• 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.

  • Darktown by Thomas Mullen **** (of 4)

    Following the end of WWII, the Atlanta Police Force reluctantly added eight African American police officers.  Their beats were restricted to Darktown, the part of Atlanta without streetlights, and it almost goes without saying, without white people.  Two recently hired war veterans, Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, stumble across an inebriated white man with a young black woman in his car.  After they see her get punched and then escape from her driver they later find her body buried among trash in a vacant lot.  Superficially, the novel is a 1940s murder mystery in the south, but the real story is the unflinching detail with which we observe Boggs and Smith endure Jim Crow.  They are forbidden from arresting criminals, only white officers can, so they must subdue adversaries, run to a telephone, and call for a squad car whose white officers may or may not arrive.  They may not question, nor even look into the eyes, of white officers, or for that matter, white men.  They may not be seen alone with, nor speak to white women without fear of subsequent lynching.  Boggs and Smith choose to uphold the law where they can while circumventing a white police force that alternately extorts, threatens, shoots, and convicts Atlanta’s blacks and despises its colored comrades.  As with most elements of Jim Crow I don’t know whether I am more offended by the inhumane behavior of America’s white racists or the fact I was never taught anything about Jim Crow at any point in my education.  The heat in this extremely well written mystery is as intense as a breezeless summer day in Atlanta.  The audio version of this book is excellent.

  • Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith *** (of 4)

    This is the third in the Cormoran Strike series of murder mysteries written by J.K. Rowling under the Galbraith pseudonym.  In this case, a psychopath murders women, pulls apart their bodies, and as the book opens, he hand delivers a severed leg to Strike’s assistant, Robin Ellacott.  Four potential suspects immediately come to the mind of private detective Strike.  While  Strike and Ellacott investigate four bad men have a motive for wanting to ruin Strike by accosting his assistant, the British police bumble about like Keystone cops. Meanwhile, what was obvious to us in book one, now dawns on Cormoran and Robin: they are in love with one another.  Unfortunately, Robin prepares to get married to her long-time fiancee and Cormoran dallies with a sexy, but not very interesting girlfriend he has picked up on the rebound from his last relationship.  Rowling’s strength lies in her observations.  She lands her protagonists in a town, and I know now, after having been to some of the places described in this book, describes every important storefront and unusual curve in the road with delightful accuracy.  She hears every dog bark, recalls what everyone she met along the way was wearing beneath their overcoat, and reproduces accent and dialogue with impeccability.  For sense of place and character she is a fine read.  This mystery was gruesome, the budding love affair formulaic, and her lengthy descriptions were sometimes tedious.

  • In the Woods by Tana French *** (of 4)

    An Irish murder squad is called upon to investigate the cult-like death of a child in the village of Knocknaree.  Bob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are the lead detectives and we, the readers, are taken to grapple with mysteries on several levels.  The obvious question is whodunnit to the kid found atop an alter stone in the middle of an archaeological dig, but there are deeper layers.  Bob Ryan was once a child himself in Knocknaree and the only survivor when two of his friends disappeared.  That case was never solved and Ryan has no memory of the event during which his childhood mates were presumably murdered.  Can Ryan investigate a murder and his own childhood, especially if the two cases are linked, without losing his sanity?  Ryan and Maddox are best friends, so close they behave like long-term lovers, raising another mystery of why they are not.  Uncovering the perpetrator is standard fare: difficult to figure out with suitable suspects and red herrings.  Revealing the psyches of contemporary Dubliners is what moves the story from page to page.

  • The Golem and the Jinni *** (of 4) by Helene Wecker

    In the year 1899, in New York City, a golem and a jinni chance upon one another.  A golem is a a mythical Jewish monster made of clay; a jin is a magical desert genie with fantastic powers.  In this account, both golem and jin are bound to masters, only Chava, the golem, is female, inquisitive, thoughtful, helpful (to a fault), cautious, and actually quite lovable in spite of her terrific strength.  Ahmed, the Jin is handsome, spontaneous, creative, chivalric, and impetuous.  So, rather than being mythical and distant, in many ways, Ahmed and Chava, are too human.  They struggle to understand the limits of free will while the constrained by friends, family, and magic potions.  They chafe at being immigrants in a new city.  They are conflicted by their responsibility to others when they also need to take care of themselves.  The book is slowly paced, but Wecker’s characters and themes are provocative.

  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead **** (of 4)

    Before Colson Whitehead ever gets to the story of Cora’s attempted escape from enslavement, he sets the stage in Africa.  Cora’s grandmother and mother are captured beginning a saga of human beings herded, branded, chained, transported, discarded when insufficiently healthy, and sold like so many pieces of meat.  Some are consumed, others are tossed overboard or left to rot.  Whitehead’s descriptions of the relationship between white slave owners and the human beings they own is a delicately painted portrait of white men using all their faculties to subdue the humanity of their black workers with rape, torture, and psychological brutality.  For this portion of the book alone, the real-life portrayal of slavery in the south, The Underground Railroad should be required reading of all Americans.  Whitehead’s description of plantation work for slaves also makes the idea of escape almost logical.  The alternatives are equally daunting: staying on the plantation means ceaseless labor, sexual assaults, tongue extractions for speaking up, castrations for being black and male and therefore a threat to white men’s sense of superiority, and beatings so severe that infections beneath missing skin are inevitable.  Leaving for the underground railroad, in contrast, means fearing owners so desperate to regain their lost property that dogs trained to shred human tissue and professional slave catchers brandishing chains and iron collars will be sent even into free states to recapture lost goods.  Cora’s lifelong sprint for freedom is harrowing, accurate, and the story of an underdog for whom you can’t help but root.  Her plight is also an important reminder that in the age of Charlottesville the legacy of slavery has not yet been overcome.

  • News of the World by Paulette Jiles **** (of 4)

    The year is 1870.  Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, veteran of three wars, now age 72, is more or less handed a ten-year-old girl to return to her German family in south Texas.  The girl was kidnapped by Kiowa Indians at the age of six and has been recaptured by bounty hunters.  Her parents are dead and Captain Kidd is now responsible for returning the girl, who no longer speaks English nor German, to her nearest relatives.  Everything about their adventure as the old man and his young companion ride a horse drawn wagon across unsettled Texas landscapes feels authentic.  Whereas a less skilled novelist might vacillate between plot, character, and showing off research, Paulette Jiles simply puts us in the driver’s seat.  The Texas hills and deserts roll by in perfect clarity.  Storms rage over head, the sun beats down, and sometimes it just drizzles for days.  Strangers — some friendly, a few weird, and a couple who are downright dangerous — ride up alongside and we face them with whatever skills we have at our disposal.  Moreover, the groups who cohabit south Texas are raised beyond typecasting.  Kiowa, Spanish, soldiers, women, homesteaders, and settlers are presented as you might expect real people to be.  They are complicated.  You like some and dislike others.  It is a deeply informative and thoughtful ride.

  • Nemesis by Lindsay Davis *** (of 4)

    The twentieth book in the series on detective Marcus Didius Falco, this one in Rome and Latium in the year 77 AD.  In this mystery, Marcus, having just inherited an unexpected fortune from his father heads to the pestilential Pontine Marshes to hunt for a missing person and the reason one of his father’s payments was never collected.  The marshes harbor malarial insects and the kind of marsh people, and their rabid dogs, you might expect in the remotest hollers of Kentucky.  The mystery is typical of Davis’ previous Falco books.  The emergence of Falco’s daughter, Flavius Alba, as a burgeoning detective in her own right is downright joyful.  The real pleasure of the book, however, is the degree to which once again Davis brings to life ordinary Romans.  Their family squabbles, frustrations with intransigent authorities and truculent neighbors, and the hassles of finding reliable childcare are concurrently hilarious, modern, and part of ancient Rome.

  • 10 LB. Penalty by Dick Francis ** (of 4)

    A young British jockey is pulled from his mount by his excessively wealthy father.  His new job is to assist as his father runs for a local council seat in his first political election.  Someone tries to kill dad while he is campaigning.  Then tries again.  And again.  Benedict Juliard, an amateur jockey not yet 18 years old, has exceptional sleuthing skills and then the book wanders aimlessly and pointlessly.  Francis probably wrote the book in a weekend.  In just a few pages about a dozen years of history fly by.  Dad moves up from his local council seat to become Prime Minister of England.  Benedict gets into Oxford, or Cambridge, it hardly matters, gets a job in the best horse-related company in the country and within a couple of years, and a couple of pages, moves up to a position of exceptional responsibility.  Finally, the only suspect in the story shows up in parliament and at last Francis gets on with a conclusion.

  • Regeneration by Pat Barker **** (of 4)

    Most of the action takes place away from the European trenches of World War I.  Instead, Dr. Rivers uses the new field of psychoanalysis to repair the shredded psyches of young British soldiers damaged by their experience.  Soldiers in his psychiatric hospital have spent months standing in freezing water, watched their friends disemboweled by exploding shells, inhaled mustard gas, and charged across barbed wire at night in hopes of knifing another young man. Many have simply stopped functioning.  They stare, stammer, rock, dream while awake, and scream through the night.  Dr. Rivers compassionately encourages his charges to speak of their horrors and slowly nurses them back toward health.  The catch being that when he succeeds the soldiers are returned to the front and we are left to ask whether the continuation of the war is sufficiently justified that young men should be reused like cleaned-off bullets.  In the case of WW I, we know a soldier’s life expectancy on the front is on average only a few weeks and that young German soldiers are suffering the same traumas, but we also know that acquiescence to German aggression has consequences.