Watch out, Chicago…

Bob Moyer is my hero. Undeterred by all that’s going on in the world around us, he keeps  reviewing books so the rest of us will have some idea of what to read when we want some respite.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

DEAD LAND. By Sara Paretsky. William Morrow. 405 pages. $28.99

Private eye V.I. Warshawski has certain triggers that set her off:  Don’t mess with her family, don’t mess with the downtrodden and vulnerable, and, especially, don’t mess with Chicago.

Author Sara Paretsky has provided Vic, as she is known, that perfect trifecta. Attending a community meeting with her goddaughter Bernie, she witnesses an altercation between two committee members, one of them Bernie’s nerdy boyfriend. On the way home, they stop by to check on a once-famous singer, now down on her luck, out on the street. Within hours, the boyfriend is dead, and the singer has disappeared. Vic can’t help herself; she immediately looks into the murder, and tries to find the singer. Before long, she knows something bigger is behind the cases  —her neighbor starts being nice to her.

The woman, a lawyer, has been trying to evict Vic for years. Her law firm wants to find the singer, so she has been instructed to play nice. It seems they represented the murderer of the singer’s boyfriend, the event that sent the woman into a downward spiral. And somehow their interest involves a toy piano the singer plays.

The path Vic follows leads all the way from a proposed development on the Chicago lakeshore to the days of the “disappeared” in Pinochet’s Chile. In her search, she falls down a cliff face, is shot at and is threatened by the head of a city agency. At the bottom of it all is the simple truth behind much of Chicago politics:  “Pay to Play.”

Inexorably steely in spite of her wounds and threats, Vic exposes the rotten underbelly of Chicago’s politics. She gets help from her colleague, journalist Murray Ryerson, and, of course, her neighbor Mr. Contreras. Along the way, she  (and the reader) gets to spend time with Bear, a key character’s dog. Somehow, her commitment to that dog brings more depth to the story than one would expect. This time around, Vic shows a vulnerability greater than before, complementing her stellar capacities as a detective. Dead Land is a highlight in this venerable series.


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A storm brewing…

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

WEATHER. By Jenny Offill. Alfred A.  Knopf. 224 pages. $23.95.

Lucy toggles.

“Toggles” is the word author Jenny Offill used in a recent interview to describe the interior switching in the life of her narrator. In this remarkable exploration of the effect of climate change on a woman’s life, Lucy moves back and forth between two worlds. On one hand, she does the stuff we all have to do to stay alive. She’s a wife and mother who plays with her child, fixes meals for the family, works as a librarian at the college where she didn’t finish her dissertation. She assists her mentor, a “prepper” guru, with her correspondence, takes a car service to work, even though she can’t afford it, and she meets a man on the bus, flirts with him, but doesn’t go any further. She counsels her mother, tries to help her addictive brother, and gives the woman outside her library money

On the other hand, she has a preoccupation – Weather. The dilemma of living ethically in a damaged world consumes her from time to time, even moment to moment. The guy she meets on the bus asks her what she’s afraid of; she answers “… dentistry, humiliation, scarcity. ”  She overhears someone on the bus say it’s important to be on the alert for ”the decisive moment. ” He’s talking about 20th century photography, but she’s “… talking bout twenty-first century everything. ” When asked what she’s good at, she rattles off a full page of survival skills. 

These thoughts surface, in what passes for a narrative here, as fragments. A signature of Offill’s style, used to great effect in her previous novel Dept.  Of Speculation, these fragments can be as short as a random fact about the weather, or as lengthy as an entire domestic scene. Quotes from her mentor’s lectures, questions from correspondence, even a joke surface in Lucy’s consciousness. 

 The sometimes heavy, sometimes humorous episodes produce a sense of urgency contrasting with a normalcy of inaction, and, ultimately, a disintegrating narrative. The flicking back and forth builds to an unresolved tension at the end of the book, an anxiety not just for Lucy, but also for the reader – how responsible are we for the whole world?

Weather is a book of our time, for our time.  

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Business as usual – or is it?

Thanks to Bob Moyer, here’s another British detective novel series I’ll have to try.  Hmm, I see it’s been a TV series too. 

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

MANY RIVERS TO CROSS: A DCI Banks Novel. By Peter Robinson. William Morrow. 336 pages. $28.99.

In the beginning, a young Syrian boy is found stuffed in a garbage bin.  In the end — the very end — DCI Banks comes up with the killer.

In between, the reader gets to follow along as the engaging and competent crew of police officers working with Banks carry on as usual. They follow leads, knock on doors, drink tea with suspects and old ladies and cover a lot of ground before they meet with Banks in a pub, where they drink various varieties of English beer. The murder was committed near a housing estate, and the clues lead them to an estate complete with its own vigilante crew; a nearby estate slightly down at the heels; and a devastated, deserted estate about to be torn down, a site full of drug dealings and popup brothels. Banks leaves his team to troll the premises while he braces the fat cats.

Like the shady developer cum tough guy who plans to build on the site. He’s implicated because of the dodgy company he keeps, and Banks keeps after him. When he’s not following leads, the DCI hangs out at home brooding about his pathetic personal life, drinking and playing a wide variety of music, which allows the author to display his wide-ranging taste (The Blues Dialogues by Rachel Barton Pines is exceptional). There’s little urgency but a lot of procedure to events leading up to the crime’s resolution.

The urgency here is in the subplot played out by Banks’ friend Zelda. A survivor of sex trafficking, she works with the police now as a facial recognition expert. She suspects that her boss was just murdered by the people who abducted and raped her, and then sold her. She sets out to find her abductor, and her progress produces significant tension — What will she do if she finds him, and what will happen to her?  The plot is a fine counterpoint to the familiar progress of Banks’ team and leaves a thread dangling for the next book in the series. 

Neither a quick read nor an edge-of-the-seat thriller, Peter Robinson’s latest still satisfies.

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A beach read, and more

I’ve followed Kristy Woodson Harvey’s writing career from the beginning, and I’ve enjoyed every step of the journey.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

FEELS LIKE FALLING. By Kristy Woodson Harvey. Gallery Books, Simon & Schuster. 384 pages. $16.99, paperback.

Whether you’re heading to one of the recently re-opened beaches or passing the time at home, Kristy Woodson Harvey offers a new book likely to enhance your leisure time.

Harvey, a graduate of the UNC Chapel Hill journalism school, has been making quite a name for herself as a fiction writer over the last five or so years. She’s published two previous stand-alone novels and the Peachtree Bluff trilogy, all well received.

Though Harvey lives in Beaufort along what’s become known as North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, and readers who know that area will find that Peachtree Bluff seems mighty familiar, the series is officially set on Georgia’s coast. (Harvey said in an interview when the series debuted that someone at the publishing house thought there were too many novels set on North Carolina’s coast.)

But this new, stand-alone novel comes unapologetically home to the shores of North Carolina.

As with her other books, those who like to slot books into genres will call this one something like Dixie Chick Lit. It’s definitely a contemporary Southern novel, and because it’s mostly about the lives and concerns of women, most of its readers will be women.

But don’t let any of that make you think this is a shallow, clichéd or overly trendy book. Far from it. Once again, Harvey has pulled off the impressive feat of writing a novel that’s highly entertaining, fairly light reading, but also well written. Her books have complex, well-developed characters who often defy stereotypes. They take on serious issues a lot of women face, and they offer uplifting messages without seeming preachy.

Harvey is adept at using multiple points of view. This time, there are two primary characters whose very different lives intersect more or less by chance. Gray Howard is a well-to-do entrepreneur who built her own company and seems to lead the perfect life. She has her business, a husband and a darling son, and she gets to spend every summer at her beach house and the club at Cape Carolina.

Only this summer, she’s dealing with the recent death of her mother, her sister’s marriage to someone who seems a lot like a cult leader, and her husband’s decision to leave her in favor of the young executive assistant Gray had hired to help him with his job in her company. Oh, and her husband wants to share custody of their son and take half the business she built.

Diana Harrington, meanwhile, lives a life that could hardly be more different. She’s dealt with one disappointment after another. Having just left the latest in a series of no-good boyfriends, she’s reduced to living in her beat-up car. 

After Gray learns she inadvertently contributed to Diana’s getting fired from her job, she invites Diana to come to work for her and live in the guesthouse.

An unlikely friendship develops, one that turns out to be good for both of them as they work their way through changes in their lives and their attitudes. We follow their halting attempts to figure things out, reinvent their lives and learn from their mistakes, and we see how their unlikely friendship helps them both. There are wisdom and insight here, wrapped in a story that’s fun to read.

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Short and not sweet

Bob Moyer just keeps on reading, finding books to recommend for the entertainment and edification of the rest of us socially distanced folks. He’s a trouper!

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

TROUBLE IS WHAT I DO. By Walter Mosley. Mulholland Books. 176 pages. $24.

It’s too short.

The brevity of Walter Mosley’s latest book deprives us of the chance to relish at length his mastery of the underworld where detective Leonid McGill moves with such grace. Once a criminal fixer, McGill left that world but didn’t lose his connections. Mosley takes us to places in Manhattan nobody else sees, such as the subterranean cell where the stocky private eye likes to “question” people, and the hospital in a high rise that has a secret entrance and exit for people who can’t go to any other hospital.

That’s where Leonid puts Catfish Worry, the Mississippi bluesman who came to New York for his help. He has a letter that he needs to deliver to the daughter of Charles Sternman, the richest man in New York, from her grandmother. Catfish is her grandfather, and Sternman’s father. He has to go to the hospital because Sternman hired a hit man, who shot him. 

Sternman is a familiar character in a Mosley book, a man of light skin, self-loathing and racist, sometimes lethally so. It takes Leonid the length of the book to get the letter delivered. Along the path, he throws light on the other world Mosley illuminates for the reader — the plight of black lives in America. In his books, you know that “…a poor woman wasn’t going to get a fair trial; that the laws are for the rich to pick the pockets of everyone else; and that, at the crux of it, the only real law was the one that nature provides.” 

Mosley brings a new depth to Leonid this time out, affected by his son, Twill, and by Catfish’s grandson, and Catfish, who puts “…to song what make a grown man cry.” Their presence, their voices, give Leonid “…kinship to all of them, more biology than psychology, more mortal than divine.” As his son Twill says, ”Pop, I never heard you talk like that before.”

The struggle to deliver the letter to the granddaughter is a carefully crafted, profound parable for the obstacles thrown up for the black man and woman in America. Profound, but too short.

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Familiar, but new

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

HI FIVE. By Joe Ide. Mulholland Press. 337 pages. $27.

He seems familiar, but Isaiah Quintabe is the most unusual private eye in current mystery fiction. Undersized and overbrained, this African-American unlicensed detective can solve any crime, and does — just for the sake of doing it. He’s been known to take a casserole as payment for his services. Just ask his one-time partner Dodson. And he doesn’t let his personal relationships stop his obsessive pursuit of the truth. Just ask the love of his life, Grace. An obsessive, compulsive, socially awkward private eye in L.A. — that’s why he’s so familiar. He’s a direct descendant of Phillip Marlowe, the original obsessive, compulsive, socially awkward private eye, created by Raymond Chandler.

The mean streets that Marlowe went down don’t come close to the mean ’hoods where IQ, as he is known, lives and works. In all his previous books, he gets threatened, throttled and kidnapped. Things aren’t looking up in this latest episode. Angus, the biggest, and ugliest, arms dealer on the West Coast demands IQ clear his daughter of murder charges, or Angus will break IQ’s violinist friend’s fingers — and probably kill IQ. 

Christiana is accused of killing her boyfriend. The good news is there were five witnesses; the bad news is they are all inside the daughter Christiana. Thanks to an abused childhood, she suffers from multiple personality disorder. None of them saw the whole thing, and none of them will cooperate with IQ long enough for him to get a clear picture of what’s happening. He sets off on a dangerous path that involves run-ins with Angus’ crew, gang leaders, and a unique pair of hired killers. Nobody likes him, and everybody is after him. He makes deals that double back on him, and leave him in a darker place than any protagonist deserves — but he unravels the mystery in the last few pages.

Joe Ide is one of the most imaginative writers at work today. In addition to a page-turning plot, he weaves a complex tapestry of characterization. Even Angus, the vilest villain, has a backstory that brings us closer to him, and the returning characters become even more comprehensively human. Hi Five demonstrates the author’s increasing skill. It’s complete enough to be a stand-alone read, but why take away the pleasure of plowing through the three preceding books? Take a trip down the mean ‘hoods of IQ’s L.A.

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Same old … with some twists

Bob Moyer’s travels have been a bit curtailed by the pandemic, but the silver lining is that he has more time to read books and to write reviews.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

MUSEUM OF DESIRE. By Jonathan Kellerman. Ballantine Books. 368 pages. $28.99.

Same old, same old.

After forty-some entries, Alex Delaware mysteries take on a predictable, albeit satisfying pattern. Lt. Milo Sturgis of the LAPD calls in psychologist Alex Delaware when he finds something awry about a case. They drive around, question suspects, head down narrative paths of misdirection, stop to eat, and slowly the solution unrolls before them.

The murders here, however, are not same old, same old. Someone has posed four strangers in gruesome, bizarre positions in a limousine. Milo and Alex stumble about for some time before they find a web of ancient pornography, lust, and Nazis that holds even more horrific murders.

Of course, most of the same old, same old is what Delaware fans return to find. Once again the much-ballyhooed (by me) banter between the two “boys” keeps a bit of light between dark moments. 

Very evident here as well is something not always mentioned. Kellerman is a noted child psychologist. Over the years, he has honed his listening skills, and translated the rhythm of dialogue and voice into his writing. An aging one-hit starlet in a Mcmansion, a blue-haired gallery owner with a lot to hide, her addicted brother who can’t hide anything, all have unique voices. Kellerman reveals that Delaware was an abused child who “…made my way from Missouri to L.A. at 16 (in order to) stop hiding from a drunken, raging father.” It’s part of a little-revealed past that explains why Alex has such a knack for dialogue with troubled children and colleagues. The child here is an autistic boy who is an important witness. Scenes between Alex and him are particularly poignant. Alex also speaks succinctly but with careful support to a traumatized officer on the case.

This latest installment has the full range we expect in a Delaware novel, from pain to poignancy. In other words—

Same old, same old.

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On duty, always

My husband, Lloyd Brinson, was a Marine officer (oops; I’m told there’s no such thing as a former Marine, so should I say is?) who served in Vietnam. Much later, he was an elementary school principal. He finds that this children’s book has much to offer readers of all ages.

Reviewed by Lloyd Brinson

GOODNIGHT MARINES. By David R. Dixon. Illustrated by Phil Jones. Callsign Enterprises. 40 pages including Glossary.

One of the greatest joys to those of us who love to read is sharing tales about how we came to read this book or that article or how we came upon that essay or opinion piece.

Goodnight Marines was serendipitously presented to this well-traveled U. S. Marine veteran as a surprise gift from two very special young Navy officers who have served with Marines in various capacities, including being aboard amphibious ships for extended deployments, with Marines not always on their best behavior.

Goodnight Marines is disguised as a children’s picture book. But, having been immersed in The Corps tradition in boot camp, I realized that many adult readers could get a better idea of who Marines are by reading this little book and enjoying the delightful artwork.

The story begins with a boy in a room full of battle toys and symbols of Marine history. He’s imagining… “In a land overseas, in a far away place…” His father is Over There, “… guarding his base.”

As you join the boy’s mind envisioning the Marines and the traditional symbols of The Corps who support his dad, the author, David R. Dixon, leads the reader through a short course of Marine history and lore. It is no mistake that his history and the artwork by Phil Jones are so accurate: Both men are Marine combat veterans.

The boy and his stuffed companion, Tuffy Hound, are getting sleepy, so they begin saying “goodnight” to more Marine symbols, occupational specialties, artifacts, heros and characters. The parade is not all inclusive, but it is representative of the rich tradition of nearly 250 years The Corps has been in existence.

The mood has been set, most of the supporting cast is asleep (even Tuffy), but the boy has to say “goodnight” to “heroes who answer the call,” those who gave all, and to his dad in Afghanistan.

But that’s not nearly the end of this little jewel of a picture book. After the story, we find Tuffy sitting at attention facing the words of The Marines’ Hymn. Tuffy, whose name is explained in the Glossary, seems to be saying: “Rest easy world, the Marines are on duty, and while you and I sleep, Marines are awake – all over the world.”

There are then a couple of pages explaining about the author and the artist and how this book came about. The Glossary will provide even the most casual adult reader vivid insight as to why those of us who chose and were chosen to be United States Marines live lives devoted to serving others in the face of whatever confronts us.

I have read, paged through and studied this little book a dozen times and have not been able to figure out why it is so appealing to me. Part of its appeal is the powerful depiction of the Marine Corps with such simplicity. And, there is the emotional tug elicited by being faced with so much of the Marine tradition all these many years out of boot camp. And then there is Tuffy, who seems to have been cleverly placed to remind us of the possibilities our children face in an uncertain present and future.

Goodnight little boy. Goodnight mom and dad Marines everywhere. Goodnight to the brave sailors and Marines I served with in extraordinary times; I trust this younger generation is ready for the next extraordinary time. Sleep tight, little Tuffy – you might have to be a Devil Dog someday. 

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Farewell, bold adventurer

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

JOURNEY OF THE PHARAOHS. By Clive Cussler and Graham Brown. Penguin Audio. Read by Scott Brick. 10 hours; 8 CDs. $45. 

My review copy of the audio version of Journey of the Pharaohs, Clive Cussler’s latest NUMA files novel, arrived on my front porch the same day that word of Cussler’s death hit the news.

That was Feb. 26, two says after he died, and a sad day for those who love Cussler’s adventure-packed tales. An Air Force veteran of the Korean War who learned to dive in Hawaii, Cussler started writing his adventure tales in 1965, when he started taking care of the children at night while his wife, Barbara, worked a late shift at the local police department. Cussler was an advertising copywriter by day.

His debut novel, The Mediterranean Caper (later renamed Mayday), starring Dirk Pitt, was published in 1973. After his second novel came out in 1975 and his popularity soared, Cussler quite his day job. 

Over the years, he has published 85 books, selling more than 100 million copies. He developed several series in addition to the Dirk Pitt tales. 

In recent years, at the urging of his publisher, he began working with a few collaborators and sometimes turned out as many as four books in a year. He’s written books for children and young adults as well as adults. That’s how I first started reading his books: One of my sons checked some of the children’s books out of the library and started talking excitedly about them.

Critics frequently – and with justification – have pointed out that Cussler’s writings are not exactly great works of art. His more or less formulaic plots strain credulity, his poorly developed characters are almost cartoonish, and, and his prose is full of clichés.

But who cares? The books are full of interesting descriptions of shipwrecks and relics. There’s high adventure, usually involving both a quest for some sort of treasure and battles with evil villains. Often, part of the formula is to start with some event in history that at least MIGHT have happened. 

Fans also appreciate that Cussler’s real life was full of adventure, and that he drew on it for his books. The NUMA files books, including Journey of the Pharaohs, feature a fictitious U.S. government agency, but in real life, Cussler created a nonprofit called NUMA that finds and helps preserve shipwrecks and other archaeological treasures. He explored some 60 shipwreck sites.

The book that arrived the day we learned of Cussler’s death is a particularly entertaining one. It starts in 1074 with the disappearance of a vast store of treasures from the tombs of pharaohs in Egypt. 

Then we hear/read about a flashy American aviator who disappeared while trying to fly across the Atlantic, not long before Lindbergh managed the feat.

In the present day, Kurt Austin, the NUMA team and an attractive British woman (who is she, really?) just happen to be around when a fishing trawler carrying a mysterious cargo sinks during a storm off the coast of Scotland.

Of course, action, treachery, crime, heroism, puzzle-solving and racing across the ocean ensue. Priceless artifacts are at stake. And where did those ancient Egyptians who ran off with the treasures really manage to go? No spoilers here; let Cussler tell you.

Scott Brick reads the audio version with his usual perfect delivery. 

Will there be more Clive Cussler novels? News reports at the time of his death said a book in the Oregon Files series will be published later this year. Whether any of the collaborators will try to keep things going after that remains to be seen.  Those of us who haven’t read all 85 of his novels still have a lot of adventures to look forward to.

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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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