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

Monday, September 29, 2014

Wool by Hugh Howey

Simon & Schuster, 528 pages, $15.99 (c2011)

“Wool” was a free ebook that grew so fast in popularity that now it is a print book. Yes, I do firmly believe that an author should be rewarded with cash, moolah, dinero, and greenbacks if he or she provides us with a meaningful book. Whether they provide us with information, entertainment, enlightenment, or the sheer joy of owning an unread book, authors are precious to us.

This is “Wool”: Hundreds, if not thousands, of people live in a giant underground structure they call “the silo.” Each person has a job. Each person has enough to eat. There are sensors that transmit images of the landscape above ground. The surface is bleak and, so the story goes, the atmosphere is noxious. Everything looks dead, including the corpses strewn on the landscape. They are uniformly dressed in containment outfits that look as though they would protect the people from the deadly environment. So why are they dead? They were sent out to clean the sensors as punishment for heresy, traitorous acts, insurrection, and none of them ever returned to the silo. No one knows why the castaways chose to clean the sensors — as each of them did — instead of just hightailing it over the hill, and no one knows why they died.

Juliette was born and raised in the upper levels — there are about 150 levels all together. However, her calling took her to the bottom levels, to maintenance, where she was a gifted mechanic. Although she is young, inexplicably to her, she has been drafted to be the next sheriff of the silo, replacing the last sheriff who voluntarily chose to go outside and clean. Why? No one truly knows.

Once she accepts the job, she finds herself with a brutal enemy, Bernard of IT. What is the sway that Bernard has over the silo? After visiting IT, the thoughtful and sincere mayor of the silo, Jahns, is murdered. She becomes Juliette’s first case and burden.

Hugh Howey knows how to create tension. He knows how to create great characters. His invented world is fascinating and when he finally gives us a little more information about how our great big world (for we assume it is Earth where the action takes place) got to this point, it only dimly illuminates. Thus the need for a set of prequel stories (“Shift”) and follow-up stories (“Dust”). Nevertheless, “Wool” is a complete and complex beginning.

The mystery isn’t in solving the murders, it’s in finding out what makes the silo tick and following Juliette as she fights for her survival. Good one, Hugh Howey!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Knopf, 400 pages, $25.95

This is NOT a mystery. (Except in the sense that its purpose is mysterious for 99.9% of the book.) There is a murder in it, but it is so NOT the focal point of the book.

Briefly, then, Tsukuru Tazaki is colorless because his four best friends in high school each have a color in their name. They become Red, Blue, Black, and White to each other. Tsukuru means builder, and he feels he is the odd-man out. Five best friends, a little off balance. Tsukuru is the only one to leave Nagoya for college in Tokyo. He feels he has left the womb and can’t wait to return during breaks.

During his sophomore year, when Tsukuru returns for a visit, his friends inexplicably refuse to see him or speak to him. Completely at sea, Tsukuru returns to Tokyo and a lonely existence. Over the years (the story picks up when Tsukuru is 36 years old), he has found nothing even close to replacing them.

Tsukuru designs, fixes, and admires train stations. He compulsively watches trains come and go, but he is not a traveler. His world is small and hurting.

A potentially serious girlfriend tells Tsukuru that it has been long enough; he must become visible (colorful) to the world and the world must become visible to him again by finding out why his friends shunned him 16 years ago. And that’s the book. 

The only other Haruki Murakami book I read, “Kafka on the Shore,” led me to believe that “Colorless” would be a different sort of book, one that perhaps featured an alternate reality, strange visions, or, at the very least, talking cats. It was a disadvantage to anticipate in that way, even though there were moments when Murakami might have slipped into another world, because his story was about self-definition. Do we need other people to define us? Can we be strong enough to exist clearly in our own minds?

Murakami takes us on a journey with Tsukuru into the psychology of friendship and ego. It is compelling. Even Murakami’s little asides — for example, about birds and helicopters — prove useful in understanding Tsukuru’s ego.

Not a book for everyone, but certainly rewarding if it hits you right.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Secret Place by Tana French

Viking Adult, 464 pages, $27.95

I don’t know who first dubbed Tana French’s series the “Dublin Murder Squad” books. It is the only bind the five books share, although some characters appear in more than one book, a main character in one, a shadow of a character in another. There is also a difference in tone, from realistic to borderline otherworldly.

“The Secret Place” is the first of French’s books to cross the line into the out-and-out supernatural, even if it is in a fairly small way. It is her way of expressing the shifting worlds of the teenage years, when everything is potentially possible, when alternate realities might exist, when flawed logic and desperate hope can be made flesh without regret.

It’s probably a game that fans of French play: Sifting through the characters in her current book, can we scope out who will be the next star? After reading “Faithful Place,” a powerful tale of Dublin homicide detective Frank Mackey’s lost love, I picked Stephen Moran, a young, sympathetic detective. But “Broken Harbor,” the next book, focused on another. Well, finally, here’s Stephen’s book, and he IS the star.

As “The Secret Place” starts, maybe six years after the events in “Faithful Place” in which Stephen and Frank Mackey met, Stephen is stuck in a dead-end posting to cold cases, when he longs to belong to the Murder Squad. Frank Mackey’s daughter, Holly, a boarding student in a posh girls’ school, brings Stephen a card, posted anonymously on a bulletin board at school, saying the poster knows who killed Christopher Harper, a student at the concomitant boys’ school, a year before.

Stephen takes the card to homicide detective Antoinette Conway, a prickly loner in the Murder Squad. Luckily, she asks him to go with her to St. Kilda’s school to interview the students. Conway was one of the main detectives a year earlier investigating the still-unsolved murder. To Conway’s frustration, she is not fitting into the squad and she needs this case solved. An outcast, she has ulterior motives in temporarily partnering with Stephen.

Stephen, it turns out, has a light touch with the young girls he must interview. He intuitively feels what the best approach to each girl should be. He understands the psychology of friendship and belonging, perhaps because he doesn’t seem to have either in his own life.

Holly is tight with her three roommates, Julia, Rebecca, and Selena. A “rival” gang consists of four other girls, Joanne, Alison, Gemma, and Orla. It becomes clear from the information Stephen and Conway patiently pry out of the girls that one or more of them knows something about Chris and maybe his murder, too. A year ago they had all clammed up. The card Holly found gives the police a new lever, and they aren’t taking “dunno” for an answer.

French tries to get into the minds and syntax of teenage girls. There are a lot of “amazeballs” slung about. (Too bad the echo of the Sprint ad with James Earl Jones and Malcolm MacDowell puts the teenspeak on the level of parody rather than authenticity.) What does ring true is French’s depiction of the strong feelings that teenage friendships engender. Swear on your friendship. Swear on your life. Friends are family too. Friendshp is what is at the heart of the story. It is what keeps the secrets buried. And, finally, it is what builds to the final eruption of revelations.

Especially in French’s first book, “In the Woods,” it wasn’t apparent if there was a supernatural element to the story. Likewise with “The Likeness.” French teeters on the edge between reality and fantasy, but always leaves ambiguity to keep the edge intact. In “The Secret Place,” French explicitly has some minor witchy/twitchy scenes. No ambiguity there. But there are also scenes when some of St. Kilda’s students spot Chris Harper’s ghost. Are they just hysterical or is there really a ghost? Ah, the old girls’ school meme.

Conway is a shrill, awkward character. How did she become a homicide detective? As her professional relationship with Stephen develops over the course of the day (yes, ONE day) in which this story takes place, her strengths are more obvious and her character redeemed. She could be French’s next main character, but I pick Holly Mackey for another adventure of her own. She is 16 or 17 by the time “The Secret Place” ends, and I can see her future, even if she can’t.

Alternating between first-person narration by Stephen of the current investigation and third-person storytelling of what happened around the time of Chris’ death with the eight main girls, French expertly tightens the story, building her reveals to a crescendo and bringing her story to a ringing conclusion. It’s not my favorite of her books so far, primarily because there was a lot of language like this:

“The air is bruised and swollen, throbbing in black and white, ready to split open.”

And not enough:

“I felt the size of the stillness and green all round us. The breadth of it; the height, trees taller than the school. Older.”

Granted, these sentences stem from the same place, but a lot of narration glows from things thrown into the atmosphere, growing, glittering, and shining, and the air is heavy with all the mysterious strands of whatever. Stephen and the girls sense (and see) what to me (putative normal person) would be invisible.

French is a master story builder. No one excels at making her readers thrill at reaching the denouement better than she.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

7 Grams of Lead by Keith Thomson

Anchor, 464 pages, $7.99

Keith Thomson’s “Once a Spy” was one of Murder by the Book’s favorites for the year it was released. The book had engaging characters (a former spy who had Alzheimer’s and his wastrel, genius son), interesting bits of spycraft (when the former spy could remember them), and the best kind of on-the-run storytelling. “7 Grams of Lead” has the spycraft on steroids, two fairly tempting characters, and a James Bond-brand of villain. “7 Grams of Lead” is the supersized version of “Once a Spy.”

The charm of “Once a Spy” was abundantly evident in Charlie and Drummond Clark, father and son, initially both appearing within the normal range of human behavior. Of course, each had hidden talents, but they popped up unexpectedly and sometimes hilariously. In “7 Grams of Lead,” Russ Thornton is an online muck-raking journalist. He has learned the darndest things while cruising the web for stories. Beryl Mallery is a political candidate and computer genius. While these characters don’t scream “take-me-to-your-bosom” immediately, they prove, like Charlie and Drummond, to have strange talents and a fund of weird (but ultimately useful) information. So, bottom line: Charlie and Drummond win, Russ and Beryl definitely second.

In his acknowledgements, Keith Thomson refers to the original manuscript of “7 Grams.” He thanks his editor for cutting down the material. The remaining material is plenty large at 464 pages. It’s packed with the tangled skeins of all the various sub rosa and “super rosa” spy and security agencies. There are all the tricks of the game: infiltrating, breaking in, covering the bases, formulating Plans A, B, C, and defending oneself with everyday objects. I found it all fascinating, but there was a lot of it and it sometimes waylaid the plot.

The plot. One of Russ’s ex-girlfriends, a high-level political assistant in D.C., is bringing him devastating information, but, of course, she is murdered. What was the information? Who is behind her killing? There’s also a super e-bomb (strong electromagnetic pulses that disable everything electronic) being hawked, a shadowy mastermind who has a lot of political pull, implanted devices that put Big Brother to shame, and illegal holding facilities, torture, and general mayhem.

There is something genuine and sweet about the Charlie and Drummond books that’s missing here. But Keith Thomson is a great idea-man, and this book will make one heck of a movie!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

Random House, 256 pages, $26

This is not a mystery!

But it is a wonderful book.

Amy Bloom has written a shining novel about family, a family not necessarily connected by blood. Eva’s mother suddenly abandons Eva at her father’s house. Her father’s rich wife has just died, leaving him and another daughter without money. It’s a house of cards that’s falling, leaving Eva and her brand-new family looking for a place to live. Every turn brings a twist, sometimes with humor, sometimes with heartbreak, turning the title “Lucky Us” into an ironic statement.

Bloom takes her family through several years around World War II. She veers away from sentimental but manages to create warmth, slides around despair but depicts some tough times, and never puts Eva's morality on a pedestal beside the failings of others.

Should you desire a break from crime fiction …

Friday, September 5, 2014

Ack! The A&E channel has cancelled "Longmire"

I really mean aaaaack! Really.

Why the cancellation?

So the characters strayed from Craig Johnson's creations. So Henry is shorter and wimpier ... I mean, slighter ... than portrayed in the Longmire books. So Cady never takes off for Philly. So Brand doesn't really exist in print. Etc. That doesn't mean I can't like the television series. In fact, I didn't "like" it; I loved it. It's rare to be able to like the original creation and the spun-off cinematic version.

If you feel the same way and have a Facebook page, post something with "#LongLiveLongmire." You don't even have to say anything, just the hashtag will do.

Some fans are calling their cable companies to ask them to cancel the A&E channel. (That might be a little radical.)

Are you best buds with any AMC execs? Tell him or her that picking up "Longmire" would be a great Labor Day/Thanksgiving/Christmas/Hannukah present for you.

Long Live Longmire!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

Vintage, 336 pages, $15.95

As far as mystery books go, this is pretty good. As far as books spawned by TV shows go, this is very good. About ten years ago, “Veronica Mars” was an above-average television show that lasted three seasons. Veronica was a teenage sleuth, but she was nobody’s Nancy Drew. This was definitely a contemporary series with a deeper layer.

In the first season of the show, Veronica’s mother had just abandoned her family and moved to goodness-knows-where. Veronica’s best friend (and also sister of her boyfriend) had been murdered. Her father was the sheriff of Neptune, California, a fictional upscale seaside community. Because he dared to accuse the father of the murdered girl — one of the richest and most powerful men in the community — of having something to do with the murder, Keith Mars was unceremoniously run out of office. He subsequently opened up a private investigation firm, with Veronica as his assistant. Her first big case was figuring out who killed her best friend.

Ten years later and with the help of crowd-sourced funding, “Veronica Mars” went big time as a movie, released last year. The present-day Veronica is a Stanford graduate and high-powered attorney in New York City. She had left Neptune behind. Except, of course, she is the only one who can save a former boyfriend from an accusation of murder back in Neptune.

“Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line” picks up after the movie. Veronica has re-settled in Neptune, given up her high-paying job, and given in to her passion for investigating, finagling, and making the bad guys pay. Because her father is recovering from injuries (sustained in the story told in the movie), it is up to Veronica, best friend Wallace, and second best friend Mac to make sure the bills are paid.

When spring break hits Neptune, the college kids are going wild. A young girl is reported missing days after she disappeared. (Her belatedly sober friends have suddenly noticed that they haven’t seen her recently.) With a do-nothing sheriff in office (her father’s lame successor's lame brother), there’s very little police investigation. Neptune’s Chamber of Commerce knows that missing teenage girls are not good for business, so they hire Veronica to find her.

Pretty soon there’s another girl missing. This one has a personal connection to Veronica, so she uses all her wiles, connections, Mac’s hacking skills, and Wallace’s good nature to track the coeds down.

When the television show “Castle” was novelized, although I enjoyed the books, they were “Castle” scripts with poorly added narration to bridge the dialogue. I expected something similar for “Veronica Mars.” Jennifer Graham (a Portland, Oregon, Reed College graduate!) has taken the mythology created by show producer Rob Thomas and given it depth and life in this novel. What a pleasant surprise!

Even without having seen the television show or movie, readers can immediately become involved in the story because Graham deftly presents all the ins-and-outs of the various characters. She even manages to avoid awkward pauses in the current story while she relates what happened in the past.

Veronica Mars is a legitimate grown-up and kick-ass p.i.