Tag Archives: mystery

A period piece you’ll relish reading

August 20, 2014

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The Time In BetweenDo you savor good writing?

The slow-moving action of “The Time In Between” perfectly fits this lengthy, detail-filled novel. It lets you soak up the lovely writing and the exquisite translation from the original Spanish into beautiful English.

It lets you absorb the tenor of the times and the emotions of characters into whose lives you’ve been dropped for 600-plus pages.

Hemingway and others have written about the Spanish civil war, of course, but Maria Duenas decorates with ornamentation, flavor and the style of the period in contrast to the straightforward, unadorned sentences of Hemingway.

Fashionistas will appreciate the detail Duenas shares as she portrays the life of the seamstress turned spy in the chaotic 1930s as Spaniards moved from their own tragic war into observers of World War II all around them.

There’s drama, mystery, romance and unexpected turns of events — all the pieces that drive readers to keep turning pages. People even pray and go to church, something rare for modern literature.

Hats off to Daniel Hahn for bringing this 2009 novel to readers of the English language. Only once did I feel as though he’d missed the mark.

Just as I was admiring the beauty of the translation, he has an old Moroccan woman threatening the suitor of the main seamstress character sounding like a thug straight from the streets of south Philadelphia. Just had to laugh.

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Murder of John Paul I — from the inside?

April 25, 2014

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UnknownThe pages are yellowing in the this English-translation of “The Last Pope” that I couldn’t resist in an antique store, and the copy looked as though it had never been touched.

That should have been one tip that “The Last Pope” was no “The Shoes of the Fisherman,” but the glossy cover of the hardback claimed it was an international bestseller, so I sprang for the $7.

“The Last Pope” was probably worth the $7, but not a cent more. Its premise is that rather than dying in his sleep, as is the official word on the passing of the former Cardinal Albino Luciani, the man who was pope for only 33 days in 1978 was killed because he had made plans to remove high-ranking Vatican officials. Several cardinals from that era are implicated in ordering the pope’s death.

In the story, copies of John Paul I’s supposed plans have made their way out of the Vatican archives, and the bad guys are killing folks to get them back. A beautiful female reporter and a mysterious “Rafael” get involved, and, well, no spoilers here.

What the novel by Luis Miguel Rocha is, of course, is a vehicle to paint the Vatican Curia as corrupt and the church itself as behind-the-times on all kinds of contemporary issues. John Paul I was going to change all that, so the story goes, and the usual Catholic punching bags — birth control, homosexual relations, priestly celibacy, female priests — take their lumps.

That’s too bad, because “The Last Pope” isn’t a bad novel. But it does explain why the eight-year-old copy was sitting untouched in an antique store.

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Teens will enjoy tale by Minnesotan Jonathan Friesen, an author ‘who wants to make God smile’

March 17, 2011

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The headstones in the family cemetery reveal a threatening fact to the young hero of “The Last Martin”: Lots of members of the Boyle family have been named Martin, but the birth years on the grave markers of one Martin Boyle always correspond to the death year of another. When one Martin Boyle is born, the previous one dies.

For the current Martin Boyle that’s a problem. His aunt is expecting, the baby is a boy, and family tradition dictates he be named, you guessed it.

Follow the quick-paced struggles of author Jonathan Friesen’s lead character as he tries to overcome what seems to be the family curse, that there can be only one Martin Boyle.

A writer who lives in Mora, Minn., Friesen sets his story in the Twin Cities, and he brings a bit of Minnesota history into a well-crafted plot. But as a practicing Christian, Friesen told me he always prays before he begins writing.

Responding to my e-mailed question about his faith life, Friesen said he attends a Baptist church. And here’s what he answered when asked why he prays before writing: “The thought of God smiling over me when I write provides both confidence and encouragement. I want to know that He is not only pleased that I am exercising the gift He gave me, but that He is pleased with the content of what I write. I want to make Him smile.”

“The Last Martin” is chock full of wacky characters readers of this Zonderkidz paperback will enjoy. The youngsters in the Boyle family seem to be the only normal folks around. They’ve got the usual growing-up fears and issues, plus a few more — like being cursed to die an early death.

Can the latest Martin Boyle deal with an over-bearing, germaphobic mother, a workaholic father, a crush that’s going badly AND end the curse that’s about to make his life short and not so sweet?

It’s fun, easy read for the 16-and-under crowd. — bz

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Mixing Missing Person Case with Marconi?

September 7, 2010

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thunderstruck cover

“Thunderstruck,”

by Erik Larson

For more than half of Erik Larson’s 2006 book, readers have to wonder how the best-selling author is ever going to bring together the story of the invention of wireless telegraphy with the true story of a famous English crime.

“Thunderstruck” is a narrative history that bounces back and forth between the lives of world-renown Guglielmo Marconi and one Hawley Crippen, an American caught up in a sham of a marriage. Once Marconi’s network of transmitting towers and receivers develops to the point of enabling easy wireless trans-Atlantic messaging — and once Crippen apparently has had enough of his wife’s browbeating — what emerges is one of the great chases of all time, one followed around the world thanks to Marconi’s invention.

Ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship dispatches fly through the ether between England and North America, building suspense.

Will Scotland Yard find Cora Crippen alive?

Will the ghastly partial remains of a human being turn out to be the overbearing wife of the kind, timid man?

Will nascent wireless traffic be intercepted by the wrong people, including the yellow journalism practitioners of the early 20th century, and blow the capture of the suspect?

The biography of Marconi almost becomes a by-product of the drama, but it’s an interesting life story all the same. And the 392 pages of the Crown Publishers hardcover eventually make for can’t-put-this-down reading. — bz

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What if you knew a secret you dared tell no one?

May 6, 2010

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Im not scared cover

“I’m Not Scared,”

by Niccolo Ammaniti

Can a nine-year-old be brave?

Brave enough to try to save the life of another boy?

Niccolo Ammaniti’s little, 200-page mystery is one you’ll read in one sitting.

You’ll have to.

You’ll just have to find out what happens when young Michele makes an amazing discovery as he and his friends are out exploring in the Italian countryside where they live.

Ammaniti captures Italian family life, community tension, childhood fears and blunders that anyone who has been a child will identify with.

Best of all is how he puts readers inside the mind of his nine-year-old hero. He lets us see how someone who is just a boy knows the difference between right and wrong and is willing to risk the consequences of doing what his heart tells him he must.

This is not a new work but one first published in Italian in 2001 and translated into English by Jonathan Hunt in 2003. That “I’m Not Scared” has been translated into 20 languages should tell you how good a read it is. — bz

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Catholic values pop out of major novelist’s mystery

July 19, 2009

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“Where Are You Now?”,
by Mary Higgins Clark

With more than 30 titles under her belt, Mary Higgins Clark knows how to write a mystery.

In “Where Are You Now?” she pulls out the expected array of clues and characters.

The story-line starts 10 years after a college senior disappears. Once again on this Mother’s Day he calls home. His attorney sister decides to try to locate him, but the police detectives she turns to quickly make a connection: the brother may be their best suspect in a murder and the disappearance of three young women in the same New York neighborhood.

All the good mystery pieces are there: the passionate protagonist, the love interest that may or may not be true, the greedy landlord, the nervous apartment caretakers, the demented perpetrator, the likable victims, the suspicious chauffeur, the pain of post-abortion trauma.

What?

A major American novelist works the pain of post-abortion trauma into a book that a major publisher — Simon & Schuster — prints and promotes?

Catholic writer includes her values

Okay, I’ll be clear: “Where Are You Now?” is not a mystery about abortion.

It’s just that the way abortion usually is found in mainstream publishing is that it is extremely one-sided, treating the taking of the life of the in utero baby either casually and matter-of-factly or sympathetically toward the pregnant woman with no regard whatsoever for the other living being in the picture.

It’s usually “Abortion? Nothing to it. Get it done and get on with your life.”

Author Mary Higgins Clark has found a way to live her Catholic faith in the marketplace in which she is one of the high-ranking celebrities.

And it’s a good read!

Like all good, page-turner mysteries, Clark works interesting characters through clues and dead ends, throwing suspicion on a number of them, challenging readers to ponder motives and to try to guess “who-dun-it.”

Oh, did a mention the kindly and wise old Irish monsignor? — bz
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Fine mystery, fine writing woven into politics surrounding fall of Communism

July 16, 2009

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“Victory Square,”

by Olen Steinhauer

Characters you find yourself cheering for get involved in the chaos of an Eastern European country as its Communist government falls.

That’s the storyline behind this well-written novel with flashes of — even a foundation in — real-life history.

There’s global politics, too, and international intrigue as people on a list start dying. Emil Brod, the chief of detectives just days away from retirement, and detective/spy Garva Noukas search for answers.

Olen Steinhauer makes you care about what happens to these two, and that’s key to any good novel. The plus is that “Victory Square” is as much literature as it is mystery.

What’s unique in a mystery, too, is that it offers an other-than-American point of view of the global politics of that time when the Soviet empire was crumbling, and seeing historical events through others’ eyes can bring clearer vision to readers.

Pick up this 355-page St. Martin’s Minotaur paperback for a great read. — bz
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Try a slice of politics, Chicago style

March 19, 2008

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“Windy City,”
by Scott Simon

My wife, Barb, who grew up in central Illinois farm country, used to say that my Chicago friends and I were afflicted with the same disease: “You guys think that Chicago’s the only place to live.”

At the time, her diagnosis was spot on.

Chicago can spoil you, and until you take the antidote of living elsewhere, love for Chicago is a tough illness to shake.

Obviously I’m not completely cured, despite having lived away from the Windy City for more than 25 years. When I spotted Scott Simon’s book, “Windy City,” at a bookstore, I didn’t think twice before plopping down $24.95.

The novel starts with the city’s long-serving mayor found dead at his desk, his face in a prosciutto and artichoke pizza. Finding the killer or killers is part of the unraveling, but to be honest, solving the crime is really only background music. A whodunit this ain’t.

The plot? Chicago politics. In the raw.

The characters? Chicago’s aldermen. In all their humanity, all their sins, all their antics, all their shenanigans, all their deals, all their in-fighting, all their “character.” How they work with and around one another in complex relationships that can’t be described as all bad– but they aren’t all good, either.

What keeps you turning the pages, ostensibly, is the storyline about who will become the next mayor, since the City Council must elect a replacement until the next general election.

One aldermen recommends that another vote for a certain candidate because she “knows how to express her appreciation,” wink wink.

But Simon, the host of National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition,” has put together a package that combines accurate descriptions of Chicago’s ethnic variety — ward by ward — with an inside-baseball view of Chicago’s City Council and its city government operations. He captures life as every Chicagoan will tell you is exactly the way it is.

It’s the speeches at the Museum of Lithuanian Civilization, the Baptist church and the wedding reception in a Chinese neighborhood, the flashbacks to how the now-dead mayor forced Chicago to live up to its motto as “The City That Works,” and insight into machine politics — aldermanic votes are dependent not upon who is best for the job but who will agree to put a police station in their neighborhood or vote for a tax enhancement zone in their ward. You get to keep you seat on the council if you do two things: fill the potholes and clear the snow off the streets.

“Windy City” was a fun read for me because I was able to identify with so many of the locales that Simon takes his readers to and with the ethnic mix that has such an impact on politics in Chicago.

Others will love the circus-like atmosphere in the City Council chambers that Simon portrays perfectly, almost historically!

There’s really great writing, too. Simon doesn’t just say an alderman is “in bed with” one of the city’s unions, he “shares bedbugs” with it. When a City Hall worker commits suicide from a high-rise apartment, the police officer involved admits his investigation hasn’t produce any reason. He tells an alderman, “All we know for sure now, sir, is that he wasn’t Peter Pan.”

The amazing thing about “Windy City” is that Simon doesn’t involve the cardinal-archbishop of Chicago in the story — not in any way. In this day and age, an author deserves a plenary indulgence for resisting the urge to take a cheap shot or to pile on the hierarchy and the church.

The most religious action in the whole story comes just before Chicago’s 50 aldermen are to vote on the mayoral replacement. Because the Rev. Jesse Jackson is unavailable, an alderman who is also a rabbi is asked to do the invocation for the council session. And there’s a bit of good old Chicago pride that seeps through, as you’ll see in this excerpt:

“May God give us wisdom today. And if we don’t choose the best or the brainiest candidate, please let us at least find a good man or woman who loves this city and will grow wise in the job.”

Now for the worst part of “Windy City” — the jacket design. A weather vane with a donkey, an elephant and an American flag, plus convention-type boater hats. Please. Chicago politics isn’t akin to a party convention. And there’s no Republican anything in Chicago, not even a weather vane. Sure, you could vote Republican in a city election — but why waste your vote? — bz

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Characters to warm up to in a cold, cold climate

February 13, 2008

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“Light on Snow,”
by Anita Shreve

When as a reader you are drawn into a story, when you rush home from work to pick up reading where you left off, when you get out of bed and start reading while you are pouring your morning coffee half into the cup and half onto the kitchen counter, and when, in the end, you wish there were a few more chapters, that’s a good book.

“Light on Snow” is that kind of read.

Anita Shreve pulls us into the lives of Nicky and Robert Dillon, a daughter and father who find a baby in the snowy woods near their New Hampshire home. How they react — and how their reactions impact their lives — reveals not just a life-saving response for the infant but a chance to reclaim the lives they have run to the northern forest to escape.

Part crime story, part family-relationship story, part mystery, “Light on Snow” is so much more than any literary genre can describe, and it’s because Shreve makes us care about the characters. The Dillons are people we want to know – people we want to reach out to – people we want to do the right thing – for their own sake, for their own sanity, for their own saintliness. – bz

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If you like ‘Cold Case,’ you’ll like ‘Shadows’

February 12, 2008

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Shadows,
By Edna Buchanan

“Shadows” is a good, “Cold Case”-type detective story with interesting twists that go back to the Cilvil Rights Movement days of the 1960s.

Author Edna Buchanan has at least a half-dozen good novels to her name, and you’ve gotta love her writing.

When you get a chance, pick up a her non-fiction work, “The Corpse Had a Familiar Face.” It’s filled with stories Buchanan picked up as a crime reporter for The Miami Herald. At a journalism workshop I went to not long ago, one of the presenters said he makes it must reading for all new hires and interns, because it models the colorful, interesting writing he wants in his newspaper.

“Shadows” offers much the same as a work of fiction, and its plot is complicated enough to keep you turning the pages. – bz

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