Sunday, May 20, 2018

Memoir Worth Reading: The Girl Who Smiled Beads, by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

There are so many interesting things to consider with THE GIRL WHO SMILED BEADS. The subtitle is "A Story of War and What Comes After," a good description. Author Clemantine Wamariya and her sister Claire survived six dangerous years mostly on their own in seven African countries, when their family of origin was shattered and dispersed by the Rwandan genocide. A refugee program finally brought them to the United States. And then their scraped-together survival was turned upside down by an appearance on Oprah Winfrey's show Oprah, where the TV star gave the girl-turned-woman a stunning surprise: Oprah's team had located Clemantine's mother and surviving siblings and brought them to the show.

That's the center point of Wamariya's narrative in terms of time and change. But it's not the easy part and maybe not even the joyful part. Sorting out the horrors of the past, the damage of the present, and what to do within modern Western culture turn out to be both complicated and painful. PTSD? Sure. And more.

The narrative's management by distinguished co-author Elizabeth Weil -- a writer for the New York Times Magazine who's done this kind of co-authorship before -- turns what could have been a candy-sweet tale into a powerful exploration of culture, recovery, and determination. The book is an easy read in short chapters with abundant adventure, and solidly rewards the reader who follows the entire journey. It gave me a lot to think about, especially coupled with my spring plunge into Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Baldwin, and more. Hope you have a chance to add it to your stack.

And don't miss Wamariya's website, for a startling look at what she's now pursuing.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Vivid Debut Thriller from Charlton Pettus, EXIT STRATEGY

If you'd asked me whether a career in songwriting could benefit the power of a debut thriller, I would have said "Hmm, sweet notion, but unlikely." And I would have been wrong. Charlton Pettus is best known for producing the group Tears for Fears, with which he plays lead guitar -- and scoring and writing songs for film and TV. Somehow he's tumbled to this new area, though ... thank goodness!

EXIT STRATEGY may be the top international thriller I've read so far in 2018. With its rapid pace, adept twists, and compelling protagonist, I couldn't put it down. Here's the premise:

Jordan Parrish, founder of a medical technology firm, might have made a mistake in moving from lab work to business. He adores his wife and kids, but his financial disaster is going to let them down, bigtime. Is there any way he can escape the shambles of his career and leave his family in better shape than if he stayed around? He takes the risk of placing a call to a company that specializes in such disappearances. Even though he hangs up quickly, the damage is done, and Jordan's life as he knows it has ended, just that fast.

But nothing's as it seems. His wife realizes, almost before he does. The answers she's getting about Jordan having a second household, a car accident, a disaster, just don't fit the man she loved, and who loved her so much. Meanwhile, Jordan's struggling to meet the demands of having gone into hiding. Somehow, his life is more at risk than ever before.

Yet at first, things seem about what you'd expect:
Leaving a couple euros on the table, Jordan walked to the restroom. He locked himself in a stall and opened the envelope. Inside was a round-trip coach ticket to Hong Kong along with a well-worn Croatian passport and a credit card. The credit card and passport were in the name Antonin Kramaric. He crumpled the envelope and threw it in the trash. He washed his hands and dabbed at his face with a wet paper towel. His nose still hurt like hell and his eyes burned. He gingerly took off the shades and studied his face in the mirror. Where the nose had been broken there was now a pronounced Roman dip. Also his eyes were now a little wider and subtly sloped down at the outside, giving him a vaguely morose Slavic look. The skin was still puffy and red at the corners where the lids had been cut and sutured. Taken with the short, short hair and the scruffy facial growth, the cumulative change was substantial. If a former colleague had passed him in the airport Jordan doubted he would have looked twice.
When the plot swerved into a code that I "caught" right away, with exhilaration, I knew I was in for a memorable ride. Loved it.

Tough and at times violent, but not gruesome and not sadistic, this is a classic thriller with excellent pacing. I found the ending a bit out of line with the rest of the book -- when you've read it, let me know your opinion. But all told, I think Hanover Square Press made a great pick with this one.

No author website at this time.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Brief Mention: John Copenhaver's Debut, DODGING AND BURNING

John Copenhaver's debut mystery, DODGING AND BURNING, came out in March. I've hesitated to present it here because I didn't care for the writing style -- heavy use of adverbs and a rhythm and rocking of tenses  that somehow bothered me -- but I think it's an important mystery in three ways:

1. It probes the fallout of World War II.

2. "Gay and lesbian" in a time much less welcoming than today gives it flavor.

3. In spite of my personal frustration with the writing style, it's got strength and power and I suspect Copenhaver will be writing good mysteries in years to come. So it's important to grab his debut for your shelf.

I also really like the title, which is a play on words between some criminal threats, and film-based photography speak.

Here's the jacket blurb, in case you're thinking this over:
A lurid crime scene photo of a beautiful woman arrives on mystery writer Bunny Prescott's doorstep with no return address―and it's not the first time she's seen it. The reemergence of the photo, taken fifty-five years earlier, sets her on a journey to reconstruct the vicious summer that changed her life.

In the summer of 1945, Ceola Bliss is a lonely twelve-year-old tomboy, mourning the loss of her brother, Robbie, who was declared missing in the Pacific. She tries to piece together his life by rereading his favorite pulp detective story “A Date with Death” and spending time with his best friend, Jay Greenwood, in Royal Oak, VA. One unforgettable August day, Jay leads Ceola and Bunny to a stretch of woods where he found a dead woman, but when they arrive, the body is gone. They soon discover a local woman named Lily Vellum is missing and begin to piece together the threads of her murder, starting with the photograph Jay took of her abandoned body.

As Ceola gets swept up playing girl detective, Bunny becomes increasingly skeptical of Jay’s story about the photograph and begins her own investigation into Lily’s murder. A series of clues lead her to Washington, DC, where she must confront the truth about her dear friend—a revelation that triggers a brutal confrontation that will change all of them forever.
PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here

Brief Mention: Indie Self-Published "Pathologist" Mysteries from Jane Bennett Munro

Despite all the frustrations for a mystery author of "submitting" to commercial publishers, there are two important things that the process instills: Enough willingness to meet the genre's conventions of plot, suspense, character, and excellence in pace and twists so that a book will make it up and over that bar. And professional editing that demand that the author have a darned good reason for wandering astray or scattering abundant red herrings.

So the "indie" route is a tough one for most authors, and I want to mention the murder mysteries that Jane Bennett Munro is publishing. She's gaining awards for them (including an IPPY), and they're lively and well plotted. Puzzlingly, her fourth book featuring pathologist Toni Day -- DEATH BY AUTOPSY -- turned up in my mailbox recently. It dates back to 2014, so it's not exactly a new release. But I enjoyed the pathology language in it, and of course the premise: that the autopsy might be to blame for the final death of someone! Here's a snippet, from Toni Day's point of view:
My heart sank. Did the fractured sternum make that laceration, or did I? There were no other marks on the myocardium, so my needle puncture had to be somewhere in that bruised area.

"What's that?" Pete asked.

I took a deep breath and tried to appear calm. "It appears to be a laceration of the left ventricle."

"Is that where the bleeding came from?"

"More than likely." My voice trembled. "Photograph it. Just in case."
If the "pathology talk" appeals to you, you might indulge in one or two of Munro's books for your summer reading stack. Be reasonable -- settle in for a jaunt, and a bit of learning on how an independent author may opt to spin a story. I enjoyed this one, and it gave me a lot to think about.

(The author website is out of date and incomplete, but in case you want to peek:

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Hot Thriller for the Summer Reading Stack, WARNING LIGHT by David Ricciardi

This spring's fine Middle East thriller from David Ricciardi has a publication story that's twisted suspense as well: The thriller author self-published his book WARNING LIGHT in 2014 -- then Penguin Random House picked it up, and the following re-edit created what the publishing firm calls a whole new book.

With the power and punch that the April 2018 release packs, I have to guess the earlier version was also intense (wouldn't it be fun to compare them?). I couldn't stop reading ... even in ebook format (my least favorite).

Here's the premise: A CIA desk office, an analyst, happens to be on a plane that gets diverted to a secret closed airport in Iran, where weapons are under construction. There's an actual field operative on the plane, who'd been meant to infiltrate the site -- but in the chaos of arriving, his cover is blown (and so is he).

So Zac Miller takes a couple of quick snapshots of the airport while debarking, to try to fill the information gap for the Agency. But he's not nearly as subtle as he thinks, is almost immediately caught by very unfriendly military types, yet with a bit of luck and guts, makes a narrow escape -- into, of course, the highly dangerous terrain of the Middle East, with the Iranians after him. Oh yes, and his own side, which swallows a clever Iranian frame-up suggesting Zac's gone rogue.

So begins a high-suspense survival trek through terrain that's unfriendly in every sense:
He paused atop a long scree field. Even in the mountains it was close to one hundred degrees and the heat seared his lungs as he struggled to catch his breath. His legs were sore, his ribs ached from the beating, and he hadn't seen any water. He sat atop the loose rocks and wondered how he would make it out of Iran alive.
Lee Child blurbed this book, which is appropriate, considering the well-structured pace of crises, collaboration, and gutsy survival maneuvers. And the ending is a real delight ... If you appreciate a page-turning thriller with on-the-ground detail and rapid twists, plus a character who grows "just enough" during his run for his life, grab this one. Put it in the summer reading stack -- or sooner! -- for pure release from life's ordinary stresses.

 PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

New Orleans Crime Fiction Rises Again, as Julie Smith Returns to Skip Langdon Series

Author Julie Smith's website says it's been 12 years since she last released a Skip Langdon crime novel. The series just came back to life, with MURDER ON MAGAZINE, released as an almost-self-published paperback and ebook via

MURDER ON MAGAZINE picks up in New Orleans, putting Skip back onto her old familiar beat -- but with a very modern twist: the killing she's investigating took place via an "AirBnBad" short-term rental, and it's quickly clear that not only is the trend for these rentals ruining residential areas of the city; it's making it way, way too easy for pimps and prostitutes to operate under false ID in those spare-cash bedrooms.

Told from two viewpoints -- Skip's, and that of Cody, a half-child victim of sex trafficking who may also be a killer -- the action is quick and intense. After all, valuable prostitutes aren't readily released by the people who've "owned" them, and Cody's quick and cute but with those pink tips to her hair, sort of memorable; the hard-core criminals know how and where to find her. Of more concern, so might her last client, the "Whale." But with some tech support, Skip too is a force to reckon with. And Julie Smith allows time to get inside Skip's mind, as well as her dog-loving heart:
First Miguel's death and Lloyd's arrest, then, barely a day later, during her nice January "barbecue," Abasolo's phone call. Sometimes it seemed like one step backward for every step forward. The Whale was on the move.

Skip couldn't believe what she was looking at. Or rather, she didn't want to. She didn't even want to be a cop today. She wanted to walk time back and arrange to be out of the country so she wouldn't have to see this. Because it was ugly and terrifying and heralded so many more bad things she felt her throat close and nausea roil her stomach. ... It was obvious to both of them: the wannabe serial killer who'd first attacked the dog and then the pink-haired girl -- and probably killed Benjamin Solo -- had now achieved his goal. He'd embarked on a killing spree that wasn't going to stop until they got him.
If you've been longing for a new book from this seasoned New Orleans writer, here's a chance to get back to Skip Langdon -- and if you've never happened to read Smith's mysteries, well, as of the moment of writing this, two Skip Langdon stories were on the author's website as a free ebook. What a chance! Have fun, and enjoy the nostalgia.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

The New Quaker Midwife Mystery from Edith Maxwell, TURNING THE TIDE

It's 1888 and the presidential election furor is heating up in Amesbury, Massachusetts. No surprise, then, that the skillful and strong-minded midwife Rose Carroll is prepared to join a protest on behalf of women getting the vote -- not in any offensive way, of course, but standing up with her friends, relatives, and especially other members of the Society of Friends, aka the Quakers.

Of course, any time Rose stands up publicly, her patients/clients worry whether she'll be on hand for their birth-related needs. And taking a stand for a "right" that wealthy men in the region may consider illegitimate can mar her carefully built reputation. Still, you know Rose ... or you do if you've been reading the excellent amateur sleuth series that Edith Maxwell provides as the Quaker Midwife Mysteries. The 2018 title is TURNING THE TIDE and it applies to a lot of the action, but especially to the force of public opinion. And that of Rose's mother-in-law to be,  who is not happy about the planned match for her son (Quakers are a step down socially!).

In the sturdy tradition of amateur sleuth mysteries, this time Rose sees an accusation of murder leveled against someone she suspects is innocent. Simple commitment to justice requires that she address herself to solving the crime, so the real criminal can pay the consequences instead.

I enjoyed the vibrant historical feel, as well as the many adept twists of plot here. Most of all, I appreciated the connection with Whittier, insight into the suffrage movement, and following Rose into the bedrooms of her ladies-in-labor. There's just enough suspense to keep the pages turning rapidly, yet nothing that would make me check the locks on the doors at night. A perfect balance!

Later this month (May 22), I'll share a book event with this very active author of three to four mystery series (at Water Street Books in Exeter, NH). The second book cover shown here relates to my own "Quaker connection" and part of what I'm eager to converse about with Edith Maxwell. If you're in the New England area, I hope you'll join us.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Mass Killings, Cultural Collapse, or Just Murder ... in CULT X from Fuminori Nakamura

Japanese noir can finger the dark and dangerous side of urban life deftly -- a long-term slide from the twists of culture and despair that William Gibson's Neuromancer laid out for us in (the real) 1984. It's the obverse of the playful simplicity of manga's wide-eyed images. And because Japan's imperial drive toward domination remains bottled up inside today's imposed regimen of gun scarcity and forbidden military action, there's an aspect of sharpening blades for action that can be terrifying.

Fuminori Nakamura (the pen name of a Tokyo author) showed in The Gun his capacity for binding emotions around a small symbol until the pressure to act -- and act violently -- can't be restrained. In his newest novel, CULT X, set for release by Soho Press on May 22, he's chosen to probe an appalling moment of recent Japanese history: the 1995 sarin subway attack in Tokyo. That attack was the second to rip news headlines, preceded by the 1994 sarin poisoning that took place in Matsumoto City, Japan.

As in his earlier work, Nakamura moves toward the criminal actions in increments rooted in damaged lives.  Toru Narazaki can hardly believe it when he learns that the woman who disappeared from his life -- hinting at suicide -- has been seen alive. His desire to rediscover this woman, Ryoko Tachibana, pulls him out of his ordinary life, into exploration of what he thinks at first is a religious retreat group. The sleuth who's informed him that Ryoko is alive gives us a window into Narazaki's soul as he reflects that Narazaki "looked like he'd lost something he needed to go on living. Yet his gaze was terribly powerful, and had a strange radiance."

It's hunger and necessity gleaming at the surface of a life that's been ordinary until now. In fact, when Narazaki first visits the retreat building pointed out to him, and a middle-aged woman's voice inquires who he is, his reply is revelatory:
"My name's Toru Narazaki. I'm ... I'm not really anyone."
Although he's unaware of the force of his desire, Narazaki presses forward, trying to find Ryoko and make sense of her abrupt departure from his life. Long before he locates her, though, he's trapped in the power of his own longing for attention, sex, human contact in the most basic and childlike (although orgasmic) ways. His quest thus originates from almost pure physicality -- the exact opposite of what he'd imagined a religious process would involve.

It's not long before Narazaki realizes there are double undercurrents to what he's experiencing. On one hand, he's welcomed into a cult that's based in both philosophy and modern physics, with an engaging lecturer for its revered leader. And on the other, he's made himself into an ideal victim for the cult's enemies.

Sorting this into waves of external action, the book twists adeptly toward a horror-laden plot of mass destruction. Is Fuminori Nakamura suggesting that Japan's soul is a match to this protagonist's? I dread the notion, as the missing woman finally appears to greet the seeker, and Narazaki is intensely humiliated by the way she finds him:
When reality ultimately punctured one corner of his consciousness, the violence of his desires came rushing out. That's why I came here, Narazaki thought. To make my own real life seem like a fantasy. Out of contempt for my life ... No, contempt for the real world. But Narazaki couldn't say that to Tachibana. [...] Why am I like this? Why is my body like this? Narazaki's eyes began to tear up -- tears no one could sympathize with. Anger rose up to replace his embarrassment -- ugly, inappropriate anger.
Is that why the sarin poisonings took place? Out of an ugly anger rooted in abiding humiliation? In that case, what does the suspense here threaten, for all of us?

CULT X is a dark crime novel, published by Soho Crime (Soho Press). But it's also, like Nakamura's earlier books, a deliberate and painful fingering of old and new wounds. Horrifying, yes -- but worth confronting.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.