but I can't help thinking of Paul, the real-life British octopus who moved to an aquarium in Germany and went 8 for 8 in predicting winners of the 2010 World Cup games by picking a mussel out of two flag-bearing containers in his tank. When Paul died "peacefully of natural causes" several months later, his remains were cremated and placed into a golden urn. Der Spiegel's tender obituary is titled "Death of an Oracle." But I digress. Connected to each other through their ties to Mori are Home Office telegraphist Nathaniel Steepleton, Oxford-trained physicist Grace Carrow, and Akira Matsumoto, a distant relation to the Emperor of Japan. I gather this is the kind of book spoiled by too much information, so I won't say more.

Any talk about 1800s London turns my thoughts to Charles Dickens. One time I was visiting a used bookstore in Indiana and happened upon a very small copy of Bleak House. It rode around in the bottom of my bag for several years until I was on a midnight train, and somehow it was the right time to pull it out and re-connect with the orphaned Esther Summerson, the haughty Lady Dedlock, and the never-ending court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

It was wonderful riding a dimly lit train and reading Dickens, knowing this time I didn't need to grapple with the novel's themes for a term paper. I'm curious about Stephen Jarvis's novel, Death and Mr. Pickwick (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, June 23), which describes the writing of Dickens' comic Victorian-Age buddy novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Pickwick actually began, not with Dickens, but with illustrator Robert Seymour, who was doing a series of whimsical engravings for the publishing house of Chapman and Hall in 1836-37. Seymour's series needed accompanying text, so the young Dickens was hired. When their collaboration ended, first-time writer Dickens was a literary sensation. After reading Jarvis's book of historical fiction, we'll know what happened to Seymour. At 800+ pages, there's plenty to nibble on over the course of a journey.

I couldn't call myself a crime fiction fan if 1800s London didn't also conjure up Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes. There can never be enough good renditions of Holmes on the screen or on the page, and I suggest you head to Sherlockian.net, the web portal about the Great Detective, if you need any help whatsoever in navigating Holmes's world.

A few years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Dirda wrote On Conan Doyle: Or, the Whole Art of Storytelling. It is an enjoyable literary memoir and won an Edgar for Best Critical/Biographical Work in 2012. I'm looking forward to seeing how Zach Dundas handles Holmes in The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes (June 2). Its publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, calls it a "biography of someone who never lived, a tour of the borderland between reality and fiction, and a joyful romp through the world Conan Doyle bequeathed us." Reviewers say it's both well-researched and fun, whether you're a Sherlockian addict whose fondest dream is being invited to join the famous Baker Street Irregulars or a casual fan whose interest has been piqued by Sherlock, the BBC TV series with Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson.

I know Sister Mary wouldn't agree, but some occasions just howl out for a creepy read. You're in bed, wide awake, with your spouse deep in sleep beside you, or you're curled up in a comfy chair with your dog asleep at your feet. You have a gentle—but firm—foot on Fido so he doesn't startle awake and do that excruciatingly slow, hair-bristling-on-his-back stalk over to the closet and sniff under the door thing dogs sometimes do to disconcert their owners. This is a great time for a thriller with supernatural elements such as those written by Stephen Lloyd Jones (The String Diaries and Written in the Blood) and Michael Marshall (The Straw Men).

Stefan Spjut's The Shapeshifters (translated from the Swedish by Susan Beard; Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 7) looks promising. It's a 590-page thriller combining suspense and Nordic folklore, and the Kirkus review calls it a "disturbingly dark and strangely realistic novel." It's set in the winter of 2004, when little Matthias Mickelsson is kidnapped. The only lead is a misshapen little man on Susso Myrén's grainy surveillance tape. After the tape receives national attention, Susso, a young woman who learned about the stollo, shape-shifting trolls and other mythical creatures, from her father, plays amateur detective. She embarks on a dangerous quest to find Matthias, accompanied by her mother and an ex-boyfriend. Pursuing them across northern Sweden are stollo-sympathizing people and who knows who (what?) else.

Okay, let's bid adieu to Earth and look in on Freya and her mother, Devi, the de facto chief engineer on a spacecraft traveling twelve light years past our solar system, in Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora (Orbit/Little, Brown, July 7). Their goal is to colonize a planet circling the star Tau Ceti. The original crew of 2,000 left in the 26th century; the trip takes several hundred years, so it's their descendants who will be the colonists. Along the way, we'll debate scientific questions, the nature of human existence, and the arguments for and against space exploration. We'll see what happens if the planet isn't as hospitable to human colonization as we'd hoped. Oh man, and I thought unsanitary rest-stop bathrooms were the absolute bottom.

Kim Stanley Robinson writes hard science fiction driven by issues and populated by well-drawn characters whose views often conflict; they must deal with problems created by the solutions to previous problems. If you're a newbie to sci fi, you might also want to investigate Andy Weir's The Martian (look for the movie starring Matt Damon this October), Philip K. Dick's Ubik, Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Frank Herbert's Dune, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, William Gibson's Neuromancer, or Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. There's no need to settle for life as we already know it.

The beautiful part of Amtrak's Coast Starlight route.

Monday, June 22, 2015

June-July 2015 Preview: Part Eight

Looking through upcoming titles makes it clear there's something for every reader and occasion.

The biggest book arriving this summer is Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman (Harper, July 17). Lee is, of course, the woman who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, the popular classic of American literature. It deals with coming of age, the loss of innocence and race and justice. You might already be aware of the controversy surrounding the Watchman manuscript's discovery earlier this year and the decision to publish it. This is the manuscript Lee wrote in the 1950s and submitted for publication to Lippincott editor Tay Hohoff, who guided and edited Lee's rewrite. It resulted in To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960.

Go Set a Watchman will be published as Lee originally wrote it, without editorial revision. It's set 20 years after To Kill a Mockingbird. Jean Louise ("Scout") Finch is now an adult and she returns to her small hometown of Maycomb, Alabama to visit her father, Atticus. Surely this is a book for readers who would like to see the origin of Lee's famous novel. In addition, there's bound to be a lot of talk about Watchman after its publication, so it's for people who want to be able to contribute intelligently to that discussion. I suggest you read it on a screened porch with a glass of sweet tea or lemonade at hand. If you're into matched book sets, you might want to check out the To Kill a Mockingbird/Go Set a Watchman dual slipcased edition available from Harper on October 27, 2015.

A few summers ago, I saw the movie Oliver Stone made from one of Don Winslow's nonseries books, Savages, about what happens when a violent Mexican drug cartel tries to muscle in on a successful southern California marijuana business operated by a love triangle composed of 20-somethings Ben, Chon and O. The movie is beautiful to look at, but it's overly long and the violence is over the top. Winslow's Savages deserved better. If you like hard-boiled tales with quirky characters speaking snappy dialogue in cinematic settings, Winslow may be your man. In addition to nonseries books, Winslow has written series, including one with a pickpocket who became a PI (begin with A Cool Breeze on the Underground), a second with a surfer PI (The Dawn Patrol), and a third featuring a DEA agent, Art Keller, who deals with drugs traveling into the United States from Mexico.

The first Keller novel is 2005's The Power of the Dog. In 560 pages, it traces drug trafficking from Medellín, Colombia to Honduras to Mexico and to the United States. Its brooding main character, Keller, is the son of a rich American who abandoned his young Mexican wife. Keller grew up in a San Diego barrio, where he saw the devastation of drugs at first hand. After a stint as a CIA op in Vietnam, Keller joins the DEA. If you're in the mood for a heartbreaking indictment of our government's endless War on Drugs and a hell of a read, this book is for you. Winslow continues his well-researched epic with The Cartel, to be released by Knopf tomorrow. By now, it's 2004 and Keller is leading a quiet life, tending bees at a New Mexican monastery. Keller's an obsessional guy, however, and he swings back into action upon hearing the Sinaloan cartel leader, Adán Barrera, has escaped from prison and once again heads his drug empire. I have high hopes for this 600-page sequel, which appears on Publishers Weekly's list of this summer's best. It looks like a good book for reading anywhere you can sit in the sun and drink a Mexican beer or a mean margarita.

Lori Roy's crime fiction is for readers who like lyrical country noir writers such as Amy Greene, Wiley Cash and Tom Franklin. Roy writes nonseries books set during times of social or personal upheaval. Her suspenseful, gothic-tinged first, Bent Road, won an Edgar for Best First Novel by an American. It features Arthur and Celia Scott, who decide to leave the problems of 1960s Detroit by moving their three children to Arthur's Kansas hometown. Arthur's family's history there is less than idyllic and this move brings to mind "out of the pot, into the fire." Roy's second, Until She Comes Home, was nominated for an Edgar. It involves a crime and its aftermath in 1950s Detroit, a world where men leave factory shifts to return to their wives at home.

Roy's third book is a coming-of-age novel. Let Me Die in His Footsteps (Dutton, June 2) needs the accompaniment of a lavender-infused ice tea. Or you could eat ginger cookies and dab your lips with a lavender-drenched linen hankie. The inspiration for Roy's book brings to my mind Sharyn McCrumb's The Ballad of Frankie Silver, based on North Carolina's first woman hanged in 1833. Silver was the mother of an infant and 18 years old when she was convicted, without benefit of her own testimony, of killing her husband. The 1936 hanging of a man in Owensboro, Kentucky that inspired Let Me Die in His Footsteps was America's last legal public one. Two story lines spin out in alternate chapters. Each involves the gift of foretelling (the "know-how") and a set of rural Kentucky sisters: Juna and Sarah in 1936 and Annie and Carolyn in 1952. This is another from Publishers Weekly's best-of-summer reading list.

"Just the blood-soaked, demon-ravaged, terrifying sequel to The Dead Run (2013)." Right there, that Kirkus review ought to be enough to recommend Adam Mansbach's The Devil's Bag Man (Harper Voyager, July 21). If you haven't read The Dead Run, which I'll tell you about in a second, you may recognize the Mansbach name as the exhausted dad who wrote the best-selling Go the F*ck to Sleep. This is obviously a writer who knows how to have fun.

Mansbach is obviously having fun (of a gory sort) in The Dead Run (Harper Voyager, 2014), which works best for readers with a hardy suspension of disbelief. To enjoy this book, you must accept profanity and a lot of blood and like elements of the goofy, the supernatural, horror and suspense in an offbeat, hyperkinetic thriller. Think Pulp Fiction meets Breaking Bad meets Taken meets Starman, not the potential plot but the flavor. It's about an anti-hero smuggler, Jess Galvan, who is imprisoned in Mexico when a shaman gives him a box containing the beating heart of a virgin (you heard me). To save some lives, Galvan must deliver the heart to a cult leader in Texas. If Galvan succeeds, the world will enter the time of evil foretold by the Aztecs. A small-town Texas lawman leads a small band of good guys on his trail. I'll let you meet the bikers and armies of undead virgins in the book. Galvan's saga continues in The Devil's Bag Man, which finds Jess living out in the desert "with a head full of angry Aztec god." If you want a lovely book with a hopeful look at world's end, sit down with a glass of chardonnay and Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven (Knopf, 2014). For a more crazed look, there's The Devil's Bag Man, a Coca Cola and some popcorn. Read it after The Dead Run to relieve the boredom of a long journey to your summer vacation destination.

Sometimes a book that sounds tailor-made for the big screen also works well for the beach blanket. That's the early verdict for Crush (Prospect Park/distributed by Consortium, July 14), by Emmy and Peabody Awards-winning Phoef Sutton. Sutton was an executive producer of Cheers and a writer and producer for Boston Legal and NewsRadio.

Crush is the nickname for Los Angeles bouncer and martial arts expert Caleb Rush, who becomes the bodyguard of 18-year-old Amelia Trask, daughter of billionaire Stanley Trask. Amelia is on the run from the Russian mafia because, oh, who cares. Like all the best action heroes, Crush has his own moral code that may not conform to a strict reading of the law. Action that early readers call "overheated," characters who are "bigger than life" and "a witty narrative voice" in Elmore Leonard's territory peg this as one for the beach bag. I think it looks fun.

Monday, June 15, 2015

June-July 2015 Preview: Part Seven

Summer vacation is here for the school children, and, for quite a few of them, reading is not what they are looking forward to. But I am. Even though our time away from work is approaching like a debilitated person inching along on a walker, I am already setting aside some books for a leisurely perusal.

One of these is by Carolina De Robertis. De Robertis is known for poetic historical fiction like The Invisible Mountain, which takes the reader to Uruguay, and Perla, which uses Buenos Aires, Argentina as a backdrop. Her third novel, The Gods of Tango (Knopf, July 7) begins in a small village in Italy during the early days of the 20th century.

Leda is 17 years old and is headed to Argentina carrying only a few possessions, among them her father's cherished violin. She plans to make a new life for herself in Buenos Aires, where her cousin Dante is waiting to marry her.

Bad news awaits her on arrival, and she is told that Dante has been killed. She decides to remain in Buenos Aires, living in a tenement, without friends or family, hovering on the brink of destitution. Despite this, she is seduced by the music that she hears surging out from dark places of the city. It is the tango, the dirty dancing of the era, which surfaced from the lower-class immigrants. The tango is the illicit scandalous dance of the dives and cabarets of the city, and it calls to her.

Prostitution is the main avenue for a woman without means to make a living, but Leda comes up with another devious plan. She has always desired to master the violin but knows that she cannot play in these clubs as a woman. She cuts her hair, binds her breasts and dons her Dante's clothes to transform herself into Dante. As Dante, she joins a troupe of tango musicians with aspirations to greatness. They hope to play for high society.

Eventually, the split between Leda and Dante begins to disappear, and Leda faces a dangerous future.

Much like the couples' dancing scenes in the movie Evita recreate the ambience of Buenos Aires as it was 100 years ago. so does De Robertis evoke the time and the era of the birth of the tango. I recommend hooking up your iPod with samples of this sensuous music for an enhanced reading experience.

Chief of Police Kate Burkholder, from Linda Castillo’s After the Storm (Minotaur, July 14), is another woman who buried her past and made herself a new life. Kate was raised Amish, and she survived a series of brutal murders in her community. She left the faith and her home after the killings. Kate went into law enforcement in the city before returning to her hometown of Painters Mill, Ohio to head the police force. In this, the seventh of the series, a tornado rips through this peaceful town, and human remains come to light. It's Kate's job to try to identify the bones in order to notify the family. It is quickly apparent that these bones had a sad tale to tell because the death was no accident. Once again, Kate sets out to find a killer camouflaged by the gentle sect.

Lineup
Though the case is 30 years cold, a sleeping beast has been aroused and Kate morphs from hunter to prey, as she is first shot at and then stalked by an unknown assailant. The crux of the story is that there are family secrets, and Kate finds once again how far people will go to protect their own.

Linda Castillo has a deft hand at creating slowly growing tension and a desperate feeling of unease. Her books are perfect for a stormy night.

If you were totally wrung out by Castillo's book, a great antidote would be to tuck into Alexander McCall Smith's The Novel Habits of Happiness (Pantheon, July 21). Isabel Dalhousie is a very different kind of sleuth. She is a charming, extremely curious philosopher from Edinburgh, Scotland. The mysteries she solves are felony-free and are basically about delving into moral conundrums.

Kirsten, a neighbor of a friend, has a question for Isabel. Why does her 6-year-old son, Harry, keep on talking about his other life? It is one that involves a different home and a different family. Harry's stories are unusually detailed and very consistent from one telling to the next. He speaks of living by the sea with the Campbell family and a view of a lighthouse with off-shore islands in the distance.

Isabel and her husband, Jamie, go to visit the area, and what they find leads to more questions and to a very delicate situation.

One of the most captivating facets about Isabel Dalhousie is the way her mind wanders into moral discussions as the events of the day pass her by. In the first book of the series, The Sunday Philosophy Club, the reader follows Isabel's mental digressions as she considers such odd moral dilemmas as whether it would be hypocritical for an obese person to recommend a diet and the very interesting thoughts on the moral responsibility of lying. As a philosopher, Isobel believes an unexamined life is not worth living, and she uses her philosopher's mind to untangle unusual problems.

British writer Robert Goddard is a master of the clever twist. His books cover crimes that are set in different parts of the world during different times of history. As Goddard puts it, they have in common the infinite capacity of human nature for intrigue and conspiracy. He writes about unprincipled chicanery, unsolved crimes, unforgiven betrayals, and unforgotten jealousies with double-crosses and triple twists.

The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 is where Goddard sets The Ways of the World (Mysterious Press, June 2), the first in a trilogy featuring James Maxted, a former pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. Max, as he is called, survived the Great War only to be caught up in another maelstrom. Max and his sidekick, an ex-plane mechanic named Sam Twentyman, struggle to discover the cause of Max's father's death. Henry Maxted, a diplomat, was found dead outside his mistress's apartment building in Montparnasse. Suicide is the easy answer, but Max and James feel it is part of a series of strange deaths of other diplomats that follow Henry's demise. Max and Sam are a likeable pair ,and the trilogy promises to be enjoyable. The British edition came out two years ago, but this edition is worth waiting for.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

June-July 2015 Preview: Part Six

A few days ago, Sister Mary asked why summer seems to call for thrillers. I don't know; maybe it's tied into our childhoods. Being scared for me as a kid was a delicious part of summer. Walking to the end of the high diving board and feeling like an astronaut when I peered down. Shrieking at horror movies with my friends. Lying awake in the tent with my cousins, too scared after ghost stories around the campfire to sleep. Let's see if we can find a variety of books to re-create that wonderful heart-skidding-out-of-your-chest sensation. At another time, we'll look at books for when you're feeling more faint-hearted.

Robert Karjel is a helicopter pilot in the Swedish Air Force, and he wrote his first novel, The Swede (translated from the Swedish by Nancy Pick and Robert Karjel), by hand in lined notebooks during his off-duty moments in Afghanistan and Somalia. That's the romantic background behind the book's pitch as "le Carré meets Homeland" at the Frankfurt Book Fair last October, where Harper snapped it up for publication in the US on July 7.

Now, we all take publicity like this with a grain of salt, but reviews such as Publishers Weekly's ("Filled with rich characterization and unforeseeable twists and revelations, this mesmerizing first in a planned series will leave readers gasping for breath") make me very curious. The book's plot involves two threads: a plan by survivors of the 2004 tsunami in Thailand to pull off a "highly complicated crime" in Topeka, Kansas and the counter-terrorism efforts of FBI agent Shauna Friedman and Ernst Grip, a member of Sweden's security police. The CIA has tapped Grip to interview a suspected terrorist imprisoned for years on an atoll in the Indian Ocean. Do I detect a romantic attraction between Grip and Friedman?

Here's a book for people who like some dread, strangeness, and fantasy with their thrills. The Library at Mount Char (Crown, June 16) has been called "Neil Gaiman meets Joe Hill." The Kirkus review describes it as "[a] wholly original, engrossing, disturbing, and beautiful book. You’ve never read anything quite like this, and you won’t soon forget it." Early reviewers mostly love this novel, although it might not be your thing if you like to know what's going on from the very beginning (delayed flashbacks clarify earlier events) or if the prospect of animal deaths/appealing characters being harmed deep-six it for you.

Its writer, Scott Hawkins, is a software engineer at Intel. He has envisioned a twisted world in which an all-powerful Father (God?) is the librarian at the Garrison Oaks library. Millions of books, which can evoke heaven or hell, are divided into 12 sections. Twelve American children, who were orphaned when their suburb was destroyed, are each assigned one section to study. The section of our heroine, Carolyn, is languages. Along with mastering their assigned sections, the students are taught to respect and fear Father, a harsh teacher. When the students are in their 30s, Father disappears.

We'll leave the spookiness of that unusual library now and turn to an adrenalin-fueled series with an engaging bad-girl protagonist. Wallace Stroby's Crissa Stone is smart, tough, and hard-working. She also has a mentor/lover in a Texas prison and a little girl with whom she hopes to be reunited after she can save enough money to retire. Crissa is a professional thief and occasional killer. When we last saw Crissa in 2013's Shoot the Woman First, she was involved in a disastrous drug money robbery.

Crissa doesn't call in someone like Roger Hobbs's criminal Mr. Fixit, Jack (Ghostman, Vanishing Games), when heists turn sour. Instead, she pitches in, while remaining loyal to her friends—if they're not trying to kill her. In The Devil's Share (Minotaur Books, July 7), Emile Cota has lined up a buyer for his antiquities collection; however, the authorities ask him to return these priceless artifacts to their rightful country of origin. Cota elects to chart a midway course: he'll send the antiquities back, but he'll also hire Crissa to steal them en route so Cota can still make the sale to his buyer. Crissa assembles a heist team, and Cota's chief of security, Randall Hicks, feeds her team information. Happily, the thieves fall out—because watching characters scramble for treasure and their lives feels particularly good when you're reading in the hammock.

There must be a law somewhere that says you can't pack a beach bag of summer thrillers and leave out Stephen King. I imagine he's probably caused more shivers on beach towels under a blazing sun than any one other writer. The cover of his just-released Finders Keepers (Scribner, June 2) makes me flinch just looking at it. I'm not a fan of blood dripping anywhere, but my jones about keeping books clean makes me uncomfortable seeing blood splatting onto that open book. What does make me happy is the knowledge that at the center of King's book is a relationship between a writer and a reader.

King has previously written about an author held captive by his psychotic number one fan (Misery). This time, the obsessed reader, Morris Bellamy, is beside himself for two reasons: writer John Rothstein's famous character, Jimmy Gold, sold out for an advertising career, and Rothstein hasn't published a book for years. (I wonder if Bellamy would see the irony in his anger, which reminds me of the old Woody Allen joke, "The food is terrible––and such small portions!") After Bellamy kills Rothstein, he discovers Rothstein's cache of money and notebooks good for at least one more Jimmy Gold book, but then Bellamy goes to prison for another crime. Thirty-five years later, Bellamy is due for release, but the notebooks and money have been discovered. Luckily, the good guys from King's Edgar Award-winning Mr. Mercedes (Scribner, 2014), ex-cop Bill Hodges and his unlikely Watsons, Holly Gibney and Jerome Robinson, are available to deal with the displeased Mr. Bellamy. This summer's offering means there are two books down and one to go in King's Bill Hodges trilogy.

Can you picture yourself reading a book some early readers say might result from a collaboration between Stephen Hawking, Stephen Jay Gould, and Stephen King? And what if I also tell you Ted Kosmatka's The Flicker Men (Henry Holt, July 21) made Publishers Weekly's list of top summer 2015 thrillers/mysteries?

The Flicker Men is a sci-fi thriller featuring a troubled physicist, Eric Angus, who begins work at a Boston-area research lab and comes across some old equipment used in physicist Richard Feynman's double-slit experiment. Angus decides to re-create this classic wave-particle work, and he finds that a conscious observer seems to affect the electrons' position. Angus then varies the nature of the observer and comes to some unexpected conclusions.

Obviously, this isn't one of those books you read when you've lain in the sun until your baked brain makes you sleepy, but if you're in the mood to let your brain do its own cooking, you might want to join me in giving Kosmatka's novel a try.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

June-July 2015 Preview: Part Five

There are quite a few exciting books on the horizon for bountiful summer reading.

One that caught my eye is the first in a new series from the husband-wife writing team of Win and Meredith Blevins, The Darkness Rolling (Forge, June 2).
I was itchy. Tingling. My skin felt like foaming surf breaking on sand, and my brain was buzz-busy, just like the soldiers who had decided to stay in San Diego after the war. Possibilities. Worlds of them. I felt them, too.

Women who'd traded their love for gasoline and stockings walked the singing sidewalks. High heels clicked, and the sun raised their red lipstick to a promise. Happy to have their young men back home. High times.
These are the opening words of Yazzie Goldman, a half-Navajo, half-Jewish soldier who has put his military life and World War II behind him. He has just returned to Arizona because his grandfather had a stroke. He had settled nicely in San Diego and he wasn't sure he would be happy down in Monument Valley now that he had seen Paree.

His trading post home has become a shambles during his long absence and he is glad to accept an offer of work as a bodyguard to the leading lady in a John Ford film being shot nearby. Yazzie quickly responds to the siren's lures but he is distracted by the appearance of a mysterious stranger with vengeance on his mind. This is a wonderful escape from the mundane with lyrical prose enticing the reader into Hillerman territory of the ancient sacred lands of Navajo myth.

If you have been wishing in vain that Janwillem van de Wetering or A. C. Baantjer had something you have yet to read, I recommend the next best thing––or maybe even a better thing––From Bruges with Love (Open Road, July 7), by Pieter Aspe.

This is the third in his series featuring Asst. Commissioner Pieter Van In. Things are looking up for Pieter in his personal life. While he could best be described as a caustic alcoholic in the past, Pieter is now mellowed by a happy marriage with the first little Van In on the way. But he is disturbed by the news that a skeleton has been unearthed by Tine Vermast at the family's farmhouse. This discovery is rapidly followed by the appearance of a fresh corpse and then another one. The kicker is that the land once belonged to a right-wing charity, which has a great deal of money, but seemingly no expenses or investments.

Van In finds himself in the middle of a labyrinthine maze that has connections to high-level officials, local law enforcement and common crooks. The Van In chronicles have sold more than a million copies in Europe. The stories have intricate plots and bursts of humor that leaven the sometimes noir aspect of these novels.

From across the pond comes another gripping police procedural that may keep your attention, Graham Ison's Exit Stage Left: A Brock and Poole Mystery (Severn, June 1). This is the 14th in a lengthy series featuring Detective Chief Inspector Harry Brock and his associate, Detective Sgt. Dave Poole. It is also a chance to better get to know Kate Ebdon, an Australian-born detective inspector.

As the Bard pointed out, all the world's a stage, and there is something fascinating about mysteries and murders that involve acting and actors. As stage actor Lancelot Foley is toddling off to visit his current lover on a snowy evening, someone sneaks up behind him and kills him in a dramatic fashion.

Foley is not only a Casanova, he is also true to nobody in his fashion. He has left a long list of people who might want to put a period to his existence, particularly his wife Debra, who has been counting on a warm inheritance. Somehow or another, a number of the lovelies whom Foley romanced had gotten the idea that his personal fortune might have her name on it.

Scorned lovers may be at the top of the list, but further down are even darker and more sinister suspects from Foley's past. Police procedurals are always satisfying, because the threads of the story are always wrapped in a neat skein, and they make for a pleasant summer read.

Here's another series debut, Codename Xenophon (Dedalus, June 1), by Leo Kanaris. This is the first in a projected quartet, which takes place in Athens, Greece. Greece is unique in that while it is steeped in noble antiquity, it is mired down in modern ills like its financial crises, civil disquiet and unrest. Our hero is private investigator George Zafiris, who blames former Prime Minister Papandreou, who created the "most bloated, obstructive bureaucracy on the planet."

Zafiris is eking out a living, taking small cases in which he is constantly hamstrung by corrupt and arrogant police, while he suffers personally from the antics of an unfaithful wife, whom he still loves. But what's worse is that while he struggles to preserve his self-respect, he is disgusted by those who glory in Greece's past but avoid present-day responsibilities.

His latest case is the murder of a Greek scholar. You'd think that this man would have few enemies. Zafiris finds himself in a morass of governmental corruption, vicious criminals and immorality of all sorts. What keeps Zafiris going is the fact that he believes in the spirit that made Greece great and strong for thousands of years. I can't wait to get a copy of this intense work to read while lolling around a pool––not while babysitting, of course!

There is something special about that feeling you get last day of school before summer vacation, and I feel it vicariously every June when the school buses vanish. I can picture how it was for Zack Lightman as he was daydreaming through a tedious math class in Ernest Kline's Armada (Crown, July 14).

Zack's got a month to go before graduation, and he is trying to stay out of trouble. But as he glances out of the classroom window, he thinks he sees a flying saucer. At first he thinks he's going nuts, but after a double take, he realizes the UFO he's staring at is straight out of the video game he plays every night––a hugely popular online flight simulator called Armada, in which gamers just happen to be protecting the earth from alien invaders.
I tried to keep my cool. I tried to remain skeptical. I reminded myself that I was a man of science, even if I did usually get a C in it.
Zack might have seen The Last Starfighter, a movie that came out in 1984, long before he was born, because as he begins to realize what he is seeing is very real, he figures out that his skills—and those of gamers all over the world—are going to be needed to save the earth.

Kline's second novel is a classic coming-of-age adventure that is exciting, romantic, and perfect for a summer read. The movie rights have already been picked up. I look forward to it.

Monday, June 8, 2015

June-July 2015 Preview: Part Four

What is it about warmer weather that makes it feel like time for thrillers? I know I listen to a lot of books when I'm mowing the lawn, and a thriller keeps me going at a good pace.

Two summers ago at about this time, I was mowing to Jason Matthews's Red Sparrow (see review here), the first in a contemporary series introducing Russian agent Dominika Egorova and CIA agent Nate Nash. In Red Sparrow, which won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author, Dominika is a Russian patriot, but a reluctant agent, who goes from targeting Nate to teaming up with him and becoming a double agent, supplying the US with information about the nefarious characters working for Vladimir Putin's corrupt government.

Dominika's ace in the hole is that she has synesthesia. In her case, this unusual trait makes her see colored auras around people that infallibly clue her in to what they are feeling and whether they are good guys or bad guys. I thought this was a little bit gimmicky, and I had a few other nits to pick with Red Sparrow, but nothing that would keep me from looking forward to another read. In Palace of Treason (Scribner, June 2), the stakes and risks are much higher, with Dominika now working as a mole within Russian intelligence and always in danger of being found out. That's especially threatening, since Matthews's view of the Russian intelligence service is that it's home to a crew of psychopaths, more than a few of whom enjoy torture as a hobby.

Publishers Weekly says this is a top summer pick in the mystery/thriller category. I'm a little worried about early readers' report of graphic descriptions of torture, but I'll probably still read it, given Matthews's skill in writing a taut, heart-pounding thriller. I almost forgot to say that I hear he continues with a feature he started in Red Sparrow, which is to include a recipe at the end of each chapter that relates to the setting and action of the chapter. I could see that being viewed as too gimmicky as well, but since I still use the soubise recipe from Red Sparrow, it's a gimmick I'm OK with.

Phil Hogan's A Pleasure and a Calling made my list of top reads last year. Its main character, William Heming, is a diligent and successful estate agent in a leafy and prosperous English village. He's a private person, has a negligible social life and yearns from afar for the love of a local library assistant. Oh, and he's a sociopath; one who has a copy of the keys to every house he's ever listed and uses them for his own, hmm, I guess I'd call it social engineering purposes.

I'd never want to know a sociopath in real life, but they sure can bring a subtle chill to the spine when you spend time with them in books. That's why I'm looking forward to Sascha Arango's The Truth and Other Lies (translated from the German by Imogen Taylor; Atria Books, June 23). Its main character, Henry Hayden, is a young and celebrated thriller writer, a modest and friendly guy, loyal to Martha, whom he married when he was poor and unknown. And almost none of that sentence is true, as the reader learns at the outset. Henry has built a very carefully constructed life, held together by a mortar of lies. When his edifice is threatened, he decides to take ruthless action.

Of course, it wouldn't be a book if Henry's problem solving worked. Like William Heming in A Pleasure and a Calling, Henry has to do some serious maneuvering to avoid being caught and having his whole false life revealed. The promise is that the reader will hope he succeeds. I know I couldn't help hoping Heming got away with it, so I'm looking forward to seeing if The Truth and Other Lies gives me that same deliciously perverse pleasure.

Speaking of truth and lies immediately brings to mind Austin Grossman's upcoming Crooked (Mulholland Books, July 28), an off-kilter satirical alternate history/thriller in which US President Richard M. Nixon battles the forces of supernatural evil, which is what's really behind the Cold War.

President Nixon looms large in my personal history. My first presidential election vote was in 1972 and the Watergate hearings had my dorm's TV lounge crammed full of students skipping classes to watch the drama. I always wondered about Nixon's seemingly overwhelming impulse for self-destruction. Demonology could explain a lot.

One of my favorite newer police procedural series is David Mark's DS Aector McAvoy series, set in the gritty northern English port city of Hull. The fourth in the series is Taking Pity (Blue Rider Press/Penguin, July 7), and it sounds like it may be the darkest yet. The gang violence that wreaked such damage in the previous book, Sorrow Bound, now seems even worse, as a new, more powerful gang called the Headhunters tries to take over, by eliminating all resistance in the most brutal ways possible, and with the compliance––and even assistance––of some corrupt elements within the police force.

Aector is a shell of a man, as a result of the violence visited on him and his family in the last book, and the repercussions of his bringing a crooked, but popular, cop to account. Detective Inspector Trish Pharaoh is convinced that work is what will bring Aector back to life. She gives him what seems like a low-key, routine assignment: research a decades-old murder case to see if the accused, who has been in a mental asylum all this time, can be tried now that he is about to be declared competent. Naturally, this cold case turns hot in Aector's hands when it appears that more police misconduct may be involved in the case––and it may be related to the Headhunters' current relationship with corrupt cops.

The tribulations of Job seem like a walk in the park compared to what Aector's been put through recently, so I'm hoping that the title Taking Pity means that he may catch a break this time around.

Years ago, I read Heda Margolius Koválý's stunning memoir, Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague, 1941-1968. Now there's somebody whose life was unenviable. Born into a Jewish family in Prague, she was a target when the Nazis subjugated her homeland. Koválý was sent to the Łódż Ghetto and then to various concentration camps. Toward the end of the war, she escaped a death march and made her way back to Prague, where she had to stay in hiding. When the war ended, she found that the only family member who had survived was her husband, Rudolf Margolius, who had also been in the camps.

Liberation didn't last long in Czechoslovakia, which became a Soviet satellite in 1948. Rudolf came back from the camps an enthusiastic Communist, but Koválý was more cynical. Rudolf moved up in the party ranks, achieving the position of Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade. You'll remember that pesky Stalin guy had a habit of persecuting Party members, and Rudolf was one of those caught up in the so-called Slánský show trials, which resulted in his execution in 1952. Under a Cruel Star tells the story of Koválý's life as a subject of the Nazi and Soviet overlords compellingly, but without self-pity. It's one of the best memoirs I've ever read.

Koválý worked in publishing and translated books from German and English into Czech, including some of Raymond Chandler's hardboiled novels. The one novel she wrote herself has now been translated into English. Innocence: Or, Murder on Steep Street (translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker; Soho Crime, June 2) is clearly based on Koválý's own life, and its style borrows a bit from Chandler's. Her main character is Helena Nováková, who loses her publishing house job when her husband is wrongly accused of disloyalty to the Communist state and imprisoned.

Helena goes to work as an usher at a movie house and spends her spare time trying to find a way to get her husband out of prison. When a boy visiting the movie house is murdered, it spurs a police investigation into the movie house. Although it's quickly determined who killed the boy, the investigation provides the impetus for the reader to learn about the paranoia and duality of lives within the security state. I had the chance to read an advance review copy of Innocence and, while I think it has some shortcomings and doesn't compare to Koválý's memoir, if you're interested in Cold War novels, I recommend it.

Now let's see what other summer treats my fellow Material Witnesses have for us.