Steamy Southwest Florida provides the backdrop for more dangerous dealings.
Harry Brock is a private investigator and game warden rolled into one. When wealthy Gregory Breckenridge arrives at Harry’s home on Bartram’s Hammock looking for help in finding his missing wife, Afton, it doesn’t sound like a difficult job. Breckenridge, preoccupied with fears that his wife’s disappearance will upset the investors in his hedge fund, neglects to mention his involvement with another woman and the fact that his wife has money in her own right and a dual passport. Agreeing to take the case, Harry hires skip tracer Caedmon Rivers to hunt down hidden information about Afton. But the information that pops up isn’t at all what he’s looking for. A letter arrives from Afton saying that if she’s missing, her husband has killed her. The news that Afton or someone else is cleaning out her bank accounts and erasing every trace of her life clearly gives greater urgency to the search. Harry, whose checkered past with women (Death’s Long Shadow, 2011, etc.) doesn’t keep him from falling for the stunning Caedmon, is traumatized when she’s beaten, raped and left to die on the side of the road. He hopes the peace and beauty of the Hammock will ease her recovery. But when Afton turns up alive with a story about why she went missing, the pair must come up with a way to disentangle themselves from the case before they’re killed.
Harry’s adventures continue to provide physical dangers, Florida lore and an endless supply of women for him to fall in love with. This installment, more thriller than mystery, grips you from beginning to end.
The saga of Northland, a sophisticated hunter-gatherer civilization thriving behind a vast wall shielding it from the invading waters of the North Sea (Stone Spring, 2011), continues in a tumultuous alternate 1159 B.C.
Drought and famine grip Europe and Asia. The eruption of an Icelandic volcano spreads ash through the atmosphere, chilling the air and further damaging the ecosphere. The Northland’s trade with the Americas has gained them both maize and the potato and thus may hold the key to staving off starvation. A deposed but extraordinarily charismatic Hatti (Hittite) queen and her lover (actually owner), an ambitious Trojan scavenger, seek access to these foodstuffs, while political infighting in Etxelur (the region closest to the Wall) about whether to grant such access has already led to murder. This is worldbuilding at its very finest. Baxter’s research of ancient cultures and natural history (detailed in a helpful afterword) and his extrapolation of what Northland societal structure might be like create an utterly real-seeming physical, political and economic landscape. His understanding of the human heart and its frailties paint convincing and powerful character portraits, particularly when exploring the various ways in which people will behave when pushed to the absolute end of their emotional endurance.
Gripping, well researched and sharply intelligent.
This first collaboration from McDevitt (Firebird, 2011, etc.) and Resnick (The Doctor and the Kid, 2011, etc.), developed from a 2010 story by McDevitt (spoiler alert: don’t read the story first), takes the form of a conspiracy involving the moon landings. And no, Stanley Kubrick didn’t fake them.
By 2019, the U.S. economy is still grinding along the fringes of recession. Jerry Culpepper, NASA’s public affairs director, loves his job and still believes in its mission, even though the only foreseeable future is one of continuing slow decline. But then a routine release of background material from the late 1960s turns up an oddity. Before Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, there were two dress-rehearsal moon shots, both of which orbited the moon but did not land. Yet, a recording of a chat between Houston and Sydney Myshko, captain of the first of the test missions, shows Myshko apparently preparing to descend! And Aaron Walker, on the mission after Myshko, wrote in his diary that he landed on the moon. Both men are now dead and cannot be questioned. But was there a coverup? Of what, and for what possible reason? Multibillionaire entrepreneur Morgan “Bucky” Blackstone sees a chance to goose the complacent Washington establishment and, not coincidentally, whip up enthusiasm for his own, strictly private enterprise, planned moon landings. As other evidence, suggestive yet inconclusive, trickles in, Jerry tries to keep a lid on things. Meanwhile, POTUS George Cunningham, an essentially decent man with a strong interest in NASA but hampered by intractable budgetary constraints, finds himself in a bind: If there was a conspiracy and he didn’t know, he’s out of touch and an idiotic dupe; if he did know, he’s a liar and part of the coverup. Against the solid and affectionately rendered NASA backdrop, the authors expertly crank up the tension and maintain it throughout via a suite of thoroughly believable characters.
A top-notch, edge-of-the-seat thriller in which there are no villains, only mysteries.
The riddle of Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved,” alchemy and clandestine love fuse in this fast-paced, funny, romantic mystery.
Meg Howrey (The Cranes Dance, 2012, etc.) and television writer Christina Lynch have combined their talents, writing under the pseudonym Magnus Flyte. Brilliant musicologist Sarah Weston has been summoned to Prague to catalog Beethoven manuscripts at the Lobkowicz Palace. How can she refuse? Her mentor, Professor Sherbatsky, has defenestrated himself from the palace, and a dwarf has appeared at her door, encouraging her to go and presenting her with a pillbox containing what appears to be a toenail clipping. Yet Prague is a dangerous place, a place where the walls between worlds have thinned to precariously fragile layers. But Sarah cannot believe Sherbatsky committed suicide, and she is eager to study the manuscripts, so she begins to pack. Before she can even get to the airport, however, someone breaks into her apartment. Nothing appears to be stolen, but an ominous alchemical symbol has been drawn on her kitchen ceiling. Once in Prague, events turn both stranger and sexier. The castle lies at the center of a dispute between two branches of the Lobkowicz family. As Sarah dutifully sifts through the manuscripts, she discovers clues not only about the “Immortal Beloved,” but also Sherbatsky’s strange behavior leading up to his death. The other scholars hired that summer to catalog the castle’s contents suspect Sherbatsky of drug use, and Sarah finds herself experimenting with the time-warping drug. She also accidentally has anonymous sex in the bathroom, joins forces with a 400-year-old dwarf, lands in jail and falls in love with the prince. But Sarah has also attracted an enemy, someone who will stop at nothing to keep Sarah from discovering a secret of perhaps international proportions.
Even the minor characters are drawn ingeniously in this exuberant, surprising gem.
A revelation, from the most accomplished and acclaimed of contemporary short story writers.
It’s no surprise that every story in the latest collection by Canada’s Munro (Too Much Happiness, 2009, etc.) is rewarding and that the best are stunning. They leave the reader wondering how the writer manages to invoke the deepest, most difficult truths of human existence in the most plainspoken language. But the real bombshell, typically understated and matter-of-fact, comes before the last pieces, which the author has labeled “Finale” and written in explanation: “The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life.” The “first” comes as a surprise, because her collection The View from Castle Rock (2006) was so commonly considered atypically autobiographical (albeit drawing more from family legacy than personal memory). And the “last”? When a writer in her early 80s declares that these are the last things she has to say about her life, they put both the life and the stories in fresh perspective. Almost all of them have an older character remembering her perspective from decades earlier, sometimes amused, more often baffled, at what happened and how things turned out. Most pivot on some sort of romantic involvement, but the partners are unknowable, opaque, often even to themselves. In “Train,” a character remarks, “Now I have got a real understanding of it and it was nobody’s fault. It was the fault of human sex in a tragic situation.” In “Leaving Maverley,” she writes of “the waste of time, the waste of life, by people all scrambling for excitement and paying no attention to anything that mattered.”
The author knows what matters, and the stories pay attention to it.
A young woman discovers her rural Tennessee community has been invaded by monarch butterflies in this effective tear-jerker cum environmental jeremiad from Kingsolver (The Lacuna, 2009, etc.).
At 17, English honor student Dellarobia thought she would escape a future of grim rural poverty by attending college. Instead, she got pregnant and married. Now 27, feeling stifled by the responsibility of two young children she loves and a husband she tolerates, Dellarobia is heading to her first adulterous tryst when she happens upon a forested valley taken over by a host of brilliant orange butterflies that appear at first like a silent fire. She skips the tryst, but her life changes in unexpected ways. Soon after, Dellarobia leads her sweet if dim husband, Cub, to the butterflies, and they become public knowledge. The butterflies have landed in Tennessee because their usual winter habitat in Mexico has been flooded out. The local church congregation, including Dellarobia’s mother-in-law, Hester, embraces the butterflies’ arrival as a sign of grace. Influenced by her beloved preacher, usually antagonistic Hester (a refreshingly complex character) becomes a surprising ally in convincing Dellarobia’s father-in-law not to cut down the forest for much-needed cash, although she is not above charging tourists, who arrive in increasing numbers to view the spectacle. Soon, a handsome black scientist with a Caribbean accent has set up in her barn to study the beautiful phenomena, which he says may spell environmental doom. Dellarobia is attracted to the sophisticated, educated world Dr. Byron and his grad school assistants represent. When she takes a job working with the scientists, the schisms in her already troubled marriage deepen. Yet, she is fiercely defensive against signs of condescension toward her family and neighbors; she really goes after a guy whose list of ways to lower the carbon footprint—“bring your own Tupperware to a restaurant,” “fly less”—have no relevance to people trying to survive economically day-by-day.
One of Kingsolver’s better efforts at preaching her politics and pulling heartstrings at the same time.
Taut, entertaining archaeological murder mystery–meets-spy thriller by genre-meister Sussman (The Hidden Oasis, 2009, etc.).
Unless you’re a Minotaur, you’re intrigued by labyrinths. Unless you’re way high up in the Illuminati or the Trilateral Commission, you harbor an endless fascination with the question of who really rules the world. Just don’t ask too many questions, or you’ll wind up like Rivka Kleinberg, silenced for getting a little too close to the answer to what the pharaohs of old have to do with latter-day powerbrokers of international finance and petroleum. If you’ve got to have bad guys, the Russian Mafia do nicely. As for the good ones, there are Sussman’s stalwarts, Jerusalem cop Arieh Ben-Roi and his Egyptian pal and counterpart, Yusuf Khalifa, an unlikely pair of heroes. Both deliver results, though, Khalifa on his side of the line, and Ben-Roi on his (“OK, maybe he didn’t always play things by the book, was a bit too free with his fists and a bit too loose in his interpretation of what was strictly permissible in the name of law enforcement”). Yeah, but that’s Chinatown—er, the souk, that is. Sussman’s story is not without its longueurs, but it moves along well enough, and there’s some good thrills-and-spills stuff along the way. Moreover, there are at least three big pluses to the story: First, while unlikely cop pairings are old hat (see Hans Hellmut Kirst’s 1963 novel The Night of the Generals, for one), it’s good to see a nonhackneyed collaboration between Arabs and Israelis. Second, while Sussman’s setup leaves wide openings for all the clichés of the whodunit genre, he doesn’t indulge. And Sussman, a trained archaeologist, knows his stuff—and how to make a reader jump, too.
A mayhem-rich view of the world through the eyes of mummies and villains, and a lot of fun.
Millet’s conclusion of the trilogy that includes How the Dead Dream (2008) and Ghost Lights (2011) draws a detailed map of the healing process of an adulterous wife who suddenly finds herself a widow.
Susan’s husband, Hal, goes to Belize in search of Susan’s employer ,T., a real estate tycoon who has gone missing. (Spoiler alert: Readers of the earlier novels who don’t want to know what happens to T. or Hal, stop reading now.) Hal’s quest is successful: T. returns to Los Angeles. But he’s alone, because Hal has been fatally knifed in a mugging. Susan is both grief- and guilt-stricken. She genuinely loved Hal but has been seeking sex with other men ever since a car accident left their daughter, Casey, a paraplegic. She believes Hal went to Belize largely to recover after discovering her infidelity. Millet’s early chapters insightfully delve into Susan’s internal anguish as she tries to come to grips with the seismic change in her life caused by Hal’s death. Her intense maternal love for Casey, who refuses the role of noble victim, is as prickly and complicated as her mourning; her capacity for experiencing extremes of selflessness and selfishness within a heartbeat is refreshingly human and recognizable. Plot machinations get a little creaky, though once Susan sells her house and coincidentally inherits a mansion full of stuffed animals from a great-uncle she barely remembers. Bringing the mansion back to life and figuring out the secret of her uncle’s legacy take over Susan’s life.
The deeply honest, beautiful meditations on love, grief and guilt give way to a curlicued comic-romantic mystery complete with a secret basement and assorted eccentrics.
A brutal killing in Tibet draws a veteran investigator out of the safety of his new bureaucratic job and into a complicated tangle of political interests and deadly alliances.
Shan Tao Yun's journey to an abandoned convent, one supposedly filled with ghosts, infects him with memories of his many encounters with death, as well as imaginative nightmares that blur the line with the flesh-and-blood present. Shan has recently secured a safe, boring position as an inspector of irrigation and needs to keep a low profile if he wants to hold onto it. At the convent are a litter of corpses, including that of his friend Jamyang, who figures prominently in his nightmares. He retreats to a mountain perch from which he watches police swarm the site. The curiosity of the veteran investigator (The Lord of Death, 2009, etc.) is acutely piqued. He locates his philosophical old friend Lokesh, an official in the Dalai Lama's government before the Chinese invasion, who has also appeared in Shan's nightmares as a sage. Shan finds Lokesh nursing a frail, elderly lama. This man, who somehow knows about the killings at the convent, suggests that Jamyang was protecting something. Once Shan finds a list of Tibetan towns in Jamyang's pocket, he is pulled irresistibly into another intricate puzzle. Shan's probe requires him to reconstruct Jamyang's life, encounter bizarre characters like Genghis (who lives up to his famous namesake), and with Lokesh as Watson to his Holmes, walk a politically sensitive path.
Casual readers be warned: Pattison's seventh Inspector Shan thriller is another hypnotic immersion in a fascinating culture.
Aided by his friend Nick, Charlie Eisner travels to Singapore and Borneo to find—or perhaps to lose—himself, but Nick’s sudden death brings Charlie back to the States.
Charlie is the son of Max Eisner, a charismatic and talented professor, now retired, who’s had five marriages and numerous affairs. Max’s current lover is Seana O’Sullivan, who’d been his most talented graduate student and is roughly half Max’s age. Coming off of his own failed marriage, Nick invites Charlie to work with him in the palm-oil business in Singapore. Lost and searching, Charlie decides to hitch his wagon to Nick’s star. Their friendship is a complicated one, going back to their time together at UMass and surviving Nick’s failed relationship to his wife, Trish, Charlie’s former lover—and the situation is complicated even further when it’s revealed that for a while, they’d been a threesome. Nick introduces Charlie to the substantial sensual pleasures of the Far East, and Charlie finds he loves the beauty and exoticism of Borneo. One evening, when Nick gets blindingly drunk in his 16th-floor apartment, he charges at Charlie, who hoists him over the railing to his death. Charlie feels compelled to return to New England to reconcile himself with Nick’s parents, Trish and Max. Even more sexual complications ensue when Trish, Seana and Charlie form their own threesome, and with Max’s sudden death, Charlie begins a relationship with Seana.
Although summarizing the arc of the narrative makes it sound like the most sensational of soap operas, it’s anything but—Neugeboren presents a meditation on life, love, art and family relationships that’s reminiscent of the best of John Updike.
The United States is on the brink of approving the fastest, most powerful attack submarine ever when its designer is killed and his plans are stolen. In his efforts to recover a crucial piece of the prototype, superseaman Dirk Pitt faces a series of violent encounters on land and water.
In his 22nd adventure (Crescent Dawn, 2010, etc.), Pitt, director of the National Underwater and Marine Agency, is matched with Austrian baddie Edward Bolcke. A grudge-bearing villain out of James Bond who made his fortune in mining in Colombia and Panama, he has been adroitly manipulating the Chinese by selling them their own rare earth elements. The magnetic properties of the minerals are vital to the development of weapons systems and other computer-based properties—which may explain why ships transporting the materials have been disappearing and bodies have been found burnt to a crisp by irradiation. Teaming with the attractive and dangerously impulsive NCIS agent Ann Bennett—as well as his oceanographer daughter Summer and marine engineer son Dirk Jr.—Pitt applies all his skills as an ex-Air Force man to outsmarting and, in some cases, outrunning Bolcke's henchmen. The action scenes can be predictable, the dialogue wooden. But to their credit, the Cusslers (collaborating for the fifth time) overcome the factory aspect of these novels with bursts of energy and efficient storytelling. They also sustain a level of intelligence not always found in mass-market adventure fiction.
Ranging from Panama and Mexico to Idaho and Washington, D.C., this book is constantly on the move—one reason it avoids dull spots so well.
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 subtly and sweetly subversive novel which seems more characteristic of its author as it becomes increasingly multilayered and labyrinthine in its masterful manipulation of the relationship(s) between fiction and truth.
Both the title and the tone make this initially seem to be an uncharacteristically light and playful novel from McEwan (Atonement, 2002, etc.). Its narrator is a woman recounting her early 20s, some four decades after the fact, when she was recruited by Britain’s MI5 intelligence service to surreptitiously fund a young novelist who has shown some promise. After the two fall in love, inevitably, she must negotiate her divided loyalties, between the agency she serves and the author who has no idea that his work is being funded as an anti-Communist tool in the “soft Cold War.” Beautiful (as she recognizes such a character in a novel must be) and Cambridge-educated, Serena Frome seems perfect for the assignment of soliciting writer Tom Haley because, as one of her superiors puts it, “you love literature, you love your country.” The “Sweet Tooth” operation makes no attempt to control what its authors write and doesn’t reveal to them exactly who is funding them, but provides financial support for writers who have shown some resistance to fashionable radicalism. Though Serena’s reading tends toward “naive realism,” favoring novels where she would be “looking for a version of myself, a heroine I could slip inside as one might a pair of favourite old shoes,” the relationship between Tom’s fiction and his character, as well as the parallels between the creative inventions his job demands and those of hers, illuminate the complexities of life and art for Serena and the reader as well. “In this work the line between what people imagine and what’s actually the case can get very blurred. In fact that line is a big grey space, big enough to get lost in.” The “work” being discussed is undercover intelligence, but it could just as easily be literature.
Britain’s foremost living novelist has written a book—often as drily funny as it is thoughtful—that somehow both subverts and fulfills every expectation its protagonist has for fiction.
A novella that builds to a provocative climax, one that is as spiritually profound as its prose is plainspoken.
At the outset, the latest from the esteemed Irish author (Brooklyn, 2009, etc.) seems like a “high concept” breather from his longer, more complex fiction. As the title suggests, the narrator is Mary, mother of Jesus, reflecting on her life and her son as she nears death. She is a religious woman but not willing to cooperate with those who want to establish a new religion on the death of her son, the self-proclaimed “Son of God,” whose execution promises “a new life for the world.” No, to her, it was the death of a son for whom nothing could provide recompense. “It was simply the end of something,” she says, and the claims of divinity leading up to it came from a son she barely knew: “his voice all false, and his tone all stilted, and I could not bear to hear him.” The miracle of Mary’s testament is that what might initially seem like blasphemy ultimately becomes transcendent, redemptive, even as she continues to resist “efforts to make simple sense of things which are not simple.” The testament encompasses the resurrection of Lazarus and the miracle of the wedding feast at Cana, both related in such a way that she neither denies what happened nor takes faith from them, and culminates in a crucifixion related in excruciating detail, from the perspective of a mother witnessing the execution of her earthly son. “I gasped when I saw the cross,” she remembers and subsequently reflects, “He was the boy I had given birth to and he was more defenceless now than he had been then.” What follows the crucifixion gives a whole new dimension to the testament, for Mary and the reader alike.
Gingrich and Forstchen (Valley Forge, 2010, etc.) continue their series on the American Revolution by following Washington and the Continental Army to Yorktown.
Washington is little understood as a man, perhaps because his widow burned decades of their correspondence. Thus, the authors have undertaken to “enrich and broaden our knowledge of the past” through fiction. In that quest, much of the narrative filters through the perspectives of the fictional Peter Wellsley and Allen Van Dorn, New Jersey childhood friends who pledged allegiance to opposite sides. It is fall, 1780. Wellsley serves at West Point on Washington’s staff. Van Dorn, a Loyalist, serves the British Gen. Clinton in Manhattan. The friends meet at opportune times during the narrative. The success at Yorktown begins when Washington dispatches Gen. Nathanial Greene to the Carolinas to right the bumbling of Gen. Gates. With Wellsley on staff, Greene bleeds Cornwallis in the Carolinas. Cornwallis maneuvers toward Virginia, dragging a train of casualties. Contemptuous of colonials at heart, Britain’s passive Clinton lingers on Manhattan behind impregnable fortifications, with the less-than-audacious British fleet securely anchored around Staten Island. Ably supported by French Gen. Rochambeau, Washington receives word the French can also come to his aid with de Grasse’s Caribbean fleet, blockading Chesapeake Bay and pinning Cornwallis at Yorktown. Washington realizes he can take half his northern army and 4,000 of Rochambeau’s allied French forces and spring a trap, one that will cost the British their mid-Atlantic forces while simultaneously undercutting peace initiatives from “sunshine patriots” in Philadelphia. Wellsley and Van Dorn, meanwhile, gather intelligence behind enemy lines.
Augmented with character sketches of lesser-known patriots, the book brings Washington to life as a resolute and bold general. The authors shine brightly in describing the depth of his emotion flowing from the victory at Yorktown.
A dizzying “what if” take on (in)famous British spy Kim Philby.
In 1963, Kim Philby, a member of British Intelligence, was exposed as a double agent working for Russia. The case continues to provide a mother lode for spy novels, and in this latest, Littell (The Stalin Epigram, 2009, etc.) spins the story even further, building to a finish that suggests the story still offers at least one more stunning “shoe drop.” Littell’s narrative follows the outlines of Philby’s private and public lives, which here are inextricably linked. The story unfolds in a series of first-person accounts from friends, lovers and contacts who knew Philby at key junctures in his career as an agent. There’s Litzi Friedman, who first puts callow but wary Philby in touch with the Russians when he visits Vienna; Guy Burgess, Philby’s flamboyantly gay classmate at Cambridge, whom Philby enlists as a spy for the Soviets; Frances Doble, a film star who romances Philby as he reports on the Spanish Civil War for the London Times; and Philby’s father, Harry St John Bridger Philby, aka “the Hajj.” From these narratives emerges a mural of the history of espionage before, during and after World War II, as well as an in-depth portrait of Philby, who becomes a canny informant despite his fear of the sight of blood. The narrators speak with distinctive voices, yet the chapters are unified by the dark lens of Littell’s mordant take on spies and their craft. As in The Company (2002), Littell shows particular skill at recreating pulse-quickening epic scenes of conflict—the Russian-backed uprising against Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, the war against fascist dictator Francisco Franco, and the horrors of Stalin’s kangaroo courts and of Moscow prisons. Veteran Littell remains unbowed by commercial pressures to speed up the text. Elegantly written paragraphs and speeches running to half pages distinguish his work.