Friday, February 27, 2015

Review of Joseph Kanon's Leaving Berlin

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon (Atria Books, March 3, 2015)

I've always enjoyed Joseph Kanon's books, which are thrillers set in various places around the world, but all taking place shortly after World War II.  Kanon mines that same ground over and over because it's one of the richest veins of material you could ever hope to find.  The war has ended, but not the fighting. It is just a different kind of battle, and the players shifted around. No more Allies fighting Nazis; now it's the Cold War, with Berlin being dead center in the new conflict.

Alex Meier, Leaving Berlin's protagonist, had been a celebrated young novelist in Germany in the 1930s.  Alex was a Social Democrat with a Jewish father, and neither one of those were good things to be once the Nazis took over. But he was friends with the younger members of the powerful von Bernuth family, and their father got Alex out of the country before it was too late.  Alex's parents never got out.

Alex made a new home in the US, married and had a son. Then, along came the Red Scare and, suddenly, a young German socialist was in danger from the government yet again. To avoid being deported from the US permanently and losing all contact with his son, Alex agrees to act as a US government agent by returning to Berlin for a time; in particular to the Soviet Occupied Zone, where several other leftist German exiles had returned, the most prominent being playwright Berthold Brecht. Alex's assignment is to provide information about his friends in the new Germany, and if he does a good job, the promise is that he can return to the US.

Berlin in 1949 was about the most interesting place imaginable. Interesting in the usual sense, but also in the sense of the old curse, "May you live in interesting times."  The city was divided into four occupation zones for each of the Allied powers, but there was no Berlin Wall yet.  Tensions between the Soviets and the other Allies were increasing by the day, as the Soviets tried to squeeze the Allies out of the city, deep within the eastern half of the country, which the Soviets planned as a satellite state.

Along with the political and military Cold War, there was also a so-called Cultural Cold War. The Soviets and the West vied for superiority in literature, music, theater and all the other arts. The Soviets lavished privileges on artists who could burnish the reputation of communism around the world. Alex, who is well remembered as a novelist, is welcomed warmly in the Soviet Occupied Zone and treated as a valued member of the new socialist dream society. As an instantly prominent artist comrade, he can eat and drink off ration at the Kulturbund and is awarded a nice apartment all to himself, with a view to the street rather than the drab rear.

Alex quickly finds that Berlin is full of secrets and lies, with danger and betrayal all around him. This is no longer the city of his youth. His childhood home is rubble and his old and new friends may not be what they seem. Alex's reconnecting with his old love, Irene von Bernuth, who is now the mistress of a high-level Soviet military man, excites his US intelligence contacts, but it endangers Alex's heart and much more. What was supposed to be a quick and easy job soon turns deadly dangerous, and Alex must rely on his wits to save himself and those he still feels loyal to.

I've read a lot of espionage thrillers, but this one has one of the most satisfyingly twisty-turny plots ever; enough to make your head spin and heart pound. Along with the complex and exciting plot, Kanon delivers a large cast of realistic characters, starting with Alex, but also including childhood friends (especially Irene von Bernuth), Soviet officers, Alex's minder from the Party, intelligence contacts and more. Kanon also has a gift for invoking the atmosphere of the ruined city and what Berliners do to survive in the new reality.

This is Kanon's second book set in Berlin, with the first being The Good German (2002), made into a movie starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett. This is a very different story, but also one that would make a terrific film. I feel sure of that, because Kanon's powerfully evocative writing turned it into a story that played out in my head as a movie while I was reading.

Another particular strength of the book is the focus on the return to East Berlin of so many members of the cultural and intellectual elite who missed their homeland and were true believers in the communist cause. They included Brecht and writers like Arnold Zweig, Anna Seghers and Stefan Heym.

Initially celebrated and given privileges not available to others in the workers' state, the returnees who spent the Nazi years in the West, rather than in Moscow, soon found their situations changed. Stalin and his henchmen began an "anti-cosmopolitan" campaign in 1950, targeting those who had spent time in the West. Many were expelled from the Communist Party, imprisoned on trumped-up charges and worse. If you'd like to read more on the subject, you might try Edith Anderson's Love In Exile: An American Writer's Memoir of Life in Divided Berlin (Steerforth Press, 1999). Or, to read about Bertold Brecht's tumultuous history with his native country, as well as his friends, colleagues and lovers, check out a new book by Pamela Katz: The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink (Nan A. Talese, January 6, 2015).

Note: Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy, via NetGalley.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Review of Judith Flanders's A Murder of Magpies

A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders (Minotaur, February 24, 2015)

Samantha "Sam" Clair is a book editor at a small but reputable London publishing firm. Sam has designed her wardrobe to function more as camouflage than style, so it's surprising that one of her best friends is Kit Lovell, a fashion journalist who also writes gossipy exposés about celebrity fashionistas.

When Kit disappears, and it looks like somebody is out to destroy all copies of his latest manuscript, which promises to be a tell-all about the death of designer Rodrigo Alemán and financial shenanigans in boutiques associated with him, Sam is worried and frustrated. The police aren't pulling out all the stops to find Kit, though they have assigned Detective Inspector Jake Field to ask questions about the death of a courier who may have been carrying a copy of the manuscript to Sam's office.

Much to Field's dismay, he's unable to get Sam to stop investigating on her own. But when he starts spending a lot more time with her, at least he can keep a little more of an eye on her . . .

Though this quick read has plenty of sleuthing, its main attraction is Sam's world. Sam appears to be a little gray mouse surrounded by much more colorful and fierce members of the animal kingdom. Sitting outside Sam's office is her sharp Goth secretary, Miranda. Ready to pounce across the meeting room table is Sam's chief rival editor, Ben, who thinks he's cornered the market for young and edgy novelists and that Sam is past it. But the alpha is Sam's mother, Helena, a supremely successful corporate attorney who has done a complete workout before Sam is out of bed in the morning, puts in a full day of work and then goes to every important play, gallery showing and party while Sam is curled up at home with a manuscript and a glass of wine.

Sam's office is in a drafty old building.
Not this one, though.
But underneath that unassuming exterior, Sam is clever and determined. She knows how to wage undercover office warfare, and how to make sense of the bits of information she is able to garner about the fashion world to try to find out what happened to Kit. She also knows when it's best to team up with Jake and Helena--and quite a team they make.

There are several other appealing side characters in the book, including Sam's reclusive upstairs neighbor, Mr. Rudiger. The inside look at the publishing world is also a pleasure, particularly Sam vs. Ben and a plot line about one of Sam's most successful authors, Breda––who sounds a lot like Maeve Binchy––and the resulting kerfuffle when Breda turns in what seems to be a disastrous wrong turn into chick-lit.

Sam Clair is likable new protagonist and her friends, family and workplace are entertaining. If this turns into a series, it's definitely one I will follow. I hope Jake becomes a more fleshed-out character in any future books.

I should note that if you're a cozy reader, there are several F-bombs dropped in the book, but it contains no graphic sex or violence.

It may also be worth noting that although this is a debut novel, author Judith Flanders has had a long career as an editor and is the author of the nonfiction book The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime (Thomas Dunne, 2013).

Note: Thanks to Minotaur and the Amazon Vine program for providing a complimentary review copy of the book. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads, BookLikes and other review sites under my usernames there.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Life Versus Art

The literary world is all a-buzz about the rediscovered manuscript of Harper Lee’s lost novel, Go Set a Watchman. It was found affixed to the back of the original To Kill A Mockingbird manuscript. It might have been kismet, but it was certainly a wonder.

At the same time, it‘s a case of life imitating art, because it brought to mind several fictional lost, found, forged or stolen manuscripts, some of which we have talked about here in the past. Not to diminish the importance of the exciting Harper Lee discovery, but the most sought-after manuscripts in the history of literature are those that can be ascribed to William Shakespeare.

The Bookman’s Tale, by Charlie Lovett (reviewed here by Sister Mary), is the story of a young man who loved two things in his life, books and his wife, Amanda. After her death, he travels to England and there discovers a book that might definitively prove that Shakespeare was, indeed, the author of all those plays.

Michael Gruber, in The Book of Air and Shadows, tells a complicated tale that begins in a rare-book bookstore in New York City, where aspiring filmmaker, Albert Crosetti, works. After finding a letter hinting at an undiscovered play by the most famous bard of all time, Albert and Jake Mishkin, a young intellectual property lawyer, are in a race to the death trying to reach the manuscript before the Russian mafia and certain gangsters. And all this for a playwright who may or may not have existed.

Try saying "pickpocketer’s pocket picked" three times. I could hardly type it. But that’s how A. G. Macdonell 's The Shakespeare Murders opens. Peter Kerrigan, a young con artist, man about town, and a jack of all trades does just that; he filches an already filched wallet and finds a clue to a million-dollar prize. Kerrigan follows an elusive scent to an English country house and a well-barricaded safe in a library, where a treasure purportedly from India is sequestered. Of course, the safe is empty, murder has been done and a Shakespeare manuscript plays a role.

Edgar Allan Poe definitely existed and a book of his is the central feature of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin. A. J. is a depressed widower who owns one precious thing, a first edition of Tamerlane by Poe, who is considered to be the father of the mystery novel.

Fikry regards this manuscript as his treasure, in a manner very like Silas Marner, a lonely man who was in love with his gold coins. Then, again very like Marner, his treasure is stolen. But a little baby girl comes into his life and gives him a reason to live.

Joanne Dobson’s series featuring English Professor Karen Pelletier has a few plots involving manuscripts, because that’s what Karen’s métier is. But excitement comes her way when trouble walks in her door and a rare manuscript of the Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon apparently walks out. In The Maltese Manuscript, a real private eye joins Karen in her search for a book thief.

In The Raven and The Nightingale, manuscripts and journals by a 19th-century poet who was supposed to have thrown herself in the river for the love of Poe leads to more murder––which Pelletier must help solve, of course. This small series is a gem.

Lost manuscripts seems to be a hazard for English professor sleuths. In Diane Gilbert Madsen's A Cadger's Curse, Professor DD McGil is trying to authenticate a Scots manuscript––by Robert Burns, no less––while drinking scotch, and it is not a good blend.

Of course, the holy grail of lost manuscripts would have to be a lost gospel. Over the centuries, there have been perhaps as many as 20 gospels attributed to a variety of authors, including the Apostles Thomas, Peter and Judas, as well as Mary Magdalene and, more recently, a man known as Zacharias Rhetor.

The only one I am really familiar with is Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore. This is the fictional story of the missing years of Jesus, better known as Joshua, as told by his best pal, Levi, whose nickname was Biff.

Joshua wants to know more about his purpose here in earth, so he and his friend Biff make a journey to seek and find the three wise men who might be able to shed some light on things.

Voltaire said, "God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh". That might be true of this gospel.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Say It with a Book

Nobody says you have to actually eat
these chalky little hearts.

People, I hope you haven't forgotten tomorrow is Valentine's Day. I urge everybody to observe the day, even if you don't have a lover who's hoping for a gift or a nice night out––and the amenities of the relationship later. Don't think of it as a money-making scheme cooked up by chocolate manufacturers or Hallmark Cards. Life is short and often brutal, so let's express some affection on a day specially set aside for it. You must have a pet, a neighbor, a friend, a boss, or a relative you're fond of. Even if you're a total misanthrope, you can kinda get into the spirit of tomorrow and give yourself a little something. I'm here to help you with what that little something could be.

Now, gift-giving is a balancing act between what you think your recipient would like and what you want to give him, her or it. Of course, just because your 13-year-old son or daughter would like the keys to your 2015 Maserati GranTurismo, and Fido wants that platter of chocolate cookies on the counter doesn't mean you're going to give them those things, even on Valentine's Day. No. Your best gift to Fido is a long, patient walk on the leash, after you've asked him who's a good boy and let him lick your face. For your kid, you'll leave some milk in the fridge and a couple of chewy fudge brownies (see recipe here) in a plastic baggie on top of a wrapped copy of Sherman Alexie's hip and funny The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go (the first in the dystopian Chaos Walking Trilogy), in which everyone can hear every one else's thoughts; or Bryce Courtenay's The Power of One, featuring a South African boy who grows up in the 1930s-1950s and aspires to be the welterweight champion of the world. Or, if it's too late to pick up the book, scribble in the Valentine's Day card that you've ordered it and it's on its way. Or include an emailed Powell's Books eGift certificate in the card. Don't forget to say I love you.

A good choice for the conscientious mother who reminded you about the Golden Rule until it leaked out of your ears when you were a kid is a copy of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Stick inside a note detailing how much you appreciate her. You must illustrate the note, no matter how poor an artist you are, with a picture of the two of you––draw stick figures if necessary. If you know To Kill a Mockingbird is already on her shelf, you can pre-order her Lee's Go Set a Watchman (Harper/HarperCollins, July 14, 2015) here or at your favorite online independent bookstore. Minae Mizumura's A True Novel, a re-imagining of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights in post-WWII Japan, or the layered and twisting tale of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin would be other great Valentine Day's choices. Or, show your mom that she can relax, now that you've turned out okay, with a light-hearted or satirical book: Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson or Martin Amis's Money.

If you're still working on turning out okay, offer your dad encouragement by showing him at least you know a good book when you see one and you have a sense of humor. Choose one with a theme of innate savagery such as The Call of the Wild by Jack London, anything by Cormac McCarthy, or Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. With a book like this, you can give soft candy such as caramels, jelly beans, or whatever candy you know he likes. If you're completely incorrigible, give yourself Richard Matheson's tale of horror, Hell House.

Got a sorta cynical sibling or long-time friend who's been with you through thick and thin? Pay tribute to your relationship, not with something sentimental, but Will Christopher Baer's surrealistic Kiss Me, Judas, in which disgraced cop Phineas Poe goes through a very bad time; Thomas Pynchon's blast from the psychedelic past, Inherent Vice (include an invitation to see the movie in your card); or Leigh Brackett's No Good from a Corpse, featuring hard-boiled private eye Ed Clive. Some other appropriate hard-boiled choices include Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives, Jean-Patrick Manchette's The Prone Gunman, and Sébastien Japrisot's Trap for Cinderella. Accompany the noir with a good bottle of Pinot Noir. The Pynchon goes well with the Beach Boys' Good Vibrations, a harmonica, or a pint of heavenly hash ice cream. (Any other accompaniment is between you and your local police force.)

Maybe your spouse or one of your old friends needs a dose of playfulness. Give him or her the opportunity to exercise that ol' inner nut ball with something eccentric, such as a literary figure who refuses to stay dead (Marcel Theroux's Strange Bodies), a man who is brought back to life after dying a century earlier in a human vs. alien war (Neal Asher's Dark Intelligence (Nightshade, February 3, 2015)), or a ritual that changes the lives of three Cambridge students (The Course of the Heart, by M. John Harrison).

Long-time Read Me Deadly readers know I'm a proponent of reading in the tub. If this also appeals to you and/or your lover, have a special Valentine's Day tub session. Give him or her one of the Horatio Hornblower books by C. S. Forester; an Aubrey-Maturin book by Patrick O'Brian (the series, set during the Napoleonic era, begins with Master & Commander); or Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny. Gather plenty of towels, put your glasses of wine or rum out of harm's way (fortify yourself first), arm yourselves with water pistols and a super soaker to replicate the firing of a water cannon, step into the water-filled tub, and act out scenes. At some point, you'll want to sing Anchors Aweigh (or consult this site for a British naval ditty).

An alternative: Perhaps you weren't raised by parents who taught you to always play fair––or maybe they did, but surely they're not in the bathroom with you now, and, besides, we all know all's fair in love and war. Don't mention to your lover that there's a battle brewing, and when he or she slips into the tub, open surprise fire with a blast from a water bazooka. A further alternative: After both of you are sitting in the water, grab his or her leg––using your hands rather than your teeth, because you need your mouth to yell the "duh duh duh duh" of the Jaws theme song––and commence a' wrestlin'. (Note: Be sure you closed the bathroom door before climbing into the tub, or you may find your dogs joining the melee at sea. If they do, I hope your windows are closed or your neighbors will wonder what the heck is with all the barking, yelling, and splashing.) After someone has surrendered (we will not say "thrown in the towel"), curl up in bed with cups of soup in which are floating some little oyster crackers. This is the perfect time to watch Jaws, Das Boot, The Search for Red October, Master and Commander, or Run Silent, Run Deep. Then bring up what they say about oysters, which surely holds true even if they're only crackers, and don't go to sleep.

For other folks, you can accompany a book with another gift. For example, for someone who loves gardening and crime fiction: Dig up a lovely old teacup and saucer, put a couple of small stones in the bottom of the cup, add some African violet soil mix and a miniature African violet. Give this little plant along with Reginald Hill's Deadheads. Or perhaps you know somebody who's constantly getting lost. Accompany a mobile GPS system with a book in which location is important: Charles Willeford's Miami Blues or Brighton Rock by Graham Green.

For someone with a lot of books in a TBR pile, a huge zippered tote bag comes in handy. Good bags are offered by LL Bean, and there's no shipping charge; it's too late to order one to arrive tomorrow, but you can say in a card that it's coming. Using this bag makes a TBR pile portable, and in addition, removes it from the eyesight of a guilt-ridden reader. I like this idea so much I bought several large zippered bags for myself and keep one full of books in the car. Before giving, don't forget to first add a book to the bag––in effect, you're "seeding" it. Some choices: Dennis Lehane's The Given Day is the first in the excellent Joe Coughlin trilogy (the third, World Gone By, is due out this spring, and I can hardly wait). To someone who bemoans life as giving no second chances, give Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. For anyone who hasn't already read it, Angelmaker, by Nick Harkaway, is a riot of fun.

Give a cheap used book of literary fiction such as Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma with a subscription to the London Review of Books or The New York Review of Books. Accompany a used book of mystery fiction (some good bets are Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep; Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's The Laughing Policeman; and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a heist novel by George V. Higgins) with a subscription to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Mention the online fan club, The Wolfe Pack, in the card taped to a Nero Wolfe book by Rex Stout (i.e., Too Many Cooks or Some Buried Caesar). Accompany a Sherlock Holmes DVD or book with a card that includes information about the Sherlockian web portal. Andy Weir's The Martian is a good present for any adult halfway interested in science, unless you know he or she would strongly object to the use of an occasional f-word. Be sure to mention Matt Damon will be starring in the movie later this year.

I hope you have a great Valentine's Day tomorrow. After you've rounded up books to give your loved ones, treat yourself to one, too. Let us know what you're giving and expect to receive. Our TBR piles are suddenly looking kinda puny.