The Quantum Spy, by David Ignatius*****

“America is a country where race matters. The more people say they are, what, color-blind, the more it is a lie.”

thequantumspyDavid Ignatius writes gripping spy fiction, and this is his best work.  The basis of this one is the longstanding intelligence war between the CIA and its Chinese counterpart; the story is fictional, but his careful research ensures that this could have happened.  Lucky me, I read it free thanks to Edelweiss and W.W. Norton and Company Publishers. This book will be available to the public tomorrow, November 7, 2017.

Harris Chang is Chinese-American, raised to respect the red, white and blue.  He works for the CIA, and has been sent to investigate a leak in a quantum research lab. As the USA and China struggle to achieve technological dominance, tensions rise. Chang wonders if he has been chosen to investigate based on his ethnicity, since he knows very little about China or even his own family tree; why yes he has. The Chinese expect to be able to turn him because of it, and over the course of time, his bosses begin to suspect that it’s happened.  Harris is loyal, and he chafes at the unfairness of his treatment, but is determined to succeed. After all, what could prove his loyalty more clearly than to perform above the standard to which most of the Agency’s employees are held?

The setting changes constantly as spies chase other spies all over the world, but the story takes place primarily in Arlington, Virginia and in Singapore. There are also some especially tense, intriguing scenes set in Mexico, and I love the side details about Trotsky’s house, which is now a museum.

Ignatius dumbs down nothing for anyone, and so the reader should have literacy skills that are sharp and ready. Don’t read this one after you take your sleeping pill. Trust me.

The story can be read—and mostly will be, I think—as an enjoyable bit of escapism. With current events so intense, we all need some of that, and it’s what I expected when I requested the DRC. But I find it much more rewarding because of the racial subtext. It’s an area that’s important to me, and at first my back was up when I saw hints of it without knowing what the writer’s intentions were. So many are astonishingly clueless, or worse, when it comes to this aspect of fiction. But as I saw where he was taking it, I had to completely reevaluate my opinion. I would love to be surprised in exactly this way more frequently.

The ending made me want to stand up and cheer.

Highly recommended to those that love strong thrillers, and even more so for those that also cherish civil rights in the USA.

 

Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

Protocol, by Kathleen Valenti****

Protocol“It was all so clear. She’d been so stupid…Cue the flying monkeys.”

The Maggie O’Malley series has taken wing. Thanks go to Henery Press and Net Galley for the DRC, which I was invited to read free in exchange for this honest review. In a crowded field, Valenti stands apart. Her snappy wit and precise pacing combine to create a psychological thriller that’s funny as hell. I didn’t know it could be done until I saw it here.

Maggie’s career is off to a promising start when she is recruited to work as a researcher for a major pharmaceutical firm. It’s a perfect chance to make the world a better place, and the beefy salary lets her take care of herself and send desperately needed funds to save her ailing father’s restaurant. It seems too good to be true, and we know what that means.

She’s barely through the door when she receives a mysterious meeting reminder on her refurbished new-to-her cell phone. Who is this person, and why would she meet her? And then, quick as can be, she sees the woman she is supposedly about to meet, die. Since the meeting reminder vanishes from her phone once it’s played, and since the reminder itself isn’t sinister, the police brush her off…until it happens again. Eventually, of course, she herself becomes a suspect.

This is a page turner, and we look over Maggie’s shoulder all the way through, wondering whether this friend or that one is to be trusted. Which date is a godsend, and which one is a snake in the grass?

The most notable difference between this story and others is the way Valenti sets up what looks like an error either on the part of the author or stupidity on the part of the protagonist, and then on the back beat, we see exactly why that was there, and that she anticipated our reaction all along. She does it over and over, and it’s hilarious. I feel as if the author is speaking to me as I read, howling, “Gotcha again!” It’s zesty, brainy writing. Valenti is the new mystery writer to watch.

This book is for sale now, and I recommend it to those that love funny female sleuths.

Crime Scene, by Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman***-****

crimesceneCrime Scene is the first in the Clay Edison series, written by a father and son team. Big thanks to Random House Ballantine for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. I rate this mystery 3.5 stars.

Edison is a coroner’s investigator, and he finds himself drawn into an ugly, complicated murder, seduced by the lovely Tatiana, who I found myself disliking much earlier than the protagonist does. There’s the psychological component here that’s similar to the movies, where the audience yells, “Don’t go through that door” as the main character strolls obliviously forward; however, where the Kellermans take the story once Edison has wised up is interesting, original, and well played.

I enjoy the snappy banter that I associate with the elder Kellerman’s other novels, and there’s a hugely entertaining side character named Afton that I’d love to see again. The setting of the down-and-out neighborhood is resonant enough that I am convinced at least one of these men has actually spent time in such a place.

That said, the first half of the story is better paced than the second, and there’s a racial component that appears well-intentioned but awkward.

This promising series is now available to the public, and is recommended to Kellerman’s fans.

Girl in Snow, by Danya Kukafka*****

GirlinSnow

“’You can only see fifty-nine percent of the moon from the earth’s surface. No matter where you go, in the entire world, you’ll only see the same face. That fifty-nine percent.’
“‘Why are you telling me this?’
“’I’m just saying. We know this fact, but it doesn’t stop us from staring.’”

Half a century ago, a young writer named Harper Lee took the literary world by storm with To Kill a Mockingbird, a story that centered itself on justice, on a child trying to do the right thing, and on a strange, misunderstood fellow named Boo Radley.

Today the literary world meets wunderkind Danya Kukafka. Get used to the name, because I suspect you’ll be seeing a lot of it. Her story also revolves around misunderstood characters with dark pasts, and a small town’s often misdirected quest to see justice done and safety restored.

Thank you Simon and Schuster and also Net Galley for inviting me to read and review in exchange for this honest review. I’ve read and reviewed a lot of galleys this summer, but right now this is the only one I want to talk about.

So back to our story. We have three narratives, all from unhappy characters, all of them watching, watching, watching. Our protagonist is Cameron Whitley, a troubled, “Tangled” adolescent that has spent his evenings secretly following a popular, attractive classmate named Lucinda. He watches her through the windows of her house. He stares at her in her bedroom, and he does other things, too. Cameron has a troubled past, his father gone now after a storm of controversy destroyed his reputation and left his family hanging in tatters. And now that Lucinda is dead, the investigators have to look hard at Cameron. We do, too. We can see that Cameron is grieving, but of course, people often grieve the people they have killed. Grief doesn’t always denote innocence.

“Cameron stood outside Maplewood Memorial and wondered how many bodies it held that did not belong to Lucinda. How many blue, unbending thumbs. How many jellied hearts.”

As the story proceeds, we hear a third person omniscient narrative of Cameron, though it doesn’t choose to tell us everything. Not yet. We also hear two alternate narratives, those of Jade, Cameron’s classmate, and of Russ, the cop that was Cameron’s father’s partner before things unraveled.

Jade is friendless and frustrated, an overweight teen with iffy social skills, unhappy in love. Her home life is disastrous, her alcoholic mother monstrously abusive. Jade could be out of that house in a New York minute if she’d out her mother, but instead she turns her anger toward herself. After all, she provokes her mother. The bruises, the cuts, the blackened eye all signs that she has pushed her mom too far.

And so, bereft of healthier peer relationships, Jade watches Cameron watch Lucinda. She doesn’t have to leave home to do it; she has a box seat, so to speak, at her bedroom window. Standing there and looking down on a good clear night, she can see Cameron sequestered behind the bushes or trees, and she can see Lucinda, who doesn’t seem to know what curtains and window blinds are for. Ultimately Jade befriends Cameron, who is frankly afraid to trust her. And he may be right.
Russ is the third main character whose narrative we follow. As a child, he always thought it would be awesome to carry a gun and put handcuffs on bad guys:

“He memorized the Mirandas…playing with a toy cop car on the back porch…Russ had a lisp as a kid. You have the wight to wemain siwent.”

So his dream has come true; why isn’t he a happier man? Again and again we see the ugly things Russ does and the ugly reasons he does them, but just as it appears he’s going to become a stereotypic character, Kukafka adds nuance and ambiguity, and we see that underneath that swinish exterior is the heart of…no, not a lion. He’s really not that great a guy. But we see his confusion, his dilemmas, the aspects of his “bruised yellow past” that motivate him. He isn’t a hero, but he is capable of loving, and of doing good. And he doesn’t want to frame a kid for Lucinda’s murder, especially not his partner’s kid. He wants to know the truth.

Interesting side characters are Russ’s wife, Ines, and Ines’s brother Ivan, the school custodian that is caught in the crosshairs of the investigation.

Ultimately, though, the story is about Cameron, and Kukafka’s electrifying prose makes my thoughts roll back and forth like a couple dozen tennis balls left on deck when the ship hits choppy seas. Poor Cameron! He didn’t do this…and then, whoa, Cameron is seriously creepy here. Maybe he actually did it. I spend much of my time trying to decipher how deeply troubled this lad is—those of us in education and other fields that work with teenagers would undoubtedly deem him an ‘at-risk’ child—and how far he has gone.

Is Cameron the Boo Radley of 2017, misunderstood and falsely vilified; or is he a Gary Gilmore, a John Wayne Gacy?

Clearly, I’m not going to tell you. That would ruin it for you. The one thing I will say is that the ending is not left ambiguous. This isn’t the sort of book you throw across the room when you’ve read the last page.

In addition, know that there is plenty of edgy material here. Those considering offering this book to a teen as summer reading may wish to read it themselves before passing it on. I would cheerfully have handed it to my own teens, but your standards and mine may differ.

If you can read this book free or at a reduced price, lucky you. If you have to pay full freight: do it. Do it. Do it. It’s for sale today.

The Lying Game, by Ruth Ware****

TheLyingGameIsabel, Fatima, and Leah receive a text from Kate saying that she needs them. It’s been 17 years, and yet they answer in the only possible way:

“’I’m coming.’
“’I’m coming.’
“’I’m coming.’”

This one had me at hello. How many of us have a friend from childhood, adolescence, or the early years of our adulthood that could draw this response from us? I know I do, and although mine are from different times and places in my life, if I received that text I’d be on a plane, a train, or in the car. Thank you Net Galley and Gallery Books for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. The book was published last week.

Our protagonist is Isa (“It’s to rhyme with nicer”), and as you might infer, this is British fiction. Isa leaves Owen, a good sport if ever there was one; grabs Freya the baby, who is breast-feeding; and hops on a train. And that baby will ramp up the stakes, mostly in subtle ways, over and over throughout the story.

Kate has called them because human bones have been found in the Reach. All of them immediately know what this means, although the reader does not.

We learn about the lying game played by the foursome during their years at school together. There are points given according to whether the lie is believed, whether the victim is new, and further byzantine details; but the big rule is that they must never lie to each other. The game revives itself at odd moments during their reunion, sometimes to lightened effect for the reader, but sometimes becoming sinister.

Throughout this well-crafted tale, Ware doles out bits and pieces of what is to come, and every time my experienced eye spots a sure-fire red herring, it turns out it isn’t. I read a lot of mysteries—probably too many—but this one is fresh and original conceptually, and it becomes more riveting as the characters are developed, adding layer after layer like papier-mâché. The ending completely surprises me, and yet is entirely consistent with the rest of the novel.

There are times when I am astounded at the risk-taking behaviors exhibited by the four as adults approaching middle age once they are together again; at times I step away and ask myself whether the doctor that Fatima is now would actually do this, and whether Isa, an attorney, wouldn’t show more caution. But the foursome persuades me—are there points for this, I wonder—and I am drawn back in before the curtain twitches. There’s never a time when I see that the Great and Powerful Oz is seen back there at the control panel; the magic holds. There are times I am astonished at the risks Isa takes with Freya, going for a swim in the Reach with her pals, leaving her defenseless baby alone, asleep, in that hideous, falling down shack, but it’s consistent with the girl she used to be, the girl that is awakened to a degree as she returns to the time and place in which she came of age.

The fifth star isn’t here because the foreshadowing is too heavy-handed at times, and threatens to become funny rather than scary, which is clearly not intended. But every time I see it veering toward the ridiculous, Ware pulls back again, and so the overdone moments are a blip on the radar.
Those that love Ruth Ware’s work, and those that love a good mystery—especially women—will want to read this book. You can get it now.

A Game of Ghosts, by John Connolly*****

AGameOfGhostsJohn Connolly writes two kinds of books. Some of them are good; some are damned good. This is one of the latter. It’s the fifteenth in the Charlie Parker series, and it marks a turning point; previously a thriller series with mystic overtones, it’s now a stew combining multiple genres. Connelly heats his cauldron and pours in a healthy dose of suspense, mixes in some detective fiction, and blends in horror and fantasy as well, along with a pinch of humor. The overall result is deliciously creepy, the kind of story that stays with me after I’ve read a dozen other less memorable books. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. The book is for sale now.

Parker has a haunting past indeed; in the first book of this series, his wife and daughter Jennifer are murdered by a man that has come looking to kill Parker. Our hero sets out to find and kill the man that did it, and he succeeds; yet his thirst for stark, take-no-prisoners justice is not satisfied. Now the father of another daughter, Samantha, that lives with his ex, our current mystery finds Parker in a conversation with the girl’s uncle, who asks hard questions about Parker’s risky behavior. He wants to know why Parker keeps chasing bad guys now that his initial quest has been fulfilled. Why hunt down evil-doers when he might adopt a lifestyle more in line with the best interests of his still-living child? Parker responds,

“I do it because I’m afraid that if I don’t, nobody will. I do it because if I turn away, someone else might suffer the way I have. I do it because it’s an outlet for my anger. I do it for reasons that even I don’t understand. 
“But mostly,” said Parker, “I do it because I like it…
“We can’t leave these people to wander the world unchallenged.”

The premise here is that Parker is sent by FBI agent Ross, who he has agreed to work for under terms mostly his own, in search of Jaycob Ecklund, a man also employed by Ross who has vanished. Once Parker’s search for Ecklund commences we learn that the missing man was a ghostbuster of sorts, a man with a basement full of files on the paranormal. Many others are interested in Ecklund also, and the plot ramps up quickly and doesn’t relent until the last page is done.

The plot here is complex, and Connolly weaves in a host of characters, both living and dead. We have The Brethren, most of whom are alive yet already damned. We have Angel and Louis, a pair of characters that have appeared throughout the series that work with Parker; their darkly amusing banter helps lighten an otherwise almost unbearably intense plot. We have clairvoyants; we have The Brethren; the hollow men; we have a number of murder victims, before, during, and after their deaths; there is the Collector, who is tied to Parker like a falcon, and must always return to him.
And we have organized crime figures Phillip and his Mother, who abduct him in order to find out what Parker does and what he knows, in a civilized way, of course.

“There will be tea.”

Mother is the best villain this reviewer has seen in a long time.

The entire book is brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. And although Connolly’s series is worth reading from the get-go, those that hop in without having read earlier books from this series will be able to follow and enjoy this shapeshifting mindbender of a novel just fine, but those that genuinely believe in ghosts may not want to read it at night.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent novels of suspense.

Watch Me Disappear, by Janelle Brown*****

WatchMeDisappear“…how can you ever really know the truth about another person? We all write our own narratives about the people we know and love…”

Billie Flanagan is living the good life in Northern California. Her husband, Jonathan, has a lucrative career that permits her to stay home, even though Olive is now in middle school. But one day she heads out on one of her favorite hiking trails, the Pacific Crest Trail in Desolation Wilderness, and she never returns. Search and Rescue crews find a single hiking boot and a cell phone far below the trail with its screen smashed. Her bank cards and checking remain untouched. Jonathan and Olive are forced to face the truth: Billie is never coming home again. They hold the funeral, and a year later, Jonathan sits down to write a memoir of his life with Billie. It is here that we join the family.

Many thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review in exchange for this honest review. The book will be available to the public July 11, 2107.

This psychological thriller starts with daughter Olive, who is in middle school, seldom a proud or happy time for any of us. But one day Billie appears to Olive in the hallway and tells her that she should be looking harder; she isn’t trying. Olive is convinced that her mother is still alive and trying to reach her. Eventually Jonathan starts to wonder as well. Neither of them is able to move on effectively without knowing the truth, yet there it is: they have no body and they have no proof of anything. As their journeys unfold, both externally and internally, Brown develops the hell out of both of these characters and through the memories both evoke in word and thought, she develops Billie best of all. An interesting side character named Harmony rounds things out nicely.

As each layer of each character is revealed—I was planning to say it’s like having three sets of Russian nesting dolls, but that’s not right; each has many more layers than that, more like onions–the reader’s viewpoint is forced to shift from one point of view to another, and so we wonder at various times about alternate possibilities. Could Billie really be alive somewhere? Did she just up and fucking leave them? She’s done that before. She is a runner. She has been known to drop people with no warning at all, just ghost them. It was a long time ago, but it’s true.

Or is she dead at the hands of…hmm, the ex-boyfriend that surfaces at the funeral? And we wonder whether maybe Jonathan, whose memories of Billie are not all as rosy as the ones we hear at the outset, did something to harm her. And then we wonder about Billie’s friend Harmony, who moves into Jonathan’s life rapidly enough to disturb Olive considerably. She’s so needy, so hungry for his attention; would she have offed Billie in order to have a crack at him? Many of these ideas are merely hinted at rather than voiced by the narrative, and this is part of what makes it so tasty. At first, I think my idea is original because I am so smart, but then I look back, as a reviewer has to do, and I can see it’s not really about my being smart (darn), but rather about very subtle foreshadowing. Brown uses lights and mirrors to get our minds moving in different directions, and the disorientation is, in its own twisted way, part of the rush.

A last note goes to the tangential but rarely-seen moment when a character muses about why it’s so hard to find an abortion clinic when you need one. This is the reverse side of a pet peeve of mine, the commonly used notion that every accidental pregnancy necessarily must end in childbirth, as if the year were 1950 or 1960 rather than the 21st century. I wonder whether Brown had to fight to keep that reference in her novel? One way or the other, this was going to be a five star review, but when I found that courageous little nugget, I wanted to shout for joy!

As to the end…I can’t tell you what happens of course, but I will tell you that this doesn’t end ambiguously. By the conclusion, the reader knows what happened to Billie.

When all is said and done, this is fiction that every feminist can embrace. If there is a heaven, Charlotte Perkins Gilman is looking down, and she is cheering.

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

On my radar for July and August:

Lockdown, by Laurie R. King*****

lockdownI am a big fan of Laurie R. King’s contemporary thrillers, and this one is no exception. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. It’s for sale today, so now everyone can read it.

King’s feminist fiction is made more delicious by her careful attention to detail. There is NEVER a single moment in which the setting—which is primarily at Guadalupe Middle School—slips and shows the reader that the Great and Powerful Oz is really just a human behind a curtain. Her magic never falters. Every fine detail regarding school schedules, culture, and protocol is true to life. This reviewer spent a couple of decades teaching in a middle school not much different from King’s fictional one, and I have never seen any novelist get everything so completely right in using school as the main setting.

As the cover suggests, this story is centered around a school shooting in California that takes place on career day. This is ticklish business to say the very least, one that authors dared not approach for a long time. Now, with Columbine significantly in our rear-view mirror but with school shootings an increasing, ever-present concern, King works it like a pro. A large measure of her success has to do with the way she builds her characters. We have a complex blend, from the school administrator, Linda McDonald; to her spouse Gordon, who has secrets that must not be revealed; to Tio, the custodian, another man that holds his cards closely; to the kids, the kids, the kids. We have Mina, the perfect student who has worries all her own, to Chaco—my personal favorite—to a host of others. By the time we reach the climax, we feel as if we know each one of these people, and so it isn’t a story of violence in the broad sense, but the fates of real people that collide.

This white-knuckle read treats issues of class, ethnicity and gender with the sensitivity one might expect from a master of the genre.  When I finish, it is replete with the satisfaction I receive at the end of Thanksgiving dinner—but this feast is one I don’t have to cook up myself, which makes it all the better. I’ve read 11 other books, mostly galleys, since I read Lockdown, and yet in my memory this one stands out as exceptionally strong fiction, the kind of book one wants to read a second time. And I know that when I do, some things will leap out from the pages brand new, because such a layered, intricate story is full of delightful niches and crannies that aren’t necessarily seen the first time through.

I wholeheartedly recommend this story to good people that love novels of suspense.  If it means you have to pay full freight—do it anyway. I would have.