• Thief of Souls by Brian Klingborg *** (of 4)

    It would be a cozy murder mystery from which a lot could be learned about the culture of modern day China, if not for the fact that the female victim was not only sexually assaulted, but also eviscerated and sewn back together. The fact that harvested organs are for sale in China is part of the cultural education of Klingborg’s readers and worth knowing about as are the depths and origins of corruption in Chinese government. Under today’s communist regime, it seems almost anything is tolerated in exchange for so-called stability.

    Inspector Lu Fei stands apart from his peers in wanting to pursue justice and truth over convenience and a successful case file. In between drinks at the local bar in a small (by Chinese standards) backwater city, Lu Fei does what good detectives should do while keeping an open mind and collecting evidence. We observe him rub up against climbers, superior officers, and sycophants who show us rather accurately how Chinese police forces supported by a government sponsored justice system manage crime in China with a heavy hand and only a passing acknowledgement of due process.

    China does not feel like a place where rule of law can be counted upon to spare the falsely accused. Or a Uighur.

  • Black Cloud Rising by David Wright Falade *** (of 4)

    As the Civil War dragged on and Union troops made advances across the south, formerly enslaved people fled bondage to take up refuge behind northern armies. Some of the escaped men were organized into fighting regiments: Black soldiers fighting for the Union cause.

    Richard Etheridge, a Sargent in the African Brigade of Colored Troops, is the primary subject of this fictional account of a real-life American hero. The Colored Troops traverse the lowlands of North Carolina dispossessing former plantation owners of their property, burning their homes when necessary, and gathering up enslaved people still being held in bondage. The embedded racism among white officers and southerners of all stripes is laid bare and real as the author, David Wright, incorporates an exceptional amount of homework. All that research, however, makes the book, and its attempt at period vernacular, hard to follow at times. A list of dramatis personae at the beginning of the book would have helped we readers keep all the players straight.

  • The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke *** (of 4)

    Dave Robicheaux is a Cajun detective, poet, and philosopher with no patience for corruption or injustice. When a young Black woman floats to the surface, face down, of a bayou Robicheaux uses for fishing he reasonably concludes foul play led to her death. Just as quickly the coroner determines she drowned following a drug overdose, suggesting that a young very poor Black woman hooked on drugs and trying to climb in society as a sex worker is not worth additional effort on anyone’s part.

    Robicheaux cannot let it go. While he moves up the food chain of pimps, hustlers, and local dons, he gets wrapped up in what turns out to be an international arms smuggling operation that is much more credible than it sounds summarized here in just a couple of sentences. The book is the first in what would become an exceptionally long writing career for James Lee Burke, dated to the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s. Nevertheless, it is evident from the start why Burke would enjoy such a successful career. Robicheaux’s descriptions of bayous and waterways of southern Louisiana, race and class relations in New Orleans, and doubts and desires of men and women trying their best, all rise from the page in steamy, evocative images that are indelible.

  • Squeeze Me by Carl Hiassen *** (of 4)

    Escapist fiction about an outbreak of Burmese pythons from their confines in the Everglades to the poshest of all Florida communities, Palm Beach. The book opens when the POTUS PUSSIES (matronly donors to an unnamed, but very recently impeached President, nicknamed Mastodon, whose winter White House mansion is nearby), are hosting one of their innumerable garden-party charity balls: Is this week the IBS Foundation?

    Unfortunately, the bejeweled, but not very large President of the POTUSSIES, Kiki Pew Fitzgerald, having imbibed more than a recommended number of cocktails is swallowed by a Burmese Python near the backyard pool. More pythons appear where they shouldn’t, the President blames Kiki’s death on illegal immigrants, tweets inappropriate commentary, his bored wife, code-named Mockingbird, bangs her secret service agent while the President shacks up with a not very talented pole-dancer, and a feisty wildlife wrangler must sort it all out between jobs collecting errant raccoons and overpopulating mice.

  • Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr *** (of 4)

    There are a lot of layers to this book. On the surface is the retelling of a fragment of an ancient Greek story about a simple shepherd who longs to visit a heavenly city in the sky. Doerr interweaves versions of the story as it appears to readers who stumble upon it in Ancient Greece, in Constantinople at the time of its fall into the hands of attacking Saracens, in Iowa during the 80 or so years before today, and on a spaceship that appears to be operated by a stand-in for Google, about 75 years in the future.

    The half dozen or so stories are told in simultaneous, intermingled fragments, a lot like the remnants of the original Cloud Cuckoo Land’s stained and moldering parchments that have survived to present. Thematically, Doerr is laying down a manifesto in defense of an earth imperiled by pollution and a warning to a population too enthralled with technology to slow down enough to appreciate the timeliness of a simple story well told. Interestingly, the protagonists in each era are misfits in some way, on Odysseian journeys of their own. This is a book for a book club as there is that much to discuss. Or it’s possible that Doerr is trying to do a little too much in one book.

  • The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw *** (of 4)

    A series of loosely connected short stories about the inner thoughts and external actions of younger Black women whose wants and desires are not so chaste and confined as their gray-haired elders whose lives it seems have always been defined by an all-purpose white Jesus of their community church. Younger Black women have sexual desires, sometimes for men and sometimes for women. They have insecurities and therapists. Their relationships with mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and aunties, are simultaneously fraught with jangling rage, but also the bedrock upon which they stand and have stood generation after generation. Black Women’s Lives Matter, only prayer to Jesus is no longer sufficient as these women fight their way forward.

  • The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman *** (of 4)

    This is the second book in the series, meaning it is the second set of murders that need to be solved by the four septuagenarians of the Thursday Murder Club: Joyce, Ron, Ibrahim, and Elizabeth. It is no small feat to present old people with so much grace and humor even though you can just tell that the author periodically has to yell at his characters so they can hear him, wake them up from time to time, even when they insist they are just resting their eyes, and urge them to get to the points of their digression-filled stories.

    The mystery and suspense in Book #2 are even better than they were in the first as are the quibbles and unspoken affections on display amongst the four friends who, enjoying the fortune and suffering the misfortune of having outlived so many of their loved ones, are discovering they are one another’s newfound family. Suffice to say that gossip in the senior center’s dining hall over whether the new, young waitress, Poppy, would look better without her nose-ring is a great opening scene for a book that will involve spies, the mafia, local drug dealers, and more than a little shopping for something for my daughter, who never really tells me anything, but I’ll get this for her, anyway.

  • The Martian by Andy Wier *** (of 4)

    The Martian of this book refers to an American astronaut accidentally left stranded on Mars while his crew, thinking he had died during an intense windstorm, barely escapes the planet with their lives intact. Mark Watney, the Martian in question, is a wise-cracking botanist-engineer, and astonishingly easy-going, considering he’s left behind on a planet by himself. He can grow things, calculate how many calories he will need until a rescue mission is launched (in four years!), fix broken equipment, and assemble new contraptions from existing parts. It is man versus nature, only Watney has to manufacture all of his oxygen, food, and water himself, and he has to hope nothing catastrophic breaks. Oh yeah, and communication with NASA is a problem because the departing crew took the radio with them. The author, Andy Weir, is a proud geek so every calculation is correct from the number of liters of carbon dioxide that can be converted into oxygen to the amount of fecal material it would take to bring martian soil to life in an effort to grow potatoes that Mark the botanist could conceivably grow.

  • State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny *** (of 4)

    As the book opens a new President of the United States has just taken office, displacing a hulking, bombastic, ignorant, self-aggrandizing, bloviating, possibly crooked predecessor, now living in a tasteless mansion in Florida. The new President appoints a late middle-aged, female, opponent in the run up to the election as his Secretary of State. He wants her to fail and he wants to keep her close in his administration to prevent her from doing additional damage. A normal day in politics.

    What isn’t normal is that soon after assuming their offices a series of bus bombings in Europe succeed in killing scores of civilians. The Secretary of State and her staff must act quickly to calm fears of European allies (still reeling from former President Eric Dunn’s snubbings and ineptitude) and to figure out if another attack could land on U.S. soil. As the threat to Americans grows in likelihood and magnitude, Secretary Ellen Adams hustles around the world engaging in politics and diplomacy with world leaders in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Europe.

    While external actors have clearly targeted the United States, the wrinkle appears to be that so-called American Patriots, right-wingers intent on restoring what they perceive as the good old days of white, male, gun-carrying, sovereignty may well be in league sworn enemies of America: Russians, Al Qaeda, ISIS and so forth.

    The descriptions of political brinksmanship feel insanely accurate — Thank you, Hillary — and Louise Penny has written a page-turner: a surprisingly strong team. Periodically, I wondered if the text was taking too many liberties in imagining an insider plot to overthrow America’s legally elected government. Then I listened to the House Committee hearing on the January 6 uprising and looked at the flags flying defiantly all across my local landscape: Fuck Biden; Gun Owners for Trump; I’ll Help You Pack (as in pack up so you can leave the country, there’s an American flag above the offer); Marxist Lives Don’t Matter; Trump 2024 – I’ll Be Back!

    Maybe State of Terror doesn’t go far enough. At least all of the female characters in State of Terror are reliable, if understated, heroines.

  • The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles **** (of 4)

    Steinbeckian in scope and style, The Lincoln Highway is equal parts coming-of-age story, travelogue, American history, rumination on the inalienable properties of heroism, and inevitable flaws hidden behind the armor of heroic characters.

    The book opens as Emmett is released from a 1950s work-farm that doubles as juvenile detention center for wayward teens. At eighteen years old he heads home because his father has just died and his 8-year-old brother, Billie, is in need of a caretaker. Billie insists they take the Lincoln Highway from the middle of the U.S. to San Francisco to find their mother who left without explanation many years earlier.

    Just before heading west in Emmett’s light-blue Studebaker, two of Emmett’s roommates from the work farm appear outside his father’s foreclosed house, having taken the liberty of stowing away in the warden’s trunk on his delivery run with Emmett. Duchess, Woolie, Emmett and Billie (map of America carefully laid across Billie’s lap) head for The Lincoln Highway whereupon misadventure followed by heroic escapes send the foursome step by step eastward toward Times Square in New York City, the highway’s point of origin, rather than it’s terminus.

    Duchess, Woolie, Emmett, and Billie are as true-to-life, and as likable, as any characters confined to a page can be, and long after the book has ended, readers will be pondering right and wrong, maturity and immaturity, accident and intention, good and evil, heroism and hubris.