Tag Archives: Joseph Kanon

A baker’s dozen of my favorite novels

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Fair warning: this is NOT a comprehensive list of my all-time most cherished novels. It’s merely a list of the 13 trade novels I’ve enjoyed the most among the many I’ve read and reviewed in this blog in the past three years. So, no bellyaching please, that I’ve left out Philip Roth or Leo Tolstoy or somebody else you think is the all-time greatest novelist! Please note, too, that I’m excluding the mysteries and thrillers I review as a category of their own. Which is not to deny that some of these books are thrilling in their own right. 

What follows are the 13 novels in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Each is linked to my review of the book. 

Maya’s Notebook, by Isabel Allende

A 19-year-old Berkeley woman hides out on a Chilean island from the FBI and the Las Vegas criminal gang pursuing her.

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

By the 23rd century, the oceans have risen by twenty feet, and only a seawall protects the city of Bangkok. Genetic engineering has run amok around the globe, leaving only the Thai Kingdom to resist the “calorie companies” that are the only source of food for most of the world.

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

A Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist portrays the five-century history of conflict surrounding a cherished religious book, from the Spain of the Inquisition to the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.

They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, by Christopher Buckley

Political satire of the highest order. Like all superior satire, this book isn’t just funny — its droll treatment of politics in Washington and Beijing is spot-on accurate.

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

A National Book Award-winning novel about a brutal crime and its consequences on a Chippewa reservation in the Upper Midwest.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

A 19-year-old Iraq war hero on a Pentagon tour of cities around the country encounters the reality of American civilization today — and finds he doesn’t like it much.

Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh

Set in 1838, an extraordinarily rich tale of class conflict, exploitation, and forbidden love in South Asia against the background of the opium trade.

The Fear Index, by Robert Harris

Set in Geneva, this taut thriller takes the reader into the world of a brilliant American scientist who has developed mathetical formulas that make billions in profits for his hedge fund.

The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

A novel that digs beneath the artificial veneer of life in North Korea to examine  the mindless lives of its people, from the lowliest convict to the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, himself.

Stardust, by Joseph Kanon

A tense and beautifully-constructed story set in Hollywood in its heyday as the euphoria of victory in Europe and (later) in the Pacific gives way to the hysteria of the Red Scare, the Hollywood Blacklist, and the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.

11/22/63, by Stephen King

A high school English teacher in a small Maine town is lured through a portal in time that leads directly back to September 9, 1958. Jake’s mission: to hold out until 1963 and kill Lee Harvey Oswald before Oswald can assassinate JFK.

The Debba, by Avner Mandelman

A naturalized Canadian citizen, formerly a trained killer for the Israeli armed forces in the 1960s, returns to his homeland when he learns of his father’s murder in Tel Aviv. Suddenly he is pulled back into the ethically murky environment he had fled seven years earlier.

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

In a future USA with a tyrannical right-wing government in power and privacy a thing of the past, a hapless Russian-American seeks love in vain as New York enters into the final stage of total collapse.

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Romance, intrigue, and betrayal in post-World War II Istanbul

A review of Istanbul Passage, by Joseph Kanon

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Some books build slowly, and just as you begin to wonder whether you have the energy to finish them, you discover you’re a captive and no longer able to put them aside. Then they build and build, until you find yourself on the last page, out of breath from the frenzied rush to the end. Istanbul Passage is one of those books.

Kanon, born in 1946, writes spy stories about the period immediately following World War II and before the Korean War (1945-50). Istanbul Passage relates the tale of Leon Bauer, an American businessman whose poor eyesight had kept him out of the war. In compensation — seeking his own war, really — Leon has persuaded a friend of his in the U.S. consulate to hire him for special espionage assignments, helping smuggle Jews out of Romania and on to Palestine. Now, in 1945, Leon receives a different sort of assignment, which involves helping to smuggle a high-value Romanian intelligence target through Istanbul and on to safety in the U.S. But everything quickly goes wrong. Leon finds himself shooting a man to death in a firefight, and the Romanian turns out to be a war criminal at least partly responsible for one of the most notorious massacres of Jews outside the German camps.

Istanbul Passage is a complex and finely written tale. You can’t read the book without getting to know Leon Bauer — and Istanbul — as deeply as though you had experienced the story yourself. Joseph Kanon is one fine writer!

Kanon ran two major New York publishing houses before he began writing in 1995 when he was nearly 50. His five previous novels — Los Alamos (1997), The Prodigal Spy (1998), The Good German (2001), Alibi (2005), and Stardust (2009) — have won widespread acclaim, and deservedly so, as I’ve noted in my reviews. (To see those reviews, click on the titles of his last two previous books.)

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