****Lullaby Road

Night Sky

photo: U.S., Bureau of Land Management

By James Anderson–In this, as in Anderson’s admirable debut novel, The Never Open Desert Diner, you share the adventures of short-haul truck driver Ben Jones, who drives a hundred-mile stretch between two small towns in the high Utah desert. If the town of Price is next-to-nothing, Rockmuse, at the other end of his route, amounts to even less.

These are literary novels, yet they encompass mysteries and crimes of many kinds, including crimes of the spirit. Anderson sets you down, unmistakably, in the high desert—with its sunrises and sunsets, the brilliance of its stars at night, its smells, the amazing quiet, and its deadly hazards, human and otherwise.

In his new book, half-Jewish, half-Indian Ben and his cast of oddball desert dwellers are as reclusive and tetchy as ever. They live far from ordinary conceptions of civilization for a reason, generally. Ben delivers their groceries, water, auto parts, horse feed—whatever they need. In hot weather, it can be a brutal job. In winter, it may be worse. Blinding snowstorms barrel over the mountains, scouring the land and hitting the mesa to the east, only to ricochet back for another strike on the inhabitants.

Ben is in a tricky situation. On a not very good morning, winter weather-wise, he fuels up at the Stop ‘n’ Gone before starting a run to Rockmuse, and finds a Mexican child and a suspicious dog, sitting by one of the pumps. A child not dressed for the freezing temperatures. The station owner has locked up and won’t respond to Ben’s pounding. Ben has “no choice”—a phrase he particularly loathes—but to take the child inside the warm truck cab and sort things out later. The child doesn’t talk. Eventually, Ben finds out why.

This is bad enough, but his neighbor stops him before he can drive away and hands over her infant daughter. She has “no choice” but to deposit her baby with him for the day. Like it or not, and he definitely does not, he’s left holding the diaper bag. So now you understand the book’s title.

The child, the protective dog, and the infant Belle turn out to be good travelers. That’s lucky, because the day turns dangerous and requires all Ben’s concentration. With the road margins indistinct in the blinding snow, it’s like driving into oblivion. And that’s just the weather.

Author Anderson does a great job describing the difficulties Ben runs up against trying to help the people living in such a remote place—their scant resources and limited access to communications, helicopter airlifts, and other take-for-granted trappings of modern life.

Much as Ben hates it, “no choice” often is the choice, and everything cannot turn out well. The book is generous in acknowledging that good people can make bad decisions, it is sincere in grieving for the innocent, and it leaves open the expectation that bad people may yet get what’s coming to them.

***In Strangers’ Houses

Cleaner

photo: ePi.Longo, creative commons license

By Elizabeth Mundy – Highly visible as an “issue” and yet highly invisible as individuals, East European immigrants and best friends Lena Szarka and her friend Timea Dubay clean London’s houses in the daytime and its offices at night. Although the work offers them more upward mobility than would be possible back in Hungary, working in a foreign country isn’t easy. The language is difficult, the systems and culture are unfamiliar, and nasty anti-immigrant sentiment lies just below the surface.

Most of Elizabeth Mundy’s debut murder mystery is told from Lena’s point of view, enabling a close-up perspective on the complexities and hazards of immigrant life on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. As house cleaners, she and Timea work in others’ private spaces, see their most intimate secrets, and observe their habits. It is an act of faith that they can do so safely and will be paid for their efforts. Mundy has created engaging characters facing believable challenges. It’s no surprise this is intended as the first of a series featuring the warm-hearted Lena.

Lena is a few years older than Timea and coping fairly well. But Timea, a single mother, is struggling. She’s never told anyone who her son Laszlo’s father is—and though it was hard to leave the boy behind, she expects this sojourn abroad to jump-start a better life for them both. The women’s childhood friend Istvan, a handsome television actor, also lives in London. Istvan is married to a well-off woman who has helped his career, and he’s achieved a lifestyle starkly contrasting with that of the women, one that lets him concentrate on what is most important, himself.

Early in the story, Lena begins to worry about Timea. Her friend is increasingly unhappy and confesses that the problem is someone she must get away from. When Timea doesn’t come home one night, Lena’s worry blossoms into fear, and when she doesn’t return by the next day, Lena goes to the police. They are disinclined to take the disappearance seriously. Experience tells them Timea is most likely with a boyfriend and will turn up.

When Timea’s body does turn up, floating in Regent’s Canal, the police take a brief interest, but conclude the death was suicide. They hold this opinion even more strongly once the autopsy reveals Timea was three months pregnant. Mundy rounds out her characters in a series of flashbacks to Lena, Timea, and Istvan as children, a history that convinces Lena that Timea would never kill herself. In true amateur detective form, Mundy gives Lena no choice but to embark on the investigation herself.

Mundy shows a somewhat different facet of London than we usually see and makes Lena’s situation fresh and interesting. The writing is solid, though the police detective sometimes sounds as if he’s memorized a criminology textbook. By contrast, Lena’s slight awkwardness in expression is part of the book’s charm. After all, English is a bit of a struggle for her, but she sticks with it bravely, just as she does the pursuit of Timea’s killer. A quick read without a lot of graphic violence or sex. I’ll be interested to see more from Mundy.

Got the Horse Right Here!

horse racing

photo: TNS Sofres, creative commons license

It’s Derby week, and attention turns to things equine. The horses are huge, but run on the most fragile of ankles. The jockeys are small, but mostly heart. Racing is a quick way to burn money. No wonder storytellers have capitalized on its dramatic potential. This is a repost of my favorite horse books and screen entertainment, with the addition of Triple Crown, a crime novel by Felix Francis, carrying on his late father Dick’s call to the post.

Horse Heaven – by Jane Smiley. Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for A Thousand Acres, yet I found this novel way more satisfying. She’s developed a stableful of engaging characters as you follow the fates of several horses bred for racing, a risky proposition in the best of times. As much about people and their passions and predilections as about horses, of course.

Lords of Misrule – by Jaimy Gordon. Winner of the 2010 National Book Award, this novel is set in the lower echelons of horse-racing, among people for whom the twin spires of Churchill Downs are a distant dream. She has an almost miraculous way of capturing the way horse people think and talk.

The Horse God Built – by Lawrence Scanlan. This one I haven’t read, but it was too tempting to include a book about Secretariat—“the horse God built.” Secretariat won racing’s Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes) in 1973, with track-blistering performances. This nonfiction book is Secretariat as seen through the eyes of his groom and a story of friendship. This is one of six great nonfiction books about racing compiled by Amy Sachs for BookBub.

Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand, was made into an Academy Award-nominated film starring Toby Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, and real-life jockey Gary Stevens. A heartwarming story, this production includes footage shot from the midst of a race—an unforgettable view of why this sport is so dangerous. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 77%, audiences 76%.

Luck – HBO. For the full immersion experience, try this nine-episode series, developed by David Milch. It’s all-star cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz, Richard Kind, Nick Nolte, Michael Gambon and, again, jockey Gary Stevens (who raced in the 2016 Kentucky Derby at age 53). The three touts, convinced they’re on track for riches, are priceless.

Walter Mosley’s Advice for Author Readings

Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter MosleyWalter Mosley—one of the illuminati of crime fiction—spoke yesterday in Princeton, providing good advice for authors invited to read from their work. He prefaced it by noting that, while he loves writing and cannot imagine doing anything else, it’s also his business. It’s how he earns a living. Participating in a lot of readings over the years, he’s developed this nugget: “the longer you read, the fewer people buy the book.”

He once attended a reading for a book that adopted an esoteric analysis of the life of Tolstoy. “Sounds interesting,” he thought. After the author went on to read from it for an hour, “I was never going to buy that book.”

Then he proceeded to read about seven pages from the beginning of his own new book, published last February, Down the River Unto the Sea, leaving us wanting more, enough to buy the book more. He told us in advance that his black ex-detective, a man named Joe King Oliver, becomes involved in the case of a black political activist sentenced to death for killing of a couple of on-duty policemen, with Oliver hired to help prove a wrongful conviction. It’s evident that though the early pages are full of Mosley’s sly wit, there is lots of pain to come.

Mosley has written 55 or 56 books, even he isn’t sure of the exact number, many of them his popular Los Angeles-based crime novels involving detective Easy Rawlins, and other kinds of books too—literature, science fiction, plays, and advice for writers. But he says, “Everyone wants me to write mysteries.” Those people will be happy with this new work, which Richard Lipez in The Washington Post called “as gorgeous a novel as anything he’s ever written.”

He’s received a wonderfully long list of awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and was brought to Princeton as part of a reading series organized by the Lewis Center on the Arts Creative Writing Program.

A Trio of Notable Crime Novels

photo: Stew Dean, creative commons license

Exciting plots, award-winning authors, worthy protagonists. Three crime thrillers for spring!

****Slow Horses

By Mick Herron – In Britain’s MI5, the slow horses are the agents whose incompetence, outrageous errors, or general unlikeability cause them to slip off the fast track. They’re stabled at the aptly-named Slough House, far from Regent’s Park, the energized center of important decisions and brisk walking. With luck, sheer boredom will move them to seek some different pasture.

The slow horses work under the benign supervision of Jackson Lamb, who may be more wolf than lamb, and you’d be forgiven for anticipating that the luckless occupants of Slough House are not without tradecraft tools and the wit to use them.

When a young man is abducted by people threatening to behead him live on the Internet, the political complexities of the situation quickly escalate. Slough House has reason to be involved, but HQ won’t hear of it. Worse, a violent attack on one of them suggests any means possible will be used to prevent their sticking their noses in. Slow horses or no, the race is on. Against the kidnappers and against their own superiors.

Herron has written a page-turner of a novel, with many laugh-out-loud moments. This first in an award-winning series was thoroughly enjoyable.

***Night Life

By David C. Taylor, narrated by Keith Szarabajka – In 1954 New York City, police detective Michael Cassidy—who could have inspired Sinatra’s “My Way”—becomes embroiled in a mystery that will require all his detecting skills and a great deal of political savvy to unravel. A young gay man is found tortured to death. The killer was apparently looking for something. Cassidy must look for it too.

He’s not sure what he’ll find when he starts turning over rocks in these early Cold War days, with paranoia about Communism and Communists on the rise, with the hearings of Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt in the news, with the CIA and the FBI competing for scraps of information. Cassidy is a straight-up cop, but he’s unaware of his own vulnerabilities. He’s about to discover them, and they will put the people he cares about most at risk.

Screenwriter Taylor creates a powerful noir atmosphere that evokes not only the streets of New York some sixty years ago but also the psychic atmosphere, with its fear-mongering about the Red Menace and its rampant homophobia. In this novel, both of these caused people to kill and be killed. Nice narration from Keith Szarabajka.

This book won the 2016 Nero Wolfe Award for Best American Mystery, and was a Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award nominee.

***Shutter Man

By Richard Montanari, narrated by Scott Brick – Another good cop story, this one intergenerational. It’s set in Philadelphia, and the early scenes take place in 1976 in an Irish neighborhood called Devil’s Pocket. Back then, a group of teenage friends from the Pocket were involved somehow in the death of a mentally disabled young man who was a member of the powerful Irish crime family, the Farrens.

Today, one of those young men is police detective Kevin Byrne, another is DA candidate Jimmy Doyle, and the Farrens are still operating outside the law. Byrne and his friend, Assistant DA Jessica Balzano (teamed up in several of Montanari’s books) are working on a set of bizarre killings that seem to be linked, but how? And do they reach all the way back to those Devil’s Pocket days?

Montanari’s characters are interesting and well-rounded and he creates considerable narrative tension. While Scott Brick provided a fine narration, the multitude of characters and the switching between time periods make this a better candidate for enjoying in print.

One of The New York Times‘s 10 Best Crime Novels of 2016.

The Writer’s Essential Tool: Curiosity

Question

photo: Barney Moss, creative commons license

Award-winning fiction author (and fellow U-Mich alumna) Danielle Lazarin’s recent Glimmer Train essay tells how she probes the depths of her characters and their dilemmas by questioning everything, large and small, from the shape of a character’s existential dilemmas to what she wants to be called and by whom. The scribbled questions that litter her writing notebooks, she says, “aren’t signs of confusion or desperation but of sufficient curiosity on my part to propel a story forward.” Curiosity that manifests itself as questions.

In New York City recently, we took two tours. A robotic one that sounded as if it never deviated from the memorized script by so much as a syllable and one from a young guide at the Tenement Museum who was introducing her group to three post World War II families who’d shared a specific two-bedroom apartment.

She asked lots of questions. How did the Jewish couple manage to instill a sense of family tradition in their daughters, being the only ones left from their families? Why did the Puerto Rican mother insist her sons start the pot of beans on the stove when they got home from school? How did the four children of the Chinese family manage to all study (and graduate from high school and college) at the same tiny desk? While our first guide seemed notably uncurious, everything about those families’ lives interested this second guide. She was a perfect illustration of the interrogatory mind-set Lazarin endorses.

When a story idea seems too preposterous, Lazarin expresses it as a question, “easing myself into a space I’m likely afraid of exploring.” The question mark asserts her tentativeness toward the idea that makes it more comfortable. She can “sit with it and remain skeptical.” That idea leads to further questions about the how and the why, as she excavates layers of meaning and the detail that make them real. Two-time Booker Award-winner Hilary Mantel has said that when she’s having trouble capturing a character she imagines interviewing them.

As I write, I compile a list of all the questions I believe the story has raised, large and small. Reviewing this inventory of questions from time to time may suggest where the story needs to go next, how different characters coming at the situation from their different perspectives—and their own knowledge and, indeed, questions—can interact, reinforce, or thwart each other in unexpected ways. When I reach the end, I check to make sure all the questions have been addressed.

While stories generally answer the specific questions they raise, Lazarin says a story also asks a fundamental question of the reader that invites a personal response. Examples she cites are: do people require hope; how do we grieve; why do we continue to disappoint others? The author cannot “answer” that question without coming across as polemical; readers must arrive at their own, individual responses. Careful attention to all the questions integral to the story, Lazarin believes, can “take readers into a space where they can ask the big questions, too.”

Danielle Lazarin’s book of short stories, Back Talk, was released earlier this year to stunning reviews.

****A Hole in One

Golf Clubs

photo: Susanne Nilsson, creative commons license

By Judy Penz Sheluk – In this charming cozy mystery set in a small town north of Toronto, Canada, Arabella Carpenter decides to promote her Glass Dolphin antiques shop by sponsoring a hole in one contest at a local charity golf tournament. The prize: a pricy jet ski. All good fun until she hits her ball into the woods, and amongst the trees finds not her golf ball, but a dead body.

The victim, killed by a gunshot to the chest, is the estranged father of Arabella’s ex-husband, Levon Larroquette. The two men were so estranged that Arabella never met her ex-father-in-law. But she has seen him. He and Levon were arguing in the park just a few days before the tournament. Arabella still has feelings for Levon, and precisely how strong those feelings are is revealed whenever he encourages her to join him in drinking a little too much cognac.

Levon might have flaws as a husband, but Arabella is convinced he’s no killer. Worried that her information has made him appear more guilty, she’s determined to clear Levon’s name by investigating the murder herself, with the help of her business partner Emily, a former investigative reporter.

This is the second in the Glass Dolphin mystery series, in which Arabella and Emily boldly go where, maybe, they shouldn’t, as some of the information they turn up seems to implicate Levon even further. Their inquiries give author Sheluk the opportunity to introduce a sizeable cast of interesting, often amusing characters, with their tidbits of information and propensity for creating confusion: an Elvis impersonator, potential romantic interests for both Arabella and Emily, a vengeful local newspaper editor and reckless blogger, and an antique dealer going out of business who has sad secrets of her own.

Sheluk is an antiques expert herself and currently editor of the New England Antiques Journal. Writing with a light touch, she has a knack for inserting just the right amount of intriguing details about antique items, the antiques market, or running a small business. That information gives the story a nice grounding in reality, even as the plot twists and turns.

A Hole in One is thick with dialog, with the banter between the two women full of good humor. You may not doubt that they will succeed, almost despite themselves, but the fun is in seeing how they go about it as their theories—and the bodies—pile up.

 

*****Fever

Abandoned house

photo: Lane Pearman, creative commons license

Written by Deon Meyer, translated from the Afrikaans by KL Seegers – Opening with the lines, “I want to tell you about my father’s murder. I want to tell you who killed him and why,” this noted South African author takes a good long while to get to the actual killing of Willem Storm, but he uses the time well.

The world has been devastated by the Fever—a new infectious disease that spreads rapidly and catastrophically. A few people have a genetic quirk that saves them, but 95 percent of the world’s population has died. Willem and his son Nico, hiding out in a remote South African cave, survive. The big challenge is “now what?”

Willem has a vision for what should come next. He and his son fill a tractor-trailer with useful items they find as they traverse the countryside. They aren’t the only survivors, of course, and food becomes increasingly hard to find. With a pre-Fever population of approximately 56 million, South Africa alone would have a residual population of 2.8 million.

How people react in such a desperate situation reveals their fundamental values. Willem Storm envisions a new egalitarian society built on democratic principles. He finds a suitable location, and he and Nico drive the countryside, leaving posters asking people of good will to come. Gradually, they do, and they name their new community Amanzi, “water.”

Teenage Nico is torn between his father’s idealism and the aggressive values of a new arrival in the community, Domingo. He has a past he won’t talk about, works with military precision, and an affinity for weapons. He consistently argues for more security precautions, because the threats are real—packs of wild dogs, marauding motorcycle gangs, and murderous thieves. “People are animals,” Domingo says.

Amanzi’s creation is an amazing adventure story. The book may be 530 pages long, but it is very hard (truly, almost impossible) to put down—at least for someone like me who is interesting in how things work, or don’t. Nico narrates most of it, though a great many other residents recount their experiences both before Amanzi and in the community, gradually building up a “360-degree” perspective on Willem, Domingo, Nico, and Amanzi. Only in the last 20 pages are the most horrifying crimes of the novel revealed, and these are the least satisfying pages of all.

If you are intrigued by the situations and challenges presented in post-apocalyptic thrillers like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Stephen King’s The Stand, this novel is sure to get you thinking.

“Up-Lit” — What Is It and Why Are We Reading It?

files

photo: Nasir Khan, creative commons license

Book publishers, scrambling to find a toehold as the Niagara of new manuscripts cascades over them, have latched onto the concept of “up-lit.” According to Hannah Beckerman in The Guardian, novels that offer “decidedly upbeat accounts of the kindness of strangers” are increasingly garnering publisher and prize committee attention, and more important, the loyalty of readers.

Perhaps it’s a reaction to the long run of dystopian novels or perhaps a reaction to the daily news, but, as HarperCollins terms them, “books that give us hope,” such as Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Cecelia Ahern’s The Marble Collector, and Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time, have shown there’s a strong market for books whose subtext is optimism and empathy. We’re not talking lit-lite here: George Saunders’s Lincoln at the Bardo (2017 Man Booker prize winner) is riddled with human compassion. Though it comes from the dead. Hmm.

Says author Joanna Cannon, “I write about communities, kindness and people coming together because that’s the society I wish for. I write what I’d like to happen.” I would put Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow in that same category. Would that there were more people like Count Alexander Rostov, and, hey, why couldn’t I try to emulate him, and hew to a code of unfailing courtesy (even while retaining a bit of private deviousness in service of a higher good)?

We’re not talking Pollyannas, either. Beckerman quotes Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in saying that up-lit stories’ characters can confront all the bad things in life—“devastation, cruelty, hardship and loneliness”—and yet say, “there is still this.” She says, “Kindness isn’t just giving somebody something when you have everything. Kindness is having nothing and then holding out your hand.”

To the extent that people read novels for escape and enlightenment, why not escape to a kinder, better world? Why not be inspired to greater empathy rather than snarkiness? The speculative novel Fever, by South African thriller writer Deon Meyer, takes place after an uncontrollable virus kills ninety-five percent of the world’s population. It could have described a society that devolves into anarchy and rapaciousness (think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Stephen King’s The Stand), and, while there are people in the novel who follow that path, the principal characters envision a better, more equal world and work hard to build it. They face logistical, emotional, and moral struggles, but the fact that their better world can be envisioned at all and collectively pursued is, ultimately, affirmative.

Not having read many of these books, I hope you have and that you’ll leave a comment reporting what you think of them.

****Lincoln in the Bardo & ***The Sympathizer

Cemetery Angel

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

How many books can you read in a lifetime, or what’s left of it? (To calculate the limits on your literary throughput, check this out). Whatever the number is, it’s finite, so the books you choose may as well be good ones. Here are two prize-winners I recently ticked off my list.

****Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders – This, the first novel by Saunders, a highly-regarded short story writer, appeared on many “best books” list for 2017. “The bardo” is a Buddhist concept of a state of being between death and rebirth. The Lincoln in question is our 16th President.

It’s still the early days of the Civil War, yet death and the prospect of death loom over the country. Willie Lincoln, the President’s twelve-year-old son lies upstairs in the White House, ill with typhoid fever. Nothing can be done but wait. Then, nothing can be done. The funeral is arranged, the small still body is placed in its coffin, and the coffin is set in a niche in a borrowed tomb. Yet Lincoln cannot let go.

In the cemetery after dark, the spirits of the bardo emerge. Dispossessed of their bodies, they cannot accept that they are dead and resist the mysterious forces that attempt to persuade them that they are. These spirits counsel Willie on how to deal with his grief-stricken father.

Written in many voices, in snippets, like the libretto for a manic and desperate chorus of the dead, the story is full of humanity and sorrow, with flashes of dark humor and, ultimately, deep compassion for the grieving Lincoln. Overwhelmed by his son’s death, the President knows he cannot indulge his grief for long, with the chaos of war rising around him.

***The Sympathizer

Written by Viet Thanh Nguyen, narrated by François Chau. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, The Sympathizer opens with the chaos and terror of Saigon’s fall in the waning days of the Vietnam war. In the middle, the scene migrates to California, in the community of formerly powerful refugees, now consigned to marginal lives, and finally returns to the hostile territory of Communist-led Vietnam, where the first person narrator—“the captain”—is captured and interrogated. This book, readers are told, is his “confession.”

The captain early on declares himself a man with two minds, equally able to see both the tragedy and the farce of the war destroying his country. “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces,” he says. Though he works for a general in the South Vietnamese Army, he is a spy for North Vietnam. Still on assignment, he accompanies the general in exile and reports on his continuing and hopeless plans to return to their native country to wage counterrevolution.

Filled with both nostalgia and cynicism, the captain undertakes various duties, some banal, some murderous, and the latter haunt him. His most irony-filled task is accompanying a Hollywood filmmaker to the Philippines to assure that “real Vietnamese people” have a role in the auteur’s shallow cinematic depiction of the war. In that process, he realizes the real Vietnamese people were no more than extras in the war itself. Like the movie, it was an American production.

For my taste, the interrogation section of the book dragged. Chau’s narration lacked the propulsive energy to carry me through nearly 14 hours of listening. Better in print.