Thursday, April 12, 2018

Dear Committee Members

This epistolary novel by Julie Schumacher was recommended by friend Anne Zald, who is still working in the trenches (i.e., the library) at Northwestern. Having also spent much of my life in academia, this book was bittersweet and funny because there was so much truth embedded in the sarcasm. I am reminded of another book told by a disgruntled English professor protagonist, Straight Man by Richard Russo, which also occasionally made me laugh out loud. Told through a series of letters spanning one year (2009-2010), we learn of the travails endured by creative writing professor Jason (Jay) Fitger, who is besieged by not only current but also long-ago-graduated students for letters of recommendation to every imaginable type of job. Probably believable for English majors to consider working in a store that sells nuts (the edible kind). Payne University (all puns no doubt intended) has been slashing the English department, as Fitger sees it, to enhance the the prima donnas in the Economics department, one floor up. No new faculty, no tech support, larger classes, hiring an acting dean from another department...the insults are endless. It is a wonder that Fitger ever made full professor, in spite of publishing four books, given his propensity for pissing people off. Both his ex-wife and his ex-lover still work at the university and won't even let him in their respective office doors; but he's also alienated his literary agent, the head of writing programs elsewhere, and his fellow faculty members. He does seem to be endlessly accommodating of his students (if not always flattering in his letters of recommendation) and has especially taken on the case of one Darren Browles, who has lost his fellowship and desperately needs another source of income in order to finish writing his book. Fitger beseeches everyone, but to no avail. People we come to know only as the subject of Fitger's letters either move on with their lives, or they don't, and Fitger, in the end, is elected chair of the English department--a suitable punishment. Numerous laudatory reviews: Kirkus, The New York Times, Slate, Newsweek, NPR, and so many more....
As Newsweek notes, this book is worthy of a letter of recommendation!

Sunday, April 8, 2018

True Detective

I recently read a book by Max Allan Collins, Quarry, and although it wasn't my favorite book of all time, I was sufficiently intrigued to order the DVD of the TV series that was made from that book and this first book in Collins' "Nate Heller" series, which won a Shamus award. See more info about Collins on his blog and in my post for Quarry.
Set in 1933 Chicago, just a year before the opening of the World Fair, Nathan Heller is a detective for the Chicago Police Department, thanks to his uncle Louis putting in a good word to get him on the force in the first place, and also due to his being willing to lie about who killed a journalist/ gangster. But Nate does have standards and when he gets unwillingly dragged into yet another dirty trick on the part of the Chicago PD and the mayor, he decides to quit and go private. Two detectives who are in the pocket of Mayor Cermak drag him along to roust a bookie joint run by Frank Nitti and in the process Heller kills a young man in self-defense. One of the detectives shoots Nitti and then wounds himself claiming that he shot Nitti in self-defense. Nate knows otherwise and the pressure is on for him to lie again in the upcoming investigations. If he agrees, the mayor will let him get his PI license; if Heller insists on telling the truth, he won't be able to work. In this novel, fictional protagonist Heller is friends with a number of real people including Eliot Ness of FBI fame and Barney Ross, the lightweight boxing champion. He meets FDR, George Raft, and Al Capone. There are a lot of colorful characters in the book because there were a lot of big personalities fighting for control in Depression- and Prohibition-era Chicago. It's hard to be an honest detective in a pervasively dishonest system and much of the book deals with Heller's ongoing efforts to draw a line and still stay alive. The book is typical of the hard-boiled detective genre and is very atmospheric in describing Chicago of the 1930's. I frequently read the acknowledgements and Collins lists dozens of books he consulted to get the historical details for his book. A much more detailed plot summary and a less-than-laudatory review from Kirkus is here.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Book Burners

This is a collaboratively written fantasy by Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, and Brian Francis Slattery. It was originally published as an online serial, sort of a version of the Charles Dickens approach; this book is the complete Season 1 and apparently there are 2 more seasons.  I was intrigued not only by the title, but also by having recently read Mur Lafferty's Six Wakes. As a collaborative effort I would say it was fairly successful, in that the tone of the writing seemed consistent, the characters developed in chunks depending on the "episode," of which there were 16, averaging 50 pages in length, and they carried ideas from one author's section to the next with little dysjunction. That being said, it was a LONG book and seemed to drag at times. It often felt like the authors were trying to each come up with the goriest situations for the protagonists to deal with rather than moving the main plot line forward. This makes sense when you think that the goal is to keep readers/ listeners coming back for a new online episode each week.
The main plot line is that NYPD detective Sal Brooks has a younger brother, Perry, who seeks out arcane materials and gets in over his head, becoming possessed by a particularly powerful demon called The Hand. When a team arrives from the Vatican's Societas Librorum Occultorum, charged with keeping the world safe from evil magic, Sal gets drafted to help them. She wants to find The Hand and retrieve her brother's soul, but the world seems to be plagued by increasingly frequent outbreaks of magic, perhaps due to the quest of Alex Norse to find and possess the "Norton Anthology of Demons" as Sal calls it, aka the Codex Umbra, a book in which the really bad demons were imprisoned centuries ago by the Knights of St. John. The other team members are a priest, Father Arturo Menchu, the Vatican's Black Archives librarian, Asanti, a formerly demon possessed computer guru, Liam, and Grace, a woman still possessed by magic who is conscious and aging only when a certain candle is burning. The relationships between team members are reasonably believable as is the political infighting among the Societas' three teams and between Team Three (Sal et al.'s team) and the Vatican hierarchy. Is there any good magic as Asanti claims, or is it all bad, as Father Menchu believes? Mixed review from me for putting this in book form.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Painted Queen

Joan Hess (1949-2017), working with the permission of the estate of Barbara Mertz (writing under the pseudonym Elizabeth Peters), has created this novel from extensive research and notes completed by Mertz before her death in 2013. By and large she has succeeded in capturing the spirit and language of Elizabeth Peters for this final (19th) volume in the Amelia Peabody series.
Things open with a bang when, having returned to Egypt for the 1912-13 season, Amelia and husband Radcliffe Emerson immediately stumble into a case of antiquities theft and attempted murder. The first attempt at murder is towards Amelia herself when a man wearing a monocle crashes into her bath chamber at Shepheards and shouts "murder," only to fall dead with a knife in his back. With new information from Nefret, they learn that the half-brothers of her former husband, who died in a conflict with Ramses and Amelia, have vowed revenge against the two. That means there are 4 possible assassins still targeting them. In the meantime, the head of the department of antiquities has asked Emerson to check on an excavation at Amarna, originally assigned to a German archaeologist, Herr Morgenstern, who has inexplicably gone missing. Along with him, a priceless bust of Nerertiti, created by Thutmose in 1345 B.C., is also missing. When Morgenstern surfaces in Cairo, he is delirious and nearly starved; Amelia takes him in and returns with him to Amarna while Ramses and David stay in Cairo to track down the missing bust and copies (i.e., forgeries) that Morgenstern commissioned. Nobody in Amarna is who he claims to be and the adventures continue as Amelia manages to elude or be rescued from one assassination attempt after another. This book is an obvious choice for fans of the series.
More details in this review from Kirkus, this one from The New York Times, and this from Publishers Weekly.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Janissary Tree

Author Jason Goodwin has a degree in Byzantine history from Cambridge and has written a book on the history of the Ottoman Empire, so one can feel reasonably sure that much of the detail in this mystery, set in 1836 Istanbul, is probably accurate. Goodwin won an Edgar award (2007) for this book, which is the first in a series of five mysteries, and there is even a cookbook based on the series!
The Empire is in decline and the world is modernizing all around this ancient culture, so it must adapt or die. But just as the sultan is days away from announcing sweeping--and no doubt controversial--reforms, several officers from the elite New Guard are kidnapped and murdered, sending everyone's anxiety soaring. The head of the guard calls in former royal court investigator, Jashim Togalu, to solve the murders and put people's minds at rest. Maybe. And then the sultan's mother, the valide, also commands Jashim to solve the murder of one of the harem's women and the theft of the valide's jewels. Jashim lives apart because he is a eunuch, but that does not mean that passions do not still stir within him. He is observant, open minded, and uniquely capable of making himself invisible in a crowd through his stillness. As he digs deeper into the mystery, he becomes convinced that a resurrection of the disgraced and disbanded Janissaries--the former army of the Empire--is the impetus behind the murders. But can he convince the powers that be in time to stop an overthrow of the sultan? Not only the exotic locale and customs, but also the wonderful vignettes of cooking, lots of political intrigue, and a sympathetic protagonist all serve to make this an engaging read. Secondary characters, especially Jashim's friends, are also intriguing. I've already got the sequel, The Snake Stone, on hold at the library. Thanks to my friend, Joan Tyler for turning me on to this book!
I am including a glowing review from The Telegraph, and this somewhat lukewarm one from Kirkus  for the plot summaries--superior to mine!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Six Wakes

The setting of Mur Lafferty's science fiction thriller is a space ship carrying thousands of dormant passengers to a new planet decades distant from earth. It's the 25th century and humans have pretty much ruined the earth, so those who can afford to leave do. The crew—gofer Maria Arena, Capt. Katrina de la Cruz, navigator/pilot Akihiro Sato, security chief Wolfgang, engineer Paul Seurat, and ship's physician Dr. Joanna Glass— are all former criminals who have exchanged their sentences for ferrying this ship to a new world and a new start for themselves; they will be continually re-cloned in order to survive the journey. But as the story opens, the crew's clones awake to find their former selves have been murdered and their memories of not only their deaths, but of the last 20 years of their lives have been erased from the mindmaps that are routinely inserted into new clones to provide continuity. The ship's AI,  IAN, has taken them off course and offers mixed messages with regard to sorting out what happened. As the six crew members struggle to get control of the ship and find the murderer(s?), flashbacks reveal secrets about their past that have been kept hidden or suppressed through mind manipulation. These are complex characters and as they learn about one another, never knowing who to trust, the reader is also challenged to consider what makes us uniquely human. Great futuristic "locked room" mystery.
This book has been nominated for both the Philip K. Dick and the Nebula Awards in 2018. Reviews from NPR, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist.

Quarry

This is a 2015 re-issue of the first in the "Quarry" series by Max Allan Collins; Hard Case publishers is re-issuing the first five books in the series. Originally titled The Broker (published 1976), it even had one season as a TV series. Collins is a prolific, award-winning, and multi-faceted writer: movies, screenplays, plays, hard boiled crime novels, historical novels, mysteries, short stories, movie and TV novelizations, and graphic novels... including the one upon which the movie "The Road to Perdition" was based. He's written several comic book series and wrote the Dick Tracy newspaper strip for over a decade. He collaborated with Mickey Spillane on several novels and on one comic book series.
Quarry is a disenchanted and disconnected Vietnam vet and former Marine sniper who has become a hit man as a means to earn a living. He has no animosity towards the people he kills, nor does he have any compassion for them. He just takes the job and gets his money. Simple. He is puzzled and more than a little unhappy when a recent job involves retrieving drugs the victim was carrying, and this initiates the unraveling of the relationship between Quarry and his contact person, known as The Broker.
Still he agrees to take a new job; he is sent to a small port city on the Mississippi River bordering Illinois and Iowa, and he is scheduled to work with his usual partner, the man who scouts the victim. What Quarry can't figure out is why anyone would want to kill the guy. He's a janitor who does not seem to interact with anyone in a significant way, a creature of small habits. But he does the job and makes it look like a burglary gone bad. However, when he returns to the observation post, he is attacked by a man with a wrench and, although he scares the man off, he finds his partner dead and their money for the job gone. He does what he can to dis-identify his partner and then calls the Broker to find out who hired them, because who else would know where they were and that they had money. When Broker refuses to provide the information, Quarry decides to find out on his own and get retribution as well as his money. It's a small town and it's not hard to quietly learn more about the dead man and his family.  Quarry also finds a woman willing to take his mind off things in the meantime. She just happens to co-own a club in town called Bunny's, and Quarry uses her business partnership with the victim's family to track down the person who hired him for the hit. It's a complicated family situation driven by greed, but maybe that isn't the source of the problem. Quarry gets his man and his money but is betrayed by Broker. Quarry is a plain-spoken anti-hero; maybe he grows on you if you read more, but I can't say this one book was enough to get me hooked, although I did order the first season of the TV series through Netflix. Collins won his two Shamus awards for books in a different series, the Nathan Heller series, and I might try one of those.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

It Can't Happen Here

Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1930) and his body of work was often satirically critical of American capitalism and materialism. He was married for a time to Dorothy Thompson, a very well known political columnist who actually interviewed Adolf Hitler. I had heard that this book, widely read when it was written in 1935, had gained a new audience with the election of Trump and so was pleased my book group selected it for March. In this dystopian alternative history, it feels like you could substitute Trump's name for that of the target character, Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, and have it fit. Windrip runs on a populist platform, promising "every real American family" $5,000. Doesn't this sound like it could have come from Trump himself when Windrip claims to have "thoroughly tested (but unspecified) plans to make all wages very high and the prices of everything produced by these same highly paid workers very low; that he was 100 per cent for Labor, but 100 per cent against all strikes; and that he was in favor of the United States so arming itself, so preparing to produce its own coffee, sugar, perfumes, tweeds, and nickel instead of importing them, that it could defy the World ... and maybe, if that World was so impertinent as to defy America in turn ... he might have to take it over and run it properly." He will bring back the good old days when white men were supreme. He beats out two other candidates for President (including FDR) and begins to take apart the government and remake the country the way he wants it run. He disempowers Congress. He recruits loyalists to run the new jurisdictions created when he abolishes traditional states. And he enforces his suppression of dissent, especially of the press, via a group of armed thugs called Minutemen and by imprisoning anyone who disagrees with him. Windrip also disenfranchises women and minorities (notably African Americans and Jews). Another striking parallel, as noted in a review by the New York Times, is that Windrip's right hand man, Lee Sarason, "believes in propaganda, not information, openly arguing that 'it is not fair to ordinary folks — it just confuses them — to try to make them swallow all the true facts that would be suitable to a higher class of people.'” And the similarities continue: Windrip does not fulfill his promises, walking away from the "Forgotten Men," and turning on his own allies and supporters. Again from the NYT review, "As president, he insists on absolute obedience, 'louder, more convincing Yeses from everybody about him.'”
The complacent liberals also become targets of Lewis' ire. Doremus Jessup, editor of a small town newspaper in New England, eventually tries to warn people of the rising threat of a fascist type government, but ends up in prison for his trouble. Dissidents, including Trowbridge, escape to Canada and create a type of underground railroad system to help others leave. As in the book, people today will probably claim that such events couldn't happen here, but New York Times columnist David Brooks recently noted (Mar. 5, 2018, "The Chaos After Trump") that a significant percentage of young people have lost faith in the democratic form of government. "In the U.S., nearly a quarter of millennials think democracy is a bad way to run a country. Nearly half would like a strongman leader. One in six Americans of all ages supports military rule." Sobering and scary, but worth the read. Here is a link to a current re-print of Time magazine's review of the book when it was written. Additional reviews from The Guardian, and The National Book Review (via The Huffington Post).

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Need to Know

This modern version of a spy novel, Karen Cleveland's initial outing, has been getting a lot of attention (NYT best seller already sold for movie rights) and I was anxious to read it. Cleveland is herself a former CIA analyst and so can credibly create a female protagonist who does the same, in this case, working on the highly prestigious and pressured Russia desk. Vivian has been working on an algorithm to track down sleeper agents in the United States and has finally captured the computer of what she believes to be a mid-level handler. When she finds a file with pictures of sleeper agents, she thinks she has hit the jackpot until she realizes that one of the pictures is that of her husband Matt. When she confronts him, Matt admits he has been a sleeper for over 2 decades, recruited as an orphan when he was 15 years old. He swears he loves Viv and their 4 children and that if he could have gotten out of the situation he wold have. He says he knows she needs to turn him in. But Viv cannot face the total meltdown of her entire life. Who would help take care of the family? Matt's day job as an IT specialist gives him the flexibility to pick up kids from school, take one of their toddler twins to his appointments with the cardiologist, and generally keep the house running smoothly while Viv puts in long hours at her job. She deletes the photographs and then Matt gives her a flash drive that she can use at work to erase the activity log of the past 2 days so no one will know what Viv did. Vivian knows this will not be the end of the story and not many weeks pass before she gets a blackmail letter from Matt's handler that threatens to reveal her if she does not get information from the CIA computers. When Viv decides to fight back by finding the handler and retrieving the blackmail materials, her children and Matt become pawns in a deadly chess game.
Throughout the book, Viv revisits her entire life with Matt and wonders what was real and what was scripted. She doesn't know if she can trust Matt although she is convinced his love for their children is real. The dilemma is convincing and the story will keep you engrossed. The ending was a surprise. If you have enjoyed the TV series, "The Americans," you will like this, and stories about Russian mis-deeds are certainly big in the news these days. Reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal.

The Edge of Evil

I have recently read several of J.A. Jance's "Ali Reynolds" series (see Man Overboard and Clawback), so I decided to go back and read the 1st one. Jance is a fine writer and so I don't need to repeat that she creates believable characters, a decent sense of place, and tight story lines. Ali Reynolds is a co-anchor on the evening news (6 and 11 pm) for a TV station in Los Angeles. After her show one evening, the new guy brought in to bolster ratings tells her she is being let go, and inadvertently admits that it's because she is considered too old to appeal to a younger audience. This in spite of the fact that the male newscasters are decades older than Ali's 40+ years. Her husband, Peter, is an executive at the station, and it turns out that he and just about everybody else knew that Ali was going to be fired before she did and said nothing to her. She is determined not to take this obvious case of age discrimination lying down.
When she learns that her best friend from high school, Reenie, is missing and that she has been diagnosed with ALS. Ali decides this is a good time to go back to Sedona, Arizona, where her parents have run the Sugarloaf Cafe for years, and support Ali's family while she also gets her own life sorted out. She hires an attorney to pursue the age discrimination case and her college age son, Chris, decides to drive with her to Sedona while he is between terms at UCLA. Chris also sets up a blog for Ali called "cutlooseblog." Ali is initially surprised and then gratified to find out how many people start following her story of being let go from the TV station. As Ali investigates Reenie's disappearance, she also digs into understanding more about the disease of ALS and that becomes a thread on her blog as well. When Reenie's car and body are discovered over a cliff on a nearby mountainous road, many believe she committed suicide rather than face the slow and painful death of ALS. Ali is convinced her friend would never leave her children before she had to and determines to find out more about Reenie's last hours. In the meantime, she discovers her husband has been having affairs and now Ali's decided to end the loveless relationship. Her blog brings her to the attention of some abused women and then, unfortunately, to the attention of their abusers, who threaten Ali with physical harm. There is a lot more going on, but just go read the book and get the whole intriguing story for yourself. Publishers Weekly was not particularly impressed with the book and called it "predictable" but I still liked it.