About Time I Read It: The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

If 2020 wasn’t bad enough, last month we lost the internationally acclaimed Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Back in 2014, after reading all kinds of great things about Ruiz Zafón I took a chance on his 2012 novel Prisoner of Heaven and was subsequently blown away. Saddened by the news of his untimely passing, I decided to read another book from his best-selling series Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Luckily for me, I was able to use my public library’s Overdrive portal to secure a Kindle version of his 2009 novel The Angel’s Game. After only a few pages I fell in love with The Angel’s Game and it’s almost certain to make my year-end list of Favorite Fiction.

Our story begins when David Martín, a young underling at a second-tier Barcelona newspaper is asked at the last minute by his editor to write a feuilleton for the paper. Nervous and eager to prove himself he quickly goes to work. Once completed, much to his surprise and that of his editor Martín’s inaugural piece is a hit. Many feuilletons later, he’s approached by a pair of sleaze ball publishers who commission him to write a series of low-brow penny dreadfuls. While thankful for the opportunity to write professionally, after a while Martín grows weary of spending every waking moment at his typewriter banging out lurid tales of murder, betrayal and illicit liaisons. He yearns to be a real writer, like his idols Charles Dickens and other 19th century greats. Tired, disillusioned and locked-in to an exclusive contract Martín fears his dreams of literary greatness will forever remain unfulfilled.

Then a mysterious stranger enters his life. Wealthy, sophisticated and charming as only the devil could be, Andreas Corelli begins courting Martín with offers of employment. To the princely Parisian money is no object, and troublesome barriers standing in the way of Martín writing for Corelli are vanquished with mephistophelian aplomb. Answering Corelli’s siren call, Martín agrees to write him a book but not just any book. Corelli wants him to create a holy text he’ll use to launch a new religion.

The Angel’s Game has been called everything from a gothic tale to a physiological thriller. Containing elements of horror, romance and crime noir the novel is near unclassifiable in terms of genre. With long philosophical and religious dialogs between characters akin to those of Russian masters like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, together with generous allusions to Great Expectations, The Angel’s Game is like a piece of 19th century literature successfully reimagined for modern readers.

Not only is The Angel’s Game almost certain to make my year-end list of Favorite Fiction it’s the best novel I’ve read this year. Please consider this wonderful work of fiction by the late Carlos Ruiz Zafón highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

As 2020 continues to live up to its annus horribilis reputation, I find myself turning to fiction, especially humorous fiction as a much-needed escape. To fulfill this need, last week I used Overdrive to download an ebook of Gary Shteyngart’s 2006 novel Absurdistan, a book I’d been itching to read for years, ever since I spotted a paperback edition shelved in the “librarian’s choice” section at my public library. Like so many backlisted books I’ve featured on this blog, I enjoyed the heck out of it and cursed myself for not reading sooner.

325-pound Misha Vainberg, aka Snack Daddy, son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, proud graduate of Accidental University and luxury loft-dwelling New York City resident finds himself stranded in Russia and unable to re-enter the United States after his mobster father offs a visiting Oklahoma businessman. Homesick for the Big Apple and missing his Dominican girlfriend, his desire to go home only grows stronger after a rival mobster assassinates Misha’s father by flinging a landmine at his Land Rover in full view of tourists in St. Petersburg. (Only to be followed by Misha recklessly bedding his late father’s 20-something widow.) With his best friend Alyosha-Bob (née Robert Lipshitz an American-born Jew from “the northern reaches of New York State”, who, after settling in “St. Leninsburg eight years ago and was transformed, by dint of alcoholism and inertia, into a successful Russian biznesman renamed Alyosha, the owner of ExcessHollywood, a riotously profitable DVD import-export business, and the swain of Svetlana, a young Petersburg hottie”) and loyal manservant Timofey in tow flies to the former Soviet Republic of Absurdistan to purchase an illicit Belgian passport courtesy of a debased local diplomat. Rechristened as Belgium’s newest citizen, Misha sets his sights on a future life somewhere in the EU and thus one step closer to America.

But then things get weirdly complicated – and comical. Before Misha and his companions can depart a civil war erupts sealing the borders and grounding international flights. Right after his girlfriend dumps him via email for her Russian emigre literature professor “Jerry Shteynfarb” (author of The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job and reputed lothario) he ends up falling in love with an American-educated local tourguide who Misha later learns is the cherished daughter of an Absurdistani strongman. Before he knows it he’s being feted like a future son-in-law and hired on as the war-torn country’s new Minister of Multicultural Affairs. Not bad for an obese, substance-abusing, anxiety-suffering, gangster rap-loving, $350-an-hour Park Avenue therapist-dependent son of a murdered Russian mobster.

The fictional, purportedly oil-rich Absurdistan Shteyngart has created bears a strong resemblance to Azerbaijan, with elements of Bosnia, Rwanda of the mid 1990s and Borat’s Kazakhstan. It probably resembles many former Soviet Republics bordering on Russia’s Southern flank, which after escaping Soviet domination, still hasn’t made the transition to full democracy and sadly, probably never will. Western consumer goods and other relatively luxurious amenities are available, but only to a small, largely corrupt well-to-do. Ruled by autocrats and plagued by perpetual ethnic conflict, life in the country resembles something akin to the Middle Ages as opposed the 21st century.

Absurdistan is funny as hell in a sick and wrong kind of way. Please consider it highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: Judas by Amos Oz

In late 2018 I was saddened by the news Israeli author Amos Oz had passed away. I’d only read Between Friends, his collection of eight interconnected short stories and short coming of age novel Panther in the Basement but longed to read more, especially his memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness. For some inexplicable reason earlier this week I found myself in the mood for more of his fiction so I borrowed an ebook version of his 2016 historical novel Judas. Of the three books of his I’ve read, I’m pleased to say I enjoyed this one the most. There’s even a good chance it will wind up making my year-end list of Favorite Fiction.

It’s 1959 and Jerusalem is a city divided between Israel and Jordan. Shmuel Ash, originally from Tel Aviv, is a young idealist who’s lost his way. His steady girlfriend recently dumped him to marry her boring ex-boyfriend. The socialist cell he’d been a member of, passionately debating in smoke-filled coffee shops the role of the enlightened proletariat collapsed under the weight of its idealogical differences. Bereft of funds after the bankruptcy of his family’s business he’s forced to quit his university studies, even though he’s on the cusp of graduating. Unmoored and with nothing to lose, he answers a help-wanted posting for a live-in caretaker for an elderly man. For a modest stipend plus room and board Shmuel stays up half the night bantering with Gershom Wald, a crutch-dependent invalid as cantankerous as he is erudite and brilliant. Sharing this eccentric household is Atalia Abarbanel, the beautiful 40-something widow of Gerhom’s dead son and daughter of Shealtiel Abravanel, onetime member of the Jewish National Council who, because of his opposition to making Israel a Jewish state at the expense of the Palestinian Arabs was branded a traitor by his fellow Zionists and forced to resign in disgrace.

Surrounded by bookshelves stacked with dusty old tomes in a half-dozen languages Shmuel and Wald’s late-night arguments chiefly revolve around Israeli politics and, because Shmuel until recently was a religious scholar specializing in Jesus as viewed from a Jewish perspective, the role of Judas as betrayer. As they argue night after night, the reader begins to wonder if being a traitor is necessarily a bad thing. Fully aware “courageous people have appeared who were ahead of their time and were called traitors or eccentrics” Shmuel muses “anyone willing to change will always be considered a traitor by those who cannot change and are scared to death of change and don’t understand it and loathe change.”

But no matter how much he debates Wald, nothing can take his mind off the beguiling Atalia. She drifts in and out of his presence, elusive yet nevertheless attentive. In spite of her aloofness, she invites him to share a series of chaste, though pleasant evenings on the town. During their conversations she regularly reminds him there’s been a series of admiring young men who preceded him as Wald’s caretaker and each one left broken hearted. But Shmuel is a young man in love and relishes their bittersweet relationship.

With its secluded alleyways, Hungarian restaurants, Romanian-born police officers and sizable first-generation immigrant citizenry, the Jerusalem of Amos Oz’s Judas feels more like the Jewish quarter of some pre-war European capital than a Middle Eastern city. Dark, wintery and possessing a distinct Mitteleuropa flavorJerusalem in essence becomes the novel’s fourth character.

Judas has been called a love story, coming of age novel, intellectual novel, historical novel, philosophical re-appraisal of the Biblical character of Judas and allegory for the modern state of Israel. Not only is it all of these things, it’s also a terrific novel. Please consider it highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: Supreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley

The world is in the throes of a pandemic, the likes of which we haven’t experienced in a hundred years. Across the globe an endless parade of marchers fill the streets protesting police brutality and racial inequality. Either of these crises, let alone two at the same time would be a major headache for even the most capable of presidential administrations. But alas, with the current kakistocracy in Washington, DC overwhelmed and underbrained things look grim. If these are in fact, as Thomas Paine would say, times that try men’s souls, then it’s time for my soul to enjoy a some political humor. Specifically, it’s time for a little Christopher Buckley.

It’s been four years since I read his satire of Middle Eastern politics Florence of Arabia.  Not really sure which of his novels to read next I ultimately decided to borrow an ebook version of his 2008 offering Supreme Courtship, because it features a loquacious Joe Biden-esque senator from Connecticut. Plus, let’s face it, a humorous take on the United States Supreme Court is hard to pass up.

Tired of watching his two previous nominees to the nation’s highest court go down in flames at the hands of the by above-mentioned Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dexter Mitchell, President Donald P. Vanderdamp opts to take a different approach. Instead of nominating an up and coming federal judge or venerable legal scholar he selects Pepper Cartwright, star host of the reality TV series “Courtroom Six .” Cartwright, a pistol packing, straight-shooting Texas gal and former LA Superior Court judge is, to say the least, an odd choice for the nation’s highest court. (Made even odder once it’s learned her father – now the pastor of a mega-church with a private jet at his disposal – as a young Dallas police officer mistakenly allowed Jack Ruby to sneak into a parking garage to get a closer look at Lee Harvey Oswald. As they say, all the rest is history.) Coaching her through the nomination process is octogenarian Graydon Clenndennynn, a kind of Henry Kissinger figure and

 wisest of the Washington wise men, grayest of its eminences, adviser to seven—or was it eight?—presidents. Former Attorney General. Former Secretary of State. Former Secretary of the Exterior. Former Ambassador to France. Former everything.

Of course, being the wise man is he, instructs Pepper when asked question about abortion to say “little as possible in as many words as possible.”

Should Pepper survive this grueling process she will join an already colorful cast of justices. In addition to Silvio Santamaria (“Jesuit seminarian, father of 13 children, Knight of Malta, adviser to the Vatican”) as a thinly disguised Antonin Scalia there’s “den mother” Paige Plympton, (a nod to Sandra Day O’Conner) as well as Crispus Galavanter, a kindler, gentler and more intelligent version of Clarence Thomas. First among equals there’s Chief Justice Declan Hardwether, who, after casting the deciding vote to legalize gay marriage becomes the butt of the nation’s jokes after his wife leaves him for a woman.

With her unorthodox style, down-home wit and status as a political outsider, many saw Pepper Cartwright as a Sarah Palin figure when Supreme Courtship was released in the fall of 2008. Reading this in 2020, I’m left wondering if Buckley possesses the gift of precognition since his novel features, of all things, an infidelitous TV star who runs for president, several calamitous stock market crashes, and a Constitutional crises. (These days it feels like we’re always in the midst of a Constitutional crisis.)

Buckley has a gift for writing light, but clever prose. Above all, he makes you laugh and right now, that’s just what we need.

About Time I Read It: Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborn

In July 2017 Fresh Air’s pop culture and critic-at-large John Powers reviewed Lawrence Osborne’s latest novel Beautiful Animals. Describing it as “a seductively menacing new thriller” combining “Graham Greene’s fondness for foreign soil with Patricia Highsmith’s fascination with the nastier coils of the human psyche” I was intrigued.  I grew more intrigued after Powers mentioned the novel’s setting on the Greek island of Hydra and how things get horribly complicated after two young tourists stumble across a Middle Eastern refugee who’s washed ashore. Alas, like so many books I’ve heard reviewed or read reviews of I quickly forgot about it. That is, until recently when, in search of something set in Greece for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I borrowed a Kindle edition through Overdrive. I’m happy to report Osborne’s dark novel is painful but at the same time nearly impossible to put down.

Naomi, a 28 year old Brit has been coming to Hydra with her family for years. A London-based lawyer, she’s opted to spend the summer with her wealthy art dealer father and Greek stepmother after being unceremoniously sacked by her employer. Attractive, intelligent, affluent and able to effortlessly manipulate others she spends her time days sunbathing and evenings drinking in local tavernas or partying with others her age. After becoming friends with Samantha, an American college student vacationing on Hydra with her mother, father and teenage brother it looks like the two young women have a promising summer ahead of them as besties.

But before they’ve had a chance to hit a party or two or experience a double date while out sunbathing one day they discover a bedraggled, long-haired man lying semiconscious at water’s edge. Feeling obligated to do something to address his plight they return later with food, water and other supplies. His name is Faoud and yes, as they assumed he’s a refugee from the Middle East. Fortunately for him, the two women are eager to help him, and thanks to Naomi’s easy access to her father’s wealth money is no object. But unfortunately, Naomi’s largess comes with a price. For too long she’s lived a life of privilege, gotten her way with people and never dealt with the consequences of her selfish actions. When her ill-conceived plan to help Faoud ends in disaster, it has the potential to wrecks the lives of her accomplices.

About Time I Read It: The Letter Writer by Dan Fesperman

I was in the mood for a little fiction after finishing “The Rest of Us” and Overdrive recommend I follow it up with Dan Fesperman’s The Letter Writer. How could I refuse a historical whodunnit set in New York City in the months following  Pearl Harbor in which a detective, newly arrived from North Carolina teams up with a mysterious “letter writer” who earns a living writing letters for the city’s illiterate immigrants, speaks five languages, has the manners and speech of a university professor, and possesses an almost supernatural ability to uncover priceless information? I mean come on, what’s not to like?

When a body is found floating in the Hudson River, Detective Woodrow Cain is sent to investigate. Through the assistance of Mr. Danziger, the above-mentioned letter writer he learns the murdered man was a recent German immigrant, likely Nazi sympathizer and a suspect in the recent fire of the ocean liner SS Normandie, which suspiciously caught fire while being converted to a troop ship. Proudly advertising himself as a dealer in “information” Danziger proves to be an invaluable guide to New York City’s diverse immigrant community, not to mention the city’s seedy underside. But no matter how helpful Danziger is to Cain’s investigation, nevertheless the detective suspects there’s more to Danziger than he lets on.

The Letter Writer has everything. There’s an out of his element detective with a tragic past who’s also a single dad to a young daughter. If trying to solve a series of murders wasn’t hard enough, his crooked, old-boy dominated police precinct thinks he’s either incompetent or an informant sent by higher ups to spy on them. There’s also action, romance, political intrigue and high level corruption. I was thoroughly entertained by The Letter Writer and have no reservations whatsoever recommending it.

Soviet Spotlight: Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith

The day at the public library I picked up Martin Cruz Smith’s Wolves Eat Dogs I also grabbed his 1989 thriller Polar Star. Published decades ago, I can still remember when  it was released to much fanfare and touted as a sequel to Cruz Smith’s mammoth best seller Gorky Park.

Instead of set in Moscow and environs like its predecessor, Polar Star takes place in the Bearing Sea mostly aboard a giant factory ship. As part of an inaugural joint venture between the USSR and the United States a small fleet of American-owned fishing boats pass their fish-laden nets up to the Polar Star to be processed, frozen, stored and later sold with the two parties sharing the profits. With the USSR deep into glasnost and perestroika expectations are running high both teams can work together for the greater good.

Deep inside the bowels of the huge factory ship is former Moscow Militia Inspector Arkady Renko, knee deep in fish guts slaving away on the production line. When one of the Soviet crew is found dead, Renko is quietly pressed into service to determine how she died, and to do so as quickly and discreetly as possible lest her untimely demise derail the fragile commercial alliance. His task is daunting one, made even more difficult by those who would rather call it a suicide and cover things up. Before long he learns just about everyone onboard the small flotilla is shady, secretive and potentially criminal. Think of it as Murder on the Orient Express meets The Deadliest Catch.

Polar Star, while an older thriller still packs a punch. (Although thanks to its age it now reads like historical fiction.) I enjoyed it even more than Cruz Smith’s more recent Wolves Eat Dogs. After enjoying Polar Star I now wanna read the entire Arkady Renko series.

The Last by Hanna Jameson

Last month, as much of the world began hunkering down in hopes of slowing the spread of the dreaded COVID19 virus Eva, of the book blog Novel Deelights responded with a piece entitled “Nowhere To Run : a list of books set in isolated locations” in which she recommended 10 novels set in secluded locales like cruise ships, remote islands, and even the planet Mars. After reading Eva’s descriptions, The Last by Hanna Jameson caught my eye. Set deep in the backwoods of Switzerland, 20 residents and staff at the L’Hotel Sixieme find themselves isolated and on the own two months after a global nuclear war. If things couldn’t get any worse, the body of a young girl is discovered in one of the hotel’s rooftop water tanks, prompting one of the guests to take it upon himself to uncover her murderer.

Unable to resist a post-apocalyptic whodunnit set in Switzerland I was able to secure a Kindle edition through Overdrive after only a brief wait. I whipped through Jameson’s fast-paced page-turner in no time, enjoying it so much I’ve concluded The Last is the best novel I’ve read this year.

The Last is told from the perspective of Jon Keller, a Sanford University professor of history. While eating breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant his last morning before flying back to America after attending an academic conference sees his smart phone erupt with news alerts of cities around the world being nuked. Deciding to stay put instead of venturing into town he desperately tries to contact his wife and kids back in San Fransisco but to no avail. Over the next few days news of the greater world dries up, television stations go off the air and local wireless and internet service vanishes. Before long, realizing they’re now on their own, those at the hotel are forced into rationing electricity, natural gas and food. As time goes by and hopelessness mounts, several guests commit suicide. As a personal antidote to this growing sense of purposelessness Jon vows to find the girl’s murderer, who he suspects hasn’t left the hotel.

Several things struck me about this novel. It has a contemporary feel, thanks to pop culture references to The Road, The Handmaid’s Tale and Pulp Fiction and also the arguments over the degree of blame America’s President deserves for triggering the nuclear holocaust. “Everyone knew how stupid and dangerous it was to vote for that kind of man, and those religious zealots!” yelled Jon, a liberal university professor at fellow hotel resident and survivor Tomi, a cynical, strong-willed libertarian. Seeing how a cast of international characters, each with intriguing backstories interact with each other reminded me of Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel Bel Canto. Lastly, seeing Jon, a middle age professor forced into a heroic role by circumstances beyond his control is a recurring theme in Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers series I’ve come to love.

The Last is easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and the more I think about it probably the best so far of 2020. Much thanks to Eva for bringing it to my attention.

About Time I Read It: Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith

Right before our local public libraries closed their doors in an effort to halt the spread of the rampaging Corona Virus I secured a tall stack of books betting I’d probably be hunkered down for a while. Luckily for me, as a health precaution our libraries ordered us to not return any borrowed materials and as a result we get to keep our books until further notice. As the world battles the worst pandemic in a century at least I’ve got plenty to read.

One of the books I grabbed before our libraries suspended operations was Martin Cruz Smith’s 2004 whodunnit Wolves Eat Dogs. Over the last year or so I’ve been supplementing my diet of nonfiction with international thrillers, crime novels and the like and figured now was a good time to dive back into the fiction of Martin Cruz Smith, an author I haven’t read in decades. Set mostly in Ukraine, I could apply it towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, making it hard to resist. I burned through Wolves Eat Dogs in only a few days and I must have enjoyed it because it left me wanting to read more of his stuff.

It looked like a simple suicide. One of Russia’s billionaires, deciding he couldn’t take it anymore and jumped out the window his Moscow luxury high-rise. A lesser Investigator would have closed the book the second he arrived on the scene but not Arkady Renko. Knowing from experience whenever wealthy and powerful Russian men are killed it’s never by their own hands Renko, over the protests of his superiors decides to dig a bit deeper. Before long his investigation takes him to Ukraine, specifically to Chernobyl and the Zone of Exclusion, an irradiated shadowland abandoned since the 1986 nuclear disaster now home to an assortment of squatters, animal poachers, scavengers and corrupt militia men. It’s here Renko suspects there’s some sort of connection between Chernobyl and the dead billionaire. But what is it?

Inspector Renko is one of those great characters you can’t get enough of. Smart as hell and honest, and because he’s been at it so long knows his stuff. After years of fighting crime in the USSR and the near lawless post-Communist regime that took its place, Renko’s left cynical and damaged, but amazingly still in possession of his humanity. He’s tough, level-headed and never reckless. Those occasions when he does need to kick some ass, he does it right.

Like I said above, I enjoyed Wolves Eat Dogs and I’m hoping to read more of Cruz Smith’s fiction in the future. With a little luck this won’t be my last blog post featuring the adventures of Inspector Renko.

About Time I Read It: Siren of the Waters by Michael Genelin

It’s not every day I get to read a novel set in Slovakia. Even if roughly half of Michael Genelin’s 2008 crime novel Siren of the Waters takes place in the what used to be the eastern half of the Central European nation of Czechoslovakia it’s still my first literary foray into that part of the world. (Keep in mind of course if its author Michael Genelin is an American, so it can’t be considered Slovakian literature.) Wanting something set in Slovakia for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I borrowed an ebook version through Overdrive and went to work reading it almost immediately. I burned through it quickly and generally enjoyed it. Like any good crime novel, it’s entertaining and filled with a number of plot twists, most of, if not all I never saw coming.

On a highway outside the capital Bratislava, Jana, a veteran commander in the Slovak police force and her partner are called to investigate a deadly automobile accident. Inside the smoldering wreck of a van they find multiple bodies and no survivors. After discovering the deceased passengers were all young women and the driver male (and probably from Ukraine) Jana suspects it’s a case of human trafficking come to a fatal end. Knowing the fire in the van was purposely set she sets off in search of the those criminal elements responsible. Her search takes her to first Ukraine and then France, where she takes part in a international conference on human trafficking. Every clue Jana uncovers along the course of her international journey leads to more questions, as well as additional violence.

Roughly over half of Siren of the Waters is set in Slovakia in the years preceding the fall of Communism.  Arranged chronologically in the form of flashbacks, they follow Jana’s life starting with her career as a young police officer employed by the authoritarian Communist government, her stormy marriage to her actor husband turned political dissident and ending with the collapse of the old Communist regime. I enjoyed this part of the novel and I credit the author for doing the research needed to give those passages their authenticity.

Like I said, it’s not every day I get to read a novel set in Slovakia. Luckily for me it also kept me entertained.