• The Secret Hours by Mick Herron *** (of 4)

    This is Herron’s prequel to his successful Slow Horses series, which is one of those rare compilations that is better on screen (Apple +) than it is to read. The spies in this book (a couple of whom will appear in previous books for which this is the recently published prequel) are working in Berlin just after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. Espionage is in chaos as old countries disintegrate, new ones are formed, and spies no longer protected by an Iron Curtain seek to settle old scores.

    MI5’s lead operative is laying a Berlin trap for a former Stasi agent who killed one of his best East German sources. Details of his operation emerge in front of a present day tribunal ordered by Great Britain’s PM. The Prime Minister has established a task force to search for historical illegalities perpetrated by MI5. It’s a publicity stunt that is accurately and hysterically recounted. Griselda Fleet and Malcolm Kyle, lifelong bureaucrats, trudge through the tedium of hearings everyone knows are never going to amount to anthill of dirt.

    The spycraft is slow, and the hearings slower, but the office dialogue and repartee among spies who feel like they are punching a clock, and occasionally punching one another, is priceless.

  • Red Queen by Juan Gomez-Jurado ** (of 4)

    Antonia Scott is a genius at penetrating the minds of dastardly criminals. She is also a morbid recluse with no sense of smell (is this important for us to know?), gorgeous, and without social skills. John Guiterrez is assigned to be her partner by an unseen handler called MENTOR. John is overweight, or just strong, gay, a good guy, without a partner, and disgraced by the police department for a dubious infraction. And the criminals they pursue are unspeakably heinous.

    Which is to say the book (apparently well-loved around the world) is tolerable if it is read as a comic book without pictures. Antonia Scott is the smartest person in all of Europe. Mentor works for a shadowy European consortium of crime-fighters who operate outside of and above the law. Criminals slink through shadowy underground tunnels. Confrontations appear in word-panels that burst with gore and the equivalent of starburst “POWS” and “OOFS.” For the full (not so pleasant experience) listen to the audiobook. The reader has only two distinct voices: angry and angrier.

  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell *** (of 4)

    The story’s most famous character, William Shakespeare, is never mentioned by name. History tells us that Hamnet, the son of William and Agnes (Anne Hatheway) Shakespeare, died at age 11, but little more is known. O’Farrell brings to life, and death, the 1500s in rural England. The plague comes and goes. Neighbors squabble. Relatives promote themselves and (some of) their brethren, while petty jealousies fester. For the sheer strength of O’Farrell’s characterizations, her book is Shakespearean.

    But the added benefit is the authority with which she describes muddy lanes between thatched roof homes, household gardens, glove-making shops, apothecaries, market stalls, and, on the edge of town, cow fields. When illness befalls Hamnet, medical wisdom of the era recognized the symptoms and likely deadliness of Bubonic plague, but knew little of its transmission or treatments. Hamnet’s mother is broken by her son’s illness and ensuing death. William Shakespeare, speculates O’Farrell, was, too. His play, Hamlet, is a tribute to his lost son.

  • The Golden Gate by Amy Chua *** (of 4)

    Detective Al Sullivan’s first big murder case erupts when former presidential candidate Walter Wilkinson (modeled on FDR’s 1940 opponent Wendell Wilkie) is shot in his room in the swanky Claremont Hotel. Wilkinson may or may not have been canoodling with one of the three desirable daughters of the wealthy Bainbridge family.

    While the Bay Area press goes wild for the story, Wilkinson digs deep into the questionable alibis of the Bainbridge sisters. On the upside of this noir, World War II era novel, are the attention to race and class as Al Sullivan (Mexican, Jewish and other ethnicities) fights his way upward through California’s stratified society. Sullivan is joined by the most interesting character in the book, his feistily independent niece, Miriam. The mystery is complicated, but aside from Al and Miriam, not all of the characters are as well developed.

  • Lessons in Chemistry *** (of 4) by Bonnie Garmus

    Elizabeth Zott is a chemist, but the early 1960s is no time to be a woman in science. Or, for that matter, to be woman with a mind. Elizabeth Zott believes in the applicability of scientific reasoning to solving life’s problems. The rest of society believes women should dedicate themselves to homemaking.

    Zott faces an unending sequence of closed doors, abusive male superiors, and unrelenting religious dogmatists. Fortunately, Elizabeth Zott is unsinkable, brilliant, and funny. The match-ups are science vs. religion, male vs. female, and an individual vs. society. Lessons in Chemistry is a delightful tower from which to observe the birth of what would become the 1960s women’s liberation movement.

  • A Disappearance in Fiji *** (of 4)

    Sargent Akal Singh has been banished to desk duty in Fiji. The year is 1915 and Britain rules its colonies with guile, brutality, and economic mastery. Singh, the educated son of an Indian villager figures his one way out and upward is to become a policeman. Sikhs are respected by the British, and expected to fulfill that role. He is sent to Hong Kong, but after a professional misstep lands in Fiji.

    Befriended by a native Fijian on the police force and a compassionate English doctor, but overseen by a condescending British officer, Singh is sent to wrap up a case of a missing Indian “coolie” woman. Wealthy British plantation owners imported hundreds of indentured Indians to work sugarcane fields without pay. Living conditions for Indian laborers, we learn in great detail, are miserable, and British overseers mete out punishments and abuse without fear of accountability or retribution. A missing Indian woman should be meaningless, but Akal Singh, and his friends, are so conscientious and likable that we root for their success while learning about colonialism in very personal ways.

  • The House is on Fire by Rachel Beanland *** (of 4)

    Historically accurate, this is a fictional recounting of an 1811 fire in Richmond, Virginia that consumed a theater and scores of patrons inside. A young nation was shocked by the size of the disaster and it was front page news from north to south. Beanland personalizes the story by tracing the paths of four primary characters, who among them bring to light the inequalities imposed by race, class, and sex. An inordinate number of women burned to death when they were pushed aside by bigger, stronger, more privileged men. The theater company, which was ultimately responsible for allowing lit candles to ignite sets of oil-painted canvas did its best to point the finger at torch-bearing enslaved Africans encircling the theater in the dark. The enslaved, they said, wanted to start an insurrection. Only there were no enslaved Africans outside the theater. Nevertheless, Richmond’s citizens and politicians — Richmond was going to be the future capital of the Confederate States of America for a reason — did not let facts prevent them from setting out posses to round up any enslaved Africans it thought necessary. Which is to say any person of color would do.

    Better than most historical fiction writers, Beanland’s ample research appears innocuously. You never feel like she found a fact that she felt she just had to include. And yet a little more than half way through the suspense regarding whether the theater troupe’s rouse will succeed sags, and like theater goers attending a play that’s a little too long, we wonder how many more acts there are still to come.

  • Eastbound by Maylis De Kerangal *** (of 4)

    A group of Russian men have just been conscripted into the Army. They are on the trans-Siberian railroad crossing more than 8 time zones toward their first training facility in the frozen East. Twenty-year-old Aliocha expects to be hazed, have his genitals burned with cigarettes, made to lick toilets, and maybe raped when he arrives at training camp. Along the fever-dream of an unending train ride he decides to desert. He makes an ally in Helene a French woman twice his age. Helene is AWOL herself, running from a Russian man she loved in France, but after joining him in his own country, realizes she is suffocating.

    Helene speaks no Russian, Aliocha speaks no French and yet they communicate and together hide from from a vicious Russian commander anxious to locate his escaping conscript. The pair are confined inside a train for hours and days until night and day blur. They are trapped inside their heads unable to make their fears and anxieties fully known because of a language barrier. Still, they work together. A novella that clicks along at 60 Km/hour, not too fast and not too slow. (A New York Times top 10 book for 2023.)

  • Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah **** (of 4)

    Gurnah won the 2022 Nobel Prize for literature and it is evident why in Afterlives, a vision of life on the ground in East Africa under German occupation. As the 19th century was drawing to a close, the eastern seaboard of the continent was carved up and ingested by Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and France. Before swallowing they chewed up natives in ground wars that rolled across towns, ports, and villages.

    Gurnah follows a family of Indian muslims and a couple of indigenous Tanzanians who we get to know on an individual basis as they go about their daily business. They get jobs, some learn to read and write, they pray in the mosque if they are religious, they have marriages (good and bad), sometimes join the Germans in their war making, and sometimes do their best to escape the dehumanization of German attacks on resistant villagers and their chiefs.

    Gurnah delivers exquisitely close attention to details: the warmth of the Indian Ocean on an evening walk, the fear of isolation when a child must sleep on a dirt floor knowing that in the morning an uncaring guardian will again demand a full day of exhausting chores, and the satisfaction of finally consummating a marriage after a painfully long delay. An era, a location, and a melange of complicated people are all painted in vivid color. A leaf doesn’t fall whose importance Gurnah fails to notice and yet he never includes like a single word more than is needed.

  • A Line in the Sand by Kevin Powers ** (of 4)

    A recently executed body shows up on a beach in Norfolk, Virginia, home to military bases and private military contractors. As the police and a local newspaper reporter investigate, both the murderee and murderer are enveloped in a secret world of caught up in black-ops and shady deals being made between politicians in D.C. and private companies to whom the U.S. government is outsourcing its 2004 nwar in Iraq. The coded language used by police and military personnel feel like they are being recorded without translation and their authenticity is appealing. Likewise, the hunt for the killers is genuinely suspenseful

    Readers tend to love or hate Kevin Powers’ writring style (Check out the entry on Powers in Wikipedia to see what reviewers thought of his first book on the Iraq War.) The New York Times review loved A Line in the Sand:

    First and foremost, “A Line in the Sand” is a stunning novel. Kevin Powers provides what any discerning reader desires the most — complex and flawed characters, precise use of language, succinct description and believable dialogue.

    I put myself in the not-so-impressed with Powers camp. His characters all have names like Tim, Sally, and John and his dialogue carries the same lack of originality, in my opinion. His characters are simple and inconsistent. Sally, the reporter, is a hopeless alcoholic mourning the loss of her brother in the Iraq war. She starts drinking when her morning alarm rings and continues on her way to work in the morning. She is prone to inconsolable crying. Once her editor gives her free reign to investigate the murder case, however, she doesn’t remember to drink a drop of alcohol for the remaining 80 percent of the book. As Dave Eggers said about Powers writing, he never misses an opportunity to insert an adjective. Characters don’t just look up in exasperation, they look up at the sky. Usually they look up at a blue sky in exasperation. I found myself doing the same.