James Lee Burke is best known for his Dave Robicheaux mystery series, but his new standalone novel has completely blown me away. Historical thriller Wayfaring Stranger follows the life of Weldon Holland, the grandson of Burke's series character Hackberry Holland. From a run-in with Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in Texas to heroic acts during World War II (rescuing soldiers and concentration camp prisoners alike), the early days of Weldon's life are—in a word—epic. After the war ends in Europe, Weldon returns to Texas, marries and starts an oil pipeline business. But peacetime has its own dangers, as Weldon's success in the oil biz—and marriage to a Jewish woman—creates plenty of enemies.
And of course all of this unfolds with Burke's classic prose, tinged with nostalgia in a way that seems perfect for historical fiction. Read on for an excerpt from when Weldon and his grandfather first encounter Bonnie and Clyde:
The windmill was ginning furiously, the stanchions trembling with energy, a thread of water coming from teh spout, the tank crusted with dirt and dead insects and animal hair along the rimes. "The moon looks like it was dipped in a teacup. I cain't believe how we used to take the rain for granted," he said. "I think this land must be cursed."
The air smelled of ash and dust and creosote and horse and cow manure that feathered in your hand if you picked it up. Dry lightning leaped through the heavens and died, like somebody removing an oil lamp from the window of a darkened house. I thought I felt thunder course through the ground under my shoes. "Feel that?" I said, hoping to change Grandfather's mood and my own.
"Don't get your hopes up. That's the Katy blowing down the line," he replied. "I'm sorry I made fun of your butt, Satch. I won't do it no more. Walk behind me till we know who's in that car."
As we approached the tree line, the driver of teh car walked out of the headlights and stood silhouetted against the glare, the got back in his car and started the engine and clanked the transmission into gear. The trees were so dry they made a sound like paper rustling when the wind blew through the canopy.
"Hold up there," Grandfather said to the man.
I thought the driver would simply motor away. But he didn't. He stuck his elbow out the window and stared straight into our faces, his expression curious rather than alarmed. "You talking to us?" he asked.
"You're on my property," Grandfather said.
"I thought this was public woods," the driver said. "If there's a posted sign that says otherwise, I didn't see it."
The woman next to him was pretty and had strawberry-blonde hair and a beret tilted over one eye. She looked like a happy country girl, the kind who works in a dime store or in a café where the truckers come in to make innocent talk. She leaned forward and grinned up into Grandfather's face. She silently mouthed the words "We're sorry."
"Did you know you have mud on your license tag?" Grandfather asked the driver.
"I'll get right on that," the driver said.
"You also have what appears to be a bullet hole in your back window."
Think you'll check out Burke's newest? What are you reading today?
Looking for an especially meaty thriller to dive into this summer? Terry Hayes may have just the novel for you with I Am Pilgrim; weighing in at 640 pages, Hayes offers up a page-turner with plenty of muscle. A retired intelligence officer for a U.S. organization far more secret than the CIA, known simply as Pilgrim, has penned a game-changing textbook on criminal investigation that has brought police investigation miles ahead of where it once was. But there's a problem—a particularly ruthless someone seems to have read it a bit too well, and may have committed the perfect unsolvable murder.
Humble, yet tough-as-nails homicide detective Ben Bradley tracks Pilgrim down in the streets of Paris to beg for his help in the investigation, and soon the action takes off at a breathtaking pace. From Moscow to the United Kingdom, from Saudi Arabia to the dusty streets of Afghanistan and back home to the U.S., the manhunt for a brilliant terrorist known as "the Saracen" tests everything Pilgrim has learned in the field.
For almost a decade I was a member of our country's most secret intelligence organization, working so deep in shadow that only a handful of people even knew of our existence. The agency's task was to police our country's intelligence community, to act as the covert world's internal affairs department. To that extent, you might say, we were a throwback to the Middle Ages. We were the ratcatchers.
Although the number of people employed by the twenty-six publicly acknowledge–and eight unnamed—US intelligence organizations is classified, it is reasonable to say that over one hundred thousand people came within our orbit. A population that size meant the crimes we investigated ran the gamut-from treason to corruption, murder to rape, drug dealing to theft. The only difference was that some of the perpetrators were the best and brightest of the world.
The group entrusted with this elite and highly classified mission was established by Jack Kennedy in the early months of his administration. After a particularly lurid scandal at the CIA—the details of which still remain secret—he apparently decided members of the intelligence community were as subject to human frailty as the population in general. More so probably.
What are you reading this week?
The City by Dean Koontz
Bantam, $28, ISBN 9780345545930
On sale July 1, 2014
Dean Koontz has long been known for providing thrills and chills to readers, but his new novel The City is something of an exception. Set in the 1960s and 1970s, it tells the story of Jonah Kirk, growing up as part of a close family in a nameless city and dreaming of becoming a "piano man." Jonah becomes a remarkable boy mostly thanks to his remarkable mother, who gave up her own dreams of attending Oberlin to have and raise him without much help from Jonah's ne'er do well father. Their close relationship is a highlight of the book, as shown in this excerpt, which takes place shortly after Jonah's mother has thrown his father out for good.
After school that day, I walked to the community center to practice piano. When I got home, all she said was, "Your father's no longer living here. He went upstairs to help Miss Delvane with her rodeo act, and I wasn't having any of that."
Too young to sift the true meaning of her words, I found the idea of a mechanical horse more fascinating than ever and hoped I might one day see it. My mother's Reader's Digest condensation of my father's leaving didn't satisfy my curiousity. I had many questions but I refrained from asking them. . . . Right then I told Mom the secret I couldn't have revealed when Tilton lived with is, that I had been taking piano lessons from Mrs. O'Toole for more than two months. She hugged me and got teary and apologized, and I didn't understand what she was apologizing for. She said it didn't matter if I understood, all that mattered was that she would never again allow anyone or anything to get between me and a piano and any other dream I might have.
What are you reading this week?
Is there anything more awkward than middle school? Everything about you is changing, your mom is bent on humiliating you, kids are mean and your teachers are clueless. And, if you're Charmaine Peakes, your prophecy-spewing father is in a mental institution, you live in a converted RV by the river and you're having an existential religious crisis.
Angela Pneuman captures the absurdity and misery of being 13 with an accuracy that will make you cringe in remembrance. Although Lay It on My Heart only spans one month of Charmaine's life, her world is irrevocably changed within it. As the idyllic lies of her childhood fall away, Charmaine handles the unbearable truths left behind with a growing maturity. Deftly exploring faith and adolescent desires for love and stability, Lay It on My Heart is both funny and tragic, much like adolescence itself.
When the people start trickling through the gate, they're blinking like they've been deep underwater instead of up in the air. One tanned, elderly couple passes through the doorway whispering and glancing behind them at a skinny man with a wild beard. He's dressed like an illustration from the Bible, in a brown robe and rope sandals, and for just a moment I think that's why he looks so familiar. Then Phoebe's hand on my shoulder gets so heavy it hurts.
"Oh," she says, and suddenly, beneath the beard, I recognize my father. His lips are moving like he's talking quietly to himself, which means he's probably receiving prophecy. It can come upon him any time, like a spell.
"David," Phoebe says. She waves her arms until he sees and heads in our direction. His legs work slowly against the heavy robe, like he's wading through water. I'm used to thinking of him as a prophet, which some people consider unusual even in a town as full of churches as East Winder. But until now he's always kept his hair short and his face shaved, and he's always worn the regular clothes Phoebe picks out or sews for him. Still, you never know what you're getting with my father on any given day. "The prophet," he has said in the past,"is different from the man."
What have you been reading lately?
In Roxane Gay's stark, powerful debut novel, An Untamed State, Mireille Duval Jameson's idyllic life is ripped apart when she is kidnapped for ransom in her wealthy parents' homeland of Haiti. To her captors, she is a symbol of the injustice of poverty and the imbalance of power in Haitian society, and they treat her thusly. Her captivity is an unending nightmare, and as Mireille begins to lose hope that anyone is coming to save her, she slowly casts off her identity as a means of survival.
Eventually, Mireille is freed, but her return home is far from joyous. Emotionally and physically shattered, Mireille is uncertain of who she is and convinced that she is irreparably broken. Her husband is distraught and frustrated at his ineptitude in helping the woman he loves, who has become a stranger. Mireille's struggle to regain some semblance of her former life is an excruciatingly difficult process, and at times, seemingly impossible.
An Untamed State is hard to read but impossible to put down. It highlights the fragility of flesh and just how easily our bodies are broken by abuse and pain. Yet it also highlights the remarkable resiliency of the will to survive.
And then, inexplicably, I thought about my friends in Miami, where Michael and I live, and how they would talk when news of the kidnapping reached them. I am a curiosity to my American friends—A Haitian who is not from the slums or the countryside, a Haitian who has enjoyed a life of privilege. When I talk about my life in Haiti, they listen to my stories as if they are fairy tales, stories that could not possibly be true by nature of their goodness.
My husband and I love to entertain, dinner parties. We cook fancy meals from Gourmet and Bon Appètit and drink expensive wine and try to solve the world's problems. At least we did this, in the before, when we were less aware of the spectacle we were and when we thought we had anything even remotely relevant to say about the things that tear the world apart.
Loosely based on the love triangle between famed anthropologist Margaret Mead, her husband and her lover, Lily King's Euphoria creates its own lush world within the 1930s Territory of New Guinea.
Besot by feelings of futility and loneliness, Andrew Bankson is rudderless as he plods through his research with the Kiona tribe on the Sepik river. However, a chance meeting with the newly famous anthropologist Nell Stone and her brash husband, Fen, ignites in him a sense of urgency and passion he thought he had lost. Desperate to keep his enthusiasm alive, and equally desperate for companions, he sets the couple up down river with a unique tribe, the Tam, in which the power belongs to the females. Bankson is drawn to the couple with a need he is powerless to fight, and that need quickly narrows in on Nell. It becomes apparent that his anthropological focus has shifted from the tribe he came to study to the strange couple that has landed downriver.
The air of impending doom rolls through the pages of Euphoria like a thunderhead, and when the storm breaks, everyone is irrevocably changed. King convincingly captures the hyper-focused reality of the three anthropologists: their work, their longings and the increasingly intense and intimate relationship between the trio. Each is driven by their own obsession: Nell wants knowledge, Fen wants power and Bankson wants Nell. These three desires cannot exist harmoniously for long, and the consequences are dire.
Fen asked to drive the boat so I slowed and we wobbily swapped places. He opened up the throttle and we were off— fast.
'Fen!' Nell screeched, but she was half laughing. She turned around to face us and her knees brushed my shins. 'I can't watch. Tell me when we're about to crash.' Her hair, no longer plaited, blew toward me. The fever and loose hair, dark brown with threads of copper and gold, had brought an illusion of great health to her face.
If the Tam weren't a good fit, they would go to Australia. This was my last chance to get it right. And I could tell she was skeptical. But Teket had been many times to the Tam to visit his cousin there, and even if everything he told me were only half true, I figured it should satisfy this pair of picky anthropologists. 'I should have brought you here straightaway.' I said, not entirely meaning to say it aloud. 'It was selfish of me.'
She smiled, and instructed Fen not to kill us before we got there.
Debut author Pia Padukone explores cultural identity, grief and how we love in her novel, Where Earth Meets Water. Karom Seth is haunted by his brushes with fate: he should have been in the Twin Towers for a school project on 9/11, and he should have been at the family reunion when a tsunami on the Indian coast claimed his entire family in 2004. Karom is left with his grief, his guilt and his father's cherished Rolex. His girlfriend, Gita, invites him on a trip to India in hopes of helping him find answers and closure, and Gita's grandmother, Kamini, may be the one person that can point him in the right direction.
"Should the guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free of sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creatres sorrowing sighs,
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made,
To display thereby the creator's glory!"
"It's what Shah Jahan said about the Taj," Karom said, folding the paper back into his pocket. Gita closed her eyes and leaned against him. He wanted to comfort her, but he too felt let down. Nothing had happened. There had been no revelations.
Karom had been sure that he would leave the Taj Mahal with a deeper understanding of the world, of colors, of light, of love. He was sure that something magical would transform them, would transform him, the way he saw the world. He had placed too high an expectation on the Taj Mahal. After all, it was just a building. But it was a building that was homage to love, homage to the departed. He'd wondered if he would catch a glimpse of the past here, if he might tap into the spirit of the palace, the serenity of the courtyards. He'd wondered if, like a sinner, he too might be absolved, washed pure and clean, and set into the streets refreshed. He'd wondered if he might put lingering ghosts to bed and feel, for the first time, at ease with himself and finally, finally have the strength to put the game to rest.
What are you reading this week?
Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg's debut novel is as dreamlike and as filled with potential horrors as one of his movies: Photographers Naomi and Nathan are lovers and competitors, but Cronenberg establishes early on that their two plotlines will not meet for a long time. Naomi has become obsessed with a "juicy French philosophical sex-killing murder-suicide cannibal thing"—a Marxist philosopher is found dead and mutilated in her French apartment, and her husband is nowhere to be found. Nathan is in Budapest, consumed with a "controversial Hungarian breast-cancer radioactive seed implant treatment thing," and after sleeping with one of unlicensed surgeon Dr. Zoltán Molnár's patients, he contracts a rare STD that sends him to Toronto in search of the man who first discovered the disease.
Consumed has a blurb from Viggo Mortensen (though they're clearly pretty good friends) and mentions a Gauloise in the second paragraph (of course). It's also hard to ignore the publicity materials throwing around names like Kafka and Borges, and words like "definitive heir," though film critics have been saying as much for years.
With all this in mind—as well as remembering my dislike for Cronenberg's most recent film, the limo thriller Cosmopolis, based on the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo—I approach Consumed with equal parts delight and healthy skepticism.
Read on for an introduction to Dr. Zoltán Molnár, a character that seems ideal for Cronenberg's style of exploratory, psychological storytelling and body horror:
And now, in a very smooth segue—which Nathan thought of as particularly Hungarian—Dr. Molnár said, "Have you met our patient, Nathan? She's from Slovenia. Une belle Slave." Molnár peeked over the cloth barrier and spoke to the disconnected head with disarmingly conversational brio. "Dunja? Have you met Nathan? You signed a release form for him, and now he's here with us in the operating theater. Why don't you say hello?"
At first Nathan thought that the good doctor was teasing him; Molnár had emphasized the element of playfulness in his unique brand of surgery, and chatting with an unconscious patient would certainly qualify as Molnáresque. But to Nathan's surprise Dunja's eyes began to stutter open, she began working her tongue and lips as though she were thirsty, she took a quick little breath that was almost like a yawn.
"Ah, there she is," said Molnár. "My precious one. Hello, darling." Nathan took a step backward in his slippery paper booties in order not to impede the strange, intimate flow between patient and doctor. Could she and her surgeon be having an affair? Could this really be written off as Hungarian bedside manner? Molnár touched his latex-bound fingertips to his masked mouth, then pressed the filtered kiss to Dunja's lips. She giggled, then slipped away dreamily, then came back. "Talk to Nathan," said Molnár, withdrawing with a bow. He had things to do.
Dunja struggled to focus on Nathan, a process so electromechanical that it seemed photographic. And then she said, "Oh, yes, take pictures of me like this. It's cruel, but I want you to do that. Zoltán is very naughty. A naughty doctor. He came to interview me, and we spent quite a bit of time together in my hometown, which is"—another druggy giggle—"somewhere in Slovenia. I can't remember it."
"Ljubljana," Molnár called out from the foot of the table, where he was sorting through instruments with his colleagues.
"Thank you, naughty doctor. You know, it's your fault I can't remember anything. You love to drug me."
Nathan began to photograph Dunja's face. She turned toward the camera like a sunflower.
Will you pick up Consumed when it's available this September? What are you reading today?
Few other contemporary writers meld history and espionage quite like David Downing. Following the finale in his John Russell/Station series, which was set during World War II, Downing takes readers a bit further back in time with his exceptionally well-researched new spy thriller, Jack of Spies. The first in a new series set in 1914, this story goes beyond its World War I backdrop to explore events such as the Irish Republican movement, the Indian independence movement and much more.
Readers meet globe-trotting car salesman / British agent Jack McColl, who has just begun working for the fledgling Royal Navy intelligence. The spying gig gets complicated quickly, and not just because the world is on the brink of war. McColl is stationed in China, where he is attempting to obtain information on the Germans and the Chinese. Fleeing for his life, McColl ends up on a journey around the world, from Shanghai to San Francisco. Along the way, he falls in love with a striking American journalist, which only serves to complicate things. This is a fascinating introduction to the birth of British spy culture.
Read on for an excerpt:
Hurrying across the yard and down the alley, he emerged onto Prinz Heinrich Strasse and into a bitter wind. The sky was lightening, and a Chinese man was working his way down the street, dousing the ornate gas lamps. The side of the station building was visible up ahead, but no smoke was rising above it—if Hsu Ch'ing-lan was right about the time of departure, he'd have at least forty-five minutes to wait.
Which was obviously out of the question. He might as well give himself up as sit in the station for that long.
Perhaps he could hide somewhere close by and then surreptitiously board the train at the moment of departure.
The possibility sustained him until he reached the corner across from the station and leaned his head around for a view of the forecourt. There were several uniformed Germans in evidence, and one was looking straight at him. "Halt!" the man shouted.
McColl's first instinct, which he regretted a moment later, was to turn and run. Better a few months in jail than a bullet in the back, he thought as Prinz Heinrich Strasse stretched out before him, looking too much like a shooting range for comfort. But it was a bit late now to take a chance on his pursuers' levelheadedness. He swerved off between two buildings and down the dark alley that divided them. He reckoned he had a fifty-meter start and must have run almost that far when a crossroads presented itself. Sparing a second to look back, he found the alley behind him still empty. But as he swung right, he heard shouts in the distance, which seemed to come from up ahead.
What are you reading today?
Canadian author Stephen Galloway takes a magical tack in his follow-up to his poignant debut, The Cellist of Sarajevo. The Confabulist is the story of an ordinary man, Martin Strauss, who in his waning years feels compelled to tell the truth about his connection to Harry Houdini, the most famous magician of all time. As Martin recalls it in the prologue, he didn't just kill Houdini—he killed him twice. But how? That question keeps the reader turning the pages as the fascinating world of magic and spiritualism that took center stage around the turn of the 20th century unfolds.
Unless the magician has actual supernatural powers, unless what he does alters the workings of the known universe, then all we witness is a man pretending to be a magician. Everything else is an illusion.
This is what has always captivated me about magic—the idea that we can create something that seems both real and impossible. That we could be two things at once without fully knowing which is material and which is reflection.
What are you reading this week?