ALLURE OF DECEIT: American philanthropy brings deadly trouble to rural Afghanistan in this intelligent thriller – #fiction #bookreview

 

Allure of Deceit

Susan Froetschel

Seventh Street Books – paperback, Kindle

The road to hell definitely is paved with good intentions in this well-written, intelligent, engrossing thriller. Some Americans with “do good” desires blunder into a culture they do not understand–rural Afghanistan–and create one hell of a mess as they attempt to offer “help” that most of the Afghans do not want, need, or, in many cases, even comprehend.

Allure of Deceit takes us into a world where many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from outside Afghanistan are competing for contracts and clients within that troubled nation. And some are throwing around money and promises with little understanding of their unintended consequences.

At the same time, some Afghans, Americans and others are taking advantage of the financial possibilities by helping NGOs find “worthy” programs or individuals to support. “The foreign charities prefer a neat, simple story,” a lawyer counsels a woman prisoner in an Afghan prison at one point in the story. The prisoner has a less-than-simple past, of course, but the NGOs want to just see her as a victim of an acid-in-the-face attack. And her lawyer wants to keep it that way as organizations compete to get her freed, get her some surgery and offer her a brand-new life.

Out in the isolated countryside, meanwhile, ancient and very delicate tribal, family and cultural balances are being disrupted, directly and indirectly, by NGO representatives and by deeply rooted beliefs now crashing against unwanted influences from outside. When some of the Americans end up missing, the searches to find them cause even more unraveling within families and lifelong friendships. And several lives soon are put in danger.

The story moves carefully at first, while complicated relationships, customs and remote locales are set up and put into conflict. Then, in the second half of the book, the action speeds up, and the tensions and dangers quickly escalate.

Allure of Deceit surges to a dramatic, unexpected conclusion that will keep echoing in readers’ minds long after they finish the book.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Life We Bury – A tense, engrossing and fast-paced debut novel – #bookreview

The Life We Bury

Allen Eskens

(Seventh Street – paperback, Kindle)

Minnesota writer Allen Eskens’ first novel is tense, engrossing and fast-paced reading–an excellent debut.

College student Joe Talbert has been given a seemingly simple writing assignment for an English class: Go interview and write a brief biography of a stranger. True to college life, Joe waits almost too long to begin working on the task. Then he hurries over to a nursing home, hoping to find someone interesting. The man he interviews, Carl Iverson, turns out to be a Vietnam War veteran who is dying of pancreatic cancer. Iverson, Joe learns, also is a convicted rapist and murderer who has been medically paroled to the nursing home to spend his final days. As Joe begins to dig deeper into Iverson’s story, he starts turning up proof that Iverson was wrongly convicted three decades ago.

Meanwhile, Joe also has become attracted to his next-door neighbor, Lila. Soon, he pulls Lila into his investigation of Iverson, too. Together, they keep digging deeper, until they finally get themselves into ugly danger that seems to offer no possibility of escape.

No big spoilers here, but this mystery thriller’s heart-thumping, nerve-jarring conclusion has more than one clock winding down to the final, deadly seconds. The Life We Bury is superb investigator fiction, with action.

Si Dunn

Raiders of the Nile – Steven Saylor brings fast-paced action & intrigue to ancient Egypt – #fiction #bookreview

Raiders of the Nile

A Novel of the Ancient World

Steven Saylor

(Minotaur Books – hardcover , Kindle )

Best-selling author Steven Saylor is well-known for his many books, including his Roma Sub Rosa series of historical mysteries set in ancient Rome, starring Gordianus the Finder, a B.C. equivalent of Sherlock Holmes.

Now, in Raiders of the Nile, Saylor again has turned the sundial back a few years and given us a young, pre-Finder Gordianus. In 88 B.C., on his 22nd birthday, Gordianus suddenly has to embark on a truly desperate quest. He must rescue Bethesda, the beautiful young woman he loves,  from fearsome pirates based in the Nile Delta. They have kidnapped Bethesda from the troubled city of Alexandria, where the latest in a string of Egyptian kings named Ptolemy is on a very shaky throne (despite, or perhaps partly because of, his huge girth). And young Gordianus finds that he has just one ally willing to be his John Watson in the Egyptian badlands: a 10-year-old slave boy named Djet.

A pleasingly complex plot unfolds as Gordianus and Djet barely escape death at several turns and have to join the pirate gang not only to save their lives but to have a chance to escape with Bethesda, who is being held for ransom.

What the pirates and their vicious leader don’t know is that they have kidnapped the wrong woman. And if they somehow find out, she, Gordianus and Djet all could be killed on the spot.

It’s the set-up for a lot of intrigue, action and entertainment. And Steven Saylor demonstrates that he is a master at telling fast-paced stories set in the seemingly slow-paced ancient world.

His characters, fortunately, do not speak in hieroglyphics or Latin. Nor do they sound like actors in grainy Old Testament movies. Indeed, they converse in reasonably modern English, which momentarily can be disconcerting the first time you pick up a Steven Saylor novel. But it doesn’t take long to get caught up in the tale and find yourself racing along on the back of a camel you barely can ride, while murderous villagers, also on camels, try to chase you down and hack you into mincemeat.

Saylor, widely recognized as an expert on ancient Roman life and politics, has done extensive research into the lives and politics of some ancient Egyptians, as well as key settings used in Raiders of the Nile. He needed a vacation, he says in the book’s concluding notes, from his long studies of the ancient Romans’ “murder trials, gruesome histories, and self- aggrandizing memoirs.” So he turned to the works of “Greek authors whose books were all about travel and exploration, love and sensual pleasure, religious exaltation and athletic glory.”

One outcome was his 2013 book The Seven Wonders, which brings 18-year-old Gordianus face-to-face with intriguing, challenging, deadly mysteries each time he stops to visit one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Raiders of the Nile is the second prequel novel that points toward how Gordianus eventually will become the famed Finder who solves cases involving prominent historical characters and events in Rome. While researching ancient Greece, Saylor encountered several books, manuscripts and websites that inspired him to look closely at Egypt, too. And that led to the absorbing tale which unfolds in this new book.

One downside to the many plot twists, intrigues, double-crossings, and surprises in Raiders of the Nile is that Saylor must rely on a fairly lengthy ending to wrap everything up and shake Gordianus loose for whatever will come next. Even then, some of the concluding events seem to happen just a bit quickly and conveniently.

Still, fans of Gordianus the Finder will not be disappointed. And readers encountering Gordianus (and Saylor) for the first time will find plenty to enjoy–including a whole series of Gordianus novels to savor.

Steven Saylor definitely knows how to blend imagination, good storytelling, historical accuracy and cultural details into tales of mystery, intrigue, action and, yes, love.

Si Dunn

The Ides of April – An entertaining new Lindsey Davis detective series debut – #mystery #bookreview

The Ides of April

A Flavia Albia Mystery

Lindsey Davis

(Minotaur Books, hardback, paperback, Kindle, Audio CD)

Many fans of the Marcus Didius Falco mysteries set in first-century Rome will delight in this new spin-off series by London author Lindsey Davis. Readers eagerly seeking another unusual detective to follow may relish this series debut, as well.  

In The Ides of April, Flavia Albia, the adopted daughter of Falco and Helena Justina, makes her series debut as a private informer in Rome during the reign of Domitian, an emperor who later will be ranked somewhere in the safe middle between the best and worst rulers of the Roman Empire.

The year is A.D. 89, and a young widow named Flavia Albia has taken over Falco’s old apartment and is struggling to build up her business as an investigator. Flavia is British-born and served as nursemaid to Falco’s children before Falco and his “unofficial” wife Helena Justina adopted her.

The pay scale for a private informer is “no win, no fee.” Also: “As a female, I had no rights at all in matters of law, but why let that stop me?” Flavia has two other qualities that work in her favor as a detective in Rome: She doesn’t like to be defeated, and her adoptive parents taught her how to comfortably blend into virtually all levels of society.

Of course, it’s never easy to be a female detective in ancient Rome. As Flavia points out: “Fortune never favoured me and the problem with being a woman was that sometimes I could only obtain business that all the male informers had sniffed and refused.”

One of those “refused” cases, of course, starts out simple and soon turns into a murder investigation that includes the hunter being hunted by the killer.

The cast of characters in The Ides of April extends for two pages, and new readers of a Lindsey Davis novel likely will find themselves frequently flipping back to it for reminders of who exactly Junillus or Robigo or Felix or Serena is.

Indeed, if this is your first exposure to Lindsey Davis’s well-detailed, history-based fiction, you might consider photocopying the extensive cast list and keeping it close at hand so you won’t have to keep flipping back to the front of the book.

One other note. While the setting is ancient Rome, many of the descriptions, attitudes, and dialogue exchanges would not seem out of place in a 21st century English detective novel. This can be at least momentarily jarring for new readers of a Lindsey Davis mystery. However, we must remember that English had not yet been cobbled together in A.D. 89. And, thankfully, the author does not throw a lot of Latin at us.

Fans of Marcus Didius Falco may grumble about Falco being downsized to a much smaller character in this tale. Yet as Lindsey Davis points out on her website:

“After 20 novels, I need a break and have no current plans for a new Falco novel. I am enjoying the ‘spin-off’ series about Flavia Albia….” (The one that will follow The Ides of April will be titled Enemies at Home).

“I am also excited to be writing a ‘QuickRead’ for 2014. These are a special series of short books for adults who came to reading late or who don’t read very much. Mine is called A Cruel Fate and is set in the Civil War.”

So Marcus Didius Falco is not dead. He has just been put out to pasture while Flavia gets an entertaining and engrossing chance to make her mark in the family business.

Si Dunn

Book Briefs: Four Works of Fiction & Nonfiction from the American Southwest – #bookreview

A Texas Jubilee: Thirteen Stories from the Lone Star State
James Ward Lee
(TCU Press – paperback, Kindle)

James Ward Lee, former English department chairman at the University of North Texas, has earned his membership in the Texas Literary Hall of Fame the hard way. He has written numerous books, short stories and other well-received works.

A Texas Jubilee, his entertaining and absorbing new short story collection, focuses on life in fictitious Bodark Springs, a small East Texas town, in the 1930s and 1940s.

The interconnected stories often have colorful characters, richly detailed local conflicts, and troubling events such as the arrival of an aged man claiming to be Jesse James and the occasional appearance of a bike messenger who delivers World War II death-notice telegrams. One of the best stories, “A Blue and Gray Christmas,” reflects on a grandmother’s early childhood memories of the Civil War.

Unsolved Mysteries of the Old West
W.C. Jameson
(Taylor Trade – paperback, Kindle)

Many of  writer and treasure hunter W.C. Jameson’s books and articles have entertained readers who love “the Old West and a good mystery.” This second edition contains 21 “baffling” tales that still stir up people’s imaginations and sometimes continue a few disputes.

One of the best of the “unsolved mysteries” in Jameson’s book involves an alien spacecraft that may–or may not–have crashed north of Fort Worth, Texas, in 1897, in the tiny town of Aurora.

On the Edge: Water, Immigration and Politics in the Southwest
Char Miller
(Trinity University Press – paperback, Kindle)

The American Southwest is a hotbed of water-supply controversies and immigration disputes, plus sharp political clashes over how to deal with both major issues.

In On the Edge, former Trinity University history professor Char Miller’s taut, insightful essays zero in on “the American Southwest, a region I have known, loved and misunderstood.” He reflects on San Antonio and Los Angeles and what is happening to “the borderlands that stretch between them.”

He puts special emphasis on sustainability and “the environmental pressures, judicial struggles, social injustices, and economic disparities that have troubled the communities I have resided in.”

Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid the Narco-Violence
Edited by Sarah Cortez and Sergio Troncoso
(Arte Publico Press – paperback)

Mexico’s gruesome narcotics wars and heightened U.S. border security efforts have disrupted many economic, cultural and personal ties between the American Southwest and Mexico.

This  eye-opening book’s 12 bilingual essays highlight key losses, including the casual ease with which tourists used to cross the border. One writer notes: “The typical American tourist (including Mexican Americans) had no passport; it wasn’t needed. They often did not plan ahead. People walked or drove across the border at El Paso/Ciudad Juarez, San Diego/Tijuana and…Nogales/Nogales…and found a vibrant restaurant with delicious food and even better music. This happenstance border crossing allowed for adventures and exploring for the day….”

While some of the essays are dispiriting, hope also emerges within this important collection.

Si Dunn

Steven Saylor’s ‘The Seven Wonders’ – A fine intro to Gordianus the Finder, famous sleuth of ancient Rome – #bookreview #in #mystery #fiction

The Seven Wonders: A Novel of the Ancient World
Steven Saylor
(Minotaur Books, hardback, list price $25.99; Kindle edition, $12.99)

To be honest, until I picked up this book, I had paid zero attention to best-selling author Steven Saylor’s long-running Roma Sub Rosa series of mysteries set in ancient times, in the Roman Empire. The hero in that series’ 10 novels and two short story collections is Gordianus the Finder, Rome’s most sought-after investigator.

I’ve never been keen on stories (or movies) where people run around in togas and sandals, swear upon assorted gods and goddesses, and kill each other with swords or poisons.

Also, my notion of private detectives has tended to go back only as far as Sherlock Holmes. I’ve mainly been a Spenser/Marlowe/Hammer kind of guy. You know, fists and firearms, not swords and sandals.

The Seven Wonders, the new “prequel” to the Roma Sub Rosa series, has, however, just expanded my horizon quite a bit. Saylor has created a mystery- and adventure-packed tale that introduces Gordianus as a young man, before he has assumed the mantle of “The Finder” from his father.

The tale is set in 92 B.C., a time when the Roman Empire still dominates Greece. But rumors of war are afoot (literally), spies are everywhere, and even the most seemingly trustworthy friend cannot really be trusted amid all of the anti-Roman political intrigue.

It is also the year when Gordianus has reached – and at last crossed – the dividing line between childhood and getting to wear the “manly toga” of an adult. He’s now ready to leave home – Rome – and have some adventures.

He soon gets much more than he expects as he travels with his tutor and travel guide, the aging Antipater of Sidon, “one of the most celebrated poets in the world, famed not only for the elegance of his verses but for the almost magical way he could produce them impromptu, as if drawn from the aether.”

A real figure in history, Antipater has been given at least some of the credit for coming up with the famous list of the Seven Wonders of the World.

In the novel, the poet leaves Rome under mysterious circumstances but takes Gordianus along as he revisits each of the Seven Wonders. He carefully tutors the young Roman, yet things quickly and repeatedly go awry. At their first stop, for example, the Greeks’ wondrous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, a young girl drops dead unexpectedly during a major celebration. And Gordianus stealthily investigates, using skills learned from his father, a man who “called himself Finder, because men hired him to find the truth.”

The Finder’s son soon determines that the young girl was murdered. Meanwhile, another young girl has been blamed and will die if Gordianus can’t solve his first case fast enough. He succeeds in a clever way, kills his first bad guy, and also has his first sexual encounter, thanks to the sensuous generosity of a beautiful slave woman who has helped him trap the murderer.  

There are then six more Wonders to see, and at each stop, Saylor provides the reader with mysteries rich in history, legend, danger, plot twists and engrossing entertainment as the youthful Gordianus struggles to puzzle them out.

Steven Saylor, who lives in Berkeley, California, and Austin, Texas, is a rare kind of writer, one who deftly blends scholarly detail with fast-paced fiction and makes dead worlds seem to come alive again.

I’m now a Spenser/Marlowe/Hammer/Gordianus kind of guy when it comes to detective fiction. And, thanks to this clever prequel, I’m ready to stop ignoring and start reading the Roma Sub Rosa series.

The Seven Wonders will be available starting June 5, 2012 and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com.

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Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir. He is the author of an e-book detective novel, Erwin’s Law, now also available in paperback, plus a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.