Dennis Lythgoe

Except for John le Carré, there is really no worthy competitor for the master of the historical spy novel, Alan Furst. Like his other espionage novels, Spies of the Balkans is rich with historical detail; this time, Furst’s setting is the port city of Salonika, Macedonia, at the time Greece was at war with Mussolini.

Costa Zannis, a senior police official, is our protagonist, and he doesn’t disappoint. Although not the stereotypical hero, he is charismatic, smart and humorous when the time is ripe. Despite a less than perfect appearance, Zannis has a romantic streak, and occasionally falls into passionate trysts with Demetria, an incredibly beautiful woman he cannot have. Less interesting to him is Roxanne, who turns out to be a double agent.

The one girl he can always count on is Melissa, his faithful, soulful dog. Even spies need nurturing, especially when Zannis is called up for a brief period of active duty to protect his people from the Germans. Zannis risks his life many times to help rescue a sliver of Germany’s Jewish population, and in the course of the novel, at least 40 individuals who otherwise would have been tortured and killed are saved.

Zannis’ police role makes him instantly recognizable to most people, whether friend or foe, but he keeps his ego in check. Mostly, his life is lonely, though it is always filled with danger and foreboding. Besides the tragedies of war, he deals with everyday police matters, and he frequently travels to achieve small miracles for people at the expense of his personal life. He is one of the more likeable spy characters created by the talented Furst, and Spies of the Balkans is another fast-moving, nuanced novel that will keep you up at night.

Except for John le Carré, there is really no worthy competitor for the master of the historical spy novel, Alan Furst. Like his other espionage novels, Spies of the Balkans is rich with historical detail; this time, Furst’s setting is the port city of Salonika, Macedonia, at the time Greece was at war with Mussolini. […]

Not all lawyers are capable of translating legal speak into compelling fiction. One of the remarkable exceptions is Scott Turow, the Harvard-educated attorney and prolific author. In 1987, Turow scored big with his first novel, Presumed Innocent, the suspenseful story of Rusty Sabich, a Midwestern prosecutor who finds himself on trial for the vicious murder of Carolyn Polhemus, a young colleague with whom he had had an affair.

The book was on the New York Times bestseller list for 45 weeks. In 1990, it was translated to film with Harrison Ford starring as Sabich, whose brilliant defense attorney, Sandy Stern, goes head to head with the unglamorous but canny Tommy Molto.

Now, 23 years later, Turow has written Innocent, a long-awaited sequel. Sabich, now 60, chief judge of an appellate court and candidate for the state supreme court, is accused of killing his wife, Barbara, a mathematics scholar. Many of the same characters are back, including Stern, Molto and Sabich’s son, Nat, who was a little boy during the first case. Sabich has engaged in a second affair, this time with a beautiful and witty law clerk 25 years his junior. Anna is not quite “drop dead gorgeous,” but she’s close enough. Sabich can’t believe that such an attractive young woman is on the make for him, and initially he is determined to resist. Not for long. But after several exciting liaisons, Sabich dumps Anna, even though he has fallen deeply in love. Ironically, the broken-hearted Anna later meets Nat, now 28, quite by accident. He is instantly smitten with her, but she is convinced the relationship would be unseemly.

If all of this sounds a little tawdry, be assured that Turow carries it off with skill and flair. The big question is: How will all of this play in the murder trial? The court scenes are riveting, subject to legal twists that keep the reader in constant doubt as to the verdict. Forget the no-sequels rule: Turow is better than ever, especially in the development of his complex characters. And if this one also makes its way to the screen, Harrison Ford is still available.

Not all lawyers are capable of translating legal speak into compelling fiction. One of the remarkable exceptions is Scott Turow, the Harvard-educated attorney and prolific author. In 1987, Turow scored big with his first novel, Presumed Innocent, the suspenseful story of Rusty Sabich, a Midwestern prosecutor who finds himself on trial for the vicious murder […]

Sebastian Faulks, an experienced journalist and novelist best known for Birdsong and On Green Dolphin Street, writes in a style that is always sophisticated and sometimes satirical, but he never fails to draw in readers looking for a good story. In A Week in December, Faulks brings the story to his hometown (though he lives in London, he has rarely written about the city before now) and chooses a familiar vehicle for his novel—the exploration of the lives of a number of diverse characters at a specific moment in time. It is the week before Christmas 2007, and the reader is introduced to several interesting people who have nothing in common save their shared mode of daily transportation—a London tube train whose driver guides a Circle Line train in a daily loop.

Faulks brilliantly creates a pattern—symbolic of modern urban life—in which seven fascinating characters struggle with climactic problems in deeply creative ways. It should not be said that the author inspires a rush of fast reading, the kind of book one cannot put down; instead he utilizes a more careful approach that allows for thoughtful analysis and depth. Each character is richly diverse—solid proof of the author’s admirable gift for creating fiction—and they come to life in different ways. How could a hedge fund manager find ties to a professional football player? How could an underworked lawyer given to speculation involve himself with a superficially successful book reviewer? What about a student who finds himself trapped in discussion of Islamist theory with a schoolboy hooked on reality TV? And how will the charismatic driver of the tube train, a young woman looking for love, fit into Faulks’ puzzle?

The answers just might be that none of these characters need the others to solve their problems, but their situations mirror those of many who will read this book and use it to re-examine their own unique predicaments in an outrageously modern, ever-interconnected society.

Dennis Lythgoe is a writer who has lived in Boston and Salt Lake City.

Sebastian Faulks, an experienced journalist and novelist best known for Birdsong and On Green Dolphin Street, writes in a style that is always sophisticated and sometimes satirical, but he never fails to draw in readers looking for a good story. In A Week in December, Faulks brings the story to his hometown (though he lives […]

With 40 books behind him, the 65-year-old British-born author Bernard Cornwell is at the top of his game. But interestingly, his profession came as a sort of happy accident. As a young man, Cornwell married an American and moved to New Jersey. When he was unable to get a green card, he decided to try his hand at writing. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Burning Land is the fifth volume in Cornwell’s Saxon Tales series about the battle for supremacy between the Saxons and the Danes in ninth-century Britain. Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a fictional character loosely based on a Cornwell Saxon ancestor, is the star of Cornwell’s story and the battles fought to unify Britain under Alfred the Great. The book is written in Uhtred’s voice as he looks back on an exciting life that, in his opinion, has not been well-documented.

Historically, Cornwell’s major contribution is to tell the story of Ethelflaed, an actual heroine forgotten by most scholars. She interacts with Uhtred in the fictional sense, but figured prominently in the history of the Danes’ ongoing struggle with Britain. Yet it must be said that the few other women in the story are portrayed with a tinge of sexism, as is the case with the fictional Skade, a woman of exceptional beauty who is captured by Uhtred and stripped naked with a rope around her neck to entice her Danish lover, Harald Bloodhair, into battle.

Cornwell is adept at enveloping his fictional characters in British history. His use of geography, instruments of battle, strategy and ancient vocabulary is faultless. In Cornwell’s hands, Uhtred appears as a highly charismatic, heroic figure who accomplishes great things with his superior physical abilities and sheer force of will. Even if you haven’t read the previous books in Cornwell’s popular series, The Burning Land stands on its own two feet; no knowledge of early British history or of his earlier Saxon volumes is necessary for a reader to enjoy his dexterous approach to historical fiction.

Dennis Lythgoe is a writer who has lived in Boston and Salt Lake City.

With 40 books behind him, the 65-year-old British-born author Bernard Cornwell is at the top of his game. But interestingly, his profession came as a sort of happy accident. As a young man, Cornwell married an American and moved to New Jersey. When he was unable to get a green card, he decided to try […]

The setting for Canadian writer Thomas Trofimuk’s inventive, charming new novel, Waiting for Columbus, is a mental institution in Sevilla, Spain. There, a 21st-century inmate persuasively argues that he is actually the legendary 15th-century navigator Christopher Columbus.

Although medical personnel initially suspect his is a stereotypically disturbed mind—like that of an inmate who calls herself Pope Cecilia, purporting to be the first woman Pope—they are startled by his detailed and colorful knowledge of his subject, time period and descriptions of his ostensibly first-person experiences.

Columbus, as they dutifully call him, speaks with an incisive vocabulary and tells 15th-century stories with uncanny credibility. At the same time, he also has a disjointed, perhaps playful habit of interspersing his stories with contemporary elements that do not fit—like telephones in the time of Ferdinand and Isabella.

Nurse Consuela, a beautiful and witty woman, listens intensely to his stories and writes them down for psychiatrists. In spite of Columbus’ sometimes destructive behavior, she finds herself increasingly attracted to the intellectual, cultured side of this mysterious man and patient.

Soon, however, Consuela becomes frustrated with Columbus; his salacious stories of romantic encounters with women exotically named Beatriz, Selena—and even Queen Isabella—make her inexplicably jealous. And the more she comes to know about Columbus, the more questions she has about the nature of his true identity.

Dr. Fuentes, the medical chief of the facility, loses interest in Columbus, but Dr. Balderas, who replaces him, is anxious to unravel his personal story. His chats with Columbus create rapport, just as Consuela’s have—and together Balderas and Consuela begin to unravel the nature of Columbus’ past.

The author is inventive in structuring a multifaceted story that never loses its vitality. His literary gifts allow him to portray each character with depth, while at the same time creating a rising sense of suspense at the possibility of uncovering Columbus’ true identity.

While the name Thomas Trofimuk is hardly one that trips easily off the tongue, we can only hope that this promising novelist will continue to create fascinating fiction.

Dennis Lythgoe is a writer who has lived in Boston and Salt Lake City.

The setting for Canadian writer Thomas Trofimuk’s inventive, charming new novel, Waiting for Columbus, is a mental institution in Sevilla, Spain. There, a 21st-century inmate persuasively argues that he is actually the legendary 15th-century navigator Christopher Columbus. Although medical personnel initially suspect his is a stereotypically disturbed mind—like that of an inmate who calls herself […]

Ordinarily, a reader might not be inclined to pick up a novel about the miserable life of a prostitute. But this compelling account of a nine-year-old girl sold (by her own father) into sex slavery in India is an emotional powerhouse. James A. Levine, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, is the gifted author.

During a research trip to Mumbai, Levine was walking down the infamous “Street of Cages” when he noticed a young girl writing in a notebook. Stopping to chat, he discovered she was writing about her frightening life as a sex slave. He felt moved to write a novel based on her life and the dark global problem she not only lives, but symbolizes.With The Blue Notebook, Levine introduces Batuk, a young girl who learned to read at age seven while recovering from tuberculosis at a missionary medical clinic in rural India. Later she is forced into prostitution, subjected to violent beatings and frequent rape.

While Batuk’s story is graphic, it is beautifully designed to establish instant rapport between the reader and the intellectually gifted girl who ages from nine to 15 in the book.

Levine writes from inside the mind of Batuk—a compelling character herself—and deepens the complexity of his narrative as Batuk invents entertaining, symbolic stories about fictional characters to sustain her spirit. When Batuk is sold to a wealthy man as a plaything for his psychotic son, her creative gifts help protect her. Like the girl Levine met in Mumbai, Batuk clings to writing as salvation, a practice that provides temporary escape from her grim reality.

Readers will come to care deeply for Batuk, a delightful, witty young girl bravely bearing her unspeakable burdens. And they will hope desperately that Batuk will be rescued from her life’s depravity.

As for the talented Levine, he has made a forceful literary debut that will compete with the time he devotes to medicine. It isn’t often that a scientist is also a writer who grips the hearts and minds of his readers.

Dennis Lythgoe is a writer who has lived in Boston and Salt Lake City.

Ordinarily, a reader might not be inclined to pick up a novel about the miserable life of a prostitute. But this compelling account of a nine-year-old girl sold (by her own father) into sex slavery in India is an emotional powerhouse. James A. Levine, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, is the gifted […]

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