• Damascus Station by David McCloskey *** (of 4)

    Soon after the Arab Spring reached Syria, Hafez Assad reacted to public uprisings with vicious government sponsored violence. Protestors were arrested, tortured, and slaughtered with poison gas. It was the beginning of a decade-long civil war whose outcome and direction were at the time wholly unpredictable. The United States still had an embassy in Damascus, and as is true with all embassies, a portion of its employees were spies.

    In this recounting, an American spy is running a Syrian operative inside the Syrian government. First, there is the suspenseful cloak and dagger necessities of ferreting and transferring information from the Syrian Palace to the American embassy to CIA offices in Langley. Next comes the analysis of whether the gleaned information is reliable or an intentional trail of breadcrumbs laid by suspicious Syrian officers. There is an additional problem of Russian spies gathering information leaked by American spies and feeding it on to Damascus. At the level of governments, someone has to make policy based on all the intelligence gathered by humans on the ground and satellites and drones in the air.

    At the human level is the daily grind of validating observations with corroborating evidence all while concurrently being tracked and monitored by opposition spies. One false step and the Syrian government, if they caught you, wouldn’t hesitate to make you disappear forever, but not before removing some of your favorite body parts while you were still breathing. Especially well done is McCloskey’s description of how a dictator ensures allegiance amongst his underlings by playing one off another.

    Spying is a job for patriots, madmen, and madwomen, a couple of whom find one another as soulmates in the midst of Syria’s chaos.

  • The Eagle’s Claw: A Novel of the Battle of Midway by Jeffrey Shaara *** (of 4)

    Ostensibly, the single battle that shaped the outcome of WW II (of which, there are no doubt many such single battles bearing that accolade), is the Battle for Midway Island in the Pacific. In the summer of 1942, America’s Navy was still reeling from its ravaging in its home port of Pearl Harbor. The Japanese Navy ruled the Pacific.

    This fictionalized, but very-well researched, account describes most effectively the strategic plans needed to fight a battle. Generals, and in this case, Admirals, too, must plan to the last spool of barbed wire and final gallon of jet fuel the necessities to carry out an invasion or counterattack. Then they need commanders to follow orders, without wavering, even in the heat of battle. Except they also need commanders smart and brave enough to improvise when the enemy or conditions fail to match plans created in the comfort of an office space.

    The Midway Islands atoll.

    Aside from its airfields and appearance above the surface of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Japan, Midway is not really worth fighting for, but it was here that the Japanese and American fleets and their shipborne aircraft had at it. Weirdly, for all of Shaara’s experience as a writer of war stories, the drama ends mid-book. Nonetheless, his description of the cultural distinctions between Japan and America and bravery and reticence of various fighters, if true, is intriguing.

  • Intimacies by Katie Kitamura ** (of 4)

    You can probably disregard my unenthusiastic review. Intimacies, after all, was loved by everyone else from the NY Times to the National Book Awards. A nameless narrator leaves New York without much explanation and comes ashore at The Hague, gaining a job as an interpreter at the World Court of Justice. Lonely — even we readers cannot close enough to her to learn her name or much of her background — she falls in like with Adriaan, a charismatic and distant good-looking man, whose wife has abruptly left him. As if dating a married man is not disquieting enough, her best female friend lives in a crime-ridden neighborhood where bad things happen to good people. And to reinforce for readers our inabilities to ever really know someone, the narrator’s day job is to translate in real time the words of genocidal dictators, their prosecutors and defense lawyers, and the crimes against humanity of which the accused is almost certainly guilty.

    The narrator imbues all of her personal interactions with an internal monologue that guesses, second guesses, and triple guesses the motives behind every statement, whether from herself, friend, lover, or criminal. The result is that we poor readers are subjected to an unending ADHD-driven monologue of doubt, worry, and concern that her doubt is not warranted, or maybe it is. But don’t trust me. While NPR’s reviewer generally agreed with me, the big shot critics called this one of the top 10 books of 2021.

  • Razorblade Tears by S.A. Crosby **** (of 4)

    Ike and Buddy Lee couldn’t be more different or more the same. Ike is Black and barely the survivor of deeply embedded southern racism. Buddy Lee, self identifies as a beer-drinking, redneck piece of trailer-trash. Their only sons are married to one another and murdered in cold blood just before the book opens. Now the two ex-cons have to face one another, their long-held homophobia, and a police force unable or indifferent about finding their sons’ killers.

    Ike and Buddy Lee take it upon themselves to search for the unrepentant killers and as we tag along the two old man, tired, but still tough and wily, get to know one another. They also get to know themselves. Violence bubbles up around the pair like a slashed artery but is diluted with insightful compassion for two men coming to terms with their failures as fathers. Together, they prove that you are never too old to try again, to make amends, to apologize to those who have been wronged, and to accede to the power of love. Even as bodies drop like flies caught behind glass, Ike and Buddy Lee discover who killed their sons, but more importantly grasp that judging a human takes more than a glance at skin color, class, sexual orientation, or gender. Goodness, like evil, can be found in surprising places.

  • A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Laurie R. King ** (of 4)

    The second in the series of mysteries solved by the retired Sherlock Holmes and his young, sharp, eagle-eyed female assistant, no, make that coequal, Mary Russell. The first World War has just ended, the influenza pandemic is receding, shell-shocked soldiers are returning from the front, and British women having recently received access to suffrage but are disappointed that their advancements in the workforce during the war are now in deep recession. Women’s rights are not what they hoped they would be.

    Marjery Childe, a charismatic lay-preacher at the primarily-for-women New Temple of God, holds sway over hundreds of disillusioned women with the oratory skill of a revivalist pulpit banger. Mary Russell, who it turns out is Jewish, finds herself carried along, but suspicious, becoming more so as accidents, some of them mortal, befall Marjery’s disciples.

    So much time is setting the scene that half a book needs to be finished before a crime is clearly in need of investigation and all the while Sherlock is mostly away on vacation removing the most engrossing part of these mysteries: the interplay of Holmes and Russell as they connive and deduce. I would read the next in the series because the characters and writing are so appealing, but it’s going to be awhile, because this book was reaching in so many directions at once it stumbled and tripped into a street puddle on a foggy London night.

  • Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips ** (of 4)

    Take my review with a grain of salt. Disappearing Earth was a National Book Award Finalist and top-10 book of the year for the New York Times. Its incomparable strength is its description of post-Soviet life on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the very far northeast of Russia. In the larger cities – the action takes place in and around Petropavlovsk – there are businesses, traffic, research centers, industry, hustle and hassle. Just beyond the outskirts lie unpaved roads, volcanoes, hot springs, reindeer herds, and indigenous villages caught between the past and present.

    In the opening scene, a pair of schoolgirls are abducted suggesting that subsequent chapters will reveal who took them and where they went. But, subsequent chapters overlap just a whisker, making the book feel more like a collection of short stories than a whodunnit. The protagonists of each chapter are women whose lives are miserable. They are sick, abandoned, abused, overworked, and lonely. I’m told the perpetrator is unveiled at the end in a village a dozen hours north of Petropavlovsk, but I was too depressed to get all the way through.

  • Harlem Shuffle **** (of 4) Colson Whitehead

    It is the early 1960s and Ray Carney sells contemporary furniture from a showroom on 125th Street in Harlem, New York City’s Black enclave. Harlem vibrates with the energy of strivers, both straight and crooked. Men (women are conspicuously second class characters in this book) aim to get ahead anyway they can and Carney has, in addition, to his sale of couches and dinettes, a side hustle of fenced electronics, appliances, and jewels. Carney’s cousin, Freddy, is endowed with more charm than common sense; he routinely draws Carney into a series of crimes that Carney ultimately wishes he had no part of.

    Harlem Shuffle appears to be part compelling crime novel, part family saga, and an exceedingly lively encapsulation of the language and vibe of inner city life in the early 1960s. (Listen to the audiobook, if you have the opportunity.) But most of all, the genius of the book is the feeling of racial imprisonment affected by the invisible urban borders of Harlem. Yes, the boundaries are semi-porous: Carney can ride the subway downtown to move stolen items through white middlemen – also with straight-looking storefronts – but his skin color makes him too conspicuous to linger. White cops own the streets of Manhattan from the Battery to the Bronx and cruise the blocks of Harlem beating, occasionally killing young Black men, and all around ensuring that no matter the aspirations of Harlems’ dreamers, educated or not, their station in life is preordained.

    The setting is 1959-1964. Not nearly enough has changed.

  • Medicus by Ruth Downie *** (of 4)

    Gaius Petreius Ruso is a Roman physician working for Rome’s army in a remote outpost of the empire: dreary, rainy, savage countryside north of London (Londonium). Soldiers arrive in his clinic after fistfights with barmaids, staggering hangovers, heart attacks, food poisoning, being kicked by horses, and cataracts. His roommate, another doctor, is a slob, and mostly interested in self-promotion. The hours are long and the food is, well, British, not Roman. No olives, no lemons, nothing worth salivating over.

    Across the street from the Roman fort is a brothel (legal in the Roman empire) with enslaved prostitutes (also legal.) One of the prostitutes, actually, maybe two, have disappeared without explanation, and in a fit of blinded humanity Ruso purchases a young, attractive female slave in the street. Then, as if dealing the mystery of missing people, one of whom has washed up in the local river and was brought in for examination, Ruso finds himself with a rather independent slave, a busy waiting room, and a long wait until payday. Then the fort’s chief administrator arrives on site and presents himself as a bureaucrat of such maddening preciseness that a modern day IRS employee would look like Mother Teresa in comparison. Ruso has a lot to sort out.

  • The Dry by Jane Harper *** (of 4)

    The first of Harper’s Australian mysteries in which Detective Aaron Falk is the lead investigator, and Australia’s harsh environment plays a main character. The fictional communityo of Kiawarra is suffering through its second year of devastating drought putting everyone in the small farming town on the edge of despair and rage. Day after day the unrelenting heat has parched grazing lands, dried up rivers, and brought the day of financial reckoning with destitution a little closer. Luke Hadler’s wife and son are inexplicably found shot dead in their home, until Luke is found apparently having committed suicide in the back of his truck a few miles off. Luke is the obvious suspect in a the combined murder-suicide.

    The crackling dryness of brush and tinder feel ready to explode into fire; the personalities of neighbors who have known one another and one another’s parents since pre-school spark with equal veracity. Most notably the conservative bullies and blusterers who have had their way with sheep and with the sheepish since their successful roles as taunters and bruisers in the classroom, remain frightening to any of us who have ever been pushed about. There is something about an Australian farmer in a rural community whose refusal to buckle to authority, and whose bellicosity drowns out other emotions, that feels rather close to home and rather global at the moment. The question of who really killed the Hadlers is plenty engaging, but the atmospherics are what helped put Jane Adams on the world stage as a mystery writer.

  • Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles **** (of 4)

    A yarn as wide as the Texas landscape. It is 1864 and Simon the Fiddler makes a living the best he can by playing jigs, reels, waltzes and hornpipes. It’s not quite as disreputable a profession as being an actor, but a lot of venues include the kinds of saloons and dance halls that the upper classes tend not to frequent. Until the Union Army conscripts him, that is, and he has to play fiddle and soldier for a year. At the war’s so-called conclusion – it doesn’t so much end as degenerate into a kind of barely controlled chaos as Union forces occupy the state of Texas and barely maintain order – Simon teams up with three additional veterans and together they escape their army duties to play music, barely make ends meet, and have adventures along the Gulf Coast and the Mexican border.

    Paulette Jiles evokes of the landscape and era of post Civil War Texas with such acuity you can hear individual birds sing, grasshoppers hum, and feel the heat of an unrelenting sun. The landlords, deadbeats, wild Texans, privileged Union officers, and one very comely nanny fresh from Ireland whose bright eyes and thick hair capture Simon’s attention are as highly credible as the rest of the liberated countryside.