23. Toby’s Room, by Pat Barker

10 Aug
The UK cover is so much better, as usual

The UK cover is so much better, as usual

“Pat Barker is one of our greatest living novelists and nobody buys her anymore,” a clerk at McNally Jackson told me this weekend, while recommending Toby’s Room. I’ve read Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy several times, and Blow Your House Down, and was glad to be reminded of this wonderful novelist, and to discover that Toby’s Room was another World War I novel, like the Regeneration Trilogy, though not based on historical figures. That the Regeneration Trilogy is based on Sigfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves—incidentally, all men struggling with some degree of homosexuality, long before that was ok—gives it especial power and poignancy for me. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I’ve always read it as history.

Toby’s Room tells an intertwined story about Elinor Brooke, a young female art student, her brother Toby, a medical officer on the front, and Kit and Paul, two other young painters and soldiers who get tangled up in the Brooke family’s affairs, which are of course repressed, secretive and wounded. In an early scene from Elinor’s perspective, Barker writes “She wondered about the curious mixture of poking and prying and secrecy that ruled their lives.”

The secrecy within the family is mirrored, eventually, by the great secrecy of the war. Letters are censored, the official “war artists” (both Paul and Kit, by the book’s end) are not allowed to show corpses, but mainly the men who were there find it impossible to talk about. In a chapter from Paul’s perspective, Barker writes that, “It had become a preoccupation of his—almost an obsession—working out how the war had changed him; other people too, of course. He never managed to talk openly about it…”.

The visible effects of the war that Paul and Kit bring back, are wounds. Paul has a bad knee, Kit an extremely terrible facial disfigurement. Elinor finds work in a war hospital, drawing the wounded. Paul and Kit paint landscapes to paint about the war. At one point late in the book during a conversation about painting, Kit tells Paul that “‘your landscapes are bodies,'” and Paul agrees, “‘the wound and the wasteland are the same thing. They aren’t metaphors for each other, it’s closer than that.'”

Barker draws her underpinnings so delicately, and with such mastery that it’s difficult to pick any one resonance to discuss—they’re everywhere. The characters are haunted by wounds, haunted by corpses, grappling with repressed sexualities; they wish for silence and blindness and by the end must choose to speak and see. Small flashes of humanity are the only antidote to the crippling horror of the war.

I’m probably not doing justice to how gripping and fast-moving the story is, nor to the stunning beauty of Barker’s prose, in which no description fails to echo all that swirls beneath the surface. Elinor’s experience dissecting a cadaver (in an anatomy class taken to further her drawing) has become linked in her mind with a night with a lover “as if it were his body on the slab: familiar, frightening and unknown.”

After a terrible incident in the first chapter, the second begins with this description: “Every window gaped wide, as if the house were gasping for breath. Barely visible above the trees, a small, hard, white sun threatened the heat to come. Mother’s precious lawn had turned yellow, with bald patches here and there where the cracked earth showed through. Elinor chased clumps of pale yellow scrambled egg around her plate….”

I am pleased to re-discover Pat Barker, and I see that there’s another recent novel, Still Life, also about the art college in London during the war, which I’d like to read as well.

22. The Broken Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

6 Aug

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My review of N.K. Jemisin’s first novel was positive, but I didn’t know I’d buy and read the sequel the very next night, in a blur of delight. (I’ve also now read book three in the Inheritance Trilogy, so am officially a superfan…).

In The Broken Kingdoms, the narrator—this is a spoiler, but a tiny one—is blind, and can see only magic. She’s an artist on the streets of Shadow, which is what the City of Sky from the first book has been renamed. The action starts around ten years after the first book ended, and concerns some of the same gods from the first book, with different emphasis.

(There will be some spoilers about the first book, but I’m trying to keep them to a minimum, since Jemisin’s twisty and elaborate plotting is one of her strengths.)

Here is how the blind woman, Oree Shoth, describes a man she finds in her muckbin, whose identity and relationship to her will form the spine of the plot:

“At first I saw only delicate lines of gold limn the shape of a man. Dewdrops of glimmering silver beaded along his flesh and then ran down in rivulets, illuminating the texture of skin in smooth relief. I saw some of those rivulets move impossibly upward, igniting the filaments of his hair, the stern-carved lines of his face.”

Oree’s world creating itself out of the dark, in lines of flame or color, is a beautiful prolonged effect that thrilled me throughout the book. I was also amazed that Jemsin was writing action-adventure-fantasy, which requires so much world-building, without having access to telling us what stuff looked like. Every time Oree touched someone’s face (or wished she could), or explained how she was drawing conclusions about things she couldn’t see, or made fun of someone for having a stupid response to her blindness, I was impressed by Jemsin’s skill as a writer. She took a limit and made it into a strength, made blindness more interesting than sight.

I also realized in Book Two that employing a narrative gimmick will be a feature of the series. In Book One, there were strange conversations and artifacts, like blips in the text, that kept me guessing throughout and (spoiler) ended up being Yeine, dead, arguing with her second soul (end spoiler). In this one, there is a “you” who Oree is addressing, whose identity, revealed, made me weep.

These kinds of epic touches are the delight of reading fantasy. Another delight is Jemisin’s language, which is so flowery, dreamy and embellished, that it’s easy to miss how tightly crafted it is.  Here is Oree introducing herself (and also laying the groundwork for an important plot reveal later in the book):

“My parents named me Oree. Like the cry of the southeastern weeper-bird. Have you heard it? It seems to sob as it calls, oree, gasp, oree, gasp. Most Maroneh girls are named for such sorrowful things. It could be worse; the boys are named for vengeance. Depressing, isn’t it? That sort of thing is why I left.”

For me, however, all of the epic touches and dazzling style in the world aren’t going to be truly, deeply, exciting if a book doesn’t provide something to think about. In this case it was the portrait of people (mainly brown-skinned people) dealing with the fall-out from a fallen ruling class (white-skinned, mostly-evil people), formerly absolute dictators with the Gods on their sides, now in Book Two struggling to hold on to their power. The ruling-class God, Itempas, the Lord of Light and Right, has fallen too. (Incidentally, he surprised everyone by turning out to be brown-skinned.)

Jemisin executes this with her usual panache. The Arameri (ruling classes) live in an obnoxious palace in the sky and just. don’t. care. about anyone non-Arameri. They play roles, they cause trouble or sometimes even turn out to be not-so-bad, but Oree Shoth and the good guys are from other races, and take center stage. It’s very clever. Instead of making the princess black, Jemsin has made the princess bad (which makes so much more sense), semi-sidelined her, and created a more exciting female hero.

Even more  interesting, Jemisin calls into question the idea of a God who is always right. Wouldn’t an always-right God be kind of an asshole? Could he ever change his mind? Would he have any sympathy for imperfect humans?  What would it take for this God to become someone worthy of worship?

Overall, a fabulous book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

21. Seiobo There Below, Laszlo Krasznahorkai

5 Aug

 

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(This post ran last week on HTML Giant.)

1. I almost laugh, attempting to write anything about the Krasznahorkai, since I’ve done an interview with the translator for The Paris Review, and feel my work is done here, and also since we are dealing with a nearly 500-page book that lashes out in chunks of twelve-page sentences, transcendent, dazzling, insane, hilarious, vicious and brutal, determinedly unexplainable and unexplained.

2. Transparency is not the hallmark of the Krasznahorkai.

3. But ok. This is the Hungarian writer at the forefront of a renaissance in Hungarian letters, an intense, experimental madman whose books are metaphysical puzzles of stunning originality and brilliance.

4. This is a man with burning eyes and a cheap suit, who shows up at Columbia to a packed house and reads…in the dark…in Hungarian…and kinda actually scares people.

5. There’s a quote from Susan Sontag on the back of Seiobo There Below that calls László Krasznahorkai “the Hungarian master of the apocalypse,” which is intimidating, and doesn’t sound like much fun. Do not be scared away; this book is a pleasure to read, and even funny.

6. The last chapter is named “Screaming Beneath the Earth,” which is a reverse riff on the first phrase of Gravity’s Rainbow, “A screaming comes across the sky…”, and gives an idea of the author’s ambition. The book is an incoming rocket, taking on the small matter of the power and transcendence of art.

7. Krasznahorkai has the interesting idea, though I’m not sure I’m convinced, that good art is dangerous. Art in this book tends to overpower ordinary people or drive them insane. Is this pretentious? Probably, right? Real migrant workers are not often driven mad by the sight of glorious paintings.

8. But then again, I also believe in salvation through art. What is a God without destructive power?

9. Seiobo There Below is structured in a series of sections, mostly about artists making art, a few about tourists or exiles. Sections include a modern-day man visiting the Acropolis, a Japanese Noh actor speaking to his disciples, another Japanese artist making a mask, a stork hunting in a river, a Renaissance painter in his workshop, an immigrant in Barcelona.

10. Some quotes: “…to stand there, to look at this life withdrawing for all eternity into death in the human and natural landscape, and to depict what is before him when he looks up from the blank canvas: that is everything…”

11. “we hear the heavenly weight of these voices falling in infinite density, falling below from there above, like snow, and there we are in this landscape and we are amazed, and we have no words, and our hearts ache from the wondrous beauty of it all, for the Baroque is the artwork of pain…”

12. “…namely, that in place of the evil chaos of a world falling apart, let us select a higher one in which everything holds together, a gigantic unity, it is that we may select, and the Alhambra represents that unity…”

13. Supposedly Seiobo is the Japanese goddess of beauty (I’ve gleaned this more from reading about the book than reading the book itself), and my theory is that the book is her taking a moment to incarnate—across time, during all times at once and in all places—and for a moment be, divine in this fallen world.

14. There is a lot about the movement between above and below, naturally the title is no accident.

15. “…anyone can comprehend that above us and below us, outside of ourselves and deep within ourselves, there is a universe, the one and only…”

16. There are no women in this book, except for one ancient princess who is strangled in an early chapter. And possibly Seiobo.

17. I don’t tend to think that the earth, the world, creation, people, bodies are all bad, though heavens knows you can make a case for it. The very opposition between sky and earth, above and below, human and sacred strikes me as false, so I think the author and I may have different ideas of sacred, though this did not detract from my enjoyment of the book.

18. I didn’t feel much mercy from the Krasznahorkai. Maybe that’s something that happens when you un-anthropomorphize the sacred, as I suspect he does. God is art, or some kind of stern and inhuman capacity for beauty, not a nice man in the sky who loves you.

19. Another great thing was how the book looks like a collection of stories—every section is about someone different, they resonate but don’t relate—but is actually and irrefutably a novel.

20. Another quote: “Because not to know something is a complicated process, the story of which takes place beneath the shadow of the truth.”

21. We don’t really know what Seiobo There Below is about. That’s part of the beauty of it.

22 One of the things that feels so wonderful about reading this book is engaging with complex thoughts about our world, like the two points above. You don’t have to agree with Krasznahorkai’s worldview, or even fully understand it, but you can be carried along on the rushing river of the prose, stopping to focus, think, spin out.

23. And about the prose. I notice as I’m trying to quote the book how difficult it is to focus on even in small snippets. The meaning is elusive, and designed to be elusive. This is a writer using language in a totally different way, not to depict, not to explain, but to rewrite your brain, change your thought-patterns, take you elsewhere.

24. Read it, I dare you.

25. My husband and I have taken to calling our toddler The Little Krasznahorkai. Somehow it fits.

 

 

 

 

20. Something Wrong Her, Cris Mazza

28 Jul

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(The following review is cross-posted today on HTML Giant)

This amazing “real time” memoir by Cris Mazza deserves a love-letter, and also a review or maybe six, written at different points while the reviewer is reading. Some would be awed and respectful, some would be infuriated, or in tears.  I was obsessed,  and ended up forming intense bonds to the characters, the love story, and the way of telling. It’s such a complex book, it’s taken me months to try to write about it, and even now….

The basic format is that Mazza sets out to explore what she characterizes as her sexual dysfunction, which she intends to both confess and try to explain (to herself and to us), through an examination of her sexual and emotional history. But as she’s working on the book, she gets back in touch with a high school boyfriend, and the story she thinks she remembers starts to change. She begins to include the story of their current emailing, along with old journal entries, earlier draft versions of the same chapters, and excerpts from her previous published books, which have fictional versions of real events, remembered and re-created at different points in time.

A strange note: The book was supposed to come out in fall 2013, and a cover was released and some advance reviews came in, but due to problems with the publisher, it was finally published with a different cover in April 2014.

Most of the other writing on the book has addressed its feminism and sexual politics—Mazza is a well-respected writer of experimental literary fiction with 17 books to her name, known for graphic sexual content and a feminist bent. A previous novel was titled Is it Sexual Harassment Yet? She edited a collection of “chick lit” before that was a term that meant a pink-shoe. And yet in this book she confesses that she has or had vaginismus (a spasming condition that makes penis-in-vagina sex painful) and has never had an orgasm. She also admits to many un-modern-feminist thoughts, like considering herself to be frigid, and thinking her body is dirty.

Her honesty is brave, rare, and hopefully might be helpful to other women who suffer from the same problems. Mazza found talk-therapy to be useless and something called Pelvic Floor Therapy helpful in decreasing the pain during sex. It’s refreshing to hear a woman—especially an older woman—speak honestly about sex, especially when she’s admitting to the uncoolness of not liking it. As she points out, we usually hear from women who are having too much sex, and though this is presented as a flaw, “isn’t the unspoken aura that these women are—for the same reasons—exotic, worldly, exciting, charismatic, provocative…or just plain cool?”

But for all its frankness and willingness to tell-all, Something Wrong With Her isn’t self-help book or a statement of sexual politics. The quest as Mazza writes it is not medical or feminist-political, or even psychological, but historical. She wants to know what’s wrong with her (in her own words) and embarks on “a memory-search for the reasons my sex life had been set on a path towards dysfunction or complete failure….” She looks at her early sexual experiences, her feelings about her body, and most of all, a handful of relationships where she felt violated or controlled by men. Early boyfriends pressured her or were rough. She was a band geek in college, and worked in the office for a band leader who she had a hero-worship crush on, which she feels was obscurely damaging. A later boss was sexually inappropriate. All of this is explored on an infinite loop of repetition and re-visiting, in obsessive detail.

Were these events damaging, or just normal?  Mazza, looking back, concludes that no real crimes were committed and that her problems are no one’s fault (but her own). I recognized many of the events as “normal” occurrences from my own adolescence, from the creepy and insinuating boss to the unpleasantly groping dates; for me, these were sexual wrong-things that happened along the way to discovering sexual right-things. For Mazza, they were something more. At one point she writes, “Mark, why don’t I ‘stand things’? Why have I never? Why am I not ‘over’ anything that’s ever happened or not happened?”

Perhaps that’s the right question, but it made me wish for a wider cultural interrogation. Nothing “bad” really happened to her, but on many levels the whole stew is bad. Our culture’s focus on “sex” as the act of heterosexual penetration is ridiculous. There is no one sex act that fits everyone; there is no correct assemblage of parts. Mazza’s sexuality bears this out, but she can’t say “I don’t like that; I want this instead,” so she considers that she’s a failure at sex. She also writes about her sense of failure at being a desirable woman, since she’s uncomfortable with femininity and dislikes her female parts. (At one point Mark asks her, “When did you start thinking of your body, there, as a wound?”) Is she a failure as a woman, or do we as a culture have an idea of “woman” that doesn’t fit everyone? If your assigned gender role makes little sense to you, maybe it’s more difficult to roll with the usual small violations and humiliations of adolescence. Mazza is in her late 50s, and the feminist theory she quotes is second-wave Erica Jong, but I’d imagine there are young women like her today, still feeling like failures because they don’t live up to “sex” and “woman” as commonly described.

Increasingly, the book turns into the love story between Cris and Mark. The reveals on this story are so brilliant (one happens, unbelievably, in a footnote, about halfway through) that I don’t want to say anything more about the plot here. Except maybe, Oh Cris, Oh Mark, Oh Cris, Oh Mark. You are killing me. We’re all waiting to see if Mark can cure her. We all want to know if it ever turns out like the fairy-tale.

(My contribution to posterity here, in case I happen to be reaching any masturbation-shy, non-orgasmic women in my humble blog post, consists of two words: bathtub faucet. You will need to find one with decent water pressure. Try it. Please.)

I had long wondered if the quality of an Internet affair (Mark is married when then story starts) could be recreated in a book, if the tension of the correspondence could be made narrative. Mazza has done it, which is funny since she’s a pre-Internet age writer often using handwritten diary entries from a time long before e-mail. Yet those diary entries capture something quintessential about how people connect online, when we so often turn other people into our diaries, when the relationship is as much an exploration of self as it is of the other. The whole book is a diary, and a correspondence, and it played for me nearly as effectively as I were part of the affair, in real time.

Some of the most poignant and beautiful lines in the book concerned that morphing between writing and life. “Basically: while I wrote this book something happened. Something happened while I was writing the book I thought I was going to write, which turned it into another book altogether.” Or, “Oh Mark, what am I going to do when I finish this book? It’s the only life I’m living. How does a person who only lives when she writes, write a memoir?

The aura of dreamy, self-absorbed storytelling that many of us recognize from obsessive e-mail correspondence pervades the book. Mazza jokes in several places that she’s going into way too much detail. “Why include this barely significant vignette of a heartbreak?” she says at one point.  And in another she mentions something that (I’m paraphrasing) “no one would care about—but Mark I know you do.” I loved her for it, and Mark too, for caring, but I would be remiss if I didn’t note that there were times I couldn’t believe what I was reading—and couldn’t believe I was still reading it—like, the time the school band went on a trip and Cris’s boss, who she had a crush on, “betrayed” her by not riding on the bus, and not calling to make sure everyone was OK after the bus broke down. Sometimes I just had to laugh. The humor was deepened by Mazza’s inclusion of comments from her writing group, who rightly point out the many reader expectations that she seems bent on frustrating. Go, writing group! One particularly funny part was someone telling her that having a crush on a high school band teacher was itself humorous. (She was indignant, and didn’t agree.)

I thought she got away with it all, partially through sheer commitment and partially because she’s a great writer with an excellent grip of pacing and suspense. Anyone wanting to write a deconstructed memoir, or include e-mail and text in a book should use this as a guide. As testament to her prose abilities, here’s a snippet from her fiction, from a story quoted in the book called “Let’s Play Doctor,” that seems representative of her lucid, risky, bold approach:

“She has a magazine in her hands and Dr. Shea moves behind her, very close, his cheek against hers. The smells from the bakery at the back of the bookstore become potent. She sees a whole pan of buttery cinnamon rolls coming from the oven. She doesn’t let go of the magazine; she can feel the slick heavy pages in her hands. Dr. Shea kisses her neck. ‘Let’s check your wounds,’ he murmurs. She’s looking at the magazine but doesn’t see anything. Dr. Shea lifts her shirt and runs his finger along the line where he had cut her open.”

I’ve written all this and not mentioned the explosive political content. Is it rape if we change our minds about it later? Can we call teenage grappling “rape games”? Do we dare admit to eroticizing our traumas? Is it sexual harassment if we want it? Mazza’s experiences with authority figures, and the men in her life, raise all of those questions in ways that aren’t always comfortable. She admits to calling situations that were or turned out to be ambiguous “sexual harassment” and “sexual excessive force.” I don’t like a world where ambiguous shit like that is legislated, and at the same time I think it right and necessary that sexual harassment and rape are illegal. It’s a mess, and this book does not help clear it up (not that it’s supposed to).

What it does—wonderfully, agonizingly—is look at one woman and her experiences with sex, in a deeper, more real, more fascinating, more exposed, more sexual way than I can recall having read anywhere, and all that in the middle of a firebomb of an Internet affair. What you want in a sex memoirist, it turns out, is not a blogger with a cute Instagram, but a hard-core old lady who has written 17 well-regarded literary books and never had an orgasm. I am only pretending to be surprised by that. I am not surprised. And I love you, Cris Mazza.

Recalcitrant Language, an Interview with Ottilie Mulzet

23 Jul

Now, you all are going to think I’ve been holding out on you, but my interview with Ottilie Mulzet, the translator of Seiobo There Below, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, is up at The Paris Review Daily. How is it possible that I’m writing about a book I have not yet blogged about? Well, my 25 Points review of the book is forthcoming on HTML Giant, sometime in the next few weeks. In the meantime, I’m thrilled to have spoken with Ms. Mulzet. And I am once again dreaming of translating Russian cookbooks. Many thanks to The Paris Review for being an invaluable source of writer-interviews, all searchable online.

19. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin

14 Jul

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So, along comes a fantasy novel I wish I’d written, a tale of high magic, a palace in the sky, a barbarian princess in over her head, a seductive god with many hands, who comes when you call him in the night…. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin is a perfect book for people who want sex, romance and full-bodied characters along with their battles and lore. I found myself marveling, as the gears started to crank and I started to be drawn into Jemisin’s world, at just how well she did everything—voice, writing, plot.

The writing is moody and atmospheric:  Heroine Yeine says, “I ran from the Nightlord through the halls of the light.” When she escapes into a wall, and asks where she is, her guide answers,  “‘…dead space in the body of the palace. All these curving corridors and round rooms. There’s another half a palace in-between that no one uses….'” One of the best set pieces establishing the atmosphere of the kingdom of Sky, where Yeine finds herself, describes her horror when a maid offers her a pair of human eyes on a wire frame as a fashion accessory. “But the masque itself was peculiar, seeming to consist only of a pair of bright blue feathery objects like the eyes on a peacock’s tail. Then they blinked.”

And, not to put the book in a niche, but this is just kind of book the #weneeddiversebooks hashtag people are talking about, since the main character is a brown-skinned woman, who is not pretty and doesn’t make much of her looks, and the overall gender and sexuality in the book is fluid—something I particularly love. We do need diverse books, and this is an excellent one.

Since I’m writing a book in the same space, it’s interesting to me to see what rules people can break, and which ones they stick to. I found The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms innovative in asking readers to understand a lavishly developed magical world with a lot of unfamiliar features, plus the history and intrigue of a political system, plus the active pantheon of gods taking part in affairs. That is a lot to keep straight when the task is to write a page-turner, and Jemisin pulled it off. Where she stuck with convention was in making a fairly straightforward, heroic, likeable heroine, and keeping the good guys good and the bad guys bad (with a few surprises and betrayals, naturally). I think she needed that spine of convention to tell this epic tale, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where she takes the characters in Book Two.

My favorite part was the unconventional part, namely segments, conversations, perspective-shifts dropped into the text that at first don’t make sense, and then start to later, as events reveal themselves. The first few paragraphs are disorienting (and made me put this book down about five times before starting to read it), but once I got into it I flipped back to them repeatedly throughout the book, discovering new meanings and letting them create new tension. I also really loved how she playfully inserted backstory and sometimes wound the clock back to tell or explain something—Yeine’s narrative voice let the writing have a lot of fun.

A last note is that Yeine, the heroine, is from a matriarchal barbarian society that historically treated men something like women have been treated in human society. Chauvinism feels sour to me no matter who it’s directed at, and Yeine made a few “weaker sex”-type comments about men that made me wince. At first I was tempted to give Jemisin a hard time for this, but then I thought of the 10,000-million novels about early male-dominated societies (including all historical romance) that whitewash the chauvinism, and I decided that this way is better. A large dose of reality can only improve a fantasy novel.

 

 

18. Field of Prey, John Sandford

13 Jul

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The last John Sandford book I reviewed, Storm Front, in the Virgil Flowers series, made my worst books of 2013 list, and prompted a Twitter exchange with Sandford’s son, who vehemently contradicted my claim that the Sandford books are now ghostwritten. I dropped the discussion at that point, because it didn’t seem right to accuse the son of one of my favorite writers of lying, and yet I could not believe that Sandford had written a book as bad as Storm Front, which did so ham-fistedly all the things Sandford does so well. I’m not alone in thinking so, either.

I was delighted, then, to read Sandford’s latest, Field of Prey, in the Lucas Davenport series and see that it’s back to the usual high-quality storytelling, witty dialog, colorful Minnesota location and rip-roaring plot. The criminal was one of the type Sandford does best—a deranged sex predator—and Lucas brought his A-game. We also saw the full range of supporting cast members, including Lucas’s adoptive daughter Letty, who I think deserves her own series someday, and Elle, the nun, whom we haven’t seen much of lately.

I’ve written enough about my love of this writer elsewhere. Enough to say that I think the man writes a perfect thriller, and enjoyed this one very much.

 

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