****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.

*****Back Up

photo: Darren Price, creative commons license

By Paul Colize, translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie This crime thriller by Belgian writer Paul Colize about a British rock band was short-listed for a number of prizes when first released. Only now available in English, the book should find a natural home and receptive audience among rock fans everywhere.

It’s 1967. The rock band Pearl Harbor is taking a break after a hastily organized, late night Berlin recording session, and its four members have scattered. Within days, each of them is dead and unaccountably flush with cash.

One is found at the bottom of a swimming pool in a luxury hotel in Palma de Mallorca, one with a bullet in his head in a hotel room in Hamburg, one crushed under a train in a Berlin U-Bahn station, and one who was apparently hiding out in a London hotel and jumped from his fifth floor room.

Who could believe all these deaths were coincidental? The authorities, with their scattered jurisdictions and the differing modes of death believe it, especially when the bodies—and the victims’ histories—reveal alarmingly high levels of drug and alcohol abuse. The band members become no more than rock n roll detritus, washed up by the tide of 1960s counterculture. It’s a bang-up start to this well-constructed mystery.

Fast forward to 2010. In Brussels, a homeless man is hit by a car near the Gare du Midi train station. He’s badly injured, cannot speak, cannot be identified, and comes to be known as X Midi. You are privileged to read his thoughts, however, as he recuperates. He reconstructs his past and his fleeting but deadly association with Pearl Harbor in chapters that alternate with those narrated by his caretakers. They are trying with infinite patience to help him recover from locked-in syndrome, which leaves him almost totally incapable of communicating.

Drug and alcohol use is part of the immersive environment Colize creates and manages not to become tedious. Rumors of U.S. military involvement in the testing psychoactive drugs simmer. There’s lots of music-making too, which is filled with energy and considerable joy. Berlin’s rock scene takes place in bars and nightclubs, and the bartenders and denizens are portrayed convincingly.

Nevertheless, you may be grateful when X Midi’s narrative emerges from his substance-abusing days to confront the deeper and more sinister evil dogging him. Only gradually does he come to understand the true significance of Pear Harbor’s fateful and final recording session, in which he served as the substitute drummer. The back up.

And murder has a long tail.

Good Health, Good Luck, Good Reading

Beer

photo: Phil King, creative commons license

Here are a few of my favorite books by Irish writers. Grab one of these books and pour yourself something tarry. Sláinte!

Literature

    • Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the Man Booker Prize for its recounting of the life of a 10-year-old Dublin boy whose family is on the eve of destruction.
    • The Gathering by Anne Enright, another Booker prize-winner “has more layers to it—of grief, love, lightness, tragedy, absurdity, and trauma—than an onion, and may cause as much weeping” says The American Scholar. I felt privileged to hear her reading last year under auspices of Princeton’s Fund for Irish Studies.
    • The Year of the French is a wonderful historical tale (part of a trilogy) by American writer Thomas Flanagan. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Don’t know who Wolf Tone was? Read this and you will.
    • The International by Glenn Patterson, another writer who has appeared in Princeton, and his The International is the story of a single night in the bar of the International Hotel, while upstairs a consequential meeting forming the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. It’s not about militants at all but about state-of-mind.
    • You may think there’s not much new literary territory to explore in male-female sexual relations, yet award-winning author Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians finds it and mines it. Innovative, immersive, dazzling.

Crime/Thrillers

  • Tana French is an American who’s lived in Dublin for nearly thirty years. In her books about the Dublin Murder Squad, she has created what might be termed an ensemble production, as each department member takes a turn in the leading role. Of these, I’ve read Broken Harbor, featuring Dublin detective “Scorcher” Kennedy.
  • The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville won the LA Times Book Prize for its depiction of an IRA assassin unable to come to terms with his past. Edge-of-your seat.
  • Adrian McKinty writes about crime in his native Belfast amidst the Troubles. His detective, Sean Duffy, is a rare Catholic in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The Cold, Cold Ground is first in the series. The 2017 entry—which I would want to read based on the title alone—is Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly. I recommend the audio versions for the super narration by Gerard Doyle.


Finally, to quote another notable Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” Any of these is worth more than one pass!

****Need to Know

Matrushka

photo: Chauncey Huffman, creative commons license

By Karen Cleveland – Debut Author Karen Cleveland’s new spy thriller comes from a heartfelt place. She wrote it while on maternity leave from her former position as a CIA analyst, and it is steeped with both internal agency politics and maternal concern.

First-person narrator Vivian Miller has developed an algorithm to help identify the Russian sleeper cells the CIA is convinced are hiding in the United States. Finding a cell’s handler—the only person who knows the agents’ identities—is  is an essential first step to unmasking the entire group.

Using her algorithm, she’s eliminated all but one of her handler candidates and is so close to cracking into the computer of the last one—a man named Yury Yakov—that she doesn’t mind the long working hours. Well, she does mind. She has a loving husband, Matt, and four kids at home, including toddler twins, one of whom has a serious heart defect. Fortunately, Matt works from home, and pitches in when she can’t pick up the kids or make the lunches or take Caleb to his doctor appointments. He also cooks.

In a breakthrough moment early in the book, Vivian finally worms her way into Yury’s computer, and, in a folder labeled “friends,” finds photographs of the sleeper agents in Yury’s cell. Four are strangers. The fifth is a shocking discovery—her husband Matt. From there on she must try to sort out the lies and deception from the true core of what she thought was a healthy, loving relationship. She really does “need to know.”

Throughout the story, she believes in him, then she doesn’t, then she does, and her waffling on this question may be realistic, or merely convenient, for her and the plot. Vivian’s uppermost concern is the safety of her children, especially as Yury circles nearer. Perhaps Cleveland occasionally overdoes Vivian’s mounting anxiety, but you can understand the confusion she is thrown into and how she naturally does return again and again to her touchstone: keeping the kids safe when she cannot trust anyone.

The tension is definitely there in this thriller, ratcheting up with each action Vivian does—or does not—take. The most engaging part of the story is her relationship with Matt, as each new event causes her to reevaluate everything that has gone on before and whether she can ever trust him again—a plot question I found rather easier to answer than Vivian did.

Cleveland evocatively describes the Washington, D.C., setting—the attitudes, travel logistics, and other details. Reportedly, people in the U.S. intelligence community are enthusiastic about this book. and a movie deal is in the works.

*****Robicheaux

Bayou, Louisiana, swamp

photo: Bart Everson, creative commons license

By James Lee Burke – For an American story setting that immediately and richly evokes a colorful geographic, cultural, moral, and culinary milieu, it’s hard to beat the hot, humid Cajun country of southern Louisiana. James Lee Burke has made Iberia Parish the primary home for his literary works, and it continues to serve him well. This new novel is his twenty-first featuring now semi-retired but perpetually on-call sheriff’s detective Dave Robicheaux.

If you’re a fan, you will expect Burke’s newest crime fiction to serve up a gumbo thick with oddball characters, history, philosophy, current crises, people trying to do right, and others not caring to. You won’t be disappointed. From corruption to an unhinged serial killer, this book has it all.

At the outset of the story, most of which is told by Dave in first person, he sees the ghosts of Confederate soldiers marching through the swamp. The scene enables a meditation on mortality, a reexamination of grief over his wife Molly’s death in an automobile crash, and a way to get at truths “that have less to do with the dead than the awareness (that life is) a continuum in which all time occurs at once, like a dream inside the mind of God.” Heavy stuff for a man soon to be facing some nightmarish characters more likely spawned by the devil’s imagination. Burke’s Acadiana is a place where you can believe in such things.

About the plot, suffice it to say that it is complex, with perhaps four main threads that Dave must tease apart and reweave into a coherent set of motives and opportunities. An unexpected subplot involves Dave’s daughter Alafair (the name of Burke’s real-life daughter), a mystery writer (again, as in real life).

Although the narrative follows Dave Robicheaux through the steps of his investigations, to call this a police procedural would shortchange the essence of the book. It more resembles a philosophical probe of the circumstances in which crimes can occur. An example are two of Burke’s quintessential Louisiana characters, sons of old southern families, who are deeply involved in the story’s events: Jimmy Nightingale and Levon Broussard.

Dave notes “an existential difference between the two families. For the Nightingales, manners and morality were interchangeable. For Levon Broussard and his ancestors, honor was a religion, . . . the kind of mind-set associated with a Templar Knight or pilots in the Japanese air force.” Such reflections on the psyches of his characters provide the sense that you’re reading about living, breathing individuals, with all their baggage and capacity for the unexpected.

As the mayhem of the story winds down, Dave’s best friend gives his assessment of their situation in south Louisiana: “There’re no safe places anymore. Everyone knows that except you.”

 

Hollywood in the White House

LBJ - Harrelson

Woody Harrelson as LBJ (2017)

Most of the time, Hollywood moguls and the pols inside the Washington Beltway hold each other “in mutual contempt,” said film historian Max Alvarez in an entertaining talk this week at the Princeton library. Yet politicians need Hollywood’s money and clout, and filmmakers need the government for such things as copyright and First Amendment protections and favorable trade regulations. And occasionally, they look to Washington—and the White House—for juicy story lines.

Screenwriters don’t overlook our Presidents who’ve been tragic characters worthy of Shakespeare. Lincoln has been most often portrayed, with Nixon second-most. Alvarez showed three clips back-to-back from movies about our 37th President: Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, and Kevin Spacey in the comedy Elvis and Nixon. Hopkins was the smarmiest, Langella the most tightly wound, and Spacey (I know, I know)—hilarious.

At least until recently, films about presidents and the presidency mostly flopped at the box office, and early on, not many were made. There was a bit of a burst in World War II, in films that had a propaganda message. If a president did appear in these early films, he was an upstanding, respected figure. That’s sure changed.

Alvarez suggested that because Presidents Kennedy and Clinton were younger and “cooler,” the creative types in Hollywood were drawn to material that included a president or presidential candidate in the early 60s and again in the 90s. (Note that the industry insider—Ronald Reagan—did not spark such ideas.) Television contributed, too, with 156 episodes of The West Wing from 1999 to 2006. Now we have Veep.

The movies have stopped treating presidents as paragons, with Wag the Dog, Primary Colors, Absolute Power, and Clear and Present Danger examples Alvarez cited. Why the shift? A scene from the Netflix program The Crown suggests an answer. In an episode set in 1957, Lord Altrincham, a small-time newspaper publisher, editorializes against Queen Elizabeth for being priggish and out of touch. In a meeting with her, he explains that the root of the problem is that, since the war, everything has changed, but the monarchy hasn’t. “What’s changed?” she asks, and he replies, “Deference.”

House-of-Cards

Kevin Spacey’s bloody hands in House of Cards.

Does exposure to charismatic, but dysfunctional characters on, say, House of Cards (not to mention such shows as Dexter, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men) normalize dysfunctional behavior? Alvarez thinks it may. Not that we have to go to the cinema or watch tv for that.

From the Department of Free Association . . .

. . . and so we have this recent Atlantic article about how continued exposure to the perfidies of the current administration is causing ‘outrage fatigue.’ Say it isn’t so.

 

****White Bodies

strangers-on-a-train

Farley Granger & Robert Walker, the “Strangers on a Train”

By Jane Robins – This is a fun read that puts a 21st century twist on the premise of the famous 1951 Alfred Hitchcock movie, Strangers on a Train. That’s the one where two strangers fall into conversation and agree to murder a person of the other’s choosing. They convince themselves that, since there is nothing to connect murderer and victim, the crimes will be easy to get away with. Right.

But, how would you effect such an anonymous encounter today? Where would you look for such a willing accomplice? The Internet, of course! “The internet is where psychos find each other,” says character Tilda. And Robins makes good use of the strengths and weaknesses of social media in crafting her tale.

The protagonist in this London-based domestic thriller is Callie—a bit socially awkward, insecure about her looks (and everything else), a librarian. The relationship between her and her glamorous twin sister Tilda is explored in both the current time and a succession of flashbacks. Callie increasingly believes that “the perfect man” Tilda has become involved with—the wealthy, handsome, larger-than-life and more than a bit obsessive-compulsive American, Felix Nordberg—is actually quite dangerous.

Desperate to help Tilda, Callie becomes involved with a website called controllingmen.com, where all the classic signs of a relationship headed toward abuse are spelled out, just the way she sees them in Tilda and Felix’s relationship.

But Tilda dismisses her sister’s concerns, and you’ll understand Callie’s bafflement at how to proceed without creating a rift between them. At times you may want to wring her neck for the way she can’t stop herself from blurting out her suspicions. Moreover, she can’t seem to see how her obsession with Tilda and Felix is interfering with her own life.

We know from the first pages that Felix is dead. But was he murdered? The medical examiner says he died from natural causes. Although I thought I understood how Felix died, I hadn’t reckoned with Jane Robins’s diabolical imagination. I had to reread some of the last bits to be sure I understood the extent of the duplicity. That sense of something happening behind the scenes that I hadn’t quite grasped really kept the pages turning.

Robins has written several true-crime and non-fiction books and has a straightforward style that is a nice counterpoint to the emotions rampaging through Callie, and every one of the main characters in White Bodies is believable.

As a side note, a disadvantage to book reviewing is the “promotional cover.” The White Bodies review copy bore a temporary cover with a quote in tall, all-capital scarlet letters, “Everyone wants someone murdered.” Not the kind of thing you can put on an empty train seat beside you for a stranger to see.