Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Ascendant by Drew Chapman

Simon & Schuster, $25, 400 pages (release date - 1/7/13)

The promo material for The Ascendant said that the book was a real page-turner, how the editor read it in two sittings -- hey, it is 400 pages and supposedly editors need to sleep. There's usually publisher's hyperbole and hyper, hyped-up hyping that accompanies the release of a book. In this case, the enthusiasm is not misplaced. The book is captivating and clever.

Cross the venerable cult movie "War Games" with big-time movie "Wall Street," especially notable for the Wall Street sleezoid Gordon Gekko, and you've got a rough approximation of The Ascendant.

Garrett Diego Reilly is 26 years old, a bond analyst on Wall Street, and a genius at pattern recognition and arrogant behavior. He grew up on the rough streets of Long Beach, California. He was a surfer dude with a dysfunctional family. His older brother was a Marine who died while serving, maybe from "friendly fire." Garrett's only passion is making money, no matter how. If making money means betting against the U.S. in the financial market, then so be it.

One day Garrett notices a pattern in the bond market. That pattern potentially will disrupt the American economy, and the source of the disruption is China. He tells this to his boss (preparatory to striking while the iron is hot and shorting the market), who promptly calls the Treasury Department. Thanks to Garrett's information, the government avoids a meltdown -- but also disrupts Garrett's plans to make a lot of money for his firm. What a jackass! you will say repeatedly about Garrett throughout the first 50 or so pages.

Captain Alexis Truffant, an attractive representative of the Defense Intelligence Agency, enlists Garrett to find other patterns in the enormous amount of data streaming from all points of the world through the internet. The U.S. needs his unconventional and effective way of thinking, she says.

The government gives him a team of odd individuals, all of whom have a special area of knowledge that they must cram into Garrett's head so he can start coalescing the data and spotting the next pattern of disruption.

The status quo military powers-that-be aren't too sure about Garrett's helpfulness until he pulls a fast one on them in a test of his out-of-the-box thinking. (I'll leave the details out so you can be surprised.)

At the halfway point in the book, the tenor changes. Garrett is running for his life. He and his team of misfits were once part of the military organization. Now they are on the outs but still committed to their original purpose: avoiding war with China.

Part of the book takes place in China. Hu Mei, or "The Tiger," as her followers call her, is leading a grass roots insurrection against appalling labor practices in her small area of China. Word of her bravery has made her a folk hero. She knows, however, that she is human and in over her head.

Eventually, when war between China and the U.S. looms, author Drew Chapman draws that story together with his David-and-Goliath main story, and he does it very well.

This is an appealing, fast-paced, at times geeky, story of international intrigue. What Chapman does very well is introduce subjects that could have his audience yawning -- internet/techno and financial stuff -- and not slow down the pace with overdone explanations. However, he always puts his characters first. It's easy to get a sense of the differences in the individuals on the team and to appreciate them for what they are. Even though Chapman would have served his story better if he had thrown out his one-paragraph sex scene, that's only one cliché among a ton of original ideas.

It's not War and Peace, but it is good fun.

Ten Lords A-Leaping by C. C. Benison

Delacorte Press, 512 pages, $25

The lords leap from a plane, as it turns out, in C. C. Benison’s third book in the Tom Christmas series. Ten Lords A-Leaping is crowded with ladies as well. Most of the lords and ladies, far from being gentle mannered folk, comport themselves badly or have had enervating tragedies. The setting and murders are in the fashion of an English manor mystery, the suspects limited to the residents, guests, and staff of Eggescombe Manor.

How did Tom Christmas get himself into the middle of this lordly muddle? Tom is the vicar of St. Nicholas in Thornford Regis. He and his 10-year-old daughter are on vacation and on their way to visit relatives, but first they stop off at Eggescombe for a fundraiser. A group of skydiving lords do formation parachuting a few times a year as fundraisers for charities. Tom’s church is the current recipient of their generosity. The catch is that Tom and some of his fellow villagers must also jump, albeit from a lower elevation, with no need to do fancy formations.

Parachuting is thrilling even when nothing goes wrong, but in this case there’s more to keep the audience gasping. In a silly accident, Tom’s microphone doesn’t work and he can’t hear the instructor’s advice about braking during his fall. He comes down too fast and, voilà, sprains his ankle. While Tom is recuperating on a cot, he witnesses the lords’ portion of the event. As they pour out of the plane, it appears two of them are fighting in mid-air. Then the parachute of one fails to open. Fortunately, the secondary chute opens and there are no deaths that day. The deaths come later.

With his bum ankle, Tom and his daughter are the unwilling guests of Lord and Lady Fairhaven for at least a day or two. The other guests, both invited and unvited, are of the lordly vein. This is where the spider’s web of isn’t-it-a-small-world tangles hopelessly.

Among the guests are Jane and Jaime Allan (Lord and Lady Kirkbride), who are already known to Tom. Jaime is the brother of Tom’s ex-verger, Sebastian (whose real name is John), from Twelve Drummers Drumming. Sebastian/John disappeared suddenly a year and a half ago from Thornford Regis. He had been on the run from a family tragedy, of which more is learned in this book.

Lady Fairhaven’s wayward brother, Oliver, their wayward half-sister, Lucy, and HER half-brother, Dominic, are also visiting. The Dowager Countess Fairhaven (Marve to her friends) and her lodger, Roberto, a sculptor, round out the residents. Mick and Ellen Gaunt are the live-in staff. Coincidentally, the Gaunts' houseguest is Madrun Prowse, Tom’s housekeeper, also on vacation. Madrun is put to use, however, when the helper from the village, Anna Phillips, fails to show up.

There are all sorts of dark connections among these people, and C. C. Benison must have had a big wall chart to keep everyone straight. Whether you think all of these characters prove to be necessary or not, you certainly will get your money's worth at 512 pages of interlocking storylines.

Benison’s books are an odd mixture of standard cozy mystery fare (definitely as homage to the genre) overlaid with contemporary tones. Madrun Prowse’s chatty letters to her mother are cute and clean. Some of the goings-on in contrast would be shocking in their portrayal to a cozy reader. Tonally, the book is not consistent. However, Benison's writing is a well done synthesis of polysyllabic words and a thimbleful of four-letter ones. His writing has pizazz and humor, which immediately elevates him in my eyes. For instance, this is Tom lying on his cot after injuring his ankle: 
In the second before his frangible body embraced the planet’s inflexible surface, he wondered with a strange detachment which bones might crack, which ligaments might tear.
And this is Tom waiting for the police after the first murder:
Apparently being a peer of the realm buttered no parsnips with the local constabulary, which, on the other hand, was perhaps a good thing: We’re all as one in the great democracy of poor service.
The police turn out to be Blessing and Bliss of the Totnes CID, characters Tom has already met.They really have no purpose or flavor, other than to be the token police. Tom and Jane (a former investigator for the Royal Household, no less) do all the sleuthing.

There are red herrings, magic tricks, mandatory drawing room scenes, tunnels, and secretive tip-toeing at dawn (actually, far too many people gadding about before or at dawn), much to appeal to the cozy reader, as long as he or she doesn’t mind a dash of the rougher aspects of human nature thrown in.

Chilled to the Bone by Quentin Bates

Soho Crime, 320 pages, $26.95

Iceland isn’t so much ice as land. People writing about Reykjavík must get tired pointing out that their yearly winter snow, rain, and temperatures resemble the climate of Portland, Oregon, more than the North Pole. No worries, in both places all that weather can lend quite a bit of dreary atmosphere to a murder mystery.

Gunnhildur Gisladóttir, nicknamed Gunna, is the series heroine. She was the police officer in a small village, but her perspicacity won her a spot in the big city. Chilled to the Bone is the third in the chilling series penned by British author Quentin Bates. This time Gunna has to deal with the body of a man found dead in a compromising position in a hotel. Who was the mysterious woman with whom he was last seen? Did she kill him?

There are four main characters that Quentin Bates tails in his book: Gunna; Bigfoot Baddó, a bad guy just released from a Lithuanian prison who is doing a “job” for another suspicious character; Jóel Ingi Bragason, a low level government minister’s assistant; and Hekla, the dominatrix who scams her customers. Now you know that sooner or later the stories will intersect, but in the meantime, confusion reigns. There aren’t any chapters to speak of. The breaks are fairly frequent and it’s not always immediately obvious whose storyline is now being worked over. Sometimes it’s necessary to backtrack after the character becomes apparent. Then there’s actually a fifth character with a minor storyline: an unnamed woman shadowing one of the other characters. At one point I think there was a sentence in which both Gunna and the mysterious woman appear, and the “she” references were confusing.

I have fallen for both of the other Icelandic storytellers I’ve read so far: Arnaldur Indridasson and Yrsa Sigurdadóttir. The Icelandic landscape is bleak and should inspire books that are bleak and dramatic as well. This book wasn’t quite all that, but I did like the character of Gunna. She was a regular person with a (mostly) regular family with a couple of soap-opera type problems. I also liked criminally-inclined Hekla, who was a sympathetic character.

I’m sorry that I started with the third book in the series, because there’s almost no catch-up on the police characters, even though Bates does eventually accord them some description. In most cases, however, the reader is flying blind for a while. It’s not rocket science, so the gist of the story is apparent.

What Bates does well is present an authentic-sounding look at Reykjavík’s culture. He lived there for a number of years, speaks Icelandic, and has read and appreciated Icelandic authors. That has certainly worked in his favor.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Just One Evil Act by Elizabeth George

Dutton, 736 pages, $29.95

Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers is the detective I’d most like assigned to help me should I have criminal difficulties in London. She may run a little rough under the hood, but she is smart, loyal, and reliable. She sneers at office politics, disdainfully and grumpily agrees to spruce herself up (you can lead a horse to water, but apparently you can’t make it be fashion conscious), and wouldn’t know proper nutrition if it sat up and begged. What's there not to love?

Which is why I was so disappointed with this book.

My hero, Barbara Havers, comes across like a buffoon in this latest tale in the “Lynley series” (and which I prefer to call the “Havers series”). Has she lost her mind? Apparently so.

When last we left Barbara’s story, Angelina, the errant lover of Barbara's neighbor, Taymullah Azhar, had returned home, to the ecstatic welcome of their 9-year-old daughter Hadiyyah. Barbara was sad because of her unrequited shy passion for Azhar, but she gamely swore to help and uphold the whole damn family. As Just One Evil Act opens, however, Azhar is devastated. Angelina has taken off again, this time with their daughter, and he doesn’t know where they are.

Frantic with trying to help Azhar, Barbara sinks her status even lower at New Scotland Yard by demanding this and nagging about that. Lynley (the stinker) was courting his new love when Barbara needed him most and forgot to return her phone calls. The abyss is deep from the start and Barbara starts digging a deeper hole. Unfortunately, there is nothing the police can do to help Azhar. Angelina is the mother on the birth certificate, but Azhar is not listed as the father. He has no legal rights.

Bollocks, Barbara would say, and hies off with Azhar and hires a private detective. There’s no joy there as far as Barbara is concerned, but George’s readers can spot right away from her narrative that something is fishy in the P.I.’s office. It’s a tremendously long time before there’s elucidation.

Time passes. Azhar is despondent. Barbara is despondent. Suddenly, Angelina and some Italian guy show up and demand that Azhar give back his daughter, whom they claim he kidnapped after Angelina had kidnapped Hadiyyah first. The Italian guy turns out to be her latest lover, Lorenzo, a member of THE Mura family in Lucca, Italy. Eventually, Lynley and Azhar go to Lucca to try and find Hadiyyah. There’s a lot of Italian bandied about, Lynley keeps his calm before Barbara’s storm, and little progress is made. Barbara, meanwhile, is seething in London, having in no uncertain terms NOT received permission to go to Italy.

Early on Barbara hacked at her hair. Gone is the stylish cut everyone labored so hard to force her to get. What’s left is a haphazardly mown lawn. That’s the least of her worries as she increasingly goes off the rails trying to direct the investigation by long distance. Now her acts match her looks.

There is a secondary story whose thread runs throughout the main story. It’s about a nun in Italy who is not really a nun. She is taking care of an unnamed little girl for whom Italian is not the main language. Hmm.

Where’s my blue pencil? Slash the other people in the P.I.’s office. Slash Chief Inspector Salvatore Lo Bianco’s byplay with the officious Publicco Ministero Piero Fanucci. Slash the nun’s story. Slash large animal vet Daidre Trahair’s roller derby antics. Slash most of Azhar’s abandoned family’s story. Slash the loathsome British paparazzi part. I say this even though what I most treasure about Elizabeth George is her fulsomeness and wordy abandon. Normally she creates a fascinatingly detailed world that supports her characters and their story.

Bring back the (mostly) rational Barbara Havers I love.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Alfred A. Knopf, 504 pages, $27.95

This was a 400-page Socratic dialogue. The other 100 pages are 1984 meets THX 1138 meets Brave New World, but set in a time fairly close to our own. At its 500-page heart, it’s a satiric social commentary.

Mae Holland is a young woman, fairly fresh out of college, who is thrilled to work for The Circle, a Google-like internet construct. Her best friend from college, Annie, has gotten her the job. Annie, young though she is, has shot up through the ranks and is one of the people in the know. Almost all Circlers, as they are known, are young, enthusiastic, and true believers in their work to bring forth a massive internet community.

The reclusive Ty Gospodinov developed “the Unified Operating System, which combined everything online that had heretofore been separate and sloppy — users’ social media profiles, their payment systems, their various passwords, their email accounts, user names, preferences, every last tool and manifestation of their interests.” He then brought on board two others, Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton. Together they have created a megalithic entity. The 12,000 Circlers who physically work together participate heavily in Circle life on a massive campus in California. (I’m not sure when anyone has time to actually work, considering all the extracurricular activities that are constantly scheduled.)

Sinister Orwellian pronouncements like “All that happens must be known,” are engraved on the campus architecture. Wrong thinking is not punished so much as it is sternly nudged toward a clearer understanding of The Circle’s beliefs. For instance, Mae publicly confesses to Bailey a misdeed and the gesalt moment that resulted from it:

    “I understand that we’re obligated, as humans, to share what we see and know. And that all knowledge must be democratically accessible.”
   “It’s the natural state of information to be free.”
   “We all have a right to know everything we can. We all collectively own the accumulated knowledge of the world.”
   “Right,” Mae said. “So what happens if I deprive anyone or everyone of something I know? Aren’t I stealing from my fellow humans?”

Eggers tries hard to create the specifics of a realistic web giant, but in the end it’s more a fantasy than an actuality. In any event, that’s secondary to the moral of this cautionary tale. It’s actually plural, so the morals are: Nothing is free, There’s always a downside, If you give an inch, they’ll take a mile. The story also poses one of those psychological dilemmas: Whom should you save, the one or the many? In saving the many, there may be a lot more lost with the one.

Mae begins her Circle life in the CE department (known as customer service in our world). She receives an instant analysis of how she does in answering questions. As she makes (computer-only) friends, she receives more instant gratification through “zings” and “smiles.” As more and more social duties are added to her load — joining LinkedIn-like networks, answering emails and surveys, participating in Twitter-like blasts (“zings”) — she multitasks faster and faster. Her PartiRank (the be-all and end-all popularity indicator for Circlers) rises. She sacrifices relationships and sleep to ascend.

It’s obvious from the beginning what Eggers is trying to say. Social media doesn’t necessarily make people more social. They lose the human element as their screen presences take over. Their individual identities are subsumed as they cavort towards corporate-approved personas. Beware the mega-websters. Perhaps the Assanges and Snowdens are doing us a big favor.

The people urging Mae to proceed with caution are her parents, ex-boyfriend Mercer, and a shadowy figure on campus named Kalden. Can Mae be saved from The Circle, from the “tear opening up in her,” and from herself?

Kind of long, kind of hit-me-over-the-head-over-and-over, kind of one-note. Should have been an intense and muscular short story or novella. (This is apparently out-of-the-circle thinking, as Eggers’s book was given a star by Publishers Weekly and named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times.) What can I say? Sometimes I don't agree with the masses.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

William Morrow, 192 pages, $25

Truth? This is not a mystery. This is a fantasy by the premiere fantasist Neil Gaiman, whose Neverwhere is a classic. There are, of course, mysterious, supernatural elements. There is an endangered 7-year-old boy — I don’t think he’s ever named — who is smart and brave for his age. There’s suspense and otherworldly criminal activity. I call it fair game for this blog.

In a rural area of Sussex, England, a dark shadow has fallen. Initially it boded surprising riches, but then the tide turned, so to speak. The boy’s family, with the exception of the boy himself, is beguiled by a mysterious force, brought upon our world by the boy himself.

With the help of the family who lives at the end of the lane, 11-year-old Lettie Hempstock, her mother Ginny Hempstock, and Old Lady Hempstock, the boy is drawn into an ancient fight and a dimension of wonders.

As with other Gaiman books, there is a sweetness to it. There should never be any doubt that good will triumph over evil, and that’s the comfort Gaiman offers. Most of the time The Ocean at the End of the Lane feels like a kid’s book, but I’d say it would have to be a pretty mature kid, because there’s a joyless oblique sex scene and an ugly corpse.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Little, Brown & Co., 771 pages, $30

“The Goldfinch” is a real painting by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, one of Rembrandt’s pupils. The artist was killed and his studio shattered in an explosion of a gunpowder storeroom in 1654, but this painting survived. Donna Tartt uses “The Goldfinch,” after which her book is named, to great effect. Throughout The Goldfinch, Tartt describes this painting emotionally, artistically, and intellectually through her protagonist, Theo Decker. The advantage to using a real painting is that with the ability for most of her readers to instantly access its image on the internet, they can see for themselves what Tartt/Decker is talking about.

The Goldfinch begins with Theo in considerable mental anguish and physical distress in a hotel in Amsterdam. Then comes a 600-page flashback to what brought him to that point. The Dickensian misery and the events that throw Theo into ever more fantastical situations flow from a day when he was 13 years old.

On that day in Manhattan, Theo, who had been suspended from his private school, and his mother were on their way to a meeting at that school. On the way, they decide to briefly stop at a museum to look at her favorite painting, “The Goldfinch.” For young Theo, part of the museum’s fascination is a girl he has spotted. She appears to be about his age and is accompanied by a man of grandfatherly vintage. At this intersection of joy and anxiety, a terrorist’s bomb explodes in the museum.

Theo and the girl, Pippa, survive. Theo’s mother and Pippa’s grandfather do not. In the chaos and confusion that follows — brilliantly described by Tartt — Theo hears the grandfather’s dying words and reaches for The Goldfinch, blown off the wall by the explosion but still somehow intact. He crawls to safety with the painting and only later heartbreakingly hears about the fate of his mother.

One thing leads to another and Theo never manages to tell anyone that he has the painting. In his 13-year-old brain, he imagines that he will be in serious trouble for having taken the painting. Each passing day brings another day’s agony for his delay. From his journey as an unofficial ward of a troubled upper class family, to his reunion with his wayward father and his brash girlfriend in Las Vegas, to his drug and alcohol daze with his best friend, Boris, another troubled juvenile, to landing on the doorstep of the kindly business partner of Pippa’s dead grandfather back in Manhattan, Theo’s childhood odyssey of happiness and despair takes up only the first half of Tartt’s book.

The adult Theo, present in the second half of the book, has some better luck, but poison again creeps into his life. It is to Tartt’s credit that she is able to pull off such an epic tale of woe without descending into schlock or pot-boiling pathos. Although the vision of Theo the Victim, standing paralyzed and open-mouthed as his life swirls the drain, is a frequent one, he is also the enthusiastic master of his destruction. However, Tartt never lets go of the central thesis that Theo at heart is a good boy, that he wants to do the right thing for the people he loves, that he is a genuine victim, that his edginess and acerbity/absurdity is a function of the twin devils of self-preservation and self-flagellation. Like the goldfinch in the painting, he is hobbled by a chain. Theo is tied to his guilt and a series of what-ifs that were never adequately addressed when he was younger.

Tartt talks about seeing the artist’s work as well as the picture he intended his viewers to see. The goldfinch is both a painting and a bird. Her book is like that: It is a story and it is the illumination of the human heart.

P.S. To enhance your experience, read Boris’s dialogue out loud (complete with Ukrainian accent, please).
P.P.S. The last twenty or so pages of the book are fabulous. Tartt's writing soars. It is bittersweet and satisfying.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Bombproof by Michael Robotham

Mullholland Books, sadly only available in the U.S. in ebook format (try Powell’s Books for a Kobo copy or www.abebooks.com to get a British edition), c2008

Michael Robotham is the maraschino cherry in my fruit salad. Do I eat it now or savor it at the end? When I have a stack of books to read, I don’t just grab the Robotham first. His books are the rewards for reading (sometimes plodding) through other books.

Nah. Who am I kidding? Actually, I make a grab for the Robotham first, to hell with the other books.

It’s Robotham’s sense of humor, crazy good writing, and racing plot that hook me every time.

Robotham alternates his stories between his two protagonists, psychologist Joe O’Loughlin and retired police detective Vincent Ruiz. They usually make appearances in each other’s books, but this time Joe rates only a mention in what is definitely Ruiz’s story. I lean very heavily toward the Ruiz books, although I enjoy all of Robotham's books.

Bombproof begins with a bomb going off in the London subway. Sami Macbeth (“born in Glasgow, raised in South London, to an Algerian mother and a Scottish father”) is caught on CCTV running away from the scene. A dragnet is launched to capture him.

Through the course of the book, Sami is accused of many crimes (terrorism, theft, hostage taking, murder, murder again, yet another murder, and blowing up police headquarters). He is definitely NOT guilty of most, sort of not guilty of a couple. He has, however, as the result of bad lawyering, spent time in prison for a jewel heist. Although he is innocent of the crime, his reputation for being a master safecracker has gone viral. And that is what gets him into a world of trouble.

Crime boss Tony Murphy wants Sami to break into police headquarters and steal something from the evidence locker. It shouldn’t be a problem for a pro. Only Sami isn’t a pro. At best, he was a low-level musician with a group called Raw Liver (“Raw Liver seemed to be saying, ‘We might not be as good as the Stones, but we’re louder.’”). Because musicians don’t usually have the skills to break into evidence lockers, Sami makes a hash of it, resulting in the scene that opens the book: the bombing of a subway train.

In a darkly comic way, poor Sami’s life just spirals ever downward with farcical misunderstandings following one after another. There are three good things he has going for him: an understanding girlfriend, Kate Tierney, who shelters him at crucial points; a sympathetic parole officer, Miranda Wallace; and a contact Miranda gives him, her ex-husband, retired police detective Vincent Ruiz. Will they be able to extract Sami from the hell of a mess he and his sister Nadia have gotten themselves into, or will a sacrifice have to be made?

Finally, here are some quotes from Bombproof which should indubitably convince you why Robotham, if you haven’t already cottoned to him, should be next on your literary menu.

About a couple of characters with walk-on parts: “The desk sergeant is a doughnut short of being fat and has a torn piece of tissue paper, encrusted with blood, stuck to his neck.” And, “Mr. Dibbs is shaped like a sea elephant and is wearing a tartan sweater knitted with love but very little skill.”

About the story’s bad guys: “Tony Murphy might rip off mug punters, horny businessman and foreign tourists, but Ray Garza ransacks entire countries. Diamond mines in Angola, nickel mines in Botswana, platinum mines in Zimbabwe.”

About poor Sami: “Sami took the fall. He didn’t fall under the wheels of a truck like Andy Palmer. He fell onto the wrong side of the tracks. He fell through the cracks. He fell out of favor.” And, “He has a 150-point IQ, three A-levels and about as much common sense as a pork chop.”

Friday, November 22, 2013

My Venice and Other Essays by Donna Leon

Atlantic Monthly Press, 240 pages, $26    (release date 12/3/13)

The true voice of Donna Leon, not the one given to her popular character, Commissario Guido Brunetti, is funny and acerbic. She is passionate about the beauty and (eventual) neighborliness of Venice, although some of her essays bemoan the effect of tourism and lack of recycling, for instance. But Venice only headlines a segment of her essays. She has been saving up a lot of observations, it seems.

By turns sociologist (how she would hate that description!), anthropologist, historian, protester, teacher, and critic, her essays range widely. Pick a topic, any topic. How about "Moles" or "It's a Dick Thing" or dinner with Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell)? Although many of the essays are wittily amusing or laugh-out-loud funny, Leon also evinces a serious kindness and intolerance (i.e., rage) for many subjects. And, finally, to answer the question she probably has had to answer more frequently than any other, she tells us how she writes her novels in a series of essays under the heading, "On Books."

"My Venice" will put you in the company of a woman who is articulate, intelligent, passionate, and worth listening to.

P.S. Did you know she is an American, albeit one who will never again live in the U.S.? She talks about her family and being an American, too.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Police by Jo Nesbø

Knopf, 448 pages, $25.95

This review starts with a spoiler. I have to discuss the ending of Phantom, the last book in the Oslo murder squad series by Norwegian author Jo Nesbø. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you read (at least) that book first. If you’ve never read any of the books in this series, don’t start here.

Since 1997, Harry Hole (pronounced Hah-ree Who-la, in a sing-song way) has been the central character of Nesbø’s long-running series. The start of Police resonated with his absence. His teammates are there but dispersed: Beate Lønn, head of Krimteknisk; Ståle Aune, a psychologist now back in private practice; Bjørn Holm, a red-headed detective with a Rasta affectation; Gunnar Hagen, head of the crime squad (“resembling a monk more and more with the rich abundance of hair like a laurel wreath around his blank, shiny pate”); and Katrine Bratt, a Lizbeth Salander-like character.

At the end of Phantom, Harry was shot by the son of his girlfriend. It’s hard to believe he’s dead, so when the character of a mysterious coma patient appears, diligently guarded by a 24-hour police guard, it’s hard not to hope that perhaps Harry somehow cheated Death. Hope despite the gloomy reminiscences of his fellow detectives: “Harry would have done this,” “Harry would have said that.” Implicit is the understanding that Harry can no longer do or say anything. Whatever his fate, the atmosphere is pregnant with his absence.

Aune says, “He missed having the tall, grumpy alcoholic with the big heart on the phone asking — or to be precise, commanding — Ståle Aune to do his social duty.”

Harry’s presence is definitely missed when one police officer after another is murdered. Murdered in an angry and twisted way. The first police officer’s body is discovered at the site of another murder years before. That time the body belonged to a young woman, a rape victim, whose murderer has not been apprehended. The second police officer dies under similar circumstances, placed at the scene of an older crime that has gone unpunished. Against the wishes of his new chief of police, the corrupt and ambitious Mikael Bellman, Gunnar Hagen reassembles the murder squad, the Delta team, to find the cop killer.

Police is a roller coaster ride, running amok with suspenseful moments taken from every thriller-movie convention. Nesbø plays his readers, but it works. Keep shouting “Don’t open the door,” “Turn around NOW,” and “If it smells bad, call the police — oh, wait, you are the police.” Maybe one of the characters will hear you.

Katrine is the shining star of this book, although there are many, many characters, both good and bad, running around from disaster to disaster or plotting each disaster, each capable of giving you an instant of horripilation. Her devotion to Harry’s memory, her research skills, and her willingness to go off on a tangent will make you do a fist pump.

As with other Jo Nesbø books, this one does not have a clean and simple story with a clean and simple solution. Take notes because Nesbø delights in tossing in red herrings and plot bombs. Like fireworks in a Fourth of July display, the herrings and bombs grow more profuse and elaborate as the show nears its end.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

True Crime

Yesterday the city of San Francisco became Gotham City for the day. The San Francisco Make-a-Wish Foundation granted five-year-old Miles more than his wish. He wanted to be Batman. The Foundation went over the top and got the whole city to play along.

The police, fire department, SF Giants, and many local sponsors created scenarios in which Miles would overcome Batman's archnemeses, The Penguin and The Riddler, while traveling through the city. A damsel was in distress, tied to a cable car. The Giants' mascot was kidnapped. The Riddler was trying to steal money and jewels.

A flashmob and thousands of San Franciscans lined the streets to cheer Batkid (aka Miles) on. The San Francisco Chronicle issued a special edition as The Gotham City Chronicle. Live feeds of Batkid's derring-do were broadcast by several television stations. Make-a-Wish's website crashed from overload. Tweets were received from all over the world. President Obama sent a video message.

Of course, in the end, Batkid saved the day. Good should always triumph over evil, especially in the world of a five-year-old leukemia patient. As he received the key to Gotham City for his bravery, he raised his fist to the sky. Indeed. Crime does not pay.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Identical by Scott Turow

Grand Central Publishing, 384 pages, $28

Scott Turow has written a Greek tragedy. Alluding to both the myth of Castor and Pollux, the Gemini twins, and Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, Turow introduces us to his twins, Cass and Paul Gianis, in his expansive novel about identity and family.

It is 2008 and Cass Gianis is due to be released from minimum security prison where he has been for twenty-five years, serving a sentence for the death of his girlfriend, Dita Kronos. Paul Gianis is currently running for mayor of Center City, a fictional town in Kindle County. Kindle County will be familiar to Turow fans. He has used it as the home of most of his novels. (For instance, Sandy Stern of Presumed Innocent makes several cameo appearances.)

Complicating Cass’s release and Paul’s campaign are the smear tactics of former friend and neighbor Hal Kronos, now a billionaire real estate mogul. He is also Dita’s brother. He has been mourning her loss for all these years. Now he decides Paul, too, must have had something to do with Dita’s death, and he is hell-bent on getting justice for Dita. Of course, Paul files a lawsuit for defamation, and that sets the stage for some great legal gymnastics in the way that only Scott Turow can present.

Most of the first half of the book is devoted to the legal wrangling, but Turow slowly introduces Evon Miller, Hal’s head of security for his company, and Tim Brodie, a private detective and former homicide cop, who are charged with uncovering whatever Paul and Cass have been hiding all these years.

The second half of the book deals with what Paul and Cass, indeed, and a whole lot of other people, have been hiding.

Turow brings in a lot of characters. Each one, however minor his or her contribution is, receives a portrait. His main characters receive flourishes. For example, Evon Miller was on an Olympic field hockey team and was born DeDe Kurzweil. Nothing really to do with the main story, but nice touches.

There are many nice, descriptive touches throughout the book. In your rush to get to the surprises at the end of the book, don’t fly right by these gems:

  • Hermoine, Hal and Dita’s mother, was “thin and simple like a piece of blank paper.”
  • Sandy Stern appears briefly but he is accorded a stand-out mention: “Round and bald, and with an enigmatically elegant manner, Stern demonstrated there was an advantage to looking middle-aged when you were younger.” (One can speculate that ever after Turow has been trying to reclaim his vision of Sandy Stern after Raul Julia’s portrayal in the movie version of Presumed Innocent. Turow said in an interview with Powell’s Books’ Chris Bolton: “The Stern whom I imagined was stout and a good nine inches shorter than Raul Julia.”)
  • Describing the parole commission after deciding Cass Gianis’s fate: “The panel then rushed out the back door, like liquid through a funnel.”

Turow obviously believes that an author must present evidence to his audience as an attorney presents to a jury. An exhaustive speech about what DNA testing can show will enlighten you or make you fast-forward through it. The bottom line is that identity is a complex subject and identity for twins is not double-good, double-good, but doubly confusing, accompanied by more guilt, more love, more problems.

Identical is a lot of book. Turow’s surprises and convolutions are sometimes clever and sometimes too contrived, but they lean much more towards the positive. (For instance, why does Turow place his story in 2008? Brilliant story maneuvering!) The tragic potential of twins has had an enticing pull on audiences throughout literary history. Syracusan Antipholus says in Comedy of Errors, “I to the world am like a drop of water/That in the ocean seeks another drop….”  The push and pull of twin on twin is inevitable and makes them, in the end, less than identical.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Crown, 432 pages, $25, c2012

It’s so difficult to write about Gone Girl without disclosing at least one of the surprising elements of the book. Author Gillian Flynn should be accorded the “Gotcha” award at the very least, were such an award to exist.

There certainly are precedents in the mystery/crime/suspense world for this type of book. By that I mean, a book that doesn’t necessarily produce a heroic, stalwart character to pin one’s hopes on. Almost every present-day crime novel has a flawed protagonist, but Flynn takes that 20,000 leagues further down. You might throw a pity party for one or the other, but I defy you to like either Nick or Amy, Flynn’s marital combatants, by the end of the book.

Flynn flips the first-person narratives between Nick and Amy. They both agree that their life in New York after they met and married was exciting and romantic. The downhill slide begins when they both lose their jobs.

Nick is from Missouri. His parents are ailing and Nick’s twin sister, Margo (“Go”), needs help taking care of them. So they settle in Nick’s hometown to help. Amy has quite a bit of money in a trust fund set up by her parents, the authors of the “Amazing Amy” children’s books, a once-popular series about a precocious young girl with the same name as their daughter. Nick and Amy use some of that money to buy a bar, which Nick runs with Go.

Nick’s and Amy’s narratives begin to peel off from each other after they move to Missouri and more setbacks occur. Initially there is simply benign malice and a growing distance between them. Then one day, Nick arrives home to find the furniture in his home up-ended and blood on the kitchen floor. Amy’s blood.

Slowly clues pop up that point to Nick as the perpetrator of a crime. There is no body at the scene, so the million dollar question is: Where is Amy? To follow Nick’s narrative, it appears that he is as bewildered as the authorities. Is Amy dead? Did Nick murder her? The noose is tightening.

Flynn’s pacing is excellent, and her ability to keep the tension tight and her story compelling is amazing. Nick and Amy are caricatures of a married couple, but it shortly doesn’t matter if they are believable or not. The game they play with each other is everything.

Should you venture into Nick and Amy territory, as have millions of other readers — who have shelled out their dough for the hardcover and digital versions of this book, the paperback version having been delayed because of the book’s wild success — you, too, may have a strong, strong opinion about the direction the book takes. If so, you might be interested in the author’s view of the controversy her book has engendered: http://shelf-life.ew.com/2012/12/04/gillian-flynn-gone-girl-ending/

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Cross and Burn by Val McDermid

Atlantic Monthly Press, 416 pages, $25

Psychologist Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan of the Banfield Police in South Yorkshire, England, have been going at it for eight books now, but only professionally and platonically. South Yorkshire has been saved from a number of serial killers because of them. (Banfield has a high rate of serial killers per capita. If you live in Banfield … RUN!) But no longer, because they have gotten the platonic equivalent of a divorce.

After the horrible events set forth in The Retribution, Carol has resigned from the police force and has moved away from Banfield to her dead brother’s home. She blames Tony for what happened (read the book) and the two have not spoken in months. Tony, in his own dysfunctional way, pines for her. She, on the other hand, reviles him and actively works to put him out of her mind.

After Carol resigned and the Major Incident Team was disbanded because of budget cuts, the team members have dispersed. Tony is back at Banfield Cross Hospital. Paula McIntyre, Carol’s “bagman,” now fills that position under DCI Alex Fielding.

Here’s an interesting note. In the acknowledgements, Val McDermid says that Patrick Harbinson created the character of DCI Alex Fielding for the television series Wire in the Blood, when the actress who played Carol Jordan left. In art imitating art, McDermid now recycles the name for a character with a completely different personality than that of the TV character. Authorly humor, no doubt.

Someone is kidnapping middle-aged blonde women and returning them dead. We actually get to “see” the anonymous killer’s sick reasoning. He is looking for the “perfect wife.” She must be a good cook and totally submissive. When the women he takes fail his tests, he kills them. His current victim is Bev McAndrew, an acquaintance of Paula and her partner, Elinore. Bev’s 14-year-old son, Torin, has nowhere to go, so Paula and Elinore take him in.

The story really belongs to Paula. In order to find Bev, she calls on the skills of some of her former MIT teammates, including Tony and computer guru Stacey. Then Alex Fielding takes the information gathered to date and jumps to an incredible conclusion: Anthony Valentine Hill must be the killer. “I am arresting you on suspicion of murder,” she says to Tony. Gasp.

If you have been a reader of McDermid’s prior books, you know that Tony is a brilliant profiler but a pretty hopeless human being. He’s almost child-like in his inability to take care of himself and finds it difficult to establish normal relationships. His arrest astounds and mortifies him. To help him, Paula pulls a rabbit out of the hat, and the rabbit's name is Carol Jordan. 

Over the course of seven prior books, McDermid has slowly built up the strange relationship dance in which Tony and Carol are engaged. When their tenuous bond was snapped by Carol at the end of the last book, this created a back story that is almost more compelling than the mystery McDermid has devised.

McDermid is the top of the line when it comes to creating creepy-crawly serial killers. She has won awards and accolades. Her Tony Hill and Carol Jordan interplay is genius. Bringing Paula McIntyre to the forefront will keep her audience’s interest. Aren’t we all saying, What will Val McDermid do to top this?

The choice of Cross and Burn for the title comes from a quote with which McDermid starts her book. David Russell, another mystery writer, writes: “The hardest thing in life is to know which bridge to cross and which to burn.” Has Carol burned all her bridges, or is there still a way back?

Saturday, November 9, 2013

W Is for Wasted by Sue Grafton

Putnam, 496 pages, $28.95

In these days of “The Girl Who” and Gone Girl women, Kinsey Millhone is an anachronism, and not the least because Sue Grafton has most excellently kept her heroine in the 1980s. Kinsey doesn’t kick posteriors, anteriors, interiors, or anything. Given a choice, she hides in trash barrels, backs up slowly, runs away quickly. During a serious scene in this book, she has the equivalent of a bitch-slap fight with the murderer, using a lawn chair. That must be why so many of us love her. If you have come to Sue Grafton for neo-noir, ask for your money back.

First of all, I needed to get over the fact that Grafton didn’t title this book “W Is for Wanted.” (Surely many of us had anticipated what she would name her remaining books.) I still hold out hope for “X Is for Xavier,” as Grafton ventures out into X-Men territory; “Y Is for Yell Loudly,” keeping to the wuss persona that Kinsey has maintained; and “Z Is for Ze End,” in which Kinsey takes off for Paris to help the Sûreté.

Did I like W Is for Wasted? Well, duh, yes. In my opinion, very few authors are able to create as endearing, slightly dysfunctional, funny, nice, and ept (as opposed to inept) a character as Kinsey. I fell off the Kinsey wagon somewhere around “I” but have returned with born-again fervor to the fold. I don’t care what the mystery is anymore. I just want to finish the alphabet journey hand-in-hand with Grafton and Kinsey.

Grafton wafts the soft breeze of remembrance over the whole book. There are references to just about every quirk and important character. Peanut butter and pickle sandwiches? Bring it on. Her aunt, her newly discovered grandmother, past cars, Henry’s renovations, regimented cleaning of her apartment? It’s all there. Robert Dietz, a former flame, makes an appearance, as do other men in her life. At one point, Kinsey remarks that all the men she has slept with over the last six years are together in one room, not that that leads to overcrowding! Grafton allows us to wallow in reminiscence. She also places us firmly in 1980s Santa Teresa.

Santa Theresa. It’s almost real. It’s a thinly disguised Santa Barbara, an homage to Ross Macdonald. But Grafton’s Santa Theresa is her own creation, too. Kinsey’s P.I. offices, past and present, her work history from police officer to P.I., Henry’s home, Rosie’s tavern, the beach where she runs — they’re all mentioned in W and are all real, brought to life over the years by Grafton’s skill.

In W Is for Wasted, we meet more bizarre characters from Kinsey’s family. Until we met members of Kinsey’s mother’s family a few books ago, the only relative we knew about was Aunt Gin. After Kinsey’s parents died in a car accident, Aunt Gin raised her and effectively crossed out any other member of the family. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

As mentioned in the prologue, two men die and their deaths change Kinsey’s life. One is Pete Wolinsky, an “unscrupulous private detective,” who was murdered recently. In a separate third-person narrative, in contrast to Kinsey's first-person voice, Pete’s last case is described and, it is assumed, that case will eventually intersect with Kinsey’s life. The second dead man was one of the homeless people who now roam Santa Theresa. Grafton depicts their situation with humanity and depth of feeling. Inexplicably, because she’s never met him, R. T. Dace has named her the executor and sole recipient of his estate. Ha, ha, you say, “his estate.” (I can see you making air quotes, you know.) Dace, it turns out, had been wrongly incarcerated for murder and the State has paid up to the tune of $600,000. After his release, battling alcoholism and a broken life, Dace voluntarily chose the homeless community for comfort and companionship. And that money now belongs to Kinsey. Sort of. Maybe.

Without going into too much detail because of the surprise factor, I’ll just say that Grafton takes the time to make a social comment on the situation of homeless people and aspects of the medical research community. So it’s not just about Kinsey and the furthering of her background story.

As the series, I assume, draws to a close — I can’t imagine Grafton will continue after “Z” (1, 2, 3? AA, BB, CC? Chaos?) — it seems Grafton is giving us some closure.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Stone Boy by Sophie Loubière

Translated from French by Nora Mahony
Grand Central Publishing, 288 pages, c2011, translation c2013

Such is the state of publishing these days that this book is currently available in ebook format (e.g., Kobo through Powell’s Books), $9.99, but won’t be available in print until July, 2014, $15.

Sophie Loubière entices her readers with an is-she-or-isn’t-she story. Loubière’s main character, Elsa Préau, may be able to see ghosts. She may be crazy. She may suffer from dementia. Or not.

Loubière introduces Elsa in a pre-story that takes us from 1946 to 1997 before settling into a present day story. Gérard is infatuated with Elsa. “The touch of madness was irresistible,” he thinks. They have a son, Martin. Gérard, a physician, eventually leaves Elsa to move from France to Canada. When Martin also seeks a medical career, he moves to Canada as well. Meanwhile, Elsa has carved a career for herself as the headmistress of a school. Although she has a busy life, she pines for Martin. She is appalled when he returns to France with a wife, Audrette, but all is forgiven when their son, Bastien, is born. He is the light of Elsa’s life. The pre-story ends with an ambiguous scene in which Elsa, although forbidden to see Bastien at that point, takes her grandson after school for a picnic in the park. Elsa and Bastien are soon unconscious. What has happened?

When the main story begins in the present day, Martin is helping Elsa return to her childhood home, long disused and vandalized. Most of the book follows Elsa’s clear but tortured thinking.

Soon Elsa becomes concerned about a pale and dirty boy she sees in the neighbor’s yard, but only on Sundays. She senses something is wrong with him and discovers that officially he doesn’t exist. He reminds her of her grandson. At the same time she has disturbing dreams and hears unexplained sounds at night. 

Martin often asks Elsa if she is taking her medication. He says, “‘Now that I would have liked — a mum out of a mold, just like other mums, one who doesn’t talk to ghosts.’”

So where is this book heading?

Loubière establishes that Elsa, as a youngster, claims to have seen her dead mother. Gérard finds her quite fey. On the other hand, she has the makings of an eccentric and brilliant detective. She has, after all, infiltrated her old school to find out whether the current headmistress knows anything about “the stone boy,” as Elsa has taken to calling him. We learn then that Elsa had a great reputation for innovation at the school.

Elsa often writes to government officials, suggesting remedies to social problems. She reads articles about potential environmental and technological dangers. She even has written to a neighbor to address her hoarding and hygiene issues. Elsa cares. But everything she does and believes is slightly off and slightly wacky.

Loubière does a tremendous job pushing Elsa more and more off kilter, while making us wonder just what kernel of truth may lie in the midst of her madness.

The author has created a suspenseful, haunting, crafty tale of psychological disintegration in The Stone Boy.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Bat by Mary Roberts Rinehart

APA The Circular Staircase, c1908, novelized in 1926 from a stage play, entitled The Bat. This was Mary Roberts Rinehart’s first book.

MysteriousPress.com re-release (available as an ebook, including on Kobo through Powell’s Books), c2013, 174 pages, $9.99

Reading The Bat was like watching some of those melodramatic old movies about ghostly stately mansions, with plucky heroines, staunch heroes, imperious old women, and hysterical maids. The stereotypes abounded in those shows and they abound in The Bat as well. It may be the case of which came first, the chicken or the egg, however. The Bat was written in 1929 and may be one of the influential progenitors of those movies. It, in turn, surely leaned heavily on mysterious gothic tales, like those of Wilkie Collins. And following the path downward, surely “Abbot and Costello in Hold That Ghost,” is a direct wacky relation.

Miss Cornelia Van Gorder is the imperious direct descendent of the hardy Dutch who infiltrated New Amsterdam. Mary Roberts Rinehart labels her an “indomitable spinster” in one of her chapter headings. (I seriously think everyone should have chapter headings in their books.) In a spur-of-the-moment decision, she rents a summer house and carts off her belongings and Irish maid, Lizzie Allen, to the premises. Lizzie plays the wide-eyed, superstitious, comic foil. Cornelia’s niece, a young woman named Dale Ogden, joins her aunt, and the upper class scene is set for a drawing room mystery.

Who is the thief and murderer called “The Bat”? Rinehart writes, “From a thousand sources now the clamor arose — press, police, and public alike crying out for the capture of the master criminal of a century — lost voices hounding a specter down the alleyways of the wind.” And, “Like a bat he chose the night hours for his work of rapine; like a bat he struck and vanished, pouncingly, noiselessly; like a bat he never showed himself to the face of the day.”

Cornelia’s new home was suddenly available because its owner, Courtleigh Fleming, the president of a bank now in turmoil, died recently. A young cashier, Jack Bailey, is accused of absconding with enough money from the bank’s coffers to plunge it into insolvency. So Cornelia also inherited some of the house’s staff, most notably the racially stereotyped Billy, a Japanese butler. He is both a “Jap” and “inscrutable.”

According to Lizzie, the house is haunted. According to Cornelia, her house is in the territory The Bat has been victimizing and she may be the next victim. She is thrilled that some adventure may come her way late in life.

Take these characters, plus a new handsome gardener, a determined police detective named Anderson, a dedicated doctor, a bedraggled stranger with amnesia, Fleming’s nephew, and an innocent bystander, and shake the mixture thoroughly, and you have a mysterious melodrama with a decent twist at the end.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Death of a Nightingale by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

Soho Crime, 368 pages, $26.95

Natasha and her young daughter Katerina are immigrants to Denmark from the Ukraine. Natasha is running from something. After someone breaks into the Coal-House Camp for immigrants, where Natasha and Katerina were staying, the situation suddenly involves Nina Borg, a nurse who works there and the OCD heroine of two other books by Danish writers Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis.

In Death of a Nightingale, Kaaberbøl and Friis have created a compelling, intricate, and very human drama. It’s wonderfully translated by Elisabeth Dyssegaard, although both Kaaberbøl and Friis are fluent in English. I can’t help but think that that served the story well.

Nina Borg’s back story is compelling but wisely only touches of it enter Death of a Nightingale. This story belongs to Natasha and Katerina. Interspersed with the present-day story is a tale set in 1934-35 Ukraine. Two young girls, Oxana and Olga, and their mother have been deserted by the man of the house. The Communist Party holds sway there, although many people in the village are not sympathizers. Oxana is primed by the Party teacher to be the shining example of the young Communist worker. Despite Oxana’s prominence, the family suffers from extreme poverty and deprivation. Intriguingly, the reader doesn’t find out what the two stories have to do with each other until the very end.

Natasha’s husband, a journalist, was murdered in the Ukraine a while ago. Her Danish boyfriend was recently murdered. Natasha is being hunted by two different countries, but is she guilty?

Søren Kirkegard, a detective with the Danish Security and Intelligence Service, is assigned to work with Symon Babko of the Ukrainian criminal police. He accompanied a high-level secret police officer, Jurij Savchuk, who is intent on finding Natasha. Savchuk seems to have his own agenda, which adds to the mystery surrounding Natasha.

Nina Borg’s personal life is crap. Her compulsions, including the one that makes her want to save everyone but herself, trip her up and have robbed her of what she holds dear. Although Katerina is not her child, she feels compelled to protect her. And that’s part of the problem: “Rina” is NOT her daughter.

What are people willing to do under stress? How will they live their lives afterward? The characters in the story must ask what shackles them and what they are willing to do to break free.

It’s hard for an author to create one worthy story; Kaaberbøl and Friis have concocted two.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith

Simon & Schuster, 306 pages, $25.99 (release date 11/12/13)

Give the man an Edgar, already! Okay?

Martin Cruz Smith has written many books, been nominated a bucketful of times for an Edgar, won a Gold Dagger, won a couple of Hammetts. He is one of the best crime story writers around, innovative and provocative.

Gorky Park was Smith's first Arkady Renko book, released in 1981, at a time when Russia was still the Soviet Union and American tourists had not yet begun to pour into Moscow. How the heck did American author Martin Cruz Smith know enough about what went on behind the Soviet veil to write a book starring a Moscow police detective? It was a fabulous, intriguing book.

Tatiana is the eighth Renko book and it is a fabulous, intriguing book as well.

Russia has changed considerably in the 30+ years since maverick investigator Renko first made his appearance. The Renko books reflect the changes in time, even if Renko himself does not appear to be 30 years older. He is described like this: "Arkady was a thin man with lank dark hair who looked incomplete without a cigarette." Now he works for a special prosecutor who dislikes him. His job is dark but his job title is whimsical: Senior Investigator for Very Important Cases.

Renko is joined by two other regulars: Victor Orlov, his alcoholic partner, and Zhenya, Renko's 17-year-old, chess-wizard ward.

Renko and Orlov primarily are following the reshuffling of power within the underworld after one of the most notorious crime lords is murdered. Will Alexi Grigorenko succeed his father in the "business"? Renko's neighbor/lover Anya Rudenko, a reporter, is also following the events and, more specifically, Alexi, possibly in a more personal way than Renko would like.

In addition, Renko has assigned himself a case that seems simple and underwhelming: locate the misplaced body of investigative reporter Tatiana Petrovna in the morgue. Although Tatiana has been declared a suicide victim, Renko's interest is piqued by a witness' statement that she could hear Tatiana scream as she fell from her balcony. In Renko's experience, suicides who leap from buildings die silently.

Tatiana "attacked corruption among politicians and police. Her favorite targets were the former KGB who dwelled like bats in the Kremlin." Needless to say, she had many enemies.

A mysterious notebook appears among Tatiana's effects. It is filled with symbols and seems incomprehensible. We know from the prologue that the notebook belongs to a murdered translator who was working at a business deal between people who are Russian and Chinese. The notebook makes its way from Tatiana to her editor, from the editor to Anya, from Anya to Renko, and finally from Renko to Zhenya, who has stolen it to hold as a bargaining chip to make Renko give his permission for Zhenya to join the army.

Everything eventually and intricately swirls together. At least one person is not surprised at the complexity of events. Orlov says about his partner, "'That will be on your tombstone, "Things Got Complicated."'"

Despite the introduction of many characters and the unlikely twining of the cases, Smith masterfully conducts his symphony of crime, including some devilish twists in the plot. Smith also shows us a depressing vision of Russia, most searingly exemplified by something Renko sees in his travels, a "Frankenstein's monster of a building," a decaying government office building that has never been occupied because of engineering errors. This is Russia now: half-built, unstable, not functioning, open to corruption.

Red Sky in Morning by Paul Lynch

Little, Brown & Company, 288 pages, $25 (release date 11/5/13)

This is a most unusual book. Let me start with a quote from early in the book: "The water fell bathing gently all in its domain, the trees and the fields and the stone sill and the still seeping blood, rivulets running crimson towards the maw of the welcoming earth."

Paul Lynch is Irish, but the first thing I heard was Welshman Dylan Thomas's cadence. The grit and bleak portrayal of Ireland sometime in the 1800s reminded me of "There Will Be Blood," and the play of words reminded me of "Deadwood," each exulting in a language of its own. The recent death of poet Seamus Heaney was a reminder of the great poetical tradition of Irish works. Red Sky in Morning seems mythical, with a song-like telling.

The storyline is fairly straightforward. Coll Coyle is a young man, a husband and a father. He is a tenant on an estate. Inexplicably his family is evicted from the land they have lived on for generations. Young Hamilton, who inherited the land from his father, and his manager, John Faller, are inflexible in their stand.

Coll's anger builds and he goes after Hamilton, whom he accidentally kills. Suddenly he must flee; there is no court of next resort. He must leave his young family without a word of goodbye. One of his last sights is of his brother being tortured by Faller to learn Coll's whereabouts. Like the horrors in a grim fairy tale, Coll then encounters strange and dangerous people and situations. 

In an almost supernatural way, Faller tracks Coll. Coll hopes his new acquaintance, The Cutter, will help him escape. All Coll wants to do is eventually earn a little money, settle somewhere, and send for his beloved family. Coll and The Cutter traverse many levels of hell in search of this goal.

It's almost distracting how lovely Lynch's words are compared to the bleakness they often describe. For example, Lynch's description of the Irish landscape hits like a hammer: "Sedge scrunched under horse weight and the land opened to the bog, the encroached horizon of slumping dun hills and then they were riding upon the moss."

Coll is running away not only from the hand of justice in the form of Faller but also from a perceived cowardice on his part. He runs not to freedom but to encounters with death time and again, especially on a harrowing trip in the hold of a boat headed to America. On the other hand, Faller willingly brings death with him. He has a rather somber view of life: "The price of life is the burden of your own weight and some people are better off without it."

Each page is a revelation but Lynch reserves the last few pages for a final twist, his exclamation point to his story on the waywardness of life. This is a book rich with thoughtful and lyrical language, a grim and poignant story, and a reward for the reader who perseveres.

Moonlight Downs by Adrian Hyland

Soho Crime, 330 pages, $14

Emily Tempest, half white, half Aboriginal, has returned to her childhood home at Moonlight Downs in Australia. It has been ten years since she left in disgrace when she was a teenager. After having seen much of the outside world, she has returned for … what? It’s possible that Emily herself isn’t sure why she has returned to the dry, lonely desert that her “mob,” the Watlpuju tribe, inhabits.

In fact, during her absence, the tribe was driven off when white ownership of the land changed hands and they were not needed to work the land. They moved to the town of Bluebush, where they languished and were in danger of losing their sense of place in the world: 

And what a mob they were themselves. A bigger collection of dickheads and drop-kicks you’d have to travel a long way to find: boozers, bruisers and substance-abusers, rockjaw Germans and lockjaw Yorkshiremen, grease monkeys and gamblers, meat-workers, meat-heads, missionaries, maniacs, men on the run, men on the dole, men on the Witness Protection Program. Peddlers, pushers, whores and bores, desperadoes of every denomination. You name it, they were there, drawn to the town like flies to a carcass.

A successful land claim recently returned the mob to Moonlight Downs, as owners this time.

Emily returns to find a depleted tribe, but they are still led by Lincoln Finders, a man attuned to his natural world, comfortable with the mythology of his land. Adrian Hyland explains:

The Dreaming — the Jukurrpa — is everything to the Warlpuju: a map, a mythology, a memory bank, a song cycle, but also a code of conduct, out of which you step at your peril.

Lincoln’s daughter, Hazel, was Emily’s best friend. Will she still talk to Emily? They are adults now but Hazel left without a goodbye or explanation. Can a childhood friendship be redefined? Their relationship is really tested when someone murders Lincoln, and the white authorities don’t seem able to solve the crime. Emily’s stubbornness, the same trait that led to many troubles along her life’s path, won’t let her dismiss the death of a man who was like a father to her, especially not so soon after being reunited with him.

Hyland has created memorable characters, both black and white. He imparts the rhythm and sense of the various jargons very well. Fortunately, there’s a small glossary added for some of the strange Aussie terms. (I will tell you that “spaggy bol” (spaghetti bolognese) and “ute” (utility truck) aren’t included, however.) While Americans may have to fight initially for understanding, it’s well worth the effort. This is an example of the reward awaiting those who try. Speaking of a government official’s collection of books:

His Collected Works had more windows of opportunity than a Hamburg whorehouse, more cutting edges than a combine harvester, more benchmarks than a drunk’s forehead.

Also, and equally as important, Hyland lets you into a culture in which the spiritual world and physical world are not separate. The earth sings a song that its inhabitants can hear if only they would listen.

Moonlight Downs won Australia’s Ned Kelly Award for Best First Book.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda

Dennis Lehane Books, 320 pages, $25.99

Ivy Pochoda re-creates the spit of land that is Red Hook, Brooklyn, by her own lights, in the same way John Steinbeck could bring a neighborhood to life, with all its tragedies and comedies, odd characters, interwoven relationships, and grace. She brings a playwright's sensibility to her book; her characters enter stage right, play their hour upon the stage, and exit left. Her present tense telling serves to intensify the characters' (and reader's) anxiety and need for resolution.

Val and June are 15-year-olds from the neighborhood. One hot summer night ("It's a hot night in a calendar of hot weeks."), they float away on a pink raft. Val is discovered on the shore early the next morning, barely alive. A massive hunt begins for June. Jonathan, a music teacher, is the person who found Val and brought her to the safety of the nearby convenience store run by Fadi, a Lebanese immigrant. Two of the last people to see Val and June the night before are Cree and Monique, former classmates. Val says she doesn't remember what happened. Because of what Val and June did, the lives of these characters will change.

As the hunt for June dwindles with the passing of the summer days, these characters are inhibited by their torpor, their sense of waiting for something to happen. Everyone has secrets and hopes that are heightened by June's continued absence. Although the pacing doesn't feel slow, Pochoda thoughtfully reveals her characters' stories drop by drop until the last few pages move rapidly along.

There's a sweetness and underlying optimism to most of the characters, despite the sorrows that they bear. Does the "visitation" of the title indicate a punishment for the sins, real or perceived, of the residents of Visitation Street, will they be touched by a divine hand and find their hearts' desire, are the ghosts of their past too stubborn to throw off, or is it their fate to finally mourn the dead?

This is the neighborhood the night of the disappearance:

Late summer smells hang in the air -- ripe sewers, cookouts, and the scent of stagnant water that lingers in Red Hook no matter the season. The night echoes with other people's noise, laughter falling from windows and the call-and-response of competing boom boxes.

Ivy Pochoda's book is sublime.

I am awarding this an MBTB star!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Bride Wore Size 12 by Meg Cabot

William Morrow, 392 pages, $14.99

Meg Cabot is most famously known for The Princess Diaries. She has juggled many series for both adults and children, including her Heather Wells series for adults, of which The Bride Wore Size 12 is book six. 

Heather Wells is a dormitory assistant manager at a large New York university. She has to deal with everything from lost keys to murder. Too much murder, in fact. Her dorm has the not-so-secret nickname of The Death Dorm.

Heather used to be a teenage pop star, a past she is happy to have shed, although there are occasional squeals as people recognize her. She also shed Jordan, her pop star boyfriend, a grinning horse's patootie. She can't be too critical of him because he will soon be her brother-in-law. Cooper Cartwright, Heather's fiancé, is a private investigator and Jordan's brother. (It's a wonder Cooper has time for regular cases because Heather's plights keep him plenty busy.) They first met because of Jordan. Years later, after Heather's mother and her manager absconded with her fortune and left her directionless, Cooper offered her work as his bookkeeper and gave her a place to stay.

True love was not initially apparent and its course was certainly not smooth, but now Heather and Cooper are ready to marry. If only there weren't a dead body in Heather's dorm, and if only Heather's unrepentant mother weren't in town, expecting to be welcomed with open arms.

Meg Cabot has her pleasing formula down pat. She has created a funny and warm character in Heather Wells. Please don't call this "chick lit," it's Fun Lit.

Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris by R. L. LaFevers

Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 387 pages, $7.99 (such a deal!) (c2008)

This is the second book in the Theodosia series by R. L. LaFevers. I rarely tell people to read a series in order, but you really should read the first book, Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, before reading this one.

Theodosia is an 11-year-old girl in turn-of-the-last-century London. She is unusually independent for her age and the receptacle of arcane knowledge of ancient Egypt, both of which are the result of haphazard parental involvement, Mr. and Mrs. Throckmorton being preoccupied archaeologists and museum keepers, and access to a museum. Theodosia has more-or-less grown up in her parents' Museum of Legends and Antiquities, which has a large selection of artifacts, including mummies, of ancient Egypt.

Theodosia also has a talent for magic.

She can feel when something, magic-wise, isn't right. She can dispel and repel curses. With the help of her cat, Isis, she secretly keeps the museum, her parents, and the staff safe from harm.

While cleaning up a storeroom (full of mummies and cobwebby stuff), she chances upon a crooked staff. She straightens it and places an orb in it. Things -- strange things -- begin to happen. For instance, when the museum is opened the next morning, every mummy within walking distance is found in the main room of the Museum of Legends and Antiquities. Needless to say, the mummies' owners are peeved. Mr. Throckmorton is under suspicion of theft. The evil Serpents of Chaos are sniffing around. Young Theodosia is the best bet for restoring balance to the world.

Aided by the secret organization, The Brotherhood of the Chosen Keepers, and Will, a street urchin, Theodosia fights for good against evil, while keeping ferocious Grandmother Throckmorton and her legion of unsuitable governesses at bay.

Love, love, love, love, love this series.