January 4, 2018

Jussi-Adler Olsen’s captivating Department Q thrillers

Department Q thrillers: The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-OlsenSince 2007, Danish thriller writer Jussi Adler-Olsen has written seven bestselling novels in his ongoing series about Department Q at police headquarters in Copenhagen. All the principal characters in their own ways are misfits. Detective Carl Mørck has antagonized almost everyone else in the department and been exiled to the basement to head the new cold case unit. His assistant, Asaad, allegedly a Syrian immigrant, has a mysterious but doubtless violent past. The unit’s secretary, Rose, appears to suffer from dissociative identity disorder (“multiple personalities”). However, as a team they’re almost unbeatable.

The Keeper of Lost Causes (2007) — Superb Scandinavian noir from Denmark

Department Q is formed at the insistence of a member of Parliament. But Carl learns that his boss is skimming off most of his budget to subsidize the homicide bureau. He extorts an assistant to clean the basement and make coffee for him. Thinking he will get even with Carl for blackmailing him, the head of homicide assigns a seemingly clueless Syrian refugee named Assad as the assistant. But it doesn’t take long before it’s clear that Assad is capable of much more than cleaning floors and making coffee. Read the full review.

The Absent One (2008) — A twisted tale of murder in Denmark

The file of a case from 1987 has mysteriously landed on Carl’s desk: a double homicide that the police consider solved because the confessed murderer has long been in prison. No one can explain to Carl how or why the file showed up on his desk. Since Carl is afflicted with an overwhelming desire to do the exact opposite of what he’s told to do, he insists on pursuing the case even when his boss, and his bosses’ boss, the chief of police, demand that he set it aside because it has already been solved. Read the full review.

A Conspiracy of Faith (2009) — A captivating tale of religious fanaticism, blackmail, and serial murder

Carl is attempting to find an interesting case to explore when a mysterious message in a bottle literally turns up. That message, we know, was written by a teenage Danish boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who was being held captive along with his older brother in a boathouse on the shore of a fjord north of the capital. It was a desperate, last-minute plea for help—and it was written 13 years ago. Read the full review.

The Purity of Vengeance (2010) — Forced sterilization, fascists, and serial murder—in Denmark

While investigating the unexplained disappearance of four people in 1987, Department Q takes on a politically fraught case involving a powerful fertility doctor who is widely rumored to have performed a great many abortions over the years, most of them not just illegal but unknown to the women. The doctor is a clever and articulate spokesperson for the new Fascist party and is steadily gaining adherents through frequent television and radio interviews. Read the full review.

The Marco Effect (2014) — Child soldiers, bank fraud, and eccentric police in a Danish thriller

In a region of Cameroon populated by people outsiders call pygmies, a Danish development project has gone off the rails. Then, shortly after a visitor from the Danish foreign ministry is glimpsed on a visit, the local liaison between the project and the Danes is brutally murdered. Back home in Denmark, one of the foreign ministry officials involved in the project goes missing. We’ve learned that a senior official in the ministry and top executives at a Copenhagen bank are involved in a massive fraud. Meanwhile, troubles mount for a 15-year-old boy who is enslaved as a thief and a beggar by a band who style themselves Gypsies. We know there are connections among all these circumstances. But Carl Mørck doesn’t. Yet. Read the full review.

The Hanging Girl (2015) — From a bestselling Danish author, an intriguing detective novel

In 1997, a beautiful 19-year-old schoolgirl is killed by a hit-and-run driver on a road near the school she’s attending. Somehow, her body is throw up fourteen feet into a tree, where it remains hanging until a local police officer discovers her days later. The officer plunges into an obsessive investigation into her murder that spans nearly two decades. In the process, he drives his wife and son away and alienates everyone else around him. Now, in 2014, he calls detective Carl Mørck of the famous Department Q in Copenhagen in hopes Carl will take up the case. Carl, predictably, rude as ever, hangs up on him. Of course, we readers know well that Department Q will, in fact, take on the case. Read the full review.

The Scarred Woman (2016) — The latest addition to Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series

Like the six books that preceded it, it tells the story of how the small team in Department Q takes on several homicide cases simultaneously and discovers—lo and behold!—that they’re all connected. In the process, all three of Detective Carl Mørck’s “assistants,” Asaad, Rose, and newly assigned Gordon, manage to infuriate and astound him in new and sometimes highly creative ways. It’s just possible, we might guess, that all three of them are at least as smart as he is, if not more so. Read the full review.

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

December 28, 2017

13 eye-opening books about terrorism

eye-opening books: Top Secret America by Dana PriestI haven’t made a special study of terrorism. Still, I’ve read a baker’s dozen books in recent years that cast light on the subject. Seven are nonfiction, six fiction. I’m listing them below, alphabetized by the authors’ last names within each category. Each author’s surname is followed by a link to the book’s review.

The fictional accounts I’ve included can be as revealing as the real-world analyses. Alex Berenson, author of the John Wells series, is a former New York Times reporter who knows the Middle East intimately. John le Carré’s understanding of British espionage and the world in which it operates is legendary. And Dame Stella Rimington’s Liz Carlyle series reflects her decades of experience in MI5, capped by her years as the agency’s first female director.

Nonfiction

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary—The Islamic perspective on history

The number of Muslims who participate in terrorism is vanishingly small when measured against a global population of nearly 7.5 billion. Even the number who sympathize with them is extremely limited. Most of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims tend to view history along the lines of the balanced and moderate perspective in this book. Read the review.

The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Mark Mazzetti—Drones, mercenaries, and targeted murder: the new CIA strategy

To “end terrorism” after 9/11, the US military establishment gained trillions of dollars in new spending, and our intelligence agencies mushroomed in number and size. Even more important, the White House profoundly changed the rules under which both the Pentagon and the CIA operated. Read the review.

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin—The shocking reality behind the secret US war on “terror”

The authors’ research came up with a jaw-dropping 1,074 federal government organizations and nearly two thousand private companies involved with programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in at least 17,000 locations across the United States—all of them working at the top-secret classification level. Read the review.

Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power by David E. Sanger—The surprising emergence of Barack Obama’s secret wars

President Obama engineered a massive increase in drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia; the country’s first-ever (known) use of cyberwarfare in a targeted attack on Iran’s nuclear program; and the ever-growing use of Special Forces in operations such as the murder of Osama bin Laden. Read the review.

Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker—Understanding the secret American campaign against Al Qaeda

In the course of the past decade “the government’s force of professional counterterrorism analysts has grown from a group small enough to know each other’s phone numbers to a vast army linked by supercomputers processing thousands of bits of data in nanoseconds.” And, by no means incidentally, spending tens of billions of dollars in the process. Read the review.

Agent Storm: My Life Inside Al Qaeda and the CIA by Morten Storm, Paul Cruickshank, and Tim Lister—A truly amazing story about Al Qaeda, and it’s real

What makes Morten Storm’s story unique is the extraordinary amount of audiovisual evidence and electronic communications he collected during his time as a spy, which both corroborate his story and enrich his account. Read the review.

Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick—A well-informed history of ISIS

There are heroes as well as villains in Black Flags. Jordan’s King, Abdullah II, is at the top of the list of heroes for his prescience in foreseeing the inevitable consequences of the Iraq invasion and his ongoing pleas to the U.S. government to avoid the great mistakes it made there. Read the review.

Fiction

The Faithful Spy (John Wells #1) by Alex Berenson—Al Qaeda from the inside out: a thriller filled with suspense

John Wells is the only CIA operative ever to succeed in infiltrating Al Qaeda. Now, after a decade undercover in Afghanistan and Chechnya, he finally appears to have gained the confidence of the group’s top leaders. Summoned to an audience with Ayman al-Zawahiri, Wells is dispatched to the USA to play a key role in a terrorist plot to rival 9/11. Read the review.

The Secret Soldier (John Wells #5) by Alex Berenson—Jihadis, the Saudi royal family, and an American soldier-spy

Alex Berenson’s espionage novels about American soldier-spy John Wells are timely and topical. They invariably give the reader an intimate, insider’s look at the U.S. intelligence establishment. And they reflect Berenson’s extensive travels as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times as well as his superior research skills. Read the review.

The Prisoner (John Wells #11) by Alex Berenson—Going undercover for the CIA in ISIS

To uncover the identity of a mole in the CIA, John Wells must revert to his terrorist identity, contrive to be captured by American forces in Afghanistan, and then rendered by the CIA to a black prison site in Bulgaria. There, his assignment is to befriend a fellow prisoner, a senior officer in ISIS who can identify the mole. Read the review.

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré—John le Carré’s latest, about anti-terrorism, is brilliant

Acting in secrecy, a British government official engineers a joint UK-US anti-terrorism operation in Gibraltar in partnership with a shady American financed by Texas-based evangelical Christian activists. A combined force of handpicked British Special Forces and mercenaries in the employ of a mysterious American defense contractor execute the plan under cover of darkness. Disaster ensues. Read the review.

Incendiary by Chris Cleve—A wrenching portrait of the human cost of terrorism

In an open letter to Osama bin Laden, a devastated young mother relates the impact of a massive terrorist attack on a soccer game in London where her husband and young son have died. The book’s four sections cover events in the spring, when the attack occurs, and in the succeeding summer, fall, and winter of one terrible year, perhaps the worst in London’s history. Read the review.

Secret Asset (Liz Carlyle #2) by Stella Rimington—An engrossing novel about British counter-espionage

A notorious radical Pakistani imam surfaces in Britain. The inter-agency Counter-Terrorist Committee swings into action, mobilizing MI5 (the Security Service), MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service), GCHQ (Britain’s NSA), the Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard), and the Home Office (Britain’s Justice Department). Read the review.

December 21, 2017

Olen Steinhauer’s brilliant Yalta Boulevard cycle set in Eastern Europe

Yalta Boulevard cycle: Victory Square by Olen SteinhauerIn addition to the five novels in his splendid Yalta Boulevard cycle, Olen Steinhauer has authored to date the Milo Weaver trilogy (The Tourist, The Nearest Exit, An American Spy) and three standalone novels. But to my mind the five-book series that begins with The Bridge of Sighs is his best and most important work.

The Bridge of Sighs (2003) — A fully satisfying murder mystery set in post-war Europe

It has been three years since the Second World War ended, leaving his country in still in ruins and under the rule of a one-party Communist government headed by Comrade Mihai. The despised Germans and their sympathizers have been driven out or executed, but their legacy taints daily life at all levels of society. Just 22 and fresh out of the police academy, Emil Brod reports for duty to the homicide department in The Capital, only to be thrown, unaided, into investigating the murder of one of the country’s leading citizens.

Read the full review.

The Confession (2004) — An historical thriller set under Communism in Eastern Europe

We view the watershed year of 1956 through the eyes and the troubled mind of Ferenc Kolyeszar, a policeman in a fictional Eastern European country. Kolyeszar is a novelist as well as a policeman, having published a well-received novel about his experiences as a soldier resisting the German occupation at the outset of World War II. Now 37 years old, he is writing The Confession to chronicle his shattering experiences at home and at work against the backdrop of fateful world events . . . Read the full review.

Olen Steinhauer 2010

Olen Steinhauer, 2010

36 Yalta Boulevard (2005) — Inside the mind’s eye of Eastern European Communism in the 1960s

It’s 1966, and Brano Sev is now nearing 50. A World War II partisan fighter turned secret policeman, Brano has been working for months on the assembly line at a factory as punishment for an espionage scandal that erupted after he was sent on assignment to Vienna. Without warning, his superiors pull him out of the factory. temporarily reinstate him as a major in the security service, and send him off to his home village, where he is to investigate why a defector has suddenly returned to the village and what he’s planning to do . . . Read the full review.

Liberation Movements (2006) — Love, betrayal, and terrorism behind the Iron Curtain

Mystery piles atop mystery in this fourth installment of Olen Steinhauer’s five-novel cycle of life behind the Iron Curtain. The previous books were set in decades past, the post-war 40s, 50s, and 60s. In Liberation Movements, the action takes place in 1968 and 1975, relating two seemingly unconnected stories that only much later merge, raising yet more mysterious questions . . . Read the full review.

Victory Square (2007) — A powerful tale of life in Eastern Europe during the fall of Communism

Victory Square is the fifth and final novel in Steinhauer’s Eastern European cycle, and in some ways it’s the best. Steinhauer, an American who has lived for extended periods in several countries in the region, spent months, perhaps years, meticulously researching the fall of Ceausescu’s regime in Romania. That history forms the basis of the events that unfold in the novel in 1989-90 . . . Read the full review.

You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included. Take a look, too, at 15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others).

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
August 22, 2017

Science history and science explained in 33 excellent popular books

science history - the immortal life of henrietta lacks - rebecca sklootAstronomy. 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. I’m listing them here in alphabetical order by the fields’ names. Each is linked to my review. (If a link comes up short, just go to www.malwarwickonbooks.com and search for the title.)

Animal Husbandry: Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer

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

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

Astronomy: Beyond: Our Future in Space, by Chris Impey

Atmospheric ScienceCaesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us, by Sam Kean

Big Data: Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, by Viktor Mayer-Schoeneberger and Kenneth Cukier

Climate Change: Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, by Annalee Newitz

Disability: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell

Ecology: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert

Economics: Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, by Sylvia Nasar

Epidemiology: Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, by Sonia Shah

Epidemiology: Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, by David Quammen

Gastroenterology: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, by Mary Roach

General Science: A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

Hydrology: Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, by Peter H. Gleick

Innovation: How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, by Steven Johnson

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

Medical Research: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Medicine: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande

Meteorology: Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, by Erik Larson

Microbiology: I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong

Military Science: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach

Nanotechnology: Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization, by K. Eric Drexler

Neurology: Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks, by Tiffany Shlain

Oncology: The Emperor of All Maladies: A History of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Personality Psychology: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain

Physics: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, by Carlo Rovelli

Psychiatry: NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, by Steve Silberman

Psychology: The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, by Michael Lewis

Sexology: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach

Space Travel: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach

Statistics: Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data, by Charles Whelan

Statistics: The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t, by Nate Silver

August 1, 2017

75 readable and revealing historical novels

historical novels - all the light we cannot see - anthony doerr

Though I read a great deal of historical fiction, I gravitate toward certain topics, as you can see in the list below of the 75 historical novels I’ve, read, enjoyed, and reviewed over the past seven years. 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’ve written.

I’ve grouped the 75 novels below in the categories indicated above. Within each category, the books are listed in alphabetical order of the authors’ last names. (For a much longer list of historical novels categorized by country, click here.)

World War II

The human cost of World War II (Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave)

A deeply affecting novel of the Holocaust (The German Girl, by Armando Lucas Correa)

In an alternate history, the Nazis occupy England (SS-GB, by Len Deighton)

This novel richly deserves the Pulitzer Prize it won (All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr)

An extraordinary World War II spy story grounded in historical fact (The Best of Our Spies, by Alex Gerlis)

A deeply affecting novel of the French Resistance (The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah)

A brilliant novel explores life in Nazi Europe (The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer)

A well-written novel about British espionage in World War II (Tightrope, by Simon Mawer)

A brilliant novel of the Warsaw Ghetto (The Book of Aron, by Jim Shepherd)

US politics

Who wields the real power in Washington, DC? (Echo House, by Ward Just)

A terrific political history novel (Dewey Defeats Truman, by Thomas Mallon)

America’s third Red Scare (Fellow Travelers, by Thomas Mallon)

Ronald Reagan deconstructed in a new Thomas Mallon novel (Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, by Thomas Mallon)

Watergate through a novelist’s eyes (Watergate, by Thomas Mallon)

Was politics during the Great Depression really like this? (All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren)

American history

Isabel Allende’s triumphant new novel spans the Western Hemisphere (Maya’s Notebook, by Isabel Allende)

James Bond, lies within lies, and coming of age in the 1960s (True Believers, by Kurt Andersen)

Revisiting black humor (not Black humor) (Sneaky People, by Thomas Berger)

In Colonial America, the first Native American goes to Harvard (Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks)

The untold tale of the absent father in “Little Women” (March, by Geraldine Brooks)

Hired killers, the California Gold Rush, and lots of surprises (The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt)

Unforgettable characters in 19th century San Francisco (Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue)

A hilarious tale of Colonial America by two history professors (Blindspot, by Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore)

Love, disease, and self-deception: the life of Typhoid Mary (Fever: A Novel of Typhoid Mary, by Mary Beth Keane)

Leon Trotsky, Diego Rivera, and the Red Scare (The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver)

Suspenseful historical fiction that’s hard to put down (World Gone By, by Dennis Lehane)

A thoughtful, action-packed crime story (Live by Night – Coughlin #2, by Dennis Lehane)

American history, laughing all the way (The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride)

A clever detective novel set in Colonial America (The Constable’s Tale: A Novel of Colonial America, by Donald Smith)

She was the country’s first female deputy sheriff (Girl Waits With Gun, by Amy Stewart)

Sex, drugs, and revolution: Berkeley in the 70s (All Our Yesterdays, by Erik Tarloff)

European history

Geraldine Brooks’ outstanding novel about England and the Plague (Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks)

The strange story of the Sarajevo Hagadah (People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks)

A gripping historical thriller (The Devils of Cardona, by Matthew Carr)

A suspenseful tale of Holocaust survivors in post-war London (The List, by Martin Fletcher)

Cicero, witness to history (Dictator – Ancient Rome Trilogy #3, by Robert Harris)

The Dreyfus Affair, reenacted in a suspenseful spy novel (An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris)

Ancient Rome, before the fall (Conspirata – Ancient Rome Trilogy #2, by Robert Harris)

The IRA, the KGB, MI5, and the Corsican mob all conflict (Touch the Devil – Liam Devlin #2, by Harry Patterson writing as Jack Higgins)

An engrossing novel about Irish terrorists’ real-life attempt to kill Margaret Thatcher (High Dive, by Jonathan Lee)

A searing inquiry into life during the Chechnyan War (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra)

A beautifully written tale of love, courage, and faith (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell)

A fully satisfying murder mystery set in post-war Europe (The Bridge of Sighs (Ruthenia Quintet #1), by Olen Steinhauer)

An historical thriller set under Communism in Eastern Europe (The Confession – Ruthenia Quintet #2, by Olen Steinhauer)

Inside the mind’s eye of Eastern European Communism in the 1960s (36 Yalta Boulevard – Ruthenia Quintet #3, by Olen Steinhauer)

Love, betrayal, and terrorism behind the Iron Curtain (Liberation Movements – Ruthenia Quintet #4, by Olen Steinhauer)

A powerful tale of life in Eastern Europe during the fall of Communism (Victory Square – Ruthenia Quintet #5, by Olen Steinhauer)

European espionage history

Still a lively read among classic spy novels (A Coffin for Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler)

Niccolo Machiavelli, private eye (The Malice of Fortune, by Michael Ennis)

Alan Furst’s superb novel, “Spies of the Balkans” (Spies of the Balkans, by Alan Furst)

At the dawn of World War II, a Hollywood film star in an espionage novel (Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst)

Arms merchants and spies in a thriller set during the Spanish Civil War (Midnight in Europe, by Alan Furst)

Vive la Resistance! (A Hero of France, by Alan Furst)

One of the best espionage novels of recent years (Kingdom of Shadows, by Alan Furst)

A brilliant novel of the French Resistance (Red Gold, by Alan Furst)

Romance intrigue and betrayal in post-World War II Istanbul (Istanbul Passage, by Joseph Kanon)

A Nazi-hunter in post-war Venice in a suspenseful novel of intrigue (Alibi, by Joseph Kanon)

From Joseph Kanon, one of the best of today’s spy novels (Leaving Berlin, by Joseph Kanon)

An author of spy novels to rival John Le Carre (The Prodigal Spy, by Joseph Kanon)

German emigres in Hollywood in a captivating historical novel (Stardust, by Joseph Kanon)

Asian history

A brilliant novel that spans a thousand years of Chinese history (The Incarnations, by Susan Barker)

A biblical story, brilliantly retold (The Secret Chord: A Novel, by Geraldine Brooks)

A superb historical novel about the opium trade by Amitav Ghosh (Sea of Poppies – Ibis Trilogy #1)

A brilliant Indian novel about the first Opium War (River of Smoke – Ibis Trilogy #2, by Amitav Ghosh)

An outstanding Indian novelist looks at the Opium War (Flood of Fire – Ibis Trilogy #3, by Amitav Ghosh)

Khaled Hosseini in Berkeley, in person and in print (And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini)

A haunting tale of love and loss spanning India and America (The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri)

Sheer reading pleasure, with a dollop of magic, in a historical novel (The Oracle of Stamboul, by Michael David Lukas)

A superb novel digs for roots in Israel’s modern history (The Debba, by Avner Mandelman)

The human toll of social change (The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee)

The Vietnam War through Vietnamese eyes (The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen)

Inside the fight for Israeli independence (City of Secrets, by Stewart O’Nan)

African history

Love, loss, and war in post-independence Africa (Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimanada Ngozi Adichie)

A brilliant novel of love, hope, and the Rwanda genocide (Running the Rift, by Naomi Benaron)

African Roots through African eyes (Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi)

An historical novel set in East Africa early in the 20th Century (Assegai, by Wilbur Smith)

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