No Dawn for Men by James Lepore and Carlos Davis is an historical action/thriller with romance and paranormal elements, which makes it sound like kin...more No Dawn for Men by James Lepore and Carlos Davis is an historical action/thriller with romance and paranormal elements, which makes it sound like kind of a mess, but it's not.
Ian Fleming and J.R.R. Tolkien team up to prevent an object of dark power from falling into the hands of Nazis. It is 1938 and Hitler has risen to power in Germany and is poised to unleash his “Final Solution.” In Nazi circles, J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel “The Hobbit” is highly valued as a propaganda tool. (“It’s a children’s book,” Tolkien insists, baffled by the Nazi interest.) The scholarly writer—his expertise is Norse legends—is a veteran of WWI, so he has seen evil up close and what he’s seen has shaken him to his core. When a former student enlists his aid in fighting a magical menace, he eagerly signs on and in the process frames the story that will become his greatest epic.
Fleming, for his part, is a dashing spy posing as a journalist and living forever in the shadow of his heroic, war-hero father Valentine, who met Tolkien in a trench during “the Great War.” He and Tolkien make a very odd couple, but that could be said of the ragtag assortment of men, elves and dwarves who banded together in the “Fellowship of the Ring.” You don’t have to know anything about either Tolkien or Fleming to enjoy this book but if you are a fan of hobbits and womanizing British agents, you will enjoy the book even more.
Every single page of this historical novel is chock full of geekery and goodness, whether it’s a description of a torture that shows up in an early Bond novel or a description of a particularly lurid sunset that gives Tolkien the idea of the “Eye of Sauron” for the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Aside from the storylines that follow Tolkien and Fleming—stories filled with action, romance, courage, and betrayal—there’s an ongoing power play behind the scenes of the Nazi inner circle as Himmler, Goebbels, and Heydrich jockey for position. It’s all very “Game of Thrones” and the stakes are very, very high. As Indiana Jones once said, “Nazis. I hate those guys.” Well, who doesn’t? And framing them as dark lords in search of an unspeakable power makes a lot of sense.
As his twin languishes in a coma, a man seeks spiritual enlightenment and meaning, aided by texts and emails that seem to be coming from his brother....moreAs his twin languishes in a coma, a man seeks spiritual enlightenment and meaning, aided by texts and emails that seem to be coming from his brother. Alex Shakar’s Luminarium is a beautifully written book that mashes up philosophy, pop culture, recent past, quantum mechanics and a story about a man whose twin brother is dying. It is the summer of 2006 and Fred Brounian is not in a good place. The video game company he and his brothers founded has been stolen by a military company that uses its game engine to run extremely realistic training scenarios for its wannabe warriors. His fiancée Melanie has broken up with him and taken up with someone new (or so he’s heard). And despite being in a coma, his dying twin brother George has been sending him a series of enigmatic emails—Help Avatara—that mean nothing to him. Fred joins a group studying spirituality, and finds the experience alternately liberating and frightening, made more complicated by his attraction to Mira, the woman facilitating it. He reatreats into the cranky comfort of his relationship with his father Vartan, a failed actor but decent musician who performs at kids’ birthday parties in an act that George conceived when he and Fred were in high school. This nook is a dazzling, dizzying romp through pop culture, recent history, East Indian myth, quantum physics and a whole spectrum of other elements. It’s lovely to see a story in which the myth is not the same old Catholic and Celtic tropes that have been done to death, and the author does a graceful job of integrating the myth and the mundane. (He’s particularly good with the various game scenarios and the texts and messages Fred gets from … wherever he’s getting them from.) Luminarium works on many levels. At its simplest, it’s the story of a man whose life is falling apart, making him ripe for the “faith without ignorance” spiritual awakening that Miri is offering. It’s the story of a man coping with the impending death of his twin, his other self. It’s a love story. It’s a tale of quantum revelation in which “real physics” coexists alongside things that could not possibly happen, and yet do. It all sounds very artsy/fartsy in a “lit-fic” kind of way, but it isn’t ponderous at all. That’s partly because the writer sees the absurd side of things and in between the genuine search for meaning and peace, there are some hilarious moments. Some of them, to be sure, are blackly hilarious but the humor is there nonetheless. (The scene where Fred, the former co-CEO of the game company Urth, confronts a Human Resources wonk who suggests his skills might be good for one of the entry-level jobs they have is priceless.) One of the most intense conversations about spirituality occurs when Fred is dead drunk and his godfather Manfred is waxing on about Mu while munching fries at the bar of a Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville. Among the author’s targets are the relentlessly production-designed town of Celebration, Florida where there don’t seem to be any inhabitants under 60, trendy bars and their denizens, the military-entertainment complex, and Reiki. (Fred’s mother Holly is a practitioner and in one very oddball sequence, she enlists Fred’s aid in “healing” a street in New York. Then there are the magic shows Fred performs with his pot-smoking, failed actor father. The magic act was George’s idea and it’s been the only income Vartan has had for years. (The writer has given Vartan a detailed backstory that includes his one almost-breakthrough performance as an Italian priest who lives the Church.) It is, in fact, the details that really sell this story, rooting it in reality even as it takes off in flights of fancy. We are reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s oft-quoted observation that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It’s hard to know how to categorize this story—magical realism? New weird? (The story shares some aesthetic similarities to the work of China Mieville and Chuck Palanuik as well, particularly his novel about evangelists.) There’s some heady stuff going on here, especially in Fred’s inner musings, but a lot of that can just inform the story going on at the surface, which is interesting enough on its own because the characters are really likable and relatable. The shadow of 9/11 looms over the story in an interesting way and there’s a twist in the story that relates to that event that readers will probably not see coming. The characters are extremely dimensional. We delight in finding out Mira has a tattoo (and rather a strange one). We’re intrigued to know that Sam is trying to reinvent himself with his move to Florida. Fred is a very likeable guy. His story is told in both a traditional, straightforward narrative way and in a series of flashbacks to moments that shaped him. These flashbacks blend seamlessly into the technology-induced near-death experience he has while under Mira’s care. A large part of Fred’s character is the voice in his head he refers to as “the inner George.” He can channel George any time he likes, which makes the messages he gets from him seem almost normal. We “get” him totally, but we also understand his tormented little brother who has thrown himself headlong into Christian dating and Christian websites and the manufactured Midwestern dream of the Disney manufactured of Celebration. All of the characters—from the smallest (the nasty-minded guy who wants to know if George and Fred ever “shared a chick”) to the most important (Fred, his younger brother Sam, Mira, George)—come off the page in vivid detail. The ending is rather quiet after all the build-up but it is life-affirming. We’re left with a message of love. This meditation on technology and spiritualityis a powerful story about a quest for enlightenme that turns in the end, to a search for simple peace.
Kristen Iversen’s story of growing up in the shadow of the Rocky Flats, Colorado nuclear facility is interspersed with an indictment of the coverup th...moreKristen Iversen’s story of growing up in the shadow of the Rocky Flats, Colorado nuclear facility is interspersed with an indictment of the coverup that ensued as the radiation from the facility slowly poisoned the environment around it.
This is actually two books in one, the story of the author growing up in a severely dysfunctional family where no one mentioned daddy’s drinking and the story of the systematic and cold-blooded corporate irresponsibility of Dow Chemicals (the people who brought us the Bhopal Disaster) in the way they operated the secret Rocky Flats nuclear facility. That latter story is fascinating and the account of the Mother’s Day fire is chilling in the same way accounts of the meltdown at Chernobyl are chilling. (And while it’s a different kind of warning altogether, the whistle blowing that went on in futility reminds us a bit of Richard Clarke’s unheeded warnings in the days before 9/11.)
This citizen activist part of the story is Silkwood meets Erin Brockovitch meets Love Canal meets A Civil Action, The investigation of the cover up will outrage the reader and using Iversen’s memoir to frame the story gives the issue a human face.
Unfortunately, we are ultimately a lot less interested in Kristen’s story of dysfunctional parents who don’t discuss unpleasant matters—it’s a Norwegian thing—than we are the various “incidents” at the Rocky Flats plant, a supposedly super-secret facility that built nuclear triggers and employed half the town. Kristen’s account of the 1969 “Blue Flash” incident is absolutely chilling and the depth of denial from her parents is stunning. But that’s nothing next to the levels of duplicity involved in keeping the nuclear secrets.
There are no easy answers here, and no happy endings. There is, however, hope. There are, however, some heroes, including Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame, a feisty activist nun, a horse breeder whose animals are dying and a housewife who simply doesn’t want her kids to drink water from a reservoir polluted with plutonium.
What happened at Rocky Flats was a disgrace and while officials denied there was any problem (as at Love Canal). children died of cancer and livestock sickened and rabbits mutated. The accounts of both the 1957 and 1969 fires are harrowing and exciting, and remind us of other nuclear disasters—from the tsunami-ravaged plants in Japan to the meltdown in Chernobyl.
Juxtaposed against this backdrop is the author’s personal life, which is often mundane but is also punctuated with incidents like the time her hard-drinking father nearly killed her, and a hilarious account of going to a “haunted house” with her friend Tina. These incidents serve to remind us that the story of Rocky Flats is the story of American families put at risk by secrets and lies.
A profiler trained in the US and a Norwegian cop join forces to find the man abducting and killing children; falling in love in the process in What is...moreA profiler trained in the US and a Norwegian cop join forces to find the man abducting and killing children; falling in love in the process in What is Mine, the first of the Stubo and Vik series by Anne Holt, a woman who put the “Noir” in Nordic Noir.
The characters are rich with the dynamic between Adam and Johanne is intriguing and adult. The plotting is a bit convoluted, with a couple of huge coincidences at the end, but as the characters keep pointing out, Norway is a small country. This is a dark story and not for the faint of heart, but fans of the Millennium Trilogy and the Killing will be riveted.
It’s easy to see why the books in this series have been embraced by readers. Norwegian cop Adam Stubo is a really unusual character—not at all the kind of man we expect to meet in a story like this. He’s emotionally volatile, he’s incredibly tender, he’s clearly attracted to Johanne but unable to articulate it, and he’s great with her little girl Kristiane. Working together to find the missing children exposes the two main characters to the others’ weaknesses but also shows their strength.
There’s not a lot of actual plot here, really, and what there is turns on some incredible coincidences. The connection between the abduction plot and the kidnapper’s pathology and the case that Johanne is investigating is a neat little twist but it’s not exactly plausible. This is particularly true of a fateful and fatal car crash. But still, we don’t really care because we’re in it for the characters.
There are a lot of characters here and they all seem to come to life off the page. Adam has his grandson (his scenes with the boy are delightful) and his best friend at work Berli. (The two don’t really see eye to eye on the case and Adam worries that Berli is turning away from him.) Johanne is even more grounded. She has a mother who disapproves of her, a father who’s drifting away, a sister, an ex, a child, colleagues at the university and friends, as well as her relationship with the old woman who wanted her to investigate the wrongly accused Aksel in the first place. Johanne is rooted. Johanne is real. And complex. And not always likable. Adam has to practically use emotional blackmail to get her to work on the case, and we don’t like that.
Kristiane is her own person and one of the best portrayals of a kid with some sort of autism spectrum this side of Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend and Speed of Dark. When Johanne sees how easy Adam is with her, taking her strangeness is stride, we know that she’s going to fall for him and we’re glad, again.
We spend a lot of time in the kidnapper’s head and it’s not a pleasant place to be. As he grows more and more detached from the last child he has snatched, his casual cruelty to the girl gets more and more disturbing. He does not molest her, but when he leaves her in the dark for a long time, with her begging him not to cut off the air from the vents, it’s pretty horrible.
There’s a subplot involving Johanne’s investigation into an old case at the behest of a dying woman, and that’s an absorbing narrative, but not as immediate and visceral as the kidnapping case.
There are mysteries that are never explained and we wish Holt would satisfy our curiosity. We never learn how the real killer’s brother died. It was a suicide and it was exceptionally showy but we never get the lurid details. (And we want them because the subject comes up more than a few times.) We also never get the full story on what happened between Johanne and her lover back in the US. (At the end of this book Johanne tells herself she’s tell Adam one day but by the sequel, she’s decided she’ll never tell anyone what happened.)
Appearances can be deceptive. The four people around the table look like a businesswoman (Veronica Sherwood); a tram...moreSerpents of Arakesh by V. M. Jones
Appearances can be deceptive. The four people around the table look like a businesswoman (Veronica Sherwood); a tramp (Quentin Quested); a bodybuilder (Shaw; and a bank manager (Withers). You would neverguess that Quentin is actually one of the wealthiest men in the world, the world’s most wizardly computer genius and the man behind the best-selling Quest computer games.
The most recent game—Quest for the Golden Goblet—is being marketed with a special promotion sweepstakes. People who register the game get to enter a contest to win a complete computer system, a complete set of the Quest games and … a two-day gaming workshop with Q himself. Faster than you can say “golden ticket,” thousands of entries pour in, and salfes have jumped two hundred percent.
Q has a very personal agenda behind the contest, though. He wants to find five children who can enter the magical world of his creation and find a healing potion that will save the life of his daughter Hannah.
It’s clear the author has seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory a few times, but that’s okay. Jones has taken the basic “golden ticket” premise and given it an interesting Harry Potte-ish gloss. (Like Harry, protagonist Adam is an orphan who has to deal with bullies.)
The book is very well written. Even fans of J.K. Rowling’s humongously best-selling Potter books have to admit that her prose is no always that graceful. This wrting in this book is wonderful. It just wraps you up from the first page and brings you into its world. Even the occasional use of New Zealand English—Bart Simpson giving someone “the brown eye” instead of “mooning someone”—won’t disrupt the flow.
The characters are very well-drawn, even if some of them (like Matron) are a little exaggerated. She’s just a bit too awful for words. But Adam is a terrific character. We’re sympathetic to him from the beginning, but when he prays for God to let something wonderful happen to him, to not let his life always be like it is—it just breaks our hearts. He’s a handsome kid, as it turns out, though he doesn’t know it, and his flaws—his near illiteracy in particular—make him all the more human. We root for him to overcome his learning disabilities and grow into the potential that we see, even if his teachers don’t.
Hannah is an absolute delight, a precocious child who adores her father, champions Adam and acts like a dearly loved kid without ever seeming like a sitcom adult-in-a-child’s-body. And without even reading the other books, you start to think that when she and Adam grow up, they’re going to be a couple because they are totally on the same wave length. Her father calls her “chatterbot” which is a nice touch (and so much more original than the generic “pumpkin” we see so often in books to indicate a parent’s fondness for a child).
Q is a nicely eccentric twist on a very familiar character—the absent-minded genius. He’s very, very likable and so we like him very much from the moment we meet him in the board room, fiddling with his computer while the others in the room try to take care of business.
One of Adam’s friends, a boy named Cameron, is dear. He’s a rich boy who doesn’t flaunt his good luck and who has a heart and a soul. We hope to see more of him in future, but even if we don’t, we like the brief bits we get of him here. The various kids who become finalists are types, but the types have been given nuances that make them come off the page as individuals with their own personalities and lives. They aren’t cartoons, they’re real.
As far as the plot goes, it’s not terrifically surprising. We can guess the identity of the five finalists almost as soon as we meet them. We can guess that Adam is going to be super-special among the finalists even before he touches that plasma globe and nearly blows it apart. The choices he makes on the test are intriguing and we know that they will serve him well when he ends up in the magical realm of Q’s making.
The adventures here are a little flat—a ot of walking around a temple with lurking snakes—but the writer does introduce an element of jeopardy with the Faceless Ones who are following the kids in the city until they make their escape.
As with any story where ordinary humans enter a magical realm—from the Chronicles of Narnia to Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry—there are certain conventions. The writer knows these tropes and plays with them and delivers an altogether satisfying experience.
This book is much more interesting than any number of similar books because it puts everything together. The characters are good. The backdrop is detailed and plausible. The emotions are real. (There is HEART here.) the danger is real and scary. This book deserves to be more widely read. The closest thing out there is the Heroes.com/Villains.net series, which is not as good and only really works when the protagonist is the author’s antihero supervillain wannabe.
It’s tempting to over-praise this book but it’s pretty praise-worthy for its characters alone. If you’re looking for a new author to read, check out this book.
Railsea by China Mieville is a coming-of-age tale that takes its inspiration from Moby Dick and Treasure island and a whole universe of elements that...more Railsea by China Mieville is a coming-of-age tale that takes its inspiration from Moby Dick and Treasure island and a whole universe of elements that he’s mixed into a wildly imaginative story of a young man who has grown up in a world bounded by railroads who discovers there’s something beyond and goes looking for it to claim his destiny. The hero of the book, a young man called Sham (Shamus Yes Ap Soorap) has gone “to rail’ to hunt the moldywarpes, beasts who inhabit the railsea and used for their fat and meat and fur. Apprenticed to the train’s doctor, Sham is eager to hear the stories the railsailors tell and fascinated by the train’s captain Abacat Naphi, a one-armed woman who lost her limb to a wily white moldywarpe and has been searching for it ever since. He is less enthusiastic about the rough games the sailors entertain themselves with—games like beetle races and death matches with birds and beasts. One day Sham snaps, stealing a little day bat from the “arena” so it won’t end up killed. This action marks him out to the other crew members. The captain marks him out for reasons of her own, and he’s soon embroiled in feeding her obsession with developing one of his own. As a proponent of “New Weird,” Mieville has always blended myth and pop culture and literature in his works (most gracefully in Kraken) and in this novel, readers will recognize Moby Dick, Dune (the modlywarpes explode out of the dirt like the “worms” that make spice), a bit of Treasure Island and also Tales of the Arabian Nights. The Moby Dick references aren’t just superficial, with Captain Naphi, the one-armed monomaniac in search of the off-white mole who took her limb, but extend to the structure of the chapters and the subject matter. English majors will particularly enjoy the way Mieville has played with one of the classic works of American literature. (Particularly the chapter in Moby Dick known as the “Tryworks.”) There’s a lot of world building here in this dystopian, post-Apocalypse landscape. The world of the railsea has its own jargon and its own logic and its own geography. (A cabin boy has been “at rail” before, for example.) the book begins with a stunning image of a blood-stained boy and we don’t know until later that it’s Sham in the aftermath of the moldywarpe hunt, drenched in blood after serving liquor to the butchers cutting up the creature. All of this backdrop is extremely entertaining but it disguises the essential lack of plot. Yes, things happen (the scary stuff aboard the wrecked train, for example, that reminds us a bit of Jaws), but mostly this is a coming-of-age story that plays out in small moments. As with Kraken, there’s a sort of quest going on here. The captain is obsessed with finding her nemesis, which she describes as being the color of an old tooth, a rarity among the dark moldywarpes. Other captains mock her obsession for a particular “prairie dog” and make fun of her philosophy as well. She is not so much a character as a plot placeholder for the story, which is familiar (at least in its broad strokes). Still, we are intrigued by Sham, who is a dreamer singularly unsuited to the life of a train doctor. He can’t believe others don’t share his desire to know what’s out there on the railsea and possibly beyond it. There are wonderful inventions here—like the rumor market where you can buy and sell rumors and the price you pay determines the quality of the information passed along—and these bits of whimsy add to the reality Mieville is constructing here.
The action moments are strong—the sequence where a crew member is bitten by a creature in a wrecked train is particularly scary—but much of this story is the setup and the world and the literary underpinnings. (It very much feels as if there’s a sequel coming at some point.) Mieville plays with language and in the “second act” of the book he shatters point of view and begins following several different narrative threads. Somehow it all works.
French Lessons by Ellen Sussman C’est l’amour A single day in Paris changes the lives of three Americans as they each set off to explore the city with a...moreFrench Lessons by Ellen Sussman C’est l’amour A single day in Paris changes the lives of three Americans as they each set off to explore the city with a different French tutor, learning about language, love, and loss as their lives intersect in surprising ways. Ellen Sussman’s novel French Lessons is a book for those who love movies like Love Actually and Valentine’s Day. The three Americans traveling through their day are a diverse lot—there’s French teacher Josie with her secret sorrow, Riley, an unhappy expat who pines for home, and Hollywood husband Jeremy who has accompanied his film star wife to her Paris location and is now dealing with his stepdaughter, who’s acting out and with an unexpected attraction to the French teacher who’s been giving him lessons. It’s the Americans who have the focus but it’s the French tutors who are learning their own lessons. The ménage that exists among Nico, Chantal and Philippe interests us and we’re by no means certain how it’s all going to turn out. The characters are not uniformly likeable—we adore Nico but are lukewarm about Josie; we like Riley but know way too many guys like Philippe—but we enjoy being a tag-along on their ramble through Paris. The characters are deftly drawn, even the minor characters who just have walk-on parts. When Nico tells Josie about the raucous girl Philippe flirted with, we see that girl so completely she casts a shadow. Riley’s little boy Cole, who seems to spend a lot of time patting his mother’s shoulder and telling her things will be okay, is a lovely kid. Jeremy’s wife Dana—the movie star whose movie Nico comments does not “look as though it will last 100 years—has a strong presence too. We know a lot about her even though her character is mostly filtered through his point of view. The writer is not just in love with her characters, she’s in love with Paris. with her characters, she’s in love with Paris. In fact, we like the stories in Paris so much more than the flashbacks to characters’ lives before Paris that we find ourselves wanting to flip past those sections to get back to France. We’re especially annoyed with Josie, who becomes consumed with her affair with Simon to the point that she’s alienating her best friend, her father and neglecting her students. (“You’ve been so distracted,” her boss notes when Josie calls in to quit her job. “Is something going on?”) This is a character-driven story but the strength of the book is the dialogue. As our characters move about the city, they have adult conversations, serious talk about serious things and silly talk when it’s appropriate. We hardly ever hear adult conversations in the US any more and the pleasure of adult discourse has almost been lost. Of the characters, Nico and Riley have the most to say and it’s fitting that they are both talking about love and loss. Loss is very much a part of the experience of what’s going on for the three Americans, loss that’s both literal and figurative. The dialogue anchors the story, which is otherwise so light it would simply float away without leaving an impact. This novel is very much in the vein of Nicholas Sparks’ books in that its simple story has the potential to touch some deep emotional chords. If you can’t get to Paris this summer, take a mini-vacation with Sussman’s book. You’ll be transported. (less)
Death follows in the wake of two brothers headed to California to kill a man for their employer, a wealthy man known as “The Commodore.”
In The Sister...moreDeath follows in the wake of two brothers headed to California to kill a man for their employer, a wealthy man known as “The Commodore.”
In The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt has done a 180 from his first novel Ablutions, a dark, grim story about the denizens of a seedy Hollywood bar. His new book is a darkly comic Western noir that serves notice with its whimsical title that DeWitt’s west is not the same place as the west you’ll find in a Louis L’Amour novel.
There is a lot to like here. The story is episodic and reminiscent in some ways of Little Big Man, only taking place in a more focused context. Eli and Charlie Sisters seem to run across a whole cross-section of Western types (the diligent Chinese house boy, the luckless prospectors, the soiled doves and so forth) that Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) would recognize. There’s also a tinge of superstition and the paranormal (the weird gypsy) that unsettles us a bit. What the story mostly reminds us of is a graphic novel, even though this is a fully fleshed tale that doesn’t need illustrations.
First of all, the dialogue is absolutely great. Eli’s horse-trading when he sells the Indian horse that simply walks up to him is reminiscent of Mattie’s dickering in True Grit, and there are other places where we suspect the writer might have been influenced by the Charles Portis novel, if not the movie(s) of the same name.
We meet a lot of characters on our way from Oregon City to the Bay Area where the Sisters’ brothers’ quarry is located. All of these characters come to vivid life off the page and some are particularly likable. Eli is our storyteller and he is the romantic of the duo, always falling in love with the women who cross their path. He’s also the conscience of the two and it upsets him when Charlie goes off and kills people (and their horses) when Eli thinks he doesn’t have to. Charlie is a cynical sort and definitely the alpha male, but it looks like Eli is the brains of the outfit.
Even though we only meet the Sisters’ mother at the very end of the story, she’s a presence throughout, having let them know she doesn’t really want to see them while they’re doing their evil work. The Commodore’s character is equally compelling. He’s such a pathetic little man smoking his cigar in his bath that we can’t quite believe he wields so much power. (The opposite is true for the Mother. She is sickly, possibly dying, and yet…she is formidable.)
The various men and women and children who are in the book live in their scenes and sometimes in the memories of the characters and readers will find their brief encounters leave their mark.
There is a lot of bloodshed here—some of the violence is senseless, some of it purposeful—but there’s not a lot of action. The story is a road trip movie, like True Grit or Road to Perdition. Each step in the brothers’ journey takes them deeper into the heart of darkness (another road trip story), and we actually begin to wonder if they’ve passed over a threshold into a realm that is beyond reality at points.
In some ways, this is a psychological drama. It is character-driven as Eli makes choices that bring him and his brother back from the brink—whether Charlie wants to be saved or not. The details of the western world that’s the backdrop to the tale seem authentic and well-researched. They also give a lot of life to the novel, which is a quick and easy entertainment. This novel was short-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize and has won a slew of other literary accolades. They’re well-deserved.
March, 1929…a prostitute named Emma Gross is killed in a Dusseldorf hotel room and her body mutilated so the wounds mimic those borne by two other mur...moreMarch, 1929…a prostitute named Emma Gross is killed in a Dusseldorf hotel room and her body mutilated so the wounds mimic those borne by two other murder victims. Johann Stausberg confesses to all three crimes and is sent to Grafenberg Asylum for the criminally insane. That should have been that, but a year later, the arrest of serienmörder (serial killer) Peter Kürten brings to light certain discrepancies that investigating officer Thomas Klein simply can’t ignore. And it doesn’t hurt that proving Johann Stausberg didn’t kill Emma Gross will humiliate his ex-partner Michael Ritter who has hated him ever since learning of Thomas’ affair with his wife Gisela.
Damien Seaman’s debut novel, The Killing of Emma Gross stuns the reader like a blow from the claw-hammer wielded by one of its characters. The novel is equal parts police procedural, psychological thriller and dramatic deconstruction of a love affair gone very, very wrong. This is a plot that involves secrets and lies buried so deep inside that winkling them out involves blood and pain on an epic scale.
For everyone but Thomas, the question of “Who killed Emma Gross?” is less important than “Who cares who killed Emma Gross?” and the closer Thomas gets to answers, the more questions surface. This is not a simple book and Thomas is not a simple character. A veteran of the Great War, he is scarred inside and out from the experience, but traumatized even more by the death of “Lilli” and his wretched love affair with Ritter’s wife. He is capable of mistreating people in his search for the truth, but he’s also susceptible to moments of what he calls “softness.”
He is utterly appalled and repelled by the bond Peter Kürten wants to forge with him but forced by circumstances to nurture that relationship in order to get information he hopes will save a little girl’s life. Peter is a total sociopath who enjoys his little jokes at Thomas’ expense, and who tries to arrange to have his wife collect the reward money offered for information leading to his arrest.
Everyone wants credit for bringing “the Ripper” to justice, and the game of ambition being played out in the Dusseldorf police station is complicated by the arrival of Ernst Gennat, an investigator from Berlin who suspects that all is not what it seems but who has no interest in upsetting the status quo, at least not openly. He is, however, not above giving Thomas tacit permission to probe all he likes—so long as there’s plausible deniability back at the station.
Some reviewers have compared The Killing of Emma Gross to Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir novels featuring private detective Bernie Gunther, but Seaman’s work most resembles that of novelist/historian Caleb Carr, particularly his third novel Angel of Death. Like Angel of Death and its prequel The Alienist, The Killing of Emma Gross weaves real people—pathologist Karl Berg, murderer Peter Kürten, Chief Inspector Ernst Gennat, victim Emma Gross—into a plot filled with original characters so seamlessly that it’s impossible to tell where invention takes over.
The story plays out against an historical backdrop that is subtle—a comment about the economy here, a description of a decadent nightclub there . The rabid paranoia attached to the Communists becomes part of the plot as the investigative reporter Du Pont embarrasses the police by uncovering their incompetence and pointing fingers at their ineffectual investigations. Thomas, for all his irreverence, is not entirely immune to the zeitgeist. At one point, he tiredly admits to himself that there are arguments for sterilizing “the criminal classes.” Since Thomas is a “good German,” we want to think he’s only joking, but we know what is to come in a decade and so the remark is chilling.
Seaman, who has lived in Germany, salts his dialogue with the kinds of phrases not taught in high school classes, words like the epithet arshloch, a term that needs no translation. The variety of derogatory words his characters use for “prostitute” seems indicative of a culture that was fascinated by illicit sex.
With The Killing of Emma Gross, Seaman turns lurid fact into brilliant fiction.
Fans of George R. R. Martin will love this book. The title makes it sound like one of those cookie cutter urban fantasies with a tramp-stamped protago...moreFans of George R. R. Martin will love this book. The title makes it sound like one of those cookie cutter urban fantasies with a tramp-stamped protagonist. Instead this is a rich and incredibly layered epic fantasy. (less)
Megan Abbott’s new book, The End of Everything, is a strong story about family secrets and misunderstandings and a girl who doesn’t really know what’s...moreMegan Abbott’s new book, The End of Everything, is a strong story about family secrets and misunderstandings and a girl who doesn’t really know what’s going on. Abbott underplays a lot of things and the most haunting; the most visceral moments in the book are very low-key.
When her best friend Evie is kidnapped, 13-year-old Lizzie Hood launches her own investigation into the crime, uncovering a series of lies that change everything she thought she knew about herself and her friendship with Evie.
As always in Abbott’s work, the characters are strong and realistic. Her view of teenage life is not unsympathetic but utterly without sentiment. When Lizzie starts hanging out with a couple of toxic teens who have their own theories about who might have taken Evie and even her own mother seems to be relishing the drama a little too much, it confirms our worst fears about suburban schadenfreude.
The plot is laced with a suppressed violence that’s almost poetic and ratchets up the intensity without being obvious. Lizzie’s imagined scenario about a character standing outside Evie’s house, smoking and dreaming, is beautifully written.
Abbott never overstates anything, never overdoes the emotion or lets anything get melodramatic. Lizzie is not a particularly credible narrator—she’s always remembering things slightly different from the way they happened—but that works for the kind of story this is.
There’s a lot going on here beneath the surface and in the shadows—the concept of “shadow” is important here, both explicitly and implicitly—and the consequences of both intentions and actions have weight.
Nominally a YA novel, The End of Everything occupies territory somewhere north of the paranormal fantasies and dystopian dramas that clutter the genre. It’s the kind of book that reminds us that labels on fiction are meaningless. (less)