Friday, July 25, 2014

Review of Ellen Feldman's The Unwitting

The Unwitting by Ellen Feldman

What I want most of all, when I open a book, is to get that feeling right away that the author is going to tell me a story; that in that first couple of pages I will be taken into someone else's world. Ellen Feldman does that here in her new book, The Unwitting (Spiegel & Grau, May 6, 2014). There is a real sense of immediacy in her writing, and she gives her protagonist a warm, sometimes waspish, but always compelling voice.

A Prologue begins the story on the morning of November 22, 1963, with freelance journalist Nell Benjamin in the Manhattan apartment she shares with her husband, Charlie, and their young daughter, Abby. Just seeing that date at the head of the chapter lends the book's title, The Unwitting, a certain ominous weightiness. We know, though Nell doesn't, that President John F. Kennedy will be assassinated later that day. What Nell also doesn't know is that Charlie will be killed that day as well; supposedly murdered by a mugger in Central Park in broad daylight.

We flash back to Nell and Charlie's meeting in the years after World War II, in which they both served.  Students on the GI Bill at Columbia University, they fall deliriously in love. Both are politically engaged leftists and both are anti-Stalinists. And that matters in the 1950s, for of course this is the Red Scare era in the US, and the early years of the decades-long Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Charlie, most of whose extended family were killed in the Holocaust, feels a keen sense of patriotic obligation to the US, and he is enthusiastic about being offered the editorship at Compass. Compass is a (fictional) literary journal with a liberal, but anti-Soviet, take on issues, and is backed by the moneyed Davenport Foundation.  This is an opportunity for Charlie to take part in the cultural Cold War that was also raging between east and west.

In addition to battling over politics and economics, the US and USSR struggled for cultural supremacy, with literature, theater, art, dance and music as ammunition. The Soviets trotted out their Bolshoi ballet, while the US focused on Broadway plays, jazz music and freedom in literature. One of the most intriguing events in the cultural Cold War was the western publication of Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago, which is critical of the Soviet state.

With investigative journalism being part of her DNA, Nell can't help but wonder if Charlie's murder was really part of a random mugging, or if he was targeted for some other reason. And, as she goes through his papers, she begins to wonder more about whether Charlie had a secret life; whether his role in the cultural Cold War was more of a soldier than a volunteer.

Ellen Feldman so well depicts the numbness of Nell's suddenly becoming a young widow with a small child, followed by the flood of anger, confusion and other swirling emotions. Then, as Nell delves into Charlie's secrets, "I could not stop reliving my life backward. Not backward in time, but backward in perceptions and emotions." This is a perceptive examination of Nell's journey.

More than one woman's story, though, this is also a reflective and engrossing visit to one side of the Cold War that should be of particular interest to those who also came of age in that period. Not Nikita Khrushchev pounding his shoe on the table at the UN, or the duck-and-cover drills, but the hoopla over Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago, battles between eastern and western judges at the Olympics and other international sports competitions, and troupes of actors, dancers, writers and artists traipsing through world capitals, all flags a-flutter.

The Unwitting is an emotionally and intellectually engaging read that feelingly and subtly examines the complexities of love, loyalty and morality. And it made me want to read Frances Stonor Saunders's The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (first published in 2000; second edition from New Press, 2013) and Petra Couvée's The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book (Pantheon, June 17, 2014).

Note: I received a free review copy of The Unwitting. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads, BookLikes and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Review of Kathy Reichs's Bones Never Lie

Bones Never Lie by Kathy Reichs

I had rather lost track of author Kathy Reichs's Temperance Brennan series, so I leaped at the opportunity to read and review Bones Never Lie, the 17th in this series, which many consider the equal of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta books. Tempe is a forensic anthropologist who divides her time between Montreal and North Carolina, where her mother still lives. In the opening of this book, Tempe's Montreal partner and sometime lover, Andrew Ryan, has taken an extended leave and dropped completely out of sight after the death of his teenage daughter from a drug overdose. The police in North Carolina desperately want his expertise and experience to help catch a serial killer who had previously eluded arrest in Montreal, so Tempe's first assignment is to track down Ryan and persuade him to return to duty.

Old Montreal
Anique Pomperleau is a monster who kidnaps, tortures, and kills young girls. During an earlier case (I have not read that book yet), she had threatened Tempe, whose team had so nearly captured her. DNA found on the victim's clothing matched that of Anique; could the madwoman possibly have followed Tempe from Canada to North Carolina to extract revenge?

The suspense tightens and the case expands, as unsolved disappearances of young girls throughout the eastern US and Canada seem tied to the current investigation. The author is very good at ratcheting up the suspense gradually in her books, and this one is no exception.

It has been awhile since I read any of this series, so I don't remember Tempe's mother very clearly, if at all. This formidable woman, suffering from a variously diagnosed mental illness, has been in and out of private institutions for many years. In Bones Never Lie, her mother's online research is invaluable in tracking down the killer and linking previously unsolved crimes to the one Tempe and Ryan are investigating.

The team navigates its way through a variety of competing and sometimes grudging jurisdictions, until a surprisingly sticky twist that I will dream of for awhile turns the case on its head. Then a young friend who dog sits for Tempe in Charlotte disappears, and the case becomes both urgent and personal.

Emily Deschanel
Reichs, like her character Tempe, is a forensic anthropologist, one of only 56 certified in North America. Also like Tempe, she divides her time between Montreal and Charlotte. Her first novel, Déja Dead, won the Arthur Ellis prize, and the series has been shortlisted for many awards since. She was the inspiration and an early consultant for the TV series Bones, based on the books and starring Emily Deschanel as Tempe. I watched a couple of the episodes, and believe me, the books are much better!

It will be interesting to see how––or if––Tempe's personal relationship with her partner develops after his tragedy. Her mother is a charming addition; I'd love to see Mama's new computer research skills featured in upcoming books. The series had become less suspenseful and, frankly, somewhat depressing in recent years, but Reichs is back on form in this one. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys forensics thrillers.

Note: I received a free review copy of Bones Never Lie, which will be released by Bantam/Random House on September 23, 2014.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Bang-Up Hot-Weather Books

"Talking about a biohazard, you should have a warning posted on the door," my husband said, looking into our bedroom. There I was, sorting and rearranging books. I am at the stage where you have an even bigger mess than the one you started with days before. Books are stacked all over the floor, piled on the bed and falling off the dresser. His remarks were a mistake. He'd been reading about the discovery of 50-year-old vials of smallpox and other deadly viruses forgotten in a US governmental lab's cold storage. Since he put the apocalypse on my mind, as soon as he left the room I abandoned cleaning for digging for books like Nevil Shute's 1957 On the Beach, in which a sailor jumps ship to return home in the aftermath of a nuclear war; Stephen King's The Stand, about a battle between good and evil and a deadly virus called Captain Trips; and Jeff VanderMeer's quiet and creepy Authority (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 2014), the second in his Southern Reach mystery/horror/sci fi trilogy. (Authority shouldn't be read until you've read Annihilation (see my review here).)

I'll tell you more about the postapocalypse when I find all my the-future-is-the-pits books. In the meantime, I'd like to mention some books I've come across in my searching, the ones perfect for reading this summer.

A few days ago, I happened upon Reginald Hill's The Price of Butcher's Meat, also published under the better title of A Cure for All Diseases, and couldn't resist a re-read. It's the second to last in the Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe series and dedicated to fans of Jane Austen (you'll see why when you read it). Dalziel is at the Avalon clinic in the seaside resort of Sandytown, recovering from injuries suffered in an explosion. While fresh psychology grad Charlotte Heywood's emails to her sister sometimes feel excessive, I love this book for its look at Dalziel as an invalid (!) and Daphne "Big Bum" Denham, a rich woman who likes to make people around her dance. The ocean setting and the murder (a sure nominee for best summer crime scene) make it perfect hot-weather reading. It can be read as a standalone, but it's best appreciated if you already know Hill's characters––and believe me, they're well worth knowing. I'm now reading Death Comes for the Fat Man to remind myself how Dalziel was blown into his coma in the first place (of course, PC Adolphus Hector was involved) and how Peter and Wieldy investigate in the Fat Man's absence.

Scotsman Donald Pace goes missing in northern Africa during World War II in Gerard Woodward's poignant and offbeat comedy Letters from an Unknown Woman (also published as Nourishment). Donald's wife, Tory, works toward the war effort at Farraway’s Gelatine Factory. She has evacuated their children to the Cotswolds and is living southeast of London with her widowed mother, Mrs. Head, as the book begins. Like Death Comes for the Fat Man, Woodward's book begins with a big bang. This one, courtesy of a German bomb, levels Dando's butcher shop next door and provides an almost perfect leg of what Mrs. Head and Tory hope is pork for their dinner. Soon a letter from Donald arrives. He's prisoner at a German stalag and he begs Tory to send him dirty letters. Tory's efforts to satisfy him awaken a new woman. It's much more than a sexual awakening. It's Tory taking charge of her own life. By the time Donald, a very bad sort, returns home, no one is the same.

In I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe (Crown, January 2014), onetime tomboy Rosetta Edwards refuses to stay home when her new husband, Jeremiah Wakefield, joins the Union Army to earn money to buy a farm in Nebraska. When he goes off to fight the Civil War, she cuts her hair, becomes "Ross Stone" and passes a cursory physical to fight at his side with other volunteers from rural New York. This beautifully written book, narrated by the memorable Rosetta/Ross, is a love story set against the loud and dirty backdrop of war. It's based on letters written home by hundreds of northern and southern women who actually fought in the Civil War.

And now back to the trenches of book sorting and shelving in our bedroom.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Balm for the Sun-Baked Brain

I don't know about you, but my brain just doesn't feel like functioning at its peak when the temperature gets above sweater weather. In the summer, I prefer books that aren't too long, complex or serious.

Patricia Wentworth
This summer, I've found the perfect books, and they're a blast from the past. Three-plus decades ago, I read all of Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver series. I still have those old paperbacks, tucked behind the hardcovers on my mystery bookshelves.

Patricia Wentworth was born in 1878 in India, and sent back to England to school. Her first novel was published in 1910 and she went on to write 70 more, 32 of which were in the Miss Silver series. Her last Miss Silver novel, The Girl in the Cellar, was published in 1961, the year of Wentworth's death.

Miss Silver is a former schoolteacher, now a private detective––or private enquiry agent, as she prefers to call it. She's an unassuming old spinster who can usually be found knitting sweaters for the infant children of her niece, and chatting with others at whatever country home she may be visiting. When she's called on to investigate, it never seems to be a problem to invite her into a home as some distant relation or family friend who can sit unobtrusively off to the side and absorb clues.

Sounds like Agatha Christie's Miss Jane Marple, doesn't it? Miss Silver came first, though, appearing in The Grey Mask (1928) a couple of years before Miss Marple first made her appearance in print. And Miss Silver is more tight-lipped and has a harder shell than Miss Marple.

Miss Silver has a couple of secret weapons. The first is that nobody thinks she's anything but a harmless old bluehair, so they drop clues and revelatory comments around her with abandon. The second is that she has contacts within the police force who take her seriously. One is her old pupil, Chief Constable Randal March, and others are Scotland Yard's Detective Inspector Frank Abbott, and Detective Chief Inspector Lamb. (It's true that Lamb calls her a busybody, but he does pay attention to what she says, especially since she's adept at making him think he reached her deductions first.)

I'll admit that the Miss Silver novels are formulaic. Almost always, a young couple's romance is threatened by a murder, particularly because one of the couple is often Lamb's Suspect Number One. Maudie, as Frank sometimes thinks of her to himself, has a soft spot for young love and always manages to smooth the way for romance by unveiling the real killer. I could live with a little less of Miss Silver's quirks, repeated in each book, like her habit of giving a "deprecating cough" to indicate disapproval, but these things are to be expected in a long-running series and, after all, it's not the normal mode to devour the books one after another.

What I like best about Maudie is that she focuses on human nature to figure out the whodunnit. It isn't that she ignores physical clues, but rather that she interprets them through a prism of the characters' personalities, and human nature in general, to put them all together and reveal the only logical explanation. I'm not usually much of a cozy reader, but I do like traditional British mysteries, and a good character-driven story, which is Patricia Wentworth all over.

I've been listening to the Miss Silver books on audio, which has been particularly entertaining. They seem to be made for audio, and Diana Bishop, who narrates many of the books in the series, is terrific. Often, in books with a lot of dialogue, the narrator works so hard to differentiate the voices that it sounds silly. Bishop doesn't make that mistake, and the dialogue just flows.

So far, I've listened to The Chinese Shawl (1943), The Traveller Returns (1948; originally published in 1945 as She Came Back) and Out of the Past (1953). In each case, there is one character whom it is a deep pleasure to hate and whose comeuppance is eagerly anticipated. Miss Silver unravels the tangle of clues like a bit of yarn the cat has been at, and presents a neatly woven solution, restoring order to the world and allowing the young lovers to start their lives together. Very satisfying when the summer heat leaves me feeling lazy!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Books and Summertime

Our State Fair is a great State Fair. It's opening tomorrow and there is something for everyone to enjoy. From concerts to 4H exhibits and temptations of all kinds. The kids all like the rides, but adults prefer the attractions of the midway. Pick your favorite: Skee-Ball, Whack-a-Mole, the carousel, Ferris wheel or even cardboard horse races––and maybe sharp-shooting for suckers.

If you can't make it to your state fair, I found a selection of books that will amuse and entertain in a similar summer fun fashion.

A good place to start is with The White Magic Five and Dime by Steve Hockensmith, with Lisa Falco (Midnight Ink/Llewellyn, July 8, 2014). When Alanis McLachlan gets a phone call from her mother's lawyer, her first reaction is to choke on her Coke, because she knew her mother either wanted money or she was dead. The latter was the case and it appeared that Barbra Harper was killed in a botched burglary scenario. Alanis had shed all the tears she ever would for her mother, whom she had not seen or heard from in 20 years.

Almost from the time she could walk, Alanis was used as an accomplice in her mother's con games. When she got old enough she left that life forever, disgusted with the peripatetic lifestyle that was always fraught with danger. Now, she finds her mother has left her the most recent sting scheme, a shop in Berdache, Arizona. Apparently there are "vortexes" around Sedona, and there are some less powerful ones around Berdache, but still enough to support a half dozen occult bookstores and New Age crystal shops. One of these is the White Magic Five and Dime.

Alanis has no doubt that her mother was as slick and crooked as ever, but since, along with the bookstore, she has been given an apartment and a sum of ill-gotten gains, she decides to stay awhile, run the business and try to find out who killed her mother. Another surprise is that Barbra also left a somewhat mysterious young girl inhabiting the apartment.

This is a captivating story that really kept me engrossed, as I followed and laughed at Alanis's attempts to learn enough about Tarot cards so that she can fake her way into her client's confidences, hoping she can find out some of her mother's secrets.

Once I began this book I didn't put it down until I was finished. It was pure fun from beginning to end. You might be more familiar with Steve Hockensmith from his Holmes on the Range series and short stories that feature cowboys Old Red and Big Red Amlingmeyer who follow the steps of their literary hero Sherlock Holmes as they use his methods of observation and deduction to solve mysteries in the wild west. Hockensmith has a great sense of humor and a charismatic way of telling a story, so I wanted to read more of his work. This led me to the genre of monster mashups.

The great number of authors who have been monsterized flabbergasted me. The list goes from Dickens to Shakespeare to Mark Twain and Tolstoy. My first choice was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Quirk Books, 2009), by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains" is how the story begins. This is an edition of the classic in which the Bennet family of five sisters who live at Longbourn estate spend their days and nights practicing and using the deadly arts, as learned in the Orient, against an invasion of Zombies. Forget about looking for husbands, these girls are much admired zombie assassins.

The main plot of Austen's original remains intact, but there are a few tweaks, especially as regards certain characters in the book who come to different––but more satisfying––ends.

This book was hilarious at times, but my main complaint is that the mythology of zombies was vague. There were mentions of a strange plague, but it was never clear how the strange events began, nor how the condition was disseminated. The zombies were pulling themselves out of the ground in various stages of decay, from newly disgusting to ancient remains. Aside from the fact that these creatures were looking for brains, it was never clear just what behavior could be expected from the wanderers––and this was odd, because these events had been going on for decades.

Steve Hockensmith wrote a prequel, as well as a sequel, to PaPaZ. Both of these are based loosely on the Jane Austen novel. The first, Dawn of the Dreadfuls: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Quirk Books, 2010) takes place when Elizabeth Bennet is just 17 years old. Things had been quiet in Meryton for some time, and everyone was taken aback when a corpse began to rise at his own funeral. Mr. Oscar Bennet had been instrumental in quelling the first insurgence of the living dead, euphemistically referred to as "the troubles," and he began a rigorous training program to turn his daughters into fierce warriors.

One of the best ways to put a period to the existence of a Zombie was to whack it on the head so to sever the connection from brain to body. This reminded me of the summer arcade game of Whack-a-Mole.

Hockensmith's take on the mythology of Zombieism is more detailed and explicit, and we learn that the bite of a zombie causes the strange plague to spread. The only recourse to this is to hack off the offending body parts, which did result in some bizarre residual humans. In the end, the mechanics of who is called to the peculiar situation is still unclear, leaving it a mystery as to why entire cemeteries empty, as their inhabitants reclaim an existence above the grass.

In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After (Quirk Books, 2011), Hockensmith picks up the story several years after the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet to Fitzwilliam Darcy. Elizabeth is in a race to discover a cure for the strange malady before she has to behead her husband. It is fortunate that the troubles remain restricted to England. Thank heaven for island nations.

If your idea of fun is testing your own mental agility, then grab Chris Grabenstein's Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library (Yearling, June 2014) and settle in for a good time. It has been 12 years since Ohio's Alexandriaville Public Library was torn down. At one time, Mr. Luigi Lemoncello, the son of immigrants, spent many happy hours in a library, wanting to learn about his new country. He is now a brilliant gazillionaire who earned his money by creating fantastical board games and electronic games loved by children and families everywhere.

So he is responsible for the creation of a wonderful new facility, filled to the brim with books, computers, holographic history lessons, and a magical ceiling made up of nine individual video screens that can operate together or individually, giving the impression of the brilliance of Times Square; a Wonder Dome, indeed.

To celebrate the opening of the new library, Mr. Lemoncello conceived of an event that would bring in lots of attention. Twelve 12-year-olds were going to be selected to enjoy an overnight lock-in, with food, prizes and games.

Kyle Keeley isn't big on books, but he is a whiz on board games as well computer games, so he was excited to be chosen, along with some of his friends. What they find after the doors have been closed and locked is that they are to be part of a great game, the object of which is to find a way out of the library without going out the front door. There are also rules debarring them from escaping from windows, what few there are, and fire doors.

The clues they have on hand are that everything they need to know is on their library cards, and that the library itself contains everything the players need to complete their plans. Kyle teams up with a few friends and the game is afoot.

This book was exciting and lots of fun because the readers have to put their own thinking caps on to solve the riddles, rebuses and value suggestions. Readers will find out if indeed they are smarter than an average seventh grader. The dénouement of this story leads to a mysterious surprise and a challenge. Go for it!

To warm you up, here's a rebus which is a clue to how one feels at the end of a day at the state fair.
And this may be what interests you tomorrow:

Monday, July 14, 2014

Winners: International Thriller Writers Awards 2014

Congratulations to the winners of the 2014 International Thriller Writers Awards, announced at ThrillerFest IX in Manhattan last Saturday. They appear in red below:

Best Hardcover Novel

Linda Castillo – Her Last Breath (Minotaur Books)
Lee Child – Never Go Back (Delacorte Press)
Lisa Gardner – Touch and Go (Dutton Adult)
Stephen King – Doctor Sleep (Scribner)
Owen Laukkanen – Criminal Enterprise (Putnam Adult)
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child – White Fire (Grand Central Publishing)
*Andrew Pyper – The Demonologist (Simon & Schuster)

Best First Novel

Gwen Florio  – Montana (Permanent Press)
J.J. Hensley – Resolve (Permanent Press)
Becky Masterman – Rage Against the Dying (Minotaur Books)
*Jason Matthews – Red Sparrow (Scribner)
Carla Norton – The Edge of Normal (Minotaur Books)
Hank Steinberg – Out of Range (William Morrow)
Dick Wolf – The Intercept (Harper)

Best Paperback Original Novel

Allison Brennan – Cold Snap (Minotaur Books)
Kendra Elliot – Buried (Montlake Romance)
Susan Elia MacNeal – His Majesty's Hope (Bantam)
*Jennifer McMahon – The One I Left Behind (William Morrow Paperbacks)
Nele Neuhaus – Snow White Must Die (Pan Macmillan/Minotaur)
Michael Stanley – Deadly Harvest (Harper Paperbacks)

Best Short Story

Eric J. Guignard – “Baggage of Eternal Night” (JournalStone)
Laura Lippman – “Waco 1982” (Grand Central)
Kevin Mims – “The Gallows Bird” (Ellery Queen)
*Twist Phelan – “Footprints in the Water” (Ellery Queen)
Stephen Vessels – “Doloroso” (Ellery Queen)

Best Young Adult Novel

Ashley Elston – The Rules for Disappearing (Disney-Hyperion)
Mari Mancusi – Scorched (Sourcebooks Fire)
Elisa Nader – Escape From Eden (Merit Press)
*Cristin Terrill – All Our Yesterdays (Disney-Hyperion)
Allen Zadoff – I Am the Weapon (The Unknown Assassin, Book 1) (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

Best E-Book Original Novel

*Rebecca Cantrell – The World Beneath (Rebecca Cantrell)
J.G. Faherty – The Burning Time (JournalStone)
Joshua Graham – Terminus (Redhaven Books)
James Lepore and Carlos Davis – No Dawn For Men (The Story Plant)
Luke Preston – Out of Exile (Momentum)

Twist Phelan

Camp Out with These Books

Conveniently for my daughter, she's rarely home when I want to throttle her. I'm getting ready for a camping trip with friends, so I pulled out our five-person tent. Except it's not our five-person tent. I've never seen this tent before in my life. The last time I saw our tent is when I handed it to my daughter, who took it to a weekend music festival, the kind where there are thousands of tents being taken down on the last day, and your daughter brings back a tent that's not nearly as large or as nice as the one she and her friends originally set off with in her car.

That particular tent may be jinxed. On the way home after purchasing it, I asked my two then-small kids not to tell their dad how expensive it was. It was erected in the living room, and the three of us were looking at it proudly when Hubby/Daddy got home. "Wow, that's a really nice tent. I bet it was pricey, like a hundred bucks," he said. "Yeah, something like that," I smiled. "No, Mommy, it was $xxx.xx," advised our daughter, the overly truthful, little Miss Know-It-All. "Hey, Mommy told us not to tell Daddy how much it cost," scolded her big brother, who liked nothing more than correcting her. Luckily, Hubby/Daddy has a sense of humor, and he just laughed.

Thinking about our jinxed tent today, I hope the people now camping with it are not plagued by blizzards or high winds, since the tent's bad-weather cover remains in our garage. The instructions are there, too. Let me know if you're the (un)lucky person in possession of the tent that formerly belonged to us, and I'll tell you how to set it up. For everyone else, I'll stick to suggesting books you'd be lucky to have for reading in your tent.

After you've doused yourself with mosquito repellent, pitched camp away from the poison oak, and secured your food out of the bears' reach, take refuge in the mean streets of Los Angeles with black homicide detective Elouise ("Lou") Norton in Rachel Howzell Hall's Land of Shadows (Forge, June 2014). Lou's current case involves the death of 17-year-old Monique Darson in a gentrifying development, but Lou sees similarities to her own older sister Tori's unsolved disappearance 25 years earlier. As her investigation proceeds and grows more dangerous, Lou becomes convinced that solving Monique's murder will also close Tori's cold case. Her superiors aren't so sure.

Rachel Howzell Hall
(Getty Images)
Most of the book is narrated by Lou. It's a pleasure to follow Lou as she recalls days leading up to Tori's vanishing and its aftermath, and she deals with her new partner from Colorado, Colin Taggert, who dresses like he's "going to a bar mitzvah at the Ponderosa" and does a bites-his-lip-and-smiles thing when he surveys the attractive Lou. Lou rolls her eyes, although her marriage to Greg, in Japan on business, is wilting. How many "Sorry, Baby" Porsche Cayenne SUVs does a woman want from her cheating husband? Lou is sassy, smart, and tough; writer Hall knows Los Angeles inside out, and she has keen insight into human nature and complex family relationships. This is a great start to a new series. Don't worry about the looming "Z" for Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone: meet the LAPD's Lou Norton.

Okay, I love Lou, and I look forward to seeing more of her in the future, but one should spend only so much time with law enforcement while camping. After all, isn't the point of spending a few nights hanging out with wild animals in the forest to escape civilization? Let's plot a murder (ineptly, it's the funnest way) with Buddy Sandifer, a used-car dealer in the Midwest and father of a teenage son heavily into sex manuals, who wants his wife dead so he can marry his buxom blonde mistress, Laverne, in Sneaky People. This terrific black comic noir, set in the '30s, is written by Thomas Berger, who also wrote the picaresque novel, Little Big Man, which starred Dustin Hoffman when it was adapted for the screen.

When you've had your fill of gazing at the stars and eating s'mores around the fire, light the tent lantern and crawl into your sleeping bag with a book. Now, the book must be absolutely riveting to keep your mind off how incredibly claustrophobic it all is. Think about it: you are lying not only inside a small tent, you are encased in a narrow bag. But don't think about it too much. If the enclosed space is getting to you, and you're in danger of bursting into shrieks and running amok through the camp, you might find it helpful to stuff cotton between each of your toes so they don't touch each other while you're in your sleeping bag. (I have no idea if this actually works because it just occurred to me; however, doesn't the theory behind this suggestion seem sound to you?)

My specific book recommendation depends on the phase of the moon. If there's a full moon, don't just howl at it––read Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Please don't tell me you don't like science fiction. There are certain books even non-sci fi lovers should enjoy, and this is one of them. In it, indentured lunar colony members produce wheat for consumption on Earth. It's 2075 when some of them, aided by a computer named Mike, decide to stage a revolution.

The word "revolution" reminds me of the French (Happy Bastille Day!), which reminds me of Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. (Trust me, I am working my way toward a point.) If there's not a full moon, but an inky sky glittering with constellations, I suggest you read Alfred Bester's darkly comic oddball tale, The Stars My Destination. You'll see the parallels to Dumas' 1844 adventure masterpiece as Gulliver ("Gully") Foyle, Mechanic's Mate 3rd Class and only man alive on the wrecked and marooned spaceship Nomad, vows revenge against the owners and crew of the Vorga, a passing space vessel that ignores his distress signals. It's a furious, obsessional murderous pursuit through time and space that should distract you from the confinement of your tent and sleeping bag.

I would be grossly irresponsible if I didn't close with a post-apocalyptic horror thriller for your nighttime read. M. R. Carey's The Girl with All the Gifts (Orbit/Hachette, June 2014) is that––and an on-the-road (à la Cormac McCarthy's The Road) and coming-of-age novel, too. Its heroine is a 10-year-old named Melanie, whom Dr. Caldwell calls "our little genius." Melanie lives alone in her cell in a cellblock full of other children. There are no windows, and the children have no memories of any other existence. Five days a week, Sgt. Parks trains a gun on them while they seat themselves in wheelchairs, are strapped in, and are wheeled into a classroom for lessons. Melanie loves her teacher, Miss Justineau, and hopes when she grows up, she can move to Beacon, the closest city in that part of England. Soon thereafter, events take a turn that puts Melanie, Miss Justineau, Sgt. Parks, Pvt. Gallagher, and Dr. Caldwell on the road to Beacon. That's all I want to divulge about the plot and characters.

M. R. Carey
Despite its flaws (clichéd characters and plot elements and an over-long 403 pages), I enjoyed this book for its creepy atmosphere, intricate plotting, examination of our world and a dystopian future, the relationships between the characters, and the chance to see Melanie come into her own. Pandora, who opened a box and gave her gifts to the world, would have enjoyed it, too. When the owls start hooting, pull out Carey's novel, and dig in.

Happy camping and reading, everybody.