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Archive for the ‘High suspense’ Category

spyIt was a cause celebre in France and much of the liberal Western world, a scandal that exposed cultural divisions thought to have resolved years before.  It discredited a government, tarnished the honor of an entire army, and inflamed relations among already-antagonistic neighbors. It elevated some men and broke others.  It brought infamy on an obscure little island off South America, and led to the creation of a new country.  And it was, and is, a drama suited for a novelist such as Robert Harris.  It was the Dreyfus Affair.

Harris begins his telling of the story with the degradation of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer who was convicted of espionage and treason.  In it’s immediate aftermath, Georges Picquart is elevated to the decidedly sordid world of French counterespionage. Picquart’s new department had just achieved an astounding success, ferreting out Dreyfus’ plot to sell secrets to the hated Germans, and providing the evidence which convicted him. The antisemitism whipped up by leaders in all areas of French life would cool as Dreyfus was shipped off to serve his life sentence on Devil’s Island, and the Army could return to planning their next attack on Germany.

But Picquart begins uncovering inconsistencies and hidden files, and even more frightening, evidence that there is another spy in the French Army – or that the wrong man was convicted. His efforts to investigate are stymied, until it is plain that something more than a botched trial has happened.  When he is disgraced and transferred to a dangerous colonial post, he becomes convinced that corruption at the heart of his beloved institution now threatens the ideals of France, and he embarks on a dangerous course.

Harris uses all of the staples of the spy thriller to unpack this story. The secret codes, forgery, surveillance, plots and counterplots, paranoia, and red herrings could easily have been created out of whole cloth. But Harris does not deviate from historical accuracy; the drama of the story stems from the inner workings of Georges Picquart’s mind and from his growing conviction that justice and balance must be restored by one courageous person. In the background is his knowledge of Alfred Dreyfus’ plight – the lone prisoner on Devil’s Island, with guards forbidden to speak to him, his tiny hut surrounded by a wall, his every letter censored or withheld at whim, the Dreyfus’ family’s unshakeable faith that his innocence will come to light – and the urgency of freeing the wrongly convicted man.

So how did the Dreyfus Affair accomplish all that I claimed in the first paragraph? It was the openly anti-Semitic fervor of the Catholic Church that led to the definitive separation of Church from the French government. The affair caused several parliamentary governments to fall, and the senior officers of the Army were forced to retire. And for one journalist covering the breaking of Alfred Dreyfus, it led to an inescapable conclusion – for Jews to be safe, they had to have their own home. Thus was born Theodor Herzl’s push for a Zionist movement, which led to the creation of Israel.  All this because a few men decided that it was easier to persecute a Jew than take a few simple steps to solve a real crime.

Check the WRL catalogue for An Officer and a Spy

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BlondeI have been a fan of Anna Godbersen’s books since she first published. Her descriptions of life in New York were amazing, and she is a graduate of Barnard College, as am I, which made me enjoy her work more than ever. When my husband brought me her latest book, I was looking for more about life in New York City more than a century ago. Boy was I wrong! The Blonde is something else entirely. This is a story set in time I remember well.

We meet a struggling Marilyn Monroe, who was a constant figure in the news and pretty much a part of the lives of movie goers and news features. She was a beautiful woman, an unhappy woman with multiple marriages and a drug problem, and someone who was a lost soul. The book shares that, but it also shares something else. In general, we also knew that Senator and later President John F. Kennedy was something of a philanderer. But this book ties Marilyn Monroe not only to his philandering, but also to the assassination of Kennedy. I had seen television shows that included Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to JFK, but I was probably too young to connect all the dots.

Almost everyone of school age and older remembers where they were when the news of the JFK assassination spread. People were glued to the television, watching the swearing in of President Johnson, seeing Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby. The funeral was on all televisions. What followed were investigations which somehow never seemed to completely explain what really happened.

Anna Godbersen has created her own theory. Not only is it plausible, but it is told beautifully. Sometimes the real story is, in fact, stranger than fiction. If for no other reason, read The Blonde just to enjoy a mesmerizing story that will leave you wondering.

Check the WRL catalog for The Blonde

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we3Positive that the war of the future should not require human casualties, Air Force researchers have been working on machines that will do the fighting in the human’s stead. But these fighters are not purely metal, they are cyborgs: coats of armor attached to implants in an animal. The three original prototypes consist of a dog, a cat, and a rabbit. Named 1, 2, and 3, together they comprise WE3. Each possesses skills that are reflective of their host animal and working together as a team they are dynamic and fearsome. As weapons, they are ruthless and programmable, but also maintain some autonomy.

I had seen this book several times, but was initially turned off by the front picture of the three animals in their mechanical suits. Convinced that it was just another book full of big robot battles and not much depth, I was judging a book by its cover and was completely wrong about the story. For at the heart of the plot, and of the suits, are the three animals. This is horror, but the terror comes not from the copious amounts of blood sprayed around the dark pages or the shock of sudden violent deaths, but rather from the slow-building dismay and revulsion you experience as the contrast between the past lives of the animals as beloved companions and their current weaponized state gains clarity. Three separate Lost Animal posters are scattered through the first part of the book, and the distress over their missing animals by their owners is conveyed in heartbreaking fashion through the personal photos that are attached and especially, in the case of the rabbit, by the childish scrawls of the unhappy young owners.

The innocence of the animals, with their vague memories of a faraway place called “home,” and their strong will to survive and be safe, clash against the efforts of the humans who are convinced that they need to be decommissioned and destroyed. At the back of the story is an examination of the morality of war and the struggle to face the ethics of what science has so ruthlessly created.

Gripping, atmospheric, and unsettling, this is a story which will stay with you for a while after you have read it.

Recommended for readers of graphic novels and horror.

Search the catalog for WE3.

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Poisoners HandbookScience isn’t just esoteric stuff done in a distant lab by detached and isolated scientists, rather it has everyday and real-life implications for us all. And in the case of The Poisoner’s Handbook, real death implications as well. In a time of numerous CSI television programs we blithely imagine that a forensics expert glances around a crime scene, swirls something in a test tube, and twenty minutes later announces that the butler did it, who then confesses to being a serial killer. This makes good TV but real forensics is much slower, less certain and more work. Forensics is also a lot newer than you might imagine. A hundred years ago in New York, arguably the world’s premier city, the police and medical staff  often had very little idea of what was killing people. Accidental poisoning was common because poisons were easy to acquire and almost impossible to detect in a body. Cyanide was common in cleaning supplies and pest control, with unsurprisingly fatal results! Poison was also an excellent (or more accurately dreadful) way to murder people because it was very hard to prove what caused death.

The subtitle of this book: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York sounds glamorous, but the book paints a portrait of a scary world where ignorance ruled, followed closely by corruption and hubris. The corruption of New York during prohibition was ranged against the dedication of scientists and doctors, notably Alexander Gettler and Charles Norris, the courageous and brilliant real-life heroes of our story.

Author Deborah Blum says she wanted to be a chemist until she set her hair on fire with a Bunsen burner. Her father was a scientist and mother had a collection of murder mysteries, so she wanted to combine them for a nonfiction scientific Agatha Christie and she succeeded remarkably well. Try The Poisoner’s Handbook for nonfiction with the characterization and suspense of a novel. It is a fascinating portrait of the historical intersection between science and society, likeThe Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson, or The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Bear in mind, this is not for the squeamish, as forensics are described in detail and poisoning and its aftermath are painted as so common that it is surprising that anyone survived at all.

PBS recognized the dramatic potential in this great book and made a documentary that was released in February, 2014. It is a great companion to the book with historic photographs of New York as well as our heroes Norris and Gettler.

Check the WRL catalog for The Poisoner’s Handbook.

Check the WRL catalog for the new documentary based on the book The Poisoner’s Handbook.

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Thrillers rarely come along that are created with as much verve as Headhunters, a standalone novel by Norwegian author Jo Nesbø, who also writes the Harry Hole series. The crafty, intelligent plot has a bit of noir as well as some jaw-dropping comic moments; you won’t believe the literally sticky situations that come up amid Hitchcockian twists and turns. You’ll also find well-developed characters despite the book’s brevity (less than 300 pages), which I always appreciate.

Roger Brown is a corporate headhunter who moonlights as an art thief to maintain a lavish lifestyle for his wife. He is also clearly trying to compensate for his short height and his insecurity about having such a gorgeous wife, terrified that she’ll discover his true colors. In Roger’s misguided drive to supplement his already lucrative work and preserve his marriage, he suddenly finds himself caught in a web of unclear motives and loyalties, with no one to trust. He wonders just how long he’s been the target in someone’s larger scheme rather than solely the mastermind of his own crimes.

Clas Greve is not only a brilliant and devilishly handsome corporate icon, he’s also a tried and tested covert special forces operative skilled as another type of “head hunter.” His history with GPS tracking technology landed him the CEO position with a major corporation rumored to have lost him following a takeover. Roger Brown’s wife Diana, who meets Greve through her art gallery, tips Roger off to Greve’s availability as a potential CEO candidate, and Roger thinks he is perfect to head a competing GPS technology firm. Diana also tells the tale of a missing masterpiece by Rubens that was found in Clas Greve’s grandmother’s apartment in Oslo. Not only does Roger think he has found the perfect executive for his client, he plots to steal the work of art that might set him up in luxury for life.

Pampered, polished Roger, a sophisticated businessman and very classy thief, may be in over his head, but in the course of an adventurous and outrageous series of circumstances, he reveals his true grit. The reader will end up rooting for this undeserving hero. Fans of Stieg Larsson, Elmore Leonard, or Carl Hiaasen are likely to be enraptured.

“MPAA rating: R; for bloody violence including some grisly images, strong sexual content and nudity.” If you are over 17, and know that you could at least stomach Pulp Fiction or Fight Club, don’t let this intimidating film rating prevent you from viewing the riveting Norwegian film version of the novel. Despite the rating, I found it less disturbing than expected, not as violent or brutal as your average Tarantino flick—the murders in Headhunters come across as rather accidental, not cold-blooded or ultra-disturbingly violent. Yes, there are some graphic scenes, but you’ll be so caught up in the unexpected plot twists that I doubt you’ll find them too extreme—well, except for one scene reminiscent of the unforgettable outhouse scene in Slumdog Millionaire. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed suspense this much since Fargo. What you should know is that the details in some scenes are so much more graphic in the book that you’ll be glad that the director chose to leave them out!

The DVD has settings for viewing in Norwegian with subtitles or with English dubbing. I enjoyed it in Norwegian more because the English was dubbed with American accents. Roger Brown’s character is British and all the other characters are either Norwegian or Dutch, so it just made more sense to use the English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for the book 

Check the catalog for the ebook

Check the catalog for the DVD

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guestsHere’s a terrific book for those who can’t get enough of Downton Abbey and want to take that experience into their reading.  Set in Edwardian England, The Uninvited Guests visits some of the same themes of class and deeply held secrets, but adds a touch of strangeness that makes the book feel increasingly Gothic.

Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday celebration is overshadowed by circumstances.  Her beloved house, Sterne (ok, it’s no Downton Abbey, but it is home) is under threat of foreclosure, and her stepfather has to leave, hat in hand, to try to borrow money.  While amiable, he doesn’t hold a candle to her real father, dead these three years.  Her mother is shallow and self-centered, frequently absent from family obligations.  Her younger brother is petulant and resentful.  A neighbor and childhood friend may or may not be paying her court.  And the only people invited to the party are also childhood friends thought of with the mild contempt of those who have not seen each other in many years.  Oh, yes, there’s her little sister, everyone’s afterthought.

None of that tops the final indignity.  A train crash on a nearby branch line strands several passengers, who show up on the doorstep.  Third-class passengers, they are poorly dressed, somewhat smelly, and many are definitely odd-looking.  Since they were sent by the railway, Emerald has no choice but to take them in and give them temporary shelter.  She even gives up her birthday meal – not the cake, though – to feed the ever-increasing number of passengers.  She and her guests scrape the larder to meet the passengers’ demands, and in doing so create a fellowship among themselves that ignites new and interesting dynamics.

Then a lone first-class passenger, Charlie Somebody Something (no one can remember his name) arrives and is invited to join the dinner party.  He gradually insinuates himself into the role of host, dominating the younger people and exposing them to dark and worldly knowledge.  His power over the group is such that he convinces them to play a cruel and frightening game that shatters their tenuous bond and reveals a devastating secret.

The novel slowly shifts into a claustrophobic atmosphere in which all kinds of boundaries fall, including the boundary between the solid world and the spiritual realm.  As the night progresses, it seems that all of the young people reach a moment of revelation that forever separates them from innocence and childhood.

And that younger sister, still in the throes of childhood?  Eleven-year old Smudge has the run of the house and takes full advantage of it to pull off what she calls her “Great Undertaking.”  The consequences of that Undertaking will collide with the family’s responsibilities towards the stranded passengers and bring the evening’s events to a bizarre and disquieting close.

Jones is effective at creating an unsettled feel through her descriptions.  Wherever there is a choice of adjectives she chooses the darkest alternative.  She finds ways to describe the smells of cooking and of wet clothing and candles to bring us into an old and crowded house, and picks characteristics of each person that establishes them in the reader’s mind.  In many ways certain plot points are ambiguous, but reading back over the storyline, you discover that she planted seeds that lead to some kind of answer. Our book groups enjoyed dissecting the story, and many of the readers provided the kind of insights that make other members view it in a new light.

Check the WRL catalog for The Uninvited Guests

It will also be available beginning August 2013 as a Gab Bag for book discussion groups.

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The Art Detective Philip Mould became a television celebrity from his role appraising works of art unearthed from dusty attics or flea markets on the popular “Antiques Roadshow,” but according to his memoir he began as an ambitious art dealer who just happened to fall in love with the game of chasing down a good find using the forensic and research expertise of his reliable staff, his vast knowledge of artists and fine art portraiture and often pure instinct along with a willingness to risk his reputation in the highly competitive art world.  Sheer luck seems to have been in his favor with a number of great finds that, had he been wrong — such as in his decision to scrape away some over-painting — might have had disastrous consequences both financial and for art’s sake.  He seems very fortunate to have found early success that he has been rolling with ever since, which makes for a very fascinating read about his life’s work.

“In this book I explain how the history of a picture can color its appearance.  I show how provenance can completely blind eminent authorities into believing a picture is authentic when it is a fake, and also how provenance can unlock a picture’s importance and stature.”

This book was very appealing for the sense of mystery involved with researching and following clues to determine a work of art’s provenance and condition, often literally peeling layers of paint to reveal the true masterpiece in disguise. I liked the storytelling skill and use of suspense.  Descriptions of bizarre art collectors’ habits created vivid portraits of the persons associated with the art under investigation.  These and some incredible frauds provided a number of laugh-out-loud moments for me as well.

The stories relating the complex process of unraveling the truth about individual works of arts were rich with detail, wit, and sensationalism.  I will say that they could have benefited from more complete documentation of his findings; particularly, some additional dates would have oriented me into the moment better.  Some of the works discussed are in museums or locations that I have either had access to or had contemplated in books previously, which increased my interest in learning more.  The book also sparked my interest in seeking episodes of Antiques Roadshow on both BBC and PBS, which before I read this book were the type of put-me-to-sleep programs I would have clicked right past.  I felt as though I were being welcomed behind the scenes of the elite art environment in which Philip Mould makes his living.

Check the WRL catalog for The Art Detective

I found it to be a very quick and engaging read as an e-book.

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OriginFor the scientists at Little Cam, a top-secret research compound hidden deep within the Amazon rainforest, immortality is no longer an ambition but a reality.  With the creation of Pia seventeen years ago, the scientists achieved their dream after more than a hundred years of experimentation. Hidden away from the world at Little Cam, Pia has always considered her life to be perfect and absolute. But one night curiosity takes over, and she dares to venture outside the facility through a newly created opening in the fence. Once on the other side, Pia is so transfixed by the freedom of the jungle that she fails to notice a native boy, Eio, and runs right into him. Soon, Pia is discovering a new community of people, a different way of life and emotions that she never knew existed. The tropical forest and its native Ai’oan inhabitants along with handsome Eio all call to Pia in a way the compound never has. As the story progresses, the history and happenings at the research facility become strikingly more disturbing, and shocking secrets about Pia’s creation are revealed. When every ounce of her morality and humanity are questioned, Pia is torn between the life she is expected to live and the one that speaks to her heart.

Check the WRL catalog for Origin

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injusticeSo a businessman and his son go into a downtown Miami hotel suite to meet with a potential client who might help boost their meager income. Instead, a man with whom they have a dispute steps out, shoots the father in the knee, drags the son up some stairs, then shoots him execution-style. The father escapes, gets out the door, and bangs on the door across the hall, leaving blood in the hall, but the import-export businessman in that room doesn’t hear a thing, including the shots that then kill the father. Neville Butler, who has been held hostage in the room since before the father and son arrived, is then released.

Following Butler’s call to the police, British businessman Krishna Maharaj is detained. After waiving his Miranda rights, he makes inconsistent statements to the investigators, who hold him long enough to discover that his fingerprints are in the hotel room, and Maharaj is arrested and charged with first-degree murder for the executions of Dwight and Duane Moo Young, former associates and now rivals for Maharaj’s Caribbean newspaper. The case goes to trial. Maharaj, a flamboyant millionaire, hires the lowest bidder, Mark Hendon, as his attorney. The trial proceeds in a swift and orderly manner, except that the presiding judge is replaced after three days of testimony. Based on fingerprint evidence, a ballistics expert’s identification of Maharaj’s gun, and Neville Butler’s testimony, Maharaj is given life in prison for Dwight’s murder, and the death sentence for Duane’s.

After several years, the case comes to the attention of Clive Stafford Smith, an attorney specializing in capital cases. On his own, taking time away from his fledgling non-profit practice focusing on Louisiana death penalty cases, Smith begins reviewing the case, and this open-and-shut case turns out to have been far more complex than the trial transcript would indicate. His early investigation turns up boxes of evidence and interview materials that hadn’t been made available to the defense, prosecutors’ notes indicating that they instructed the detectives and their chief witness how to perjure themselves, and witnesses that prove that Maharaj wasn’t even in Miami at the time of the killings. Some of his basic rights—over and above their violation of his Miranda rights—were not explained to him or put into practice. Forensic evidence was questionable, but Maharaj’s trial attorney didn’t cross-examine, and even rested without calling a single witness. Confident that the reams of documentary evidence show that Maharaj did not receive a fair trial and that his counsel was (to put it mildly) incompetent, Smith heads into the appeals process.

But door after legal door is slammed in Maharaj’s face. The appeals courts won’t consider new evidence—it wasn’t presented in a timely manner and appellate courts don’t try the facts of the case. Each attempt to reopen the case takes months, if not years, to litigate, partially because a prosecutor won’t accept plentiful evidence that her colleagues convicted an innocent man. When he’s finally granted a new trial, Smith can’t introduce all the new evidence and Maharaj is again found guilty. But because the jury doesn’t prescribe the death penalty, Maharaj’s future opportunities for appeal are severely limited—capital cases usually get at least a cursory glance. Based on all the trials and appeals that go before, Maharaj’s last chance—a reprieve from Florida Governor Charlie Crist—is denied.

Unfortunately, as Smith details, Maharaj’s case is only one example of the miscarriage of justice that capital crimes nearly always involve. From personal experience and well-documented cases, Smith demonstrates that each individual misstep in the justice system that Maharaj experienced is echoed across the country, even in non-capital cases. Part of it is the culture, and he shows that from the patrol officer to the US Supreme Court, the fundamental conservatism of the law is geared towards convictions, not justice or even truth. The real poverty of this view is that convicting the innocent allows the guilty to go unpunished.

Smith’s writing is urgent, and his construction of the story maximizes both the drama and the documentation of his fundamental thesis. As he breaks the case down, the depth of the law enforcement and judicial errors becomes appallingly clear. The parallels he establishes between Maharaj’s case and convictions across the country point to the idea that the American justice system has reversed its supposed ideal. At the same time, his admiration for Maharaj (which is echoed by everyone from business associates to prison guards) as a man shines through. Even after being in prison since 1987—including 10 years on Death Row—Maharaj remains kind, gentle, and positive.

This is a timely book. States have begun to revisit their commitments to the death penalty after subsequent investigations and trials have freed other innocent people from Death Row. It is increasingly likely that people known to be innocent were executed anyway. If someone heeds Clive Stafford Smith’s plea to come forward and exonerate Krishna Maharaj, it would be a miracle; if others use his case to strengthen their calls for an end to the death penalty, it would be a huge step to ending the gaping flaws in our (in)justice system.

Check the WRL catalog for The Injustice System

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gonegirlI was surprised to find that no one here at Blogging for a Good Book had written about Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller. After all, a tight suspenseful mystery surrounding a ripped-from-the-headlines event should have caught our attention.

Well, I finally got my copy, and in trying to write about it without giving the whole thing away I’ve learned why no one else touched it. After all, it’s a runaway bestseller about a ripped-from-the-headlines event reconstructed as a tight suspenseful mystery, which means plot twists and surprises, and if you read any further you might just find out why, and then Gillian Flynn and Crown Publishers will be mad at me for spoiling the book, but I’m on the hook because I’ve already written this much. So, there’s this guy and this girl, and she’s gone.  Stop here if you don’t want me to give anything away.

Actually, the guy is Nick, and the girl is his wife, Amy. Nick is storybook handsome, with enough boyish charm to attract plenty of women. Amy is “Amazing Amy,” the inspiration for a long-running and successful series of children’s books that made her parents a fortune, gave her a huge trust fund, and got her lots of attention everywhere she went. Their meet-cute storybook romance and wedding have given way to the realities and compromises of marriage, but Amy is determined to press forward and recapture the excitement and intimacy of their early days together. At least, that’s according to her diary. Seriously, don’t read any further.

Nick, on the other hand, is a passive, self-centered guy whose failures in New York gave him an excuse to drag the cosmopolitan Amy to his Missouri hometown. His saintly mom is dying of cancer, his nasty father has Alzheimer’s, and his beloved twin sister has retreated home from her own losses. Their hometown is quickly dying in the turbulence of the Great Recession and the signs of collapse are all around.  Then comes the fateful day, which is detailed through Nick’s eyes.  I’m warning you—don’t go on!

On their fifth anniversary, Amy disappears, leaving behind signs of a struggle. The initial investigation and all-out search proceeds as if she’s been kidnapped, but the deeper the investigation gets, the more Nick tells us that he’s lying to the police. He has no alibi for the time surrounding her loss, he misleads them about the nature of his and Amy’s relationship, and he can’t explain why the evidence of a struggle appears to have been manufactured. And the culture of infamy begins. Unfortunate photographs,  inconsistencies in his story, and the natural inclination to look to the remaining spouse as the likely guilty party trigger the interest of a scandal-mongering true-crime TV show. Shocking revelations trickle out at the worst possible times, and Nick’s efforts to steer his public image are doomed in the face of the unrelenting spotlight. OK, you’ve made your choice—let the consequences be on your head.

By this time, the reader is lost in a maze of mirrors. Do we believe the writings of the best wife a man can want, or the admissions of the worst kind of husband a woman can have? Do we trust his self-confessed failings, or his efforts to find out if someone from Amy’s past has surfaced to harm her? Does he deserve the belief that his family (and Amy’s) have in him, or are the police right to focus on him? Flynn constructs these uncertainties in a way that continually pulls the readers’ feet off what little firm ground they have to stand on.  Spoiler alert!

Keep in mind that this all happens in the first third of the book. And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

By deconstructing Amy and Nick’s marriage (with Amy’s disappearance looming in the background), Flynn also asks readers to examine the fool’s paradise that most of us construct when we try to deceive others. (And it was Sir Walter Scott, not Shakespeare, who famously reminds us of that.) There are some, though, who can construct elaborate structures to hang their lies on, and who can manipulate others by observing and anticipating normal behavior. When the lie is big enough, its sheer improbability gives it credence—who could go to such lengths to create a falsehood? Flynn finds a way to show us, even as she gradually introduces the idea that their victims sometimes can’t find a way to escape the destruction.

Neil’s comprehensive list of 2012′s Best Books shows that Gone Girl was the best reviewed mystery of the year. Based on all the stuff I can’t or won’t tell you, I have to agree with the reviewers.

Check the WRL catalog for Gone Girl

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Department 19Fans of Will Hill’s first book, Department 19, will not be disappointed by The Rising. In this exciting and fast-paced sequel, the Operators of Department 19 are tested beyond measure when their director, Admiral Seward, reveals that the world’s oldest and most powerful vampire, Dracula, has risen once again. As the disturbing news sparks more vampire attacks and a higher level of secrecy between department members, Jamie, Kate and Larissa all struggle to keep their bond intact. Subplots abound throughout Hill’s 600-page novel, and familiar characters such as Frankenstein and the Rusmanov brothers reappear at center stage. But there are plenty of new mysteries to be solved with the introduction of a seemingly friendly, genius scientist and a wandering desert man who knows all about vampires and the inter-workings of Department 19. Readers will find many of the aspects they loved from the first book here as well, including technological super weapons, intense battle scenes, a good level of descriptive gore and moral dilemmas that call human nature into question. The Rising is written in an almost movie script-like fashion that allows the reader to visualize the story in exceptional detail. There is no doubt that Hill is once again able to captivate readers and leave them begging for more.

Check the WRL catalog for The Rising

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HarvestThe psychologically disturbing horrors of the evil-doers in this medical thriller made my spine tingle. Even though I found it hard to believe some of the sticky situations these characters found themselves in, I found myself believing that such corruption, immorality, and greed might indeed be possible in the medical community and I now possess a new suspicion of doctors and hospital systems.

Gerritsen’s adrenaline-charged thrillers followed her earlier career in romantic suspense, but her focus on the medical settings in these crime thrillers is what got my attention. That, and the constantly moving plot of this intricately layered story about a very promising medical resident-cum-amateur detective, Dr. Abby DiMatteo, who finds herself uncovering clues to the disturbing possibility that extremely wealthy heart transplant recipients may be jumping to the head of the non-discriminating transplant list while other patients with a legitimate place lose their lives. Even more disturbing is the possible source of the “donated” organs. From the very first chapter, fascinating characters are introduced in separate plotlines such that the reader suspects but doesn’t know for sure how each of the characters will be connected later on. This was a great stand-alone read with a very satisfying ending. It’s not the entry into a series and it’s one of her early thrillers, but I didn’t find anything about it out of place in time. A romantic plot is threaded into the story as well.

The knowledge that the author was a real-life doctor before she turned to full-time writing gives me confidence in her ability to accurately portray medical students, residents, and practicing physicians. Lovers of suspense and mystery will love Harvest, and the themes are so disturbingly chilling that even horror fans might enjoy Tess Gerritsen, who also incorporates the supernatural into some of her novels.

Look for Harvest in the WRL catalog.

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It seems as though it took years for fiction writers to process the impact of the Vietnam War in a meaningful way.  It also seems as though the fiction emerging from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is more immediate, rawer, and as significant as any that came out of Vietnam.  I don’t know why the two wars differ in that respect, nor which of the newer novels will survive, but in terms of sheer impact, The Watch has a good chance of being that book.

The story: at a remote outpost guarding access to the mountains of Kandahar, American soldiers maintain a vigilant watch against Taliban fighters.  After a brutal night attack which leaves the Americans on edge, a legless young woman arrives on the plain outside the base.  She has wheeled herself on a cart through the tortuous landscape to retrieve the body of her brother for proper burial.  Suspicious of her motives, afraid of a suicide bombing attempt, and unable to communicate with her, the Americans order her first to leave, then to stay outside the perimeter.  Negotiations, if her stubborn refusal to leave and their refusal to release the body, can be called negotiations, proceed very slowly, until an uneasy truce is achieved.  While the events are slowly unfolding, we see through the eyes of the various characters that this culture clash is both unavoidable and irreconcilable.

The moral heart of the story is occupied by Nizam, the Pashtun woman, and by Americans Lieutenant Nick Frobenius and First Sergeant Marcus Whalen.  Frobenius brings the benefit of his classical Dartmouth education to the reader, recognizing Nizam’s stand as parallel to that of Antigone in Sophocles’ play.  He also represents the disillusionment of men who joined the military from patriotic motives only to discover that they were being used as pawns in a game of chess with ill-defined goals, as well as one whose relationship has suffered during his deployment.   Whalen is the competent career man, the bridge between the officers and the lower ranks whose sense of duty keeps him going despite his exhaustion.  And Nizam is the person who has right on her side but no power to claim it.  Now her family’s sole survivor, she wants to fulfill the final rite of a courageous warrior.  It is impossible for her to envision anything outside her traditional role in Pashtun society, but she brings the dignity and strength of a person secure in her identity to the battle of wills. Other chapters are narrated by different characters, but their stories revolve around their interactions with these three, and around the questions raised by the force of their characters.

Roy-Bhattacharya uses the atmosphere of the war zone effectively.  The Americans are running on uppers in the wake of the night attack, drowsing on their feet and experiencing vivid and all-too-short dreams of home.  Isolation and vulnerability,  and the harsh conditions—dust storms, freezing nights, hot days—reinforce to them that they are aliens.  Their base is cramped and smelly, but the expansive plains and looming mountains outside the walls may conceal threats.  And the close quarters can make them hate the comrades they must depend on.

Who should give way when an individual with right on her side meets powerful people with might and a strict code of conduct?  That question has been explored in literature and art, and lived out by individuals determined to change their world.  That question isn’t on Nizam’s mind, but the reader can’t help but confront it.  This is a tragic tale, told with power and precision by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya.

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A very important question for people who love to read is, can the sequel ever be as good as first book? And in this case the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’!

I blogged on Mike Mullin’s debut novel Ashfall in April, and I have been anticipating the release of the sequel Ashen Winter ever since. In Ashfall a supervolcano erupted under Yellowstone National Park and sixteen year old Alex sets off on an odyssey from his home in Iowa to find his family in Illinois. The ash has destroyed the plants, killed the livestock (from breathing the ash), and poisoned the water. In Ashfall  some people are kind, and Alex meets Darla who will become the love of his life. Ten months on in Ashen Winter people’s desperation is growing. No summer came, possibly presaging the beginning of an unbelievably long and cold volcanic winter. Stored food is running out, and the last supplies of necessities we take for granted like antibiotics and gasoline are also running out. Alex struggles to stay true to the values he didn’t even know he had. In a world full of human cruelty and even cannibalism  he wants to save everyone who is innocent. Even his previously mild, spineless father resorts to violence leading Alex to think, “The disaster had warped the landscape of our minds – perhaps even more than it had altered the physical landscape.”

Ashen Winter is as dark as Ashfall and goes at the same breakneck pace. The problems of survival are just as intense, and the characters continue to change and grow in a believable way. I find some apocalyptic books, movies or TV series fascinating in the beginning as the characters deal with how to survive their disasters. Then too many of them descend into soap opera, where the story centers around who is hooking up with whom, rather than who will actually be able to survive to be able to hook up with anyone.

Like its predecessor Ashen Winter is an apocalyptic read that is a good choice for both older teens and adults. It may be too violent and disturbing for younger teens. Try it if you enjoyed The Hunger Games or older apocalyptic titles such as On The Beach or even less well known books like Monument 14.

Ashen Winter was so eagerly anticipated that it had a Blog Tour before its official release date. One blog, My Reading Room, had an interview with Mike Mullin. When asked who is his favorite character in Ashen Winter, Mike Mullin replied “I love Rita Mae, because, well, she’s a librarian.” For a librarian, obviously this is the best answer he could give and shows his good sense and taste!

Check the WRL catalog for Ashen Winter

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From watching Jurassic Park it seems plausible that Michael Crichton thought, “Hey, what if dinosaurs and people had been around at the same time? People are so helpless. We are small, with no claws and teensy teeth.  We’d just get eaten!”  Which made an exciting (albeit gory) story.  I am guessing that the idea for Micro started in a similar way.  Michael Crichton thought, “What if people were as small as insects? We’re just soft and squishy.  No exoskeleton and only two legs.  We’d just get eaten!”

And sadly for the characters, that is exactly what happens in Micro.  Not for the faint hearted or the weak stomached, Micro is extremely violent and extremely gross. Have you ever seen a nature documentary where the parasitic wasps lay their eggs in the caterpillars, then the larvae hatch and eat the caterpillar from the inside out?  Yuk!  You can’t get much grosser than that.  But imagine the victim isn’t a caterpillar, but a person?  My stomach is uneasy just typing this.  But it doesn’t stop there, the many other nasty ways that insects have of killing and eating each other are explored in exciting, but grisly, detail in Micro.

Michael Crichton died in 2008 before Micro was finished.  To complete the book they selected Richard Preston, whose best books are non-fiction books about diseases and science, try The Hot Zone or Wild Trees.  I think this was an inspired combination.  The book has Michael Crichton’s thrilling pace and Richard Preston’s eye for plausible biological detail.

Micro was an exciting, escapist read that I consumed in one weekend.  Perhaps it is not great literature, and it didn’t receive very good reviews, but when you add an evil corporation, a mad scientist, an exotic tropical location, and a budding love affair, it kept me reading.

Check the WRL catalog for Micro.

 

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Summer camp, notwithstanding Bill Murray’s view of it, is supposed to be a quintessentially formative experience, both for the campers and the counselors.  How then to deal with a summer camp that begins with the hasty dispatch of the trained counselors and ends with a murder?  No, it isn’t Friday the 13th, but a well-drawn, sensitive, and shocking novel by John Dalton.

Three characters dominate the story of Kindermann Forest Summer Camp: owner Schuller Kindermann, camp nurse Harriet Foster, and counselor Wyatt Huddy.  Kindermann has been in charge of the slowly-failing camp since its founding, but always at a slight remove from the daily operation.  A narrow and judgmental man, his ideal is the manufactured and manageable world of model railroads and paper sculpture.  Harriet Foster and her five-year old son James are the only African-Americans in camp.  An outsider by virtue of color, age, and professional background, Harriet is the person with perhaps the clearest view overall of the camp’s operations.  She does have a serious blind spot–she continually second-guesses her understanding of white people.

Wyatt Huddy, along with most of the other counselors, is a last-minute hire.  Born with Apert’s Syndrome, Wyatt hides himself away from people as much as he can.  When the camp job comes up, he and his friend/employer, Salvation Army Captain Throckmorton think working with non-judgmental children is the best way to build Wyatt’s self-confidence.  So off he goes.

Little does he, or any of the new counselors, know what is in store for them.  For the first two weeks of their season, Kindermann Forest hosts the residents of the Missouri state institution for profoundly mentally disabled people.  Even before he’s unpacked his few things, Wyatt is given charge of four men whose need for individual attention would try a saint.

Not that these counselors are saints–some are ordinary teenagers, some have serious troubles of their own, and some just don’t think they can deal with the 24-hour responsibility of these campers.  But as the summer begins shaking out and everyone adapts to the routine, Kindermann Forest looks like it might just turn out to be, if not idyllic, at least a good place.  But trouble lurks, and when it strikes, one character will die, two others will have their ordered lives upended, and Kindermann Forest will be forever changed.  The story doesn’t end there, but to say more would be to reveal the most wonderful section of Dalton’s novel – a sequence of sacrifice and redemption that closes the story.

Dalton used a line from a fictitious poet created by JD Salinger in a 1947 novella -

Not a wasteland, but a great inverted forest with all the foliage underground

for his title, and the novel is filled with those reverses of perception.  It seems obvious in two principal characters, but his deeper reading of all the characters shows each of them presenting one face to the world and another hidden underground.

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The Inverted Forest is also a Gab Bag.

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My friend and colleague Charlotte previously recommended the first book in Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go. If you haven’t read that book, you ought to stop here, read this post about the series starter and come back to The Ask and the Answer after you’ve read it. Spoiler alerts for anyone who reads on in this post! Still, this YA series is so good that it deserves a second entry.

The second book picks up with Todd and Viola waking to discover that Mayor Prentiss has arrived at Haven and holds them separately captive. The Mayor has changed tactics somewhat, and is now working to win Todd and Viola over to his cause. What follows are chapters full of subtle psychological games, as Todd and Viola try to confirm each other’s safety and reunite, while the Mayor plays both good cop and bad cop in his nasty but subtle style.

The unusual conceit of the series is that a virus left men on this planet unable to hide their thoughts from others. In their heads, each can hear what everyone else is thinking. Women don’t broadcast their thoughts but can hear those of men, an inequality that makes Mayor Prentiss particularly hard on them as he struggles to maintain control. Some residents of Haven give in quickly to his armed dictatorship, but others begin to engage in vicious guerilla warfare, hiding under the mysterious moniker of The Ask. The Mayor responds with his own Gestapo-like organization, The Answer. Not just Todd and Viola are at risk, everyone in Haven is in danger, and the future of the whole planet’s up for grabs, as another wave of colonizing ships is due soon. To make matters worse, the Mayor has discovered a method of masking his thoughts at time, using them like a weapon at others.

Todd, along with the Mayor’s bullying, ne’er-do-well son Davy, is put to work rounding up the planet’s other species, the strange Spackle, and monitoring their forced labor. Viola must recover from injuries, then begins to learn healing arts herself, all the while searching for both Todd and those with whom she could ally to fight the Mayor.

Ness writes masterfully, leaving the reader unsure of whom to trust. Todd, in particular, undergoes a dark journey in this novel, suffering manipulations that lead him to behaviors that give him great shame. The suspense of the outcome of the ongoing war becomes almost secondary to the question of whether Todd can even save his own soul. If you’ve ever wondered how people can become twisted enough to perpetrate the heinous deeds committed during wartime, this book will provide an unforgettable example. There’s drama, suspense, action, and an enduring romance at the core of a series, which should be enjoyable to all adults, whether they’re young or not.

Check the WRL catalog for The Ask and the Answer

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A guy walks into a bar…

Well I promise you haven’t heard this one. The guy in question goes by the name of Pepper, which would also be a good description for his personality. Pepper’s a hothead and his trip to a Queens bar to warn his girlfriend’s ex-husband to leave her alone turns into a brawl that includes three off-duty cops. Not wanting to take the time it would require to put Pepper through the booking process, and also wanting to teach him a lesson, the three take him instead to a mental health facility, where he’s committed for a 72-hour surveillance.

That’s the starting point for LaValle’s tale. Pepper’s lack of friends or family, his temper, his mishandling of initial contacts with some of the other patients, his run-ins with the overworked staff, and the numbing effects of powerful meds soon stretch that three-day stay into months. To make matters worse, a patient who is mysteriously protected by the staff in a separate wing that nobody is allowed to enter makes nighttime trips through the ceiling tiles, occasionally murdering other residents. They call him the Devil, and most think him a  monster while a few think he’s just a very sick man. Pepper becomes allied in a plot to stop him with the facility’s longest-held resident, a deceptively tough African-American teenage girl, and a man who obsessively uses the phones to try to get help from outside.

LaValle has a fluid, unusual style and a real gift for original characters. I found it easy to get immersed in his story, a kind of blend of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and a monster novel like Stephen King’s It. The book is great summer reading fun, but it also has a serious side with indictments of bureaucracy and the mental health system, insightful glimpses into human nature, and a thorough exploration of what it means to be mentally ill. Pepper is an antihero whose screwups you’ll lament, whose ultimate victory you’ll always desire. To top it off the book is often flat-out funny. In short, there’s something here for almost any kind of reader, making The Devil in Silver an easy book to recommend.

Check the WRL catalog for The Devil in Silver.

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