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Archive for the ‘High suspense’ Category

Eye of the Red TsarThe assassination of the Romanovs is re-worked into an exciting period thriller in this series opener by Sam Eastland. The Eye of the Red Tsar is both the title of the book and the nickname for the lead character, a Finn named Pekkala. The novel opens in 1929, eleven years after the death of the Tsar. Pekkala, once Nicholas II’s right-hand man in matters of secrecy and security, has been held in a work camp, kept available to Stalin should the right opportunity present itself. As the book opens, it has: New evidence about that night has come up, and only Pekkala has the inside information to confirm or deny it.

To complicate matters, the man sent to fetch Pekkala from imprisonment is his own estranged brother, a ne’er-do-well now risen in the Soviet bureaucracy. With great reluctance Pekkala is lured to the case, partly by curiosity, partly through the possibility that one of the Romanovs may have survived. But is he just being used to lead Stalin to the Tsar’s never recovered treasure?

It’s a fascinating premise, and Eastland re-creates the atmosphere of the early Stalinist period believably. He alternates between a journey across a strange Russian landscape (one of my favorite bits involved a show town, built to show off the successes of socialism to visitors) and flashbacks to the story of how Pekkala fell out with his brother, came to Tsar Nicholas II’s attention, and then followed him until the fateful night.

Eastland has continued his series through five books to date, following Pekkala’s charmed but difficult life up to WWII times so far. It’s a consistently enjoyable exploration of a time and place in history where one didn’t have to look far for suspenseful twists of fate.

Check the WRL catalog for Eye of the Red Tsar

Or try it as an audiobook on CD

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giantsBarbara is a fifth-grader who lives with her big sister and her older brother. She sticks out from her peers for myriad reasons: she wears a different pair of animal ears every day; she is completely unable to interact with people in a normal manner; and she is obsessed with her quest to kill giants. She tells stories of many bloody, violent battles with the monsters, and sees signs of an impending attack that no one else notices. Armed with Coveleski, the Giant Slayer (the name she gave her war hammer), she is tough, smart, and in many ways completely unlikable. When finding herself cornered, either physically or emotionally, she lashes out with a vicious intensity.

Offsetting her brutal ferocity is Sophia, a sunny, gentle girl who is new to the neighborhood and is fascinated by Barbara’s stories of giants and the imminent war. As damaged as Barbara so obviously is, she cannot completely cast Sophia aside, and the reader gets glimpses of what looks like desperation for normalcy peeking through her façade. But Barbara is pretty expert in keeping people from hurting her emotionally, and even Mrs. Molle, the school psychologist, finds Barbara a tough case to figure out.

Heavy in the air is a secret, something so terrible that it is driving Barbara into a world of fantasy in order to find some solace. So strong is her emotional shutdown, that even people’s words are blacked out whenever the topic is mentioned. Bit by excruciating bit, her secret is revealed to the reader, as she finds herself unable to keep things contained and her raw pain is brought to the surface

Graphic novels can be a fantastic medium for delving into tough, sensitive topics, as the art can make a reader comprehend those quiet moments of complete emotional devastation better than any possible combination of words. The illustrations by JM Ken Niimura are subtle and explosive as appropriate. Joe Kelly’s writing is nuanced and tense. Recommended for readers of graphic novels, and anyone who likes journeys of self-awareness or coming-of-age stories.

Check the WRL catalog for I Kill Giants.

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Artistic rendering of Hellfighters charging into battleWhile the majority of people are (hopefully) aware of all-black regiments that have fought for America like the Tuskegee Airmen or the Buffalo Soldiers, many do not realize that there were black soldiers who fought in WWI. Highlighting a piece of our nation’s history that has been minimized, ignored, and forgotten, Max Brooks brings the story of the 369th Infantry Regiment roaring back to life. Although the account is fictional, much of the storyline and action comes directly from historical accounts. The amount of research that went into this book is readily apparent and helps ground the story in the mud-laden reality that was life in the trenches.

The first sixty pages of the story cover the forming of the regiment and their training before they are sent overseas. While this might seem like a lot of space to dedicate to inaction, it sets up the reader’s understanding of the social injustice that surrounds the men. These individuals are not just going to war, they are putting their lives on the line to help defend a country that allows them to be beaten, treated lower than dogs, and murdered without hope for justice. It then comes as no surprise that when they are finally about to go off to war, the other New York National Guardsmen, the Rainbow Division, get a parade in their honor, but the 369th are not allowed to attend because “black is not a color of the rainbow.”

Once in France, they are eventually sent to the front lines during a particularly desperate part of the war. As the narrator, Edge, explains: “while our own country didn’t want us, another country needed us.” The French called them the “Men of Bronze”, but after showing their fierceness on the battlefield, the Germans dubbed them “The Harlem Hellfighters.” Several of the characters in the book are actual historical figures, including Eugene Jacques Bullard, a pilot and veteran of both World Wars, and Henry Johnson, who was the first American, black or white, to receive the French Cross of War. The 369th spent 191 days in combat, longer than any other American unit.

The narrative is gripping and entertaining, weaving together the current story and episodes from the individual’s pasts. The characters are concurrently honorable and flawed, but their dignity in fighting both the war they volunteered for and the war on their skin tone is moving and well-executed. The illustrations are by Caanan White, an African-American artist best known for his work on “Uber”, an alternate-ending WWII horror story. White is certainly experienced in depicting scenes of war with all the grit and the violence and intensity. I was often times glad that the art was in black in white, rather than color.

Recommended for fans of military history, civil rights history, and graphic novels.

Check the WRL catalog for Harlem Hellfighters.

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The 39 StepsThe 39 Steps is an espionage story that has been through several incarnations. It began as a very popular 1915 book by John Buchan, the first of a series of adventures involving Richard Hannay, a resourceful engineer bored with London society, whose life takes a complete turn when someone is murdered in his London flat. Soon he’s on the run, framed for the crime by a mysterious spy organization, and in pursuit of a feisty love interest who’s attracted to him but not buying his wild story.

The novel was immortalized by suspense master Alfred Hitchcock in a 1935 film. This incarnation of The 39 Steps was one of the first films to show some of Hitch’s trademarks, a hyperdramatic style, mistaken identities, mysterious villains, a dapper hero, cross-country chases, long tracking shots, and dashes of quirky humor.

Playwright Patrick Barlow keeps Hitchcock’s plot, but injects it with a love for old-fashioned humor in the style of English music halls and a nostalgia for theater in the days of greasepaint, melodrama, and hokum. The resulting play merrily employs grand old traditions into a show that contemporary audiences will find new and fresh.

Barlow’s adaptation keeps Hannay as the protagonist, but uses just three actors in all of the other parts. One woman plays both the femme fatale and the love interest drawn into Hannay’s mad flight, while two very busy actors play all of the other characters from the film, often changing so quickly that they can’t even leave the stage. The results is a suspenseful thriller made madcap with tongue-in-cheek humor, a screwball romance, references to your favorite Hitchcock films, acrobatic antics, sinister villains, and playful re-imagining of the conventions and language of classic theater.

While I recommend reading Barlow’s play for sheer enjoyment of the language, this story needs to be seen. Barlow employs a minimal set, using just a few moving set pieces, props, light and sound effects, and pantomime to suggest locations ranging from London flats to Scottish country inns, foggy moors to campaign bandstands, even the perilous heights of a towering bridge and a moving train car. The rapid transformations of two actors into a merry-go-round of quirky bystanders, leering villains, and thick-brogued Highlanders has to be seen and heard to be believed.

The Williamsburg Players will bring The 39 Steps to the stage March 12th through 28th in a production directed by the Emmy-winning Abigail Schumann, and featuring local actors David Stallings as Hannay, Annie Lewis as Annabella and Margaret, and Chris Hull and Jordan Wentland as the two chameleon-like “clowns.” If you can’t make that, try searching for The 39 Steps on YouTube to supplement your reading.

Check the WRL catalog for Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of The 39 Steps

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DefendingJacobA middle-school teen living in a comfortable suburb in Massachusetts is murdered in broad daylight on his way to school. A neighborhood is in shock and the police and local assistant district attorney, Andy Barber, immediately starts investigating. Andy’s son is the victim’s classmate, but Andy doesn’t see the connection as a problem until rumors, and then evidence, suggest his son is the murderer. He is immediately taken off the case. The story is told from Andy’s perspective as his life and his family’s lives unravel. Andy has come a long way from a murky past to get to his current position – a lovely wife, fine son, highly respected job and upper middle class suburban house. He doesn’t want intrusion from his past, some of which he hasn’t even shared with his wife.
Defending Jacob has a breathtakingly fast plot, twisting and turning in all directions. The reader is left wondering what actually happened – which I think is more like real life than some novels with omniscient narrators who know more than any real person could.
Family is a huge thing to risk losing, and Defending Jacob is wrenching as it deals with issues about the relationships between spouses, parents of dependent children, children on the way to adulthood, grown children, estranged parents and more.  The book asks the questions about what is the best and moral way to relate to your own family. It even asks is the most moral course of action always the best course of action? Is it okay to keep long-term secrets from those you love best? What if the secret may be to protect them (or you) but the lack of displayed trust feels like a betrayal?
Don’t expect everything to be tied up neatly. Defending Jacob is a domestic suspense novel that is often seen as part of the Gone Girl phenomenon, the best-selling suspense novel that is now a movie. The reader is not only wondering “who did it” but since it is about everyday people we can picture ourselves in the same situation and wonder what we would do. Like several recent popular books such as The Dinner, by Herman Koch, Defending Jacob addresses the heritability of criminality. My recent non-fiction reading of books like The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience, by Kent A. Kiehl suggest that there often is a genetic component to antisocial behavior. On the other hand I firmly believe that genetics is not destiny. These points have led to some interesting discussions with my colleagues about these books, and for the same reason I think they make great book group reading choices.

Check the WRL catalog for Defending Jacob.

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trainThere’s a little bit of the voyeur in all of us. Admit it, when you walk by someone’s house, especially at night, you glance up to the window in case someone walks in front of it. You glance over at the car next to you to see if the driver’s picking his nose. You listen, even if accidentally, to those one-sided cell phone conversations. And, if you’re like Rachel Watson, you look for the beautiful couple living in the house beside the tracks every day, and wish for their golden lives.

Rachel herself is a mess. The ride home from London is occupied by a cold, canned (blecch!) gin and tonic, the night in her rented bedroom passed with a bottle or two of wine, and the commute back with a hangover. In the aftermath of a bitter divorce, broke, drinking to the point of blackout, it’s no wonder Rachel projects her desire for a better life onto the couple she names Jess and Jason. Until one day when she sees Jess kissing a stranger in the garden. And Jess, that is to say Megan Hipwell, goes missing, so Rachel feels compelled to interject herself into the investigation.

That’s not the only place Rachel makes herself an intruder. Truth is, Rachel’s old house, where her ex and his new wife and their baby live, is only a couple of doors down from the Hipwells (Scott is the husband). Rachel spends far too much time–some of it drunk–hanging around the neighborhood, and second wife Anna Watson is first creeped out, then downright angry. Could Rachel’s hanging around, even getting close to Scott, have anything to do with Megan’s disappearance?

The story is split among three first person narrators: Rachel, who has the lion’s share, Anna, and Megan herself. Megan’s story is basically a flashback, gradually revealing to the reader what was happening in her life in the year before her disappearance. Rachel and Anna split the narrative for the present day, and their mutually hostile attitudes color the reader’s take on the story. Is Rachel the dangerous alcoholic Anna believes her to be? Is Anna the manipulative mistress who destroyed Rachel’s marriage and put her on the downward spiral?

That conflict–to which Megan’s life and disappearance provide a backdrop–is the principle mover to the story, and someone looking for a fast-moving mystery is bound to be disappointed. Nor are the revelations as shocking as those in Gone Girl, which the publisher compares it to. That doesn’t mean that it slacks off, only that the pacing is more a slow build-up to one explosion rather than a string of firecrackers.

Check the WRL catalog for The Girl on the Train

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fallenPatrick Flanery’s Fallen Land is centered around two provocative and complex themes: the meaning of home, and the nature of the family. As he develops those themes through the book, the reader can see the inevitable collision, but can never tell where that intersection will come. We do know that the land about which he writes has its own tragic family history, and we also know that a modern crime was driven by desire for the land.

Fallen Land veers between an omniscient narrator and the first person voice of Louise Freeman Washington, an older black woman who lives on the land left to her by her own parents. Her husband had farmed the land, but she was forced to sell when he died and left her in debt. She knows every fold and hollow, and the loss is as grievous as her husband’s death. As the story opens, Louise is squatting in her old home, existing in much the same way her ancestors had. She has little left, having fought the county to keep the last bit of her family land, which was taken through eminent domain to widen a road.

The road needs widening because of the neighborhood built on the old farm. Paul Krovik, the developer who bought the land for a song, created his dream neighborhood of large houses on big lots. The neighborhood was supposed to be centered on his own home, a monstrosity where he would be the benevolent overlord. But Paul built shoddily, the land lost value in the Great Recession, and he went bankrupt amid a raft of lawsuits. Left alone by his wife and sons, Paul has literally gone to ground, living in a complex and secure bunker unknown to the rest of the world. The bunker has an access door into the house he built, and he haunts the rooms where he believes his dreams may still come true.

But the house is bought for a song by the Noailles, a Boston family relocating to this unnamed Midwestern city for Julia’s university job. Nathaniel is also transferring to a better job with his employer, a multinational corporation with fingers in every imaginable pie. Their eight-year old son Copley, bright and inquisitive but troubled by the move, is enrolled in a charter school run by the multinational under a draconian set of rules, which he accidentally breaks on a regular basis. Paul can’t even pronounce their last name (No-Ales? No-Ills?); that their name is pronounced No Eyes is a pointed commentary on their inability to see what is around them.

Of course, the Noailles don’t know that Paul is living under the house, and when he sees the changes they are making, his anger erupts into madness. Copley is caught in the middle, repeatedly telling Julia and Nathaniel that he has seen the man slowly defacing their home, but they will not believe him. As Nathaniel gradually slides under the influence of his employer’s mission, he also begins to believe that Copley is destroying the house, sabotaging his work reputation, creating a rift between father and mother, and lying to everyone.

As I said, this is a story about home and family. Flanery contrasts Louise’s grounding in the land and memories of her ancestors and husband with Paul’s obsession that his house creates his masculine identity and Nathaniel and Julia’s vision of a house as a sterile shelter from the world. Those perspectives come from the treatment the three of them survived as children, which is gradually revealed through the course of the story. As those revelations compound with the treatment Copley is receiving, the tension finally explodes.

Flanery also explores the larger intersection of home and family in the public sphere. Nathaniel’s employer has the stated goal of making people safe in their homes, watched over by a government-contracted company concerned with their health and well-being. They don’t state that it also would track consumption, movements, relationships, and thoughts, then intervene when it judges those people dangerous. Nathaniel’s passive acceptance of that vision turns him from a specialist in creating rehabilitation programs for ex-convicts to a bureaucrat trying to convert those prisoners into a corporate profit center. To do that, they must identify criminals in elementary schools, imprison them as soon as possible, monitor them after release, and incarcerate them again for the slightest of infractions. Welcome to the future of safe homes and happy families.

Check the WRL catalog for Fallen Land

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