Review: “The Accomplice” is a Terrific Spy Thriller

His publisher says that Joseph Kanon writes for adults,  and that’s not hyperbole. Kanon’s intense and thrilling spy novels are subtle, sophisticated, and beautifully written.  His mastery is evident on every page and reading one of his thrillers you can feel like you’re on one of those luxury river cruises with a master chef, an expert guide, and a stateroom fit for an Egyptian pharaoh.

I’ve re-read some of his books as well as used excerpts in creative writing workshops, and every contact I have with his work makes me admire him more (and inspires me in my own fiction).

In The Accomplice, danger looms and crackles on every page.  The plot is simple, the execution satisfyingly complex.  CIA desk analyst Aaron Wiley lost some of his family at Auschwitz and lives in the shadow of their murder.  But it’s not until his Nazi hunter uncle recruits him to track down a major war criminal that he becomes an agent in the field.  Against his better judgment–at first, anyway–Aaron is soon hunting for one of the insanely sadistic doctors who performed horrific medical experiments on Jewish prisoners.  This doctor was personally responsible for the death of his mother and his cousin.

Wiley is understandably haunted by the specter of that demonic figure his uncle aches to find and hand over to the appropriate authorities.  And all seems to be proceeding to plan until life throws Andrew a  gigantic curve: He meets the killer’s daughter and becomes enthralled by her.  Kanon has made her a perfect femme fatale.

Kannon handles the tangled relationship that develops between them with absolute believability.  It’s so twisted, so fraught, so inseparable from the hunt for the woman’s father–and the prose seems to echo those dark emotional realities. Kanon’s writing in this book is replete with sentence fragments and jagged shards of dialogue and memory as the story drives inexorably forward.

The narrative also raises important questions.

What do the Holocaust war criminals deserve?  Can any punishment possibly be commensurate with their hideous crimes?  How did they co-opt prisoners to help them commit their atrocities?  What is the burden of being a son or daughter of one of these beasts?

The form of the book is classic, almost Hitchcockian: an ordinary man is swept up into events he could never have imagined taking over his life, and he struggles to survive and make sense of it all.  Wiley is a hero, but he’s no superman.  As Kanon notes about him, “Everyone at the agency had been trained to handle a gun, but he’d never shot anyone, had never hunted anything.”

The action, both dramatic and emotional, is non-stop, the denouement is shocking, and there are two fabulous scenes set in cemeteries that might take your breath away. The second one reminded me of the ending chase in North by Northwest.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in many genres, most recently State University of Murder.  He currently teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

Review: John le Carré’s Cunning New Spy Novel Will Keep You Guessing

Is there any writer who knows the workings of intelligence agencies better than John le Carré?  The famed novelist served in MI5 and MI6 and every book of his opens up those worlds with stunning authenticity.

His latest is set in contemporary London, a city over-heated by Russian and Ukrainian billions snatching up real estate. Nat is a middle-aged, slightly stuffy, introspective handler of agents who is finally back from missions abroad and expecting a much quieter life. Ed is a young, gangling, motormouth  “researcher” who is bursting with scathing opinions about Brexit, the United Kingdom, and Donald Trump.  He rants and Nat listens with only occasional comments.

What’s brought this odd couple together? Badminton. That’s right. Nat, who’s the novel’s narrator, is a champion player at a ritzy club where Ed seeks him out in order to challenge him.

Since this is a spy novel, you wonder immediately if either of them is telling the truth about themselves and what their motives are in this relationship–though how they feel about the sport seems real enough.  And the game itself, as Nat describes it, sounds a bit like spying: “Badminton is stealth, patience, speed and improbable recovery. It’s lying in wait to unleash your ambush.”

Ed’s brashness may just be due to his youth, but the witty, cultivated, silky smooth way Nat tells their story raises alarm bells for any fan of spy novels–and of course for the countless readers of one of our most admired authors of the genre.  What is he up to?  What has he done?  Why is he recounting this tale and who is his audience?

The story unreels.  The two men play, they grab a drink after their games, they talk. Well, Ed talks. Ed overflows with opinions about how Brexit is a colossal disaster, ditto the Trump presidency, and even though he agrees, you have to wonder why Nat bothers listening.  In part, it’s boredom with his new assignment: being in charge of a small Russia-focused London intelligence outpost that feels like Cinderella left behind while her stepsisters flounce off to the Prince’s ball.

But life at that sleepy little substation suddenly turns dramatic with a surprising resignation, hard work for a mission that’s aborted, Nat’s unexpected trip to meet a cynical old agent of his in the Czech Republic, and the search for a highly-placed traitor.  As the story heats up amidst inter-service rivalry and bureaucratic sniping, Ed seems to fade from view until he and Nat watch the notorious TV appearance of Trump and Putin at Helsinki.

That bizarre encounter with the press is matched by one delicious twist after another in Agent Running in the Field.  The book triumphs in multiple ways.  First there’s the author’s enthralling exploration of spycraft and intelligence tools that makes you feel you’re being taken through a secret museum with an excellent tour guide in Nat.

Then there’s the voice of that guide: elegant, seductive, amusing, with a touch of world-weariness.  Or as he might put it–because Nat loves tossing out  the odd bit of French–a soupçon d’ennui.  And finally, Nat and his wife, a successful human rights lawyer, make some surprising decisions that blow up everything you thought was going to happen.

Fast-paced, wildly topical, and worthy of another prestige mini-series like The Night Manager, John le Carré’s latest novel is as thought-provoking as any he’s written in over fifty justly celebrated years.  It’s a fast read, and it’s a devastating look at power, loyalty, and the current chaos of international relations.

Lev Raphael is the author of State University of Murder and 25 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He’s reviewed books for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and many other media outlets.  His intro online creative writing workshop “Mystery Writing 1.0” runs December 1-31.

Elise Blackwell’s Novel About Musicians Is Dazzling

I was an early reader, and back in elementary school, if I liked a book, I read it many times. So often, in fact, that my parents would ask why I wasn’t reading something else. It struck me as a strange question and my answer was always “But I love this book!”

I still have my childhood copy of The Three Musketeers and the binding is loose, pages have disappeared and it looks like it might have gotten mixed up in one of their sword fights. My copy of Cheaper by the Dozen, a story of a colorful family of twelve kids, is almost as battered.  Just looking at them brings back happy memories of sinking into magical narratives.  Both books inspired me to become a writer myself.

Later on, I would find myself drawn back to favorite novels from college courses like Women in Love and The Portrait of a Lady.

But as my range of interests expanded, there were so many books I wanted to explore than I’d re-read something only occasionally. And when I became a book reviewer for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, and other papers, keeping up with my assignments meant that there wasn’t time to re-read books.

Now that I review less often, I’m able to visit with books I especially enjoyed and my latest rediscovery is Elise Blackwell’s An Unfinished Score.  This is actually my third encounter because I read it a second time when I assigned it in a creative writing workshop.  Students loved it, and it’s not hard to see why.

In glistening, powerful, evocative, poetic prose Blackwell takes us into a world many of us will be familiar with–a troubled marriage–and one more remote: the life of a woman violist who’s a member of a string quartet, is married to an aloof, unhappy composer, and has been having an affair with a famous conductor.

Despite her secret life, this world is full of camaraderie and joy.  However, making music itself can be sad because “something real and loud in the air…disappears from all but memory.  Sometimes Suzanne strains to imagine the music still living, playing on in some version of reality not organized by time, all its notes together like colors in black paint or white light.  It might be a place, she thinks now, in which you can love two people without diminishing either.”

The book opens with a shock: Alex, the conductor, dies in a plane crash and as soon as she hears the news, Suzanne’s life becomes painfully bifurcated.  There’s everything normal she does each day, and there’s the howling void inside of her. Not long afterward, a phone call from out of the blue changes her life, and the book becomes even more dramatic as Suzanne is drawn into a bizarre new relationship.

Blackwell deeply understands the routines of the musician’s life, and the mysteries.  As a writer, she excels at sense detail, at creating idiosyncratic characters, and imbuing every page with a love of music.  And there are plot twists worthy of a mystery.

Reading An Unfinished Score made me sorry I’d given up piano lessons years ago, but even if you’ve never played a single note, you’re likely to find Blackwell’s novel thrilling, passionate, and hypnotic.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com and is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery.

What’s Better Than Re-reading a Book You Love?

My answer: Teaching it!

I had been a fan of historical fiction for a long time and when I discovered Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, I was in heaven.  The return of The Last Kingdom to Netflix reminds me how wonderful it was to assign that book for a class reading popular fiction in a wide variety of genres.

The hero is Uhtred, a dispossessed young noble from northern England in the 9th century, during the reign of King Alfred. Uhtred is descended from kings but his rightful claim to an impregnable fortress where he grew up has been usurped by his uncle, and Uhtred is burning with the desire for revenge.  It’s what obsesses him through the entire series.

Alfred was known for his piety, his strategy, his culture, and his determination to drive the Danes from his realm of Wessex in southern England and the other kingdoms England was then divided into. Glamorous, hot-tempered, man-of-action Uhtred has a complex relationship with this intellectual, pious king whom he ends up being bound to in life-changing ways.  Breaking an oath of allegiance in this period was more than dishonorable–it could brand you for life as untrustworthy and shameful.

“The world began in chaos and it will end in chaos.  The gods brought the world into existence, and they will end it when they fight among themselves, but in between the chaos of the world’s birth and the chaos of the world’s death is order, and order is made by oaths, and oaths bind us like the buckles of a harness.”

Uhtred has grown up with a split identity: raised English, he was captured by Danes as a child and identifies as a Dane, which makes for tremendous conflict, both internal and external. He’s a part of both cultures, both peoples, and lives out his cultural conflict almost daily with most of the people he meets.

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Teaching the first book in the series, I had students talking about expectations and conventions in historical fiction, which many of them hadn’t read before.  We moved on to discussions of Cornwell’s use of sense detail, his honest depiction of violence, the role of women in both Saxon and Danish societies as he portrayed it, the impact of the story being told by a first person narrator.   Many of them were put off at first by the alien cultures but soon found themselves compelled by the story telling.  I fell in love with the book all over again during the two weeks we spent discussing it with my students.  It felt new, fresh, and exciting.

TV reviewers are telling readers that this show is a good stand-in for The Game of Thrones.  Maybe.  The books couldn’t be more different.  Martin is a genius at world building on an epic scale, but Cornwell’s books are tighter, move faster, and with rare exceptions stick with the same point of view so that you’re immersed in just one character.

The Last Kingdom is a brilliant mix of deep psychology and high adventure.  It’s hooked me all over again and I’ve started re-reading book two in the series….

Question: what book have you been re-reading lately?

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres and teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com

 

 

 

Why I Stopped Reading Karin Slaughter’s New Thriller

I’ve been reading and reviewing crime fiction for years but haven’t opened a Slaughter book in awhile.  I remember the last one I read had too much “femjep”–a term mystery writers and readers use the author putting a woman in ridiculously threatening situations.

Still, I was drawn into her new book Pieces of Her because the opening scene was reminiscent of one in Joseph Finder’s terrific High Crimes (though not as well done). Andy is a self-pitying young woman who’s failed to make it in New York after five years and she’s gone home to Atlanta.  She’s having a mall meal with her tough-but-loving mother when crazy violence erupts, her mother acts way out of character, and the daughter has to flee.

The shocking disruption intrigued me despite very confusing choreography, but the daughter’s reactions were annoyingly slow.  She’s the kind of character in a movie you keep yelling at: “Don’t open that door!” or “Turn on the lights!” or “Run outside, not upstairs!”  And in fact, her mother plays just that role, because Andy is too feckless to get her ass in gear despite her mother’s urgent commands.

But the whole I-just-saw-my-mother-do-crazy-shit motif really hooked me, even though the writing in the book can feel surprisingly amateurish. Here are some gems:

Her brain felt like it was being squished onto the point of a juice grinder.

The last few days had been like tiptoeing around the sharp end of a needle.

Andy’s head was reeling as she tried to process it in her mind’s eye.

Suddenly all of Andy’s nerves went collectively insane.

The editor in me started noting problems that went beyond Slaughter’s prose, mistakes that the author shouldn’t have made, mistakes a copy editor should have caught.  Both could have found the answers on Google, used wisely.

Churchill experts, for instance, will tell you that Churchill never said “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  George Santayana, however, did say “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  And Samuel Beckett is not best known as the author of “Irish avant-garde poetry” but as a playwright (Waiting for Godot) and a novelist.

Goofs like those in any kind of fiction throw me out of the story as much as iffy phrasing.  I start wondering how careful the author was in gathering her facts, and what other mistakes might lie ahead.  Here, the hot mess of errors and odd images almost kept me reading out of morbid curiosity–but the story got so convoluted and  repetitious that I finally gave up midway.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His latest book is the suspense novel Assault With a Deadly Lie.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

This Flemish Thriller Will Keep You Guessing

Because I’ve had wonderful trips to Flanders in the past few years,I’ve been developing an interest in Flemish crime fiction. I recently discovered and reviewed Styx, a fantastic crime novel by Bavo Dhooge (pronounced Bah-voh Dough-hey). That book led me to another Flemish thriller, Baudelaire’s Revenge by Bob Van Laerhoven. Scandinavian crime writers currently dominate the discussion of European crime writing, but based on just these two marvels, maybe their Flemish cousins are on the way up….

Van Laerhoven’s written a colorful, complex, atmospheric, darkly sensual crime thriller set in a fascinating period.

The book’s events take place primarily during a national catastrophe: the Franco-Prussian war, which is about to devastate Paris. “With the trumpets of war blaring in the background and [Napoleon III] delivering pompous declarations about the grandeur of France, all sorts of things were apparently permissible.” The city has been frantic with real estate speculation, sexual and political corruption, séances, Satanism, and spiritualism. Opium and nude women dancing with snakes in nightclubs are just some of the escapist delights available for the cognoscenti.

A literate ex-army police commissioner who’s a combination of “hermit and whoremonger” is handed a bizarre case. The ghost of poet Charles Baudelaire might be committing grotesque murders—as revenge for his mistreatment while he was alive. It’s a terrific opening conceit. I mean, what author hasn’t imagined savaging his or her critics—more power to you if you can do it from the Beyond. But the criminality has a more improbable source, if you can believe it, and the novel turns on dark, nasty, sublimely twisted secrets—as well it should. This is a book where poetry and perversity reign, with a deft nod to Edgar Allen Poe.

The police commissioner is aptly, ironically named: Lefèvre (the fever), and the author has fun with other character names. Lefèvre has previously gone up against many insane killers, has a “bloodhound reputation,” bears “the scars of pitiless duels,” and is obsessed with sex and death. He’s not the only feverish character in the book: le tout Paris seems on the verge of hysteria, a breakdown, or revolution. And over everything, the increasingly gruesome murders drift like the foul miasma of a sewer….

Baudelaire wrote that travel teaches bitter lessons (amer savoir, celui qu’on tire de voyage), but for fans of international crime fiction, travel via thrillers only broadens our horizons. And as Laerhoven’s poetry-quoting, lust-driven inspector says, “murder sensitizes people to the mysteries that lurk behind everyday life.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the guide for writers, Writer’s Block is Bunk.  You can take creative writing workshops with him online at writewithoutborders.com.“Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael was like seeing Blade Runner for the first time: simply incredible.”—Kyle Roberts, MSU Class of 2016

 

Don’t Miss this Terrific Mystery from Argentina

I reviewed crime fiction at the Detroit Free Press for about a decade and had a terrific editor who loved the genre. But she quit because she got tired of being constantly pushed to do “features about Stephen King.” This was at a time when book coverage across the country was shrinking.

Her replacement actually told me, “I’m not a book person.” But Editor no. 2 had definite ideas about what I should be concentrating on in my column: best sellers. This was when bricks and mortar book stores were still flourishing and I felt that readers saw best sellers in newspapers ads and on full display in book store windows, in the stores themselves on walls, in end cap displays, on the best seller tables.

There was no reason for me to exclude best sellers, but why not keep my main focus on great books readers might miss: books by new or under-appreciated authors; books from independent presses; books that had been translated into English. That last category was especially important to me because with Americans tend to avoid books in translation.

If I did review a translated book, I only picked that novel if the translation felt smooth and natural (beyond the story being good, of course). Claudia Piñeiro is Argentina’s best-selling crime writer, someone I’ve just discovered, and her book A Crack in the Wall is all of that and more, thanks to its highly unusual structure and focus.

Pablo Simó works in a boutique Buenos Aires architectural firm. He’s a bit of a dreamer and something of a weirdo. He obsessively designs a building he doesn’t seem destined to ever build, and he takes a circuitous subway route home instead of a direct bus for reasons that take some time to become clear. What also evolves is the nature of the crime the book is built around.

In Chapter One we discover that he and his colleagues are somehow involved in a murder and its cover-up, but the how and why emerge slowly, in the context of his messy family life and all the ways in which he’s really living a life of quiet desperation. When excitement and sex enter the story it’s both a surprise,and the psychological depths the author explores drive the story forward in exciting, gripping ways. Diving deep into verities of love and marriage, the author lays bare the city’s convoluted building practices and takes us on a fascinating virtual tour of the city’s architecture, especially some of its famous Art Nouveau structures.

I’ve been reading and reviewing mysteries for years, but don’t remember anything quite like A Crack in the Wall. It’s one of those books you finish with a “Wow!” or maybe even “Damn!”

Lev Raphael is the author of eight mysteries set in Michigan along with a wide range of books in genres from memoir to vampire fiction.

“Flashmob” is a Hot Winter Read

The opening line of Christopher Farnsworth’s clever new international thriller Flashmob sounds like something Huck or Charlie might say on Scandal: “It’s not easy to find a nice, quiet spot to torture someone in L.A.”

The narrator John Smith is actually facing torture when we meet him working “executive protection” for a Russian billionaire’s son. But he’d make a great addition to Olivia Pope’s Scandal team because of his unique talent. Ex-CIA and Special Forces, this former “psychic soldier” can read minds. Messy minds, simple minds, and everything in between.

That means he’s able to anticipate an opponent’s moves; silently interrogate anyone interrogating him; and disarm people just by hitting them with vicious memories or activating parts of their brain to use against them. That’s not all. As Smith puts it: “I’ve got my wired-in proximity alarms, the radar in my head that tells me whenever someone even thinks about doing me harm.” So it’s almost impossible to surprise him or sneak up on him.

Almost. Otherwise there’d be no thrills, right?

But all that knowledge comes with a price. It leaves him with a physical and psychic burden he can only ease by heavy doses of Scotch and Vicodin—and even Valium and OxyContin on top of the mix on a really bad day. Reading and manipulating minds is a curse as much as a gift. Other people’s thoughts, memories, and feelings stick to him like he’s some kind of emotional fly paper and he powerfully describes it at one point as something far more disgusting. Still, while he may be a freak of nature, there’s no way you won’t empathize with him because he’s not a psychopath, he’s one of the good guys.

I’ve been reviewing crime fiction since the 90s in print, on air, and on line and it’s almost a cliché for authors to make their protagonists wounded in some way. Contemporary readers want their sleuths to be touched by darkness. In this case, it’s Smith’s amazing strength that profoundly weakens him at times. That offers a very original twist in a creepy tale about stalking, social media madness, celebrity, the Dark Net, privacy in the digital age, Internet cruelty, cyber crime, and mob psychosis.

The author’s also a screenwriter and journalist, which is a bit surprising, because the book could have used less exposition and tighter flashbacks. In effect, Smith is an omniscient narrator and while it’s intriguing to see him navigate “the competing agendas” inside people’s minds, sometimes his excursions into other characters are a drag on the plot’s momentum. Conversely, his descriptions of places and people lack color.

But in the end, none of that detracts from the deft story-telling and the explosive finale which made me think of master thriller writer Joseph Finder. Flashmob is truly disturbing. It’s one thing to worry about computer programs that can perform highly intrusive surveillance on you, it’s another to think of people who can insidiously do the exact same thing mentally while drinking a cappuccino just a few tables away from you at Starbucks.

Lev Raphael’s Nick Hoffman mysteries explore the terrors of academia. He’s reviewed books for the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, Jerusalem Report, Huffington Post and three public radio stations.

Travels Through Europe’s Heart of Darkness

I was born in New York City to immigrant parents, and when I was young, the question “Where do your parents come from?” wasn’t an easy one to answer.

My father had grown up in the easternmost part of Czechoslovakia which had different names over the course of his youth: Subcarpathian Ruthenia, Carpathian Ruthenia, and the Carpatho-Ukraine. But it didn’t belong there anymore. It had been absorbed by the Ukraine and was now part of the USSR.

Some people didn’t even seem to know where Czechoslovakia was, anyway. Now of course, it’s not on the map at all, having split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The city my mother grew up in northeastern Poland was Wilno, but as Vilnius, it was the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. In her years there as a child and a young woman before the Holocaust, it had been variously part of Russia, Poland, Lithuania–but for the majority of those interwar years a Polish city. It had also twice been invaded and ruled by the Germans.

Both my parents spoke a bewildering array of languages and lived in borderlands, as Pulitzer-winning author Anne Applebaum calls them in her dazzling travelogue Between East and West.

Armed with fluent Polish and Russian, the author records amazing interviews and fascinating, lost history as she travels from the Baltic to the Black Sea, visiting almost two dozen cities like Odessa and Minsk whose names are well known in the West. But she mainly stops at smaller cities and towns who have been pinballed over the centuries, swept up in endless wars, invasions, and border changes. En route, she also traverses some areas of Eastern Europe likely unknown to most Americas, each with its own dramatic, many-layered history: Ruthenia, Bukovyna, Moldova.

Some cities have been crushed by neglect, Sovietization, bombing—or all three. Others seem like lost jewels. Everywhere she goes, people from peasants to professors open up to her to reveal contradictory identifications. Russian speakers across these lands, for example, might think of themselves as Ruthenian, Polish, or Ukrainian. The locales she travels through have known immense suffering and chaos, and many of her interviewees come across as shipwrecked. Best of all, her grasp of complicated history in every location is faultless. She’s as observant, canny, and in command of le mot juste and just the right quote or anecdote s Rebecca West was in her masterpiece about the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Here she is in discussion with a fascinating Ukrainian linguist with a Turkish surname who tells her he feels like an outsider in his own country:

“And that, he said, was the most Ukrainian thing of all: to read the history of your country as if you were reading it through an outsider’s eyes. It is the fate or borderland nations always to know yourself through the stories or other, to realize yourself only with the help of others.”

Between East and West is one of the most compelling and thought-provoking travelogues I’ve read in years—and vitally important cultural/historical background now that places like Crimea and the eastern Ukraine keep blasting into the news.

Lev Raphael is the author of Rosedale in Love, A Novel of the Gilded Age, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Is “What Belongs To You” Truly An Instant Classic?

Back when I reviewed for the Detroit Free Press and other newspapers I used to feel that my colleagues sometimes had a pack mentality. One would start howling praise for a book and soon the cries would echo across the nation. The raves were sometimes so over-the-top they often triggered the contrarian in me: was the book really stupendous? When I’d go on a tour for one of my own books, people at all sorts of venues would take me aside and confess that they didn’t like this latest literary sensation, and seemed embarrassed to admit it.

Last year, the panegyrics about Iowa MFA graduate Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You  put me off, especially one by James Wood in The New Yorker, since he’s not a critic whose opinion I rely on. But when a student recently told me he was reading the book, I decided to check it out.

The narrator’s a gay American teacher in Bulgaria who gets involved with a hustler he meets in a public toilet. One British reviewer said the novel made her tremble; another hailed it as “incandescent”; a New York Times reviewer hailed the novel as an “instant classic.” Many reviewers have marveled at the prose, but I found too much of it dull and straining for effect. Using initials for characters’ names also seemed like a gimmick to make the book feel edgy.

But the major problem I had was with the hustler who’s a dull, obnoxious, demanding, dishonest grifter. We’re supposed to believe in the narrator’s intense attraction to Mitko, yet his most distinguishing features are a chipped tooth and a big penis. The sex scenes are very bland, which is problematic since the narrator’s obsession is what drives the plot forward, or at least nudges it. The novel’s framing sections are just way too languid. The middle section works best because the prose is more direct and compelling, less writerly, as we experience the narrator’s terrible nightmare of shame growing up with a brutal father and a treacherous, manipulative best friend.

I didn’t quiver reading that part of the book, and my iPad screen didn’t get brighter on its own, but I felt the author was more deeply engaged. He spoils it, though, when he has the narrator find a horse in a Bulgarian monastery at the end of the section. “It was tied up, I saw, it could have wandered off anytime it chose; but there was nowhere for it to go, of course, and the cart I supposed was heavy and there was something meager to be had there where it stood.”

Did we really need a heavy-handed reminder that the narrator was trapped in Sofia and living on emotional crumbs? This was like one of those melodramatic songs at the end of a movie whose lyrics explain what you just saw–in case you weren’t paying attention for the previous two hours.  I almost stopped reading at that point because it struck me as the sign of a writer who didn’t have faith in his readers’ intelligence.  Or in his own talent.  I kept going though the novel never really recovered from that low point.

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in many genres, from memoir to mystery. His most recent book explores police over-reaction: Assault With a Deadly Lie, which was a Midwest Book Award finalist.