Every week we collect five books to highlight each day. Sometimes they’re our Book of the Day on the their published date, sometimes they’ve got something neat coming up with their publishers, but no matter what they’re all spectacular books. This week, we’ve got spies, dopplegangers, nameless narrators, and mystery. See them all now and be sure to check them out throughout the week.
Writing is crisp, sarcastic, and wryly funny, steeped in New Jersey lore and anecdotes that add great historical and cultural dimensions to its mystery.
When wisecracking and smoothly confident private investigator Jack Colt goes on the hunt for his uncle’s killer, his case widens to include a powerful judge, local mob figures, and even the governor’s mansion. William Baer’s New Jersey Noir is an entertaining and delightful homage to the Garden State.
Colt, the thirty-something proud descendant of the gun maker, narrates the fast-paced mystery. It unfolds over a ten-day period in a personable, if somewhat world-weary, manner. Colt realizes that his uncle’s death might overlap with several other ongoing cases, even one previously considered solved. Postcards of Asbury Park with the words “You’re next” keep popping up, and Colt is hired by a dead woman to find her killer.
There’s a lot going on in this novel, but it’s a good kind of busy. Colt is a striking protagonist who doesn’t take guff from anyone. The lovely Roxanne, a California transplant who makes his office hum, assists him. Her information-laden reports on various suspects are italicized for better emphasis. The book is steeped in New Jersey lore and anecdotes that add great historical and cultural dimensions to the story, whether they involve George Washington or an infamous 1966 cold case.
Writing is crisp, sarcastic, and wryly funny in spots. There initially appear to be three intertwining stories, with Colt’s detective pursuits as the main one. An unknown masked man appears to be watching a woman sleep; a Q&A session involving someone’s brother and his fiancée and a tragic accident also come in. All connect by the book’s powerful conclusion in a way that is highly surprising.
Characters are authentic and realistic. Dialogue is brisk and to the point. Colt’s penchant for quoting classic movie lines is endearing, especially when other characters fail to catch their relevance.
Intended as the first book in a series, New Jersey Noir introduces an ultracool hometown detective from Paterson, set perfectly in his well-detailed locales.
ROBIN FARRELL EDMUNDS (December 27, 2017)
Leslie Pietrzyk’s haunting Silver Girl begins in 1980, with a nameless narrator starting her freshman year at a prestigious Chicago-area university. The narrator escaped her economically depressed Iowa hometown, but the emotional baggage of a grim childhood and dysfunctional family continue to weigh her down like the bulky, cheaply made trunk that holds her belongings.
Silver Girl’s heroine, though nameless, is compellingly flawed. Forced into a poverty mindset, with constant anxieties about paying for food and rent, her situation is made even more difficult by the wealth of her fellow students. She feels shadowy and mousy, and like she must be morally shadowy as well in order to attract men. Her close friend Jess exudes confidence and has her pick of boyfriends, along with the heedlessness that tends to come from being born into a rich family.
Shifting from freshman year forward to 1982 and then back again, Silver Girl centers around the unusual friendship between the narrator and Jess, as well as the notorious Chicago Tylenol murders—Jess’s father’s mistress dies after ingesting a tampered capsule. The couple’s longtime affair is exposed, along with the existence of their illegitimate daughter.
The novel’s layered complexity distinguishes its anonymous protagonist and offers reasons behind her occasional lying or petty thievery. There are dark memories from the recent past, and nagging concerns about her younger sister, Grace, still back in Iowa and vulnerable to the same toxic environment. Sexually manipulated by Jess’s arrogant fiancé, she is also treated with careless concern by Jess and her parents, and ultimately learns to use them as they use her.
Though the journey isn’t easy, Silver Girl concludes with a surge of hope, like the spring thaw after an icebound Chicago winter. The troubled narrator ultimately finds a new sense of purpose and self-worth.
MEG NOLA (December 27, 2017)
Surrealistic tones emphasize heavy questions of empire-building and cultural subsumption in this thoughtful archaeology novel.
Set in the cutthroat world of classical archaeology, Bernard Schopen’s The Last Centurion is a story in which the realities of modern empires play out in the ancient streets of Cambridge.
A devotee of Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius, grad student Tad Fellows knows how to be a good soldier. He understands the world through obedience, loyalty, honor, and other values that his peers call antiquated. Left as a rear guard to finish cataloging archaeological finds, Fellows is thrust into the politics of nationalism as local leaders protest the upcoming transfer of artifacts to the United States.
Of particular concern is the mummified corpse of a Roman centurion, forever stranded in a foreign and hostile land. He becomes a symbol of the cultural bullying of the United States. Among hubristic and larger-than-life personalities, Fellows questions his values as the machinations of the power players become bloody.
From the broadly painted characters to the constant presence of a haunting shadow, there’s a tone of heightened reality throughout The Last Centurion. It is effective at communicating the surrealism of global politics, as are characters who embody various philosophies without verging into one-dimensional characterizations.
Fellows’s life is defined by headaches, blackouts, paranoia, and a constant state of unsteadiness that is only marshaled by the concepts in Marcus Aurelius’s writing. Surrealistic tones emphasize nuances as Fellows comes to ask himself what is really happening.
The novel raises uncomfortable points, drawing comparisons between the expansion of the ancient Roman empire through physical and cultural violence and the expansion of America’s presence on the global stage. These points are most poignant when it comes to questions of complicity and the ways in which the civilians of empires become soldiers of cultural war through the nationalism of imperial elites.
The Last Centurion doesn’t claim to offer any answers to these questions, though it does effectively communicate the discomfort and unease not just of Tad Fellows but of all who are forced to recognize their own unwitting complicity in cultural triumphalism.
CONSTANCE AUGUSTA A. ZABER (December 27, 2017)
Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring
Within the Ottoman Empire during World War I, Sarah Aaronsohn, her siblings, and their friends formed a Jewish spy ring—Nili—that collected information for the United Kingdom. Spurred into action after she personally witnessed Ottoman crimes during the government’s genocide against the Armenians, Aaronsohn’s efforts helped pave the way for the future state of Israel, and her story offers plenty of historical intrigue.
Despite its title, the book focuses equally on Sarah’s counterparts within Nili. Her brother Aaron, for example, was a top agronomist, and his skill at combating outbreaks of locusts helped him earn his way into Turkish government circles. Her sister’s fiancé, Avshalom Feinberg, traveled from then-Palestine to Egypt on foot to pass information to the British. Over time, though, Sarah rose to become the head of the spy ring, tasked with juggling many difficult factions, from a local Jewish community that feared that Nili’s British ties would bring reprisals from the Ottoman government to skeptical or dubious allies.
Wallance vividly conveys the logistical challenges and daily intrigue of operating a spy ring in that time and place: coordinating the arrival of boats and swimmers to transport letters; sending messages by carrier pigeon; trying to determine what information was real and how much to reveal at any point. The story gets more compelling as it goes along. Nili’s efforts draw Ottoman attention, and evading capture becomes increasingly difficult. The last few chapters are particularly gripping, as daily survival grows as significant as the greater war effort.
Nili didn’t last long enough to see the Allied victory in World War I, much less to see the creation of a Jewish state in a former Ottoman-occupied territory. Still, its efforts were an important part of both outcomes, and Wallance’s work thoroughly demonstrates how.
JEFF FLEISCHER (February 26, 2018)
Join Dr. Ribero’s Agency of the Supernatural for The Case of the Deadly Doppelgänger, the second book in a series that follows Kester Lanner, a twenty-two-year-old nerd, avid indoorsman, and newly minted “spirit door-opener.” Also, he’s just discovered that he’s the son of Dr. Julio Ribero, the head of a clandestine supernatural agency on the skids. Welcome to the unglamorous, low-paying, low-profile world of the supernatural.
Desperate for work, the agency bids on a government assignment trapping a rogue doppelgänger spirit in Lyme Regis. However, their celebration soon turns sour as they learn that they’re sharing the job with Ribero’s nemesis—plus there’s an impossible deadline, a series of uncooperative locals, and a spirit that’s not exactly what it seems.
Working for his father the past four months, Kester’s still figuring out what kind of relationship he wants—to his parent and the supernatural. Unfortunately, circumstances are pushing him into a more active role; his father is diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Now Kester not only needs to contribute, he must figure out how to lead.
Despite his insecurities, something about the way this doppelgänger spirit is picking off the tight-knit group of pensioners is niggling at Kester. If he’s even going to figure it out—not to mention get some time off for a second date with his crush—he’ll have to muck about in ancient graves, internet dark sites, and moldy discount hotels, hoping and praying he’ll get lucky.
Banks blends supernatural mystery with workplace comedy in a ribald romp that threatens to run roughshod over shy, beta-hero Kester. Yet, Kester’s gawkish naiveté is endearing. After all, growing up is hard to do, and never more so than when there are spirits out to get you.
LETITIA MONTGOMERY-RODGERS (February 26, 2018)