Tag Archives: Novel

Mossad, the PLO, and a young Palestinian refugee in a spy story set in London and Berlin


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A review of Shake Off, by Mischa Hiller

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Ever wonder how publishers decide how to market books? For example, how to decide whether to feature a book as a “thriller” instead of, say, a “deeply moving novel of love and loss”? Mischa Hiller’s novel, Shake Off, raised questions like that in my mind.

Michel Khoury, a bright young man with a rare gift for languages, is recruited from a foster home at the age of 15 to be educated and trained in the USSR by the PLO. It is now the late 1980s, with the Soviet empire crumbling and Yasser Arafat holding on to power in the Palestinian diaspora. For some years now, Michel has been serving as a courier, an accomplished polyglot shuttling from Berlin to London to Geneva to Athens and Istanbul under the control of an older man named Abu Leila (“Father of Leila”), a surrogate father figure. Living in what the English call a “bed-sit,” a single room sans kitchen down the hall from a bathroom, Michel masquerades as a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, taking language courses he doesn’t need. When he meets Rachel, a beautiful young doctoral student in anthropology living next door, he finds himself increasingly drawn to her just as disaster strikes a courier he has enlisted in London. Soon, Michel finds himself the subject of interest by intelligence agencies of indeterminate origin — possibly more than one of them, and probably including Mossad — and is forced to dodge the increasingly familiar figures who are following him.

As a novel written by a Palestinian whose protagonist is a survivor of the 1982 Israeli-Phalangist massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, Shake Off does a decent job conveying the profound sense of loss and the lingering terror that live on in Michel Khoury. However, the book was marketed as a “spy thriller.” Thrilling it wasn’t. The story hangs on a question of identity that waas resolved to my satisfaction about one-third of the way through the novel, so the twists and turns in its plot held no magic for me. I kept reading despite the slow unfolding of the plot because I found it intriguing to see the world through the eyes of a Palestinian refugee (albeit one with an extensive knowledge of Jewish history and Israeli attitudes). It’s worth reading for that reason alone.

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Christopher Buckley: Funny ha-ha, and funny strange


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A review of No Way To Treat a First Lady, by Christopher Buckley

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Humor is a funny  thing. Not long ago I introduced Christopher Buckley to an audience of about 100 people in Berkeley. (No, I didn’t go to Yale with him. This was solely on the strength of having given favorable reviews to several of his novels.) Buckley spoke off the cuff rather than read from his writing, and I found him hilarious. So did about half the audience. Some seemed to be on the verge of falling off their chairs from time to time. But the other half of the audience sat stone-faced, often with arms crossed and eyes darting right and left, apparently waiting for a chance to sneak out of the room.

All this is to say that I read No Way to Treat a First Lady, laughing all the way — and maybe you won’t. Whenever as a child I told my mother that something was funny, she would ask, “Funny ha-ha, or funny strange?” Well, this one is a little of both. No Way to Treat a First Lady tells the tale of a philandering President and a long-suffering wife who has, apparently, murdered him in his sleep. See what I mean?

Christopher Buckley’s humor is grounded in such situations, not too many steps removed from reality. Don’t get me wrong. The leading characters in this novel in no way resemble two recent residents of the White House. And the supporting cast would be a better fit in a Marx Brothers film than in today’s Washington, DC: the best criminal defense lawyer money can buy, who incidentally was the jilted law-school lover of the First Lady; a blonde Court TV superstar, who is the current, much-younger squeeze of the self-important defense lawyer; bumbling rival trial attorneys; and a motley assortment of FBI and Secret Service agents and White House hangers-on. Even so, you can practically see them behind today’s headlines.

I won’t spoil the story by summarizing the plot, which is deliciously complex and as full of surprises as a best-selling thriller. You deserve the chance to discover it on your own.

Forewarned, then, that I think Christopher Buckley is one of the funniest writers currently walking the planet, I commend you to my previous reviews of his books: Little Green Men, Florence of Arabia, The White House Mess, and They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? If you read (or have read) these reviews, you know that I don’t think they’re all equally good — Florence of Arabia, for example, was just a little too real for me.

Pretty soon I’m going to run out of Buckley’s books, and I’ll just have to start reading them all over again.

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A journey into the dark side in present-day Scotland


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A review of Standing in Another Man’s Grave, by Ian Rankin

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Maverick detective John Rebus, recently retired, is trying to get back on the police force in Edinburgh, but not everyone is happy about that — especially a detective named Malcolm Fox, who heads up the equivalent of the department’s Internal Affairs office.

“‘The file on you,’ Fox said eventually, ‘goes back to the 1970s. In fact, to call it a file is doing it an injustice; it takes up one whole shelf.’

“‘I’ve been called into the headmaster’s office a few times,’ Rebus conceded.”

So it goes in the topsy-turvy life of Ian Rankin’s thoroughly unconventional detective. Rebus is brilliant, though he operates astride the fine line between what’s legal and what’s not, and slips over it from time to time for the sake of getting results. Not only does he close nearly all his cases, but he’s also the only person on the force who has ever managed to put away Edinburgh’s notorious crime boss, Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty.

In Standing in Another Man’s Grave, Rebus is now working as a civilian employee of the department in a unit devoted to investigating cold cases. The work is unrewarding, and Rebus sees it only as a stepping-stone to getting back into active duty again. Then along comes a chance encounter with a woman who claims to see a pattern in the disappearance over the course of a decade of a number of young women along the A9 highway leading north from Edinburgh to the coast. As Rebus looks into her story, he begins to suspect that she’s right — and, for some reason Rebus finds mysterious, he’s the first person on the force to give her the time of day. To do justice to the investigation, Rebus manages to draw his former partner, Siobhan Clarke, now a Detective Inspector, into the case. Soon other detectives pile on in the increasingly fraught investigation as it moves forward, grabbing headlines throughout Britain.

Standing in Another Man’s Grave is the 18th and most recently published of Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels. It’s also, I’ve learned, the third in a new series of books about Malcolm Fox.

This is my second venture into the work of Ian Rankin. Previously, I’d read only Doors Open, which I thoroughly disliked. (You can read my review by clicking on that title.) The dimensionality of the characters in this book compared with the overdrawn caricatures of Doors Open made it, for me, a much more satisfying read. For what it’s worth, Rankin is, reportedly, Britain’s best-selling author of crime novels.

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Nazis in Norway, a mysterious assassin, and an insubordinate detective


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A review of The Redbreast, by Jo Nesbo

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

For many years, Americans have been dipping into the seemingly bottomless store of crime novels from Scandinavia with noteworthy enthusiasm. Not so long ago, Stieg Larson’s trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, dominated the best-seller lists almost as surely as have Harry Potter and the various Shades of Gray. Earlier, many of us got hooked on Henning Mankell’s brilliant creation, Kurt Wallander — certainly, I did, having read all of those superb Swedish detective novels. Earlier still (1990s), the best-selling Danish thriller Smilla’s Sense of Snow captured wide attention, and in the 1960s and 70s there was the Swedish writing team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

Most recently, there’s been a lot of buzz about a Norwegian novelist, Jo Nesbo, and his anti-hero, detective Harry Hole. The Redbreast is my introduction to Jo Nesbo’s nine novels about his complex and often exasperating fictional detective. I have to say I’m impressed. Nesbo’s plotting is fiendishly complex, and his insight into character runs deep. As a writer, he (or perhaps his translator, Don Bartlett) matches up to any of the other Scandinavian crime writers, and he’s a damn sight better novelist than most of the Americans who write best-selling murder mysteries.

In The Redbreast, Harry Hole finds himself on the trail of a would-be assassin. Not only is the assassin’s identity unknown to him, but so is the target. To begin with, all he knows is that someone has paid a fortune to acquire what is described as the assassin’s rifle of choice, and he’s determined to discover who bought it, and why. Meanwhile, having screwed up a major assignment and created an international incident in the process, Hole is ordered to investigate a neo-Nazi organization and sidetrack his work on the rifle. Naturally, he ignores the orders and doggedly pursues the trail of the overpriced murder weapon. His journey yields a new perspective on Norway during World War II, when the country was occupied by Nazi Germany and many misguided young Norwegians volunteered to fight for the Third Reich. The historical references are both integral to the story and fascinating for an American whose experience of Nazism has come exclusively from books and film.

Previously, I reviewed the second and third books in Larson’s trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. I’ve also reviewed Mankell’s The Man from BeijingThe Pyramid and Four Other Kurt Wallender Mysteries, and The Troubled Man, the last of the Kurt Wallander novels. (The titles are linked to my reviews.)

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Enough already! An open letter to Janet Evanovich


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A review of Notorious Nineteen, by Janet Evanovich

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Dear Janet (if I may be so bold),

Maybe it’s me, but I doubt that. After you’ve written — what is it? 50? 51? — novels all told, I think you’re losing steam. Notorious Nineteen is, of course, the 19th in your Stephanie Plum series, and it shows. Here are a few of the most prominent signs:

  • Not one but two cars Stephanie is driving are blown up;
  • Lula consumes at least 8,000 calories of junk food in a single day;
  • Ranger rescues Stephanie from imminent death not once but twice;
  • A really bad guy gets blown up trying to kill Stephanie; and
  • Morelli and Stephanie still aren’t ready to get married after talking about it for 10 years.

Truth to tell, some of this is funny as it happens, which is why I kept reading this series of comic novels so long. But the humor is fast fading, and so is the guilty pleasure I’ve taken so long in this series.

I don’t know about you, Janet, but I’m ready to put Stephanie out to pasture at last. Appearances notwithstanding, she’s really pushing 60 now, right? Isn’t it time to lay off the staff on that assembly-line writing factory of yours and see what you can do on your own again?

Think about it. You may not be able to write anything original, but you won’t know unless you try, no?

Your erstwhile fan,

Mal Warwick

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Louise Erdrich’s haunting new novel of a brutal crime on the reservation


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A review of The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

At its best, fiction transports us to places we’ve never been, immersing us in the lives of people we would never meet. The most powerful fiction leaves behind indelible memories, endowing its characters with meaning more vivid than life.  Louise Erdrich received the National Book Award for The Round House, which is powerful beyond measure and achieved all this and more.

Erdrich centers her tale on a bright 13-year-old boy named Joe Coutts. When we first encounter Joe, we think we may have met him before. He’s the nice kid who lives down the block or around the corner, riding his bike, usually with his friends, through a middle-class suburb, getting into mischief. His father’s a judge, his mother a civil servant. How could his life be all that interesting?

But Joe’s parents aren’t really like our neighbors, and they don’t live in a middle-class suburb or a prosperous urban neighborhood. Though well-educated and well-off by local standards, they are members of the tightly interwoven Chippewa community confined to a reservation in a barren stretch of North Dakota or Minnesota. And The Round House is a tale of a brutal crime that afflicts the Coutts family and lays bare the deep fault lines in their community.

As we get to know the Couttses and the many members of their extended family, we gradually become acquainted with the cruel legacy of racism that constrains their lives to this day. Sometimes we laugh along with them at the humor, marvel at the beauty of their story-telling, sigh with despair at the loss of the old ways. But we are never unaware of the uniquely disadvantaged circumstances they and their neighbors find themselves in.

The Round House is Louise Erdrich’s 14th novel. She is an enrolled (i.e., official) member of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa Nation whose grandfather was tribal chairman around the time of her birth in the 1950s. For three decades, she has been writing highly acclaimed works about her Native American heritage and the interaction of Native and majority communities. (Her father was German-American.)

An extended account of Erdrich’s life and career appears on Wikipedia, with numerous details about her long, tragic marriage to anthropologist Michael Dorris, whom she met as a student at Dartmouth College in the 1970s. Knowing some of the details of her life, it’s easy to understand how Erdrich can write of the pain her characters suffer.

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A brilliant Indian novel about the 19th Century opium trade


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A review of River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Balzac (and lots of people after him) thought that “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” Nowhere is that aphorism more baldly illustrated than in the 19th-Century opium trade that enriched England, Scotland, and the United States and created a score of hereditary fortunes that have left their mark on the world for nearly two centuries since. After all, when Europeans introduced China to the practice of mixing opium with tobacco in the mid-18th Century, the one-sided trade in Chinese porcelain, tea, silk, and other goods was rapidly draining Europe of silver and reinforcing China’s position as the world’s richest country. The opium trade reversed that trend. Early in the 19th Century, with the Industrial Revolution gathering force in Europe, China’s nearly two-century-long decline  was underway. Meanwhile, massive profits from opium enriched the endowments of Harvard and Yale, helped build Princeton and Columbia Universities; launched the fortunes of the Astors, the Delanos (FDR’s grandparents); and bankrolled the Bell Telephone Company, antecedent of AT&T.

River of Smoke is the second book in Amitav Ghosh’s planned Ibis trilogy set among the momentous events of the massive 19th-Century opium trade between India and China. The first book in the trilogy, Sea of Poppies, set the scene with an in-depth look at the harvesting and manufacture of opium in India. River of Smoke details the life at sea and in the foreign enclave in Canton of the immensely rich men who dominated the trade, principally Britons.

Ghosh’s sprawling novel spans the years 1838 and 1839, detailing the events in South China that led to the First Opium War. The central plot-line follows the journey of a poor Indian Parsi (Zoroastrian) named Bahram who had risen to lead the trade division of a celebrated Mumbai shipbuilding company owned by his wealthy in-laws. Though not yet rich himself, Bahram has become the dean of the Indian opium traders, realizing profits for the family as great as those of many of the British and Americans but, in the racist fashion of the times, he is looked down upon as “inferior.” However, he comes to play a principal role in the traders’ increasingly tense and threatening dealings with the newly energized Chinese government, which has resolved to end the opium trade. (Bahram is the author’s invention, but the English and American traders depicted in the novel come straight from the pages of history.)

Any lover of language will find the writing of Amitav Ghosh irresistible. I certainly did. Both the dialogue and the narrative text in Sea of Poppies were enchanting. Ghosh had immersed himself in contemporaneous dictionaries and wordlists of 1830s India and Britain to reproduce the language and the vocabulary of not one but several English dialects. In fact, a great many of the novel’s characters are historical figures who left behind memoirs, letters, parliamentary testimony, and other records, and as Ghosh notes in his acknowledgments, “Much that is said in this book is taken from [the characters’] own words.” Even more colorful is the hybrid language that emerged from the marriage of English and Hindi and surfaces in dialogue throughout the book. But in River of Smoke, it’s the pidgin of 19th-Century Canton that stands out, and wonderful it is to behold!

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Want to buy a better brain? Better think twice

A review of Amped, by Daniel H. Wilson

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Some of the very best science fiction explores the unintended consequences of breakthroughs in technology, and not those that are merely fanciful but advances that can be seen years ahead by observers of contemporary science. Amped is such a book.

Amped ventures into the near future — sometime around 2030, it seems — to depict American society in upheaval over the brain implants installed in half a million of its least fortunate citizens. The implants “amplify” the brains of the elderly and infirm, accident victims, and those with severe mental illness and mental retardation, allowing them to focus clearly and to make the most efficient use possible of their bodies. These “amps” are smarter, quicker, and stronger than the average bear — and the vast majority of Americans don’t like it one bit. They’re especially upset about the few amps who began with superior intelligence and outstanding physical abilities and have been turned into superbeings. Nobody likes a smartypants, it seems.

But this novel is not speculative nonfiction thinly disguised as fiction, with lame dialogue used to “explain” and cardboard characters created for the sole purpose of illustrating different points of view. Amped is, instead, a skillfully written novel of suspense that charges ahead with breakneck speed. In fact, the book can best be described as a thriller, with enough action, suspense, and plot twists to sate the desire of any Hollywood producer.

Amped’s author, Daniel H. Wilson, sports a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, which some consider the epicenter of the field. This is Wilson’s seventh book. His previous works include Robopocalypse (reviewed here) and How to Survive a Robot Uprising.

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The 5 best novels I’ve read in 2012

Truth to tell, I haven’t read all that many trade novels during the past year, and, anyway, in general I tend to stay away from the literary “masterpieces” trumpeted so loudly by the likes of the New York Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review. More often than not, I find the darlings of the literary set are writing not for me but for, well, the literary set. I’ve seen far too many impenetrable tomes lauded as fine literature. Give me a good, gripping story any day of the year, and I’ll gladly forego pretty much any one of the Booker Prize winners of recent years. I truly enjoyed reading all five of the books listed below.

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

Political satire of the highest order. I found myself laughing hysterically, sometimes for pages at a time. But, like all superior satire, this book isn’t just funny — its droll treatment of politics in Washington and Beijing is spot-on accurate.

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2. The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

One of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read. Set in Bangkok in the 23rd century, this wildly inventive story examines humanity’s plight once the oceans have risen twenty feet, and most of the human race in in thrall to the American and Chinese “calorie companies” that have killed off virtually all traditional sources of food with genetically engineered plagues.

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3. The Fear Index, by Robert Harris

A chilling novel set in Geneva, where a brilliant and eccentric American physicist has teamed up with an unscrupulous English financier to use the scientist’s breakthrough techniques in artificial intelligence to manipulate the financial markets.

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4. The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

The Orwellian story of a North Korean “tunnel rat,” trained in kidnapping and hand-to-hand combat in the tunnels leading under the DMZ to South Korea, who briefly becomes a confidante of the country’s elite military commanders and of the Dear Leader himself, only later to find himself confined to a prison mine, where citizens who run afoul of officialdom are worked to death underground.

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5. Incendiary, by Chris Cleave

A deeply unsettling novel structured as an open letter to Osama bin Laden from a devastated young mother whose husband and young son have died in a massive terrorist attack on a soccer game in London.

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A roller-coaster ride through the depths of depravity in rural Kansas

A review of Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

She looks like a nice person, and I have no reason to believe that she isn’t. But she writes about some of the most twisted, miserable, good-for-nothing human beings imaginable.

Dark Places, the second of Gillian Flynn’s three novels to date and the second I’ve read (after her spectacular current best-seller, Gone Girl), takes a novel approach to unraveling the truth behind a 1985 mass murder in the American Heartland known as the Satanic Ritual Murders of Kinakee. Kinakee is a small, depressed farm town in Kansas, but we learn little about the town. The murders took place in the middle of the night on the small, failing farm of the Day family, where Patty Day and her four children — 15-year-old Ben, 10-year-old Michelle, and Debby and Libby, who are eight and seven respectively — have been living on the edge of starvation. Their father, Runner, has long since fled the farm, having driven it to the point of foreclosure with a series of extravagant and unnecessary equipment purchases.

Now, 24 years later, Ben is nearing 40, serving a life sentence for the murders of his mother and sisters. Libby, now 31, who survived the murders by hiding outside in the cold, has been living from the donations sent to support her and from the meager income from her book about the murders, but now the money is nearly gone. The story unfolds in chapters that alternate between Ben’s recollections of that day in January 1985, mixed with his mother’s alternate accounts, and Libby’s discoveries as the prospect of easy money that will help her avoid getting a job draws her more and more deeply into investigating the events of that day.

Flynn writes with a sure hand, and she does an outstanding job of building suspense in what seems an effortless manner. I found myself increasingly tense as the book neared its conclusion — suspecting I knew what had happened but doubting myself because it seemed so unlikely. Unfortunately, I was right, and that contrived ending is the book’s biggest flaw. But it’s a roller-coaster ride all the way to the end and well worthwhile for the thrill.

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