Friday, December 30, 2016

FFB: Favorite Books of the Year

N.C. Wyeth (1882 - 1945)

A list of books not necessarily published in 2016 (in fact all but two weren't) read by yours truly for the first time in this past year. AND not necessarily ALL forgotten or overlooked (though several of them qualify). But it's Friday, and this seemed the appropriate time, date and moment.

I don't include any re-reading of past favorites in this current year-end list since those titles were already listed and accounted for in years past.

I wish I could link you to my previous 'Favorites' lists, but my blog linking apparatus still isn't working the way it should. However you may be able to do it from your end if you are so inclined. I've given up trying to figure out what's what with Google. Life's too short.

So without any further muss or fuss, here is my list of favorites for 2016:

1) EVERYBODY'S FOOL (2016) by Richard Russo

I am a huge fan of Russo's work - he is one of the few contemporary 'literature' writers I read probably because of his natural ability to tell a story, his often laugh-out-loud humor and his slightly jaundiced view of a world he knows very well. But don't get me wrong, Russo loves these characters - it's just that he sees right through them. And somehow he makes us love them too even as we see how very far from perfect they are.

Though this is a sequel, it isn't necessary to have read NOBODY'S FOOL (1993), the book which first introduced us to Donald Sullivan aka Sully, the middle-aged n'er do well 'hero' and his misanthropic circle of friends and acquaintances. I had read it years ago but to tell the truth, I'd forgotten most of it - still I had no trouble jumping right into events which take place ten years after those in the first book. Sully is now 70 and suffering the aches and pains of decrepitude. We're back in upstate New York, in the small depressed town of Bath where nothing much ever happens and even when it does, it's never to the benefit of the town's sad-sack citizenry.

T.C. Boyle's review of EVERYBODY'S FOOL from the NY Times.

THE HOUSE OF FOUR WINDS (1935) by John Buchan

A 'Ruritania' style romance and the final book in the Dickson McCunn trilogy of adventure stories set in an Europe that is gone forever, if it ever existed. Next to HUNTINGTOWER (the brilliant first novel in the series) this is one of my all time favorite books. (The second installment in the series, CASTLE GAY, is good, but doesn't really hold a candle to the first or last.)

Dickson McCunn, the retired but wealthy Scottish grocer with a romantic heart, is back again and ready, despite 'old age' aches and pains, for another adventure. The street boys from Glasgow are also back all grown up: Jaikie on a walking tour and Dougal on assignment for his newspaper. McCunn is headed to a German spa for his health but that won't stop him getting side-lined. Several other characters left over from CASTLE GAY will also show up and eventually all will get involved in a plot to restore the monarchy of Evallonia, a mythical middle-European country. Impossibly far-fetched I know, but oh so wonderful.

3) SUMMERLAND (2002) by Michael Chabon

A friend handed me this book and said read it. So I did. Meant for young readers (10 and up), but not so you'd notice. This is a wonderfully sharp-eyed fantasy about baseball, the meaning of life and the possible end of the world as we know it. (Seems highly appropriate and prescient.) Eleven year old Ethan Feld is the worst baseball player in the history of the game, but he is the 'chosen one' as far as saving the world from the evil machinations of the dreadful baseball loving Coyote and his wicked minions. The author draws from American mythology and legends in his first book for young readers which, of course, can be read and enjoyed by everyone and anyone of any age whatsoever.

Kirkus Review of SUMMERLAND

4) THE LAST POLICEMAN (2012) by Ben H. Winters

A dystopian science fiction/mystery tour de force for those of us who do not ordinarily like dystopian fare (as, for that matter, is SUMMERLAND, sort of - see above). The world is on an inevitable collision course with a giant asteroid and most humans are handling it as one would expect. Social and economic disorder reigns, corporations have closed up shop, most workers see no point in continuing in their jobs, and food grows scarcer and scarcer. As the days tick-tock away, looting and suicides become common, 'survivalists' head for the hills, all hope is gone and only the military and police have fuel supplies as frightened families hunker down and wait for the end. Hank Palace is a young detective in New Hampshire struggling to do his job even on the brink of annihilation. When murder occurs, he is determined to catch a killer while also dealing with family problems: a sister who has become involved with a cult which believes that they have the science to save the world.

The second and third installments of the trilogy, COUNTDOWN CITY and WORLD OF TROUBLE are also excellent and highly recommended by yours truly. I would read all three at a clip. Terrific stuff with very little, if any. letdown as the trilogy comes to its predestined end.

5) ANNA, WHERE ARE YOU? (1951) by Patricia Wentworth

A moody, engrossing Miss Silver mystery and one I cannot ever remember reading before. When Patricia Wentworth was at the top of her form, she was really quite good even if what she was writing was cozy and derivative and highly improbable - not that any of that matters if the plotting, setting and characterizations work and the sense of menace is high. As it is is this sinister installment.

When Thomasina Elliott's old school friend Anna Ball stops writing to her, Thomasina suspects that something is wrong. She knows that she is Anna's only real friend, someone to whom Anna would regularly take the time to write her latest news simply because there was no one else. It had been that way for the many years the two girls had known each other. So when Thomasina stops hearing from Anna after learning she had recently quit one job and been offered a new one, Thomasina worries. Though her friend Peter scoffs at her apprehension, Thomasina insists on doing something.

Enter Miss Silver, elderly spinster and private detective.

6) THE FOLD (2015) by Peter Clines

Terrific science fiction which I found almost impossible to put down. Though it kind of/almost loses its way near the end, it still packs a wallop most especially because of its thrilling mystery-like 'what happens next' aspect and the appeal of an engaging main character with a very rare eidetic memory. Mike Erikson has the ability to remember everything he sees, reads or hears. Hard to deal with as you may imagine, which is why he prefers to remain a low-key high school teacher in an out of the way New England town.

But when Mike's friend (the head of a hush-hush government program) cajoles him into traveling to California for a looksee at a project involving a working teleportation device, little does Mike know that his talents will be soon called upon to save the world from an onslaught of alternate universes. Hard to explain, but it all makes a sort of sense once you get into the spirit of the thing. Hey, I'm no scientist, but I still enjoyed the idea of leaping about from one reality to another - side by side travel through a 'fold' in time. (Even if I couldn't make heads or tails of the actuality of the thing.) It's time travel but not. As I said, hard to explain. Just read the book.

It's a fun read and not meant, I think, to be taken too seriously.

7) THE PROMISE (2015) by Robert Crais

Those of you familiar with my reading likes will know that I am an unabashed Robert Crais fan-girl. I love his Elvis Cole and Joe Pike thrillers and consider him to be one of the best (if not the best) American thriller writer working today. Certainly no one else can match Crais for macabre sense of humor amidst carnage, something which shouldn't work, but does. Mostly because of Crais' confident sense of who his main characters are and how their psyches work. Elvis and Joe are heroic in the truest sense of the word and their stories are, at heart, about the workings of a close friendship.

Here in the 16th book in the long-running series, Elvis and Joe are joined by L.A. canine officer Scott James and his partner, Maggie, a German Shepherd (fresh from their own previous book, SUSPECT).

Approaching the hunt for a heartless and very dangerous killer from two different directions and hindered by a string of lies not the least of which is from Elvis' secretive client, all four protagonists eventually join forces on the trail of a vengeful murderer fanatically eager to eliminate the only witness to a recent crime: Officer Scott James.

8) GREY MASK (1928) by Patricia Wentworth

The first Miss Silver mystery and one of the author's best - an incredible tale of a sinister masked miscreant and a nasty kidnapping plot upon which our hero stumbles late one night while skulking about a supposedly empty house. Don't you love when that happens?

Miss Silver doesn't enter into the story until about half way through which is just right for this particular introductory story. Full of anachronisms (hey, it's 1928) and twisted logic, GREY MASK still works a treat and is the perfect antidote for a chilly winter night. These stories are either your cup of tea or they are not, if they are then this one is a prime example of its kind - meant to entertain and intrigue for a few hours and nothing more. I loved it.

9) SLEEPING GIANTS (2016) by Sylvain Neuvel

Lately I am beginning to read more and more science fiction and really liking it. But the stories I seem to gravitate towards are not, necessarily, the flying saucer or outer space type things, but stories about unusual happenings - magical reality on steroids, I suppose. Personified by author China Mieville and others, i.e. Sylvain Neuvel whom I discovered recently.

In South Dakota, a young girl named Rose rides her new bicycle, falls through a crack in the earth and lands in the palm of a giant golden hand. Eventually the hand will join other parts found buried around the world until, put together, they make a full grown warrior woman. But what are these wondrous artifacts? Long lost art? Remnants of an ancient civilization? Weapons of mass destruction? Who hid them? When? Why? And more importantly why are they suddenly coming to light now?

Seventeen years after stumbling into the mystery, Rose Franklin is now a top physicist working with a small secret team to try and find the meaning of this bizarre puzzle. The story is intriguingly told through a series of diary entries, notes and other first person writings.

I am eagerly awaiting the second book in the series,

10) THE FAMILY MAN(2009) by Elinor Lipman

Henry Archer is a divorced gay man of a certain age, a quiet, courtly gentleman living a quiet courtly life in his elegant Manhattan townhouse. Like most of Elinor Lipman's characters inhabiting one of her gentle social satires, he is someone we would all like to know.

In the middle of mourning for his recently deceased best friend Celeste, the lonely Henry discovers that his stepdaughter Thalia has been working right under his nose (at his barber's) all the while unnoticed by him. The story then centers on Henry's attempts to re-connect with his long-lost daughter, not only a hat-check girl at the barber's but also an actress looking for her first break. Once upon a time 24 years previously, Henry had foolishly allowed his ex-wife's mogul husband (now also deceased) to adopt Thalia and because of one thing or another, had lost touch with the girl. Regrets - he has many.

Soon, the mercenary money-hungry ex-wife now penniless (due to a clever pre-nup) attempts to storm-troop her way back into Henry and Thalia's good graces. While Thalia gets mixed up in a public relations gig posing as the girl friend of a weird horror film actor who is, in turn, in love with an underage girl of 17. Not to worry, Elinor Lipman is an expert at untangling convolutions, it all works out nicely.

Like most of the author's work, this is an engaging and charming (if occasionally sharp-edged) tale in which everyone gets what he or she deserves. I like that.

11) HUNTING EICHMANN (2009) - How A Band of Survivors and A Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb 

In 1944 when the war was all but lost, many Nazi higher ups began planning their escape, knowing full well that they would be held accountable by the Allies for Germany's atrocities. Among these many cowards was Adolf Eichmann, Hitler's bureaucratic mastermind in charge of 'the Jewish question'. Eichmann was a precise, unfeeling man who sent millions to their deaths and would later use the excuse that he was 'only following orders'. With the help of Nazi sympathizers, he eventually made his way to Argentina after the war, there to join a growing community of ex-Nazis given refuge in the South American country. Eichmann would dodge pursuers for fifteen more years, his trail having gone cold until he was all but forgotten.

How a small band of agents recruited from Mossad and Shin Bet, the Israeli secret services, tracked and finally cornered Eichmann on a dark road outside his Buenos Aires home, makes for a stirring tale of true adventure and daring. Meticulous planning and good fortune combined to help these dedicated agents get their man and smuggle him out of the country aboard the first Israeli plane ever to land in the Argentine capital. Thanks to these men, Eichmann would eventually stand trial in Israel in full view of the world.

This is non-fiction that reads like fast-paced fiction. It is hard to believe all this actually happened. But it did.

Kirkus Review of HUNTING EICHMANN.

And now, since this Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Artist: Elsa Beskow

Uncertainty aside, at least for the next few days, have a wonderful holiday weekend with family and/or friends, and if you are traveling, stay safe. Let us celebrate the things in life worth celebrating and forget the rest - at least for the time being.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

5 Favorite Christmas Movies

I do this list every year and every year it's the same movies since I haven't really seen anything new that captures my imagination or makes me feel especially Christmasy. Though I may be in the minority, I dislike Lifetime TV Christmas movies with their lachrymose plots and past-their-prime actors attempting to breathe life into plots force fed with pretend holiday cheer. I'd rather watch A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS over and over again - the original one. Or Raymond Briggs' THE SNOWMAN, a wistfully beautiful animated short film.

For this short list, I've left off the more obvious classics like A CHRISTMAS CAROL since it's a given we all love those. I am especially fond of three versions: the Alistair Sim one, the George C. Scott one and the Patrick Stewart one. I used to be fond of the musical, SCROOGE, but now, not so much.

We all need an extra bit of Christmas cheer these days so hopefully one or two of my favorite movies will do the trick. Escapism is the key word for the next four years, beginning with now.

1) THE THIN MAN (1934) Though some of you might think that W.S. Van Dyke's classic movie based on Dashiell Hammett's rather dark book is NOT exactly Christmasy, I say, think again. Not only does the story take place over the Christmas holidays, but William Powell and Myrna Loy as the zany sophisticates Nick and Nora Charles share oodles of snappy dialogue and sparkling bon-mots, drink martinis, throw a party, open presents, and tackle a murder plot full of nitwits and thugs. A very young and beautiful Maureen O'Sullivan is also in the cast, as is a bad-tempered gigolo played by a young and sulky Cesar Romero.

2) LADY ON A TRAIN (1945) Deanna Durbin (directed by Charles David whom she later married) plays a flighty heiress who spots a murder from her train window as her train shuffles into Manhattan on Christmas eve. And we're off and running. Durbin gets a mystery writer involved in her hunt for a killer because who else would one go to for help in solving a crime than a mystery writer? What is it about Christmas and murder? Only in movies like these where it's all improbable fun and absurd villainy and Durbin gets to sing a very nice version of Silent Night, over the phone to her dad in California. And Dan Duryea and Ralph Bellamy play sleazy, sinister guys up to no good.

3) THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1942) Based on a stage play by George S. Kaufman and photographed more or less like one (but not to its detriment), this film does not concern us with murder but merely with a bad-tempered but powerful radio personality of immense popularity played by the irascible Monte Woolley. He is the sort of man who, if this WERE a murder a mystery, would be bumped off in the first ten minutes. But anyway, here he just takes a nasty fall on the snowy doorstep of a conservative mid-western family and is forced by medical exigency to spend Christmas with the sort of people his over-bearing New York personality loathes. Bette Davis plays his long-suffering secretary, Anne Sheridan plays a gold-digging Hollywood glamour gal, Jimmy Durante plays a maniacal old pal and the wickedly charming Reginald Gardiner plays a Noel Coward type and almost steals the movie.

4) CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945) A delightful film starring Barbara Stanwyck as a hyper-drive, domestically hapless NYC magazine columnist/editor doing her best to play happy housewife (with borrowed baby) for her boss, publisher Sidney Greenstreet (who is quite wonderful), while falling in love with a soldier (Dennis Morgan) on holiday leave. The plot is kind of clunky, but since this all takes place in a movie-style Connecticut farm house during a movie-style white Christmas with jingly sled and horses, it's all good.

5) MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS aka Babes in Toyland (1934) Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without this old chestnut. The truth is, my un-reasoning affection for this movie knows no bounds. Watched it as a kid every year growing up: WPIX, Channel 11.  I even like to sing along with the Victor Herbert songs. The scene is Toyland, toyland, beautiful girl and boy land - and the incomparable Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy play Santa's helpers. Though the duo often does more harm than help, for instance turning Santa's order of 100 six inch soldiers into 100 six foot wooden marching soldiers. It's just as well though, for when hordes of shaggy, snarling bogie men attack Toyland, the soldiers come in handy. I love the old fashioned characterization of nursery rhyme characters such as Little Bo Peep and Tom the Piper's Son and The Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe (literally) and Mother Goose, etc. SO much fun - even the odious Victorian villain Barnaby who overreacts his way into acting infamy. Ha!

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Rant: Agatha Christie's PARTNERS IN CRIME (The NEWEST Version)

Jessica Raine and David Walliams as Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.

The actors are pleasing and professional and deserved better, especially David Walliams who does take getting used to after years of envisioning James Warwick (the ultimate Tommy) in the role. But once you get over the physical disparity, you do warm up to Walliams as the often hapless Tommy. AND I love Jessica Raine's (Tuppence) hair-do. James Fleet as Mr. Carter is superb in a thankless role - exactly my idea of a professorial spy master. But he's really the only bright spot in an otherwise dismal enterprise.

(Francesca Annis and James Warwick were the ultimate Tommy and Tuppence in the early series adaptation - relatively true to the book and short stories - from the 1980's. And available to watch on Acorn TV. In fact both series are currently available.)

But here's the problem: the two novels adapted for the newest Tommy and Tuppence endeavor, THE SECRET ADVERSARY and N OR M, were simply thrown overboard and replaced with newfangled modern-sensibility scripts based on who knows what research in the firm belief that you can take brilliance and somehow improve on it. Okay, maybe not brilliance, these are not Christie's best novels, but you know, even Christie at her less than ultimate, is better than the crap modern day writers get up to when trying to adapt her work. When faced with Christie's superb sense of timing and plot, they just cannot leave well enough alone.

This nonsensical need to IMPROVE or somehow make the stories more contemporary is completely wrong-headed. Christie's milieu is part and parcel of the Christie charm. Her people occupy a specific universe. They are who they are. You cannot improve or adapt or otherwise make them people of today. Though Christie used themes that are eternal, her characters populated a particular era. That world (long gone) with its own pressures and intrigues has a specific allure. THAT, my friends, is one of the main reasons why Christie is so enticing to so many of us.

Forgive me in advance for not being political correct: In a jarring note, in this newest version of THE SECRET ADVERSARY, a key member of the plot, Jules Hersheimmer the American millionaire searching for his niece, is played by an African American actor (Clarke Peters). The niece too is played by a mixed race actress (Camilla Beeput). No rhyme or reason. Totally disconcerting and adds little to the plot. I'm all for ethnic casting if it makes historical sense or adds to or improves the story in some way. But here it just adds confusion.

Even more interesting, Tommy and Tuppence do not even notice that Jules is black which, for the time, the early fifties (the series has been moved from WWI era) seems odd and almost stops the story in its tracks while we adjust. Wait - who is this?

Jules Hersheimmer is supposed to be a larger than life Texas oil millionaire - the third richest man in America. Here he is someone who has a company pushing synthetic sweeteners. some variation on early saccharine, I suppose. I mean - what? And the way he behaves towards Tommy is very odd. Jules was supposed to be around the same age as Tommy and Tuppence, here he is an older man. Not someone who will supposedly join in the adventure. WHY the change? No reason. It's just change for change's sake.

The original story takes place just after WWI (Tommy and Tuppence have recently been de-mobbed and they meet again for the first time after several years). The sinking of the Luisitania is a key element in the plot with its totally improbable beginning. It is meant to be improbable, not to be taken seriously - this is not a realistic spy novel. It is meant to be fun, the bringing together of two quirky young adventurers at the start of their long and devoted relationship - the 'macguffin' is an international treaty hidden away at the onset of war. For Tommy and Tuppence, it is a wild ride in search of a brilliantly devious master criminal hiding in plain sight. Which is why the attempt by today's writers to force the damn thing to take a serious 'cold war' turn is ludicrous.

It is the 1950's, Tommy and Tuppence are already long-time marrieds with a son away at school and a dog that nobody seems to be taking care of since, at the drop of a hat, both owners go off and leave the animal for long stretches of time. Once assumes someone is walking and feeding and watering the animal, but who knows? These are small details that should have been taken care of in the script. If you include a dog, then include the details of who cares for it. People notice these things.

Also, WHO are all these extraneous characters introduced in the first episode? And, oh by the way, a shooting takes place on a train and NOBODY NOTICES??? NOBODY hears the shots??? And later, was it really necessary to strangle a man in full view of Tommy and the audience? THIS is not Christie. This is someone ruining Christie - someone with ZERO understanding of the author's work. So why not just invent a new cast of characters and eliminate Christie all together? There is NO POINT to using Christie's title and a few of her characters names and then break up the plot so that it becomes unrecognizable. I suppose they are assuming that younger viewers are not familiar with the original Christie plot but then, it that's so, why use her name to begin with?? What is the point?

Was England in the 50's a successfully integrated multi-ethnic society? Probably more so than in the USA, I'd think, but political correctness is just an unnecessary element in these period dramas. Forgive me if I'm being insensitive, but there is a time for multi-ethnic casting - when it makes sense - and there is a time when it just doesn't fit. These are not stories about racial equality or inequality, they are supposedly light-hearted mysteries and/or thrillers. Modern day sensibilities adjust or they don't - if they don't, they don't watch. Simple as that.

But what with all the padding and extraneous bits of supposedly sinister stops and starts (and Tommy and Tuppence behaving stupidly and deserving of being caught by the bad guys), the whole thing turns tedious and almost impossible to watch. I stopped about midway through, furious, yet again, at the way Christie's stories get yanked around to no purpose.

As for N OR M, a story which originally takes place during WWII, when Tommy and Tuppence's grown children are away at war and both parents are feeling useless, bemoaning the fact that they are too old to take part. When suddenly Mr. Carter shows up and offers Tommy a gig at a rooming house where one of the boarders is thought to be a German agent. Simple enough plot. But no, it has to be modernized to the point of absurdity with blood spattered corpses and wild shoot-em-ups in the streets of foggy London. Ugh.

PARTNERS IN CRIME has NOT gotten a second series start and no wonder. You cannot do this to Christie's work and expect good results.

P.S. I am hesitant to watch the newest version of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, also available on Acorn. I understand that this too was re-fashioned to make it more entertaining (?!) for modern day audiences.

And now I've read that an even newer version of THE ABC MURDERS with, I am assuming, a new Hercule Poirot, is in the works. David Suchet is/was the ultimate Poirot. We've just finished 25 years of watching him brilliantly expand on the role and eventually die, in CURTAIN.

Now, we get another Poirot? Who on earth would have the temerity? One can only shudder.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: O JERUSALEM (1999) by Laurie R. King

"If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning." Psalm 137:5

This is a re-working of a review I posted a few years ago. These days (with good reason) many of us are looking for escapism, books that are thrilling and well written and take us out of ourselves and maybe also take us back in history to a time when all things were possible. And who better to travel with than Sherlock Holmes and his apprentice, Mary Russell whom we met in the brilliantly conceived,THE BEEKEEPER'S APPRENTICE. (And if we haven't met her, then rush right out and buy the book for goodness' sake - it's a keeper! Even Conan Doyle would have approved of Russell.)

Please note: This is not the second book in the series begun so spectacularly (and audaciously) with THE BEEKEEPER'S APPRENTICE, though I think it should have been. I always recommend reading O JERUSALEM second if you've just begun or are about to begin reading the Holmes/Russell series. But of course, it's totally up to you. The 'official' second book in the series is actually A MONSTROUS REGIMENT OF WOMEN, but this could easily be read as the third book without missing a beat. All my own opinion, you understand.

At any rate, if you favor historical fiction, I can't stress enough how imaginative, how dazzling, how truly wonderful O JERUSALEM is without seeming like a slavering groupie. Well, okay, I'm a slavering groupie. There's worse things I could be. Ha!

The plot:

It is 1918, Sherlock Holmes and his apprentice/partner, the brilliant Oxford student Mary Russell are forced by deadly circumstance to get away from London for awhile. So off they go to the British protectorate of Palestine, a country liberated from the Turks the previous autumn. At the behest of Mycroft Holmes - Sherlock's brother who is high up in murky government circles - both travelers will be performing some vague undercover work while they make their way across the rugged terrain to the city of Jerusalem. (Given a choice of several destinations by Holmes, it is Russell who has chosen to travel to Palestine, she is Jewish and Jerusalem holds special allure for her.)

To that end and upon arrival at night hidden in a skiff, they must meet and pass muster with two suspicious Arab agents who do not want them there in the first place. Mahmoud and Ali regard Holmes and Russell as nuisances who have been foisted upon them. They are not happy playing nursemaids at a time when any wrong move could bring disaster. Palestine is (and always appears to have been) a hazardous place, especially for outsiders. Jerusalem in 1918 is a hodgepodge of Brits, Arabs, Jews, Christians, spies, troublemakers and possible terrorists.

Steven immediately shipped his oars, stood, and stepped over the prow of the little boat into the shallow water. Holmes grabbed his haversack and went next, jumping lightly onto the coarse shingle. I followed, pausing for a moment on the bow to squint through my salt-smeared spectacles at the dark shore. Steven put his hand up to help me, and as I shifted my eyes downward they registered with a shock two figures standing perfectly still, thirty feet or so behind Holmes.

"Holmes," I hissed, "there are two women behind you!"

Steven's hand on mine hesitated briefly, then tugged again. "Miss Russell, there'll be a patrol any minute. It's all right."

I stepped cautiously into the water beside him and moved up to where Holmes stood.

"Salaam aleikum, Steven," came a voice from the night: accented, low, and by no means that of a woman.

"Aleikum es-salaam, Ali. I hope you are well."

"Praise be to God," was the reply.

"I have a pair of pigeons for you."

"They could have landed at a more convenient time, Steven."

"Shall I take them away again?"

"No, Steven. We accept delivery. Mahmoud regrets we cannot ask you to come and drink coffee, but at the moment, it would not be wise. Maalesh," he added, using the all-purpose Arabic expression that was a verbal shrug of the shoulders at life's inequities and accidents.

The inscrutable Mahmoud and Ali, go on to become two of author Laurie R. King's most indelible characters. I have never forgotten them and with my memory (or lack thereof) that's saying something. (They will show up later in another of King's books, JUSTICE HALL under totally different circumstances.) Here they almost steal the show from Russell and Holmes. How these four characters become trusting equals realistically takes most of the book, all paths hindered by the fact that Russell is a woman who, to Mahmoud and Ali's horror, must masquerade as a man for most of their journey.

Almost from the start, things go wrong, beginning with the brutal murders of some Jewish farmers. After a brief examination of the crime scene, Holmes senses that more is afoot than just the slaughter of a farm family. The bodies have apparently been left as inflammatory messages. He is able to deduce that the dead settlers are only the beginning of some bizarre plot. A dangerous traveler is abroad in the land.

In the end, it becomes a race against time (don't you love that?) to save Jerusalem, save the peace, and save our travelers from the machinations of an insidious terrorist plot.

This is the sort of story in which the most minute clue must be interpreted correctly or disaster waits. The reader is brought along on a gritty, hair-raising adventure, travelling in unfamiliar country, across treacherous unforgiving terrain, meeting up here and there with friends but mostly with enemies. All the while Russell learning the language and dialects so she can 'pass'. Mostly they label her a mute and leave it at that. It is fortunate that Russell has a genius for languages and as she beings to get a handle on the dialects, we do too. We also begin to understand the possible repercussions from the slightest of mistakes. This is an ancient and very complex society made more even more volatile by its recent history and its current (though temporary) domination by the British.

One of many things I like about King's books is that she often mixes 'real' persons within her stories. In O JERUSALEM, we get a level, sympathetic portrayal of General Allenby, the legendary British commander. There is also mention of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and we get a brief glimpse of him near the end.

I can't equivocate, I love this book. I love the writing, the constant wary sense of danger, the grand adventure, the relationship between the four characters, the setting, the historical turmoil and everything, anything having to do with this amazingly well told story. When I feel like leaving reality behind and heading out on an improbable adventure, I reread O JERUSALEM.

P.S. In a way, this book is almost a stand-alone, being more a thriller than a whodunit or 'regular' mystery in the Holmes vein. It is totally different from any Holmes story heretofore in canon or pastiche. If you have trouble seeing Holmes as a man of action, author Laurie R. King will convince you that not only is he capable of feats of endurance more natural to a younger man, but that he is, in her hands, more a man of flesh and blood than Conan Doyle ever envisioned.

I have a signed first/first of O JERUSALEM which I watched Laurie R. King sign for me in Las Vegas years ago, it is one of my most prized possessions.

Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Marshall Browne (1935 - 2014)

I was terribly saddened to read about the death of Marshall Browne, an Australian author whose books I love. Though he died two years ago, I've just learned about it in an email from his daughter letting me know of his passing and also that a book of his which was in its final editing stages has been published - one of Browne's Inspector Anders series, so there is that to look forward to. 

(INSPECTOR ANDERS AND THE PRAGUE DOSSIER is currently in Australian bookstores.)

I never did understand why Marshall Browne's books were not more readily available here in this country. But whenever I got my hands on one it was a happy day. I treasure his two Franz Schmidt novels, THE EYE OF THE ABYSS and THE IRON HEART. Both classic WWII spy novels and much more approachable than John Le Carre's work, far as I'm concerned. Browne's work has emotion, something definitely lacking in many spy novels. And he was unmatched in establishing a sense of dread. 

I've read and reread both of these novels over the years and can't recommend them highly enough. THE IRON HEART though, is especially tough to find in this country. But do try. Begin with THE EYE OF THE ABYSS which is occasionally available.  

Marshall Browne and I exchanged several emails a few years ago when he was kind enough to thank me for a review and when I lamented that I couldn't find a copy of THE IRON HEART (the second Franz Schmidt novel), he very kindly sent me one all the way from Australia! Authors are often the nicest people.

My review of THE WOODEN LEG OF INSPECTOR ANDERS which appeared directly on author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, way back when in 2010. (You have to scroll down a bit, I couldn't isolate the link.)

Browne had hinted at a third Franz Schmidt book, but it was not to be. But a fourth Inspector Anders novel is wonderful news. The first Inspector Anders book was titled, THE WOODEN LEG OF INSPECTOR ANDERS (one of the all time great book titles ever conceived - far as I'm concerned) and well worth looking for as are the other two in the series. And now there will be a fourth - great news.

The Inspector Anders books were my introduction to Marshall Browne's work and I was thrilled with my discovery of this talented author. I only wish his books had gotten to be better known in this country so that he would have gotten the literary stardom and appreciation he deserved.

Link to obituary from the Sydney Morning Herald.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE BIG THAW (2001) by Donald Harstad

I think I'm echoing a recent review by one of our FFB bloggers (please remember I have old lady memory and can always be counted on to forget where I read what and when). If so, please do identify yourself and I'll happily give you proper credit for reminding me (what goes around comes around) of this fabulous thriller by a little known but much appreciated writer.

I must be on a role. Lately, I'm reading (and re-reading) nothing but great stuff. (Well, okay there were one or two clunkers along the way, but the less said about those, the better.)

Donald Harstad is a writer often categorized as 'regional' and perhaps that's why he's not better known. Also, he doesn't write a book a year like most other genre writers and that, perhaps, tells against him too. Though I prefer to wait for the best a writer can give me, rather than insist he write something just to meet a yearly schedule. My feeling is that you have to respect a writer's writing rhythm. If you want the good stuff, anyway.

Harstad excels at what I think 'they' call Rural Noir. Nation County, Iowa is his fictional stomping ground. The writer (a former long-time police officer) also lives and works in Iowa, a section of the country I know very little about (and, in fact, would know nothing at all except for these books). At any rate, I'm a lost cause since I always get Iowa mixed up with Idaho, so it takes me a while to figure out where exactly I am. For some reason I have a tendency to think that Iowa is further west than it actually is no matter how many times I self-correct. 

Anyway, Harstad's creation is Carl Houseman, an affable, stalwart, remarkably adept Iowa deputy sheriff in whom any town in any county in any state would be proud to place their trust. The author has skillfully taken this stolid, competent man (missing all the usual genre eccentricities) and placed him at the center of this exciting series of books - in and of itself, quite an accomplishment. Carl Houseman is the kind of man who exemplifies the best sort of cop - the guy we should all be so lucky to turn to when the you-know-what hits the fan. The cop we would like all cops to be.

And though he occasionally works with the FBI and other assorted government types in this post 9/11 era - Houseman is NOT in love with the beautiful FBI agent (gotta' have one of those in every book, even this one), he is happily married, he is NOT an alcoholic (recovering or otherwise), he is NOT a guy who shoots first and asks questions later AND he gets along with almost everyone he meets. AND wonder of wonders, the people around him actually like and admire him, well, most of 'em. His boss even appreciates him. Go figure. All this, in my book, makes Carl Houseman a welcome anomaly in this modern day world of anti-heroes dragging unsavory personal baggage about. He's just a guy you can count on, doing a difficult job, often coming up against vileness of the worst sort but not allowing it to drag him under.

Speaking of vileness: Who knew that the mid-western U.S. was such a hotbed of international crime? Well, guess who shows up in THE BIG THAW but that familiar linchpin of thriller-dom, 'the arch-criminal' - this time it's Gabriel, whom Houseman and his small department have reason to remember from an earlier and very deadly encounter years ago. But not to worry, the author is dexterous enough to make all this improbability work. 

Donald Harstad is terrific at combining police procedural tropes with the adrenaline rush of a break-neck crime thriller. Not an easy task as many other writers have proven. Just about everything in this fast-moving tale of conspiracy, murder, terrorism, set in a landscape of snow and ice and freezing winds, captures the imagination.

An aside: The only other author I've read who is this good at icy ambience is the multi-Edgar Award winning Steve Hamilton in his Alex McKnight series set in the upper Michigan peninsula. (If you're not familiar with those books, then it's time to add Hamilton's name to your TBR list as well.)

THE BIG THAW begins quietly enough with a frightened guy sitting in a parked car on a snowy lane in the dead of night. This almost immediately leads to two dead bodies, shot execution style (with a Russian weapon), found hidden under a tarp on a lonely, deserted farm whose owner is known to be away and oh-by-the-way why is the refrigerator stocked with food?

There's something about the routine of small town police work that I enjoy (the author's personal experience makes everything, from dialogue, to nuts and bolts investigation, to cop radio jargon seem natural and absolutely real), especially when so deftly handled. Add in some hard-boiled agents of the Federal government, and it all makes for a quick, thrilling, eye-brow raising, entertaining tale.

For just when it seems that the police might have their killer, the crime expands into something else and the Feds shows up yet again in Nation County. This time on the trail of a terrorist with Russian connections who may or may not be planning something local and spectacular. Soon there are black ops snowmobiles (well, FBI) racing over icy fields, a spectacular bank robbery, and a Mississippi (yes, the Mississippi goes up this far - who knew?) river boat - used as an off-shore casino - under assault.  I know, I know, it sounds too over-the-top, but you know, it works. When something works, I don't quibble. I just enjoy the ride. Later, I will stop and admire the skill it took to put the whole thing together.

I liked this even more than I thought I would primarily because of the excitement of the last few chapters. Every now and then, you just want to read something like this precisely because you don't want to stop and think too deeply about what's happening. (Not that this is a mindless enterprise, not at all, it just doesn't require you to carry the great weight of the universe while you're reading. That's all I'm saying.) And when the writer is this good, it doesn't hurt at all.

Since this is Friday, don't forget to drop in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.