Review by CJ Verburg: Mick Herron’s Slow Horses

Slow Horses (Slough House, #1)Slow Horses by Mick Herron

A slow starter that soon picks up to thriller speed. (Tip: skip the author’s preface–it belongs at the end.) Slow Horses is a sort of 21st-century behind-the-scenes John LeCarre novel, less about the terrifying kidnapping that jolts MI5 into action than the procedural and political machinery that pits its players against each other. Slough House is where the “slow horses” who screw up spy missions go to trudge in circles for the rest of their weary lives. When a real crisis drops in their path, they throw over the traces faster than you can say Derby. Personalities, talents, and zest blossom; and as these dull characters remember to value themselves, we suddenly have a stake in their success. Jump-cuts between the criminals and their rival sets of pursuers keep the pace zippy. This being a battle of secret service vs. underground vs. news media, no one’s real identity matches the role s/he has been playing. I was sorry when the book ended — and glad the author made good use at the end of his yawn-inducing introduction to Slough House.

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Review by CJ Verburg: Rex Stout’s Murder by the Book

Murder by the Book (Nero Wolfe, #19)Murder by the Book by Rex Stout

This is one of my favorites in the Wolfe canon. Not just because it takes place in the literary world, although I loved time-traveling around the postwar New York publishing scene with author Rex Stout. And not just because it’s always a pleasure to hang out in detective Nero Wolfe’s Manhattan brownstone with the eccentric genius and his right-hand man Archie Goodwin. The plot is satisfyingly intriguing: who’s killing every person who’s read a not particularly controversial manuscript? I especially liked the opening twist: Wolfe’s first visit from his friend and rival Inspector Cramer isn’t a request for help solving murder #1, but to figure out why an odd list of names was found on the scratch pad of a dead law clerk. Any writer will immediately have her/his suspicions; but it takes America’s finest Holmes-Watson duo to piece together the series of clues that will unmask the killer.

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Review by CJ Verburg: Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club

The Thursday Murder Club (Thursday Murder Club, #1)The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

An inspired concept — write about a group of contemporary amateur sleuths who are the same demographic as most amateur-sleuth mystery readers. Osman has created a high-end retirement community that’s a 21st-century version of the classic English village; even his title pays homage to the Golden Age mystery that introduced Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s The Tuesday Club Murders. The characters are distinctive enough to tell apart, charming (or anti-charming) enough to be both likeable and suspicious, and similar enough to the traditional ensemble (the mysterious ex-spy, the logician, the friendly knitter, the garrulous working-class dad, the sharp and not-so-sharp local cops) to keep me laughing and turning pages. Osman is a professional entertainer and very good at it. I admired his acrobatic multiple not-quite-endings, though I didn’t entirely follow them, and I look forward to reading more from him — as well as the probable TV series.

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Review by CJ Verburg of Naomi Klein’s The Battle for Paradise

The Battle For ParadiseThe Battle For Paradise by Naomi Klein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Liked” is the wrong word for a Naomi Klein book. As usual, she does an awesome job of exposing a travesty of rich entitled capitalists exploiting a system they’ve rigged to strip assets and well-being from ordinary citizens — in this case, the storm-battered and serially colonized islands of Puerto Rico. I’d love to believe the small sustainable local infrastructure innovations of local residents can prevail, but it’s a Sisyphean battle. I wish Klein had more explicitly defined the epithet “neoliberal.”

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Review by CJ Verburg: Ellen Kirschman’s Burying Ben: A Dot Meyerhoff Mystery

Burying Ben (A Dot Meyerhoff Mystery)Burying Ben by Ellen Kirschman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A book that opens with the suicide of a sympathetic character is not a book I’d normally expect to like, or maybe even finish. Burying Ben caught me up fast and kept me turning pages straight through to the end. Unexpectedly, it’s an ideal read for this “perfect storm” season of coronavirus, wildfires and hurricanes, political deceit and treachery, when hugging a dear friend might kill you. Nobody (including the narrator) is quite who we think they are, or who they think they are. Kirschman is a deft, engaging writer with a unique advantage: she knows the real world of law enforcement up close, from both the roller-coaster level of cops joking over coffee and five minutes later risking their lives, and the expert-observer level of a clinical psychologist. So this is not a standard story of good guys trying to outwit bad guys and vice versa. The “mystery” doesn’t even really emerge until we understand how the characters’ depths, quirks, pasts, and the diverse pressures they work under became lethal for would-be Officer Ben Gomez. It’s a scary terrain–compelling because it’s authentic. And through the ups and downs Dr. Dot Meyerhoff perseveres, because what else can she do, with human lives and her own future at stake? Highly recommended!

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In a Nutshell: CJ Verburg Reviews Preet Bharara’s “Doing Justice” & Janet Dawson’s “Till the Old Men Die”

Doing Justice: A Prosecutor's Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of LawDoing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law by Preet Bharara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was originally meant as an experienced-based guide for up-and-coming lawyers, particularly prosecutors. Bharara’s distinguished career makes him a suitable author for it, and depicts him as a thoughtful, methodical, circumspect player in a complicated system. It’s well written and the cases he describes are well chosen. I enjoyed it, but the distinctions he draws between the different kinds of challenges a prosecutor faces became too subtle for me to feel, after 200+ pages, that I was still learning useful information.

Doing Justice does suggest Preet Bharara would be an admirable candidate for any job he may be up for in future, such as Attorney General of the United States.

Till the Old Men Die (Jeri Howard Mystery, #2)Till the Old Men Die by Janet Dawson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you devour mysteries, this is a good one, especially if you’re familiar with the San Francisco Bay area. The plot is intriguing & the writing is capable. I particularly enjoyed following sleuth Jeri Howard into the local Philippine community. If I were reading this book on an airplane I’d have finished it. As it was, squeezing it in between other priorities, I set it aside (repeatedly), first because my sense of geography isn’t strong enough for me to care what roads Howard takes to get to what destinations, & second, because I’ve read (and written) so much crime fiction that at this point I’m looking to be deeply engaged by a distinctive plot &/or characters, not just to take an entertaining break from reality.

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Raven Black by Ann Cleeves – Mystery Review by CJ Verburg

Raven Black (Shetland Island, #1)Raven Black by Ann Cleeves
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Odd that Raven Black’s front-cover labels it “a thriller.” Set on the remote Scottish isle of Shetland, this mystery doesn’t involve a single car chase, pub brawl, time bomb, or gunpoint abduction. On the contrary: things unfurl slowly here, where commonplace domestic worries weigh as heavily as piecing together the connection between two girls’ deaths. Everybody in this small community knows everybody, raising the creepy question: does anybody ever really know anybody?

Ann Cleeves is brilliant at building suspense out of her characters’ self-absorbed observations and assumptions. Her point-of-view choices are bold: the story opens through the eyes of Magnus Tait, a slow-witted recluse who lives with a caged raven and quickly becomes a suspect, and shifts to schoolgirl Sally Hardy, who can’t help rejoicing when her best friend’s murder boosts her social standing. Our anchor and main POV character is local police detective Jimmy Perez (who looks nothing like actor Doug Henshall, who plays him on TV). Perez is conscious of his obligation to stay objective, maintaining an overview, yet inevitably he too is biased — sometimes hobbled — by his relationships with the neighbors he’s investigating.

My only quibbles with this absorbing novel were that I wasn’t entirely convinced whodunnit, and Ann Cleeves deserves a better copyeditor. I plan to read more of her books, as well as keep watching both the Shetland and Vera TV series.

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Recursion by Blake Crouch: Review by CJ Verburg

RecursionRecursion by Blake Crouch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the first book I’ve read by Blake Crouch, and if not for a friend’s recommendation plus an advance review copy, I’d have backed off from its melodramatic sci-fi blurb: “What if someone could rewrite your entire life?” Luckily, from my POV as a former science editor, Recursion is not about the ooh-scary possibility that “someone” could “rewrite” your life. Crouch explores a much more plausible (and therefore scarier) scenario: since past, present, and future all coexist, and arguably are defined by human memories rather than that amorphous concept/entity “time,” a tech genius whose mother suffers from Alzheimer’s could find out how to shift time back, or shift back in time, to alleviate her suffering.

We know from sci-fi’s long history that tweaking time always creates deadly ripples, enabling Crouch to open this book with a dramatic human crisis. Police Detective Barry Sutton confronts a suicidal woman who’s just discovered that her happy memories of a full life are false, and she can’t live with the grim, empty reality that’s replaced them. Barry has his own human drama to cope with, and it propels him to investigate the woman’s impossible story. Meanwhile, scientist Helena Smith is offered a Faustian bargain she can’t refuse, with consequences that set her and Barry on a collision course.

Told in the present tense, third person, Recursion quickly became so riveting I could hardly put it down. Its fast-paced interwoven story lines are all the more poignant if you have, or know anyone who has, difficulties with memory. I just finished reading it, but it will be a while before I stop thinking about it.

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Ngaio Marsh’s “Death of a Fool”: Mystery Review by CJ Verburg

Death of a Fool (Roderick Alleyn, #19)Death of a Fool by Ngaio Marsh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Coming to England from New Zealand, mystery writer Ngaio Marsh was fascinated by the island’s quaint customs and rituals. Death of a Fool centers on the pre-Christian “Hobby Horse” dance-play, here depicted as the South Mardian Sword Dance. Marsh was very involved in theatre, and she shows us this Winter Solstice drama both behind the scenes and onstage (so to speak — it’s performed outdoors, around the ancient Mardian Stone, and rehearsed in a barn). Still practiced much as it was in pagan times, handed down through local families, the Sword Dance attracts the obsessively curious German-born fan Mrs. Anna Bunz to the Mardian family’s door. Through her eyes we learn the ancient ritual character by character, scene by scene. Once the Sword Dance inevitably claims a victim, Marsh’s series detective arrives to investigate: Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn (a professional police counterpart of his amateur contemporaries Lord Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion).

Having gone to the Brontes’ village of Haworth partly to watch the Morris dancing, I very much enjoyed the performances (offstage and on) in Death of a Fool. Mrs. Bunz’s outsider’s view of ancient British customs was both comical and illuminating — she’s a bit like Hercule Poirot that way. My difficulty with the story is that understanding the eponymous murder depends on being able to picture clearly the layout of the Sword Dance, which I’m not so good at. I could follow the plot, but since I couldn’t envision the scene, I had little chance of guessing what happened and why.

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CJ Verburg reviews Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our MindsThe Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a huge fan of Daniel Kahneman’s comprehensive research summary Thinking, Fast and Slow, and the riveting revelations Michael Lewis wove into Moneyball and The Big Short, I was delighted by this compelling story of how they’re connected. The Undoing Project delves into the profound, complex friendship between two brilliant psychologists, Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky, while explaining the ideas that drove their investigations into the quirks that distort human beings’ response to information.

For more, see https://carolverburg.com/thoughts-on-…

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