The Switch, by Joseph Finder

My Murder & Mayhem book club is reading cyber-crime mysteries this month. I read a lot of crime fiction, but not very much in the Action/Thriller category, and The Switch is a good representative example of why, although it’s well-researched, fairly well written, and contains all the requisite elements one would expect to find satisfying. So this is less of a critique of this specific book as it is of the limitations of the genre in my view.

The premise of The Switch is an “average” guy, Michael Tanner, who happens to accidentally pick up a senator’s laptop by mistake in airport security, and the lengths her team and other, darker governmental entities are willing to go to in order to retrieve it and make him disappear. Tanner has a wife, Sarah, from whom he is estranged at the beginning of the story, and a coffee business that’s just been outmaneuvered by a competitor. If I were writing the story, it would be Tanner and Sarah on the run together, fighting, cooperating, working out their relationship, but in Action genre style, this story is just about Tanner. Sarah appears at brief points in the narrative, and they reconcile – seeing him in danger makes her realize she still loves him – but the relationship is secondary (tertiary? quaternary?) to the main plot, even to the main interest, which is a race against the other men involved. By the end of the story, Tanner has, as one would expect, found a clever solution to extricate himself, and applies what he’s learned – the new man he’s become – to turn the tables on his business competitor. He’s learned, he tells the reader, If you kill my dog, I’ll kill your cat. I would never in a million years end a story on this moral.

I say fairly well written not to be snide, but because two of the main characters made choices that came out of left field for me. Everything hinges on Tanner not returning the laptop as soon as he realizes the mistake, and his decision has a whimsical quality to it when I think it has to be necessary: either something that comes out of a deeply flawed character or events outside of the character’s control. I have the deepest sympathy: an early draft of Lexi had John Michael letting himself be wheedled into letting LX8000 out of the lab, and I worked and re-worked it until I realized if your Act I turning point is “against his better judgement,” the whole thing is on crutches.

MoveMind: Speculative Short Stories, by Robert New

If you read the author’s bio, you can find out Robert New has degrees in psychology, sociology, biology, and education, but if you’ve read this fabulous collection of short stories, you might have already guessed that: they are smart, mind-bending, and often contain scientific or philosophical ideas and explore moral questions.

I was particularly intrigued by the stories in which New’s own beliefs come to the fore: “The Second Fear” and “Devilish Tricks” which examine the role of fear in shaping human behavior; “How to Win a War” and “The Principled Principal” which present case studies in how to turn enemies into friends; and “The Lost Chapter” in which New proposes a foundation for a more equitable political society.

If you enjoy having your mind stimulated and your normal way of seeing the world challenged, check it out!

Governess to the Duke's Heir, by Maggi Andersen

It is impossible for me to hear “governess” and “Duke” without immediately thinking of Jane Eyre, and there are plot elements in the second half that have echoes, particularly when Jenny leaves in haste in the middle of the night (although for quite different reasons), but the first half of the book, which was my favorite, reminded me of “The Sound of Music,” which is an entirely different governess-falls-in-love-with-employer story.

One of the things I thought was quite brilliant here was that the class divide is so firmly ingrained in Andrew’s mind that when he is happy around Jenny (a river bank picnic with the children), he daydreams that he and the baroness he is courting will have picnics with the children in the future: he recognizes he is happy, but mistakenly thinks it is the setting, not the person he is with. (As I said, “The Sound of Music.” Love that about this book!)

Governess is listed as Book 4 of Andersen’s “Dangerous Lords” series, and I’m not quite sure why—although there is danger and suspense around them—but that’s good, because I don’t read books that romanticize dangerous men if I can help it. If you enjoy historical romance (1820s England), I recommend it.

Whatever It Takes (Highland Springs #4), by Leigh Fleming

Darla has resigned herself to the possibility she may be single the rest of her life. She has her dream house, a busy career as a successful realtor, her cat, Mr. Fluffybottom, and she’s just been nominated by the Highland Springs’ city council for their prestigious Citizen of the Year to be awarded at the Raspberry Festival. Except that none of them know her secret. She’s immediately attracted to Jason Byrne when he turns up in Highland Springs searching for the mother of his adopted daughter, but her whole house of cards is about to come down.

The book is a testimony to the courage it takes for women to come forward and the family and community support they need.

Heart Collector, by Barbara Russell

I loved this steampunk set in 19th c New Zealand! There’s a mystery, and great characters, and swoony scenes (I love Murk)! Isabel is a Supernatural, hunting a serial killer who’s found a way to collect the supernatural abilities of his victims, and I love how her empathic gift comes in smells, auras, and surprising visuals. That and the setting really made this book pop for me as something fresh and original. Terrific fun, quick read.

The Painted Veil, by W. Somerset Maugham

I’ve been reading about English “fish out of water.” I’d seen the movie “The Painted Veil” with Edward Norton a number of years ago, and it had made a deep impression on me. I’d made a mental note that someday I wanted to read the original book, which turns out to be absolutely magnificent, and far, far more problematic:

“The way that had seemed to stretch before her straight and easy and now she saw that it was a tortuous way and that pitfalls awaited her.”

In the introduction, Maugham writes that the story was inspired by a few lines in Dante, about a man who discovers his wife is adulterous and takes his revenge by transporting her to an unwholesome place where the miasma will kill her. Maugham updates the story to his own time (1920s) and sets it in rural China in a cholera epidemic, but he takes what might be sort of Jacobean “pot-boiler” stuff and makes it complex, because Kitty, though presented as shallow, is not your average heroine, and Walter, a sympathetic/unsympathetic character is less sure of his own vindicating rightness. And it doesn’t work the way Walter had planned.

It also doesn’t work the way the movie suggests, which was a bit of a stunner to me, although I eventually came around to thinking that was the right choice—they could not have stayed true to the book—while simultaneously being glad the book avoids easy answers. There is something here about the difference in the media. We could not have seen and understood Kitty if we had watched her from a distance. You have to be inside her subjective experience in order to hold on when the path is not straight and the victories are small and slippery. But it is a victory, I think, and I was grateful that Maugham didn’t gloss over the difficulties of trying to change. It made me think about addiction and what a disservice it is if we tell stories that suggest is it easy to overcome. Progress is not always a straight arrow.

Where Maugham gets minus points is his sentimental gloss (in my view) of the sisters of the convent and his careless treatment of the Chinese, who, with one exception, have no individual personalty and are casually described as in a way that suggests they are alien or even less than fully human. Not entirely unexpected for a writer of his time period, but it still makes me cringe as a modern reader.

If you can put a big asterisk by that short-coming, the book is still worth reading, because it’s a profound book, at least in the way he handles the English characters, and avoids the kind of easy answers that promise reformation through a single act of will or that romantic love will always flourish and provide salvation.

A Passage to India, by E.M. Forester

Reading A Passage to India has entirely new relevance for me in 2019. I’d read it in high school English, had no idea what it was about, watched the movie and still didn’t know what it was about, but I love Forester, so I’d always meant to come back and take another crack at it as an adult.

It’s still a bit of an enigma to me—if anyone can explain the concluding “Part III: The Temple” section to me, I’d be grateful—although this time around, I felt like I understood most of what Prof. Godbole and Mrs. Moore are saying, and even the experience of the Marabar caves, which on my read has to do with a sort of moral flattening of the universe: the infinite is not grandiose, it’s empty. A bit like how I used to think of death as “nothing for a long time” until I realized it might just be “no time” (although I no longer believe that). Forester also makes a great deal out of the collapse of good and evil in the face of meaninglessness, which I pretty quickly dismiss: whatever “ultimate” meaning there is or isn’t, the fact is that how we treat others in the lived in moment certainly makes a difference to our own and other people’s experience of the world, which is plenty.

Most of what struck me square between the eyes, though, was the Anglo-Indian relations, the cultural and racial tensions. It’s an incredible book to have be written in 1924, and it’s still challenging and thought-provoking, but with new echoes: not just a snapshot of a particular community in time, but a portrait of humanity. If you haven’t read this, or haven’t read this in a while, I highly, highly recommend it.

New Book: THE MARTIAN ZOMBIE

www.amazon.com/dp/B07PWHSG8T

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

My name is Mike Addison. I’m an astronaut, and I eat brains. Yep, I’m a zombie, and I’m pretty sure that landing shuttle taking off is my crewmates and the woman I love leaving me behind. Unless the creature that’s been stalking us got them first.

This isn’t so bad. I’m a mechanical engineer and cell biologist. All I have to do is work one problem at a time. I can handle this. If the oxygenator breaks down, I’m already dead. If the power and heat go out, I’m already dead. If the water regenerator—you get the idea. The first thing I need to do is figure out how to grow my own supply of brain cells, because potatoes, my friend, are not going to cut it.

The Hidden Blade, by Sherry Thomas

This prequel to MY BEAUTIFUL ENEMY is a fantastic addition, because Ying-ying and Leighton's backstories are fascinating and heart-breaking in their own right. In my opinion, you should definitely read ENEMY first, but this is a wonderful, wonderful addition. I finished it in one day, because I couldn’t bear to put it down, and it makes me want to read MY BEAUTIFUL ENEMY all over again.

 

MY BEAUTIFUL ENEMY is one of my favorite books...ever, and I don't say that lightly. I love these characters passionately, and I love the setting (19th c London and Chinese Turkestan!), and I love their Second Chances romance that's shot through with tragedy and grief and regret. Absolutely marvelous from start to finish.

Kiss of Steel, by Bec McMaster

Totally enjoyable vampire romance. Blade is a terrific character: I especially like that he's in a difficult, in-between space neither of the gutter nor of the Echelon, no longer fully human but not yet completely turned. His cockney speech gives him a rough, dangerous edge, and he carries a angry chip on his shoulder, a sense of shame, a bitterness that reminded me of another one of my favorites, Catherine Lloyd's WINDEMERE HALL.

Gunpowder Alchemy, by Jeannie Lin

Everything changed for Jin Soling and her family when the Emperor executed her father, a master engineer, for his failure to defend the Qing Empire from the English ‘devil ships.’ Soling sets off on a quest which involves her in Imperial and rebel plots, testing her loyalties as she struggles to figure out whom she can trust and which side she is on.

Fresh, wonderfully imaginative, packed full of adventure and intoxicating, restrained passion. An absolutely delight. I immediately bought the next book in the series!

Fallen Star, by Susannah Nix

Go behind the scenes on a movie shooting in New Orleans, where you’ll meet Grace, a script supervisor, and Scott, the incredibly hot but also deeply troubled movie star looking to redeem himself in this Enemies-to-Friends romance.

One of Nix’s gifts as an author is that she’ll also take you behind the glamour, into these characters’ hearts. They feel like real people, with real struggles, who are each trying to figure out how to connect on a deep level. The appeal at first glance might be the ‘eye-candy’ hot bod, but it’s the small things—when he grazes her knuckles with his thumb or finds just the right spot behind her ear—that make my heart race!

The Bride Wore Dead, by E. M. Kaplan

The subtitle of this is “An Un-Cozy, Un-Culinary” mystery, and it is truly refreshing and original. Josie Tucker is a food critic, desperately struggling with her finances and her health when she gets roped into being a last minute stand-in bridesmaid, only to later learn the bride ends up dead on the honeymoon—was it an accident or murder? The bride’s mother enlists Josie and sends her on a quest for the truth.

Josie is a smart, bitingly funny, flawed but engaging protagonist, and the book is full of fantastic, memorable characters who feel real. I finished this first book and immediately bought the next book in the series!

The House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz

From the creator of Foyle’s War, a marvelous Sherlock Holmes novel, in the style of Conan Doyle. Horowitz has all the elements you’d expect in a classic Holmes and has absolutely nailed the style. There’s a clever plot that weaves together two mysteries, memorable characters, and puzzles. What surprised me was that my favorite parts were where Horowitz carefully colored outside the lines in the narration—reflecting on the humanitarian problem of childhood poverty in London in 1890, which the Baker Street Irregulars brings up, but Conan Doyle never “saw” because it was simply part of the backdrop of his life. Horowitz also spares quick, more compassionate asides for characters like Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson, remarking that while she appears in his narratives, he regrets never taking the time to know her. I thought these “blind spots” Horowitz has the sensitivity to see were quite touching and made the novel something better than just another mystery.

A Test of Wills, by Charles Todd

Ian Rutledge returns from WWI a shattered man, attempting to carry on, haunted by the voice of a man whose execution he ordered. But the idyllic English countryside still harbors death, and Rutledge pursues the case, uncovering relationships and secret tragedies that go back to the war and before in this English village.

I enjoyed this period mystery very much, which is more grave than a “cozy,” but not as grim as Rennie Airth. There are several nice twists along the way that I didn’t see coming, and I loved the attention to setting, particularly the description of the country and the gardens. A TEST OF WILLS is the first book in the Ian Rutledge series. “Charles Todd,” the mother-son writing team, also have a separate Bess Crawford mystery series which follows a WWI nurse that I’m looking forward to reading.

River of Darkness, by Rennie Airth

A perfectly executed serial killer thriller, set in the English countryside post-WWI.

Having survived the trenches, a physically and emotionally scarred John Madden takes up his work again as Inspector with Scotland Yard to pursue a killer who came out of the war with a taste for blood. It’s grim, and stomach-turning, as one would expect a serial killer thriller to be, but I loved the procedural and the early forensics. The last half in particular is an edge-of-your-seat-turning-pages. I love the 1921 setting, and it was really fresh and original to see a mystery set in this place and period that isn’t an Agatha Christie-style manor house “cozy.” River of Darkness is the first in the Inspector Madden series.

First Casualty, by Ben Elton

A terrific WWI book, panoramic in scope, that begins with Inspector Dan Kingsley, disgraced and thrown in prison for being a contentious objector, who finds himself unexpectedly sprung, given a new identity and shipped off to the Western Front to investigate the murder of an officer. It was fascinating, fun, surprising, sometimes funny, and I really, really enjoyed it. There is an absolutely hilarious scene in Chapter 36 in which the British soldiers are trying to work out how the war started and what they’re doing in it.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

Absolutely extraordinary. You'd have to be half-mad to come up with a plot this brilliantly convoluted, and if the author had gone insane in the process of pulling it off, I think you'd have to excuse him. Not only does Bishop, tasked with solving the murder, switch bodies each day, the days are intercut, jumping back and forth in time, so that he's continually running into (or having to avoid) earlier and later versions of himself. Not to mention the additional players in this high-stakes chess game. Nothing, literally nothing is as it seems in this breathtakingly clever mystery.