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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An American in Paris – surrounded by Nazis

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

MISTRESS OF THE RITZ. By Melanie Benjamin. Random House Audio. 12 hours; 10 CDs. Read by Barbara Rosenblat. $45. Also available in print from Delacorte Press.

Melanie Benjamin’s trademark gift is to take real historical people and events and carefully translate them into well-crafted fiction that comes alive with dialogue and day-to day action and emotion. She takes that rich blend to new heights in this fascinating, suspenseful historical novel about Blanche Auzello and her husband Claude, the mistress and master of the famed Ritz hotel in Paris during the terrible years of the Nazi occupation in World War II.

In such previous triumphs as Alice I Have Been, The Swans of Fifth Avenue, The Aviator’s Wife and The Girls in the Picture, Benjamin has been able to draw on a wealth of material about her subjects.

This time, as she explains in an author’s note, she had little to draw on beyond the bare facts. Thus, she says, this story if “inspired by” rather than “based on” actual history.

“Inspired” is a good word to describe Mistress of the Ritz. Benjamin has taken those bare facts, a great deal of research about occupied Paris, her fascination with the glamorous Ritz – which becomes a character in its own right — and informed imaginings about what might go on in an unconventional marriage in challenging circumstances and produced a compelling story. It’s immensely entertaining, even while raising important questions about such things as courage, loyalty, patriotism and morality.

Blanche was a pretty American girl whose aspirations to be an actress brought her to Paris in the early 1920s. She was about to be whisked away by an Egyptian prince, but Claude Auzello, a young veteran of the Great War who was working his way up in the hotel business, uncharacteristically fell in love with her and decided to rescue her. They hardly knew each other when they married after a heady, dramatic, romantic series of events.

And then they began to discover how ill suited the ambitious, devil-may-care American girl and the old-fashioned, proper Frenchman were.

But even if often stormy, their lives were also charmed, at least in the early years. Claude won the coveted job of manager of the Ritz, and the Auzellos soon moved into a suite there. The glamour and ease of life at the Ritz, where Blanche could hobnob in the bar with the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Coco Chanel and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, insulated them from reality.

But when the German Army took Paris and the Nazis commandeered the Ritz as their headquarters, reality intruded in a harsh way.

Claude and Blanche struggle to deal with the Nazis while protecting themselves and Claude’s beloved Ritz. Secrets have long caused strains in their marriage, and now there are new and more dangerous secrets.

After D Day, as the American Army advances and the Nazis feel desperation, the Auzellos’ circumstances grow ever more dire. Will they survive the war, and if they do, will their marriage finally crumble — or somehow grow stronger?

Love, suspense, humor, history viewed from a fresh perspective and very personal questions about what to do when the forces of evil take over a beloved country – Mistress of the Ritz has much to offer.

Barbara Rosenblat is wonderful as the reader for the audio version. Her voice and tone are just right, especially for Blanche, the brash, impulsive American who finds herself in Paris during its darkest hours.

 

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A lot about a lot

Bob’s back! Actually, Bob Moyer wrote this review before he took off on his recent travels, but it got buried in my email. Check back soon for reviews Bob has written since his return.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

WORDS AND WORLDS. By Alison Lurie. Delphinium. 225 pages. $25.

Alison Lurie has written a lot about — a lot. In her long career, she has to her credit numerous articles, essays and novels, including Foreign Affairs, which won the Pulitzer Prize. She writes engagingly about interesting subjects; this book, subtitled From Autobiography To Zippers,  represents her skill, catholicity and longevity emphatically.

Longevity is key here. Lurie doesn’t hesitate to date herself in the service of a subject . She drags us back to “Their Harvard,” where she was a second-class student from the all-women’s college Radcliffe. She takes no position, but she pointedly cites the many raised female hands that were ignored, and the many professors who ignored them. In a section labeled “Clothing,” she regales us with the history of “Aprons,” and adds the personal touch of the aprons she wore as a ’50s’ housewife. With great abandon, she revels in “Life After Fashion” for her and other women of a certain age, who can wear what they darn well please.

Her writing, however, is not the least dated. A lengthy piece that outlines “What Happened in Hamlet” simply sparkles through the years. Her wide-eyed wonder and nose for detail bring a London production of Hamlet alive long after the ’70s’ production she covered. Her pieces about people she knew, even if we don’t, all have a marked poignancy, particularly the one about the book artist Edward Gorey. She knew him as Ted.

Particularly pertinent are her essays derived from her depth of knowledge about children’s literature. She brings “Rapunzel: The Girl In The Tower” into the #ME TOO era, and takes on Trumpian overtones in “Harry Potter Revisited. “

Not all of the subjects of these 21 essays may interest you, but what Lurie has to say about them will. Alison Lurie knows how to write, even though someone tells her in an essay “You Don’t Have To Write A Novel,” or anything else. Fortunately, she didn’t listen then, or now.

 

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The ties that divide

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

SPYING ON THE SOUTH: An Odyssey Across the American Divide. By Tony Horwitz. Penguin Audio. 17 hours; 14 CDs. Read by Mark Deakins. $45. Also available in print from Penguin Press.

The news of Tony Horwitz’ untimely death from cardiac arrest came as I was in the midst of listening to his new book, Spying on the South, and he was in the midst of a publicity tour.

We have lost a fine and accomplished journalist and writer with an inquisitive and open mind, a disarming humility and an admirable sense of adventure.

Having spent most of my life as a journalist, I came late to reading nonfiction for pleasure. When I wasn’t working with the news of the day, I wanted to escape through fiction. Only when I began listening to audio books did I develop an interest in and enjoyment of good contemporary nonfiction. That’s my excuse for not having read any of Horwitz’s previous books, most notably “Confederates in the Attic,” published in 1998. That’s part of the reason I wasn’t prepared for what I found in this book.

When I started listening to the audio version of Spying on the South, I was quickly caught up by Horwitz’ account of having roughly followed the trail of Frederick Law Olmsted, who later designed New York’s Central Park, through the South in the 1850s. Olmsted, then a restless young man unsure of what he wanted to do in life, was trying to understand the South when the nation was on the brink of the Civil War. He wrote dispatches for The New York Times under the name Yeoman, some of which later grew into books.

Horwitz was trying to understand the South – or parts of it – long after that war was over (or was it, really?), in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election.

The book is entertaining, even funny at times, as Horwitz recounts his travels, including on a coal towboat, a tourist riverboat and a mule, and his encounters with ordinary people in all sorts of places. It is also depressing, as Horwitz describes how racism and prejudice still poison our society, and how America in many ways has failed to live up to its ideals and to realize what seemed unbounded opportunities in those pioneering days.

While I enjoyed the book and found it well worth reading, I also found it frustrating.

I can forgive the ways Spying is rather disjointed, a hodgepodge of several types of book.  Horwitz, it seems, was rambling through parts of the United States in more ways than one. The result is a book that’s something of a travelogue; an amusing adventure shared, for a time, with a friend he describes as an “Australian Jon Stewart”; a sobering look at racism, the legacy of frontier mentality, and the deep divisions within America; an interesting look at the life as well as the work of Olmsted; and a good bit of history of the regions Olmsted wrote about.

All these disparate strains work together in Horwitz’s mild-mannered, open approach.

No, what frustrated and disappointed me about the book was that Horwitz included in his ramblings so little of the South I know, live in and would love to understand better.

Having decided to read the book on the basis of the title and the publisher’s description, I was sorely disappointed that Horwitz for the most part ignored the Old South, where slavery in America got its start, the part of the South my ancestors settled and the part where I’ve spent most of my life.

He retraces Olmsted’s travels through West Virginia, on the Ohio River, in Kentucky and Tennessee and eventually into Mississippi and Louisiana. He spends a big chunk of the book in Texas and ventures into Mexico.

All these travels provided good material, but I felt cheated because Horwitz omitted so much of the South I’m familiar with. Toward the end of his book, when he’s wrapping things up after the long sojourn in Texas and heading for a conclusion, Horwitz mentions that Olmsted spent a summer traveling through upland Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia.  But all that merits one sentence.

Elsewhere, Horwitz talks about the irony of Olmsted, after having devoted so much of his life to creating parks to be “democratic spaces” for all, designed the Biltmore Estate mansion in Asheville, the largest private home in America, as his last big project. Nonetheless, North Carolina gets short shrift in this book.

My problem is mostly having had the wrong expectations. The parts of the South he writes about are interesting, but they hardly cover what I’d call “The South.” Maybe if the book had been titled “Spying on Texas and the Western Edge of the South” I wouldn’t have been disappointed.

But that’s my problem, for the most part. The book is well worth the read, or, with lively narration by Mark Deakins, the listen.

And I wish Horwitz were around to write another.

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Tangled web, suburban style

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

SOMEONE KNOWS. By Lisa Scottoline. Penguin Audio. 11 ½ hours; 10 CDs. Read by Ari Fliakos and Brittany Pressley. $45. Also available in print from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Lisa Scottoline has written more than 30 novels, been on best-seller lists forever and won lots of big awards. She was a lawyer in Philadelphia before she was a writer, and many of her books are legal thrillers.

Somehow, I’ve never read any of her books until Someone Knows came my way. This is one of her standalone thrillers, although by the end lawyers are involved.

For this story, she takes us to Brandywine Hunt, an upscale housing development in Pennsylvania, built on what used to be horse country and with equine-related street names. It’s the kind of place that people aspire to, a place with some prestige, where you know you’ve “made it” if you manage to acquire a home. Of course, within the development there are degrees of luxury; some have “made it” more than others.

It’s also the kind of place that’s supposed to be safe. But in this setting, five teenagers, not even old enough to drive, manage to get into a terrible situation when a “prank” goes very wrong. One of them winds up dead, but because of the circumstances, the other four are able to keep their involvement secret.

At the time, they fear that if anyone discovered their part in what happened, it would be the worst thing that could possibly happen to them.

Twenty years later, on the anniversary of the incident, another of the group dies a violent death.

Allie Garvey, one of the original five, heads home for the funeral of her long-ago friend. Other than keeping up with them on Facebook, she’s had nothing to do with any of the others since the night that changed everything.

She’s learned that being found out isn’t the worst that could happen. Living with a guilty secret for 20 years has wrecked her life. Because society didn’t punish her for what she did, she’s punished herself, and there’s no end to the sentence. Now her marriage is breaking up because her habits of secrecy are driving her husband away.

Allie dreads meeting the other two survivors among the teenagers who were with her that night. They are the only other people who know the secret, and she’s convinced it shouldn’t be kept secret any longer.

As it turns out, she was right to dread the reunion, but she had no idea of the enormity of the chain of events and revelations that would be set into motion.

Scottoline tells the story through points of view shifting through several key characters, with the cast changing as the story moves along – and some people die. Through these characters, we see what happened 20 years earlier, what led up to it and the aftermath.

Then we see how events play out leading up to the final reckoning.

There’s lots of suspense in both halves of the story. There are plenty of twists, turns and surprises, at least one of which at the end seems almost too surprising, to the point of not being entirely convincing.

Overall, though, this is a well-told thriller. One of its themes is that appearances are deceiving, and those upper crusty houses in the suburbs harbor plenty of ugly secrets. Another theme has to do with the damage that keeping secrets, especially guilty secrets, can do. And we come to see that the law, what we call justice and what is right are not always the same.

Scottoline’s handling of the technological advances over the two decades the story spans isn’t obtrusive, but it’s interesting.

I listened to the audio version while driving various places, and I’ll admit that this is one of those books that sometimes make me take the long way to wherever I was going, convinced I am on the verge of some action or revelation. It would be good entertainment for summer travels.

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A taste of violence

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

NEON PREY. By John Sandford. Penguin Audio. Red by Richard Ferrone. 11 ½ hours; 9 CDs. $40. Also available in print from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

There’s no mystery why John Sandford’s thrillers routinely make it to the top of the best-seller lists. They are tautly written, with intriguing surprises and twists and turns, yet always believable. The returning characters are police officers you like and admire, despite – or maybe because of – their quirks, human frailties and occasional unorthodox methods.

This latest in the popular Prey series has Lucas Davenport, in his fairly recent role as a U.S. marshal, heading to Louisiana, Southern California and Las Vegas in pursuit of a very bad guy.

Clayton Deese has operated pretty much under the radar for years, working for a big-time loan shark in New Orleans who uses him when someone needs a little unfriendly persuasion. But when he runs into trouble during what should have been a routine job, Deese winds up arrested. Once released, he soon jumps bail, and the marshals get involved. At first, their thinking is that Deese is relatively small fry and their main target is his boss. But as they start nosing around his remote hideout in the bayous, they discover that he’s been killing and burying quite a few people for years.

Then they discover that before he buries them, he’s fond of removing a few choice cuts of their flesh to cook for dinner.

Lucas and company find themselves on the trail of what quickly becomes the most notorious fugitive in America.

That trail takes them to Southern California, where Deese seems to have taken up with what has been a pretty successful home-invasion gang involving his half brother.

Lucas and company, including the FBI, use some good detective work to narrow down – almost – where Deese and the gang are living, and they arrange a raid with local police. It all seems almost too easy – until it isn’t.

After things go badly wrong, the pursuit takes a good while longer, eventually taking Lucas and the others to Las Vegas.  Meanwhile, we learn that there is little if any honor or any other virtue among Deese and the thieves, as they turn on one another. Also meanwhile, they stage more crimes because they need money to support their bad habits.

Be warned: Deese is one of the most thoroughly despicable criminals you can imagine, and it’s unpleasant at times to read/listen to some passages in the book.

But the story is compelling, the settings – especially once the hunt moves to Vegas – are evocative, and the police work is intriguing.

Sandford writes his thrillers so that each can be read and appreciated on its own, without having read those that lead up to it. There are recurring characters and mentions of past events and developments, but you don’t feel lost or confused if you don’t know everything.

Richard Ferrone does a fine job of reading Neon Prey. I usually read while driving, and my hands were gripping the wheel tightly with this one.

 

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Betting on a killer

Bob Moyer is flushed with pleasure after reading this novel, and he hopes you’ll go straight out to get a copy. More poker puns welcomed.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

BLUFF. By Jane Stanton Hitchcock. Poisoned Pen Press. 264 pages. $26.99.

When “Mad” Maud steps into a Manhattan restaurant and shoots billionaire financier Sun Sunderland, she starts a journey that rushes the reader from the high society of the Upper East Side to the flops, folds and flips of the world of poker. From salons where tea is sipped in bone china cups, to poker parlors where pizza crusts are plucked from the garbage, author Jane Stanton Hitchcock takes us on a highly entertaining ride. Familiar with both New York Society and poker — she’s played in the World Championship — she creates a vivid context for the Bluff.

Because this is not just a story that makes fun of society, and elevates poker to philosophy for life. It’s about Maud, a master poker player who is playing for the biggest stakes of her life. When Maud shoots Sun, he’s sitting next to Burt Sklar, the man who made Maud mad. Many years ago, Sklar, taking a page from Bernie Madoff’s playbook, swindled Maud’s mother out of the family fortune. Maud hasn’t been able to get anyone’s attention — until now. A master poker player herself, Hitchcock keeps her narrative cards close to her chest as the game unfolds. When she plays a card, the plot twists so hard it gives the reader whiplash. Maud’s plan comes out of Hitchcock’s pen slowly, but steadily.

Meanwhile, of course, all the sympathy in the book goes to Maud. Very rarely has an author succeeded in actually getting readers to cheer a killer so heartily. Like the best of heist movies, Bluffputs us on the edge of our chairs. After the “river,” when all the cards are out, Maud pulls the Bluff— and it’s a beauty. Both she and the reader are all in by now, and the denouement is most satisfying. As one of the book’s blurbs says, Bluffis a royal flush of a novel.

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Sons and mothers and Jackie O.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE EDITOR. By Steven Rowley. Penguin Audio. Read by Michael Lee. 10 ½ hours. 9 CDs. $40. Also available in print from G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

What an original and wonderful idea for a book: James Smale is a struggling would-be writer in New York City in the early 1990s, when, at last, an editor at a major publishing house wants to buy the novel he’s worked on for so long.

When he goes to his first appointment at the publishing house, he is shocked – flabbergasted wouldn’t be too strong a word – to learn that the editor who wants to acquire his book and work with him to revise it is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Jackie, as James calls her when he’s not actually with her (in person, she’s Mrs. Onassis), is impressed with James’ largely autobiographical novel, in which he describes a version of his own dysfunctional family, particularly his troubled relationship with his mother.

But Jackie thinks James has shied away from writing a true ending, and she’s determined to push him to deal with things more honestly and fully.

What ensues is an entertaining, often humorous, and richly insightful story about more than one kind of relationship, about secrets and the power they hold – about the complexities of love, family and life.

Steven Rowley made it big with the bet-selling novel Lily and the Octopus, which I have not read but intend to. Reviews of that book call it funny, wise and wholly original, and all those adjectives can be applied to The Editor.

The whole idea of a young, insecure gay man developing a relationship with perhaps the most famous and adored woman in his world is without a doubt unusual, and it is also deeply affecting. Jackie is pushing James, we gradually see, to deal fully with his relationship with his real-life mother as well as to write a strong ending for his novel.

She’s Jackie O, sure, but she’s also a mother herself, and a woman who was once an idealistic girl, and a skilled editor who knows and values good literature.

And James is believably funny in his honest narration of his reactions to “Mrs. Onassis” as well as to the other relationships and events complicating his life.

The problem with following Jackie’s advice and creating an authentic, powerful ending for his novel is that it’s likely to further estrange him from his mother. Making matters worse, his struggles with the book, and the effects they have on him, are causing problems with his partner, Daniel.

Along with James, we see his developing relationship with Jackie deepen in a way that will affect the rest of his life. And we see him navigate the complexities of his relationship with his mother, who sheltered and pampered him, her youngest and most unusual child, but now is decidedly not happy with what he’s writing about her – and the uncomfortable truths he’s going to uncover.

The audio version is doubly entertaining, as Michael Urie does an excellent job of voicing the characters, including James, his mother and the lovely Jackie O.

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