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[837] The Travelers – Chris Pavone

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“I was handicapped by my assumption that the serious business of espionage would be handled by equally serious reporters of world events.” (Ch.37, 523)

Will Rhodes is a travel writer whose job brings him to exotic destinations and in touch with influential people. Early in the story, he is off getting himself permanently compromised and ripe for blackmail in Argentina, where he is forced to become entangled with some international spy network. Some of the people in this book do have espionage connections, but Pavone doesn’t things that simple. The reader and Will Rhodes alike must sort out the real agents from the impostors. At the magazine, there is editor Malcolm Somers, whose furtive activities include something shady with Will’s wife Chloe, who after leaving the magazine, begins pursuing her own furtive career. A former editor has disappeared. A shady group monitors the moves of a number of people, including some of the staff at the magazine.

The idea of spy thriller set in the publishing world is clever but lagged in the execution. A travel writer’s life lends a good cover for spying, but as Will Rhodes becomes entangled in this global intrigue, the story actually falls flat because it is over-written, feels too long and meandering. The self-indulgent ruminations really slow the pace, so much that it takes 351 pages to convey what I have figured out at about page 100. The saving grace is the final third, when Pavone pulls together the many threads, connecting characters that seemed unrelated to the plot and stepping up the tempo.

606 pp. Crown Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[836] The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

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“Hallowness: that I understand. I’m starting to believe that there isn’t anything you can do to fix it. That’s what I’ve taken from the therapy sessions: the holes in your life are permanent. You have to grow around them, like tree roots around concrete; you mold yourself through the gaps.”

The Girl on the Train is a fairly well-crafted thriller that revolves around the daily delusion of one woman, Rachel, who has been divorced and dismissed from fer job. She is the girl on the train who takes her mind off her beleaguered life by imagining the lives of others. Specifically, the lives of “Jess and Jason” who live at the house near the railway signal where her train stops every morning. To her they seem to live up to the exemplary marriage she had always dreamed of—until one morning on which Rachel sees something the completely shatters that image.

The book is full of secrets—everyone has them. The narrative makes up of those from three women, who are, between an alcoholic, a liar, and a cheat, all unreliable. They are also entangled in relationships that are gradually revealed. These little mysteries, personal secrets that exist outside of what we see on the surface propel the plot, which delves into the timeless question of how much can you really know a person. As Rachel is pulled into the lives of these people for whom she invents life details, she is restless to find out about their secrets. She probes and tries to recall exactly what happened on the fateful night the victim disappeared. She is prone to blackout and drunk dialling. The memory loss prompt means a blurry repetition of images redolent throughout the pages—blood, an underpass, a blue dress, and a man with red hair, all jumble in her mind.

I give credits to Hawkins for the bold move to create a flawed female lead. Her alcoholic lifestyle discredits her testimony. She wobbles in misery and the aftermath of a failed marriage, but she is quite magnetic in her occasional spite. She is more sympathetic than the missing Meagan, and Anna, the wife of her ex-husband. Hawkins juggles perspectives intentionally full of blind spots with great skill, building up a suspense along with empathy for an unusual central character that doesn’t immediately grab with the reader.

336 pp. Riverhead Books. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[832] Behind Closed Doors – B.A. Paris

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“Since joining our circle of friends a month ago, I’m sure she’s been told over and over again that Grace Angel, wife of brilliant lawyer Jack Angel, is a perfect example of a woman who has it all—the perfect house, the perfect husband, the perfect life.” (8)

Or does she? The story grips you from the very beginning. Husband and wife of this perfect marriage are hosting a gourmet dinner for two other couples, who have become their new firm friends when the Angels moved into town. But it’s easy to spot tension that percolates the conversation around the table. Grace is compelled to say the right words and acts in accord to her husband’s dictate. She is acting under his silent duress.

The story alternates between the present and the past, and is told from Grace’s point of view. The past is only a few weeks before they get married after a whirlwind of romance. Angel believes she’s the luckiest woman to have married Jack, a brilliant lawyer who genuinely seems to care for her 17-year-old sister, Millie, who has Down’s syndrome. The past-intertwining-present narrative style drives the story with such mounting tension and relentless pace, with the end of each chapter being a cliffhanger. The plot is basic but strewn with decoys and twists. It’s a mental cat-and-mouse chase, a constant game of one-upping. The domestic psychological thriller reminds us that sometimes the worst terror comes not from strangers but those closest to us.

351 pp. St. Martin Press. Advanced Reader’s Copy. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[829] Inferno – Dan Brown

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“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” (Ch.38, 211)

Inferno is typical Dan Brown and Da Vinci Code all over again: somewhat repetitive plot line, famous antiquity-rich cities, hidden, cryptic messages and riddles, scavenger hunt with a fast pace. But all that said, it’s worth a read because Dante’s nightmare vision becomes the book’s visual correlative for what its scientific calculations suggest.

Inferno opens with Robert Langdon being in dulled wits. The professor of symbology awakens in a Florentine hospital disoriented and with no recollection of the past few days, including the origin of a sealed biotube hidden in the seams of his tweed jacket. It’s a carved cylinder (a Faraday conductor) showing Botticelli’s Map of Hell as depicted in Dante’s Inferno, but altered. The levels of Dante’s inferno has been scrambled, and that, when they are replaced in the proper sequence, yields a message embedded in a mural by Vasari in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. But the shaking opening turns out to be one of the many tricks jampacked in the book, along with his female partner in adventure, Dr. Sienna Brooks, who is not what she says she is.

From there Langdon runs up against macabre symbols of biohazard, plagues, imagery of Dante’s hell, and poems imitated in Dante’s style. It’s soon revealed that Langdon on a global chase to save the human race following a trail of clues about Dante left behind by the plotter, who adopts an extreme but unethical view about the world. So Langdon is not dealing with downright villainy, but sinister cultism of some sort, the dark scheming that involves curbing overpopulation.

The riddles are intriguing and the twists relentless. Alliance changes and reverse about midway through the book, throwing reader on the edge. Wisely, Brown does not let himself get hog-tied by the sequence of events in Dante’s poem, but still able to draw imagery and allusions from the work whenever he feels that he needs them. Everything that refers to something else generates more codes and symbols and messages. The book is a constant thrill and confirms that Brown is a plot-maker (but only that). It’s a good story combining science and history.

611 pp. Anchor Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[821] Ubik – Philip K. Dick

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“Here’s what happened. We got lured to Luna. We let Pat Conley come with us, a woman we didn’t know, a talent we didn’t understand—which possibly even Hollis didn’t understand. An ability somehow connected with time reversion; not strictly speaking, the ability to travel through time . . . what she does . . . is start a counter-process that uncovers the prior stages inherent in configurations of matter.” (Ch.14, 191)

Set in the Northern American Confederation in time when interstellar commute is common, the book is largely told from the perspective of Joe Chip, who works for an agency of “anti-psis” that stops telepaths invading other people’s privacy. Society is such that every individual’s thought process can be monitored and that any thought can materialize in the mind. This prudence organization is run by a man named Glen Runciter with the assistance of his wife, who has died physically but is preserved in a state of “half life” in cryonic condition at a specialized moratorium.

Runciter’s agency dedicates to fighting a rival organization of telepaths, headed by Ray Hollis, that uses its psychic power to undertake corporate espionage and cause trouble. He lays a rat-trap for Runciter and Joe Chip in Luna where Runciter is killed by a self-destruct humanoid bomb. Those who survive the blast, upon returning to Earth, experience a curious deterioration process. But they realize they, and not Runciter himself, are the ones who are slowly perishing, by turning incredibly cold and drying up.

But this is where the mystery of time-slippage thickens. There seems to be an underlying, vicious force that aims for their death. The story takes a rather mind-boggling turn to a state of confusion that suggests it was actually Chip, not Runciter, who almost died in the explosion on the moon. But it’s this confusion, or deception, in a sense, that makes Ubik shine. Like reality, what we see as reality, anyway, does not make much coherent sense. The unease, the difficulty, the contradictions, the multiplicating realities, are partly the point. It’s about realizations that are not what they seem.

I find the plot less interesting than the characters, the theme, and the virtuosity of the writing. Dick’s explications of his fractual reality look easy to accomplish, but they really aren’t. It questions whether this thing we call reality might be just a collective hallucination.

224 pp. Orion Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[818] The Angel of Darkness – Caleb Carr

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“As Marcus had said the night before, the jury was past caring about any psychological explanation of what context had produced a normal, sane girl who would one day be capable of murdering her own children; in fact, they were past believing that she had murdered her children in the first place…” (Ch.48, 606)

The Angel of Darkness is the sequel to The Alienist in terms of the same cast: the brooding alienist Dr. Lazlo Kreizler, his indomitable servant Cyrus Montrose, the high-living New York Times reporter John Schuyler Moore, the detectives Lucius and Marcus Issacson, and feisty Sara Howard, now a private investigator for her own. The current story is narrated by a former street urchin taken in by Dr. Kreizler, the street-smart and observant Stevie Taggert, who figures prominently in this investigation of a peculiarly dastardly crime.

The plot is initiated by the kidnapping of a Spanish diplomat’s baby, then thickens, quite convolutedly, as suspicion falls on Elspeth Hunter, a malevolent nurse (actually an imposter) who left under the allegation of having suffocated several babies. Further probe reveals that she has been a suspected murdrress of her own children in upstate New York, under the name Libby Hatch. The most baffling aspect of this woman, and thus the long pursuit, capture, and attempted conviction, is that she is an unending string of paradoxes—some of them, unquestionably, possessing deadly dimensions. Her contradictory behavior confuses many: she looks like a predatory animal, but she seems genuinely caring for the girl she kidnaps.

The book is more a courtroom thriller than a police procedural; and the pursuit of Libby Hatch involves such notable historical figures as women’s-rights crusader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Libby’s defense attorney Clarence Darrow and Thomas Roosevelt.

The story sags here and there, but Carr’s presentation of the socio-politics is authentic of the period and cannot be easily dismissed, because the villainess is almost as much of a victim as the actual victims. The very theme is the role of females in that world, how females must assimilate to the roles expected of them—motherhood, housekeeping, nurturing children; and if they cannot fulfill these responsibilities, they are worthless. Dr. Kreizler seeks to connect the two sides of the character, leading to that shaky ethical question about a woman’s determination to gain over her life against society’s expectation of her. So what the investigation team and reader are faced with is not an inconsistency as much as a troubled unity.

The book can plodding at times, but characterization is detailed and nuanced, really getting into the mind of the criminal. Carr is attentive to historical details which makes the reading very enjoyable. Once again, forensics and psychiatry are used to nail a very dangerous perpetrator who is not only sane, but calculated, manipulative and meticulous to cover her trail.

749 pp. Ballantine Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[809] His Majesty’s Hope – Susan Elia MacNeal

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Maggie Hope’s Mystery #3

“There was no choice. I was lucky I was able to work for the Abwehr, not be a soldier, not kill. At the Abwehr, there are a few other like-minded people. We are doing what we can to help as many Jews escape as possible. To lay the framework for a new Germany, a non-Communist Germany, after Hitler.” (Ch.7, 106)

Margaret Hope, when working as Prime Minister Churchill’s secretary in 1940, cracked a secret code on a newspaper put in by a Nazi spy and saved not only Churchill’s life but also St. Paul’s Cathedral from destruction. These strengths along with her fluency in French and Germany landed her an assignment to protect Princess Elizabeth from a kidnapping scheme in Windsor Castle. On account of these achievements, she is initiated into Special Operations Executive, a covert organization designed to aid the British effort abroad—and her first assignment sens her to Nazi-controlled Berlin.

This isn’t about morality—it’s anout delousing. Genetic hygiene. The mercy killing of the sick, weak, and deformed is far more decent, and in truth a thousand times more humane, than to support a race of degenerates. (Ch.5, 79)

Hope is dropped into Berlin to delivered communication devices to a resistance group made up of anti-Nazi Abwehr officials and priests. Working with Lehrer, an Abwehr agent who is a spy for Britain, she is to plant a microphone in the study of a Nazi high official, who happens to be Clara Hess, Maggie’s mother. She is part of the plot to poison London’s water supply. Maggie then stumbles upon Elise, her half-sister, who is uncovering the euthanasia program of sickly and weak children with the help of an anti-Nazi Catholic priest. Elise becomes crucial in Maggie’s mission and delivers her to safety, along with Jews she is hiding in her attic.

The first half of the book is way more engaging than the second. It’s all dynamics at the beginning: the mission to infiltrate Clara Hess’s house; the planting of a bug; the stitching and knitting for coded messages. But the chaotic events ensued are less-than-convincing. They waste all the dynamics that was built up in the preparation stage of the mission. And the only “mystery” that involves poisoning London’s reservoirs is no more than an afterthought. The whole mission to Berlin doesn’t live up to its promise.

The book owes a great deal of its strength to the well-fleshed Maggie Hope, who is brave and determined but not without flaw. She is also beset by doubts. The writing is also a strong suit. It gives a well-researched look at the maneuverings of intelligence gathering efforts on both sides of the English channel.

334 pp. Bantam Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]