This is Taylor’s third Pike Logan thriller, and it’s a good one.
The United States government has secretly brokered a peace deal between Israel and Palestine, and terrorist forces plan to subvert it. Logan heads a clandestine Taskforce team that’s determined to identify and root out the threat while there is still time. Logan’s team must prevent an assassination in Qatar, facing down two adversaries. One is an Arab known as the Ghost, and the other is an American named Lucas Kane, who would murder his own mother for the right price. Logan knows him only too well, while Kane sees both men as killers at heart. Is Kane right, or does Logan have a moral core that sets him apart? He certainly gains the reader’s sympathy as he struggles to balance being a rule-bending badass with being a human who has emotions extending beyond rage. In the past, Logan suffered a horrible personal loss that bears directly on his motivation, yet surprisingly, his climactic action hinges more on what happens to a colleague. The story moves along at a rapid clip, using short chapters and at least four points of view to grab and hold the reader’s attention. The terrorists are smart, capable enemies, very much an even match for Logan’s team.
Sometimes things just don’t work out, no matter how hard we wish they would. But there’s irony, so we have that going for us. Right?
The talented Chicago-based Meno (The Great Perhaps, 2009, etc.) has composed a gorgeous little indie romance, circa 1999. The titular protagonist is Odile, the arty, brazen and fearless 23-year-old who loves graffiti, the Velvet Underground’s “After Hours,” riding her bicycle around the city and the married guy she can’t have. She’s also chronically unemployable, generous to a fault and susceptible to dumb mistakes like offering a sexual favor to a co-worker who can’t keep his mouth shut, forcing Odile to quit and go take a crap job in customer service. Jack is a few years older and a spiraling tragedy of his own making. An art school graduate with no creative traction, he’s devastated by his abrupt divorce from Elise, to whom he was married less than a year. To fill his soul, Jack records things, and Meno turns these fleeting sounds into mini-portraits. “Everything is white and soft and dazzling,” he writes. “And Jack, in front of his apartment building, can’t help but stop and record as much of it as he can. Because it’s a marvel, an explosion, a cyclone of white and silver flakes.” The encounter between these two creative iconoclasts is less courting and more epiphany, as they discover the amazing and transformative effects of love with a joy as naïve as that of children. Their story can be artificially cute, with secret messages scrawled on city walls and dirty magazines awash with surrealistic Polaroid snapshots. But when things Get Weird as things do when we’re young, Meno is refreshingly honest in portraying the lowest lows and not just the innocent highs.
A sweetheart of a novel, complete with a hazy ending.
Atmospheric New England supernaturalism from not-Stephen King, but a latter-day disciple who deservedly earns the master’s praise.
Nurse Spandex is a size-10 woman in size-two garb, but that doesn’t keep her from making a career of seducing the docs on the floor of the Rhode Island hospital at which she works. Bad idea, since one fervent night, a newborn goes missing from the incubator, with a big scary snake wriggling around in the baby’s place. Cue screaming and jiggling, for as Dobyns (Eating Naked, 2000, etc.) rightly and elegantly notes, “Surely fear is the oldest emotion. Not love, not pride, not greed. The emotion urging you to run is older than the one telling you to embrace.” True that. Woody Potter, world-weary local cop and damaged Iraq veteran, has not just the case of the substitute snake to worry about, but also that of a dead insurance agent. MacGuffins abound, but then so do red herrings: Does the key to the mystery lie with a local funeral-home denizen who has suddenly taken to communing with the coyotes and is a rather surly chap (“What the fuck would I hang a cat for?”), with the neighborhood Wiccan coven, with Ouroboros worshippers or with James Earl Jones in his Conan the Barbarian role? Well, the last doesn’t figure, but with Dobyns’ catholic approach to possibilities, he might just as well. Finally, Woody pulls together enough evidence to lead him in a different and altogether more sinister direction that, suffice it to say, may make a reader think twice about spending a night in the hospital. An utterly believable tale, and Dobyns isn’t above scaring the reader silly with surprise twists and turns.
Nicely done—and you may never look at doctors the same way again.
A noted Dickens scholar and biographer traces the story of Dickens’ relationship with young actress Nelly Ternan, an affair that has titillated Dickens fans and scholars since the mid 19th century.
Slater (Victorian Literature Emeritus/Birkbeck Coll., Univ. of London; The Genius of Dickens, 2011, etc.) begins and ends with recent news and headlines related to the story—the story that, as the author shows convincingly, is not likely to go away soon. The two principal questions remain: Did Dickens and Ternan have a sexual relationship? Did she deliver Dickens’ child? Slater begins by sketching Dickens’ early romantic attachments and disappointments followed by his marriage to Catherine Hogarth, a marriage that by the late 1850s was essentially over. Dickens and his wife separated, and the story spread everywhere. One early (and false) story was that Dickens had become involved with his wife’s sister. But gradually, eyes turned to Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, a young woman in a family of actors who’d met Dickens in 1857 while performing with him in a play, The Frozen Deep. She was more than two decades younger than the phenomenally popular writer. A friendship and much more ensued. As Slater proceeds, he examines the Dickens-related biographies and scholarship and journalism to show us how each work portrayed the relationship and how each little documentary discovery prompted inference and theory. (Dickens and his heirs had done much to destroy and cover up; letters and other documents disappeared in flames.) Slater is evenhanded in his assessments and has solid praise for the work of Claire Tomalin, whose book The Invisible Woman (1991) first propelled the story toward a more general audience. Slater concludes: surely sex, probably no child.
A sexy story resting on a bed of comprehensive scholarship and pursued with Sherlock-ian imagination.
Once more to Moscow and the Russian tundra on a supersecret mission goes a solitary hero in a thriller that makes the familiar seem fresh.
There’s little in this book that thriller aficionados haven’t encountered—agents who may be double agents, an attractive woman who holds vital information, and sources trustworthy and treacherous. From all this, author Haas (Dark Men, 2011, etc.) has crafted a lean and mean tale laced with wit, mordant insight and, at perfectly judged moments, flashes of sharp prose. The “right hand” of the title is Austin Clay, who carries out “covert missions so black no one in the American government, and almost no one in intelligence” is aware of his exploits. Shrewd perceptions and nearly superhuman agility and shooting skills keep Clay atop his game as he plays “dirty street chess, the kind played in Washington Square Park in New York…where half the game is guff, intimidation and smack.” For the mission at hand, Clay’s handler packs him off to Russia to learn what has happened to missing agent Blake Nelson, who may have become a double agent or may have been murdered. Once in Moscow, sources lead Clay to believe Marika Csontos, a missing 18-year-old nanny, may have been passing Nelson information about clandestine dealings between Iran and Russia. Deftly dispatching pursuing Russian agents, Clay heads to Vladivostok where he finds Marika, who of course, is attractive. The two head back to Russia—with more Soviet agents in pursuit—to search for Nelson. Screenwriter Haas (3:10 to Yuma) paces his tale with crack action scenes that, however well they read on the page, may soon have film directors calling “Action!” These high-octane scenes, however, never detract from Haas’ canny plotting, which is capped by a final, unexpected twist and a poignant fade-out.
It’s not the game, but how well you play it, and Haas plays it very well indeed in what clearly seems a series launch.
A collection of short, tight stories about love and consequences.
The stories in the latest (Elliot Allagash, 2010, etc.) from Rich, whose writing credits include Saturday Night Live, follow the vagaries of love, and while the stories are smooth, the path is decidedly not. The 31 stories are divided into three sections: “Boy Meets Girl,” “Boy Gets Girl” and “Boy Loses Girl.” While most can be a little tart, Rich takes a sweeter approach with some. The opener, “Unprotected,” follows the misadventures of a well-worn but still sealed condom. “Occupy Jen’s Street” follows the rise and fall of a very personal protest movement to get a girl back. “Scared Straight” parodies the 1970s documentary with equally dire warnings about relationships: “A random hookup, a couple of dates. The next thing I knew, I had a drawer for her clothes in my apartment. Then one day, I looked up and I was here. Trapped in a Park Slope brownstone for the rest of my goddamn life.” Like Rich’s second novel, What In God’s Name(2012), some stories wring the funny out of the plights of deities, while “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” colors the old novelty song in a darker shade. While some of the stories have the qualities of a comedy sketch—Alex Trebek gets to rib his ex-wife in one story, and an astronaut suggests a bawdy science experiment in another—those who enjoy the author's fleeting, warmly acerbic sense of humor will find much to like here.
Now we know what happens to all those SNL sketches that Lorne Michaels shoots down.
Another full caseload for Dan Shamble, the zombie detective who was just warming up when he solved his own murder in Death Warmed Over (2012).
Dan’s reputation in the Unnatural Quarter has made him the shamus of last resort for any number of monsters. A golem named Bill begs him to help emancipate a hundred of his fellow golems from their servitude making toys for Maximilian Grubb, aka Maximum Max. The ghost of bank robber Alphonse Wheeler wants the help of Dan’s partner, still-human lawyer Robin Deyer, in making sure he can live off the money he served 20 years for stealing. Neffi, the mummy who runs the Full Moon brothel, summons Dan to find some rent-a-goons to protect her establishment from the violent followers of conservative Sen. Rupert Balfour, whose Unnatural Acts Act threatens the rights of all the undead. Dan’s old nemesis Harvey Jekyll insists that Robin file an anti-discrimination suit when he’s barred from moving out of the Unnatural Quarter. An actor who insists that his name is William Shakespeare hires Dan to find the person who set his outdoor theater on fire, and crusading social worker Hope Saldana asks him to help her zombie assistant, Jerry, track down the heart and soul he pawned to Snazz, the gremlin owner of Timeworn Treasures. It’s this last case that produces a fresh corpse when Dan breaks into Snazz’s cluttered shop, intending to look over the ledger that identifies the party who purchased Jerry’s heart and soul, and finds the pawnbroker strangled to death under circumstances that look very awkward indeed for the zombie sleuth.
As exhaustingly inventive and jokey as Dan’s debut. Think of the entire first season of True Blood on fast forward.
An exploration of the violent downfall of Little Crow’s Dakota nation at the hands of American soldiers.
Washington Post contributor Berg (Writing and Literature/George Mason Univ.; Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C., 2007) focuses on the rising escalation between the Dakota people and white settlers, a conflict that came to a head in the summer of 1862, when four inebriated Native Americans carelessly murdered a few white settlers. While Dakota chief Little Crow did not condone the reckless behavior, he recognized that “the day of reckoning was bound to arrive no matter how accommodating and pliable he might be.” As expected, U.S. soldiers soon retaliated, though the battle had long been brewing, especially for the Dakotas, who were frustrated by the federal government’s continued failures to make good on its promised annuities to the Natives. With their credit lines running thin, the Dakota people fought for their survival, though insult was added to their injurious defeat when a military trial sentenced 300 Dakota warriors to death for their role in the battle. While President Lincoln intervened to lessen the number to 38, the mass hanging still earned the dubious honor of becoming the largest public execution in American history. Throughout the sweeping narrative, Berg skillfully weaves in various perspectives, including that of Sarah Wakefield, a woman held captive by the Dakotas, and Bishop Henry Whipple, a paternalistic advocate for the Native people. Yet Berg’s greater accomplishment is his ability to overlap the little-known Dakota War with its far better known counterpart, the American Civil War. The author’s juxtaposition offers readers a contextual framework that provides unique insight into the era. For instance, just days after the mass execution, Lincoln issued the text for the Emancipation Proclamation, prompting curious readers to wonder: How does a country see fit to condemn one group of people to death and then, less than a week later, set another group free?
A captivating tale of an oft-overlooked, morally ambiguous moment in American history.
Vine’s 14th (The Birthday Present, 2009, etc.) is a novel within a novel—well, within a novella, anyway—in which both tales revolve around a straight woman’s unexpected relationship with a gay man.
Unexpectedly pregnant after a one-night stand with James Derain, her brother’s lover, Ph.D. student Grace Easton takes refuge from her troubles—her brother Andrew’s cool reception to the news, his and James’ involvement as witnesses to a brutal hate crime—by rereading The Child’s Child, a novel written by her architect friend Toby’s late father, Martin Greenwell. Although Martin had been the well-regarded author of 12 novels, The Child’s Child, written in 1951, lay unpublished for half a century, unpublishable for much of that time because of its frank (for then) account of homosexual passion. The passion in question is Bristol biology teacher John Goodwin’s selfless love for office clerk Bertie Webber, a love that dare not speak its name in 1929. Hopelessly besotted with Bertie, John vows to give him up in response to a crisis in his family: his 15-year-old sister Maud’s pregnancy by a friend’s forgettable brother. When their parents banish Maud from their home, John matches an ingenious solution to her troubles: He’ll take her to his new place in Dartcombe, introduce her as his wife and shield her from reprobation. Readers would sense the impending approach of unwanted complications even if Vine weren’t really Ruth Rendell (The St. Zita Society, 2012, etc.). Suffice it to say that Bertie proves miserably unworthy of John’s devotion; the pressures of Maud’s uneventful life have a profound impact on her character; and the brief return to the present-day story of Grace Easton provides just the right sense of balance and conclusion.
The overwhelming sadness of the events in both stories is leavened by the matter-of-fact firmness with which Vine measures them out. Not even fans who expect more felonies will be able to put this one down.
In this contemporary Southern gothic, a young artist returns home to Galveston, Texas, and uncovers a century’s worth of sordid secrets.
Clare hasn’t been back to Galveston since she was sent away at 14 to live with her grandmother. Now married (though she knows that won’t last long) and mourning the accidental death of her daughter, Clare is on the island to organize a photo exhibit for the historical society. But the novel, like Clare, is consumed with the past. Growing up on Galveston, an old pirate island with a reputation for dangerous charm, Clare lived in the historic Porterfield House, lovingly maintained by her unlovable father. In front of this house sits the Carraday Mansion, still the residence of the powerful Carraday family. Patriarch Will Carraday gave Clare her first camera as a child and is sponsoring the exhibition, asking Clare to rummage through the family’s personal archive. Clare splits her time between searching for Patrick Carraday, Will’s son and once upon a time the person who made her world, and the truth about Stella Carraday, the mysterious ancestor who allegedly died during the great flood, found naked and hanging from the chandelier. The truth about Patrick proves more elusive. As children and teenagers, they were inseparable, she a willing accomplice to all of his delinquent inclinations. But even the heir to the Carraday fortune can’t overcome some scandals, and after a suspicious fire kills a girl, Clare is sent to the Midwest and Patrick to Europe. Clare has nothing but questions: Why is Patrick avoiding her? How long have her mother and the married Will been having an affair? What really happened to Stella? For someone who prefers the distance of a camera to a conversation, Galveston may well keep her secrets. But then the atmospheric novel, framed by Clare’s reticence, explodes in a thunderclap that exposes all the old wounds: incest, murder and the secret of Clare’s paternity.
Black’s tempered pace and moody vulnerability creates a rich debut: both sensitive and sensational.