December 14, 2017

The magical Lisbeth Salander novels

Lisbeth Salander novels: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg LarssonTo date (December 2017), a total of five novels have been published in the Millennium Series originated by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. Larsson wrote the first three in a projected series of ten before suddenly passing away at the age of fifty in 2004. The three books were published posthumously beginning in 2005. By March 2015, the series had sold an aggregate of eighty million copies worldwide.

Shortly afterward, by arrangement with Larsson’s publisher, another Swedish author, David Lagercrantz, picked up the baton. At this writing, he has added two books to the series. All five titles feature the unforgettable anti-heroine, Lisbeth Salander, “the girl,” investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and the staff of Millennium, the magazine where Blomkvist works.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005)

Here’s Amazon’s take on this novel: “Harriet Vanger, a scion of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families, disappeared over forty years ago. All these years later, her aged uncle continues to seek the truth. He hires Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist recently trapped by a libel conviction, to investigate. He is aided by the pierced and tattooed punk prodigy Lisbeth Salander. Together they tap into a vein of unfathomable iniquity and astonishing corruption.” My recollection of the book from more than a decade in the past is that it lived up to its over-the-top reviews. I loved the novel.

Stieg Larsson, author of the first three Lisbet Salander novels

Stieg Larsson, author of the first three Lisbet Salander novels. Credit: A&E’s Biography.

The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006) — Lisbeth Salander stars again in an engrossing murder mystery

You have never met anyone like Lisbeth Salander, the “girl” in the title — guaranteed. Lisbeth is a tattooed, waif-like young woman with a brain of gargantuan proportions, an eidetic memory, an unsurpassed mastery of the Internet, and a mysterious past. In this unlikely but engrossing story of murder and corruption in the dark corners of contemporary Sweden, Lisbeth’s past is revealed in an encounter reminiscent of the games played out in the bowling alley of the gods. Read the full review.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2007) — The captivating third entry in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series

Salander, one of the most extraordinary characters ever to inhabit the printed page, is one of a large cast that includes the author’s fantasy doppelganger, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist; Mikael’s colleagues at Millennium magazine; Lisbeth’s employer and members of his staff; a hefty number of police officers; a crew of secret agents; assorted prosecutors, social workers, and attorneys; Swedish Cabinet members; and a large group of baddies, including the thugs who hang out in a motorcycle club and two members of Lisbeth’s own family. You might think that such a motley crew of characters could never fit within the confines of a single volume, much less come across as real people. Not so here. Well, maybe not real people. But the novel works. The suspense will raise your blood pressure. In a word, Hornet’s Nest is unputdownable. Read the full review.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2015) — More than 10 years after Stieg Larsson’s death, Lisbeth Salander returns!

Lisbeth Salander is Sweden’s answer to Wonder Woman, Stephen Hawking, Kevin Mitnick, and Mike Tyson all rolled into one five-foot, 98-pound package. She can debate the finer points of quantum mechanics and number theory with the world’s top physicists and mathematicians, hack her way into the most secure computer system on the planet, punch out a gang of the meanest, nastiest bikers you can imagine — and she has an evil twin. In other words, Lisbeth Salander is completely unbelievable. Yet this novel, and the three that preceded it, are crafted with such skill that you’ll probably get so caught up in the sheer complexity and suspense of the story that you won’t even think about how unlikely it all is. Read the full review.

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye (2017) — Stieg Larsson’s “girl” is back: the Millennium series continues

Unfortunately, I was disappointed by The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye. All the earlier entries in the series rushed from action to action in an almost dizzying fashion. In Eye for an Eye, there are too many talky passages. At times, the story becomes tedious, and Stieg Larsson’s girl becomes hard to recognize. If I weren’t so bound to the Millennium series, I might well have put the book down before I reached the halfway point. Read the full review.

You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.

December 6, 2017

The 15 best books of 2017 (plus 34 others)

Best books of 2017: Shattered by Jonathan Allen and Amie ParnesHere are my choices for the 15 best books of 2017. All were published in English in the United States from November 2016 through November 2017. They’re arranged within each section below in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Every title is linked to my review.

At the bottom of this post, I’ve listed 34 books I feel merit honorable mention.

Nonfiction

Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes

A searing account of the 2016 election that centers most of the blame for Hillary Clinton’s loss on the candidate herself and the people surrounding her.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

The astonishing story of a woman whose seminal work in developing the science of cryptology and identifying Nazi spies in World War II has only recently been recognized.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

Then the richest people in America, the Osage of Oklahoma became the victims of a series of brutal murders in the 1920s by neighbors bent on stealing the oil wealth under their land.

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present by John Pomfret

To an extent that is only dimly understood, the histories of the US and China have been deeply intertwined ever since the founding of the republic.

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

A lexicographer with a wicked sense of humor gives an inside look at the making of the most popular dictionary in America.

Mysteries and thrillers

A Single Spy by William Christie

A Soviet agent sent undercover in Nazi Germany proves that “a single spy in the right place and at the right moment may change the course of history.”

The Late Show by Michael Connelly

The author of the long-running series of bestselling detective novels featuring Harry Bosch introduces a new leading lady, destined to have her own series.

A Divided Spy (Thomas Kell #3) by Charles Cumming

A retired MI6 officer plots to avenge the murder of his lover by the KGB colonel who had undermined his work over the years.

A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré

The iconic British spy, George Smiley, hovers in the background as a younger MI6 officer who had worked with him during the Cold War confronts a lawsuit about their work together.

The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter

The Georgia-based novelist who writes the Grant County and Will Trent series of crime thrillers probes the depths of depravity that touch a family of lawyers in rural Georgia.

Trade fiction (including science fiction)

American War: A Novel by Omar El Akkad

This debut novel tells the haunting, dystopian tale of a second American civil war set late in the twenty-first century.

Defectors: A Novel by Joseph Kanon

An American book publisher visits Moscow to edit the memoirs of his brother, who had defected to the Soviet Union decades earlier and joined the KGB.

Autonomous: A Novel by Annalee Newitz

In a future dominated by artificial intelligence and biotechnology, a military robot seeks to gain autonomy while on the hunt for a “patent pirate” who illegally manufactures medicine.

After Atlas (Planetfall, A) by Emma Newman

A police officer in the 22nd century investigates the death of a religious cult figure under the tight control of the company who has enslaved him.

Testimony: A Novel by Scott Turow

The author of the bestselling Kindle County courtroom dramas shifts his attention to the Hague and the war-crimes trial of a notorious Bosnian military leader.


Okay, now let’s get real. Nobody, and I mean nobody, including the army of reviewers who contribute to the New York Times Book Review, can possibly identify the “best” books published in any year. Believe it or not, more than one million titles were published in the United States alone in the most recent year for which statistics are available (2013). Some 304,000 titles were issued by “traditional” publishers in the US, and another 184,000 in the UK. In other words, in a single year, publishing companies brought out nearly half a million titles in just two of the biggest English-language publishing markets. (The numbers for India were substantially smaller.) And that’s only the data for traditional publishers. Self-published titles (in the US alone) numbered more than 700,000. So, don’t believe anyone who claims they’ve identified the “best” books of the year.

One other thing: reviewers are selective. I’m especially so. I don’t read cookbooks, poetry, romance novels, collections of short stories, self-help guides, or books about sports, art, philosophy, vampires, zombies, ghosts, or a dozen other topics that don’t come readily to mind. I do read mysteries and thrillers, science fiction, popular “serious” fiction, humor, and nonfiction about history, world affairs, biography, politics, science, and business. Broadly speaking, my reading falls into three categories: mysteries and thrillers, trade fiction, and nonfiction. Those are the three categories I’ve used above.

In a given year, I read about 200 books. Now, I recognize that speedreaders may consume far more than that. But I’ve tried speedreading, and I don’t like it. It’s not really reading: it’s mining for information. That may work for lawyers, scholars, or others reading with specific ends in mind. But it’s not fun, at least not for me. And I only review books that I’ve read from beginning to end.

Now you know.


Here, then, are the 34 books I thought were also excellent but warrant only honorable mention. As above, they’re all linked to my reviews.

Honorable mention

I’ve reviewed 21 recently published nonfiction books in the last year, all of which are good but not quite good enough to make the list of five top reads above.

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen

Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age by Leslie Berlin

The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age by David Callahan

Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes by Richard A. Clarke and R. P. Eddy

Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence and Where It’s Taking Us Next by Luke Dormehl

Megatech: Technology in 2050 edited by Daniel Franklin

Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green

A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order by Richard A. Haass

Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together by Van Jones

Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us by Sam Kean

The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire by Stephen Kinzer

Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street by Sheelah Kolhatkar

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean

One Nation Under Gods: A New American History by Peter Manseau

The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham

The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone by Brian Merchant

The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston

Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory by Elizabeth Rosner

The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World by Brad Stone

The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future by Vivek Wadwa and Alex Salkever

The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World by Sharon Weinberger

During the past year I’ve read and enjoyed the following nine mysteries and thrillers in addition to the five top reads listed above.

Wolf on a String: A Novel by Benjamin Black

Origin (Robert Langdon #5) by Dan Brown

Two Kinds of Truth (Harry Bosch #20) by Michael Connelly

Vienna Spies by Alex Gerlis

The Rooster Bar by John Grisham

The Dry: A Novel by Jane Harper

Righteous (IQ #2) by Joe Ide

The Dime by Kathleen Kent

The Crow Girl: A Novel by Erik Axl Sund

Here are four books I classify as trade fiction (including science fiction) that I found worthy of mention, in addition to the five top reads in this category above.

Landscape with Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson

Tool of War (Drowned Cities #3) by Paolo Bacigalupi

A Column of Fire (Kingsbridge Saga #3) by Ken Follett

The Collapsing Empire (Interdependency #1) by John Scalzi

November 30, 2017

The Quirke series of Dublin crime novels from Benjamin Black

Quirke series: Christine Falls by Benjamin BlackBenjamin Black is the pen name of Irish author John Banville, who is widely regarded as a consummate stylist of the English language. He won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for his fourteenth novel, The Sea. Banville insists that he writes the Quirke series of Dublin crime novels for the money, but it’s difficult to detect any evidence that he doesn’t give those books the same care he lends to his “serious” fiction.

Christine Falls (2006)—Corruption and mayhem in Dublin and Boston in a superior mystery novel

The woman whose name is on the cover of this engrossing tale of murder, betrayal, and corruption on high has arrived in Quirke’s morgue, deemed a suicide by the police. When Quirke comes across his brother-in-law, Malachy Griffin, doctoring the records of the young woman’s death, he develops an irresistible urge to examine the case more closely. Naturally, he finds that the reason for the woman’s death was anything but suicide . . . Read the full review.

The Silver Swan (2007)—A suspenseful novel that will keep you guessing until the end

Like many of the best crime writers, Black focuses on character, atmosphere, and language as much as on plot. The sure hand of a master stylist is very much in evidence in The Silver Swan. You’ll see it in the dialogue, where the individual speech patterns of his characters are distinctive, and in his lyrical descriptions of Dublin in the rain. If you read this book to the end, you might think you’ve gotten to know Quirke, and you may like him. You might also have a sense of Dublin, even if you’ve never been there . . . Read the full review.

Elegy for April (2010)—1950s Dublin: murder and the Church

Elegy for April is the third of Black’s seven novels about the alcoholic pathologist in 1950s Dublin whom we know only as Quirke. These novels explore the tight grip of the Catholic Church on Irish society and the crimes so often committed in her name. Quirke, though he has no official role as an investigator, is drawn into what usually prove to be murder cases by virtue of his family’s involvement . . . Read the full review.

A Death in Summer (2011)—Murder in Dublin, and an unconventional sleuth who solves the case

The “death in summer” that gives this tale its title is the shotgun beheading of a ruthless Dublin businessman who leaves behind a French widow, a sister, and enough enemies to populate an Agatha Christie whodunit. However, despite a plethora of suspects, Quirke and Hackett, his collaborator in the Garda (the Dublin police), focus on those closest to the deceased. As the investigation unfolds, Quirke dives deeply into the complex relations within the victim’s family and becomes romantically involved with the widow . . . Read the full review.

Vengeance (2012)—Benjamin Black’s Quirke series: Is it “serious literature?”

In the Quirke novels, Banville comes to grip with the Irish elite, the underlying tension between Catholic and Protestant, the dead weight of the Church, and the veil of history. Quirke and his police collaborator, Inspector Hackett of the Garda, invariably find themselves caught up in the often violent conflicts roiling Dublin’s elite society. In Vengeance, two families are locked in combat for three generations, one Protestant, one Catholic, as partners in one of the country’s biggest businesses. The mysterious death at sea of one of the partners triggers an investigation by Quirke and Hackett that leads them to uncover long-hidden family secrets . . . Read the full review.

Holy Orders (2013)—From Benjamin Black, a mystery to savor for its gorgeous prose

The sixth of Banville’s novels (writing as Black) about the tortured Dublin pathologist who appears to be named only Quirke is a textbook example of dazzling prose. Any reader looking for nonstop action and sheer excitement won’t find them in Holy Orders. Black is concerned more with character development and scene-setting than with the usual conventions of the mystery genre. The story involves Quirke, his daughter Phebe, and his pal Inspector Hackett of the Garda in a complex plot with Irish “travelers” (called “tinkers” in Ireland) and a passel of very unpleasant priests and their enforcers . . . Read the full review.

Even the Dead (2015)—Dublin’s answer to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson?

Quirke and Detective Inspector Hackett bear not the slightest resemblance to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. But they have come together once again because a young man thought to have been a suicide has instead, apparently, been murdered. In the 1950s, Ireland is the same poor country it had been for centuries, long before the recent boom that first lifted its economy into the heights of prosperity and then sent it crashing below. In “this mean and mendacious little city,” as Quirke thinks of it, alcohol almost invariably fuels social interactions, and alcoholism is rampant. In this setting, the Catholic Church reigns supreme and untouchable—and yet when Quirke and Hackett deduce that the Church is somewhere in the background of this latest murder, they don’t hesitate to take it on, all-powerful or not . . . Read the full review.

I have also reviewed two other John Banville books published under his pseudonym, Benjamin Black:

If you enjoy fiction that illuminates the past, check out 75 readable and revealing historical novels. You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.

October 25, 2017

My 6 favorite dystopian novels

favorite dystopian novels - this perfect day by ira levinIn my new book, Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction, I review 62 dystopian novels, nearly all of which I’ve read and reviewed recently. Over the years, the total number I’ve consumed probably approaches 100. So, I feel comfortable putting forward the list of my six favorite dystopian novels.

Here goes, in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. If I’ve left out one or two of your all-time favorites, or if you simply detest one I’ve included, let me know. You can do so by using the contact form at the bottom of this post.

Feed, by M. T. Anderson

In M. T. Anderson’s terrifying future world, people access all their news, advertising, education, games, “m-chat,” and money through implants in their brains—not just embedded chips but multipurpose devices that are fully integrated into their nervous systems. This is the “feed” of the title. A powerful future version of Virtual Reality allows people to experience novelty and excitement at any time without special equipment—and without pausing for reflection. Corporations are the dominant force on the planet. Climate change, pollution, and overfishing have killed the oceans. Past wars have left a blanket of radioactive dust all across the surface. Human settlements on Earth exist underground under domes to shield people from the intolerable heat and unbreathable atmosphere. Massive numbers have migrated off-planet to the moon, Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and nearby star systems. This is truly a dystopian society.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

The frightening world depicted by Margaret Atwood in the MaddAddam Trilogy is the product of catastrophic climate change, runaway genetic engineering, and . . . something else that only becomes clear much later. Whatever it was that happened was so severe that Atwood’s protagonist in the first of these three novels, a young man named Jimmy who now styles himself as Snowman, believes he is the only human being left alive on Planet Earth. In Oryx and Crake, Book #1, we enter the future world of Atwood’s cruel vision shortly after the Waterless Flood, which virtually exterminated the human species. Climate change has wrought havoc on Planet Earth, confirming the most pessimistic projections of the early 21st Century. It’s not a pretty picture. Book #2, The Year of the Flood, takes us back to the years preceding the Flood, when the conditions described in Oryx and Crake came about. We learn the nature of the Flood, and how it came to be. Finally, in Book #3, MaddAddam, we encounter once again the principal characters of the first two books and follow them as the future grimly unfolds. Most of the action is compressed into a few months following the calamity of the Flood

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup Girl is the first of (now) four novels in Paolo Bacigalupi’s Drowned Cities cycle. It was followed by The Drowned CitiesShip Breaker, and Tool of War. These four outstanding novels depict a grim future long after the oceans have drowned many of the world’s great cities. Strictly speaking, only the last three constitute a series in a formal sense. But the scenario they illustrate is the same. In the first three books, most of the action takes place in and near Bangkok in the 23rd century; later, the action moves to the Drowned Cities of the North American East Coast. Sometime in the past, the oceans have risen 20 feet or more, and the city of Bangkok is just one of a handful of coastal cities that survive only because a visionary Thai king built an enormous seawall, dikes, and pumps to hold back the waters of the annual monsoon. Genetic engineering has run amok around the globe, and the Thai Kingdom is one of few countries, perhaps the only country, still resisting the “calorie companies,” powerful food-exporting corporations headquartered in the American Midwest and in China. Having killed off virtually all traditional sources of food—and hundreds of millions of people—with genetically engineered plagues to increase their leverage in the market, the calorie companies hungrily eye Thailand and its own independent success in creating new fruits and nightshades capable of resisting the ubiquitous plant-killers. In this grim environment, so long removed from the 21st century, one character “wonders if it was really better in the past, if there really was a golden age fueled by petroleum and technology. A time when every solution to a problem didn’t engender another.”

This Perfect Day by Ira Levin

Centuries in the future, the people of Earth live under the control of an artificial intelligence called UniComp. The result is a worldwide society free of war, hunger, crime, and violence of any sort. “Hate” and “fight” are swear words. The world run by Unicomp is dedicated to efficiency above all else. The population of the planet is kept steady at eight billion through rigorous control of the birth rate and through emigration to colonies the Family has established on other planets. It’s inefficient to grow and prepare a variety of foods, so everyone’s nutritional needs are met through an unchanging diet of totalcakes. To suppress undesirable behavior, everyone submits monthly to chemotherapy “treatments”; otherwise, they will get “sick” and demonstrate aberrant behavior. This is the world Ira Levin describes in his superb science fiction novel, This Perfect Day.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Walter M. Miller, Jr. wrote scores of short science fiction stories but only one novel that was published during his lifetime. In fact, A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) was a reworked version of three short stories that spanned thousands of years of human history following a nuclear holocaust. Divided into three parts, each corresponding to one of the short stories, the novel describes the efforts of the monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz to preserve scientific knowledge for use in the future once humankind is capable of understanding it once again. The monks worship Saint Leibowitz, a Jewish engineer working for the American military at a base in the Southwestern US. Leibowitz had anticipated all-out nuclear war and a return to dark ages by hiding books in safe places after the war ended. He was betrayed, martyred, and then eventually named a candidate for sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church. But about all that remains of Leibowitz’ life is a shopping list, which is treated as a holy relic by the monks. The books have been lost. Part One, “Fiat Homo” (“Let There Be Man”), is set in the 26th Century, when Leibowitz is canonized following the discovery of the shopping list and other handwritten notes. In Part Two, “Fiat Lux” (“Let There Be Light”), 600 years later in 3174, the new Dark Age is ending. A few scholarly residents of the region are beginning to recreate rudimentary electrical technology. Part Three, “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (“Let Thy Will Be Done”), is set six centuries later in 3781. Once again, humanity possesses nuclear energy and is now populating extra-solar colonies. Nuclear war threatens once again. Of all the science fiction I read as a boy, A Canticle for Leibowitz stands out most vividly in my memory. 

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

In the post-apocalyptic world of this wonderful novel, a National Book Award Finalist, there are no functioning cities. A devastating disease known as the Georgian Flu has killed off nearly all the world’s people. Survivors have scattered over the countryside, some of them coming together in communities of at most a couple of hundred people. Someone has set up a Museum of Civilization in an airport lounge, displaying mobile phones, electronic games, credit cards, and other artifacts of lives long gone. This is a world fraught with danger. In the years immediately following the collapse, many survivors walk for hundreds of miles in search of food and other resources. Distrust leads many to kill anyone who approaches them. Meanwhile, feral humans rove the earth, preying on travelers unable to defend themselves. Soon, madness takes hold of many, and would-be prophets begin to collect followers, imposing their will through force on anyone they encounter.

You’ll notice of course, that the most familiar titles don’t appear on this short list. The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and other high-profile examples of the genre are a mixed bag. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is excellent, though I found the world she imagined in Oryx and Crake (and the other novels in the MaddAddam Trilogy) to be more engaging and ultimately more thought-provoking. As I remember the other well-known titles, none of which I’ve read in recent months, I don’t think any of them is as evocative as the six novels I’ve listed above. And perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising: Brave New World was written in the early 1930s, 1984 in the 1940s, and Fahrenheit 451 in the 1950s. The authors couldn’t possibly have foreseen the world we live in today, much less how to write in a way that contemporary readers would find truly relevant.

Are the six books in my list the six best dystopian novels of all time? Of course, that’s a matter of opinion. Feel free to disagree with me.

You might also be interested in some of my other favorite dystopian novels. See A brief look at 15 important dystopian novels. You may also be interested in My 27 favorite science fiction novels.

October 19, 2017

Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels

Bernie Gunther novels - A Quiet Flame - Philip KerrPhilip Kerr’s series of historical novels featuring Berlin detective Bernie Gunther span the years of Hitler’s rise to power, German rearmament in the 1930s, World War II, the post-war years in Germany, and the flight of top-ranked Nazis to South America. Twelve Bernie Gunther novels have been published to date. A thirteenth, Greeks Bearing Gifts, is due to be issued in 2018.

Top Nazis figure in every one of these novels, and his portraits of them are convincing. His protagonist, ace homicide investigator Bernie Gunther, is in some ways a standard-issue tough cop like those who populated the crime fiction of the 1930s and 1940s. He’s a big guy who can usually take care of himself in a fight. He’s cynical—what used to be called a “wise guy”—who is prone to run his big mouth far more often than he should. He repeatedly finds his way to the beds of beautiful women. And, of course, he is brilliant at his work.

But Bernie serves a larger literary purpose. A social democrat who never consented to join the Nazi Party, he’s a foil for the never-ending parade of high-ranking Nazis he meets in the course of his investigations. Bernie isn’t just a non-Nazi; he’s openly anti-Nazi, and he doesn’t care who knows it. Somehow, improbably, he has managed to survive more than two decades in conflict with the Nazi leadership. His consummate skill as a detective saves him every time.

Below are the dozen Bernie Gunther novels that have appeared in the series to date. You can access what I’ve written about them by clicking on the link to the right of each review.

  1. March Violets (1989), set in 1936: A vivid snapshot of Nazi Berlin
  2. The Pale Criminal (1990), set in 1938: A serial killer in Nazi Germany
  3. A German Requiem (1991), set in 1947-48: Another excellent novel in the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr
  4. The One from the Other (2006), set in 1949: An anti-Nazi detective in Hitler’s Germany
  5. A Quiet Flame (2008), set in 1950: An eye-opening detective novel about Nazis in Argentina
  6. If the Dead Rise Not (2009), set in 1934 and 1954: From Hitler’s Germany to Batista’s Cuba
  7. Field Gray (2010), set in 1954, with flashbacks over 20 years: Bernie Gunther’s life in flashbacks
  8. Prague Fatale (2011), set in 1941: A hard-boiled detective in Nazi Germany
  9. A Man Without Breath (2013), set in 1943: Mass murder in the Katyn Forest
  10. The Lady from Zagreb (2015), set in 1942-43 and 1956: Cynicism and romanticism in Nazi Germany
  11. The Other Side of Silence (2016), set in 1956: An exciting chapter in the Bernie Gunther saga
  12. Prussian Blue (2017), set in 1939 and 1956: In Philip Kerr’s latest, Bernie Gunther confronts top Nazis and the Stasi
October 11, 2017

Recommended mysteries, science fiction, historical novels, nonfiction

recommended mysteries - All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony DoerrFrom time to time, I post lists of recommended mysteries and thrillers, science fiction, historical novels, biographies, or books about science or business. Here I’ll include the 15 best of these lists. Each of them contains a number of individual titles with links to the reviews I’ve posted on this blog.

Fiction lists

48 excellent mystery and thriller series

This list just scratches the surface of what’s available, but I’m confident that at least some of the very best mystery and thriller series can be found below. All these series have one or both of two things in common: the protagonist is the same from one book to the next, or (in just two cases) the series are rooted in a particular time and place, though the cast of characters varies. There are just two exceptions to this rule: the work of Ross Thomas and John Grisham. I’ve included both authors because many of their characters appear in each of several novels—and because they’re so good I can’t bring myself to ignore them.

My 27 favorite science fiction novels

In times past, science fiction was widely regarded as pulp literature suitable only for 14-year-old boys. Those days are long past. Now the field is often referred to as speculative fiction. Which is as it should be. In this list are the 27 science fiction novels that have lingered in my mind—in some cases, for fifty years or more. Some are dystopian novels, others alternate history, imagined futures, or time travel; some are set on Earth, others elsewhere around the galaxy.

75 readable and revealing historical novels

My favorite subjects are European history, including many historical spy novels; World War II; American history, especially political history; and Asian and African history. You’ll also find that several authors show up multiple times: Geraldine Brooks, Thomas Fallon, Olen Steinhauer, Alan Furst, and Joseph Kanon—in the last three cases, because of especially insightful series they’re writing.

24 compelling dystopian novels in series

Among the works included here are outstanding trilogies by Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Blake Crouch, and Hugh Howey, and a connected series of three novels by Paolo Bacigalupi that has not been marketed as a trilogy. In my reviews, I’ve awarded almost all of these books ratings of 4 out of 5 or 5 out of 5 stars.

A brief look at 15 notable dystopian scenarios

In the companion post linked above, I listed two dozen dystopian novels that were published in series. Here I’ve listed 15 standalone works. These posts are a result of some of the research I’ve conducted in preparation for writing my newest book, Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction.

My 10 favorite espionage novels

Over the past seven years, I’ve read and reviewed more than 60 espionage novels. My ten favorites are listed below. Though my preliminary list included multiple titles by three authors (Alex Berenson, Charles Cumming, and Ross Thomas), I’ve limited myself to a single title from every writer. I gave every one of these ten titles a score of 5 out of 5 stars on its review.

15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others)

The 15 detective novels listed in this post may not be the 15 “best” detective novels, even by my uniquely idiosyncratic criteria. I’d read a lot of work in the genre even before I began writing these reviews in January 2010—and there are tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of detective novels I’ve never read. This list consists exclusively of those I’ve selected from among the 200 or so that I’ve read and reviewed in this blog. I gave every one of these books a rating of 5 out of 5 stars.

Nonfiction lists

34 great biographies I’ve reviewed

Roger Ailes. Catherine the Great. William Armstrong Custer. Steve Jobs. Malcolm X. These are among the men and women featured in the 34 biographies I’ve awarded four or five out of five stars in my reviews.

Science history and science explained in 33 excellent popular books

Astronomy. Epidemiology. Lexicography. Microbiology. These are among the thirty different scientific fields discussed and explained in the thirty-three excellent books about science that I’ve read and reviewed.

8 great books on Big History: New perspectives on world history

Three decades ago an American historian named David Christian who was teaching at an Australian university at the time launched a new approach to world history. His unique take on the subject took the discipline far beyond the limits of the written word. Calling it Big History, Christian started his new course at the beginning of time itself: the Big Bang. He enlisted guest lecturers from the fields of astrophysics, chemistry, geology, paleontology, biology, and other scientific fields, incorporating their specialized knowledge into his comprehensive survey of Big History. Many other scholars have since followed in Christian’s footsteps, bringing their own unique perspectives to bear on this fresh approach to understanding our lives and the world we live in. My list includes eight of the best books to emerge in this field.

17 nonfiction books that illuminate the World War II era

In addition to the many World War II novels I’ve read and reviewed in this blog, both mysteries and trade fiction, I’ve read a great many nonfiction books on the years leading up to and during the war. Here I’ve listed 17 of the best I’ve come across in recent years. They cover everything from economic policy in the Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany to the role of business and the conduct of the war itself.

17 good nonfiction books about espionage

For good or ill, a fair amount of what I’ve learned about espionage over the years has come from reading spy stories. A few authors are particularly diligent about research and accuracy, so most of what I’ve picked up is probably true. In fact, many of those authors are veterans of the intelligence game and should know what they write about. But, for assurance that what I read is less likely to be fictional, there’s nothing like an in-depth nonfiction treatment of the field by a credible author. Since January 2010, I’ve read seventeen such books. I recommend them highly.

35 biographies worth reading

The 35 books listed here cover a wide range of both historical and contemporary figures, every one of them prominent in a significant way, from Cleopatra and Catherine the Great to Clarence Darrow, Allen Dulles, and Steve Jobs. Most of the 35 fall into a few categories that describe some of the topics I’m most interested in: espionage, science, business, and American history.

35 excellent nonfiction books about politics

One way or another, I’ve been at least peripherally involved in electoral politics ever since I was in high school. Which is why I seek out books about politics. Fiction, nonfiction—it doesn’t matter. If it’s credible and at least reasonably well written, I’m game. So, ever since I launched this blog six years ago, I’ve read and reviewed a fair number of books about the topic. This list includes only the 35 nonfiction books that have appeared in this space.

14 of the best recent nonfiction books

Caveat emptor: I don’t pretend that the 14 books in this list are THE BEST nonfiction books ever published. They’re simply some of the best ones I read and reviewed during the first five years I posted to this blog, every one of them a source of enlightenment that deepened my understanding of the world we live in.

October 2, 2017

Even more fun facts: which authors have written the most books?

authors

Classic authors, most of them bestsellers in their time.

 

 

You’re gonna love this.

Once upon a time, back in the distant reaches of the twentieth century—well, actually it was 1984—one of my clients assigned me to ghostwrite a fundraising letter that Isaac Asimov had agreed to sign. I approached the task with some trepidation, both because I knew Asimov’s reputation as a prolific author and because I had actually met the man once and knew how prickly he was (but that’s another story).

Eventually, I managed to draft the letter and, as directed, I sent it off to Asimov’s New York apartment via FedEx. I phoned two days later in hopes the famous man had actually had a chance to read my deathless prose. His wife answered. When I asked to speak with him, she said, “Oh, no, he’s much too busy to talk. He’s writing.” (Well, of course! What else would the man be doing?) She added that she was certain he’d get back in touch with me.

Sure enough, the following day I received a FedEx package from Asimov. Fearfully, I extracted the draft copy—and was flabbergasted to note a signed permission slip and, miraculously, what appeared to be absolutely no changes in the text. However, when I examined the text more carefully, I noted one alteration in tiny handwritten script.

I had written “As the author of more than 300 books . . .”

Asimov changed that to read “As the author of more than 310 books . . .”

Ultimately, the celebrated author of both popular science and science fiction books went on to write a total of more than 400 volumes. Is he the most prolific author, living or dead?

Not by a long shot.

A widely circulated post on Trivia-Library attributes that dubious honor to a certain South African writer named Mary Faulkner, who died in 1973 at the age of 70. The Guinness Book of World Records reportedly ranks her as “history’s most prolific novelist, [who] wrote under six pen names.” Faulkner wrote a total of 904 books.

Writers much better known than Faulkner (Georges Simenon, John Creasey, Barbara Cartland, Alexandre Dumas) as well as others much more obscure who are included on the Trivia-Library list of “20 Most Prolific Authors and Writers in Literary History” are each credited with writing between 258 and 850 books. And that doesn’t even include the two people I have known personally who have each written more than 400 books. (One writes science fiction, the other mostly porn.)

But wait. Even 904 novels won’t cut it.

Further investigation turns up a report that “In 2006, Guinness World Records declared L. Ron Hubbard the world’s most published and most translated author, having published 1,084 fiction and non-fiction works that have been translated into 71 languages.”

Don’t recognize the name of this illustrious wordsmith? He was the paranoid schizophrenic, pathological liar, and fugitive from justice who founded Scientology. He died in 1986 at the age of 75 with a fortune equivalent to nearly a billion dollars today. (Hubbard’s the man who famously said, “If you want to get really rich, start a new religion.” Ahem!)

But hold your horses. Isaac Asimov, Mary Faulkner, and L. Ron Hubbard combined don’t even register in the same octave as the prodigious Philip M. Parker. This superhuman individual, a 54-year-old professor of management science at INSEAD, a top-rated global business school based in France, claims to have authored more than one million books. (My source is This Is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens, and Other WTF Research, by Marc Abrahams.)

You read that right. One million books—and he’s only been writing them since 2008. (However, Amazon lists only 133,501.)

Here are a few of Professor Parker’s deathless titles:

  • The 2007–2012 Outlook for Bathroom Toilet Brushes and Holders in the United States
  • The 2007–2012 World Outlook for Rotary Pumps with Designed Pressure of 100 P.s.i. or Less and Designed Capacity of 10 G.p.m. or Less
  • Avocados: A Medical Dictionary, Bibliography, and Annotated Research Guide
  • Webster’s English to Romanian Crossword Puzzles: Level 2
  • The 2007–2012 Outlook for Golf Bags in India
  • The 2007 Report on Wood Toilet Seats: World Market Segmentation by City
  • The 2007–2012 Outlook for Frozen Asparagus in India

Just makes you want to rush right out and snap up an armful of these gems, doesn’t it?

Well, maybe not. And especially when you learn that Professor Parker doesn’t actually write any of these books. This obviously clever man has instead written a slew of computer algorithms that do the writing for him, turning out, say, at least six books about the outlook for bathroom toilet brushes.

Bianca Bosker, writing for Huffington Post, reports that “Parker started by generating market reports sold to banks, consulting firms and government trade agencies interested in the sales outlook for, say, rubber or corrugated cardboard. Now, he hopes to use the algorithms to help with language learning and education in developing countries. Thanks to Parker’s automated radio broadcasts, people in parts of Malawi are hearing weather forecasts in the local language for the first time—and are already changing their farming patterns as a result.”

This is the fourth of recent posts here highlighting “fun facts” about books, authors, readers, and publishers. Previously, I posted Fun facts about books, authors, and readersMore fun facts: how many books are there, really? and  Yet more fun facts: who is the world’s bestselling author?

 

September 22, 2017

Yet more fun facts: who is the world’s bestselling author?

world's bestselling authorChances are, any book that you might write will never make you the world’s bestselling author. Sales for most books written today are pathetically low. As I noted in an earlier post, the average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling fewer than 250 copies per year and fewer than 2,000 copies over its lifetime. And very few titles are big sellers. Only 62 of 1,000 business books released in 2009 sold more than 5,000 copies, according to an analysis by the Codex Group (New York Times, March 31, 2010).

So, what about fiction? Well, somewhat more works of fiction are sold in the US than nonfiction. With greater competition, it might be fair to estimate that the average novel would sell even fewer copies than the average nonfiction book. But let’s give it the benefit of the doubt, and say that fiction sells twice or three times as well as nonfiction. That would result in the average work of fiction selling a few hundred copies. If you’ve written a novel, that might not make you feel any better.

And you might find what follows to be completely depressing.

A list of the “Top 10 Bestselling Authors of All Time” informs us that Will Shakespeare tops the list with a total of between two and four billion copies of his work having been sold over the centuries. That probably makes Will the world’s bestselling author. However, the British mystery writer Agatha Christie is in the same league, credited with a total between those two numbers as well.

Third on the list is British romance author Barbara Cartland with between 500 million and one billion sales, followed by Danielle Steele, Harold Robbins, Georges Simenon, Sidney Sheldon, Enid Blyton, Dr. Seuss, and, finally, J. K. Rowling. The author of the Harry Potter series has sold only a paltry number by comparison, somewhere between 350 million and 450 million.

You might take this last list with that proverbial grain of salt. All the authors on this list are either English, American, or French. Surely, there are Chinese writers who would qualify for the top 10! Maybe Japanese or Russians, too.

For more facts about books and publishing, go to The 10 awful truths about book publishing. And if you are in fact a writer, you might be interested in How to sell books in today’s market.

 

September 15, 2017

More fun facts: how many books are there, really?

how many books In a guest post here on October 4, 2016 (“10 awful truths about book publishing”), publisher Steven Piersanti remarked on the huge numbers of books being published today. Here’s what he wrote:

According to the latest Bowker Report (September 7, 2016), more than 700,000 books were self-published in the U.S. in 2015, which is an incredible increase of 375% since 2010. And the number of traditionally published books had climbed to over 300,000 by 2013, according to the latest Bowker figures (August 5, 2014). The net effect is that the number of new books published each year in the U.S. has exploded by more than 600,000 since 2007, to well over 1 million annually. At the same time, more than 13 million previously published books are still available through many sources.

But Steve’s article referred only to books that were recently published and in the English language. Taking another look at the piece, I began to wonder how many books have been published in the whole world, in every language.

Well, Google has an answer to that, of course! As of August 5, 2010, that number stood at 129,864,880. Staggering, isn’t it? (Actually, I’ve seen an estimate published elsewhere, though I can’t remember where, that the total number of titles published since Gutenberg’s press started operating is 150 million.)

As you’re probably aware, Google Books has been scanning books in enormous numbers for many years now, as have many libraries. Google reported in October 2015 that the total number of titles scanned was over 25 million. The company intends to scan all 130,000,00!

If you’re thinking of writing a book, you might keep these numbers in mind. Getting anybody’s attention with a book these days is a tall order. And don’t expect your book to be a bestseller. So few of them are!

This is the second of four recent posts here highlighting “fun facts” about books, authors, readers, and publishers. Previously, I posted Fun facts about books, authors, and readers. You’ll also find Yet more fun facts: who is the world’s bestselling author? and Even more fun facts: which authors have written the most books?

 

September 5, 2017

Fun facts about books, authors, and readers

Fun factsA recent newsletter from the Author’s Guild pointed me toward a fascinating infographic by Brendan Brown entitled “Which Country Reads the Most?” The article was full of fun facts, including many surprises for me. Here, for example, are a few particulars about books and publishing around the world:

  • The five countries that read the most are India, Thailand, China, the Philippines, and Egypt. India tops the list with the average person reading 10.7 hours per week. The USA is far down the list at 5.7 hours per week, well below the global average of 6.5 hours per week.
  • The five bestselling books worldwide are Don Quixote (500 million copies!), Xinhua Zidian (400 million), A Tale of Two Cities (200 million), The Lord of the Rings (150 million), and Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone (107 million).
  • Four-fifths (80%) of Britons had read a book in the last year, putting them ahead of the Germans (79%), the French (73%), and far ahead of the Italians (56%).
  • Book publishing is the largest media and entertainment industry, with an estimated total value of $151 billion per year. Film and entertainment are second at $133 billion. Music is at $50 billion.

And here are a few things I didn’t know about books, publishing, and readers in the USA:

  • The United States makes up 30% of the global publishing market. China is second at 10%, followed by Germany (9%) and Japan (7%).
  • 27% of US adults didn’t read a single book in the last 12 months. The American average is 12 books per year.
  • Nearly 40% of Americans read print books exclusively. Just 6% read digital-only books.
  • The number of ebook readers in the US is expected to stagnate at 90 million within the next five years.

In footnotes to the infographic, Brown cites a long list of sources for this information, including The Guardian, the Smithsonian, and USA Today. The sources seem credible to me.

You might also be interested in Good news for book publishers—and readers of books!

 

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