The American dream – or nightmare?

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

LAKE SUCCESS. By Gary Shteyngart. Random House Audio. 13 ½ hours; 11 CDs. Read by Arthur Morey and Soneela Nankani. $40. Also available in print from Random House.

Barry Cohen is a hedge-fund manager who oversees $2.4 billion in assets and lives the pampered, extravagant life of the .01 percent in a posh Manhattan apartment with his wife, Seema, and their young son.

He’s also a narcissistic, clueless social cripple who has to devise and rehearse “friend moves” to be able to interact with other people. Lately, things in what appears to be his charmed existence haven’t been going so well. He can’t deal with his son’s diagnosis of being on the severe end of the autism spectrum. “Troubled” is too mild a word for his relationship with his wife, Seema. His fund is bleeding money, and the SEC investigation he’s facing could land him in prison.

So, after a particularly confrontational scene with his son, wife and their nanny, Barry flees, on a Greyhound bus. He plans to see America and re-connect with his college sweetheart, despite the fact that he has not been in touch with her for years and really knows very little about her. But then, he knows little about anyone, including himself.

Seema is a first-generation American who, by all appearances, has it made: She has a law degree, even though she doesn’t use it because she’s a hedge-fund wife with millions of dollars at her fingertips. She’s also stressed about their son’s diagnosis and his prospects, but she deals with her worries in a very different way than Barry does. And she’s bored, lonely and wondering about what her life has become. When Barry vanishes, she doesn’t much care.

Gary Shteyngart, who immigrated with his Russian Jewish family to the United States as a child, is known for his satirical novels. Lake Success is largely satirical, and it’s funny, even comic, in places. But it’s also poignant and almost heartbreaking at times.

In writing about Barry’s Greyhound trek across the United States, Shteyngart has rich material for satirizing not only the life of a woefully out-of-touch billionaire mogul of finance but also the very idea of the road trip, which has become so iconic in American literature.

Barry’s “friend moves” tend not to work so well with the people he encounters on the bus, but he revels in the whole idea nonetheless. More often than not, the people he envisions himself helping do more to help him. And the ideas he dreams up for helping, say, poor inner-city kids, or the young black woman from Jackson, Miss., with whom he has a one-night stand, are absurd. Yet the  largely disastrous trip becomes his most cherished memory and oft-told tale.

Seema, meanwhile, is dealing with her own problems in a not particularly successful way. She’s done what she was supposed to do in life, but it hasn’t worked out as promised.

The backdrop to all this is the 2016 election, the perfect mirror for Barry’s excesses and moral confusion.

Barry, whose first step on the success ladder was to go to Princeton, loves the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald; he calls his hedge fund This Side of Capital. Part of Shteyngart’s genius is to make Barry self-consciously aware of parallels with literature as he sees himself having achieved the American Dream and embarking on a cross-country adventure to find his better self.

One of the ironies of the story is that in many ways, Barry’s autistic son becomes more empathetic and better able to deal with social interaction than Barry is.

This is a tale for our times, a sometimes funny, often sad, always insightful look at what America really is.

The audio version, read by Arthur Morey when told from Barry’s point of view and Soneela Nankani for Seema’s, works well. The narrators give us the story straight and let the satire do its job.

 

 

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Dancing to a different beat

I love most of Anne Tyler’s novels, but Bob Moyer thinks her books appeal to the bourgeoisie. He even singles me, his editor, out as part of that bourgeois fan club.

My response would be, so what? I like Anne Tyler’s writing because yes, she writes about ordinary people, and in the end, there may not be a huge surprise, but there are so many small surprises along the way. She shows us that ordinary people are not really so ordinary, or perhaps a better way to say it is that each ordinary person is full of his other own flaws, quirks and eccentricities. Tyler is particularly good at conveying those eccentricities, with humor and sometimes pathos.

Bob is right that most of the men in Tyler’s latest novel are not particularly sympathetic, but that’s certainly not the case in all her books.

At any rate, below is Bob’s review of Clock Dance.

And, for contrast, here’s a link to my review that ran in the Greensboro News & Record. https://tinyurl.com/y7to65xk

Read the book and see what you think.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

CLOCK DANCE. By Anne Tyler. Knopf. 292 pages. $26.95.

It’s not hard to understand why Anne Tyler’s books are so popular. Her writing reads effortlessly, which suggests she puts a lot of effort into making it that way. She also writes with great empathy and detail about ordinary people doing ordinary things, and that’s extraordinary

Clock Dance stands up as an excellent example of her work. Willa Drake leads a life common for women in the mid 20th century, quitting college to get married and have a family, giving up the possibility of being the linguist she showed talent for. She does finish the degree, but ends up teaching public school. She loses one husband but picks up another one much like the other one. Like a gifted child, she knows what everyone – except herself – wants, and she gives it to them.

Until the phone rings one day. It’s a desperate neighbor of her son’s ex-girlfriend, calling because the girlfriend has been shot, and the woman can’t care for the daughter, she found this number on the wall, could Willa come help?  On a whim, she does.

That puts Willa on a plane to Baltimore, familiar Tyler territory, and on a path to what the book jacket describes as “self-discovery.”  Tyler drops her into a familiar cast of characters, both vivid, endearing, and so recognizable—the gangly kid down the street in the stocking cap, the retired doctor who still sees patients at home but keeps losing his cat, the precocious daughter who mothers her mother more than her mother mothers her. There’s nothing not to appreciate, if not like, about the neighborhood. The only characters not sympathetic here are the males, who fit the definition of straw men if ever there were any in a novel. Not perversely patriarchal, they nevertheless represent the forces that have dominated Willa’s life. Therefore, it is no surprise when Willa’s “self-discovery” leads to a change in her life, as she decides to dance through the hours, not move quietly through them.

That lack of suspense brings up an argument sometimes put forth about Tyler’s work — it’s good, not great. The focus on the ordinary leaves her open to the pedestrian argument, and, indeed, she gives her bourgeois audience what they want. As Jean-Paul Sartre said about the French bourgeois theater, the bourgeoisie pays to see themselves on the stage. As described before, she does that well, and the bourgeoisie (including my editor) loves Tyler. Unfortunately, Sartre’s other lament about the bourgeois theater applies here—it’s like watching an arrow hit a target you know it was headed for all the while.

Although Willa changes, it’s not a surprise, or transformation. If that is not a requirement in your reading, Clock Dance should satisfy you. No one writes an Anne Tyler novel better than Anne Tyler. Only time will tell if her work endures.

 

 

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Saving the world, once again

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

SHADOW TYRANTS. By Clive Cussler and Boyd Morrison. Penguin Audio. Read by Scott Brick. 11 hours; 9 CDs. $45. Also available in print from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

This latest in the Oregon Files books by Clive Cussler and Boyd Morrison offers, in addition to the usual action and drama, food for thought: Are computers – and especially artificial intelligence – good or bad for humankind?

As fans of this Cussler series (one of many) know, Juan Cabrillo and the rest of his secret “Corporation” roam the seas on the Oregon, a high-tech research ship disguised as a decrepit tramp freighter, ready to help the U.S. government  when the government can’t officially get involved in some tricky situation.

Things get interesting and dangerous quickly when the Corporation gets in the middle of a struggle between two factions of the Nine Unknown Men, a powerful, secretive group dating back nearly 2,000 years to an emperor in India who came to see the error of his ruthless ways.

To keep any one person from becoming too powerful, the emperor divided essential knowledge among nine men.

Through the generations, these men and their chosen descendants have passed on those secrets, and they have gathered from time to time for meetings. The descendants of the nine have become wealthy and powerful, each using his special knowledge to build an empire in some related field.

Just as the majority of them are joining forces in a way that goes against all the intentions of the ancient emperor, at least one of them is bent on making sure their plans don’t come to fruition.

Unfortunately, both factions turn  out to have ideas that the Corporation believes could be devastating for the fate of the world. Would it be worse to have a supercomputer powerful enough to take over the world, or worse to have satellites that can wipe out technology as we know it?

With teams heading out in various directions, the Corporation’s members find themselves in a variety of perilous situations as they try to save the world.

Scott Brick does his usual outstanding job of reading the fast-paced book, keeping the suspense strong in a matter-of-fact sort of way.

And as usual, Clive Cussler and company deliver a well-crafted, imaginative, entertaining story.

 

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Not easy reading – but important

Tom Dillon, a veteran journalist, reviews two books that offer serious food for thought – one an investigative examination of Donald Trump’s business dealings with Russia, and the other a primer on dealing with tyranny.

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

TRUMP/RUSSIA: A DEFINITIVE HISTORY.By Seth Hettena. Melville House. 254 pages, $27.99.

ON TYRANNY: TWENTY LESSONS FROM THE TWENTIETH CENTURY.By Timothy Snyder. Tim Duggan Books. 127 pages, $8.99 paperback

There are no two ways about it. These books are going to make some people really angry. Others are going to be skeptical, and still others will dismiss them entirely – whether they take the time to read them or not.

Trump/Russia, in the classic mode of good investigative journalism, is an exhaustive survey of Donald Trump’s business career and the overseas alliances that he developed during it. It’s not easy reading. There are so many characters and offshoots and subplots that one might think he is, with Alice, down some sort of rabbit-hole.

There’s much about Donald Trump’s casino failures in the 1990s and how “dark sources” – Russian money – brought about decades of deal-making with people all over the world, some above-board and many others not.

Indeed, along with Vladimir Putin, the Russian “mafiya” – they spell it with a “y” – is a big part of this book. Seth Hettena quotes one unnamed researcher here as saying, “Whenever you’re offered a lot of money, better save some for legal fees.” It’s advice well taken. There’s much more about underworld figures who took up residence in New York’s Trump Tower.

Along the way, the stories range from Paul Manafort’s grooming of a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician to remove his rough edges to the throwing of the ice-skating competition at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. That was the result of collusion between Russian and French judges.

Then there’s the attempt of an Azerbaijani real estate mogul to promote the career of a little-talented singer through the 2013 Miss Universe pageant – in a chapter titled “Mister Universe.” Trump tweeted, “Do you think Putin will be going to the Miss Universe Pageant in November in Moscow? If so, will he become my new best friend?” Putin apparently didn’t go.

Hettena is a long-time investigative reporter for The Associated Press who earlier wrote Feasting on the Spoils: The Life and Times of Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham, History’s Most Corrupt Congressman. For this book, he has talked to many people and perused an exhaustive list of documents and both published and unpublished reports.

The publisher calls the book “an expansive and essential primer to the Trump/Russia scandal.” And it’s a worthy read with good notes. Hettena, citing past investigations such as Bill Clinton’s Whitewater and Richard Nixon’s Watergate, predicts the Trump/Russia controversy is going to be around for quite a while.

The second book is a small – 126 pages – expansion of what was originally a Facebook post. In the book, which you can probably read in less than an hour, Yale University historian Timothy Snyder observes that Americans today “are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the Twentieth Century.”

“Our one advantage today is that we might learn from their experience,” he says, and he posts 20 lessons, along with commentary. No. 1 is “Do not obey in advance. Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given.” No. 2 is “Defend institutions,” and No. 3 is “Beware the one-party state.”

There’s not enough space here to list all 20 lessons, but some important ones are No. 6, “Be wary of paramilitaries,” or No. 10, “Believe in truth,” or numbers 15 and 16, “Contribute to good causes” and “Learn from peers in other countries.”

Snyder’s last three lessons are perhaps the most touchingly heart-rending in the book.

“Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.” (Remember Sept. 11.)

“Be a patriot. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come.”

“Be as courageous as you can.” Snyder concludes, as part of that last lesson, “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.”

  • Tom Dillon is a retired newspaperman who lives in Winston-Salem.

 

 

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Not your fun-filled Florida

Bob Moyer finds that there’s much lurking below the surface in Lauren Groff’s view of Florida – and most of it is menacing.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

FLORIDA. By Lauren Groff. Riverhead Books. 275 pages. $27.

Florida’s gonna get you.

According to Laura Groff, that is. Her Florida is not the glowing, fun-filled home of orange juice and theme parks. Instead, the inhabitants of her vivid stories about the Sunshine State face danger and disaster at every turn. The snakes in her house at the edge of the swamp drive the mother “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners”” to abandon her son. In “Snake Stories,” Groff warns us “Walk outside in Florida, and a snake will be watching you…” A mother doesn’t come back from a boat trip to get her little girls on an island off the coast, and they lead a feral life in “Dogs Go Wolf.” During a hurricane-force storm, the narrator’s chickens in “Eyewall” are blown apart, and a book with her name in it ends up in Georgia. Threats abound in Groff’s world.

It’s not just the outside world that threatens here. If the state of Florida doesn’t get you, the Florida state of mind will. Groff’s genius — this book will stick with you long after you finish it — is the inner world that parallels these external threats. Her husband, her father and a boyfriend, all dead, come to visit the narrator of “Eyewall,” leading her to conclude “Houses contain us; who can say what we contain?” The sinkhole at the corner of the house in “The Flower Hunters” doesn’t loom nearly as large as the black hole of anxiety that opens up before the narrator, as she alienates friends and neglects her children. The mother in “Ghosts and Empties” has become “a woman who yells,” and because she doesn’t want to be a woman who yells, “whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces,” she goes walking every night through the streets, to quiet her demons and dazzle us with her observations. Other mothers bring their anxiety into play alongside their desperate love, like the one in “The Midnight Zone” who declares,  “I would not make dinner, I would not keep schedules, …never ever,” but tries “…to push my love for my sons into them where their bodies were touching my own skin.”

It’s the mother in “Yport,” the longest story, who makes the clearest statement about what goes on underneath the surface of these stories. She leaves Florida for France, supposedly to research Maupassant, but she reveals the real reason early in the story:  “Surely, her bad pet dread would never think to look for her here.”  But it does. It arrives amidst dozens of empty wine bottles, and her bored son, “…something terrible but she can’t look at it, she needs to look away, if she looks at it, it will come even closer to her…she can’t let it, all alone in this cold place with two small boys to care for.”

Some have criticized these stories for being so bleak and lacking hope and resolution. Yes. Groff’s Florida is not a place to live, but it’s a great place to visit. You’ll see things you’ve never seen before, and remember them for a long time.

 

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A novel to savor

In many circles, Bob Moyer is better known for his haiku than for his book reviews. I offer him this lead-in to his latest review:

Finest French cuisine

Clever detective at work

Bob is in heaven

 

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

A TASTE FOR VENGEANCE. A Bruno, Chief of Police Novel. By Martin Walker. Knopf. 335 pages. $25.95.

Taste is everything and everywhere in a Bruno, Chief of Police novel.

When his friend Pamela calls him to check on a guest who did not appear for her new cooking school, she asks Bruno if he wants to stop by to sample her blanquette de veau. After all, there’s an extra serving now. He can’t resist.

To celebrate Bruno’s promotion to chief of police for the entire valley, not just the village of St. Denis, every village mayor, every policeman in St. Denis, every veteran and friend show up for the ceremony. Afterwards, everyone settles in for a meal, including a tasty tarte au citrone.

 Bruno interrupts his investigation of what looks like a murder/suicide involving Pamela’s missing student to demonstrate his foie gras recipe for her cooking school. Then he lets them try some that he made before he came. The students, and reader, are transported.

When the murder takes on international implications that stretch from Ireland to Iraq, Bruno, of course, must entertain the two terrorist specialists who arrive from the U.S. and the U.K. He treats them to lunch at his friend Ivan’s restaurant, where they sample jambon de pays with melon, from the menu du jour, while they serve up theories about the case at hand.

 In what has become a tradition in this food-porn series, Martin Walker brings all the main law enforcement personnel together at Bruno’s farmhouse, where they may not only savor the magret de canards that Bruno prepares with loving detail, but also savor the idyllic life that he lives in the French countryside. Appropriately, the duck is dished up with a glass of Monbazillac, murmurs of ecstasy and a summation of the case to date.

In every Bruno novel, the crime is the main course, in this case served up with A Taste For Vengeance. Killers lying low in the local countryside create a complicated stew for the assembled law enforcement agencies, but it is Bruno who uncovers what is both a personal and political plot of revenge. Once again, Bruno finishes a case with a flourish and leaves us with the comforting fact that, no matter how serious the crime — he will always stop for lunch.

Vive Bruno. Vive le France.

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Death in the Catskills

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

AN UNWANTED GUEST. By Shari Lapena. Penguin Audio. Read by Hillary Huber. 8 ½ hours; 7 CDs. $35. Also available in print from Pamela Dorman Books.

This latest suspense novel by best-selling author Shari Lapena is set in a remote, small hotel in the Catskills in winter. Various reasons bring the diverse group of guests to the hotel – there are young couples hoping for a romantic weekend, a middle-age couple whose marriage is in need of rejuvenation, an author trying to finish a book, a lawyer in need of a break, a couple of young women hoping for a therapeutic girls retreat.

But even as they are arriving to check in, a winter storm is beginning to rage.

By morning, the guests and the father-son team who run the hotel are cut off from the world, a dangerous layer of ice making the deep snow even more treacherous. Worse, they find themselves without power or telephones and with only the fireplaces for heat.

Much worse, they awake on Saturday morning to discover that one of their number is dead. At first, they think her death might be an accident, but another guest with some expert knowledge insists that foul play is likely.

And then the body count starts to mount.

Lapena lets us see the tension mounting through the eyes of the various guests and the hotel owners as the clock slowly ticks through Saturday, a terrifying night and into Sunday morning.

Who is killing people, one by one? Is it one of the people in the hotel, or is an outsider lurking? What could the motive – motives – be, and are the deaths connected?

As fear raises the danger level, we learn more about the people. Nearly everyone, it seems, has some sort of unpleasant secret.

When I reviewed Lapena’s second book, A Stranger in the House, last year, I complained that there was no one to like or care about among the characters, and that the plot was somewhat predictable and contrived.

This time out, there are a few characters who did engage my sympathy, although one of the things Lapena does well is make us doubt – just as the people in the hotel do – even the ones we’re inclined to like.

The plot, again, is a bit too convenient. Would a pricey mountain resort hotel offering a well stocked bar and wine cellar, outdoor sporting opportunities, an outdoor bar constructed of ice and other amenities really not have a generator or any sort of internet?

All in all, though, I thought Lapena did a better job this time out, and the audio version kept me guessing – and caring – enough to want to know what happened next.

The ending was worth it, mostly credible and topped off with an extra twist.

Coincidentally, this is the second book I’ve read in the last month with a plot inspired by Agatha Christie’s classic And Then There Were None. The other was the latest World War II-era Maggie Hope mystery by Susan Elia Macneal.

Imitation, we are told, is the sincerest form of flattery, but the imitators pale by comparison to Dame Agatha.

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Mystery and history, with a nod to Agatha Christie

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE PRISONER IN THE CASTLE. By Susan Elia MacNeal. Books on Tape. Read by Susan Duerden. 10 hours; 8 CDs. Available in print from Bantam. 300 pages.

Through eight novels now, Maggie Hope’s adventures have given readers a thoroughly enjoyable World War II history lesson wrapped up in lively mysteries with a spunky, red-haired heroine who is also a mathematician and code-breaker.

Hope, who grew up in America but has British heritage, finds herself in London as the war heats up and takes a job as a typist in Winston Churchill’s office. From that humble beginning, this intelligent and determined young woman works her way into all sorts of adventures that, fortunately for us, allow her to rub shoulders with a number of key figures from history and experience the war in England, the United States and behind the lines in Europe. We’ve seen her with the British princesses and Eleanor Roosevelt, and we’ve watched her train to be a spy and put her sometimes deadly skills to work. She’s tangled with Goebbels, Goering and other top Nazis.

This time, author Susan Elia MacNeal tries something different. The Prisoner in the Castleis a fun book in a different, rather old-fashioned sort of way.

For prospective new fans of the series, a word: It is better to read the books in order. The war progresses, of course, and so do developments in Maggie’s life, both professionally and personally. Each book is a good story on its own, but if you haven’t read what came before, a number of references will leave you wondering, and you won’t have a full understanding of what things mean to Maggie.

With that in mind, I had to catch up by reading the seventh installment, The Paris Spy(Bantam, August 2017), which I had somehow overlooked during the confusion of a move last year. In that book, Maggie and some of her good friends are working undercover for the British Special Operations Executive in occupied Paris. After harrowing operations in which she helps secure reports vital to the coming D-Day invasion and deal with dangerous betrayal, she winds up in the situation in which we find her as the eighth novel opens.

In the newest book, Maggie is now a secret prisoner of the British government on a remote island off the coast of Scotland where spies who know too much or are otherwise deemed no longer suitable for field work are held, without any contact with their friends, family and former colleagues.

Until now, boredom and frustration have been the prisoners’ biggest problems. They live in comparative ease in a mansion that was built as a hunting lodge, with servants to wait on them. But one night, one of their number drops dead while finishing his after-dinner drink.

And after that, in alarmingly quick succession, more of the inmates, along with some staff and visitors, begin to die in mysterious circumstances. Since nearly all the prisoners are highly trained killers, they cannot help but suspect one another.

MacNeal gives Agatha Christie her due – the mansion’s library has a set of her mysteries on its shelves, and one of the prisoners mentions having just read the book we now call And Then There Were None, in which people invited for a weekend on a remote island off the Devon coast are murdered, one by one – as she borrows heavily from the plot of Christie’s most famous novel.

The result is an enjoyable mix of a Christie-type mystery with more about spies, the buildup to D-Day, Nazi perfidy and some thoughtful questions about how much British leaders would be willing to sacrifice in their determination to win the war.

Along the way, there are some developments in Maggie’s personal life and those of her friends.

All in all, this book is an intriguing, suspenseful change of pace that builds to what must surely be another Maggie Hope mystery in the works.

The lively plot lends itself well to the audio version, which Susan Duerden makes more fun for us American readers by supplying an appropriate range of British accents.

 

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A tangled case, a lot of laughs

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

Bob Moyer finds much to like in Jonathan Kellerman’s latest whodunit.

NIGHT MOVES. By Jonathan Kellerman. Ballantine. 395 pages. $28.99

Psychologist Alex Delaware and LAPD Detective Milo Sturgis have been tackling tangled cases over a number of books, a number of years. The astute intuition of Alex, the steely procedure of Milo, have made them the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of modern American crime fiction.

Over the years, they, and Jonathan Kellerman, have gotten very comfortable with the relationship, turning it into one of easy bonhomie, as they banter and trade bon mots. Part of the pleasure after all this time is the other side of their relationship —Sherlock Holmes and Costello, or Abbott and Dr. Watson.

That ease of exchange lies at the heart of the continuing appeal of this series. In this latest case, someone places a faceless, handless, bloodless body in a locked house for a family to discover when they return from dinner. The family turns out to be less than forthcoming, the neighborhood does not belong to Mr. Rogers, and the duo has little to start with.

So they do what they do best — they banter hypotheses as they do bad jokes. Like this one: “A scam with an enraged victim. An affair – or even a sexual assault. Chet’s on the road all the time, maybe a business trip went really bad. Or it’s something to do with Felice’s private life and the killer’s throwing it in Chet’s face. Or both of them are involved…why was this house chosen? And again, why bother to schlep the body?”

Of course, this isn’t the solution; there’s many a hypothesis between page 42 and page 395. But these forays, always a flurry of possibilities, occur in dialogue, not interior monologue. It enables the team to apply procedure, engage the reader —and allows the author to mislead us by keeping the killer hidden in plain sight. Somewhere in all of their probing, they pass over the killer, and ultimately circle back to find him or her.

Night Moves is one of the most intricately constructed cases Kellerman has come up with. The untangling of the thicket of clues comes only at the very end of the book, to great satisfaction after a voluble and entertaining trip. Although it’s a worthy addition to this venerable series, Kellerman’s latest is also quite a good stand-alone for first-time readers. It’s a little “Whodunit?” mixed up with “Who’s on first?”

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Women to the rescue

While I’ve been on a bit of a vacation, Bob Moyer has been keeping the book reviews coming.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

SAFE HOUSES. By Dan Fesperman. Knopf. 401 pages. $26.95.

Spy novels too often teem with testosterone-driven heroes of all makes and models, particularly the male versions. It is refreshing,  then, that Dan Fesperman has centered his story on an under-recognized, under-represented group: women.

In 1979, Helen Abell joins the CIA, only to be dispatched to Berlin, where she is consigned to the lowly duty of caretaking for the Safe Housesused by agents on duty, in transit, or just in recovery.

While assiduously caring for one house, she overhears a conversation by unscheduled visitors downstairs, their conversation also being taped. A short time later, she is also caught unaware when another agent brings a woman in, and Helen steps in to stop a rape. When she tries to report him, she finds he is famous within the agency for such behavior, but forgiven because of his skill. Although she joins forces with two other women in the Company, one in Washington, one in Paris, to bring him down, she soon finds herself forced out of the agency and on the run.

Fesperman moves the story smoothly between Berlin, where the story begins, and Poston, the small town in Maryland where it ends in murder. At that point, a Washington “fixer” joins Anna, Helen’s daughter, in searching out the rest of the story.

The author adroitly moves the plot along, and keeps the pages turning, by using pieces of information from the past to propel the narrative forward in the present. Every turn comes with a surprise that slips into the next adventure, always moving closer to the danger engendered in 1979. The author keeps his connections covert until he gets to the next corner. His reveal, both of the women’s skill and the spy skullduggery, is most skillful.

The book is long, but it’s a short read. Safe Houses is a safe bet.

 

 

 

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