Why we read fiction…

Yes, Bob Moyer reads a lot of mysteries, detective stories and thrillers. But he also savors a good literary novel from time to time. Here’s one of his recent finds.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE DUTCH HOUSE. By Ann Patchett. HarperCollins. 337 pages. $27.99.

Every now and then, a book comes along that reminds us why we read fiction, specifically novels. It’s not entertainment, not escapism — it’s life.

In a fairy-tale format, Ann Patchett takes us through three generations of the Conroy family, through five decades, poverty to riches to poverty to riches. A brother and sister live in paradise (The Dutch House), the wicked stepmother throws them out, the house hovers over their lives, and then the family returns to paradise. Her approach does nothing to minimize the humanity involved here; the brother/sister bond at the core of the book simply gains in power as the story develops, and evinces greater empathy. 

Patchett proves once again that the most familiar relationships have the most power to engage us. Just as the lavish house looms over the neighborhood, so it looms over the life of the protective sister and her younger brother, the narrator…,  “…the entire house sitting on top of me like a shell I would have to drag around for the rest of my life.”  They cannot escape it and its ramifications.

And there is where the life of this book enters in. As they struggle through seemingly successful lives, the past keeps emerging from their history into the narrative. Patchett’s mastery makes the work of other writers look like pale detail inserted into their narrative, instead of emerging from the life of the characters and their dialogue. Time after time, a moment shows up in the narrative that connects directly to something that happened years before. In the middle of a breakup with his future wife, the brother thinks, “…I wanted to tell her to sit up straight.”  It’s what his father told his sister so many times. “Everything would have gone so much better for her had she been able to sit up straight.”  When the two are forced to face their past and some of the people from it, he returns again and again from New York to Pennsylvania to visit his sister, attending to the maintenance of her house, fixing drawers, all skills drawn from the years spent with his father maintaining property. He trains as a doctor, but abandons the training immediately upon graduation for a life in real estate. All the while, the two live a life against the world.

Until the conclusion. They “…stepped into the river that takes you forward.” In the many resolutions of love, forgiveness and acceptance that fill this book to overflowing, the fairy-tale format transforms into something that touches us and stays with us after we finish — life.

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New offering from an old master

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

AGENT RUNNING IN THE FIELD. By John le Carre. Viking. 281 pages. $29.

He’s 88, he’s written 25 books, and along the way he’s picked up a few tricks in more than one trade. Espionage is one of them. To stay at the top of the thriller game, Le Carre has had to keep up with developments in the spy game. In his latest book, he documents how the mighty British machine, fueled by the force of a glorious past, has deteriorated into a dilapidated jalopy running on the fumes left by Brexit. Bottled water is banned in meetings, and the narrator is chastised for taking a taxi on assignment — a bus was available.

That narrator, Nat, is an aging pseudodiplomat who recruited, trained and ran agents in the field. A little long in the tooth, 20 years in the service, he expects to be put out to pasture. Instead, he is given a neglected “station” in London itself to bring up to par.

A charming fellow, both in print and person, Nat loves his badminton. In his sports club, he takes up a weekly game and post-game beer with a fellow named Ed. Ed is a mouthpiece for some excoriating views of Donald Trump and Brexit:  “…Britain’s consequent unqualified dependence on the United States in an era when the U.S. is headed straight down the road to institutional racism and neo-fascism, is an unmitigated clusterf%@k bar none.” Shortly after their first meeting, Nat announces that Ed led him down a path of disaster. Le Carre doesn’t foreshadow that disaster; he announces it. That’s when he flashes his brilliance at another trade — writing. He tells us what is going to happen, and then keeps us engaged the rest of the book with how it happens.

It’s a recounting, a reconstruction of the details that leads to a finale as taut with suspense and subterfuge as any le Carre has committed to paper before. Nat, as the reader does, gets wrapped up in the details. He doesn’t see the answer to the dilemma until  “… at some point after a day of waiting, an answer of sorts came to me. Not as a blinding revelation, but on tiptoe, like a latecomer to the theatre, edging his way down the row in the half-dark.” The reveal of that solution and the path to the finale proceeds in the same manner, as the reader edges along with Nat.

Britain may have lost its edge, but le Carre has not lost his. He’s a good writer, Nat is a good man, and this is a good book.

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Spies and lovers

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

TREASON. By Stuart Woods. Penguin Audio. Read by Tony Roberts. 7 ½ hours; 6 CDs. $35. Also available in print from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

There are Stone Barrington novels, and then there are Stone Barrington novels. 

This is one of the meatier Stone Barrington novels, enlivened by politics and international intrigue. 

You can pretty much count on all the ones published in recent years to include many descriptions of Stone’s great wealth and his lavish lifestyle, his private plane and yacht and his multiple homes in Europe and the United States.

 You can count on his amorous adventures with a seemingly inexhaustible string of intelligent, independent, and beautiful women who are quite content with his no-strings-attached, oh-so-civilized approach. Even the ones with whom he has something of a lasting relationship understand that when they aren’t available, he will entertain some of the others who always seem eager to oblige.

Lately, you can count on his hobnobbing with people in high places, including the president and former president of the United States (a husband-wife duo) and the secretary of State (one of his more regular romantic interests).

The books that don’t offer much more than trips to Paris and England and exquisite dinners and wines are amusing and entertaining visions of lifestyles most of us wouldn’t even dream about. Some of these have little more conflict or plot than a jealous ex-husband or lover or some glitch with a financial transaction.

Having come a bit late to the series – Treason is, I believe, No. 52 in the Stone Barrington series – I do wonder about some things, such as how a former New York City police detective, forced to retire, became fabulously wealthy, and how a partner in a New York law firm never seems to have to do much work. Maybe someday I’ll try to catch up on Stone’s remarkable path to becoming rich and powerful.

But it’s the recent books that seem to be inspired by today’s headlines that I find most entertaining.

In Treason, Stone is now a special advisor to the CIA. His frequent love interest, Holly Barker, the secretary of State, wants to resign from that job to run for president. (Never fear; she’s figuring out ways to keep things going with Stone, quietly.) Holly has been warned that there’s a mole in the State department, and Stone gets involved in helping to uncover the traitor.

Yet Stone has other things on his mind, including buying a new plane, a Gulfstream 500, because … he can. And then he has to fly it to Paris, of course, where he meets Peter Stone, a shady American investor who seems to be tight with a Russian oligarch named Yevgeny Chekhov.

The search for the mole plays out as Stone enjoys himself with two new lady friends and hobnobs with the rich and famous, or rich and infamous in some cases.

There’s plenty of intrigue and action, all heightened on the audio version of the book by the skilled narration of Tony Roberts. This is one of those Stone Barrington novels that provide a generous variety of entertainment, and, given recent news, it doesn’t seem especially farfetched.

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Saving Grandma Mazur

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

TWISTED TWENTY-SIX. By Janet Evanovich. Penguin Audio. Read by Lorelei King. 6 ½ hours; 6 CDs, $32. Also available in print from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Janet Evanovich is amazing. Here we have entry No. 26 in the adventures of Stephanie Plum, improbable New Jersey bounty hunter, and it’s just as funny, surprising and fresh as any of the 25 that preceded it.

The usual elements are here – Stephanie is still often accompanied by her sidekick Lula, the over-the-top former ho’, as she pursues ne’er-do-wells who have run out on the bail her Cousin Vinnie posted for them. She still has two (sort-of) love interests in her life, Morelli, the sexy homicide detective who’s been her boyfriend for a long time, and Ranger, the sexy head of a security company who looks after her even when his efforts to lead her astray don’t succeed. She still comes home alone many a night to the apartment she shares with no one but her hamster, Rex. She’s still always short on money. 

She’s still regularly having whatever car she’s driving destroyed in some dramatic fashion. And she’s still woefully unsuited for her job. 

Stephanie Plum is not a tough gal, and she knows it.

But she can be tough when she has to, and when her family is threatened, she has to.

Stephanie’s beloved Grandma Mazur decided to get married again, to a local gangster who she’s sure is really a nice guy these days. Problem is, he drops dead of a heart attack less than an hour after they exchange vows. 

Her new husband’s untimely death plunges Grandma into a world of trouble, with various relatives furious that she’s now his heir, and his mobster associates convinced that Grandma has the keys to some sort of treasure. 

In between chasing – sometimes successfully, sometimes not – fugitives who have skipped bail, Stephanie does what she can to protect Grandma as well as her mom and dad, who are in harm’s way because Grandma lives with them. She tries to find the keys, or at least to convince the bad guys that Grandma doesn’t have them. 

Suffice it to say all sorts of hilarious adventures ensue, with some life-threatening peril thrown in. 

I look forward to each new Stephanie Plum book, knowing I’m in for a few hours of delightful entertainment. They are great as audio books. Lorelei King gives voice to Stephanie perfectly, and the stories are easy to follow. Even if totally unexpected.

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Amid the chaos…

Wherever Jack Reacher goes – and that covers some pretty interesting and dangerous ground – Bob Moyer isn’t far behind. Here’s his review of No. 24 in the Reacher series.

BLUE MOON. By Lee Child. Delacorte Press. 356 pages. $28.99.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

PFHHT!  BLAM! THUD! THUNK!  SNAP! CRACK! AIEEE!

Did you hear about the hockey game where a prizefight broke out?  Well, just a few pages into the latest Jack Reacher novel, it feels like a comic book breaks out… Neither the reader nor Reacher realizes that when he follows an old man off a bus to keep him from getting mugged for his money, he’s stepping into a graphic novel about a gang war.  Within pages, the piling up of bodies gives “streaming” a new meaning, and black suits, black ties and black limousines fill the pages. Two gangs, one Ukrainian, one Albanian control the city.

The old man owes a lot of money to the Ukrainians, Jack learns, and since Jack can’t help helping out, he goes to repay the money. After he does, a couple of enforcers give him a ride. Jack comes back; they don’t. Now, the Ukrainians had just offed a couple of Albanians, so they think it’s retribution. Two Albanians die, and from then on its tit for rat-a-tat-tat. The gangs go berserk in a Clint Eastwood make-my-day kind of comedy, definitely not the Keystone Cops kind. Of course, Jack can’t leave the old man and his wife in danger, now that the gangs think he’s the old man. And the old couple needs money, which Jack thinks he can find hidden inside one of the Gang’s fortresses. His campaigns to protect and pry money give the author ample opportunity to find unique ways for Reacher to dispatch the bad guys.

Along the way, Jack ties up with an ex-tank commander, an infantryman, a Marine and a waitress. The waitress is a performance artist, who freely demonstrates for Jack that her performance is an art. With their combined skills and Reacher’s logistics, they take on two gangs and come out on top – of course. As Jack says, “Once in a blue moon things turn out just right.”

At the heart of all the violence here is Jack’s philosophy of his survival, that he has “…some kind of a wide-open portal in his head, a wormhole to humanity’s primitive past, where for millions of years every living thing could be a predator, or a rival and therefore had to be assessed, and judged, instantly and accurately. Who was the superior animal?…”  The answer at the end of this 24th novel in the series is clear.

Jack Reacher.

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It’s about the procedure

Is the seasonal stress starting to get to you? Find a cozy warm spot and get caught up in a good novel about something entirely different. Bob Moyer has a suggestion for you.

 Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE NIGHT FIRE. By Michael Connelly. Little, Brown. 405 pages. $29.

 … down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything … He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him… The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.

 Raymond Chandler wrote that creed for the hard-boiled detective some years ago, and mystery writers have been trying to match that description ever since.  At the top of the list is Michael Connelly, who sent Harry Bosch down those streets 22 books ago.  True to the creed, he has been relentless in his search for truth, never tarnished, always lonely, always brave.

 Harry, however, is getting on.  After a bitter pension fight, he retired from the LAPD. He then got fired from a non-paying job with another department.  Now he’s got a bad knee, plus blood complications from a case long ago.

 Enter Renee Ballard, in her third book.  Cut from the same cloth as Harry, she’s singular in her pursuit of the truth, unorthodox in her methods, and as difficult to work with as Harry.  She meets Harry because she was marooned on the late shift at the Hollywood station where he once worked, and where he constantly sneaks back.  They have become partners in crime-solving. She alters the creed a bit — “down these mean URL’s a woman can go…”  She’s adept at the “new” policing.  Although she can hit the streets, Harry’s the best with boots on the ground; she’s good with fingers on the keys.  She’s also the “inside” person.

 The case this time starts with a murder book from years ago, found in the belongings of Harry’s former partner.  No note, no explanation, just a record of a murder in a bottom desk drawer.  In other words, two mysteries — the murder, and why his partner took an interest in it.

 The two partners continue to work on their own cases, to great reward for the reader.  Connelly breaks the book into alternating sections — Ballard works the death of an immolated homeless person, while Bosch proves one person not guilty for his brother Mickey Halley, then tries to find out who is guilty.  That’s five plots, plus one that pops up later.

 The joy of this series, however, is not the plotting, but the plodding.  No one does the procedure of a procedural like Connelly.  It’s no short of amazing that he keeps us on the edge, waiting for that one detail that another cop missed, something that catches Ballard’s eye, makes Harry stop and think.  Best of all, the author does it by setting up the system, then showing how the two B’s get around it.

 Between engaging plodding, and jam-packed plotting, Connelly has come up with another winner.

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A story to savor

Bob Moyer reviews a book he says takes a familiar story and makes it new, a story that’s a pleasure to read.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THIS TENDER LAND. By William Kent Krueger. Atria. 460 pages. $27.

 You’ve met this bunch of kids before–a ragtag group suffering abuse, in this case the only three white kids and an Indian boy escaping from an Indian school. Off they go in 1932, down the river in a canoe, this mystic and mythic group —the little girl who has clairvoyant fits, the youngest boy, named Odie nee Odysseus. Headed down the Mississippi to St. Louis, they run into other mythic and mystic characters, like the one-eyed pig-scarer and the evangelist healer. Yes, The Odyssey, Huckleberry Finn, Life on The Mississippi, even Stand By Me. This story has been written before.

But not by William Kent Krueger.

Here is a book not encountered often these days, an epic about the heart of the country, the heart of America. In prose that borders at times on poetry, and sometimes threatens to flower a bit, Krueger takes us on an American journey through This Tender Land. Along the way we encounter the pain of Indian children torn from their families and thrown into torturous facilities. Farther down the river, the group, self-named the Vagabonds, comes across a Hooverville, where people moving from one place to another have found the only place they can stay. Not too much farther, they become part of the river people living on the mudflats in St. Paul, and friends with the denizens of the Jewish ghetto. Krueger consistently throws light on the land he has adopted, Minnesota, where most of the book takes place.

He also depicts with edge-of-the-chair urgency the dramatic ups and downs of the Vagabonds, as they move in and out of danger, their nemesis in close pursuit behind them. Each character is clearly defined and clearly brought into the readers’ sympathies.

In spite of the sprawl of this novel, Krueger, known for his mystery series, keeps the plot tight. He maneuvers the Vagabonds adroitly both through adventure and through the countryside. Krueger’s twists and turns bring a satisfying resolution of plot lines the reader had forgotten, and in at least one instance, had no idea even existed. In this day and age of flash fiction and twitter poems, it is a pleasure to return day after day to savor the story Krueger tells, and to experience a sadness when it’s over.

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She’s back…

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

OLIVE, AGAIN. by Elizabeth Strout. Random House Audio. Read by Kimberly Farr. 12 1/2 hours; 10 CDs. $45. Also available in print from Random House.

Anyone who met Olive Kitteridge in Elizabeth’s Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 book of interrelated stories by that name, will remember that blunt, sometimes abrasive retired middle-school math teacher well. Olive is a large and imposing woman physically and also by sheer force of personality.

And now, Olive is back. Thank goodness.

As that first book begins, Olive seems rather unlikable, and readers might wonder, briefly, whether to bother getting to know her better. But such is Strout’s quiet genius that, as the connected stories unfold, we begin to understand and sympathize with this gruff, outspoken woman. Strout deftly blends stories told from Olive’s point of view with those in which we see her through the eyes of others. And some of the stories give us – and sometimes Olive – deeper insights into people she may have misjudged.

More than a decade later, here Olive is again, and through more stories of Olive and her neighbors in seaside Maine, we see her facing the realities of advancing age. It’s not necessary to have read the first book to appreciate this one, but it does help.

Strout’s books are not about intricate mysteries or dramatic events, although these are sometimes lurking in the background, but rather about the lives of ordinary people. As the first book unfolded, we learned, along with Olive, how difficult it is really to know other people, and how difficult it is for them to know us. Olive, like all of us, has much to learn about empathy.

This time around, Olive, gruff and outspoken as ever, continues to learn. Somewhat surprisingly, she marries again, forging a bond with a widower who moved to town some years earlier after his career as a professor at Harvard ended abruptly. Olive also tries, blunderingly, to reshape her strained relationship with her only child. We see, as the prickly Olive charges through life, that in her own way, she really does care about people and want to do the right thing. She has many regrets, high on the list the way she treated her long-suffering first husband, Henry. But she also takes pleasure in the ways she connects with and helps a variety of people.

As age takes its toll, Olive also grows in self-awareness. She is not going gently into that good night – she is definitely not happy about having to wear those “poopie pants” sometimes – but she is gaining some peace as she deals with the reality that presses in on her.

Yet this is not a melancholy book. Olive has a sense of humor, and her irrepressible personality often involves her in amusing situations. And while she doesn’t exactly mellow with age, she does learn to take more pleasure in the world around her and the life she’s lived and is living.

Kimberly Farr does a marvelous job of reading, especially as she gives unforgettable voice to Olive.

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Our boys, our nation

Here’s the latest from our roaming correspondent, Bob Moyer, ever an eclectic and thoughtful reader.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

NICKEL BOYS. By Colson Whitehead. Doubleday. 213 pages. $24.95

Colson Whitehead is an important writer. He’s a good, sometimes great writer, yes, but above all — he’s an important writer. He homes in on material that speaks to our consciousness, and then he brings a conceit, a motif that transforms his narrative into a vital part of our national saga. In The Underground Railroad, he took the story of a young slave girl escaping the South and put her on an actual underground train, which delivered her and his story to places and situations that resonated with our contemporary life. Now, with his latest, he again addresses a subject that keeps surfacing in our story — dead black men.

Boys, actually. In 2011, the Dozier School for Boys in Florida was shut down with allegations of horrific crimes committed in the “school’s” 111-year history. Shortly thereafter, an archaeological dig revealed 55 unnamed graves in a secret graveyard —and counting. Whitehead has built his fictional Nickel School for Boys out of those rancid materials.

Into that campus of evil, Whitehead drops one Elwood Curtis, deserted by his parents, raised by his grandmother. He’s a sharp boy, avoids trouble, and takes to heart Dr. King’s encomium, “You are as good as anyone.” Unfortunately, while hitching a ride to a prized college class in 1962, his first, he gets arrested — for riding in a stolen car. He didn’t know it, but that made no difference — it’s the segregated South, and boys of color from Tallahassee could be shipped to the Nickel School for any reason.

Within days of his arrival, Elwood’s worldview gets him sent to the White House, where the roar of the huge fan both announces that someone is being punished, and also covers the screams of the miscreant. When he emerges, he comes across Turner, who believes just the opposite from Elwood — get down, get by, keep your wits. Elwood can’t believe the depths of deprivation in the place, sexual abuse, boys disappearing, goods intended for the boys disappearing into the community, money disappearing into the administration’s pockets. As crimes accumulate, the narrative takes on the inexorable weight of impending death.

But not just the actual “disappearances,” or the deaths of “graduates” who end up “Dead in prison, or decomposing in rooms they rented by the week, frozen to death in the woods after drinking turpentine.”  No, Whitehead gives us the tragedy of another kind of death—the loss of possibility: “The boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place …. All those lost geniuses — sure not all of them were geniuses, Chickie Pete for example was not solving special relativity — but they had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary.” Turner and the world keep whispering to him, “Do not love for they will disappear, do not trust for you will be betrayed, do not stand up for you will be swatted down.” Through it all, Elwood holds on to Dr. King’s words: ”Throw us in jail and we will still love you.”

Just when the tension and the plot come to a head, Whitehead makes a move that resolves the tension, brings the indomitability of the human spirit to the fore, and elevates these individuals’ lives into our national dialogue. No spoilers here, only a deep appreciation to a writer who understands just how much pain a reader can take, and then makes them consider who we are as a nation. It’s a remarkable read. Don’t miss it. 

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Virgil Flowers takes on academia

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

BLOODY GENIUS. By John Sandford. Penguin Audio. 11 hours; 9 CDs. Read by Eric Conger. $40. Also available in print from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

First, Margaret Trane, the police officer who is handling the case, doesn’t really want his help and is annoyed that the governor has yielded to pressure from some rich supporters and sent Virgil.

When Virgil Flowers of the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is called in to help the Minneapolis Police Department investigate a murder at the University of Minnesota, he finds a lot more than what he expected.

Then the case goes from almost no leads to a dizzying array of conflicting possibilities. 

The murder victim is Barthelemy Quill, a brilliant and rich nerve scientist at the university. He was killed when making a surreptitious after-hours visit to the carrel he isn’t really supposed to have in one of the university libraries. It looks as though he stumbled upon someone in his carrel and was bashed in the head with his own computer.

The case hasn’t been going anywhere, but Virgil, winning Trane’s reluctant respect, finds an important clue that suggests the thrice-married Quill might have been using the carrel for a late-night trysting spot.

And then more clues and anonymous tips start turning up, turning the case into a greater and more complex puzzle than ever.

Was Quill’s death related to an intense but arcane feud between two academic departments? Did it have to do with an anonymous tape in which three men seem to be discussing a highly unethical medical procedure? Could Quill’s daughter be involved, or his soon-to-be former third wife, who, because of a prenuptial agreement, gets a lot more as his widow than she would have once they were divorced? How about the unscrupulous man who’d been seen lurking around Quill’s lab, and who is known for stealing the ideas of others in hopes of payoffs to avoid patent lawsuits? Or the drug dealer connected to the cocaine found in Quill’s desk in his home office?

Quill was not a popular man, nor is the university’s ivory tower as tranquil as some might think.

Virgil and Trane join forces to sort the murderous person or people from the merely unscrupulous or eccentric, and try to stop a killer before someone else dies.

This is another highly entertaining book in the Virgil Flowers series. Eric Conger, a familiar voice from other John Sandford audiobooks, reads it like the pro he is.

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