Sunday, August 26, 2012

Another Reason to Visit Brome Lake Books in Knowlton, Quebec, Canada

Dave and I are still savoring yesterday's trip "across the border" into the Eastern Townships of Canada, to attend crime fiction author Louise Penny's pre-release launch of THE BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY, eighth in her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series. One of the delights for Dave especially was meeting the owners and staff of Brome Lake Books -- welcoming, knowledgeable book lovers with whom Dave had spoken several times as we prepared for our journey north.

Brome Lake Books has an address on the main street in Knowlton, a delightful arts-focused town. The shop is tucked toward the back of a small strip of stores, and in Hobbit-home fashion, opens from a small entryway into more and more shelves of books, arranged for tempting browsing. (There's also a sale room in the lower floor.) Danny McAuley, Lucy Hoblyn, and others greeted us and I have drawn a complete blank on the name of the person who painstakingly wrapped our "Vive Gamache" café au lait mugs that I'd been so eager to purchase -- I was SO excited to be there -- but she made me feel great about my purchase.

Brome Lake Books is glad to ship books abroad, too. Notice this shelf full of books in French? This is a great asset for collectors stepping into the magical world of "foreign editions." Here at the Kingdom Books blog, we often compare American and British cover designs of mysteries. But actually there are many cover designs for those books that get into print in multiple languages. They're often a delight to gather on a shelf, as we have with a collection of Eliot Pattison's books here. In addition, even if you speak or read only a bit of another language, it's fascinating to compare the versions, to see how translation does or doesn't change the text. This is increasingly significant with work by Scandinavian crime fiction authors today, as American readers become accustomed to a dark and somber ambience reflecting ice-bound or darkened countrysides -- and wonder, in turn, whether "all those Scandianavian authors" actually write in that mode, or whether the shadows are being emphasized by the translators. It's also nice to give translators some credit for their labors!

So if you're really getting involved with Louise Penny's books, consider calling Brome Lake Books and asking the booksellers' advice on where to start with her French editions. You'll get thoughtful conversation, good suggestions, and -- when your copies arrive -- a new aspect to your bookshelves and your reflections on today's best mysteries.

Oh yes, and here's a comment I can't resist, for a 1994 Los Angeles Times article: "[Herb] Yellin, 59, also collects presidential documents and movie memorabilia, but it's his library that gets most of his attention. 'I've been acquiring foreign-language editions of Ray Bradbury's books. That's when you know you're over the edge, when you start collecting foreign editions.'"

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Louise Penny, THE BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY: "Pre-Launched" Today in Knowlton, Quebec

Kingdom Books is just an hour south of Vermont's Canada border -- and two hours from the town of Knowlton, Quebec, a charming arts center easily confused with the mystical and murder-prone village of Three Pines in Louise Penny's award-winning crime fiction. Today we rambled north to the home turf of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, for Brome Lake Books hosting of the author's "pre-launch" of her newest book. THE BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY.  The title officially releases on Tuesday (Aug. 28), so it's a thrill to hold the earliest available copies (now signed! -- and at least one will be available tomorrow online from Kingdom Books).

It's too soon to talk a lot about the book -- I'm only two chapters into it, because so much of the day was spent driving (smile) and savoring French Canadian food (yumm). But this eighth in the series begins with the mystery of why and how music moves us, and proceeds to exactly the kind of mystery you'd expect a member of the Sureté du Quebec to investigate -- and more.

Louise Penny said today, ""My books are really about belonging, about the quest to belong, about love and friendship and second chances." In keeping with her pattern of alternating settings for the Gamache series, one book in Three Pines, the next outside it (to avoid too many bodies piling up in the village), Penny placed this one in a monastery in the Eastern Townships of Quebec province.

"I'm aware that one of the dangers of writing a series is that, inadvertently, you can keep writing the same book. So it's important to me to keep on taking chances," the author explained. She said she left behind her "safety zone" of Three Pines to go forward with just Gamache, who in this volume tests his own assertion from an earlier book that "This center will hold."

Penny also answered audience questions about a Gamache TV film in progress, based on her first two books, with filming starting in October. She is excited about the director and the directions worked out, and is an executive producer for the film. What does that mean?  "For me, being the executive producer is a lot like being the Queen of England," she dead-panned. "I can have opinions but I'm not allowed to declare war."

She usually takes some time off work in winter and begins writing a new book in March, so he is now in the third draft of a probable five or six for her next Gamache book, which returns, of course, to Three Pines as a locale.

The village of Three Pines -- err, that is, the town of Knowlton, Quebec, provided literally three pine trees as backdrop for the event, and they will be planted on the grounds of the community center where this event took place. Penny admitted she plans "an infinite number" of books for the series, so odds are good she'll be back at the community center for many title releases yet to come.

This year's event also included an amazing rendition of a "chant" (honoring the Gregorian ones featured in the new book) describing the Three Pines series, complete with setting and characters (Penny told the audience she tries to be even-handed among her characters, including Clara, whom she originally thought would be the amateur sleuth of the series, as well as Gabri and Gamache, but "I love Myrna -- she is someone I would like to have as a friend). The chant was written and performed wonderfully by Brome Lake Books owners Danny McAuley and Lucy Hoblyn with friends and family, accompanied by McAuley's mother-in-law on an organ! Louise Penny rose merrily at two cameo appearances in the performance, clearly enjoying the surprise, as did the audience.

Beth Mallon and Susan Jensen
It's a fitting tribute to Penny's books (and bubbly personality) that audience members included many who drove hours to be there -- Kingdom Books was honored and thrilled to be named by Danny McAuley at the outset of the event, along with Toronto's "Sleuth of Baker Street," but people also came from Ottawa, from Cambridge (England), and from New York state. The line for Penny's signatures lasted well over an hour, catered with food and drink by boys on best behavior offering Perrier and canapés. Dave enjoyed reconnecting with documentary filmmaker Louise Abbott and her husband and work partner Neils Jensen, and I was "found" by my long-time neighbors and friends from West Barnet, Vermont, Beth Mallon and Susan Jensen. These two teachers savored the opportunity to use some of the last of their summer break in coming to meet Louise Penny and capturing her new book. While waiting in line, they were both reading -- and had reached page 10 as this photo was snapped. Hurrah for Vermont's book community, as well as for Louise Penny, Brome Lake Books, and -- THE BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Cheryl Strayed, WILD: Not a Mystery -- but ...

I won't post a full review of WILD here -- the book by Cheryl Strayed that's taken its author into collaboration with Oprah Winfrey. But it was my summer "non-mystery" treat to myself, so Dave listened to me move from exasperated exclamations of "This woman is SO dumb!" in the opening chapters (I couldn't put the book down for long, though), to muttered acknowledgments of "Worth reading" by midpoint, to satisfied sighs as the book wrapped up.

Strayed wrote the hiking memoir (set on the Pacific Crest Trail) some 15 years after her long-distance hike of suffering and gradual self-acceptance. Her writing skills stand out most clearly to me in her ability to absolutely convey the naiveté, risk-taking, and yes, stupidity of her younger self at the start of the 1100-mile hike, and the convincing growth of experience and ability to think things through that piles up to a believable wrap-up. This is also a good book for exploring the side of the West Coast that doesn't arrive in bags of coffee or on music DVDs or in the morning news. And it's a well-written portrayal of how a person can climb out of a very bad place, onto a ledge where joy and achievement become likely.

I was glad that I made time to read this.

Scandinavian Crime Fiction: Mons Kallentoft, MIDWINTER BLOOD

There's a "wisdom saying" in some groups that's based on the shape of the hand when pointing with one finger: "When you point a finger at someone else, you have three fingers pointing back at you." The usual meaning is, we see the flaw in others that we also have in ourselves -- but are less likely to see them there.

Single mother Malin Fors is a workaholic, even by the usual standards of police superintendents. Her teenage daughter manages supper alone frequently, and her ex-husband isn't always around to fill the gaps. Thirty-four, she's tough and well recognized in her town, Linköping, Sweden, where she and her partner Zeke pick up a case that's going to be front-page news ... and not just because Malin is having an affair with an aggressive journalist, either. Hanging from a tree outside town is the naked body of an enormous man, and no matter the actual cause of death, the wounds on the corpse are so massive and dramatic that right away there's a suggestion of ritual: of a midwinter sacrifice (that's the UK title, in fact) or, as Mons Kallentoft's US edition names it, MIDWINTER BLOOD.

For Malin Fors, the investigation quickly turns complex and risky, with at least two highly disfunctional and dangerous families acting out their own wounds on the society that inflicted them. "Love and death are neighbors. Their faces are one and the same," Fors muses. It's a harsh judgment, but one that her investigation promises to repeat.

Readers of Scandinavian crime will find Fors's world as bloody but in many ways less bleak than, say, the seasonal depression evoked by Henning Mankell or the sexual perversion of Steig Larsson. At least the darkness here is in motion, not frozen into place or forced onto all participants. Moreover, Fors -- athletic, young, emotionally vibrant and a good parent, when she's home -- usually knows the right moves to make, whether inside the police force political net, or on a crime scene, or while sweating off the previous night's self-indulgent drinking. Whatever the character and social flaws are that build repeatedly to erupt in crime in Linköping, they're not hers.
"There are still people living like that in Sweden today," she says. "Completely shut off from everything. It's anachronistic in an almost bizarre way."

"I don't know about that," Zeke says. Then he reaches for the first explanation that seems to come into his mind. "It's benefits," he says. "It's all because of benifits. I bet the whole lot of them are getting unemployment benefits, social support, and everything else too. And the child support for a horde of kids like that must amount to a small fortune every month."

"I'm not so sure about benefits," Malin says. "Maybe they don't get anything. But anyway. This is the twenty-first centure. In Sweden. And here's a family that seems to live entirely according to its own rules. ... You could see the fury in Adam Murvall's eyes."

"There are several of them, they could have done it together. ... We'll have to get a warrant so we can check their guns."
Yet time and again, as Malin notices the neglect and abuse among the criminals she's pursuing, and the tragedy for the victims, she's left her daughter alone yet again. Savoring the reading of this tightly plotted and well-written book, I caught that reflection time and again, that sense of a finger pointed toward the violent and psychopathic, while three gently curled other fingers cupped the knowledge that there is no such thing as perfect parenting for any of us -- and the choices made by Malin may create smaller wounds that still fester, still lead to something dark and regrettable.

There are three more Malin Fors books ready, in translation, to follow this crime fiction debut. I'm particularly curious to see whether Kallentoft's others include the paranormal aspect that haunts MIDWINTER BLOOD -- is the style an artifact of the plot, or a trademark of the author? With one finger, I can point to the pace, timing, and tension of the book ... and with the other three, to the series as it continues to be shaped by an author whose first fame flowed from a literary novel, but who now seems to have found both his own voice and the voices of our wounded, in the Malin Fors books. Next ones: Spring Remains, Summer Death, Autumn Sonata.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Lisa Jackson, YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW: Extreme Suspense

What are you most afraid of? No, you can't say "spiders" -- and just this once, you can't say "the dark," either. Think of the situations that actually can be terrifying: Losing your identity. Losing power over your own life. Losing your child.

And if that last one gripped you in your throat and your heart at the same moment and gave you the hint of a possible headache or made you want to stop reading, you're in for as much agony and terror as I was, reading the new thriller from Lisa Jackson, YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW.

Released this month, it's the 13th stand-alone suspense novel from this powerful West Coast narrator of our most chilling moments. There's no secret about Ava Garrison's misery: Her son Noah vanished two years before, a darling little boy in hooded sweatshirt and rolled-up jeans. Despite Ava's relative wealth (she owns most of an island) and handsome husband, and her previous life -- "Once, she'd been brilliant, at the top of her class, not only a stellar student but also a businesswoman" -- she's falling apart. Visions of her son lure her toward danger. Is it the drugs she's leaning on to survive the emotional pain? Is her mind crumbling?
No one should suffer like this. Weren't there painkillers for this sort of thing? Prescriptions to stave off migraines? Than again, she took a lot of pills and couldn't help but wonder if the pain slicing through her brain was because of the medication rather than in spite of it.

She didn't understand why they were all out to torment her, to make her feel as if she were crazy, but she was pretty damned sure they intended just that. All of them: the nurses, the doctors, the maid, the lawyers, and her hsband -- most certainly Wyatt.

Oh God ... she did sound paranoid.

Maybe she was.
Jackson spins nearly 500 pages of intense self-questioning, risk, and cautious investigation for Ava, but her situation is dire, including the threat of being locked up forever in an asylum. Her husband declares:
"You were committed because you tried to kill yourself! Pills and a razor. Do you remember that?"


"Then you're still sick, Ava. Very sick." He touched her shoulder lightly, almost lovingly, but she knew it was all fake. An act.

"I'm never going back to the hospital."

He didn't respond, just held her gaze with his own, that slightly superior, condescending stare she hadn't noticed before she married him. Though he didn't utter a word, she felt the We'll just se about that, hanging silently in the air between them, and a dread, as cold as the bottom of the bay, settled into her soul.
We've known plots like this, in the classic "Gothic" women's novels. Jackson's skill brings the threat directly into our modern lives and makes it completely real. How many women have been declared insane thanks to husbands who wanted to be rid of them? Chilling numbers, especially a mere hundred years ago, and more so when divorce wasn't an option.

And maybe it's not an option for Ava, either. Whether she can protect her mind, her freedom, or her lapsed authority in her own home looks doubtful. Jackson's red herrings, friends without enough loyalty to Ava, and roller-coaster twists of plot kept my stomach lurching, and my fingers turning the pages, frantic to see Ava find some way, some way ... before the entire menacing network of her life destroys her completely.

There's still time for summer reading; grab this one and turn off the cell phone. The ring will only scare you, once you're into the story. Only reading it all the way through provides a chance for you to take a full breath again. Oh sure, I'm speaking for myself -- someone whose worst nightmares have always been the ones that involve losing one of the kids. Even now that they are in their 30s, those dreams come back from time to time. Ava Garrison, I'm on your side, for all 472 pages.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Karin Slaughter, CRIMINAL: Covers, US and UK

Yesterday's interview with Karin Slaughter covered so many compelling directions that I'm still thinking about it. And of course, there's her new book CRIMINAL (review here), which extends from the 1970s until now, wrestling with both a horrifying criminal and the changing situation of women in the Atlanta, GA, police force.

One more aspect to consider: I'm always intrigued by the difference between the American and European cover designs. Here they are -- what do you think?


Monday, August 13, 2012

Karin Slaughter Interview: CRIMINAL

photo by Alison Rosa
A warm Vermont welcome (from the "cool blue north") to Atlanta, Georgia, resident and crime fiction author Karin Slaughter, whose new police investigation CRIMINAL takes the Will Trent series deeper, tougher, and ironically, sweeter (well, look at all the strong women involved in this police force!) -- but with a lot of death and complications along the way. For a review of CRIMINAL, check here. Thanks, Karin, for stopping by to answer questions about the book and your writing!

1. In CRIMINAL you've shown how the crimes of the past have festered, erupting in crimes in the present -- and possibly in Will Trent's inability to continue the investigative work that suits him so well. Do you believe that unsolved crimes are always likely to lead to further evil -- or, on the other hand, that their solution is likely to create release from turmoil and nightmare?

Karin Slaughter: I absolutely believe that unsolved crimes not only fester, but lead to other crimes.  Very seldom does a criminal just do one bad thing, then go on to live an exemplary life.  It's human nature to push extremes, and we all tend to have very short memories about bad consequences.  (If you've ever been caught speeding, then never went over the limit again, I'd like to shake your hand)

One of the projects my good friend and fellow author Linda Fairstein is taking on is trying to persuade police departments to test DNA from old rape kits.  There's been a lot of push-back on this for some reasons that are obvious--money and scarce resources--but there's also been a few instances where the local politicians have grumbled that the cases are probably just wives accusing husbands to "get back at them."  What Linda's project has proven is that men who rape once are apt to rape again, so a guy who raped his wife back in the nineties might currently be an anonymous tag of DNA numbers in the databank.  Testing that kit means that guy gets identified and prosecuted, and future victims are saved from his savagery.

2. What were the best routes into Atlanta police history, as you did the massive amounts of research that fed this book of policing "then and now"?

Karin Slaughter: I found a dissertation written by a grad student back in the seventies.  She rode around for two years with Atlanta police officers and then she culled all her data and anecdotes to investigate how women were integrated into policing and the effect (if any) that they had.  It was a fascinating read, mostly because it was written in the 1970s, so there wasn't the usual struggle for political correctness.  She just laid it out how it was.  I also spoke with many different police officers--female and male--who came up during that time.  It was fascinating to hear about their struggles, and I hope that I did their stories justice.  They were trailblazers, and they had no idea at the time what they were doing for women not just in policing, but everywhere.  In the 1960s, female athletes were made to stand nude in front of men who worked for the Olympic committee to prove that they were, in fact, female.  Now, there are more women on the US Olympic team than men and no one bats an eye.

3. No woman rises to the top without learning to handle sexual harassment, right? The way Amanda Wagner and Evelyn Mitchell must, in the Will Trent series? So -- what have you faced in this way yourself, and how did you learn to deal with it?

Karin Slaughter: The thriller field is a wonderful one to be in, but it's certainly male-dominated.  I think the biggest problem is that no one really talks about that fact.  No one asks why women are rarely nominated for awards.  No one asks why they are routinely ignored for the top speaking honors at some of our conventions.  No one asks why they are continually left out of "best of" short story collections or not asked to appear on panels.  Considering that women comprise around 80% of readers and women tend to do all the grunt work in organizing conventions and such, it seems like we'd be more keen to celebrate ourselves.  There are some very, very good men who try to level the playing field--Lee Child, John Connolly, Mark Billingham, and many others, but for the most part, we either toil in collegiate obscurity or get compliments like, "You write like a man."  Which, I suppose is a way of saying, "Wow, who would'a guessed a woman could write well!"

On the other hand, Kathy Reichs, Tess Gerritsen, Lisa Gardner, Ruth Rendell, PD James, Patricia Cornwell, Tana French, Denise Mina, Gillian Flynn...these ladies sell a TON of books.  I think if you asked them which they would prefer: the accolades or the sales, they'd choose the sales.  My druthers would be for them to have both.  The first American detective novel was written by a woman named Metta Fuller Victor.  Not many people know her name.  Poe, Hammet, Chandler--those are the names that are celebrated.  Our history seems to be weighted against remembering great women.

4. Right now, the idea that sexual criminals grow from molested children is socially a "hot" notion in America? Do you think it holds up? And, critically for the developments in CRIMINAL, what happens to the children of serial killers, whether they know their parentage or not?

Karin Slaughter: No, I don't think it holds up at all, and it does a disservice to abused children to say so--"hey, kid, sorry about what happened, but you're probably gonna grow up to do the same thing to a child, so let's just assume you're bad."  It also in some ways excuses the behavior of the predator--as if there's no free will involved. The fact is that one in four girls and one in six boys has been sexually molested.  If you do the math, we would be covered up in pedophiles.  What we should worry about more is the toxic environments that help cover up the actions of pedophiles.  More women and children are in slavery now than ever before in our history.  When the Super Bowl is held, children are shipped in from around the country--sometimes the world--to service the sexual deviants who pay their pimps.  This is commonly known among all police forces.  And yet, we don't hire enough officers to police this.  We don't hire enough judges.  We don't hire enough parole officers.  We don't spend enough on schools and teachers and social services, and then we act outraged when child sexual predators thrive in these conditions. 

The DSM says that pedophilia is a mental illness.  It's not created from scratch.  It's not automatically passed down from parent to child.  Nor is being a serial killer.  Charles Manson fathered several children.  So did John Wayne Gacy.  So did the Green River Killer.  Their kids, to my knowledge, are good people with a horrible, horrible cross to bear.

5. As you craft crime, harassment, and corruption scenes in practically your own backyard -- the city of Atlanta, Georgia -- do you feel the city's resonance changing within yourself and your own ways of experiencing it?

Karin Slaughter: I love Atlanta and cannot imagine myself living anywhere else.  Like all major cities, we have crime.  As a crime writer, that's not altogether a bad thing!  I always keep in mind, though, that the crimes I write about are real crimes.  I never take one single crime and transfer it straight into a book.  I change things, I make alterations, because I don't want to exploit a person's horrific experience.  Someone out there is a real victim.  The impact of the crime resonates to family members, the community, the cops who investigate, the reporters who cover the story--they all feel it and they all know that a life has been either lost of inexplicably changed.

6. That question we all ask, after we devour a book as compelling as CRIMINAL: What's next?

Karin Slaughter: Well, I can't say much, but...Unseen will be out this time next year (2013).  Will has to go undercover, which is creating all sorts of problems in his personal life--especially because one of the cops he's investigating is Lena Adams.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Tomorrow (Aug. 13): Karin Slaughter Interview!

Don't miss it -- Karin Slaughter talks about her newest and deepest police procedural, CRIMINAL, a hefty and impressive detective saga that covers two generations and paints a compelling image of women's entry into the Atlanta, Georgia, police forces. Challenges, catastrophes, courage, and success ... check in here tomorrow.

France in June -- Champagne -- and Murder: Janet Hubbard, CHAMPAGNE: THE FAREWELL

This debut mystery from Virginia/Vermont author Janet Hubbard (now a professor at the University of Vermont) gives a delightful romp through both the bubbly beverage area and the protagonist's romantic life, as she takes a break from her NYPD detective work in the vineyards of the Valley of the Marne in Champagne, just half an hour outside Paris.

Max Maguire is both attractive and good at her job -- she already has her detective "shield" at age 29, which can't really be explained by her father Hank being a long-timer on the force. And while a trip to France may sound like a sweet opportunity for lovers, in her case it's just in time to absorb the disappointment of finding out a New York City cop has been majorly unfaithful to her.  In fact, the lover in question sends her a text, "we r over," as her trans-Atlantic flight is on the runway.

In France, though, one of the first men to catch her eye is Olivier Chaumont, a young "examining magistrate" -- the sort of judge who, in the French system, directs the investigation of a crime. Sparks fly and the two are just headed for an impulsive romp between the sheets when their hostess's aunt, Champagne magnate Léa de Saint-Pern, is murdered. Half her face has been crushed by a tremendous blow (any guesses on the weapon? if you're a champagne lover, you may already have a notion). And as Max and Olivier team up unofficially to track down the murderer, there are multiple strands of inheritance, family resentment, and sexual secrets to track.

Poisoned Pen Press brings us this lively mystery, and the title page promises a series: it's "A Vengeance in the Vinyard Mystery." I'm already wondering how Max -- who has half French heritage (her mom) and a mysterious unknown French grandmother -- is going to slip the bonds of NYC effort to get back to the ooh-la-la that makes her other life so delicious.

The author's website is; the book was released last week through retailers, had a "pop the cork" event at a wine shop, is touring with the author in Virginia in late August, and New Englanders can catch up on Sept. 27:
  • August 23rd - Wine tasting & reading at CORK; Waterbury, VT
  • September 27th - Book signing at Phoenix Books; Essex Junction, VT, 7 p.m
  • Early September:  launch party at Phantom Theater, Warren, Vermont
   Week of August 24th: reading in South Hill, Virginia (place to be announced).

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Calendar Alert: Eliot Pattison Tonight; Karin Slaughter August 13; Martín Espada Sept. 4

There's still time to toss out your usual Sunday evening schedule and get to Kingdom Books today for our 7 p.m. visit from Eliot Pattison, author of three mystery series, whose book THE SKULL MANTRA won an Edgar Award. You won't see this author touring -- working as an attorney and committed to writing, he stays mostly private. So if you're in or near Vermont today, come on over. Direction in the right-hand column.

Karin Slaughter's new book CRIMINAL is a stunning two-generation mystery, one of the best I've read with such a wide scope of time and effect, set in Atlanta, GA. The author is giving a questions-and-answers session right here on the Kingdom Books review blog, on Monday August 13. You may be startled by some of her responses! And you'll get to know her work from a fresh direction.

If you're a mystery reader/collector and you know the name Martín Espada, you're riding a second horse -- because this outstanding Massachusetts (and Puerto Rican) author is 100% poet. From time to time, I can't resist reviewing a notable collection. And THE TROUBLE BALL makes me long for a chance to hear Espada read the poems aloud, as I already know what a fierce and wonderful reading he can provide. A quick look at his website suggests I'll be able to catch up on his schedule, after the September 4 release of the book. If you want to savor what rebellion, passion, and well-combed memory can do in the hands of a gifted wordsmith, here's the event link:

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Espionage, but Better: ISTANBUL PASSAGE by Joseph Kanon

Early last week I read an espionage novel that left me discouraged and confused, after slogging through more than 300 pages where the action never quite lit up, and the protagonist got dumber in each chapter.

So I was especially glad to slip into the pages of ISTANBUL PASSAGE by Joseph Kanon, a master storyteller who grasps the human issues of espionage: loyalty, courage, betrayal, lust, an insistence on power or control, and always, always, planning in as much detail as possible. Because such planning comes readily to Leon Bauer, he's found it easy to do small courier tasks that he realizes are related to war and politics -- small ways to help, during World War II, but now, in 1945, less and less important. He's not much bothered by that. A U.S. tobacco employee in Turkey, negotiating for R. J. Reynolds in Turkish tobacco purchases, he and his German Jewish wife Anna embraced Istanbul as their true home, after marrying and dodging the fate of so many Jews in Europe.

But Anna is in the moral equivalent of a coma -- listening to him perhaps, but not necessarily knowing who he is. She's probably not coming out of her clinic/hospital room ever again, although she doesn't show the signs of aging that already plague Leon. What loyalty does he owe to her? How long can he thrive as a friend to the other men in his life, when he's without love or tenderness from a woman? More urgently, what is he supposed to do with the apparent escaping Nazi he's just collected as part of his clandestine chores -- especially when he is suddenly the prime suspect in an embassy murder?

Leon's tender and passionate efforts toward the women around him and his dogged loyalty toward his friends -- complicated by both the crime police and the secret police fastening on him and his life -- turn this rich and layered novel into a memorable exploration of risk, choice, and ultimate costs. The portrayal of Turkey and of the secret and above-board efforts to bring some goodness out of the close of Europe's devastating war are impeccably detailed by Kanon.

I haven't read Kanon's earlier work (although I'm sure I saw the film based on one of his books, The Good German). Now, though, I think I need to. This kind of depth is scarce and worth appreciating. When it's braided this way with insight into an ancient nation, and with suspenseful plotting and deft twists, it's three times as good.

Note: There's an except from the book (released in May 2012; Atria) here:

And for those who long to "see" Kanon's Istanbul, there's a video here, as well as some earlier ones that probe this author's spycraft:

Friday, August 03, 2012

Threat Level Very Scary: Jennifer McMahon, Doug Wilhelm

Summer reading includes catching up on some scary tales and topics. I found two slim novels in the stack to be un-put-down-able in July, and I recommend both, for VERY different reasons.

Jennifer McMahon enjoys her daughter's new love of horror films. McMahon herself, who resides in Vermont, has spun her own share of terror on the page. Somehow I missed her 2008 book when it came out: ISLAND OF LOST GIRLS. Who would have guessed that Peter Rabbit could become a scary character? Well, not exactly the cuddly bunny type -- this one is clearly an adult in a rabbit suit, who walks off with a small girl from a car outside a convenience store. The abduction is one of the sharp saw teeth of increasing despair and confusion, as McMahon whips back and forth between 2006, and 1993, when terrible events were taking place in the lives of today's adults, then children. This is emphatically not  a book for kids, and I'd even hesitate about giving it to an older teen; the topics are hard to handle. But boy, is it good. Check the website:

TRUE SHOES by Doug Wilhelm is the new hit of the middle school/junior high crowd, and deserves every bit of acclaim (the first printing actually ran out! fear not, the publisher has printed more). Although it's technically a sequel to Wilhelm's popular The Revealers, it works fine as a solo book. And why do adults (like me) want to read it? (1) Every scrap of detail about cliques and bullying rings true in both today's world and our own younger days. Russell's life is totally American junior high/early high school. (2) Despair -- especially leading to teen suicide or murder -- and courage are both part of our days. We need to name them and claim the courage part. Russell is my kind of reluctant hero. I feel as though I've known him and hope he'll text here soon. (3) Wilhelm's storytelling is smooth, exhilarating, a great ride in a work of fiction that insists on being "real." Oh, you want some plot details? A crowd of powerful stylish girls is brutally ruining people's lives through rumor and malicious teasing. Russell and his mostly "outcast" friends -- the ones that share the cafeteria table where nobody else would want to be seen -- are easy targets. Romantic triangle, parental problems, reluctant rescuers ... it's all here. Surprise the teens in your life by knowing this book before they do. It'll steal an evening or two out of your summer, and live in your heart. Website: