Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Review of Daniel Palmer's Constant Fear

Constant Fear by Daniel Palmer (Kensington, May 2015)

I hope your Thanksgiving preparations are going smoothly. My own are chugging along. I got a little panicky when I realized my list of things to do before I leave Wednesday morning won't all fit onto one page, but, hey, I can sleep on the plane. Right now, I'm going to take a break to talk about Daniel Palmer's Constant Fear. I'll tell you about an Italian police procedural a little later.

Why is it bad action movies can still be entertaining, but poorly written action thrillers are annoying? Finding a decent thriller to read is tough. When I saw Strand Magazine's Top Ten Books of 2015 (see Note below), I was hopeful about the books I hadn't read because I'd already enjoyed some of the others. (I recently showed you Chris Holm's The Killing Kind, in which you root for a nice-guy hit man (see review here.)

In Palmer's Constant Fear, we meet a man who has suffered some debilitating losses. Jake Dent's promising pro baseball career ended when his drunken car accident injured his pitching arm. After their young son, Andy, was diagnosed with diabetes, Jake's wife left. Jake, who found comfort in taking up survivalism and teaching these skills to Andy, has brought his life under control. He's slowly developing a romantic relationship with a cop in Winston, Massachusetts, and is head custodian at the elite Pepperell Academy, where the 16-year-old Andy is a student.

Andy and a few geeky friends have formed a group they call "the Shire." They've been running a Robin Hood operation by hacking into accounts of Pepperell parents so wealthy they don't notice the theft. But now there's a problem. It's as if the Shire has cast a fishing line into a mud puddle and hooked Moby-Dick. They've stolen millions in bitcoins that need to be returned immediately, but the money has somehow disappeared. None of the kids will admit to knowing what happened to it. They realize they're in big trouble––but they have no idea. The bitcoins don't actually belong to that Pepperell parent. Some very bad men come to Winston, hellbent on getting that money back. 

Try this contraption while thriller reading
The mouth breathing you need to do while reading this book is kinda hard when you're also gulping at some fairly grim scenes. Constant Fear isn't actually as brutal a book as one I told you about yesterday, Jason Matthews's Palace of Treason. The tension feels almost unbearable, though, because of Palmer's skill at conveying the threat of violence. Despite some curveballs the writer throws us, the plot is sometimes predictable, and the characters, physical setting, and events very contrived. I actually found myself exclaiming, "Oh, c'mon! What are the odds?" But those occasional objections to unreality really didn't matter. I liked Jake and the relationship he has with his son. Palmer had me staying up late, breathlessly turning those pages, and I didn't once feel like throwing the book across the room.

Note: Here is Strand Magazine's Top Ten Books of 2015. (Don't ask me why there are twelve on the list.)

The Killing Kind by Chris Holm (Mulholland Books)
Solitude Creek by Jeffrey Deaver (Grand Central)
The Fixer by Joseph Finder (Dutton)
Broken Promises by Linwood Barclay (NAL)
Dark Places by Reavis Z. Wortham (Poisoned Pen)
A Pattern of Lies by Charles Todd (William Morrow)
Constant Fear by Daniel Palmer (Kensington)
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead)
All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer (Minotaur)
The Stranger by Harlan Coben (Dutton)
The Hot Countries by Tim Hallinan (Soho)
Dead Student by John Katzenbach (Mysterious)

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Thanksgiving Sampler

Thank God we're talking about test driving,
not our own disastrous driving tests.
A friend and I have been tasting champagne this weekend, because that's what Hubby and I have been asked to bring to Thanksgiving dinner. After we methodically worked our way through several bottles, we felt festive enough to sample pumpkin pie coupled with various flavors of ice cream she had in her freezer. We agreed on the Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label and concluded it's best to stick to a good vanilla.

The holiday season is full of figuring stuff out: the gift for your best friend, the guest list for your winter potluck, how to ship cookies to your far-flung kids. You also need to find some books to read to keep yourself sane. An excellent way to ensure a book matches what you're in the mood for is to stock up on a variety. Let's test drive some possibilities.

During the winter holidays, one hones one's cloak-and-dagger skills hiding gifts at home and diplomatic talents charming colleagues at the office party. Surely, this is the season for reading espionage.

Something British and cynical might hit the spot. Former BBC correspondent Adam Brookes has followed up his compelling Night Heron (Redhook/Hachette, 2014) with Spy Games (Redhook, September 2015). Freelance journalist Philip Mangan is a decent guy with more than his fair share of restlessness and curiosity. After a dabble into espionage necessitated his fleeing Beijing, Philip is in Addis Abba, investigating the Chinese presence in Ethiopia. Then three things happen: an MI6 asset dies in Hong Kong, Philip barely escapes a café bombing, and he is offered some classified Chinese military documents. Thus are Philip and Trish Patterson, his MI6 handler, drawn into a power struggle that is playing out primarily in Ethiopia; Oxford, England; and Chiang Mai, Thailand.

It's not necessary to read Night Heron first, but I'd suggest you do that simply for the pleasure of understanding exactly why MI6 isn't thrilled to find "Philip Mangan," "China" and "spy" again in the same equation, and why Philip is feeling a bit cross about it, too. At 437 pages, Spy Games could benefit from some tightening up; however, if you like an intricate plot woven with separate threads, colorful characters, and beautifully drawn exotic locations, this is for you.

If you're feeling in the mood for dueling American and Russian intelligence agencies, sex used as an espionage tool, and very sadistic villains (brace yourself), check out books written by an espionage insider, former CIA agent Jason Matthews. His writing feels very up close and personal in its focus on the characters' lives and personalities and their elaborate spycraft.

In 2013's Red Sparrow (Scribner), Matthews introduces the CIA's young hot-shot, Nate Nash, and the beautiful Russian agent, Dominika Egorova, whose job it is to get him to divulge the identity of a Russian traitor (see Sister Mary Murderous's review here). Dominika is a synesthete who perceives people surrounded by a colored aura; at the appearance of her black-haloed boss, former Lubyanka prison torturer Alexei Zyuganov, I pulled the covers over my head.

Dominika is back in Russia in Palace of Treason (Scribner, June 2015). She's climbing the ranks of the SVR, much to the chagrin of the scheming Zyuganov, and maneuvering to avoid exposure as she passes information to the Americans. Meanwhile, there's a mole at CIA headquarters passing secrets to the Russians, which creates a very pleasant symmetry (don't you think?), and jacks up the suspense. I was surprised and pleased to see Russian President Vladimir Putin appear as a minor character, as wily and enigmatic as we Westerners find him in real life. Palace of Treason can be read as a standalone, but you'll want to read Red Sparrow, too. One can never find enough good spy yarns––especially those with lovesick agents and recipes.

With all the demands of the holidays pressing, you might appreciate the comfort of an offbeat mystery with a strong sense of place, such as Tarquin Hall's Vish Puri series, featuring the Most Private Investigators Ltd. agency in Delhi, or Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency in Botswana.

Vaseem Khan's quirky first book, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra (Redhook, September 2015), is the opening book of such a proposed series. Inspector Ashwin Chopra's heart condition has forced him into early retirement after more than three decades on the Mumbai police force. During his last day, Chopra learns of a young man who apparently drowned in a puddle. The Inspector is warned off opening an inquiry and returns home to find a baby elephant, Ganesha, bequeathed to him by his uncle.

As a policeman, Chopra was an incorruptible officer who prided himself on treating everyone equally. So he can't get the screams of the dead youth's mother––that her family is too poor for his death to be adequately investigated––out of his head. Chopra decides to look into it on his own. He must keep this a secret, because his wife, Poppy, would object, and he doesn't want his former police colleagues thinking he's one of those unfortunate people who have no life outside work. Chopra balances caring for little Ganesha, whose abilities are not entirely realistic, with a criminal investigation that takes him through various Mumbai neighborhoods. This allows the reader to glimpse a fascinating city through the eyes of a man who loves it, even though he regrets some aspects of its modernization. The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra is a little too consciously charming for my taste, but I wanted to tell you about it because many readers love it for its charm, and you might, too.

Tomorrow we'll look at a few more holiday reads.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Review of Simon Mawer's Tightrope

Tightrope, by Simon Mawer (Other Press, November 3, 2015)

During World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the new Special Operations Executive to "set Europe ablaze" by supporting the resistance to the Nazis in occupied countries. Many young men and women who knew other languages, especially French, were sent behind enemy lines to gather intelligence and work with local resistance groups. Their chances of being captured, tortured, imprisoned and executed were very high––and they knew it from the start.

For years, I've been fascinated by the story of the SOE, and especially of the young women who volunteered for this lethally dangerous duty. In an era when it was rare for a woman to do anything other than graduate from school to marriage and children, these women were trained in the arcana of espionage, including parachute jumping, hand-to-hand combat and silent killing. What was in the minds and hearts of the women who became SOE agents?

In Trapeze (Other Press, 2012), which is the predecessor to Tightrope, Simon Mawer gives us the story of a fictionalized SOE agent named Marian Sutro. She's English and French, grew up in Switzerland and moved to England with her family as things got dangerous on the European continent before World War II broke out. She had friends in France, especially Clément, the young scientist whom she'd had a crush on for years. When Germany overran France, it seemed very black and white to her; a place and people she loved were in danger from an evil invader and she wanted to help.

When Tightrope begins, the war is in its last weeks and Marian is coming home. She wasn't an SOE agent in France for long. She was betrayed, captured by the Nazis, tortured and finally sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious prison camp for women near Berlin, where many real-life SOE female agents were sent. (By the way, I highly recommend Sarah Helm's masterful history of the camp: Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women (Nan A. Talese, 2015).)

Back home in England, nobody knows how to treat Marian and she hardly knows who she is and how she is to live in this postwar world. Mawer evocatively portrays Marian's numbness and alienation, the way she can more easily relate emotionally to her memories of her fellow Ravensbrück prisoners than to her own family and colleagues. To help her recover from her traumatic war experiences, Marian is advised to see a psychiatrist. She tells him that life in the camp appeared to be nothing but gray, but underneath the monochrome their lives were complex, with hierarchies, networks and groups. The way a prisoner made her way through the complex meant the difference between life and death.

Queueing for rationed food in 1947
In many ways, it seemed to me that the same could be said of Marian's life in postwar England. Rationing of food, clothing and other goods continued for years, rebuilding was slow, everybody just seemed to want to keep their heads down, forget the past and get on with things. Gray. But Marian soon learns that the Cold War struggle has begun, another layered reality of complex relationships and loyalties.

Marian is offered a job and she attempts to return to some semblance of a normal life, but her past keeps impinging on the present. She has friends who are nuclear scientists, she has contacts in the intelligence services and, when she returns to Ravensbrück to testify against Nazi prison camp guards, she meets others who are in the intelligence game.

After the US drops atomic bombs on Japan, develops the far more powerful hydrogen bomb and seems to be seriously considering a preemptive strike on the Soviet Union, she wonders what was the point of all the sacrifice only a few years before, if World War III is now on the doorstep. Slowly, inexorably, Marian is drawn back into the ambiguous world of intelligence, with its agents, counter-agents, double agents and moles. Marian is once again in an environment where security and life itself depend on hierarchies, networks and groups. Will her choices lead to safety or betrayal?

Although this is a long and slow-moving novel, and Marian is a difficult character, I was riveted. Mawer makes Marian completely believable, even if often not very likable, and he immerses the reader in the tensions and uncertainty of her position, slowly upping the ante as the story goes on. Mawer has done his research, too, and skillfully interweaves real characters and events from SOE history, and British intelligence during the Cold War, into Marian's story. Details of Marian's SOE experiences will ring true to those who have read the histories. Her experiences reminded me a good deal of the description of what happened to SOE agent Eileen Nearne, which you can read about in brief here.

Former SOE agents Eileen Nearne and Odette Sansom
attend the 1993 unveiling of a plaque
at Ravensbrück, where both were imprisoned
Marian's story is told through the eyes of Sam Wareham, the son of Sutro family friends, who met Marian shortly after her return. Sam was 12 years younger than Marian and had an immediate schoolboy crush on her. His fascination for her continued for years to come, including when he became a member of the British intelligence services. The idea of looking at Marian through Sam's eyes has some benefits in telling the espionage story, but some real detriments, since his character so often has to write about events and thoughts that he couldn't know anything about.

Hayley Atwell in Restless
Though I am dubious about the use of the Sam Wareham character, in other respects I think this is a first-rate novel, and should especially appeal to those who enjoy reading about World War II and/or Cold War espionage, particularly about female agents. I liked it every bit as much as William Boyd's Restless (Bloomsbury USA, 2006), a standout novel that was dramatized by the BBC. The three-hour BBC drama, starring Hayley Atwell, Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery and the fabulous Charlotte Rampling, was just released on DVD in the US, in case you're thinking of a good Christmas gift for somebody who enjoys espionage movies.

Although I did read Trapeze before reading Tightrope, I don't think that's at all necessary. Tightrope is also a better read than Trapeze, so if there's any question in your mind about whether you'd like either of them, I'd go with Tightrope first.

Just in case you want to read more . . . 

Note: I received a free review copy of Tightrope from the publisher, through the Amazon Vine program. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads, BookLikes and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

More Holiday Fare

Hubby and I plan to spend Thanksgiving with friends rather than relatives this year. By now, I'm so accustomed to a family holiday dinner that's akin to pro tag-team wrestling, I barely remember how one eats in a relaxed and civilized setting. This time, I won't sit down while beaming mental death threats to the Tactless Relative and silently pleading with the Always-Leaves-the-Table-in-a-Huff Relative. During the meal, I won't keep a foot cocked for delivering an under-the-table kick to my husband, who inevitably brings up the one topic I specifically warned him against, or take part in the traditional political discussion that degenerates into yelps and yells.

Instead of a fateful family dinner destined to burn itself into our memories, perhaps this Thanksgiving can include a discussion of memory, probability and destiny, and free will and fate––and the books that deal with these topics.

One example is Natasha Pulley's intricate first novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (Bloomsbury USA, July 2015). We tag along with Nathaniel Steepleton, a Home Office telegraph clerk in 1883 London. We take side excursions to Japan during the Meiji Restoration and Oxford, where we meet young physicist Grace Carrow, chafing under the restrictions society and family place on her research into the propagation of wave-based light, and her suave friend, Akira Matsumoto, who is related to the Japanese emperor.

These people are all linked through Keita Mori, a London watchmaker originally from Japan, whose talents involving time go far beyond his abilities to make enchanting clockwork devices. (I would kill to own Mori's little clockwork octopus pet, Katsu.) One of Mori's products, an exquisite pocket watch, mysteriously appears in Thaniel's room and enables him to escape a Fenian bombing without injury. Is Keita behind the bombing? And, in general, is Keita a good or bad guy, and what does it mean to become close to him? Like clockwork, Thaniel and Grace maneuver to answer these questions––and others about the nature of loneliness, love, and loyalty––in a hybrid of mystery/steampunk/speculative fiction. The atmospheric setting includes Victorian methods of detection, the struggle for women's suffrage, Gilbert and Sullivan music, and the experiences of Japanese immigrants in London. The puzzles of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street's characters and plot reveal themselves slowly, but, for the reader who is willing to wait, what you'll discover is a charming and thought-provoking read.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Holiday Fare

Dakotaraptor illustration by Emily Willoughby
One of the joys of bringing up my son was getting turned on to dinosaurs when he was obsessed with them in elementary school. I'm thrilled when a new dinosaur is discovered, such as the huge raptor whose 66-million-year-old remains were found recently in South Dakota. Dakotaraptor steini was 16 feet long, winged and feathered, but couldn't fly. This inability probably wasn't much consolation to its prey, however, because it could run and leap like the dickens, and its front and rear limbs sported what paleontologist Robert DePalma calls "essentially grappling hooks" for slicing and dicing flesh. Whoa. Think about how challenging appendages like that would make shaking hands, changing the sheets, blowing your nose, and using a keyboard. I admit they would come in handy for making fruit salad and slicing bread into cubes for Thanksgiving stuffing.

Thanksgiving is November 26th. While you're preparing for the holiday, don't forget something to read. Over the next few days, I'll tell you about some books you might want to consider. If you're traveling, you'll need a book for the trip; if you're staying put and playing host, you'll need one for that moment when––after spending hours scrubbing and tidying––you come to your senses and remember your guests want to share the festivities rather than conduct a germaphobic's field test of your premises. Don't think about your cleanliness-obsessed mom or your anal-retentive Uncle Mortimer, and ditch the dust cloth, pour yourself a glass of wine, and curl up with a book. Then, at the end of the Big Day, whether you've played host or guest, you'll also need a book to occupy your mind before you fall asleep. After all, you don't want to just lie there wondering if you'll be able to get your jeans zipped up in the morning, do you?

We'll begin with an ingenious cat-and-mouse game––among a bunch of hit men hunting their targets and each other. The hero of Chris Holm's riveting The Killing Kind (Mulholland Books, September 2015) is Michael Hendricks, who adores his girlfriend and couldn't stand to see an animal suffer. This sweetie pie joined the US Army and became a super-duper special ops soldier. When his unit was destroyed in Afghanistan, Hendricks was assumed dead. He sneaked back to the United States, but he felt too contaminated by violence to even let his grieving girlfriend know he's still alive. Now Hendricks lives off the grid and tries "to make things right, one murder at a time."

This means Hendricks calls a crime syndicate's targets for assassination––if he deems them morally worth saving––and offers to protect them for 10 times what their assigned hit man would make. Of course, Hendricks doesn't know what the pro killer looks like or exactly when the murder is scheduled to happen, so Hendricks usually must wait until the hit is attempted to take out the hitter. Eventually the syndicate bosses discover what's going on, and Hendricks himself becomes prey.

Holm's intelligent writing is perfect for this plot. It makes for an action thriller that's neither boringly shallow nor mind-numbingly convoluted. The Killing Kind has its gory moments, but it's not a senseless blood bath. The point of view skips around among various well-drawn and entertaining characters, allowing us to get to know each one and adding to the suspense. I cared whether Hendricks lived or died, right up to the cinematic ending. Please, somebody, make this into a movie.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Review of Heda Margolius Kovály's Innocence: Or, Murder on Steep Street

Innocence: Or, Murder on Steep Street, by Heda Margolius Kovály (Soho Crime, June 2, 2015)

After World War II, Czechoslovakia had a brief period of democracy until 1948, when it fell to a Communist coup and became a satellite of the USSR. Like so many European Communist states during the Stalin era, party apparatchiks could suddenly find themselves accused of imaginary crimes against the state and lose their positions or even their lives. State Security officials and their informants monitored and reported on activities of ordinary citizens, so that one never knew if co-workers, friends or even family members could be trusted not to be informers.

That’s the background of Heda Margolius Kovály's Innocence, Or Murder on Steep Street. Helena Novákova's world is turned upside down when she loses her job at a publishing house and her husband is arrested and imprisoned as a spy. He isn't, but truth isn't a priority in the paranoid security state.

Fruit and vegetable store in 1950s Prague
Now Helena is an usher at the Horizon cinema in Prague, along with several other female ushers, a manager, a concessionaire and a lone male projectionist. When a young boy visiting the theater is murdered, all of the staff fall under official scrutiny. There doesn't seem to be any mystery about whodunnit, but all the other staff members still have plenty of secrets, veiled by layers of lies.

At the same time that we read about the dual lives of the various Horizon staff members, another thread is Helena's attempts to find help for her husband. These two threads come together in an unexpected way. It's intriguing, but the wrap-up is murky and strays past enigmatic to confusing. In a few other places the writing lacks clarity. Overall, though, I still found it a very readable and atmospheric story.

credit: Marie Šechtlová
It might seem a little strange to have a crime novel told in hardboiled style when it's set in Prague in the 1950s, but I got used to it quickly, especially since the stripped-down bluntness of the style fits the bleak, paranoid time and place. When you find out that Kovály was herself a translator of Raymond Chandler's books, it makes even more sense.

Knowing Kovály's own story isn't necessary to appreciate this stark story of pervasive falsity and fear, but I think it does add something when you know how close this was to home for her. She and her first husband were Holocaust survivors who made it home to Prague, where her husband became an enthusiastic Communist. He was caught up in the infamous Slánský show trials and was executed. When you know that, Helena's thoughts and actions are especially moving.

If you're interested in knowing more about Kovály, read her stunning memoir, Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague, 1941-1968.

Notes: I received a free advance review copy of the book. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, BookLikes and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.