It’s still summer…

The heading above was the subject line of the email in which Bob Moyer sent me this, his latest book review. He’s making the point that yes, this book is a beach book, in a way, but we’re not behind on our review because by the calendar, it’s still summer for a few days. And more important, this is a good book to read whatever the season. Sounds about right to me.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE LAST BOOK PARTY. By Karen Dukess. Henry Holt. 240 pages. $27.

The Last Book Party is a festive occasion for those who love books, as well as the reading, writing and publishing of them. Readers will at least take away a list of books they haven’t heard of, or, at least, not thought of for some time.

That list, however, is just icing on this multilayered cake of a novel. This is a bildungsroman, a coming of age, coming into talent novel like Goodbye, Columbus, and Bright Lights, Big City,both of which the author references. 

Set in 1985, the book sits in that poignant sweet spot between the decline of the major publishing houses, and the rise of the internet. Twenty-five-year-old Eve Rosen, trapped in a dead end publishing job, jumps at the chance to work as a summer assistant to a famous magazine writer. A wannabe writer, she immediately gets star struck by the stream of writers that flows from Boston and New York into Cape Cod for the summer. She is astounded by how those writers “… lived outside the conventions that guided my parents and their friends … creative people, real writers and artists, made their own rules.” And Eve desperately wants to know those rules, the secrets to their society. She looks for inspirational conversation, dialogue, even the whisper of the Muse. The reader tags along while she tries to parse out the secrets of their trade. She despairs of her situation:  “I hadn’t grown up charmed or tortured; there wasn’t anything unusual about me at all. How could an ordinary life like mine result in a story worth telling?”

First-time author Karen Dukess shows us just how it’s done. As Eve moves through the summer, the scales fall from her eyes. She is schooled by the latest wunderkind, whose work she knows to be a “… complicated brew of ambition, talent, fear, shame, dishonesty and hard work.”  She finds marital discord, politics, jealousy, even anti-Semitism, but, most important, she finds herself. At the end of the summer, her boss throws his annual book party, when guests dress as a fictional character they wish to be. By the time of The Last Book Party, Eve may not be able to tell who everyone else is, but she has a much better idea who she is. 

If there is a niche for book/beach books, The Last Book Party is at the top of the list.

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Young men, and love and war

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

CHANCES ARE… By Richard Russo. 11 ½ hours. 9 CDs. Read by Fred Sanders. $40. Also available in print from Knopf. 301 pages, $26.95.

Some books are considered “women’s fiction,” a label that does not in itself indicate inferior quality. Many, in fact, are very good. Lee Smith’s “The Last Girls” immediately springs to mind. The term is loosely applied to fiction that focuses on women characters, their lives and emotions.

Richard Russo’s “Chances Are…” is, by those same standards, men’s fiction. That doesn’t mean it’s about sports or hunting or macho pursuits, but rather that this is a novel about men, their lives and emotions.

If something is labeled “women’s fiction,” few men will choose to read it. That’s too bad, both because men are missing out on some fine novels, and because most people can learn a lot by reading books about those who are different from us. 

Women tend to be more willing to read “men’s fiction,” probably in part because for centuries, if they did not, they would have had little to read. 

I hope both women and men will read and enjoy “Chances Are …” It’s well written, with a slowly unraveling mystery to propel Russo’s familiar sense of humor and insights into the human condition.

This is a book that will be especially meaningful for people who came of age in the tumultuous era of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Told in alternating points of view, it’s the story of three men who became close friends during their student days at a tony liberal-arts college in Connecticut. Bonded at first by their status as outsiders, they had in common their work as “hashers,” serving food at a sorority house.

Lincoln Moser grew up in Arizona as the only child of a tyrannical, narrow-minded little man who pushed religion, obedience and his notions of manhood. He came to Minerva only because his usually meek mother, a Minerva alum, insisted. 

Teddy Novak grew up in the Midwest with teacher parents who seemed far more interested in each other and their intellectual pursuits than in the child they had produced. They taught him virtually none of the skills he needed to succeed in public school and society in general, and also imparted to him a fear of physical injuries. Tall at an early age, he tried to make it playing high school basketball as he envisioned it – not a contact sport at all. The results were disastrous and permanent.

Mickey Girardi was the youngest and only boy among eight children of a working-class Catholic family in Connecticut. He ended up at Minerva by making almost a perfect score on the SAT, after years of indifferent schoolwork.  All he really wanted was to play in a band.

One of the ties that bind these three young men is Jacy, a sorority girl. They are all madly, not really secretly, in love with her, even though they know her future lies in a different world. Jacy treats them as her best friends, or brothers, or maybe her groupies. 

A pivotal night in all their lives comes in December 1969, midway through their junior year in college, when the numbers are drawn for the Vietnam War’s first draft lottery. 

All these memories return when the three men, now in their late 60s, reunite for a weekend at the house on Martha’s Vineyard that Lincoln had inherited from his mother.

They’ve stayed close in some ways, but their lives have taken widely divergent paths, in career and family life as well as geographically. As they gather on the island, their thoughts are filled with the last time they were here together, on Memorial Day weekend just after their college graduation. Jacy was with them then, even though she was engaged to marry someone else.

And the last morning of that long ago weekend, Jacy vanished. Forever.

But she’s never really left any of them.

Being back on the island together brings her to the forefront of their minds, setting into motion events that, before this weekend is over, will finally bring some answers.

Along with thoughts of Jacy, all three are haunted now by how their lives have played out and by the choices they made because of the war and the draft. They are also increasingly aware of how they reacted to the ideas of what it means to be a man that were imparted to them – or not imparted – by their fathers.

Whether you read the book or listen to the fine audio version read by Fred Sanders, the stories will haunt you, too – the stories of these four once-young people, full of hope and possibilities, and the broader story of a generation that came of age under the dark cloud of a terrible war.

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‘A friend to anarchy’

BIG SKY. By Kate Atkinson. Little Brown. 386 pages. $28.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

Most mystery novelists move their minor characters around the chessboard of their story like pawns, always highlighting the kings and queens of their plots.

Not Kate Atkinson. She delves deep into the lives of what seem minor characters far from the heinous crime at the heart of this story. A trophy wife, her nerdy stepson, a man who loses both his job and his wife, along with just one character connected to the crime itself — she carries us so deep into their lives, with such deceptive ease, that we lose our concern about where it’s all going. She leaves one person to bring all the elements of the story together: Jackson Brody.

He’s the ex-cop private eye who is haunted by a family tragedy. Last seen in Case Histories, Atkinson’s previous mystery and now a successful series streaming on TV, he resurfaces in real time with a teenage son. He’s not much in the “…real business of detecting” now; he’s dealing with “…Entrapping unfaithful boyfriends and husbands … just high-functioning morons.”  He is, however, what one character calls “…a friend to anarchy.” 

 “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen” is his operative mantra, and it serves both him and Atkinson well here. If he didn’t see that girl get into the car … If the trophy wife didn’t hire him … If he didn’t tackle that man about to throw himself off a cliff … The author gives him a grasp on the reins of each of the elements in the story, and lets his “grey cells” lead us to a gut-wrenching conclusion. It’s there where his sense of justice obtains:  “He wasn’t a vigilante, he really wasn’t, although his idea of right and wrong didn’t always conform to the accepted legal standard.” And it doesn’t here, most certainly, and most entertainingly. There are so many things to admire about Atkinson’s writing, but the best is the fact that the reader doesn’t notice any of them. 

Big Sky is a good book.

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Predators, human style

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

WOLF PACK: A Joe Pickett Novel. By C.J. Box. Putnam. 370 pages. $27.

After a bruising political battle in book 18 of this series, Joe Pickett gets a new truck and his job back as a Wyoming game warden. Now perhaps he can return to handing out tickets for illegal trapping and fishing, taking a break from solving murders in the beautiful setting of this series.

Fat chance. Trouble hovers over Pickett. Like the drone that is terrorizing animal herds, chasing them to their deaths. Pickett handles the drone with the help of a talented accomplice, but he doesn’t handle the owner of the drone quite as well. When confronted, the guy, a transplant from New Jersey, his father and his bodyguards openly mock Pickett. 

While Pickett tries to parse out why they are so dismissive, trouble shows up in a black SUV. Two FBI thugs try to intimidate Pickett into giving up his campaign against the guy. Unbeknownst to them all, even bigger trouble shows up in less conspicuous transportation — aWolf Pack.

Not the natural predator that locals claim kills their cattle. No, this pack is a crew of killers hired by the Sinaloa drug cartel to eliminate enemies. Unfortunately, they kill even when pointed at the wrong target. Before Pickett can figure out what’s going on (the reader has the information earlier, of course), bodies start piling up at an alarming rate — alarming to both Pickett and the reader.

Don’t get attached to any of the characters in the book; they might not survive to the grisly finale. This 19th book in the series is probably more graphic than any previous ones. Pickett survives, of course, but if you are bothered by bloody body count, you might want to think twice about following the Wolf Pack.

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The legacy continues

I could be angry. I loved Tony Hillerman’s mysteries, reviewed many of them for newspapers, and even had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Hillerman once. When his daughter, Anne, took up the torch and tried continuing her late fathers series, I reviewed her first couple of efforts on this blog. So how did Bob Moyer beat me to this one, and how have a missed a couple in between?

Instead of being angry, I’ll thank Bob, post his review and start looking for the books I’ve missed in this fine series. Leaphorn would be proud of me.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE TALE TELLER. By Anne Hillerman. Harper. 322 pages. $26.99.

In this legacy series, Anne Hillerman has picked up the pen dropped upon her father Tony’s demise. Fans of the fierce Navajo duo Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee watched with apprehension as the daughter took on the challenge of keeping the well-loved series alive. Now in her fifth effort, Hillerman shows she has done her homework and also has developed skill at maintaining the body of work her father created.

Reading The Tale Teller is like attending a family reunion. You recognize everyone, they’ve changed either a lot or a little, and it’s enjoyable catching up with them. The “legendary lieutenant” Leaphorn, retired, had a stroke, and the words that come into his head don’t come out well in English (his Navajo is still fluent).  Chee, still a traditionalist, has mellowed a bit, and is happier. He’s a life partner with the biggest change the daughter has made — Bennie Manuelito. Introduced by Tony long ago, she was always a minor character, never allowed to make an arrest. Now, she is a full-fledged partner in the narrative, especially in this latest installment.

The book starts off with three story lines. Leaphorn takes on a private case, looking for a missing valuable artifact sent to the Navajo nation. Bennie literally runs into a dead body while out jogging, and Chee investigates a robbery. Before long, Joe has a possible murder on his hands, Chee’s robbery escalates into a shooting, and Bennie has to wrestle with the FBI over the identity of the corpse. As the book progresses, two of the cases merge, while the third threatens to spiral into disaster. Hillerman moves smoothly among plot lines, and she keeps us interested.

She also writes with eloquence comparable to her father’s about the Southwest and the Navajo cultural landscape that the three protagonists patrol during their investigation. She carries on the sense of wonder her father invested in the series. Not quite as good as her father at dialogue, she nevertheless has become skilled at drawing upon the treasure her father left behind.

We can look forward to another reunion with anticipation, not apprehension.

 

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The food! The romance! The murder….

Hungry for good books? How about good food? This review should have you drooling.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE BODY IN THE CASTLE WELL:  A Bruno, Chief of Police Novel. By Martin Walker. Knopf. 337 pages. $25.95.

Did you know Josephine Baker owned a house in the Perigord? The expatriate American chanteuse’s home is now a museum. Bruno, that self-described “country policeman,” now chief of police of the entire region, also books summer concerts for the area, and he books his colleague into the museum to impersonate La Baker. Amelie is going to —

What? The mystery? Oh, yes, the mystery – when will Bruno hold a dinner party at his farmhouse, and what will he cook? He decides on page 198 to hold a dinner party for Amelie. He then broods about and buys for the event while going about his daily business, until the guests arrive 62 pages later. No spoilers here; it will make you drool, mais certainement!

 Who will end up in Bruno’s bed is also a mystery. No spoilers here, either, just a mention of the sensual orgy — two paragraphs describing the preparation of the post-coital breakfast. Bruno whips up —

Oh, the MURDER. Well, that’s in the title. The Body In The Castle Well belongs to a rich American student. Her father is somebody who gives a lot of money to somebody in the White House. Subsequently, a lot of important people show up in St. Denis to eat, drink and get in Bruno’s way while he solves the murder. In order to do that, he has to travel into the past, all the way to Vichy France, to unearth the reason the girl has to die in the present. Once he puts together “motive, means, and opportunity,” he sets a trap for the villains. A twist at the end is just the icing on the cake — or should we say, the crème on the brulee. Once again, great reading, great food.

 

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Survivalist in a high-tech world

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE NEVER GAME. By Jeffery Deaver. Penguin Audio. 11 ½ hours; 9 CDs. Read by Kaled Griffith. $40. Also available in print from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Jeffery Deaver gives us not only a gripping thriller but also a timely story in The Never Game, the first novel in his new Colter Shaw series.

Colter Shaw, raised in a survivalist family in the California wilderness, is a “reward seeker” by profession, using his considerable tracking, reasoning and survival skills to find people who have gone missing for one reason or another. He’s not a cop, and he’s also not a bounty hunter. He takes on cases that interest him, or that he considers worthy, and he doesn’t seem to worry a lot about the size of the reward.

We come to understand that he has other resources. He also has a complicated past, including some family mysteries he’s trying to solve.

Colter takes the case of a missing college student whose father has scraped together money for a reward.

That case leads him to another, and things grow more interesting and more dangerous from there.

Colter finds himself learning a lot about the darker sides of Silicon Valley and the high-tech world, especially the world of video games. The kidnapper he’s tracking seems to be playing out in real life a game that involves people being abandoned in a threatening situation with five random objects that might – or might not – help them escape before they are killed.

Soon Colter is helping the police, even though they are wary of him and question his motivations.

The tension mounts as he races to figure out what’s going on and save the kidnaping victims. Almost too late, he realizes he’s not the only one doing the hunting, and he’s someone else’s prey.

This is a well told tale, with plenty of twists, turns and surprises, but none that stretch credulity as things become clear. Deaver handles some complicated technological details in an understandable way.

The story is compelling, and if you listen to the audio book read expertly by Kaled Griffith, you’ll find yourself taking the long way to get to your destination – gripping the steering wheel tightly as you drive.

Deaver offers tantalizing hints about the real story of Colter Shaw, but there’s much to be discovered in what promises to be a popular series.

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A fitting farewell

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

I love it when Bob Moyer is in reading/reviewing mode. So many books to add to my list….

METROPOLIS. By Philip Kerr. Putnam. 381 pages. $28.

In 13 books, Philip Kerr established detective Bernie Gunther as a German noir  detective equivalent to Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe. He also established himself as not just a great mystery novelist but also one of the best novelists of his generation. Knowing that he was dying, he made a masterly stroke in a masterful career with his fourteenth book — he ended his career by taking us to the beginning of Bernie’s career as a cop in Berlin.

It’s 1928 Berlin, and the city teems with prostitutes, World War I veterans begging on the streets and dangerous crime organizations. It also swells with authoritarianism, anti-Semitism, nationalism and incipient Nazi violence, all elements that will surge through the 13 books that travel through the Nazi era and subside into the Cold War. Bernie begins his ride on that surge here, looking for someone who kills prostitutes, then scalps them. While he is working on that case, the killings stop, and someone starts shooting veterans begging on the street, with a bullet to the head. Bernie shows flashes of his skill, a skill that will haunt him in his future when he has to use it for the Nazis. He intuits that it’s the same person. Plunging into the netherworld of the streets, he goes looking for evidence. When one of his colleagues asks him what he’s looking for, Bernie answers he doesn’t know, “…but I’ll know it when I see it.”  It’s this ability that will make him indispensable to the Nazi hierarchy over the years. He will be of service to them while he tries to save his soul.

All the while, Bernie shows signs of struggle with booze and women — he can’t avoid either. Fortunately, he discovers here the equilibrium that keeps him level most of the time in years to come. In the midst of the demi world of disadvantaged, he stops feeling sorry for himself. His life is not that bad, and “You can’t put a price on good fortune.”

True to form, however, Bernie can’t keep a good woman. Brigitte is the first, but not the last, to tell him that she can’t stay with him. “…you can fake a smile, but you can’t fake what’s in those blue eyes.” She doesn’t like what she sees there, and she knows it will only get worse. We know it does.

When he finds the killer, someone gets to him before Bernie does. “Justice” is done, but for the first time, Bernie realizes that the rule of law means more. He makes the decision to stay on this side, and not join the evil to stop another evil. That dilemma occurs for him time and again, but this is the only time we hear him articulate the coda that carries him through the years:  “I have standards, and I try to live up to them.” It’s that struggle that informs Kerr’s well-wrought mysteries.

His mysteries are also well informed by the factual landscape into which he weaves his fictional crimes. Every Kerr book is a history lesson, as he crams in locale, local police, actual criminal cases and historical characters. We bump into the artist George Grosz, we listen to Lotte Lenya rehearse “The Threepenny Opera,” we visit the Sing Sing night club where the entertainment is an electric chair, we tour the morgue, which is open to the public for viewing. Kerr then identifies these people and places in a lengthy note at the end.

Metropolis stands as a capstone novel to the careers of Bernie Gunther and Philip Kerr. R.I.P., fellas.

 

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On the rough streets of D.C.

Bob Moyer is on a roll when it comes to book reviews. Here he takes a look at the latest installment in a crime series that’s worth a try.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

TRIGGER. By David Swinson. Mulholland Books. 352 pages. $27.

Frank Marr is a good detective with some bad habits – Laphroag 18, Jameson, rum, cocaine, marijuana and raiding drug houses. It’s a long list of things that can be a Trigger. He lost his job as a D.C. cop, and his girlfriend, because of drugs. He’s sworn off the hard stuff, depending on a diet of pills and alcohol to keep him from letting “…the weak back in.”  He’s surprised, then, when the former girlfriend calls him. She needs help, and he’s the best. She hires him to help clear a client of hers, a cop buddy of his named Tony Luna. Tony shot an unarmed guy, but he insists the kid had a gun. She wants Frank to find out if there was a gun. He takes the case, and sets off to prove his buddy wasn’t lying.

That’s the framework of the novel, but the real story here is the relationship between Frank and a guy named Calvin. It’s a “bromance” without much “mance” in it. Frank bumps into Calvin about a year after he left him for dead on a riverbank; Calvin, aka Playboy, was the driver in a shooting. In a series of unusual encounters, Frank ends up hiring Calvin as his assistant. He needs a front man to make contacts and get inside the “hood” where the shooting took place. As they head toward an unhappy resolution of Tony’s case, we watch their mutual distrust slowly evolve into a solid working relationship.

It’s all done with a sense of place second only to the work of George Pelecanos, with dialogue to match. Frankie Marr is the most likable anti-hero in current crime literature, and it’s a pleasure to know that he’ll have a new sidekick to banter with, in the next installment of this promising series.

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Putting those skills to work

It’s so nice to have Bob Moyer busy reviewing books again. Now, if we can just keep him from gallivanting around the world for a while….

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE BURGLAR. By Thomas Perry. Mysterious Press. 288 pages. $26.

Thomas Perry sure knows how to keep his readers turning the pages. He’s used the same formula to great success in his last three stand-alone mysteries — create an engaging character with an unusual skill set, put the person in peril, and make him or her use that skill set to get out of it. The Old Man, an ex-CIA agent, used his skills to infiltrate the country and the very house of his nemesis to stop the attempts on his life. The chief of the bomb squad not only had to defuse the bombs; he had to get inside The Bombmaker’s head. Now comes The Burglar, who can walk a beam, scale a wall, slip through a doggie door, climb through a transom and hide in a kitchen cupboard. Five-foot-two in jogging shoes, with a ponytail, The Burglar is a she.

The only thing she can’t do is shake the shadowy characters trailing her in big black SUV’s. They come at her relentlessly after she discovers three dead bodies in a house she was burgling. The killers picked up her trail when she returned a video she found at the murder scene. Whichever way she turns — and she has many ways to turn — they are on her. It is not until she stops, makes a stand and taps her skill sets, that her fortunes change.

Using her surveillance skills, and her ability to slip in about anywhere, she accumulates enough information to piece together the crime that induced the killings. While she uses her intelligence to put together a case against them, she also has to dodge them. Perry keeps the readers on the edge of their seats by keeping The Burglar in constant peril.

And that is Thomas Perry’s skill set.

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