• 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.

  • 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.

  • I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara *** (of 4)

    One big difference between true crime and mystery novels is that when true crimes are committed, it’s not unusual for the perpetrator to get away. By contrast, in a TV mystery, or a book, the bad guy, by convention, is revealed. Which is why Michelle McNamara essentially joins the “club” of true crime mystery solvers. She has a chance to work on a puzzle whose outcome is so elusive, it might not be solvable; like a super-hard crossword puzzle, only the outcome, if she helps catch a criminal, might really matter.

    McNamara’s focus is one horrific rapist and murderer who through much of the 1970s and 1980s committed dozens of heinous acts. He committed so many it is virtually unimaginable that he could have escaped recognition well into the 2010s despite the dozens of searchers, professional and amateur, combing through thousands of items of evidence. And yet, The Golden State Killer was not.

    What makes “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” so compelling is McNamara’s exquisite attention to detail and writer’s panache for knowing when to use it. She lets us know, for example, the weather on the night of an attack, and the placement of the street lamps and hedgerows, but gives us only enough description for us to know the magnitude of the attack. The violence is inhumane, obsessive on the part of the killer, but not presented gratuitously.

    Complicating the narrative was the untimely death of the author who left behind enough of the manuscript and accompanying articles that ghost writers could ably finish the book. Leaving us to ponder the nature of obsession: in one case a man who preyed on California suburbanites and in the other case, a wife, mother, and author who sat up at night chasing minutiae in hopes of catching him.

  • The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith *** (of 4)

    veniceIn the closing days of WWII, as the Allies are conquering northward up the Italian peninsula, the Germans are beginning to retreat, and their Italian allies are bumbling.  Venice, though under German occupation still, is spared American bombing runs.  In the lagoons beyond the city, Cenzo, an insightful, witty fisherman, finds an 18-year-old Jewish girl, Giula Silber, floating face down, but still alive.  Giula and Cenzo must outwit Nazis hunting for her, black marketeers willing to trade in everything from human cargo to peace initiatives, Italian Fascists, anti-Fascist partisans, Cenzo’s dubious older brother, and his indomitable mother. The writing is spare, occasionally too lean, so that some characters and a few of their actions are veiled in a Venetian mist, and yet, in sum, the disorder imposed of a World War on the daily lives of bartenders, fishermen, backwater diplomats, and indulgent Italian mothers emerges with the piquancy of fresh polenta.

  • Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews *** (of 4)

    palaceoftreasonThe second in the series involving a a love affair that really should never happen between an American CIA spy, Nathanial Nash and the mole he is running inside the KGB, Dominika Egorova.  Egorova has risen high enough inside the Russian spy network she has become a confidante of Putin.  The poor parts of the novel include flat portrayals of Russians — they are all venal, evil, and flatly portrayed destroyers of western values, equal and opposite descriptions of American spies whose patriotism is the only thing that might save the world, and love-making scenes between Nate and Dominika that sound like they were written by a spy who spent 33 years doing analysis for the CIA, which is what Matthews did before becoming a novelist.  All the women in the book have breasts and nipples.  Their love making skills are about as sexy as that last sentence.  But, get over those superficialities, and the spycraft described in this book is so realistic, intriguing, suspenseful and informative you will readily plow up its pages and find yourself waiting impatiently for the next installment.

  • One of Us by Asne Seierstad **** (of 4)

    one_of_us_0Even if you do not recall the Oslo terrorist attack in 2011, the opening pages of this book make certain there is no surprise.  Anders Breivik, a native of Norway exploded a homemade bomb in front of the Prime Minister’s residence and then drove a van to Utoya Island to murder socialist youth.  He killed seventy-seven people, most of them children, nearly all with gunshots to the back of the head.  Only a few pages after it opens, the story returns to the beginning of Anders Breivik’s life to uncover in page-turning detail his development as a right-wing terrorist bent upon preserving Norway’s ethnic purity from creeping left-wing government policy.  Breivik emerges as a psychotic, deranged killer.  Except his continued lucidity and consistent logic of self-defined clarity of purpose make him indistinguishable from any member of ISIS, the Taliban, fanatical Israeli settlers and their Hamas counterparts, the routine gun-wielding mass shooters that too routinely make our headlines, more than a few affiliate of the NRA, and several of my neighbors in northwest Pennsylvania.  One of us.  This book explains what runs through their minds and then asks us to define the border between idealistic soldier of freedom and the psychologically impaired.