Saturday, August 30, 2014

Fall Preview 2014: Part Six

Veronica Mars, my favorite young detective, has been around a lot in 2014, first in a movie and then in The Thousand Dollar Tan Line novel. (I wrote about the movie and the book here.) She'll be back soon, in Rob Thomas's second Veronica Mars novel, Mr. Kiss and Tell (Vintage, October 28).

Those of us who watched the Veronica Mars series know the Neptune Grand hotel very well. For the fanciest spot in town, it's sure been the scene of plenty of low-down deeds, and now we have another. A woman comes forward, claiming that months earlier she had been assaulted in one of the Neptune Grand's rooms and left for dead. Management asks Veronica to investigate, before a full-blown scandal can harm the hotel's business.

Veronica's client is a headache, refusing to turn over its reservations list, and the accuser is no better, with her refusal to say who she was meeting that night and her inability to identify her attacker. The hotel's security system turns out to be no help, either, all of which leaves Veronica with a real investigative challenge on her hands.

Of course, the book is on my to-read list. In the meantime, I'll be looking forward to the September 15 debut of the web series Play It Again, Dick, a very metafictional and crazy-sounding story, in which Ryan Hansen, who played the inimitable Dick Casablancas on Veronica Mars, tries to cash in on the Veronica Mars movie buzz by getting the other cast members to make a spinoff with him.

Jonathan Kellerman and his son, Jesse, are collaborating on a new series featuring LAPD detective Jacob Lev. In The Golem of Hollywood (Putnam, September 16), Jacob had been working out of Hollywood Division, Robbery-Homicide. Jacob had a good record, until he didn't. He seems to be suffering from depression, though Captain Mendoza, who really doesn't like him, calls it a lot of other names and wants to get rid of him.

Now Jacob is on some "Special Projects" squad he never heard of, assigned to investigate a bizarre murder. Up in the Hollywood Hills, a murder victim is found––only it's not the entire victim, just a head. And the Hebrew word for "justice" is burned into the kitchen counter.

Jacob is in for a long, strange trip with this investigation, from Los Angeles, around the country and even overseas, to London and Prague, the home of the original Golem of Prague. You can read the first three chapters of the book at Jonathan Kellerman's website here.

Last summer, I stayed up until 3:00am reading Charlie Lovett's The Bookman's Tale––and trust me, unlike Georgette, I'm no night owl! Naturally, I pricked up my ears when I heard he has a new book coming out: First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen (Viking, October 20). Lovett continues his propensity to meld an old-book treasure hunt with a contemporary personal story.

Sophie Collingwood is the bibliomaniac this time around. She inherited her passion from her Uncle Bertram, and is crushed when, at his death, his books have to be sold to pay his outstanding debts. Sophie takes a job selling old books herself, and ends up on the trail of a book by clergyman Richard Mansfield, which may have been the inspiration for Pride and Prejudice, written by Mansfield's friend, Jane Austen.

Sophie's quest to determine whether Austen copied from Mansfield expands to include her efforts to satisfy her suspicions about her uncle's death. She also has to deal with two men competing for her affections; an American scholar and an English publisher.

Kirkus Reviews says this new book isn't nearly as fresh as The Bookman's Tale, and that Sophie's story "verg[es] on chick lit," while the Austen portions "test the patience of non-Austenophiles." This doesn't entirely put me off; it just makes me think this one might not keep me up reading past my bedtime.

Did you ever see that terrific 1971 Michael Caine flick, Get Carter? I did, and loved it. I didn't realize that the story came from Ted Lewis's 1970 book, Jack's Return Home. Soho Syndicate is republishing Lewis's book, under the title Get Carter on September 9, and I want to remedy my sin of reading omission.

Yorkshireman Jack Carter left the north of England and moved to London, where he became a mob enforcer. Eight years later, Jack's brother, Frank, is killed in a supposed car accident. Even though Jack hadn't spoken to Frank in years, he returns home and investigates to discover the truth about Frank's death, despite increasingly more pointed and then violent urgings that he stay out of the business of the local villains and return to the south.

Publishers Weekly raves about the book's "evocative prose" and Lewis's talent at "inject[ing] humor into the mostly gritty proceedings." PW also says that Ian Rankin fans who don't know Ted Lewis will be pleased with the story. If you enjoy the book, you should also try to find the two Jack Carter prequels Ted Lewis wrote, Jack Carter's Law and Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon.

Helen Giltrow's debut novel, The Distance (Doubleday, September 9) promises a modern, hard-edged thriller begging to be turned into an action-packed film. On the surface, Charlotte Alton is a cool, smooth, sophisticated young Londoner. But she has another identity, Karla, an expert in making information vanish.

One of the criminals whom Karla has helped disappear is Simon Johanssen, a military sniper who parlayed his skills into a second career as a hit man, and who needed a complete identity alteration when a mob hit he'd been hired to do went wrong. Simon comes to Karla to ask her to team up with him on a new job he has, to take out a prisoner in "The Program," an ultra-high-security prison in London that is an operational experiment, in that the prisoners essentially run their own community.

Karla's job is to set up an identity that will get Simon inside The Program and get him out when the job is done. But when she finds that his target doesn't seem to have any paper-trail existence, she becomes suspicious and feels compelled to find out who the target is and the reasons behind Simon's hire. To add extra tension to the plot, the mobster who has it in for Simon because of the botched hit just happens to be a current resident of The Program. Word is that this is an intense, dark, plot-driven thriller that will keep your mind racing trying to figure out what will happen next.

Another London-based page-turner coming out the same day as The Distance is Oliver Harris's Deep Shelter (Harper/Bourbon Street, September 9). This is the second entry in the DC Nick Belsey series, that began with The Hollow Man. Belsey is one of those cops who finds ethics a luxury beyond his budget, working in a city full of every temptation and every kind of corruption.

Bad-boy Belsey decides to impress his date, Jemma, by taking her to an abandoned World War II bomb shelter where he'd earlier found a store of drink and drugs. When she seemingly disappears into thin air, Belsey knows he must find her himself, and pronto, since otherwise he'll be the prime suspect in her missing-person case, or whatever worse kind of case it might turn into.

Belsey is convinced that the secret to Jemma's disappearance lies in the network of underground tunnels that hold secrets from decades past. As he searches, he begins to receive messages from Jemma's kidnapper, who is using the name Ferryman, which was the moniker of a famous spy during the Cold War. Time is running out as Belsey tries to figure out who Ferryman really is, rescue Jemma and avoid getting caught by his own police force. I need to get a copy of The Hollow Man read ASAP so that I'll be ready for Deep Shelter.

I can't exactly say I'm looking forward to Robert Baer's The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins (Penguin/Blue Rider, October 28); that seems wrong, given the subject, but I'm intrigued. Baer spent 25 years as a CIA operative and assassin (though he claims he never succeeded in taking out a target).

In this wry, hard-eyed guide (hmm, do I really want to call something on this subject a guide?), Baer examines the history of political assassination, making the point that this tactic works better in combating evil than, say, drone strikes. Baer is the author of the best seller, See No Evil, which was adapted for the film Syriana, where his character was played by George Clooney. (Now there's an item for any man's bucket list!) Earlier this summer, it was announced that The Perfect Kill has already been optioned for a cable TV series.

I was lucky enough to receive an advance reviewing copy of Broadchurch (Minotaur, September 2), by Erin Kelly, from Chris Chibnall's screenplay for the popular television miniseries. I'll be writing about the book at length next week, but for now I want to let you know that this was a gripping novel that can stand on its own or be enjoyed even if you already watched the miniseries.

Broadchurch is a small beach town on the Dorset coast, where everybody knows everybody else. When 11-year-old Danny Latimer is found murdered on the beachfront, it turns everyone's lives upside down. Ellie Miller's family is close to the Latimers, but Ellie is a cop and she is constantly reminded by her acerbic new boss, DI Alec Hardy, that she must stay in that role and remember that nobody can be trusted.

Mark Latimer, Danny's father, has a secret that he refuses to tell, and soon even his wife, Beth, begins to suspect that he has a role in Danny's death. Neighbors begin to suspect each other, and secrets are brought to light that may ruin lives. A fascinating whodunnit, Broadchurch is also a thoughtful study of how murder affects a community.

Lucy Worsley is a new name to me, but she's a well-known historian in England, where history is all-important. At only 40 years old, Worsley is chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces organization, and she regularly hosts history-related television series.

One of Worsley's interests is social history, and it looks like anything goes with her. Later this year, she's pairing up with Len Goodman, of Dancing With the Stars in the US and Strictly Come Dancing in the UK, to present a new BBC4 series called Dancing Cheek to Cheek: An Intimate History of Dance. The series studies the social history of popular dances, and at the end of each episode, Goodman and Worsley suit up in period costume and demonstrate a dance.

Worsley has also turned her attention to England's longtime fascination with murder, from Jack the Ripper to the Ratcliff Highway Murders to Dr. Crippen and, in fiction, from Sherlock Holmes, through the Golden Age to today. In The Art of English Murder (Pegasus Crime, October 8), Worsley examines just what it is that makes murder a near-obsession and an entertainment in England. Publishers Weekly gives the book a starred review and says: "Worsley's vivid account excites as much as its sensational subject matter, and edifies too, thanks to her learned explications."

We'll be back next week with even more previews of coming attractions.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Fall Preview 2014: Part Five

It's been so warm I can barely remember what it's like to put on a sweater. I'm looking forward to the day my lemon cookie needs a hot tea rather than an iced tea accompaniment. Then I'll pick up my tea, a cookie, and one of these books, and head for the comfy chair.

I have a bone to pick with Random House, American publisher of English novelist David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks. Why do we get the kinda boring cover at the right, while the Brits get Sceptre's feast-for-the-eyes cover below?

The Bone Clocks has already been long-listed for the Booker Prize, but it must dog paddle across the Atlantic before arriving on our shores next Tuesday, September 2nd. It is apparently very ambitious and the "most Cloud Atlas-y" novel Mitchell has written in the last 10 years. Publishers Weekly's starred review even asks, "Is The Bone Clocks the most ambitious novel ever written, or just the most Mitchell-esque?" Yikes! Sometimes "ambitious" seems to be code for "You're going to have to force yourself to finish it so you can discuss it around the water cooler," but Mitchell's books are invariably interesting even if somewhat maddening.

Like Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks is long (640 pages), with six overlapping narratives. The story is told by five narrators, including Holly Sykes, whom we first meet as a feisty 15-year-old girl running away from home in Gravesend, England, in 1984. Holly isn't a typical teenager. She has heard voices she dubbed "the Radio People," and she's somehow become involved in a spiritual war between these "soul-decanting" Radio People and the "Horologists" of the Marinus from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, who are trying to stop them. This is a genre-straddling novel of sci fi/horror/fantasy/realism about free will and destiny. By the time it winds down, we've observed Holly for 60 years.

It's been a few years since I read Timothy Hallinan's The Fear Artist (see review here). I'm pleased to see the next one in the series, For the Dead (Soho Crime), will be out on November 4th. These books feature American writer Poke Rafferty, his Thai wife, Rose, and their adopted-off-the-streets daughter, Miaow, now in junior high.

Life is going well for the Raffertys, and they are preparing to welcome another member into their family. Then Miaow and her boyfriend, Andrew, buy a stolen iPhone and discover it contains pictures of two disgraced and murdered police officers. This discovery jeopardizes the lives of the entire family, since the Bangkok police investigation of the officers' deaths is not on the up-and-up. For their safety, the Rafferty family may need to depend on someone who has betrayed them in the past. The warmth of feeling between these characters and Hallinan's plotting, witty descriptions, and knowledge of Bangkok make this an unusual and appealing series.

Don't you love it when you unexpectedly come across something new by a writer whose previous book you enjoyed? Anybody who has ever been involved with house-sitting would appreciate the surrealistic Care of Wooden Floors, by journalist Will Wiles, in which our narrator, a nameless British copywriter, house-sits a gorgeous apartment for old friend Oskar, a somewhat obsessional classical musician. Oskar has notes for Nameless everywhere, but there are three major rules: don't play around with the piano, take good care of the two cats, and don't let anything happen to the French oak floors. Do I need to tell you Nameless breaks all three rules in a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad way? Then things really spiral out of control.

That book is Kafkaesque, and so is Wiles's next, The Way Inn (Harper Perennial, September 16, 2014). Neil Double would have flummoxed everyone on the old TV series What's My Line?. He's a conference surrogate, hired to attend a business conference so someone else won't have to. Wearing a cheap suit, staying in an anonymous hotel room (his favorite hotel brand-name is the Way Inn), listening to boring speakers, and eating tasteless food suits Double's personality and life philosophy just fine, until he makes the mistake of mentioning his occupation to Tom Graham at a Meetex conference about––wait for it––conferences. Graham works for Meetex, and he takes great umbrage about Double's doubling in for the legitimate conference attendee. Double's life assumes the quality of a nightmare. There is no guarantee the answer to his problems is the mysterious Dee, a woman who hints to him about strange secrets in the Way Inn.

It's hard to think of a crime-fiction writer more versatile than Donald E. Westlake. He wrote under his own name and several pseudonyms, and his series protagonists ranged from the comic, unlucky crook Dortmunder to Parker, a cold-hearted and violent professional thief. Westlake also wrote screenplays, such as Payback and The Stepfather. When he died at age 75 in 2008, Westlake had won lifetime achievement awards from the Mystery Writers of America and the British Crime Writers Association. And he was still going to his office, where he typed all his manuscripts on his manual typewriter.

As a Westlake fan, I cannot wait to read The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany, edited by Levi Stahl, with a foreword by Lawrence Block (University of Chicago, September 24, 2014). This is a compilation of material, such as previously published and unpublished essays, pieces from an unpublished autobiography, a history of private-eye fiction, letters, interviews, appreciations of fellow writers, some recipes concocted by his characters, an essay by his wife Abby, and more. Westlake was insightful and funny. Even people who have never read his fiction would likely enjoy this book.

Eimear McBride's A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (Coffee House, distributed by Consortium; September 1, 2014) won the 2014 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. It's McBride's first novel, and it looks like a doozy. It's about a nameless girl, born into a poor, rural Irish family with an older brother she adores, a very abusive Catholic mother, and an absent father. The brother's operation for a brain tumor leaves him with physical and mental deficits and also deeply affects his family.

We follow the girl through her childhood to college, and there are upsetting aspects involving sexuality. She narrates the whole 227 pages in an Irish lilt, in what is less a stream of consciousness than an interior monologue with ungrammatical sentence fragments or a word or two. Most punctuation, except for periods, is missing. Reviewers say the effect is thoughts too inarticulate or rapid for complete sentences. Here's an example:

Suddenly. She's all here mother. She. With scalding prayers. Forgotten her old lash phone calls. Am I not here? I. Give me a good punch on my face. Stop. It's fine now. It's fine now isn't that why you came? To pick up. Bits and pieces. Let her do her thing. Name of the father but shhh. Lead us not into temptation. That's right. All very well. I. So I won't utter a single. No. I will. Do this. I will do this for you because. I can."

This book is definitely not for everyone, but it sounds like an unforgettable read.

Turn up the reggae music and light one up if you've got one, because I'm going to tell you about Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead Hardcover, October 2, 2014). It's a 560-page epic, set primarily in Jamaica, as well as in New York, covering several decades of violence, poverty, and corruption. Although Bob Marley isn't mentioned by name, one can assume he's "the singer" whose attempted assassination in December 1976 is prompted by a political rivalry. Marley, his wife, and his manager are lucky to escape, and the wounded singer goes into exile in England. The novel's headcount and dozen narrative voices (Marley's isn't one of them) are hardly affected.

The major characters are low-level thugs and big baddies, such as hit man John-John K and Copenhagen City gang kingpins Papa-Lo and Josey Wales; politicians from the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People's National Party (PNP); CIA agents worried about the spread of communism; journalists, including one from Rolling Stone; and Nina Burgess, whom PW calls "undoubtedly one of this year's great characters." Nina begins as a Kingston receptionist, sheds one identity after another, has an affair with the singer, and ends up in New York before the book ends.

Mathematicians work their tails off on problems that have stumped their predecessors for centuries, and what happens when they solve them? An outer-space alien from Vonnadoria kills Andrew Martin of Cambridge after Martin solves the Riemann Hypothesis, and then the alien takes Martin's place so all evidence the Hypothesis was ever solved can be obliterated (Matt Haig's The Humans).

In Stuart Rojstaczer's The Mathematician's Shiva (Penguin, September 2, 2014), Rachela Karnokovitch, a brilliant mathematician at the University of Wisconsin, reportedly solves the Navier-Stokes Millennium Prize Problem, but then dies of cancer and takes its solution to her grave. Her meteorologist son, Sasha, hopes to bury her with dignity; however, dozens of mathematical geniuses arrive in Madison, and, instead of sitting shiva with the family, do everything they can think of to discover Rachela's secrets, such as ripping up floorboards and holding a séance. Excerpts from Rachela's memoir of fleeing Poland as a child during WWII are shown in flashback.

Author Rojstaczer is a former professor of geophysics at Duke, and his book looks like a lot of fun, even for those of us who started formulating excuses for missing homework as soon as our math teachers assigned those terrifying problems with the two trains leaving the station at different times and traveling at different velocities. PW calls Rojstaczer's book "hugely entertaining."

Have you read Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games? It's an epic centering around two men: Inspector Sartaj Singh, one of the few Sikhs on the Mumbai police force, and his pursuit of the Indian gangster Ganesh Gaitonde. This 928-page doorstopper even has a glossary of Mumbai slang in the back. It's a great read, and I've been looking forward to reading whatever else Chandra might write.

Finally, here it is. Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty (Graywolf Press, September 2, 2014) is "part literary essay, part technology story, and part memoir" of traveling from India to the United States and of working as a programmer before becoming a writer. Chandra explores the connections between the worlds of technology and art, and the cultures of code writers and artists. This is a must read for me.

Tomorrow we'll take a look at more books Sister Mary is putting on her list for fall.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Fall Preview 2014: Part Four

Here we are again, previewing books. It's a fun time for us Material Witnesses because as we're spotting promising books for ourselves, we're also assessing books for each other. There's a World War II book for Sister Mary. Noir? Georgette. I bet Peri would like that one by Karin Fossum. And that European police procedural? It has the Maltese Condor's name all over it. Among the five of us, I hope we're showing you some books that are up your alley, too.

Recently, I've been watching the TV series The Americans. It's set in the 1980s and concerns two Soviet KGB officers. They're posing as a married couple, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, living in suburban Washington, DC with their kids. More than a story about spies, The Americans is the story of these two Russians and their marriage. (Sister Mary wrote about the first season of the series here.)

Chinese-American novelist Ha Jin (pen name of Xuefei Jin) uses an espionage novel, A Map of Betrayal (Pantheon, November 4), in a similar way. He examines Gary Shang's divided loyalties in both love and politics. Shang loves China, where he was born and married. He also loves the United States, where he has an American wife, a daughter, Lilian, a trusted Chinese-American mistress––and a job as a Chinese mole at the CIA.

The book is narrated by the adult Lilian, who received her father's diaries from his mistress after her parents' deaths. Lilian knows the US convicted her father of treason, but she knows nothing of his previous existence in China. A Map of Betrayal follows two story lines written from two different perspectives: Gary Shang's life, as he lived it, and Lilian's attempts to learn about it after his death. Ha Jin is a masterful writer about conflicted individuals (in Waiting, for example, a man waits 18 years to divorce his wife because he loves another and, once divorced, isn't happy about it). This one sounds both complex and moving.

Many of us love books set in the world of books, in which the characters are librarians, writers, publishers, booksellers or obsessional readers. Here's one like that. The Forgers will be published by Mysterious Press on November 4th. Its author, Bradford Morrow, is known for his gothic tales about troubled (and troubling) people. From the beginning, we're unsure how much we can trust the narrator, Will. He tells us he was a gifted forger of 19th-century manuscripts and signatures, but that life was behind him when Adam Diehl is found, dead and his hands severed, surrounded by his collection of rare manuscripts and books.

Will's efforts to create a new life with Adam's sister, Meghan, are hampered when he receives threatening letters apparently written by authors from the grave. I doubt The Forgers is as wonderfully bizarre as Marcel Theroux's Strange Bodies (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2014), in which letters penned by English literary figure Dr. Samuel Johnson are found on modern paper in 21st-century London. Still, it looks good to me.

No one familiar with Ruth Rendell's writing will look at the cover of her upcoming stand-alone, The Girl Next Door (Scribner, October 7), and expect something lovely in that battered tin. No matter if she's writing about Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford, stand-alones or dark psychological suspense pseudonymously as Barbara Vine, Rendell sees evil simmering under the surface of everyday suburbia.

Construction work unearthed the tin box containing a pair of mismatched hands on Essex property where children played in underground tunnels during World War II. After a police inspector tracks them down, the now-elderly friends get together to investigate their childhood secrets. Among the amateur investigators are Alan and his wife, Rosemary; widowed Daphne, whom Alan once loved; Michael, whose mother disappeared and who now considers getting together with his distant father; and Lewis, whose Uncle James was occasionally in the tunnels before he too disappeared. While thinking about this novel, I pictured the final scene of the movie Deliverance, in which Ed awakens screaming from a nightmare when a dead hand reaches above the surface of a lake. A recurring theme in mystery fiction is the decades-old crime solved when it reaches into the present. There's something artistically pleasing about it reaching with a long-dead hand. Or two.

Let's set aside the morality of a career murdering people and think about it in purely practical terms. The job stress would drive me totally bonkers and I'm curious about people who become pro killers and what they do if they live long enough to retire (see Who Ya Gonna Call? here). Don Winslow's Frank Machianno surfs and sells fish in San Diego now that he's no longer Frankie Machine, the Mafia's efficient killer (The Winter of Frankie Machine). In Lenny Kleinfeld's hip and hilarious Shooters & Chasers, a crew of killers is headed by Arthur Reid, a wine connoisseur whose retirement goal is owning a vineyard that supplies a great red for a White House state dinner.

Tod Goldberg's Gangsterland (Counterpoint, September 9) features a Chicago Outfit killer, Sal Cupertino, who might feel at home with Kleinfeld's eccentric characters. Sal longs to be reunited with his wife and toddler and simply disappear. But he messed up and killed three FBI agents and the feds are now on his trail. After Sal undergoes several plastic surgeries and does a lot of studying, the crime syndicate resurrects him in Las Vegas, where they expect his help in an organized crime scheme operating out of a local synagogue, of all places. Yes, Sal is now Rabbi David Cohen, who delivers rabbinical homilies sprinkled with lyrics from Springsteen. Goldberg's book is earning reviewers' praise, including this verdict from Kirkus: "Clever plotting, a colorful cast of characters and priceless situations make this comedic crime novel an instant classic."

Ha Jin isn't the only writer on my fall books-to-read list to explore the topics of love and betrayal. David Bezmozgis wrote his book, The Betrayers (Little, Brown, September 23), before Gaza erupted this summer, but his themes of patriotism, sacrifice, ultimate truth, what it means to be a moral man and the double-edged nature of deeply-held principles are timeless.

The book is set over the course of a day in August 2013. A smear campaign targeting Israeli politician Baruch Kotler, who supports West Bank settlements, causes the married Kotler and his much-younger mistress, Leora, to flee to a Crimean resort town Kotler remembers from his childhood. A surprise for Kotler awaits at the house the couple has rented. The owner is Chaim Tankilevich, the friend who betrayed Kotler to the KGB four decades earlier. Kotler was sentenced to 13 years in a gulag. Both men have suffered in the past, and both struggle with issues now. In a settling of scores, who owes what to whom?

I'm thinking about recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and what they say about race relations in the US as I add Walter Mosley's Rose Gold (Doubleday, September 23) to my list of fall books. It's 13th in the series about Easy Rawlins, a World War II vet who moved from Texas to Los Angeles in the late 1940s. Easy opened a "research and delivery" office because, as a black man, he was unable to obtain a private detective's license. Over the years, white city leaders have consulted him when they need a bridge to the black community. In exchange, Easy received a PI license, but there is still only one white cop Easy trusts.

Mosley is a gifted storyteller, and Easy is about as engaging a narrator as you could possibly meet. Through his observations and experiences, he delivers a picture of what life is like for a street-smart but honorable and hard-working black man in Los Angeles from the late '40s to 1967. That's the year he purposefully runs his car off the road (Blonde Faith, 2007). Several months later, he's out of a coma and searching for a missing young man among hippies on Sunset Strip (Little Green, 2013; see review here). In Rose Gold, it's still 1967. Easy juggles several cases at once, including one for Roger Frisk, assistant to the chief of police. Frisk asks Easy to find Rosemary Goldsmith, daughter of a weapons manufacturer. She has disappeared from her UC Santa Barbara dorm and there's a question of whether a black ex-boxer, who changed his name to Uhuru Nolica and leads the revolutionary group Scorched Earth, is involved. The feds and other LA cops try to warn off Easy but good luck with that. As usual, Easy will trade favors and use his head to clear things up. Having Easy for company in a case with shades of Patty Hearst spells an irresistible read.

I'm fascinated by people (and fictional characters) who refuse to be shackled by society's expectations. I recently enjoyed Erin Lindsay McCabe's I Shall Be Near to You (Crown, January 2014) about one such woman. When her husband, Jeremiah Wakefield, joins the Union Army, Rosetta Edwards won't hear of staying home. She becomes "Ross Stone" and fights in the American Civil War at his side with other volunteers from rural New York who keep her secret. This book is based on letters home by women who actually fought in the Civil War.

Rosetta Edwards doesn't want her husband to enlist, and I Shall Be Near to You is primarily a love story. In contrast, in Laird Hunt's Neverhome (Little, Brown, September 9), narrator Constance Thompson feels so strongly about supporting the Union cause she enlists as "Ash" Thompson while her husband, Bartholomew, stays home on their Indiana farm. She's a crack shot and fits in with the men until she's betrayed by someone she thought she could trust. Reviewers' raves compare Neverhome to Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, but describe Constance's journey as her own. Publishers Weekly says, "Hunt’s characterization of Constance transcends simplistic distinctions between male and female, good and bad. The language of her narration is triumphant as well: sometimes blunt, sometimes visionary, and always fascinating."

I'll give you a few of the steps I went through to research Robert Jackson Bennett's book, City of Stairs (Broadway Books/Random House paperback original, September 9), about intelligence officer Shara Komayd's investigation of the politically explosive murder of academic Efrem Pangyui in the city of Bulikov.

I read the publisher's blurb ("A densely atmospheric and intrigue-filled fantasy novel of living spies, dead gods, buried histories, and a mysterious, ever-changing city—from one of America’s most acclaimed young SF writers"), Georgette's post about a previous Robert Jackson Bennett book, American Elsewhere, and a starred Library Journal review of City of Stairs. It states, in part, "The world Bennett (The Troupe; American Elsewhere) has constructed is a complex political landscape of a subjugated people holding onto the memories of their glory days and protective gods and the conquerors reaping revenge for their own previous subjugation. An excellent spy story wrapped in a vivid imaginary world." This book is definitely for me. Is it also for you?

Next week, I'll tell you about more fall books I'm excited about. Tomorrow, we'll see some other books that caught Georgette's eye.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Fall Preview 2014: Part Three

Most of the time, I like to read about all kinds of excitement that takes place far away from my back yard. This fall, my reading wish list will take me across the pond to some foreign locations I would like to visit someday in person.

It’s always nice to see a few new books coming out from both Francophiles written in English and works written in French and translated. My list has one of each of these.

I first encountered the charismatic Antoine Verlaque in M. L. Longworth's Death at the Chateau Bremont, the first in a series set in Provence. He is the Chief Investigating Magistrate of Aix, and he and an old friend of his, law professor Marine Bonnet, teamed up to solve the murder of two brothers. I'm looking forward to the fourth mystery in the series, Murder on the Île Sordou (Penguin, September 30). Verlaque and Bonnet are taking a vacation on a small island off the coast of Marseilles, where they are staying at a 1960s retro hotel. This turns out to be no vacation from crime, though. The hotel is filled with interesting company, including poets, actors, some Americans and the inevitable rude person. I'll let you guess who the murder victim is.

Just like the surroundings, the answer to the puzzles lie in the past. This should be a nice way to spend a fall weekend.

While you are in France, you might as well take a short jaunt over to Paris, because this next author writes novels with an authentic feel of Paris; its streets, its neighborhoods, and the way its police work, as well as the life on the streets.

Frédérique Molay's first book, The 7th Woman, took France by storm in 2006 and it was finally translated into English by Anne Trager in 2012. Next in the series is Crossing the Line (translated from the French by Anne Trager; Le French Book, September 23).

The Molay books feature super cop Chief of Police Nico Sirsky, who heads the top criminal investigation division in Paris, "La Crim." Sirsky is just returning to work after recovering from a gunshot wound. It is Christmas now in Paris, and Sirsky has romance on his mind. But his first day back at work sets him on the trail of a jewel thief, as well as dealing with a very peculiar disturbing message in a severed head. As in any busy metropolitan police station, the crimes begin to pile up and the crack homicide detectives have their work cut out for them as they work to distinguish the naughty from the nice.

If you have a craving for a bit of la dolce vita, including skiing, as well as après ski with wine, pasta and skullduggery, take a look at David P. Wagner's Death in the Dolomites (Poisoned Pen Press, September 8), which is also on the fall menu.

This is the second in a series featuring Rick Montoya, who is a 30-something American with a mother from Rome and an American father, from New Mexico. Rick has chosen to live in Rome and makes his living as a translator. But in this story, he is taking a break from his translating business to meet Flavio, a friend from his University of New Mexico days, for a skiing vacation.

It doesn't matter exactly what time of year it is in the Dolomites, which are in the southern alpine area, because it snows early and often. Many of the villages in these parts have prospered in the postwar days from flatlanders of many sorts, mostly skiers and hikers. Now, heavy snows have brought Rick and Flavio, but also criminals, who have found that deep crevasses are ideal for hiding bodies.

When an important banker goes missing, Rick's uncle, who is a policeman in Rome, asks him to aid the local police. A body found on the slopes happens to be an American. Rick is in the perfect spot to exercise his amateur sleuthing abilities. There are beautiful women, hair-raising escapades and more to entertain Rick before his adventure is over.

There are plenty of reasons to visit Denmark via crime books, and Jussi Adler-Olsen's Department Q books are among the best. These mysteries feature Chief Detective Carl Mørck, who used to be one of Copenhagen's best homicide detectives. After he was almost killed in an incident in which two of his colleagues were killed, he lost heart because he blamed himself.

When he returned to work, he was given a new assignment to investigate cold cases. He understood just how important his new job was when he was allotted a broom closet in the basement for his new office. After he finally finagled a computer and an assistant, he settled back to put his feet up and snooze his life away. Somehow it doesn't work out that way.

Mørck's assistant, Assad, is a wannabe Sherlock Holmes and Department Q, as it is termed, becomes successful. Eventually, Department Q gets another assistant, Rose, and a new boss.

Jussi Adler-Olsen's fifth Department Q novel is The Marco Effect (Dutton, September 9). The Marco of the title is Marco Jameson, a 15-year-old gypsy boy who has been forced to beg and steal from his infancy by his evil uncle Zola. But Marco has dreams of leaving this dreadful life. His uncle has plans to cripple him to keep him under his thumb, but Marco flees.

When Marco sees a poster of a missing man, he realizes that he has seen him before and he may have information that would be helpful to the police––and may save his own life. Department Q and Marco together make a case that leads from Denmark to Africa, from low to high, and who knows to what ends. This is powerful stuff. More than enough to get Mørck juiced up.

Since I am always looking for more exotic locations as backdrops to murder, I am looking forward to Deon Meyer's new book, Cobra (Atlantic Monthly Press, October 7). Meyer's books are not for the faint of heart. They take place in South Africa––post-apartheid, but not post- cruelty, murder, fear and desperation. Into this mix comes Benny Greissel, who has hit bottom and bounced a few times, a police detective in a force that is undermanned and undertrained, while at the same time at odds with private security agencies with their own agendas and a citizenry that is as lawless as the Wild West.

In Cobra, Benny is part of a multiracial, multicultural, multilingual team called the Hawks. They are an elite team tracking a professional hit man who leaves a calling card at the site of each hit––a cartridge engraved with a spitting cobra. Benny and crew are not exactly sure who's against them; the top brass of the police themselves, Britain's MI6, or South Africa's own State Security Agency. Besides these, Benny has his own demons to battle. This story looks like a wild pulse-pumping ride that has heart attack written all over it.

One place that has always intrigued me, but I have never really wanted to visit there in any frigate except a book, is that lonely and seemingly desolate Himalayan country, Tibet. The novels that have been my main introduction to that remote place are those by Eliot Pattison, featuring ex-police Inspector Shan Tao Yun, who spent his early days in Tibet in a gulag aerie among imprisoned monks whom the Chinese were trying to reeducate––or else. Pattison's latest offering, like those before, is a mirror of the struggle of the indomitable Tibetans to retain their culture and autonomy.

In Soul of the Fire (Minotaur Books, November 25), Shan and his friend Lokesh, whom he met originally in prison, are grabbed by the Chinese authorities. Despite their fear that their subversive activities of aiding the Tibetans have been discovered, they keep their calm. Shan's fear turns to confusion when he finds that he has been put on a special international commission to investigate Tibetan suicides, then to dismay when he begins to discover that some of these suicides are indeed murders. Unfortunately, the imprisonment of Lokesh is being used as a pawn to deter Shan's investigations.

I expect that this latest novel, like all of Pattison's stories, will take you in its grip and stir you up. You might be reminded of what a varied and complicated world there is out there.

There are more upcoming books I want to tell you about, a good many of them from the British Isles. I'll fill you in soon about them.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Fall Preview 2014: Part Two

One thing is clear. This fall, I won't have to go into withdrawal from my serious addiction to books about World War II and the Cold War. In addition to several very serious non-fiction books that I won't talk about (Peter Longerich's almost 1000-page biography of Joseph Goebbels, for example), there are quite a few others that Read Me Deadly regulars might find interesting––and you won't break a toe if you drop them on your foot.

In Sleep in Peace Tonight (Thomas Dunne/Macmillan, October 7), James MacManus looks at America's isolationist period from a slightly different angle. It's January 1941 in this novel, almost a full year before the Pearl Harbor attack catapulted the US into World War II. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt knows that America's entry into the war is all but inevitable, but he is forced to kowtow to the isolationists, in part to maintain enough support for his New Deal economic policies.

FDR's closest advisor, Harry Hopkins, is the protagonist of this novel. He's FDR's envoy, visiting the UK to observe conditions and see whether Britain can survive without US intervention. Hopkins reaches London during an air raid, and famed broadcaster Edward R. Murrow tells him the fun hasn't really started, because the heavy bombers don't generally arrive until around midnight.

Hopkins finds himself drawn in by the tractor beam of Churchill's powerful personality, and sympathizes with the British people suffering under the Blitz. Hopkins is also influenced by a romance with his driver, a young woman who, unbeknownst to him, is a member of Britain's Special Operations Executive and is working to make sure the British government knows what Hopkins is advising FDR. There is an entertaining brief video preview of the book here.

I devour stories of civilians' lives during World War II, so I have added Sigrid MacRae's A World Elsewhere: An American Woman in Wartime Germany (Viking Adult, September 4) to my wish list. Author MacRae bases this story of her mother's life from letters and diaries given to her by her mother, Aimée. In Paris in the 1920s, while on a world tour, Aimée, a young woman from a wealthy Connecticut family, fell in love with an impoverished Russian baron. Heinrich's family had been driven out of Russia by the Bolsheviks and now lived on a farm north of Berlin.

After a whirlwind courtship, Aimée and Heinrich married and moved to the farm. The Depression, which hit Germany particularly hard, ruined the family. Heinrich joined the German army once the war began, and was killed on the Russian front, leaving Aimée with six young children and feeling stranded in Nazi Germany. Astonishingly, Aimée decided to take her children and escape the country to return home to America, even though her leaving was strictly forbidden by the Nazi government. Shades of the von Trapp family!

Kate Atkinson's Life After Life is one of my all-time favorite books, and Jenny Erpenbeck's The End of Days (translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky; New Directions, November 11) picks up on the same theme, the turns life (and death) can take, depending on tiny contingencies of fate. As with Ursula Todd in Life After Life, Erpenbeck's female protagonist dies at birth––or does she? In the next chapter she survives, but her life is cut short from a different calamity later on. Each time she dies, an alternative to her death is provided and her story goes on.

Erpenbeck uses the novel as both a contemplation of fate, and a trip through some of the most harrowing times in 20th-century Austria, Germany and the Soviet Union. It definitely looks grimmer than Life After Life, but more than suitable for its time and place(s).

Speaking of grimness, it appears that Martin Amis's The Zone of Interest (Knopf, September 30) will be wallowing in it. Publishers Weekly calls it "[a]n absolute soul-crusher of a book," and "an astoundingly bleak love story," but it also says it's brilliant. Set in a Nazi work camp that seems to be a stand-in for Auschwitz III/Monowitz-Buna, it's a tale told by three narrators. Golo Thomsen, the nephew of Nazi bigwig Martin Bormann, is the liaison for the Buna plant and the camp. Thomsen is in love with Hannah, the wife of our second narrator, Paul, the drunken camp commandant. Szmul, a Jewish inmate from Poland, is the third narrator. He is part of the corpse-disposal brigade, and is forced by Paul to help him devise his revenge on his betrayers.

Given Amis's propensity for caustic wit, I am reminded of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, a novel featuring a completely soul-corroded Nazi officer protagonist. I thought of that book as a story of office politics in hell. I expect The Zone of Interest to similarly reflect the bizarrely cockeyed version of life that goes on during the absurdity of the Holocaust.

Another writer who likes to dwell in the dark places is American James Ellroy. He is probably best known for his L.A. Quartet: The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz. Ellroy's obsession with Los Angeles, and the LAPD in particular, hasn't lessened one little bit. Perfidia (Knopf, September 9) is the first volume in his second L.A. Quartet.

Perfidia begins very shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but Los Angeles is already sick with war fever and is in attack mode on Japanese-Americans. The book features many of the same characters you may be familiar with from the first L.A. Quartet, but at an earlier point in their lives.

The action begins with a nightmarish find in a quiet residential neighborhood: father, mother, daughter and son of a Japanese-American family have been slaughtered. Thanks to the publisher, I've had a chance to read an advance review copy of the book. If you know Ellroy, you know about his rat-a-tat hardboiled style, and the grim violence that permeates his version of Los Angeles. There is plenty more of the same here; maybe too much more. The nonstop violence and expressions of racial hatred and misogyny can just grind you down after awhile, and this is a very long book. Still, it's an impressive achievement and well worth reading if you're the right audience.

Ken Follett has always been a guilty pleasure of mine, and all the more so with his Century Trilogy. I finally got around to reading the second installment, Winter of the World, this summer. It has the usual strengths: a powerful, propulsive storyline and a large cast of well-drawn and loosely-connected characters, all set in some of the most cataclysmic and challenging times of World War II and the years immediately before and after. And that last part is where the "guilty" in guilty pleasure especially comes in.

It's a little embarrassing that Follett plops his characters down wherever something particularly sensational is going on. Really, you name it; the attack on Pearl Harbor, street fighting with fascists of various stripes, the London Blitz, escapes into Spain over the Pyrenees, the Nazis' infamous T-4 euthanasia program, the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction, the first A-bomb tests in the US and the USSR, the appalling rapes inflicted on Berlin women by the invading Red Army in 1945. Follett's characters are at all of those. At least he didn't go so far as to try to put one of his characters in a Nazi death camp (a concentration camp, on the other hand, yes).

Still, I'm hooked on the characters, so I'll be ready to find out all about what happens to all of them, and their children, as he concludes his trilogy with The Edge of Eternity (Dutton Adult, September 16), a trip through the turbulent years of the Cold War and groundbreaking social and political change.

When I read about the Cold War, I tend to focus mostly on the espionage operations, mole hunting, and all that John le Carré-style stuff. But there are other aspects, of course. This year, two prominent books have focused on the cultural Cold War: Ellen Feldman's The Unwitting and Peter Finn and Petra Couvée's The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book. In The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington (Knopf, October 28), author Gregg Herken reminds us that there is another aspect of the Cold War: the policymakers and opinion-influencers among the Establishment.

There were lots of people trying to put their mark on the country's political policy during the years of struggle between the ideologies of East and West. Herken focuses most prominently on five of them: Phil and Kay Graham, the married couple who published the country's preeminent journal of national politics, The Washington Post; prominent journalists/columnists Joe and Stewart Alsop; and Frank Wisner, the manic-depressive World War II veteran and Wall Street lawyer who headed a CIA anti-communist covert action division in the 1950s.

The title of Herken's book alludes to the fact that so much policy was discussed––and sometimes even negotiated––at martini-fueled parties in Georgetown homes. The Cold War is over, but so are the days when politicians, journalists and government officials of all political stripes could set aside the political posturing and grandstanding for the public, at least for an evening of drinking and informal bargaining. I'm looking forward to reading about those old days.

I really like this UK paperback cover
I've been waiting impatiently for a year, since the UK publication, for Jonathan Coe's Expo 58 (New Harvest, September 2). I first got to know Coe's work back almost 20 years ago, with his The Winshaw Legacy: or, What a Carve Up!, his deliriously entertaining mash-up of murder mystery and vicious satire of Thatcher-era Britain. Since then, I've always looked out for his books. Most have been more serious, but with Expo 58, it looks like he's headed back to a sillier territory.

The 1958 World's Fair, a/k/a Expo 58, took place in Brussels, at the height of the Cold War. Graham Greene, in Our Man in Havana, proved that the Cold War could be made entertaining, and now Coe is attempting the same feat. Thomas Foley, a mild-mannered civil servant at Britain's Central Office of Information, and the son of a pub owner, is assigned the task of running the Britannia, the UK's authentic British pub that is its key attraction at the Expo. Placed conveniently close to the rival US and USSR pavilions, the Britannia soon becomes a hotbed of superpower shenanigans, and Foley's dull gray life in austerity Britain is suddenly transformed.

Next, our Maltese Condor will let us know what she's putting on her to-read list for when the leaves begin to fall.