Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Those We Lost in 2008

For many in the community of letters, the loss of David Foster Wallace on September 12th was the hardest blow. Something about a candle that burns too brightly, I think. More personal: something about the books we’ll never get the chance to read.

January Magazine didn’t comment on Foster Wallace’s death at the time. January’s contributors at that moment spread to the four winds. I myself was at the foot of a glacier, contemplating immortality of a very different sort. And, still, something pierced me when I heard the news.

January did, however, comment on the loss of several writers in the 12 months just passed. Too many, really. Though I don’t imagine there’s ever a year that holds the correct amount.

In January we lost “Flashman” creator George MacDonald Fraser; mystery writer Ed Hoch; as well as novelist and socialite Theodora Roosevelt Rauchfuss Keogh.

February brought the death of 104-year-old “Queen of the American Gothics” Phyllis Ayame Whitney and famed thinker and conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr.

In March, we brought the news of the death of Arthur C. Clarke (who we thought would never die!) and Anthony Minghella (who died much, much too young).

Later in the year, we shared the passing of MAD artist Willie Elder, comedian and author George Carlin, science fiction authors Thomas M. Disch and Algis Budrys; mystery author James Crumley, actor and author Paul Newman; jazz music expert and author Peter J. Levinson; author Tony Hillerman; Pulitzer Prize-winning author, activist and radio host Louis “Studs” Terkel; thriller author Michael Crichton and, finally, Nobel laureate British playwright Harold Pinter, who died just a few days ago.

All of our tributes are labeled as Passages and collected here.


We’ve Got It Covered

It’s no secret that J. Kingston Pierce, January Magazine’s senior editor, as well as primary perpetrator of The Rap Sheet, has a thing for covers.

Not long after we launched The Rap Sheet as a standalone publication back into 2006, Pierce began his campaign of holding copycat covers up to the light. All of those articles are vastly entertaining, and are collected here.

In 2007, it seemed somewhat natural when this passion for all things coverlicious led to Pierce collecting the best of the covers he’d encountered during the year and allowing readers to add in their two cents. Yesterday on The Rap Sheet, Pierce unveiled the covers he figures are this year’s best from the world of crime fiction:
Several of us have been keeping track of the artwork that has graced this genre’s book jackets over the last 12 months, and we have finally winnowed down (from an original set of some three dozen candidates) what we believe are the 12 most distinguished covers produced in 2008. Undoubtedly, there will be readers who disagree with our selections, and say that other choices should have been made. Indeed, those of us who put this list together pushed our individual sets of contenders, and in the end none of us got everything he or she wanted. A few nominees were especially hard to set aside, but in the end, we arrived at a rundown of book jackets that work well in terms of artwork, typography, and message.
If you’d like have a peek and add your own vote, you may do so here.


Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Best Books of 2008

The sky is falling. And it has been for some time. The past 12 months have produced the sorts of calamities that can start panics. And it seems that, as delighted with the economy as everyone seemed to be 12 and certainly 24 months ago, they are now willing to believe it’s all coming apart. The reality is this: you must have downs. If you did not, how would you even recognize the ups? It’s all physics. There’s change ahead? Sure. But there’s always change. That’s just how we humans roll.

If there’s a juicy center to current financial woes its that the book industry is less likely to be as shaken as some others. And, sure: some layoffs have been announced and some houses have cut back. But industry insiders have said that the layoffs were due and the cutbacks warranted and some corners of the industry are already reporting reasons to smile. I predict this will continue. In times shaped by political turmoil and financial calamity, the book takes an even more important place than usual. You can no longer afford that Lexus you’d promised yourself? Console yourself with a new book. Took a hit in the job market? Help yourself out: buy a book. Legal advice too expensive? Do part of it yourself with a book. As a treat and as a lifeline, if you’re not already turning to books for answers and succor, my crystal ball is telling me that, chances are you will.

In a recent Wall Street Journal column, Peggy Noonan forecast a new dawn for the book in the quieter America she sees heading her way:
I suspect reading is about to make a big comeback in America, that in fact we're going to be reading more books in the future, not fewer. It is a relatively inexpensive (libraries, Kindle, Amazon), peaceful and enriching activity. And we’re about to enter an age of greater quiet. More people will be home, not traveling as much to business meetings or rushing out to the new jobsite. A lot of adults are going to be more in search of guidance and inspiration. The past quarter century we’ve had other diversions, often expensive ones -- movies, DVDs, Xboxes. Books will fit the quieter future.
Even while some stores have reported lower sales, many library systems are enjoying record use. Translation: we may not have as much money as we did in recent years, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to read.

The year we’re just passing out of was an important one for the electronic book. Finally, after a couple of decades of hollering about it, the e-book got the bit in its teeth. This was partly due Amazon’s debut of their very accessible Kindle e-book reader and partly due Oprah’s (good old Oprah!) endorsement of same. It may even have been due in part to the stinky economy. After all, though the initial investment for a reader is relatively hefty, the cost of a book manufactured and shipped in the ether can be comparatively slim. And it should be, too. Let’s face it: in a world increasingly concerned with renewable resources, devices like the Kindle deliver books right into your hand without killing a single tree. Something to think about.

In terms of the books themselves, 2008 was a fabulous year. Times may be lean, but some of our very favorite books were thick and lush and rich in spirit if not in fact. And if there were less books published than usual, we certainly did not notice it. As always, the January Magazine stacks were also thick and lush and it was apparent that many worthy books were published in 2008.

As usual, our best of the year feature reflects the books our contributors and editors liked best in 2008. We review from almost all branches of the book industry and, as a result, our choices run the gamut.

The January Magazine Best Books of the Year list is not a popularity contest. Our choices reflect what our writers and editors liked best of the books they read and enjoyed throughout the year. They don’t need to qualify their choices or explain them to anyone. There is no board or panel. No quotas from certain publishers, no authors that must be included. These are, quite simply, the books that our well read eyes and hearts liked best, listed in alphabetical order within the loose category in which they fall.

You can find various segments of January Magazine’s Best Books of the Year 2008 feature here. Best Children’s Books, best Cookbooks, best Art & Culture, best Non-Fiction and best Fiction. Best Crime Fiction appears in two segments: Part I is titles from A-G and Part II is titles from H-Z.


Best Books of 2008: Fiction

Anathem by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow) 960 pages
Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is a weighty tome which completes, in part, his spelunking through the underpinnings of the current century. The avout live in a Concent regulated by time. It becomes necessary for one of them, Erasmus, to venture into the world where he discovers that some of the core beliefs are based on untruths and comes into contact with aliens who ask the same questions that he does. It concludes the philosophical explorations of the Baroque Cycle, but begins more questions than it has answers. Set in the far future on a world which is earth-like, this is Stepehnson’s most deeply envisioned landscape in terms of characters, land and language and manages to read differently each time. Weighty but worth the effort. -- Iain Emsley

Arkansas by John Brandon (McSweeney’s) 224 pages
Drug-running gangsters are at the heart of Arkansas, John Brandon’s debut novel from McSweeney’s Books; however, as the title reminds us, the shady business is carried out not in Harlem, Miami or Vegas but the rural Southeast. This allows Brandon to indulge in the kind of quirky writing that distinguishes Southern grit-lit and, true to its McSweeney’s roots, this neo-noir novel is cynical and hip. Kyle Ribb and Swin Ruiz are petty criminals who, for lack of anything better to do, start working for a black-marketeer named Frog in the land of trailer parks and deep-fried breakfasts. The two run packets from an Arkansas state park where they have phony cover jobs as assistant park rangers. Brandon keeps the pace brisk and tense. The violence, when it comes, surfaces quickly, snaps at us in the space of a paragraph, then recedes just as fast. -- David Abrams

Beside a Burning Sea by John Shors (New American Library) 448 pages
Over two weekends at the pool last June, I lost myself in the wondrous Beside a Burning Sea, by John Shors. Set during World War II, just after a medical ship is torpedoed, nine survivors make their way to a nearby island. Sure, the set-up sounds a bit like the TV series Lost -- but Shors takes this almost conventional conceit to rare heights, casting his novel with castaways who a perfectly opposed to one another. The nurse sisters, the Japanese POW, the heroic doctor, the mysterious loner, the innocent girl. Each has a deep inner life the island sets afire -- again, very Lost-like. The love story that blossoms against very bitter prejudice propels the tale, allowing the characters to define themselves according to their loyalty (or lack thereof) to the POW. The question isn’t whether these people will ever get rescued; truth is you don’t want them to because this is such rich territory for fiction. The ticking bomb is that Japanese forces are combing the area for places to settle troops. So are they coming here ... or aren’t they? If they do come, will they free the POW and capture the others? Dramatic stuff, but what makes this novel sing isn’t the threat that these people will survive the Japanese, but whether they’ll survive each other. With love scenes, gripping action and miraculously telling character details it all blends brilliantly to create a novel that’s easy to admire and impossible to dismiss. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey (Harper) 502 pages
I came to Bright Shiny Morning fully prepared to loathe it. How could it be otherwise? Frey had gotten his shot with a couple of well-published and well-promoted biographies. He’d gotten his shot and blown it in a grand and noisy style. Shouldn’t Frey, in the tradition of historical wannabes everywhere, just go off with his tail between his legs and leave us alone on our various paths to finding books that matter? But he did not. Instead, he took himself quietly off and emerged with a stout and ambitious book. Inevitably, fire was drawn. Like many others, and with an admittedly jaundiced eye, I started to read. And was astonished. Bright Shiny Morning is not perfect. There are weirdly wide flaws. But it is utterly, completely original. More: the book’s flakey, broken narrative and bumper-to-bumper pace captures the feeling that is Los Angeles while its sharp little vignettes grab some of the context. -- Linda L. Richards

Death: A Life by George Pendle (Three Rivers Press) 250 pages
“My earliest memory is of my mother. She was a heavyset lady, the size of a small mountain. Everyone knew her as Sin.” So begins Death: A Life, a clever, thoughtful and surprisingly funny quasi-autobiography of the grim reaper. “My father was Satan. He was Mother’s father, too, which led to some awkward introductions at parties.” These snippets from the very first chapter (“The Beginning of the End”) capture the spirit of Death: A Life quite perfectly. It is, of course, a novel -- it’s all made up -- even though it’s delivered just like a biography. Death is even given a bio on the back cover (though, alas, no author photo). Death is darkly funny, surprisingly moving, deeply charming. It’s an enjoyable -- albeit unlikely -- read. But don’t expect a sequel. As good as it is, once is probably enough. -- David Middleton

Duma Key by Stephen King (Scribner) 592 pages
In recent years, Stephen King has begun to be accorded the respect he deserves. For example, in 2003, he was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Even so, one can still draw concerned scowls when one mentions his name among certain factions of the literati. I’ve never really understood this. Many of the books King writes have frightening elements, but I’ve never been tempted to dismiss him as a horror writer. King is a fabulous stylist and a wonderful storyteller. He wields a mean metaphor and he always finds the right word. And if I have to get frightened in order to read him, so be it. Through the years I’ve often said that I would read King no matter what he chose to write about. One gets the feeling that, if Stephen King decided to write about light bulbs, the journey would be satisfying: he’s just that good. And he is once again that good in 2008’s Duma Key. There are shards of King’s own 1999 accident in Duma Key, where we meet Edgar Freemantle, the owner of a successful construction company who meets with a life-altering accident on a job site. When, while he is recovering, Edgar’s marriage collapses, he rents a house in the Florida Keys where he intends to learn to deal with his injuries and teach himself to paint. Longtime fans might be reminded of King’s earlier vacation-gone-bad book, The Shining, but Duma Key is a much better book. The author has more miles on him: he understands human nature better these days and he understands his talent. It’s tough to say this is King’s best book ever -- there are so many good ones, after all. But Duma Key is quite, quite wonderful. A masterwork from a journeyman at the very top of his game. Bravo! -- Linda L. Richards

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie (Random House) 368 pages
Niccolo Vespucci, aka Mogor dell’Amore and sundry other aliases, arrives at the court of Akbar the Great, “the Great Great One,” descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane and emperor of the Mughal empire that encompasses vast swathes of 15th-century India. Vespucci, a Florentine, has a story to tell that only the emperor can hear, as it concerns the fate of his relative, the Princess Angelica of legendary beauty, and the adventures that befell her when she abandoned the subcontinent for the western world of the Near East and Europe, all for the love of the indomitable warrior Argalia. If that sounds like something from The Arabian Nights, then that’s the intention -- Rushdie’s latest novel is a multifaceted fairy tale that embraces mythology and history, legend and fact, fictional characters and historical figures, magic, illusion and self-delusion. The novel fully deserves the accolade of tapestry, so finely woven and dazzling are its constituent parts. The prose, of course, is beautifully detailed, but Rushdie leavens the erudition with coarse dialogue that is at times hilariously profane and blasphemous. Above all, what leaps off the page is Rushdie’s sheer enjoyment of storytelling just for the hell of it. This is an exercise in imagination, an artful and irrepressibly playful cornucopia of tales, myths, digressions and narrative non sequiturs. Even the peripheries of the story teem with vibrant, larger-than-life characters straight from myth. It’s a sumptuous read, fabulous in both senses of the word. The deceptively simple art of storytelling may have fallen out of favor among self-consciously literary writers, but Rushdie is determined that we should not forget its pure joys entirely. -- Declan Burke

Exit Lines
by Joan Barfoot (Knopf Canada) 336 pages
Dark and funny and dangerously nuanced, in Exit Lines Joan Barfoot manages another notch on an already impressive double bandolier of high impact Canadian novels. Four new guests at a retirement home form a pact of “pleasurable rebellion.” The concept is funny and, on the surface of things, the approach is lighthearted. However, Barfoot deals here with topics most of us would much rather skate past: mortality, morality and a diminished twilight as a footnote to a vibrantly lived life. As in her previous novel, the Giller-finalist Luck, Barfoot captures humanity in a way that both resonates and makes one wonder at a world slightly askew. Barfoot’s vision is always worth watching, and there’s no exception to that rule in Exit Lines.
-- Monica Stark

The Girl on the Fridge by Etgar Keret (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 196 pages

The successful short-short story, also called “flash fiction,” operates like an elite military commando team: get in, get out, take no prisoners. Writers have a particular challenge when trying to create believable plot and characters in stories which typically range from just a few sentences to a few pages. How do you reduce a universe of meaning to something the size of a breadbox? Etgar Keret makes it look so easy. In his previous collection, The Nimrod Flipout, and now with The Girl on the Fridge, the Israeli writer hits us with one flash-bang surprise after another. These perfect little gems range far and wide across the human experience. While some are strange and off-kilter, Keret never leaves us scratching our heads in bewilderment. The short-shorts take us to places we recognize, but then detour our assumptions in the space of a single word. -- David Abrams

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane (Morrow) 720 pages
While a case could be made that Lehane’s fat new novel belongs in the crime fiction and mystery section of bookstores (the main characters are cops and the story could not exist as it does without the crimes involved), it probably doesn’t. The author has done a great deal to burnish the reputation of the detective story; his five Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro private-eye novels (including 1999’s Prayers for Rain) have been celebrated widely. But he’s been moving farther away from the genre ever since Mystic River was published in 2001, and followed by Shutter Island in 2003. The Given Day is a large-canvas historical yarn about Boston and Boston cops, which may remind some readers of Robert B. Parker’s underappreciated 1994 novel, All Our Yesterdays. While Parker’s compass pointed him in the direction of early 20th-century violence and cynicism, Lehane steers a more twisted and intriguing course through a post-World War I America that’s preoccupied with racism, sports and fear of communist incursions, beset by disease and divided by class. In these pages, he tells parallel stories about Luther Laurence, a young black man -- smarter than most people think -- who falls in with the wrong crowd in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and flees both murder charges and a pregnant wife, landing in Boston and the employ of the Coughlin family. The Coughlins aren’t long off the boat from Ireland, but they’ve established themselves within the local police ranks. In addition to Laurence, Lehane focuses here on Danny Coughlin, a rather idealistic but far from naïve young cop, the rising son of an influential police captain, who supplies a window through which we witness the misnamed “Spanish flu pandemic” of 1918 to 1919; the Woodrow Wilson-era campaign against radicals; and the notorious 1919 Boston Police Strike. Lehane even manages to mix into his story the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919, though I understand he eventually edited out much of that subplot. There’s so much story in The Given Day, that the reader may have trouble keeping a handle on it all. But Lehane does an exceptional job of moving his plot along, whether with the romance between Danny Coughlin and a young Irish woman holding too many secrets; or the low-boil confrontation between Laurence and powerful, conniving cop Eddie McKenna; or the rivalry between Boston’s mayor and Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge, who would eventually ride his much-inflated role in ending the police strike directly to the White House. And the author’s portrayal of baseball star Babe Ruth, who winds through this yarn like a lazy river, popping up periodically for comic relief or to assist in illuminating the era’s culture, is marvelous. If Lehane ever gets around to writing a Given Day sequel (he is reportedly writing another Kenzie and Gennaro novel first), I hope he’ll find a place in it for the Babe. He’s a character who often seems as if he could only exist in fiction. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine (Alfred A. Knopf) 528 pages

In 2001, Rabih Alameddine’s novel I, the Divine was published. I still haven’t read it, but I love the idea: the novel is a series of first chapters about the life of a woman. Like the opening minutes of Woody Allen’s film Manhattan, she keeps revising the way she tells the story, yet each way reveals something more about her. The Hakawati, Alameddine’s new novel, is equally fascinating: it’s a long tale about a teller of tales, a hakawati. At its core, this is the story of three generations, a son, his father and his grandfather -- and the familial conflicts that define their lives. Osama al-Kharrat and other family members gather as Osama’s father is dying. Written in a sort of magical realistic style, Alameddine layers the history of this contemporary family with the history of Lebanon -- including generous helpings of regional folklore -- and the result is a stunning, unforgettable tour de force. Ultimately, Alameddine creates a delicious soup that almost overwhelms you. But in a good way. Self-deprecatingly, Alameddine calls this book a “story,” but he might just as well have called it a “tale.” As for me, I call it a big, sprawling epic that begs to be savored slowly and considered deeply. No matter what anyone calls it, it’ll leave you tingling. -- Tony Buchsbaum

In the Light of You by Nathan Singer (Bleak House Books) 238 pages
I used to think that the 1998 film American History X was hardcore, that it pushed the envelope and was a really brave story about what hatred can do to you. But then I read Nathan Singer’s masterpiece. Now American History X seems like a Disney flick. In the Light of You takes place during the mid-1990s, around the time of Los Angeles’ Rodney King riots, the Rampart police scandals, and O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. It features Mikal Fanon, a 17-year-old kid in a nameless Ohio city. He has no identity and a very scary home life, with distant and abusive parents. He craves an identity, the comfort of people like him. Now, most teenagers put on different identities like a snake sheds skin; but Mikal makes the very unfortunate decision to be friendly with the local skinhead, a charismatic young man named Richard Lovecraft. Lovecraft is the leader of an up-and-coming skinhead gang called the Fifth Reich, and author Singer doesn’t shy away from exploring that subculture. Now, I have to go back to American History X, because that’s what this story will most likely be compared to, once it gets the attention it deserves. In that movie, we’re shown what today’s skinheads look like, but we never live with them, never feel their filth or understand why young people enlist in their ranks. Singer uses first-person narration in In the Light of You, so we’re with Mikal every step of the way. The biggest myth is that the leaders of modern neo-Nazi organizations are stupid. Wrong and ignorant and very often evil, yes, but they’re not stupid. To build their numbers, they have to be smart and charismatic. They have to sell their dream of racial pride and segregation. Lovecraft repeats often that he doesn’t want black people killed, just separated from the whites. In one very interesting scene, he calls a black preacher an intelligent man, because he preaches about living away from white society. He is a good salesman, and Mikal buys in slowly but surely. Lovecraft finds out at one point that the kid is interested in the environment, so he concocts a story about how Adolf Hitler was very concerned with preserving nature and Earth’s health. In another scene, so intimate that it approaches the erotic, Lovecraft shaves Mikal’s head and gives him his uniform, promising that he’ll be tattooed to signify that he belongs to his new “family.” This is very much a coming-of-age story. Mikal is like every other sarcastic American teenager out there, angry and confused, but also humorous on occasion. You have to ask yourself, how could such a funny kid take part in so many ugly things, just because his leader says it’s the right thing to do? This should be required reading for teenagers, but only if they can talk with their parents about what happens in it. It’d be educational for both sides. -- Cameron Hughes

The Joker by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo (DC Comics) 128 pages
It’s a myth that murderous psychopaths are actually diabolical geniuses like Hannibal Lecter. They’re really more like Ted Bundy or the BTK killer, smart enough to blend and charming enough that you’d expect nothing. But in a comic-book world, it is perfectly acceptable that the Joker could talk his way out of the Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane by convincing the doctors he was cured. It’s a neat idea and while I’m pretty sure it’s been done before, it’s never been done this well. The Joker is a hard villain to write. Use him too often, and he loses menace (much like Lecter, who isn’t nearly as scary, now that we know more about his origins); write a bad story about him, and you wonder why he’s held up as the ultimate Batman villain over the last 68 years. Brian Azzarello, creator of the brilliant neo-noir conspiracy comic 100 Bullets, likely knew these facts about the Joker as well, and set out to make him a scary character again. I knew it was going to be a different kind of story right from the start, because it begins not with the Joker, but with a low-level mobster sent to pick him up, who also serves as our narrator and guide through the Joker’s triumphant return to Gotham City. The Joker’s plan is very simple: he will gather allies and promise them big things if they help him become the king of criminals again. Our narrator, Jonny Frost, is seduced by this idea. He’s on the fast track to nowhere with his current crew, and Joker promises him big things. This could very easily be a sequel to the film The Dark Knight. Azzarello’s Joker is clearly the same character, complete with mouth scars and pancake make-up and old, ratty, but weirdly formal clothing. What we’re offered here isn’t “I have an insane plan” Joker; this is a grounded Joker with very clear goals. Writer Azzarello is smart with his pacing; you expect the Joker to snap and do something evil, but instead, his actions grow progressively worse and worse. In a stroke of genius, Azzarello has him snap at about the same time as Batman shows up. And at the same time Jonny realizes just how sick his new boss is, we’re sucker-punched by what the Joker does. I’d be a fool not to praise Bermejo’s illustrative work on The Joker as well. It’s dark and moody with enough flair that it achieves a sort of hyper-reality; his designs for characters such as Killer Croc and the Riddler are the traditional looks of the characters, while still real enough that you almost think they could be real. I now know why Johnny Depp is considered the perfect choice for the Riddler -- it’s such an obvious spin, that I can’t believe I ever doubted the idea of that casting for the villain. Who knew that the Joker could star in his own story, let alone be really great? I certainly didn’t. Bravo. -- Cameron Hughes

The Little Book by Selden Edwards (Dutton) 416 pages
I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked up Selden Edwards’ The Little Book. All I knew were two things: that I liked the soiled-old-photograph-like cover (designed by Ben Gibson), and that the author had spent 33 years on his manuscript, beginning when he was still a young English teacher in 1974. Such labors of love either turn out to be masterpieces of development or messes of over-thinking. Fortunately, The Little Book is one of the former. It’s part of a subgenre of unlikely time-travel tales, like Darryl Brock’s If I Never Get Back (1990) or Allen Appel’s Time After Time (1985), in which the “how” of transportation through the years is pretty much ignored in favor of appreciating the consequences of the journey. In Edwards’ story, teenage baseball star-turned-California rock musician Stan “Wheeler” Burden, attacked by an unknown assailant in 1988 San Francisco, tumbles backward to 1897 Vienna. There, he must adapt as best he can, striking up the most unlikely association with Sigmund Freud, encountering Mayor Karl Lueger (who advocated racist policies and would be an inspiration to Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitism) and meeting not only his own father -- another victim of this time dislocation -- but his grandparents as well, who did happen to be in the Austrian capital all those years ago. In addition to discovering more about his father’s life and that of a former mentor, Burden helps fill out a vivid picture of Vienna before World War I, when it was still considered the intellectual capital of Europe. He must also contend with one moralistic dilemma after another, as he falls in love with a woman from his future and considers the opportunity of killing Hitler while he’s still a boy. Author Edwards obviously had fun in contriving the lengthy arc of circumstances that will lead to Burden’s attack in 1988, but he shows even more delight in re-creating a long-ago and ostensibly promising era. If it took him 33 years to write The Little Book, I fear we won’t see another work of fiction from this author. Thank goodness his first novel is so memorable. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Man in the Dark by Paul Auster (Henry Holt) 192 pages
Paul Auster writes so quickly, seeming to release a novel a year, that you’d be tempted to think the man just can’t have any more ideas. But rather than a fiction factory primed to pump out surface ideas for our momentary enjoyment, Auster instead reaches deep into the human psyche every time, finding new ways to express the humanity we share and lacing his novels with ideas we wrestle with long after the last page is turned. Man in the Dark is a stunning meditation on loneliness. A man lies in the dark, assessing his life, and imagines the life of another man caught in what seems to be a time warp, dropped into a spot where he recognizes little except the shell of the life he used to have, What’s more, he’s on a mission he doesn’t fully understand -- but we understand that he’s been tasked with the murder of the man in the dark. This all-too-brief cat-chasing-its-own-tail novel is startling in its simplicity and remarkable in its depth of character and action. It’s further evidence that Paul Auster isn’t just one of our most effective novelists, but also one of our most insightful thinkers. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (Random House) 288 pages
Olive Kitteridge is the kind of woman you would duck across the street to avoid meeting. She’s abrasive as sandpaper rubbed across a scab and unapologetically rude. In the hands of Elizabeth Strout, however, the retired Maine schoolteacher is one of the year’s best tour guides to the human heart. The novel is a series of linked short stories, any one of which can be plucked at random and enjoyed in their own right. Just as she did in her previous two novels, Amy and Isabelle and Abide With Me, Strout distills universal human behavior down to the miniature scale of one particular town and its residents. -- David Abrams

On Account of Conspicuous Women by Dawn Shamp (St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne) 320 pages
Dawn Shamp’s debut effort takes place in Roxboro, North Carolina mostly in the early 1920s. It focuses on the lives of four young conspicuous women who are moving from girl to womanhood at a time of great change. And so we see the first time American women may vote, we see racial strife and inequity as well as the introduction or increasing acceptance of inventions that will change the world -- telephones, motion pictures, automobiles -- all from the safe vantage of the eyes of these four young women who really have much more important things on their minds. On Account of Conspicuous Women is the exact opposite of an epic novel. It is quiet, unassuming, even gentle yet ever so worthwhile. In one way, it is more like a tool for time travel than almost any book I’ve ever read, offering up a simple -- and, yes, sweet -- peek into the lives of four conspicuous women in a very different time. -- Linda L. Richards

One More Year by Sara Krasikov (Spiegel & Grau) 229 pages
In a blurb for Sara Krasikov’s debut collection, novelist Yiyun Li said that Krasikov “treats every story as a novel,” which somehow sums up the collected work here ever so well. It is the rare writer who brings this kind of weight and importance to every short story character, yet I find myself, months after reading the book, casting my mind back again and again to Krasikov’s varied cast of the disenchanted and displaced. Like many of the major characters in One More Year, Krasikov was born in the former Soviet Republic. The current NYC resident is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she has received the O. Henry Award and is a Fulbright scholar. If this is the first you’ve heard of Krasikov, I hazard that it will not be the last. -- Monica Stark

The Resurrectionist by Jack O’Connell (Algonquin) 320 pages
As The Resurrectionist opens, a pharmacist named Sweeny has just had his young son, Danny, transferred to the Peck Clinic, a place where they specialize in comatose patients. It does not take us long to realize that, though the Peck Clinic has a good record for awakening patients in comas, there is a lot swirling just below the surface: just slightly out of our grasp. There is more to Sweeny, too, than meets the eye. The Resurrectionist begins on a sharp and steady noir/crime fiction beat, and becomes ever more surreal until, by journey’s end, it’s difficult to keep track of what’s real and what is not. O’Connell’s work has been compared to that of Kafka, William Gibson and Wambaugh. While he does not suffer under such comparison, it isn’t entirely fair. While, for me, there were moments when The Resurrectionist bent under its own weight, this was a journey I enjoyed from end to end. More: while I read, there was no voice to whom I felt O’Connell’s must be compared. This is great stuff: and unlike anything you’ve probably ever read before. Highly, highly recommended. -- Lincoln Cho

Shadowbridge by Gregory Frost (Del Rey) 272 pages
Frost writes beautifully. Lyrically. He writes as though he’s going to a place there is no coming back from. It seems to me to be the only place from which fantasy should be approached. On his Web site, Frost describes the fictional place we encounter in Shadowbridge as “a world of linked spiraling spans of bridges on which all impossibilities can happen. Ghosts parade, inscrutable gods cast riddles, and dangerous magic is unleashed.” And… “Monstrous creatures drain the lives of children and for a price, you can sample their fleeting quintessence -- provided the creatures don’t sample you instead.” And, truly, aside from the whole fleeting quintessence thing, that works for me, as well. Frost, who is also the author of the virtuous and awarded collection Attack of the Jazz Giants, has been a finalist for pretty much every award offered in his field of interest. In Shadowbridge, he proves himself to be a powerful writer here at the top of his game. If you love the sort of vibrant fantasy that relies as much on the skill of its creator as the complexity of his imagination, you will love Shadowbridge. -- Lincoln Cho

Songs for the Missing by Stewart O'Nan (Viking) 320 pages
A teenage girl goes missing. Search parties are formed. Pale-faced parents speak to television cameras in quavering voices. Rewards are offered, flyers are taped to store windows, hopes rise and fall. By now, we’re sadly all too familiar with the unique cadence of events that follow an abduction. Most of us can pinpoint the exact moment when our optimistic faith turns to grim certainty the victim is not only missing, but murdered. In one of the best novels of his varied career, Stewart O’Nan charts the case of one family whose college-bound daughter vanishes into thin air while driving to work in a small Ohio town. With an almost forensic efficiency, O’Nan examines the effect of the mystery on the family, friends and the entire town. What happened to 18-year-old Kim Larsen is less important than how her parents and sister deal with the emotional aftershocks. -- David Abrams

The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt (Henry Holt) 320 pages

Hustvedt’s exquisite, elegiac novel layers past and present, creating a complex story of loneliness and loss. Narrated by Erik Davidsen, a psychiatrist, The Sorrows of An American is a novel of secrets and ghosts: father Lars Davidsen’s ghosts, which follow him back to Minnesota after World War II, Erik, divorced, lonely, plagued by a patient’s suicide, his sister, the widowed Inga, who learns her husband, famous writer Max Blaustein, led a secret life during their tumultuous marriage. Even Sonia, Inga’s 18-year-old daughter, carries painful burdens, including what she saw from her schoolroom window on September 11, 2001. September 11th is one of many psychological traumas folded into the novel. Lars is haunted by the killing of a Japanese soldier who assumed a position of prayer rather than aggression; Erik treats several patients suffering the aftereffects of parental abuse. Inga is triply traumatized by Max’s death, September 11th, and the intrusive, threatening Linda Fehlburger, a reporter claiming to know secrets about Max. Continual subtle references remind us that those fighting Iraq war are enduring the same suffering. Hustvedt’s ability to incorporate so much material so seamlessly makes reading Sorrows like drinking a wonderful old burgundy: rich, complex, lush, smooth (I will refrain from comparisons to oak, honey, or long finishes). Memory, love, loneliness, death, dreams, ghosts, fame -- all are here in a beautiful story that deserves more attention. -- Diane Leach

The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan (Random House Canada) 640 pages
Padma Viswasathan’s debut novel pads in on little cat feet and rips you along. You don’t realize you’re on an epic journey in the midst of a generational saga until you’re well along and it’s far, far too late to turn back. Not that you’d want to. Not that you even could. Inspired by the author’s own family history, we join Sivakami in a village in India in 1892, the year of her marriage to the healer, Hanumarathnam. She is ten. What astonishes here is Viswasathan’s virtuosity. In The Toss of A Lemon, we join India at a time of great social and political upheaval. Nevertheless, we experience this only at a distance. The way, in fact, Sivakami might experience it. Our concerns are more immediate, more domestic, though never more mundane. The marriage of a daughter, a granddaughter. The obedience of a son-in-law. The disturbingly progressive thoughts of a son. These concern Sivakami exclusively and, with her as our proxy, they are all that concern us, as well. -- Linda L. Richards

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf) 331 pages

Lahiri’s Bengali heritage informs this magnificent novel of linked stories, communicating worlds through the smallest of details. Saris fight slacks, a mother’s accumulated gold, intended for a future daughter-in-law, is lost to that most American of addictions, alcoholism. Food is a lush battleground of dals, rice, chocoris, bitter melon and Darjeeling tea. The drinking of tea or coffee represents more than taste; one is tradition; the other, cultural abandonment. Alcohol is tantamount to the worst kinds of assimilation, representative in all cases of disaster. But Lahiri’s God always reside in the details, transcending the particulars of immigrant experience to the universal. Ruma, of is adrift. She has married an American and is forgetting her Bengali. Her son speaks only English, eating with utensils rather than fingers. When her widowed father pays a visit, father and daughter, absent Ruma’s deceased mother, can communicate only in generalities. Sudha moves to London, where she meets Roger. The couple fall in love and get engaged. When Sudha returns home to inform her parents her news is overshadowed by Rahul, languishing at home. He vanishes soon afterward, his mother’s jewelry in his pockets. Sudha marries Roger and bears a son; the couple acquires a home. Rahul appears for a visit moving from auspicious to disastrous, as only visits from addicts can. Lahiri nails the hope, despair, and confusion of all families coping with the alcoholism’s immense destruction. The second half of Earth, “Hema and Kaushik,” is comprised of three linked stories, Hema narrating the first, speaking to Kaushik, the second by Kaushik, responding to Hema, “Going Ashore” bringing them together. The children of Bengali immigrants, Hema and Kaushik have known each other since childhood. Each has experienced the wrenching divisions of Bengali and American cultures. When Kaushik’s family returns to American from India, Hema’s parents welcome them for an extended stay, only to be shocked by their old friends, who wear American clothing and keep an open bottle of scotch nearby at all times. The ending is inexorable, dreadful, and made me weep. -- Diane Leach

Under Control by Mark McNay (Doubleday Canada) 310 pages

If you’re looking for a read that’s light and sunny to pull you through the winter doldrums, just keep skating on through: you’re not gonna find it here. Mark McNay’s second novel (after 2007’s Fresh) is muscular, hard and oh so bleak. Think Trainspotting meets Requiem for a Dream, then plop it onto the grimy streets of Norwich, England and you’ve got the basic idea. Especially if you can spin in some mental illness, drugs (of course, if you got the comparables) and dialog so sharp, watch out for papercuts. Under Control will not be everyone’s cup of English Breakfast, those that like this sort of thing, will like it a lot. -- David Middleton

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Best Books of 2008: Crime Fiction, Part II

Hit and Run by Lawrence Block (Morrow) 304 pages
Over the years, I’ve made no secret of the fact that Lawrence Block is my favorite writer. I’m deeply in love with his Matt Scudder novels, so smart and sad and rich with character and grit. I discovered Eight Million Ways to Die when I was 19 and it made me love the genre and take it very seriously. Block was my gateway drug to George Pelecanos, Richard Price and so many other great novelists. Creative bastard that he is, Block has also reinvented the hit man novel. Although I love Barry Eisler’s John Rain series about an assassin searching for his soul, afraid that he might not even have one, Block’s John Keller is even more realistic -- and far scarier because of it. I keep going back to actor John Cusack’s line in Grosse Point Blank, when he says to a victim: “It’s not personal! Why does everyone always ask that?” That’s Keller in a nutshell. He’s a regular guy. He watches baseball and collects stamps. He’s the quiet neighbor everyone likes because he never bothers them. Killing just happens to be his job. And unlike most fictional hit men, Keller will kill a simple housewife just as easily as he would a mobster. He’s good at it too. Pure pro, all the way. He’ll get a call from his agent, Dot, catch a plane to wherever the hit is supposed to happen, stay in a cheap motel fighting boredom, and then after he’s finished, he will go back home to his simple life until the next call comes. In Hit and Run, though, he’s gotten it into his head to retire. Not because he’s growing a conscience about killing all those people, but because he’s getting old and he thinks this one last hit will set him up financially for the rest of his days. Of course his last hit goes wrong. While watching television in his room, he sees a special report about the governor of Ohio, a rising star, being assassinated in the same city where he’s gone to make his hit. Then bad turns to worse, when a picture of the suspected assassin is shown on the news -- and it’s a picture of Keller. Out of money, having spent most of its on expensive stamps, Keller sets off on the run with very few resources. But you don’t want to attack a savage beast without knowing what you’re going up against, do you? It’s not long before Keller stops running defensive drills and goes on the offense, trying to figure out who set him up for the crime, and why. Block’s third-person narration immerses you in his story, but with a curious detachment, the same sort of detachment Keller must feel while assassinating his targets. It’s a subtle technique, but once you get it, the story becomes horrific. You suddenly find yourself cheering on a really bad guy who should probably be put down like a mad dog or else imprisoned for life. This is why I idolize Block’s writing. What Keller does feel is often loneliness, where what he craves most is to be able to talk with someone and be completely honest. Who doesn’t want that? -- Cameron Hughes

The King of Swords by Nick Stone (Harper) 576 pages
This prequel to Nick Stone’s astonishing and award-winning first novel, Mr. Clarinet (2006), finds Miami cops Max Mingus and Joe Liston investigating the escape of some monkeys from a primate park. But that’s small potatoes compared with the larger, deeper and more disturbing focus of this book, which comes into relief as these cops are embroiled in a brutal series of murders. All the cards seem to lead them back to a man in the darkness, the epitome of evil, his name heard only in whispers -- Solomon Boukman. The only solution is for Mingus and Liston to navigate the Miami underworld looking for a fortune teller as well as a slimy pimp, who together may hold the key. But confronted with corrupt cops and black magic, Mingus and Liston realize that Boukman is far worse than the rumors that circle his existence. A book not to be missed. -- Ali Karim

The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics edited by Paul Gravett (Running Press/Robinson) 480 pages
Hmm. Crime comics. I love ’em. But there’s never really been a decent, affordable collection. Oh, there have been reference books about them, full of teasing references and tantalizing glimpses of a panel or two, but a true selection, that will give you a real taste? Nope. Until now. The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics, edited by Paul Gravett, is by far the richest reading experience I’ve had all year -- grim, vital, thrilling and alive. Within its almost 500 pages, there’s a veritable who’s who of some of the most regarded and respected comic-book writers and artists ever assembled, from all over the world, from past to present, all in glorious, no-holds-barred black and white. And there’s not a dog in the bunch. There are excerpts from comic strips, comic books and even a healthy smattering of bandes dessinées from Europe, where comics are taken a lot more seriously than they are in spandex-obsessed North America. Alan Moore’s “Old Gangsters Never Die” is a surreal bit of business, but an appropriate kick-off to an amazing lineup of well-known classics and bold new discoveries. Will Eisner’s The Spirit gets his heart broken; El Borbah, the Mexican professional wrestler and private eye, breaks into a sperm bank; and Max Allan Collins’ very pregnant Ms. Tree’s water breaks. There’s a “true crime” story here from the legendary team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby; Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond are represented by an arc from their Secret Agent X-9 newspaper strip, and France’s Jacques Tardi (who, alas, doesn’t contribute one of his masterful Nestor Burma adaptations) illustrates a sobering tale of post-Vietnam New York. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer shows up twice in this collection, once in a 1942 story that actually predates I, the Jury, where he’s known as Mike Lancer, and once under his own name in a string of little-seen 1954 strips. There’s a story from the extremely rare 1962 87th Precinct comic book (a tie-in to a TV show already cancelled), and Argentinean refugees Carlos Sampayo and José Muñoz’s still-astonishingly bleak Alack Sinner appears in a noirish vignette. And even so, Gravett barely scratches the surface. More, please. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Nothing to Lose by Lee Child (Delacorte Press) 416 pages
Former military cop Jack Reacher is drifting through Colorado, when he stumbles upon two small towns, Despair and Hope, both of which will ultimately live up to their names. He soon finds himself run out of Despair by the local constabulary for vagrancy. As any veteran reader of Lee Child’s phenomenally popular series could predict, Reacher decides to return to the town, sensing that something is not quite right there. After befriending a shapely cop from Hope named Vaughan, he starts an investigation, only to turn up a dead body found on the side of a road separating the two towns. After that corpse vanishes, Reacher realizes there are larger and darker forces at work around him. All of this leads to a bare-knuckles barroom brawl pitting the 6-foot-5 Reacher against Despair’s sheriff and deputies, a sequence that it is as vivid as it is violent. And amid all of this, Reacher discovers that Despair is very much a company town, dominated by one powerful employer, a giant metal-recycling plant from which trucks roll in and out at all hours. He’s also intrigued by a mysterious plane that flies over Despair at night, questions surrounding a covert army base, and Thurman, an evangelical mayor. Thurman is actually kept offstage until the middle of this book, just when Reacher and Vaughan are getting intimate. But action fans need not fear, as plenty of bad guys get their jaws broken in these pages. What’s most interesting about Nothing to Lose may be Reacher’s musings on the madness that lurks at the heart of the road separating his two fictional Colorado towns. Although this book follows Child’s debut novel, Killing Floor (1997), in terms of plotting, the peep we get into Reacher’s understanding of the Iraq war and his distaste of fanatical religion make for compelling reading. This is what I love about the Jack Reacher novels -- the thought-provoking information that peppers the narrative and makes one question apparent reality. -- Ali Karim

Pavel & I by Daniel Vyleta (Bloomsbury) 352 pages
In a year that it seemed impossible to keep up with Cold War novels, Pavel & I stood head and shoulders above the pack. Unfortunately, it’s also quite likely that the book entirely escaped your notice. Although Daniel Vyleta’s debut work possesses strong literary merit, with a twisty plot featuring espionage, marauding gangs of displaced youths and a dead dwarf who keeps cropping up in the most unlikely places, the book would have done much better had it been marketed as a thriller, which it most clearly is. (It certainly kept this reader perched on the edge of her seat.) Set in Berlin immediately following World War II, the period detail here is wonderful, as is Vyleta’s ability to bring it all to life. I shivered under a blanket for most of my reading of the book, which is set entirely in the meanest Berlin winter in memory. -- Linda L. Richards

Paying for It by Tony Black (Preface Publishing/
Random House) 272 pages

A keen journalistic eye is evident in Black’s debut novel, set in the dark heart of Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh. The story features Gus Dury, who like Black is a journalist; but unlike Black, Dury’s career is imploding in the wake of an incident involving a government minister and the hot topic of immigration. Dury, who now lives in a flat above a pub, gets involved in finding out what happened to Billy, the son of his landlord and only friend. The trail leads deep into the malicious business of people-trafficking, where can be found Russian and East European gangsters, cops on the take and innocents trapped in the linkages between those worlds. At first I was a little skeptical about this story, due to its all-too-familiar genre trappings, such as Dury’s failed marriage, his love for the bottle and criminal gangs from the east. However, within a few pages, I was captivated by Black’s command of the English language, his sense of pace and the narrative marbled with humor pulled right off the gallows. Black’s debut is a superb effort -- and a good pick for readers lamenting the passing of Ian Rankin’s sardonic Detective Inspector John Rebus. Dury’s Edinburgh is as interesting, if not more interesting than Rebus’. -- Ali Karim

A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr (Quercus Publishing) 368 pages
Until two years ago, when British writer Philip Kerr brought Bernie Gunther back in The One from the Other, most readers -- myself included -- thought that his World War II-era Berlin cop turned private eye had been left behind in a trilogy of wonderfully atmospheric mysteries: March Violets (1989), The Pale Criminal (1990) and German Requiem (1991). But The One from the Other showed Gunther still endowed with cynicism and ingenuity, and that novel was so fondly received, that Kerr has put his man back on the payroll. In A Quiet Flame, we find Gunther posing as a Nazi war criminal (read the previous book to find out why) and escaping to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1950. Everywhere he goes in South America’s most European city, he seems to come across some former Hitler henchman, now living behind an assumed name and innocent occupation, benefiting from President Juan Perón’s interest in permanently retired Nazis -- and their ill-gotten gains. Gunther might have liked to disappear among the metropolis’ late-night eateries and broad boulevards, too. But instead he’s called on by the local chief of police, who knows something of his sordid background, to help investigate the gruesome slaying of a young girl -- a case that bears similarities to another, unsolved case that Gunther worked on during his days with the Berlin police. The assumption is that an ex-Nazi is behind this homicide, and who could be better prepared to suss out malevolent Nazis than Bernie Gunther? There are lots of flashbacks here, placing a more hopeful Gunther in Berlin in 1932, where he delves into the “lust murder” of Anita Schwarz, a disabled part-time prostitute and the daughter of a prominent “ brown shirt.” Far from distracting, these back-stories give us both more knowledge about Bernie Gunther and a captivating portrait of Berlin during its often wild, Weimar Republic days. In this sometimes chilling yarn, Kerr does an exceedingly good job of bringing to life such characters as Perón and his wife, Eva, as well as Adolf Eichmann and Otto Skorzeny. And he mixes them with fictional figures no less able to win attention, notably Anna Yagubsky, a beautiful young Jewish woman (“Her figure was all right if you liked them built like expensive thoroughbreds. I happened to like them built that way just fine.”), who wants the older Gunther’s help in finding her lost relatives, and in return assists him in the Schwarz probe, no matter the dangers involved -- and the bed sheets they must tangle along the way. Questions about Argentina’s collaboration with the Nazis and its anti-Semitism only add further spice to A Quiet Flame. There are just enough loose ends in the last chapter to suggest that Kerr has a sixth Bernie Gunther book in the works. Thank goodness. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Robbie’s Wife by Russell Hill (Hard Case Crime) 256 pages
Jack Stone, a 60-year-old screenwriter quits Los Angeles after his second failed marriage, matched by a career on the slide. He packs his laptop and his life savings into a duffel bag and heads to Dorset, a sleepy little agricultural backwater in England’s southwest, to compose the killer screenplay he believes will get him back on professional track. His precarious financial situation is the ticking clock that is marbled throughout this narrative. Finding himself a lodger in the Barlow household’s spare room, he struggles to get a handle on his screenplay. But then he meets Maggie, “a tall woman with long auburn hair” and the eponymous Robbie Barlow’s wife. Robbie is a rugged sheep farmer, but with a university education, who befriends Stone, taking him in after his car has been vandalized. Robbie is in his early 40s and handsome, contrasting with the aging Stone, who at three score years considers himself on the losing side of his career as well as his life. Stone soon finds himself falling in love with Maggie, who is more than 20 years his junior, and as he does so, he discovers his lust expressing itself in his writing. As his fevered mind senses the attraction of this comely farmer’s spouse, his screenplay starts to take shape -- a dark shape. Due to this novel’s trajectory, the first three-quarters build up the tension until it becomes unbearable, both from a sexual and character-development perspective. Once all of that build-up is released, and the crime committed, Robbie’s Wife seems to go into a downward spiral, as Stone discovers the high price he must pay for his actions, both morally and criminally. As a cautionary tale, Robbie’s Wife works with a real erotic charge, but it’s the novel’s atmosphere, location and players that elevate it from the pulp tradition it so wants to emulate, and make it a very absorbing and insightful read. You’ll be thinking about this book for a lot longer than it takes to read. -- Ali Karim

Rough Weather by Robert B. Parker (Putnam) 304 pages
Ho-hum. Another year, another Spenser novel. But once more, Parker delivers the goods, and makes it look effortless. Although actually, the first few chapters didn’t bode particularly well. Yet another of Parker’s pastiche/rip-offs of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Gutting of Couffignal”? He’s been there, done that (most notably in 1998’s Jesse Stone novel, Trouble in Paradise), each time with diminishing returns. On this occasion, private eye Spenser is hired by über-rich Heidi Bradshaw to serve as her bodyguard/escort at her daughter’s swank wedding on a private island. And he’s told he can bring his girlfriend, Susan Silverman! Oh, joy! By now, those of you who gave up on this Boston wise-ass years ago will be rolling your eyes, and I’ll admit that the arrival of Spenser’s nemesis as one of the wedding guests, the deadly and apparently superhuman hit man Rugar (never one of my favorite characters), had me wondering myself. Was Parker once again lighting out for the territory of misguided, self-indulgent self-mythology (cf.: A Catskill Eagle, Small Vices)? And yet, somehow, the love affair Parker has with his own character is put aside long enough for him to crank out yet another winner. Once the ball starts rolling, it becomes obvious why Parker’s still a champ after all these years. Simply put, the dude can write. The dialogue snaps, the pace never slackens (the confrontation between Spenser and a gang of kidnappers on the storm-tossed island could double as a how-to on writing action scenes), the characters reveal surprising depths and the stakes are mortal indeed. And once again, Parker’s preoccupation with the bounds of friendship and family, of honor and courage, are challenged. No, there are no great revelations here, but it’s always refreshing to see Spenser root around in the murk of his own moral code. Make no mistake: Spenser is a man of conscience, someone who understands that every action has consequences. But in a genre that too often resorts to glib cynicism of the cheapest and most prurient kind, it’s sorta nice to see someone pandering to the notion of doing the right thing. Call it the audacity of heroism. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Salvation Boulevard by Larry Beinhart (Nation Books) 368 pages
You hardly ever see this in these days of brain-dead, self-perpetuating culture wars: an honest-to-god intelligent mystery written for people whose thirst for ideas extends further than some snake-oil salesman’s spiel or the 24-hour “news” networks. The divisive issues of faith and belief -- and the increasingly cynical exploitation of that chasm by believers and non-believers alike -- is tackled with verve, style and surprising fair-mindedness in Beinhart’s Salvation Boulevard. Born-again gumshoe Carl Van Wagener is a devoted member of a huge fundamentalist church; a clean-living man who’s run a gauntlet of addictions and broken marriages to finally find salvation and redemption through Christ and the love of a good woman. But he’s also a well-respected and much-in-demand professional with a questioning nature. Which means he’s no slack-jawed drooler or squeaky-clean Bible humper -- the way believers are too often depicted in crime fiction -- but an intelligent and caring man whose beliefs are as human as he is. And those bedrock beliefs are challenged when he’s summoned by one of his best clients, Manny Goldfarb, a high-flying Jewish defense attorney and sucker for lost causes and big headlines, to work on the case of Ahmad Nazami, a young Muslim student charged with the murder of Nathaniel MacLeod, a controversial atheist professor. This book should be an unholy mash-up of pretentious polemics and cynical stereotypes, or a mean-spirited snoozefest taking potshots at easy targets. But it’s neither. Rather, it’s that rare crime novel that wears both its heart and its brain on its sleeve and manages to ask hard questions without sacrificing one single thrill. -- Kevin Burton Smith

Severance Package by Duane Swierczynski (St. Martin’s
Minotaur) 288 pages

In Severance Package, the Pole with Soul offers up his latest loose sequel to The Wheelman (2005). PR hack Jamie DeBroux is summoned to work one morning for a “management meeting.” For Jamie, it’s his first day back after the birth of his baby. He kisses his wife good-bye, heads for work, and is promptly informed that the company is a front for a super-secret government organization. The operation is being shut down, and they’ve all been ordered to commit suicide, even Jamie, who thought he was just writing copy for some vague investment firm. The elevators are rigged with nerve gas, and bombs will destroy that floor of the building once it’s all done. Jamie is soon fighting for his life as sweet, corn-fed Molly Lewis proceeds to slaughter everyone. What follows is a combination of The Terminator and Die Hard, except this is written by Duane Swierczynski, whose debut novel, Secret Dead Men, centered on a schizophrenic zombie. So this is really Terminator and Die Hard on acid. As a bonus, the novel shows some influence from Swierczynski’s comic-book work. This book makes the list on its weird factor alone. -- Jim Winter

Sins of the Assassin by Robert Ferrigno (Scribner) 400 pages
You know, once I realized that this was a creative take on Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories by way of Islam, Robert Ferrigno’s satirical thriller really opened up for me. Sins of the Assassin has all the trappings of a Bond yarn. The protagonist, Rakkim Epps, is little more than a highly trained thug for his government, only this time it’s an Islamic government rather than a British one. The novel has two colorful villains, the Colonel and his femme fatale lover, Baby. He’s a warlord in the Bible Belt (the old Southern confederacy), which vies with the Islamic Republic for dominance in what had been the United States, but was conquered dozens of years ago using a brilliantly executed attack involving suitcase nukes. Even more colorful is the rich, radical Islamist known as the Old One, who lives on a large, well-populated yacht that can be hidden with ease, become no one thinks it really exists. This book even has a major doomsday weapon hidden in the mountains that everyone wants. Sound familiar yet? It’s the questions that author Ferrigno asks in Sins that make it an interesting read. Can a theocracy survive without eventually devouring itself as people with different belief levels clash for power? Is it acceptable to be a killer in the name of patriotism? Do we need religion in a world where science is advancing at such a quick rate that many previously unanswerable questions about existence and life are finally being answered? And can somebody still be a good person without the assurance that only such behavior will lead him to Paradise? Sins is pulpish in the best ways, without feeling retro and insulting the reader’s intelligence. It’s the second book of a trilogy (following 2006’s Prayers for the Assassin), but would also work as a standalone novel. Ferrigno’s series plumbs the anxieties kicked up by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, after which many people who’d been politically liberal on 9/10 were scared out of their minds and became right-wing conservatives on 9/12. While Sins of the Assassin shows clear Bond influences, the action is more Jason Bourne caliber. Political intrigue is deep and layered here, and the action is often quick and vicious; it left me breathless, and the book’s climax left me speechless. Rakkim Epps is Daniel Craig’s James Bond -- quiet and tortured, with a soul that he won’t let us see for fear that the revelation would leave him unable to carry out what he views as his patriotic duties. This is a great and unique thriller. You’ll love it. -- Cameron Hughes

Siren of the Waters by Michael Genelin (Soho Crime) 336 pages
Olen Steinhauer has written many fine books about the police in a country very much like Romania. Now comes Genelin, whose protagonist, Jana Matinova, has climbed to the rank of commander in the police force of Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Her rise to her present position has cost her a lot, though, and she’s currently in charge of an investigation into a deadly human-trafficking ring. She’s a tremendously interesting character, totally believable (and with the same aura of sad determination as the hero of Child 44), facing a truly frightening villain named Koba. -- Dick Adler

The Snake Stone by Jason Goodwin (Picador) 320 pages
The sequel to Goodwin’s Edgar Award-winning The Janissary Tree (2006), The Snake Stone is the second of his Istanbul novels to feature Yashim Togalu. Formerly a eunuch at the sultan’s court, Yashim has earned a reputation as a lala, or guardian, a man of discretion to whom people can turn in their time of need. When a French archaeologist throws himself on Yashim’s hospitality, and is then discovered horribly murdered, suspicion falls on Yashim himself -- but things are rarely what they seem in 19th-century Turkey. The plot is as pleasingly labyrinthine as its host city, employing history, archaeology and politics to flesh out a vibrant and meticulously detailed vision of the former Constantinople. Situated at the geographical crossing point between East and West, that city is a cultural melting pot that accommodates a bewildering variety of nationalities alongside its staple populations of Turks and Greeks. Goodwin, a historian, employs a rich and lyrical style perfectly suited to the stately pace, and The Snake Stone (originally released last year, but new in paperback for 2008) is very much a compelling page-turner, a literary thriller. The most gratifying aspect of it all is that the plot is not simply grafted onto a historical setting; the city is as much a character as anyone else in the novel, and the uncovering of its layers is integral to the investigation of the murder at hand. Beautifully written and exquisitely crafted, this is an exotic jewel with a keen respect for the tradition of the genre’s classic private-eye narratives. -- Declan Burke

Special Assignments by Boris Akunin (Random House) 335 pages
Fans of the brilliant Russian author Boris Akunin (a pseudonym) expect the unexpected: each of his books about Erast Petrovich Fandorin, a late-19th-century government detective -- “the governor-general of Moscow’s deputy for special assignments and a citizen of the sixth class, a knight of many Russian and foreign orders” -- is different in tone, style and subject-matter from the others; all are composed with the help of an elaborate (though not obtrusive or even apparent) scheme of subgenre classification and psychological personality types that keeps the writer stimulated and the reader surprised. (For instance, to quote Fandorin’s advice to a subordinate: “From what they knew about [one witness] ... he was a ‘tortoise’: an unsociable, suspicious type turned in on himself ... [W]ith a tortoise you had to avoid being too familiar; you must narrow the distance between you, or he’d immediately withdraw into his shell.”) The single book Special Assignments, containing two Fandorin tales, provides examples of Akunin’s eclecticism. “The Jack of Spades” notes the mischievous doings of a daring confidence-trickster whose swindles are thwarted by a just-as-cunning scheme perpetrated by the resourceful Fandorin; it is a witty duel between a comic knave and a prince of disguise. “The Decorator” displays the dark deeds of a Russian Jack the Ripper, who turns his evil eye upon Fandorin and his beloved associates; it is a grim and suspenseful battle with a serial killer. Both stories are translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, who seems as adept at setting mood and style as the masterful Mr. Akunin. -- Tom Nolan

The Survivor by Tom Cain (Bantam Press) 400 pages
This second novel from the pseudonymous Tom Cain (The Accident Man) starts out with a flashback, focusing on shadowy intelligence figure Samuel Carver’s third mission. That 1993 assignment was to sabotage a plane carrying the elderly Waylon McCabe, a grotesque character who, apart from having a warped vision of Christianity, busies himself as an industrialist amassing a fortune from war and oil. Although his airplane crashes in the far reaches of Canada, McCabe survives, and then proceeds to plot his revenge not only on Carver, but on humanity in general. The Survivor then flips back to the conclusion of The Accident Man, where Carver is in therapy recovering from both the physical and mental injuries he’d sustained in the story. After that, we’re asked to follow parallel plots, one set in Carver’s hospital ward, the other built around an American and Russian conspiracy that could destroy our planet. The Russians are seeking to recover their agent, Alix Petrova -- who has become Carver’s lover -- and use her on a mission. Alix, meanwhile, is uncertain whether Carver will recover from his injuries, but she remains deeply in love with him. And as this story progresses, there’s a little problem with regard to a cache of suitcase-contained nukes that went missing after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. McCabe and his cabal realize all too well that these devices could be awfully useful in their plan to call forth the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Tense, terse and fraught with anxiety, The Survivor draws upon the pulp-thriller heritage to navigate a story that makes you zip through the pages as if your life depended upon reaching the conclusion before your heart gives out. If you enjoy your thrillers fast and furious, with a nod to the Golden Age, when Britain’s spies saved the world, then the adventures of Samuel Carver will satisfy. -- Ali Karim

Swan Peak by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster) 416 pages
New Iberia Sheriff’s detective Dave Robicheaux and private investigator Clete Purcell find themselves neck deep in homicide and targeted by a potential mobster in James Lee Burke’s gorgeous paradigm of good and evil, Swan Peak. This story is set in western Montana’s Lolo Pass, and Burke brings the same paintbrush and palette to the forests, creeks and mountains of Big Sky Country that he usually reserves for his Louisiana-based novels. It is an effusion of color and carnage. There are multiple story lines converging like tributaries meeting to feed the deep waters of a surging river. Purcell stumbles upon the ranch of wealthy brothers Ridley and Leslie Wellstone and raises the distinct possibility that Leslie Wellstone is really notorious mobster Sally Dio, who supposedly died in a plane crash. Leslie Wellstone is married to Jamie Sue Stapleton, a former country-music singer of physical beauty and exceptional voice whose ex-lover, Jimmy Dale Greenwood, a gifted musician himself, comes looking for her toting baggage of his own. While doing a stint in a Texas prison for grand theft, Greenwood sticks a shiv in a sadistic guard named Troyce Nix. Nix follows Greenwood to Montana to exact revenge, only to fall in love with another lost soul by the name of Candace Sweeney. If that weren’t enough, Purcell falls for an FBI agent investigating the Wellstones and maybe Purcell himself. The criminal aspects of these characters is more than enough for one book, but on top of all that, Burke sets a serial killer loose in Montana. The murderer’s victims are a University of Montana coed and her boyfriend. Purcell is convinced the Wellstones and their stable of hired thugs are involved, and Robicheaux is deputized by local sheriff Joe Bim Higgins to help solve the case. It isn’t long, though, before Robicheaux and Purcell are deemed more detrimental than helpful, and Robicheaux is un-deputized. And in a particularly gruesome confrontation involving Purcell (though there are many altercations throughout), the beleaguered and often juiced-out P.I. nearly loses his life. There is arguably not a better living American writer today than Burke, and all the robust qualities of his work -- the exploration of good and evil, of historical connections to present circumstances, of the consequences of happenstance and deliberate action, of love -- fill the pages of Swan Peak. -- Anthony Rainone

Too Close to Home by Linwood Barclay (Bantam) 404 pages
Promise Falls, New York, the setting for Linwood Barclay’s terrific standalone thriller Too Close to Home, is a town of some 40,000 citizens: “too large to be called quaint,” notes Jim Cutter, the book’s narrator, a would be-artist turned landscape-gardener, “but it’s a pretty city, lots of historic architecture, a river running down from the falls it’s named for” -- and a population that turns self-righteous at the first hint of scandal. When Cutter’s teenaged son becomes the prime suspect in the murders of the Cutters’ next-door neighbors, Jim finds that in most townspeople’s eyes -- including those of his gardening clients -- his boy is guilty until proven innocent:
“Well, I certainly don’t blame him for pleading not guilty,” Leonard Putnam said. “That’s how the game is played. ... I suppose, were I to somehow lose control of my impulses and commit an act of violence, I’d no doubt proclaim my innocence, too.”

“I didn’t say he was pleading not guilty. I said he was innocent.”

Putnam half-chuckled again. “Look at me, actually having a debate with you about this. It’s quite extraordinary, really. We won’t be needing you anymore, it’s as simple as that. I’ll send you a check to cover the entire month, however. I’m a reasonable person.”
Barclay, a former Toronto, Canada, humor-columnist and author of last year’s internationally bestselling novel No Time for Goodbye, has a fine ear and eye for the hypocritical and ludicrous nuances of life in our modern cities and suburbs. He also knows how to tell a suspenseful tale of a family in jeopardy -- and of the saving graces of love, humor and grit. -- Tom Nolan

Toros & Torsos by Craig McDonald (Bleak House Books) 408 pages
This second installment in the Hector Lassiter series is really more about Ernest Hemingway, with a detour into 1947 Hollywood for an accidental brush with the Black Dahlia. It begins in 1935, where Lassiter and “Hem” are locking down in the Florida Keys for a killer storm about to blow through. “Lasso,” as Hemingway calls Craig McDonald’s pulp-fiction writer with literary aspirations, manages to snag himself a young thing named Rachel. Soon, a bizarre series of killings begins up and down the Keys. Women are cut up and stuffed with machine parts, or else set in odd postures like surrealist paintings. When Hem and Lassiter return from a rescue run to another island, Rachel appears to have fallen victim to the same murderer. Lassiter is haunted by the killings as he accompanies Hemingway to revolutionary Spain in 1937 and then helps out Orson Welles on a movie in 1947, his presence in Los Angeles at that time perhaps leading to the Black Dahlia slaying of starlet Elizabeth Short. Across a quarter-century span, Lassiter is shadowed by Rachel’s ghost, wondering if she really died. Hector Lassiter himself is a compelling character, and an unusual one for a series player. He is a fictional member of the Lost Generation, so it’s not strange to find in his orbit luminaries such as Hemingway and Welles. McDonald paints a broad canvas that stretches from pre-World War I to the late 1960s. Not your typical crime novel, but then McDonald is not your typical writer. -- Jim Winter

Trigger City by Sean Chercover (Morrow) 304 pages
“Facts are not truth. Listen carefully. This is important.” These are the first words to come from private eye Ray Dudgeon since he finished his first adventure, in Sean Chercover’s debut novel, Big City, Bad Blood (2007). In Trigger City, Ray’s still smarting as a result of his clash with The Outfit, losing his girlfriend and being tortured. Business isn’t going well, either. So when the late Joan Richmond’s father offers all the money Ray needs for exclusive use of his services, Ray can’t say no. There’s no question about who killed Joan Richmond; a former coworker rang her doorbell, shot her in the face, then went home and committed suicide to The Best of Abba. But things get hairy when Ray’s usual allies, Chicago police Lieutenant Mike Angelo and reporter Terry Green, are scared away from this case. Things become even more bizarre when Ray finds himself caught between two government organizations straight out of a Duane Swierczynski novel. Chercover achieved amazing results with a stock premise in Big City. He does even better with Trigger City, writing more tightly and never letting up on the pace. A pale copy of his first novel would have been an achievement in and of itself. Chercover goes far beyond that with his sophomore work, telling a good story better than most writes could do. -- Jim Winter

Yellow Medicine by Anthony Neil Smith (Bleak House
Books) 260 pages

Anthony Neil Smith, the mastermind behind Plots With Guns, brings us a novel-length story that would be right at home among the 4,000-word nuggets PWG presents each quarter. Billy Lafitte is a disgraced New Orleans cop rebuilding his life in rural Minnesota. Only Billy hasn’t kicked his old habits. They come back to bite him when he tries to help out a friend with benefits by running interference between her boyfriend and some meth dealers. Everything Billy touches from the word go blows up in his face, and almost every friend he has in the world dies. To make matters worse, a Homeland Security agent named Rome loves the idea of making Lafitte into a terrorist, so he can present poor Billy’s head on a platter to his bosses. Turns out, Rome is every bit as bad, or even worse than Lafitte. Of course, Rome has no conscience. Lafitte can at least fake one. This is a dirty, nasty little book that sounds like rockabilly set to the clatter of bullets. -- Jim Winter

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