• 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.

  • Birnham Wood by Eleanor Catton *** (of 4)

    The premise is simple enough. A guerilla environmental group in New Zealand, calling itself Birnham Wood, illegally plants gardens on vacant properties. As you would expect, the group is anti-Capitalist, barely operating on a shoestring budget, shares its produce with low income families, and is mostly run by women: visionary, competent, egalitarian, and occasionally, passively catty. Their ethics are challenged when an American billionaire looking to construct a doomsday bunker for himself in New Zealand offers to bankroll Birnham Wood on property he has just purchased on the edge of a National Park.

    Should Birnham Wood take the money and after four years of insolvency finally enjoy stability and national recognition for their good efforts? Are they just being used as a publicity screen for a screwball capitalist bully? Are the billionaire’s intentions reliable or is greenwashing the sale of New Zealand real estate to foreigners a fair tradeoff? Can a non-profit with no hierarchical structure and some strong personalities hold itself together?

    It’s a little weird that the author tells us many things that characters are thinking that they do not even know about themselves, but page after page, intentions, whether overt or handed to us by the writer turn darker and what begins as enviros versus the rich spins into something much deeper.

  • All the Sinners Bleed *** (of 4)

    Nobody captures underlying racial tension in the contemporary south, wrapped in a crime thriller, as well as S.A. Cosby. His leads–this is Cosby’s fourth in a series of unconnected novels taking place in rural Virginia–are invariably upstanding Black men facing entrenched, and typically barely concealed, white hostility.

    Titus Crown is the first Black sheriff in a coastal Virginia community. His predecessor was a Black-beating, omnipotent, Old School sheriff who barely lost to Titus in the last election. Crown faces underlying bigotry from the town’s whites and progressive Blacks see Crown as having sold out to an untrustworthy police force. In the opening pages an active shooter is in the local high school. There is, in subsequent scenes, a march by Confederate sympathizers to the statue in the middle of town commemorating rebel war heroes, an outspoken pastor of a local Black Church planning a countermarch, a serial killer, and a child porn ring. Titus Crown’s allegiances to family, community, law, and justice are yanking him in impossible contortions.

    All the Sinners Bleed is a page turner, but also tries to incorporate too many current events in one book. Cosby holds it together, but fewer yanks on a single sheriff in such a short period would have still gotten the point across and felt closer to reality.

  • Gangland by Chuck Hogan *** (of 4)

    Based on the true story of Tony Accardo, Al Capone’s protege, the undisputed mob boss of Chicago in the 1970s. Accardo’s mob runs all of Chicago’s organized crime including a significant portion of the city’s police force and courts. Until, that is, another mobster breaks into Accardo’s home, stealing just enough valuables to send a threatening message. Accardo turns to Nicky Passero to set matters right, by whatever means necessary.

    As mobsters start appearing in trunks, Passero finds himself in a moral quandary, as he himself also is being squeezed by an FBI agent trying his darnedest to work up the Outfit’s ladder to nab the mob’s capo. Passero also has misgivings about how far his trust in Accardo can go and how many murders he can perpetrate in order to stay in the Outfit’s good graces.

    At first the Italian mobsters feel stereotyped, but as their personalities blossom and the suspense builds, Chuck Hogan brings people, place, and an era into irresistibly vivid focus.

  • Ultra by Rachel Maddow **** (of 4)

    Not a book or, at least, not yet a book, but a podcast.

    The genius of the production is that it is ostensibly a recounting of the hidden history of American duplicity and sedition during WW II, during which members of Congress in collusion with right-wing nationalists tried to abrogate American democracy, overthrow the Constitution, and install a fascist President.

    Armed insurrectionists, whipped up by pro-Nazi, virulently anti-Semitic, extremely popular media hucksters attacked Congress, American industries, and Jews.

    An American munitions plant blown up by Americans who supported the Nazis in WW II.

    Congressmen used their political privilege to distribute Nazi propaganda (while being paid by the Nazis to do so) to tens of thousands of their constituents.

    Do those look like ordinary Congressional waves to the crowd to you?

    Every episode of this podcast is a masterpiece of storytelling and revelation of a chapter in America’s past most of us were unaware of. The value of the U.S. Justice Department’s ability to withstand overwhelming political pressure becomes paramount (powerful Senators forced the Justice Department to end its investigations of the events outlined in Ultra). The actions of journalists and ordinary citizens committed to protecting democracy cannot be overstated.

    The consequences of right-wing politicians willing to condone insurrectionists, remain silent, or lie following acts of violence against Jews, Blacks, and law enforcement officials instigated by their rhetoric is horrifying. The direct line from what was then called America First to today’s MAGA is self-evident.

    I challenge you to listen to the first episode, and resist listening to the next one.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.