Out of ‘faded shadows’

Bob Moyer reviews a memoir that’s also the story of piecing together a very personal puzzle.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

WHEN TIME STOPPED: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains. By Ariana Neumann. Scribner. 321 pages. $28.

Growing up in Caracas, author Ariana Neumann knew of her father’s family only from the faded black-and-white photograph he kept of his parents. Hans Neumann emigrated to Venezuela immediately after World War II and became a leading industrialist. His daughter easily recalls the handful of times he gave any hints about his life in Czechoslovakia before or during the war. She did not realize she was Jewish until she went to school in America. When he died, she got a surprise. Her father left papers, identity cards and other material, all in German or Czech, about the life she never knew.

In a box.

That materiele became a jigsaw puzzle that took years of detection, research, love and imagination to put together, that life her father refused to mention. Some of the pieces led to other pieces—an album from her Uncle Lotar’s daughter, another box from a cousin in California. A photo of her father as a boy stuns her with its similarities to her son. Translations of the letters and help from a researcher in Prague led her to the house in the countryside her family owned. There, the owner shared with her the contents of the safe, “a snapshot of their lives, catapulted across the distance of place and time,” that had remained in the house unopened for 85 years. Some pieces came indirectly, like “misplaced files.” Her cousin suddenly remembers the name of her Uncle Lotar’s first wife’s daughter’s boyfriend in Switzerland. This connection leads to a major part of the puzzle, a gentile girl who married into the family and played a major role in the family’s survival.

Survival is perhaps not the appropriate term. Twenty-five of the 34 members of the Czech family perished in the Holocaust. Yet the picture that emerges from Neumann’s piecing together of pictures, letters, notes and memories is ”…laced with vivid glimmers of light.”  “… interspersed amid the horror were wisps of beauty and love,” moments of normalcy, seated at dinner, walking down the street, letters of daily life sent to the American branch of the family. In spite of the tightening of the Nazi noose around Jewish life in Prague, Neumann gives us glimpses of people bravely living the best they could.

Until the family is ordered to report for shipment to Terezin, the way station created for Czechs on their way to Auschwitz. Both parents were transported. Older brother Lotar, married to a gentile, “disappears.”  But Hans, the “unfortunate” younger son who is a prankster, does the unthinkable. With the help of friends and forged papers, he moves to Berlin and gets a research job. He spends the rest of the war hiding in plain sight.

The majority of the papers in the box were Hans’ record of his life in Berlin. This record, interspersed with the fates of the mother and father in letters and interviews, takes up the final section of the book. By this time, what started as a jigsaw puzzle has turned into what Neumann calls “a mosaic of assembled reminiscences.” The theme of time in the title arises from this assembling. She starts with her memory of her father working on his beloved watches, his fingers so still it “…would suggest time had stopped.” One of the watches he owned reminds him of one of his father’s. That leads to an anecdote in which his father’s watch ends up on Hans’ plate, when he is late for dinner. Later, she finds a picture of him as a young man looking with the same intensity she saw in his work on watches, into the viewfinder of a camera. Finally, she brings back her father’s fascination with watches, when he tells her it started when he was a young man in Prague. He said “… he had so much time on his hands that he felt that time had stopped.” In that time, isolated from everyone, “The turning wheels, ticking each second away, had reassured him.”

Neumann has expertly collated recollections of her unknown family, and consolidated them with her memories, photographs and hundreds of documents. She takes her family out of “faded shadows,” into vivid life in this book.

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Bad guys, beware

Bob Moyer invites us to follow the Hawk as she pursues her prey – and is pursued.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

A SMALL TOWN. By Thomas Perry. Mysterious Press. 320 pages. $26.

The opening pages of this book might just be the most painful Thomas Perry has ever penned.  A gang of prisoners kills the guards of a prison outside A Small Town, takes their clothes and cars, heads for town, and rapes and kills the families.  They leave the gates open, and more than 1,200 prisoners with mayhem and murder on their minds flood the town.  The town is devastated.

Two years later, the 12 leaders have not been caught. The town’s population is dwindling, and more than 80 percent of the population is planning to leave, or think that they should.  The police chief decides to take a year off to “study police procedures” around the country with access to federal monies for research.  In other words, she heads off to kill the men who killed her town.

And that’s when the usual “fun” in a Perry novel starts.  His protagonist, whether chased or chasing, always ends up standing at the end of the novel.  The bad guys don’t.  Chief Leah Hawkins, known as “Hawk” for her basketball prowess, uses all her skill to track the prisoners down, and take them out.

Perry uses all his skill to keep us engaged.  A master of plot, even when the reader knows what is going to happen, Perry produces devious killings that that no one could possibly imagine but him.  When the body count piles up, the prisoners catch on, and come after the Hawk.  As happens frequently in a Perry adventure, she becomes chased as well as chaser, adding to the suspense.  While Perry speeds up the action, he maintains a deliberate pace to the slow reveal of how the prison break happened. Headed toward a violent climax, the narrative catches us up in the momentum.  Chief Hawkins overcomes, of course, and A Small Town, somewhere in the Midwest, gets a new life.  

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A memoir, and much more

Bob Moyer loves New Orleans and visits often. Here he reviews a book about a side of New Orleans most tourists don’t visit, a book about “people that people don’t write books about.”

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE YELLOW HOUSE. By Sarah M. Broom. Grove Press. 304 pages. $26.

New Orleans has certain phrases that are — well, New Orleans. “Where y’at?” Is a common greeting.  It’s also common for people to chant “Where you from?” to people parading through neighborhoods, second-lining behind parades. Sarah Broom would give a loud, emphatic answer to that chant — NEW ORLEANS EAST.

That’s where The Yellow House she grew up in with 11 brothers and sisters was located. New Orleans East shouldn’t even exist. Swampland, below sea level, cut through by ill-advised waterways, developed by greed, grossly mismanaged by government, New Orleans East was no kind of tourist destination. No one ever headed off I-10 West to see the sights of Chef Menteur Highway, especially the half-street known as Wilson where the yellow house was located. In this marvel of a memoir, Sarah “Monique” Broom mixes family history, oral history, political deviance, city portrait, and personal memoir — sometimes all on the same page. Reflective at times, riveting at others, this book is about people that people don’t write books about.  Like many families, the 11 children either worked at the local NASA facility, or took the bus 15 miles into the city to take care of the tourists in hotels, restaurants and bars. New Orleans East was “…a city where being held up while getting out of your car is the norm, where many children graduate from school without knowing how to spell, where neglected communities exist everywhere, sometimes a stone’s throw from overabundance.”  Long before Katrina, local residents were familiar with the “waters,” surging into the swamp of a city through commercial waterways.  One of Broom’s brothers remembers learning to swim from their house to the shop on the corner.  But — it was her home.

And then came Katrina. The most peripatetic of her family (she travels to New York, Burundi, Paris, Berlin and other parts of the world during the course of the book), Broom watched the flood from a distance. She wasn’t surprised, however: “Those images shown on the news of fellow citizens drowned, abandoned, and calling for help were not news to us, but still further evidence of what we long ago knew.”  For her, and most of the people in New Orleans, Katrina and its aftermath were “…a metaphor for much of what New Orleans represents: blatant backwardness about the things that count.”

Before Katrina, 11 members of her family lived in New Orleans. After Katrina, only two remained, and that number stayed that way. Broom left again and again, only to return. A constant theme in her narrative is the struggle to be “from” New Orleans while leaving so often. The Yellow House is at the center of the family’s life, even when the city tears it down. It is only then that she comes to terms with the loss of that center: “I had no home. Mine had fallen all the way down. I understood, then, that the place I never wanted to claim had, in fact, been containing me. We own what belongs to us whether we claim it or not. When the house fell down, it can be said, something in me opened up. Cracks help a house resolve internally its pressures and stresses, my engineer friend had said. Houses provide a frame that bears us up. Without that physical structure, we are the house that bears itself up. I was now the house.”

It takes 11 years for Broom’s mother to get a settlement for her house, and then that sum was based on pre-Katrina value, not what it would cost to replace it. When Ivory Mae sells the property, a palpable sense of true loss permeates the conclusion. Broom has captured in the history of The Yellow House a history of a whole generation, and an homage to the people who lived in New Orleans East, then and now.

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Spenser’s in LA, but everything else is in its place

Bob Moyer has read a lot of Spenser books, and he says Ace Atkins has things pretty well in hand in this latest.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

ANGEL EYES. A Spenser Novel. By Ace Atkins. Penguin. 320 pages. $27.

Everything in its place. That’s what Spenser fans expect after 48 books in the series, all the stuff that makes up the adventures of the one-name Boston private eye. Created by Robert B. Parker, Spenser has lived on thanks to the pen of Ace Atkins, who has honed his capture of Spenser essence. He shows us just how much in this latest work.

Like the wise-guy cracks Spenser is famous for. Faced with a cadre of Serbian gangsters, Spenser says to the leader, “Did you get a deal on that tracksuit, or did you lose a bet?”  And the sizeable sidekick, in this case Zebulon Sixkill, the Indian Spenser mentored many volumes ago. He provides both backup and banter, mostly as a straight man. When Spenser says one of the crooks is “… a disreputable thug with a horrible dental plan,” Sixkill replies “And what are we?” Spenser shoots back, “Reputable thugs with good teeth.”  A literate sort of P.I., Spenser usually drops quotes from Shakespeare all over the place. This time, he slips in some Thoreau and Dylan Thomas. Susan, Spenser’s main squeeze these many years, also makes a requisite appearance and contribution to solving the crime at the core of the book. Yes, everything in its place.

Except Spenser — he’s in Los Angeles. The daughter of one of Susan’s friends has disappeared, and Spenser has been hired to find her. He heads off into the wilds of Hollywood, and encounters characters cut straight from the headlines — a con artist cult leader who likes to keep the cute girls near him, and a movie magnate who makes promises to pretty girls, but doesn’t pay off, even if they do. Aided by a team of local tough guys, the reputable thugs take on the best the thugs have to give, and come out with the girl, of course. 

The travel around LA gives Spenser ample opportunity to comment on the city: “I passed billboards for new TV shows and big summer blockbusters, breast enlargement and liposuction. Accident lawyers smiled down on me, promising to fight for me at all costs. Everything was pancake flat and spread out into an ever-expanding void of nothingness. More 7-Elevens, 76 gas stations, and endless chain drugstores along the sunbaked streets. I fought the radio dial to find something that I recognized, lucking upon some Art Pepper. Rain began to hit the windshield and I snapped on the wipers. I passed a strip club lit in purple neon. Another billboard advertised a big Cinderella musical coming to town.”  

With that kind of hard-boiled prose, and quotes from old movies no one recognizes, Atkins has raised his game. Let’s see what happens in the next episode, when Spenser gets back to Boston. He can’t wait, and neither can his fans.

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Life and love amid the chaos

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

A LONG PETAL OF THE SEA. By Isabel Allende. Random House Audio. Read by Edoardo Ballerini. 10 hours; 8 CDs. $40. Also available in print from Ballantine Books.

A Long Petal of the Sea, Isabel Allende’s new novel, is historical fiction at its best. It tells a remarkable story that is even more remarkable because it is so solidly grounded in real events. 

For most of us in the United States, this book fills in some of the many gaps in our knowledge of our South American neighbors and what they’ve experienced.

Knowing history is important, we are told, so that we can learn from it, and this novel offers valuable insights and lessons that seem particularly appropriate for this moment in time in the United States and the world. But perhaps its message really is apt for any moment in human history, and that’s an important part of the point.

And, as historical fiction must do to keep us reading or listening, this novel also offers an engrossing story.

The story opens across the Atlantic, in Spain during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. As the fascists win control, those who had been fighting against their takeover flee over the mountains to France. Many die, and many of those who survive suffer in nearly unbearable conditions. 

Victor Dalmau, a young Army medic, is one of the survivors.  Eventually, he is reunited with Roser, a beautiful young pianist who is pregnant with his brother’s child. Not having heard from the brother in quite some time, they reluctantly conclude that he must be dead. Victor wants to help Roser and the baby she’s expecting.

Helping her becomes much more complicated when they have an opportunity for passage to a new home in Chile on a ship chartered for Spanish refugees by Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet. If they are to be accepted into the refugee program, they must be married, so they agree to a marriage. The also agree that, while Victor intends to step into the role of the baby’s father, their marriage will be in name only.

We follow Victor and Roser, and soon, their son, as they build a good life in Chile, that “long petal of the sea” so distant from their beloved Spain – where they fully intend to return someday.

Then, in the 1970s, they find themselves cruelly caught up in the violence following the coup against Chile’s Marxist president, Salvador Allende. Eventually, they are forced into exile again, this time in Venezuela. 

By the book’s end in the 1990s, they are back in Chile, and their ideas of home, what’s important and their marriage have evolved through their years together.

The weakest part of the book is the character development. Allende follows the main characters and a considerable cast of important secondary characters across more than 50 years filled with momentous developments.

In a book that’s only 336 pages in print, or about 10 hours of listening time for those who choose that option, that’s a lot to cover. As a result, much of the narrative tells us, eloquently but rather matter-of-factly, what happens with the people as well as the events swirling around them, rather than gradually developing characters and helping us to see and understand as they grow and change.

And yet, we do come away with a strong sense of Victor, Roser and others as people. We also gain admiration and, in an important way, inspiration through this story of exiles, immigrants, good people just trying to live and care for their families, who are caught up in the cruelty, greed and inhumanity that can disrupt lives, countries and, seemingly, civilization itself. 

Edoardo Ballerini does a fine job of narrating the audio version of this important and enlightening story.

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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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