Fiction Review

Names of the Dead by Katia Lief

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What would you do if a young man you knew only vaguely started work at your office, and asked you to share a picnic lunch? How would you feel if he then started to bombard you with gifts, emails and phone calls? At just what point would you decide that this was more than a crush… and needed to be regarded as serious stalking? Questions like these are the starting-point for Names of the Dead, a recent crime thriller by Katia Lief. This author is best-known for the Karin Schaeffer private eye series, but the heroine of her standalone novel, Darcy Mayhew, is an investigative journalist at the New York Times. That means the book will appeal to anyone who enjoys reading novels set in newsrooms, such as Julie Kramer’s Delivering Deathrecently reviewed here at Poisoned Fiction.
A 30-something widow who has moved from Martha’s Vineyard to the Big Apple to rebuild her life, Darcy is an appealing heroine. Anyone who enjoys the whole female private eye style of fiction will immediately be sucked in by her wry, humorous first-person narration, which is compulsively readable. However, as Darcy finds her home life with her young son Nat under threat from a stalker, the appropriately-named mailroom worker Joe Coffin, the book also has strong elements of the “domestic suspense” genre, highlighted in the LA Times.
The novel is quite short, so it can almost be read at a sitting – and it might be a mistake to pick it up if you have to do something urgent in the next couple of hours. The newsroom atmosphere is convincingly created, and, refreshingly, Darcy actually has to work on more than one story at a time – unlike many fictional journalists who can spend weeks at a time on one investigation without their bosses batting an eyelid! All the same, most of her effort becomes focused on one particular scandal, after a whistle-blower approaches her with a story which carries deadly undertones. As she becomes increasingly obsessed by this investigation, it’s all too easy to ignore Joe’s obsession with her, and to convince herself it doesn’t matter all that much. Maybe he was outside her door by coincidence – and maybe leaving a bagel and coffee at her desk for breakfast was just a friendly gesture. Maybe.
The book builds up the tension well, with little details adding together to make Joe an increasingly scary figure. In the UK, the novel is published under a different title, focusing more on the threat he poses – Watch You Die. However, the US title is more true to the book’s main theme, because this is a novel with dark underpinnings, focusing on bereavement and grieving. Darcy is struggling to come to terms with the loss of her beloved husband, Hugo, and to allow herself to love again. Her own emotions also give her an insight into the suffering of her parents, who were both Holocaust survivors. Meanwhile, as she gains a greater understanding of her mother’s feelings in the past, she has to face up to the risk of losing her in the present, as she is a victim of advancing Alzheimer’s Disease. These are grim themes and there is a danger that the piling up of misery could get a bit much, yet somehow the novel never feels depressing. This is mainly because of the witty prose style – and also because there are lighter sections woven in, such as Darcy’s vivid memories of her life in Martha’s Vineyard, and her tentative second-time-around romance with her son’s gorgeous teacher.
It’s not just this novel which goes by more than one name. The author, who is a creative writing tutor, has herself published under three different names. Her first books were issued under her maiden name, Katia Spiegelman, next she wrote her first thrillers using a pseudonym, Kate Pepper (the surname was borrowed from a pet cat) and then she started writing her married name, Katia Lief. She has written a lighthearted essay asking “What’s In a Name?”, where she admits that at times she has ended up confusing herself. Many of her heroines also have similar names, adding to the muddle. It all means that, if you get hooked on this author’s style and want to catch up with her various books, you’ll have to do quite a bit of searching to find them all.
Reviewed by Anonymous

Narcopolis: A Novel of Bombay by Jeet Thayil

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Here at The Poisoned Pen, we never shy away from the grittier things in life. In fact, we like it grisly, murderous, complicated, metaphorical, fantastic, and everything else in the entire range of literature. Maybe because we can see our characters losing control over their lives, we are instantly drawn to the drama that will ensue, or maybe it is the vicarious thrill of doing something dangerous and illegal, something that we would not dare to do in real life. Whatever the reason: murder, incest, violence, sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll, they are all superb backdrops to a really great story. We have reviewed books about drug culture before. The Panopticon was a huge success as a novel and is reported to have secured a movie deal to be made by Ken Loach. Annoyingly, it will have to have a different name as there is already a movie that came out in 2012 with the name “Panopticon”.
 
Right name, wrong movie
It is the same situation with “Narcopolis”. The novel by Jeet Thayil won the DSC prize for South Asian Literature in 2013, quite an achievement for a first novel, but if a movie version is ever made it will have to be under a different name to avoid confusion with a futuristic thriller coming out later this year (2014). The novel is set in the Bombay (now Mumbai) of the 1970s and is the story of several characters who are already part of the opium scene descending further into their own personal hell. Part of the fascination with the novel rests with the author himself. Thayil was an alcoholic and drug addict for twenty years so when he writes of the hallucinations and the cravings, you know that he is speaking from experience, which makes the fate of his characters even more poignant. If you are worried that this genre of fiction glamorizes drugs and substance abuse, rest assured that there is nothing glamorous about the actions of any of the characters.  In fiction, as in real life, the reality of addiction is dark and desperate.
 
The main characters
Rashid is an opium house owner and it is in his den that we meet the other characters. In a way, he is proud of his den. He has the best opium, the best hostess, and the best reputation of all the dens. As he begins to get sucked down into the opium life, however, he starts to lose his grip on it all. His business falls away, unable to compete with the newer, nastier, quicker and harder hitting drugs of the 1980s, and yet he is now powerless to do anything about it.
Dimple is the center of this almost plot-less novel. She is the opium den hostess, a eunuch who turned to opium to relieve the pain of her operation, only to find a whole new world of pain opening up. It is her skills at making up pipes of opium that help to draw other people into the den, yet she is more aware than anyone else in the novel of what is waiting at the end of the line. She is a truly tragic figure, in that she cannot escape her fate. Customers who come and go from the den have a choice of whether to walk away from opium, or stay and spiral into addiction. Dimple has never had that choice, and she faces her ultimate demise with fortitude, fighting only with an attempt to educate herself in order that her life not be wasted.
Mr. Lee’s story is, in a way, the story of opium itself, escaping from China to India. It is he who leaves Dimple his genuine Chinese opium pipes in his will, in exchange for her promise to return his ashes to China, a promise she never manages to fulfill. Of all the characters, we get more back story of Mr. Lee, possibly because it is through him that the opium pipes come to Dimple and thence to Rashid’s den. By the book’s end, heroin and its offshoots have taken over as the self-obliteration of choice, and Rashid’s son runs the den like a business, with total contempt for his staff and customers. In the way that we all love the era in which we were young, no matter what the economic and political situation around us, the opium den with its horrors is viewed with nostalgia.
 
Style
Thayil was a poet before he was a novelist and his skills with words shows throughout the novel. The first chapter of the book is one long, breathless sentence that makes your head spin and your heart race, much as an opium high might do. It is a book both painful and sad, and yet it manages to be funny in places as it flicks from one character to another without much happening directly, while outside the den, Bombay grows up and changes into a harsher version of itself.
Reviewed by Anonymous 

Girl on the Golden Coin: A Novel of Frances Stuart by Marci Jefferson 

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Girl on the Golden Coin Jefferson PP Flirtations of the most dangerous and serious sort entangle Frances Stuart first in the court of Louis XIV and then in the Restoration court of Charles II. Despite the luscious gowns and extravagant jewels she wins for herself, we don’t envy her the high-wire balancing act she must maintain as she tries to win first one king’s influence and then another, while concealing the tragic secrets that would destroy her family and herself. That she manages to hold onto her virginity and her dignity for much of this engaging book while obeying the selfish commands of various powerful women and men is a testament to the inner strength and resiliency of Frances Stuart, the famous mistress of Charles II.  This remarkable woman carries the book—we deeply want her to find happiness and an identity that will allow her to remain true to herself. The first step that she must accomplish is to understand her own nature and sense of purpose. That isn’t easy in the treacherous seas of the courts she grows up in, nor is it easy to find when everyone who should love and protect her is out to use her. Frances carries the weight of her mother’s and siblings’ futures as well as her own. This is a book about an admirable woman in morally ambiguous circumstances where the price of failing at any one moment can destroy a family or a country. That’s a lot of pressure on one young woman, and the turns and twists of her life will keep you thrilled on every page. That Jefferson has so fully and accurately recreated the splendor of the Restoration court—its rich fabrics, gems, palaces, dalliances and betrayals—adds to the delight.

 

Review by Judith Starkston, Judith’s websiteFollow on TwitterFacebook

So West: Crime Time

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Time to once again saddle up and ride the crime soaked mesas and saguaro studded vistas of Arizona.  The local chapter of Sisters In Crime, the Desert Sleuths, has a new anthology out and its hot as a pistol and dangerous as a cornered rattler.  Each year the gals(and a few guys) produce a new collection of Arizona-set crime tales.
This years brace of 20 tales is, I believe, the strongest yet.  Under the editorial lead of the immensely talented Deborah J. Ledford a great set of stories has emerged.  Called “So West: Crime Time” the Sisters In Crime have done themselves proud.
The stories range from comic to bloody.  There is irony and shocks galore.  The entire physical gamut of our state is made use of and the people we meet continually surprise us.  Rather than single out my favorites (I have no wish to incur the wrath of any of these lethally imaginative writers by slighting someone) I want to praise all 19 women and one man for their superior efforts.  These are stories to savor throughout the year.
Arizona has a strong and varied community of writers from all genres.  This collection is in the vanguard of getting that message out.  This is the third in the “So West” series and they are all fine examples of our homegrown talent.  All 3 collections are available at the Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale.  This is a great chance to support a wonderful local resource and to get a great reading experience.

reviewed by Steve Shadow Schwartz

Chance by Kem Nunn

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With huge dollops of The Big Lebowski and rife with twisted noir tropes Kem Nunn’s latest book, “Chance” arrives like a run-away wrecking ball.  This dense and madly enjoyable novel has the requisite femme fatale, the big city corrupt cop and enough shady characters to please any fan of the psychological socio-crime novel.  This is a high-wire act of a book that runs flat out and never falters.  Mr. Nunn has always been an author on the edge and here he grabs his story by the throat and squeezes it for all it’s worth.
“Chance” is the title and chances are what Mr.Nunn takes in this roiling cauldron of a psycho thriller, social satire and gleeful gore fest.  Dr. Eldon Chance, a neuropsychologist, sets forth on a classic noir path that soon turns into a trip down a rabbit hole of horrors.  His journey becomes a series of switchbacks that gather speed towards a climax that is as hilarious as it is profound.
Since being overwhelmed by Kem Nunn’s first book, “Tapping the Source”, I have been a huge fan of his writing.  With “Chance” he delivers big time.  This is much more than just a crime novel.  Rich with echoes of Hammett and everything since, he pulls us along at lightning speed in this clever and richly plotted novel.  Issues of parenting, manhood, and the failures of the modern family ricochet around the central plot.  This is a rich and heady stew that charges ahead on twin rails of suspense and humor.  To reveal anymore of the story would be to temper the page-turning joy of this brilliant take on the classic San Francisco noir-clouded novel.  Clever, funny and exciting, “Chance” is the product of a terrific writer at the top of his game.  Don’t miss it.

reviewed by STEVE SHADOW SCHWARTZFor further reading:

Claire DeWitt and The City of the Dead by Sara Gran
The End of Everything by Megan Abbott

Delivering Death by Julie Kramer

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delivering deathAnother page-turning, alternately funny and bone-chilling mystery from Julie Kramer. Riley Spartz, investigative journalist for Channel 3 in Minneapolis is still sparring with her intellectually stunted, over-sexed boss while trying to keep her career afloat. Then there’s her ex-fiancé, who she’s not so sure should stay exed, except he seems to be awfully tight with his attractive new boss so there seems no hope there. Misery does love Riley, but you won’t be miserable reading as Riley’s dry, cynical humor carries a twisty plot that will keep you guessing. Perhaps I should have opened with “tooth-aching” instead of bone-chilling because that’s the clue that starts Riley off on her lethal investigation—the arrival of human teeth in an envelope. Were they taken out while someone was alive? What on earth do they mean? Someone less brave (or less in need of a story) might have left it up to the police to sort out, but Riley plows right through a mass-marriage, a mortuary and any number of other gruesome settings to get things uncovered. Her persistence might get her killed—or someone else she cares about.

Reviewed by Judith Starkston

For other reviews, information about Judith Starkston’s novel, Hand of Fire (coming fr Fireship Press, Sept 10 2014), set during the Trojan War, as well as background history articles on ancient women, food, and daily life, go to JudithStarkston.com Judith can be followed on Facebook and Twitter

Until Death by James Thane

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In a well written and skillfully rendered police procedural James Thane fulfills the promise of his first book, “No Place to Die”.  The compelling characters that we met in his first novel return and remain as vivid and fascinating as ever.  Sean, a police detective, is still recovering from his wife’s death.  He is consumed by his work and his grief.  His partner Maggie, not long divorced, is in a new relationship that she is very conflicted about.  Both cops are private people and how they cope with their respective problems while maintaining a healthy working relationship makes for a dynamic reading experience.

The story concerns a date book that is lost by a female “escort”.  Gina Gallagher is a personal trainer by day and a high class hooker by night.  When the men in her date book start showing up dead and threats are made to her, then Sean and Maggie start a hunt that is a race against time.

Gina is portrayed in a realistic and yet sympathetic manner.  The story ramps up quickly and becomes a page turner in the best sense.

We are presented with a twisted skein of false clues, unreliable witnesses and motives galore.

The novel is set in Scottsdale, Arizona and makes full use of this unique location.  Thane gives us a palpable feel for the place by using real locales.  We get a true sense of both the city’s shape, it’s people and it’s life.

Any readers who like Michael Connelly and the tense urban dramas he portrays will find this book a terrific read.

 

A Shadow Review
Steve Shadow Schwartz

For further reading in a similar vein try:
PENANCE by Daniel O’Shea