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By Joyce Sáenz Harris

Dallas native Harry Hunsicker leads something of a double life. In his day job, he runs his family business as a commercial real estate appraiser. But in his spare time, he writes Texas-centric thrillers.

“My day job has meant that I have been to just about every corner of the city, places most people don’t know exist,” Hunsicker says. “That’s what really colors my writing, the starting point of almost every story, the sense of place that a vibrant town like Dallas has to offer.”

In his newest book, The Devil’s Country (Thomas & Mercer, $15.95), Hunsicker introduces a new protagonist: a former Texas Ranger from Dallas. Arlo Baines gets off the bus in a dusty West Texas town and finds himself in the middle of a mysterious, cult-related murder, with two kids’ lives in the balance.

Hunsicker’s story moves at a relentless pace, with all the twists and surprises his readers have come to expect. Fans will have the chance to meet Hunsicker at the Dallas Book Festival on Saturday, April 29. We asked him to do this Q&A in advance, via email.

Before this, you published your first three-book series, the Lee Henry Oswald Mysteries, and more recently a second three-book series, the Jon Cantrell Thrillers. So, with a new protagonist in The Devil’s Country, have your readers seen the last of Hank and Jon?

Never say never, but the natural rhythm of my characters seems to follow the trilogy format. I never understood authors who stopped writing series books, complaining about where to take their characters next, until I sat down to work on the second Oswald book, The Next Time You Die. On page one, I got it. There are only so many emotional arcs you can put a character through before his/her reactions seem stale and unrealistic.

The Devil’s Country introduces Arlo Baines, a former Texas Ranger who is a damaged soul with a tragic recent history. Why did you decide to make Arlo a Ranger rather than a PI? 

I wanted to try something new. Also, I have always wanted to write a police procedural, but since I have no law enforcement background and too much research tends to bog down my writing, I figured an ex-cop was the next best thing. In terms of Arlo Baines’ character, I wanted him to be completely cut off from his old world — family, job, even where he lives — so he had to be an ex-something. After thinking about the setting, the badlands of West Texas, I decided it made sense for Arlo to be an ex-Texas Ranger, drummed out of the corps, so to speak.
There are some personal things about Arlo that we still don’t know by the end of this book. Will his loved ones’ names surface with more of his memories and secrets in a future Arlo novel? 

Yes, without a doubt. Arlo is forever scarred by what happened to his family. The events that preceded his appearance in The Devil’s Country have altered him in many ways, his worldview, the way he interacts with others, etc. Put simply, Arlo has more baggage than a luggage store.

The Devil’s Country’s narrative thread weaves back and forth between what’s happening to Arlo in the West Texas town of Piedra Springs and what happened to him in the past, particularly nine months before when tragedy struck. This shows us why Arlo is where he is both physically and emotionally, but how tricky was it to write the dual narratives? 

I like books with multiple points of view, but I am a better writer when I stick to the first person. So it just seemed very natural to write from two different Arlo perspectives — the current-day and nine months before the story began. That was much easier than writing from the point of view of two different people.

Your mother was the late Dallas jewelry designer Foree Hunsicker. How was your creativity encouraged when you were growing up? 

I was blessed to have wonderfully supportive parents, both of whom were interested in the arts and fostering my creativity. From a very early age, I loved to read, and my parents — my mother especially — encouraged me to read anything and everything, no limits. (Note: I’m not sure Mom knew what all happened in Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight when I read it at age 13.) So I devoured all types of fiction all throughout my school years, which is the primary education a novelist needs.

Dallas appears in flashbacks as the place where Arlo, his family and his in-laws lived. You’re a fourth-generation native of Dallas through your mother’s family, so you know that our city has a certain image in pop culture. What do you know about your hometown that you wish more people knew?

 Dallas is more than cowboys and concrete and women with big hair. The city has an incredible mixture of people and outlooks. You can visit completely different worlds without leaving the county. The Korean section in northwest Dallas, Indian neighborhoods in Richardson, Little Vietnam in East Dallas, and the list goes on. And that’s before we get to the arts scene, which is robust and expanding every year.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

 

 

 

By Joyce Sáenz Harris

Even for fans who are well-acquainted with the work of Dallas native Stephen Tobolowsky, his new book, My Adventures with God, is a bit of a surprise: an exploration of his midlife return to the Jewish faith.

Tobolowsky 2017My Adventures with God
<<<PHOTO: Jim Britt


Tobolowsky is a graduate of Justin F. Kimball High School and Southern Methodist University. In the past three decades, he has become a beloved character actor who displays both comedy and drama chops in more than 100 films as diverse as Groundhog Day and Mississippi Burning. He’s been on more than 200 TV shows ranging from Deadwood to Glee, most recently Silicon Valley and The Goldbergs. He also tells stories on the popular podcast The Tobolowsky Files.

Tobolowsky, who lives in Los Angeles, will return to his hometown to celebrate the publication of My Adventures With God (Simon & Schuster, $25) on Tuesday, April 18, with an appearance at the Dallas Museum of Art as part of Arts & Letters Live. He answered questions by email; here are highlights.

Like your 2012 book The Dangerous Animals Club, My Adventures with God is a memoir with a lot of Dallas and many laugh-out-loud moments. But the spiritual aspect often takes it into a more serious realm. 

Simon and Schuster asked me if I could write a book on faith. When I was grasping for a premise for My Adventures with God, I came up with something that turned out to be truer than I first imagined: Our lives often fit the template of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.

We all have a Genesis. This is usually what we talk about on a first date: who we are, where we came from, our aspirations. Then, like in Exodus, we go into slavery. Instead of building pyramids, we lose ourselves in the desperation of first loves, first jobs. Some are trapped by drugs and alcohol, others by graduate school.

Then we escape and have our Leviticus moment. We stop and say, “This is what I am.” This is when I married Ann. When I became a father. When I returned to Judaism. Then we are shaped by mortality, as in the Book of Numbers, as we lose family and friends. And finally, we get to a place of perspective: Deuteronomy. It is here when we tell our stories to our children and try to make sense of the journey.

You were in seventh grade when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and you write that “for those few days, history pulled back the curtain and showed us all how close we are to the edge of nothing.” Have you had any other occasions like that, such as 9/11?

Once you are aware of how delicate civilization is, you see its potential downfall everywhere. Usually in lies. They can be big lies from people in power — or the lies we tell ourselves. It doesn’t take anything as cataclysmic as 9/11. As my mother said, “Don’t break your word. You only get one. When you break it, it’s hard to get it back again.”

I was slightly spooked by “A Voice from Another Room,” the chapter in which you tell about being clairvoyant while a student at SMU. Did this psychic vibe vanish with age, or has it reappeared? 

It reappears. Not enough to get rich at the track, but enough to creep Ann out. I was in New York, and she called in a panic that she had lost a necklace. Could I use my ESP to help her find it? I thought for a second and told her the necklace was still in the house. In something soft. Surrounded by gold and purple. She found it in a zippered compartment of an LA Lakers (gold and purple) duffel bag in my son’s closet.

The second section of your book, “Exodus: A Love Story,” is about your long relationship with playwright Beth Henley, whom you met at SMU. In it, you tell how you and Beth worked with the  Talking Heads’ David Byrne on his 1986 film True Stories. What are the connections between you, the film and the British band Radiohead?

David told Beth and me he wanted to make a movie filled with characters whose lives were incredible but true. Beth said: “You should talk to my sweetie. He can hear tones.” David thought this was funny. “You hear tones?” I told him the story of my psychic experiences in college (these are told in detail in My Adventures with God.) I was able to know things about people by hearing their “tones.” (I know. It’s crazy. But it happened.) David hired us to write the screenplay for True Stories; he rewrote it and added a character that heard tones like me and wrote the song “Radio Head” for him to sing. A few years later, the English band On A Friday, who were big Talking Heads fans, changed their name to Radiohead.

You wrote that your mother treasured “the chance to give something life.” Is that what acting does —  give life to something that otherwise exists only on paper and in our heads?

Yes. Absolutely. In fact, we have even seen beloved characters in film and television compete with their actors for existence. Carroll O’Connor battled Archie Bunker. Sean Connery tried to survive James Bond. In dramatic literature, James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night is an actor ruined by the popularity of the character he played on Broadway.

What did it mean to you when your wife, Ann, decided to convert to Judaism?
I had no idea she was planning on doing it. The moment was unforgettable. Heartbreaking. Beautiful. And then she said we should stop eating shrimp.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Joyce Sáenz Harris

Deborah Crombie, a native Texan who lives in McKinney, is the author of the popular Kincaid-James mystery series, which regularly appears on The New York Times‘ best-seller lists. The first novel was 1993’s A Share in Death; the new Kincaid-James novel, Garden of Lamentations, is the 17th in the series and will be published Feb. 7 by William Morrow.

 

Deborah Crombie 2017

Deborah Crombie at home in McKinney. PHOTO: Rex Curry, DMN

Crombie’s protagonists, Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his former investigative partner, now wife, Detective Inspector Gemma James, are senior officers at the Metropolitan Police, a.k.a. Scotland Yard. Besides their police work, the two detectives also share a home, friends, several cats and dogs, and a blended family of three children. 

All of Crombie’s novels take place in London and the United Kingdom, where she lived for a time. She spends part of each year there to absorb atmosphere, do research and begin drafting the next book in her series. Crombie regularly blogs with seven other women writers of crime fiction at jungleredwriters.com. She is an avid reader who enjoys “good old-fashioned mysteries” more than psychological suspense. She also has mastered the art of brewing a perfect cup of tea.

FGarden of Lamentationsans can hear her speak Feb. 7 at Barnes & Noble on Northwest Highway as she gears up for a multicity book tour. She spoke with us first, from her historic Craftsman cottage, which she shares with with a husband, three cats and “two very demanding German shepherds.”

While your novels are police procedurals, they are very much about the characters’ personal and work relationships, as well. Ever since your protagonists got romantically involved and then married, the story arc has gotten more complex. Did you always know Gemma and Duncan would end up together?

No, I didn’t know that when I started out. One of the interesting things in the series has been the decision to marry Duncan and Gemma, because it was such a big thing. I had a lot of soul-searching, a lot of people saying, “Oh, you’ll kill the series if you have them get married.” But I thought their [married] relationship was going to be interesting, and it was going to get more complicated.

I must admit I got a little nervous about the work-related strains in Duncan and Gemma’s marriage this time around. Was it important to show the toll that the job takes? Even when you have personal knowledge of the stress … 

It’s still not easy. Especially when your partner won’t share with you. And both of them are suffering from some degree of PTSD [from the previous book’s events]. There are only about three scenes where they’re together in this book. It was hard to write because of that. Everyone’s at cross-purposes.

What is it about Duncan and Gemma that keeps you coming back to their story? I assume it’s not just contracts and publisher’s deadlines. 

No, I really love them. I love not just Duncan and Gemma, but the whole cast; I love the kids, the dogs, the cats, and Doug and Melody and Hazel. It’s like a slice of life, where I’m just dropping in on them for a week.

Writing and researching these books is a meticulous process for you, isn’t it? 

This book absolutely took me two years to write. And it was 650 pages in manuscript! Luckily my editor, Carrie Feron, is just great. I’m a slow writer … and now they’ve stretched me out to two years on my deadlines, because I am so slow and they don’t want to put up with me being late. I’m still looking for the magic bullet after 25 years.

All mystery writers have a history with Sherlock Holmes. What’s yours? 

I started reading the stories as a teenager. Now I have a Sherlock story in the new Echoes of Sherlock Holmes collection (Pegasus Books, $24.95), and Jungle Red’s Hank Phillippi Ryan and Hallie Ephron are in there, too. This is the first thing I’ve ever written in first person, and it’s a completely different character that has nothing to do with my series. Mine’s not a period Sherlock story, it’s a future Sherlock, “The Case of the Speckled Trout.” John and Mary Watson’s daughter is 18, and Sherlock, who’s her godfather, has gone missing. So she’s determined to find him. She goes to Scotland to work in a hunting lodge and find Sherlock. And the daughter is named Sherry, after her godfather, Sherlock. It was great fun.

Who are your favorite writers, besides your Jungle Red crew?
My preference for teenage reading was more fantasy and imaginative literature, T.H. White and J.R.R. Tolkien. If it had occurred to me that I’d grow up and be a writer, I probably would have thought that would be the kind of thing I would write.

Now, I’m a huge fan of Charles Todd. I love Louise Penny’s books; I love Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell books. I’m a huge fan of Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books. And I’m a huge fan of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London books. They’re set mostly in London, and they’re police procedurals, but there’s magic. That kind of goes back to my fantasy thing — everything I love.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Garden of Lamentations
Deborah Crombie
(William Morrow,  $26.99)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Somewhere in a burst of glory

Sound becomes a song

I’m bound to tell a story

That’s where I belong.

— Paul Simon, “That’s Where I Belong” (1999)

 

By Joyce Sáenz Harris, Special Contributor

For baby boomers, singer-songwriter Paul Simon has always been a part of our world, his music inseparable from our memories. In Homeward Bound, biographer Peter Ames Carlin (who also published a best-selling 2012 bio of Bruce Springsteen) brings the shrewd eye of a reporter, as well as the enthusiasm of a lifelong fan, to his scrutiny of Simon.

This was not an easy task, and Homeward Bound gets off to a slow start. But the story gathers momentum as Carlin, working from the enforced distance of the unauthorized biographer, draws a meticulously reported, often startlingly perceptive portrait.

Here is Simon as an outer-borough striver who became a superstar by virtue of pure talent and unremitting hard work. Here is a man, first famous at age 24, who built and maintained a half-century career in the fickle field of pop by constantly reinventing himself and his music.

He seldom has seemed entirely content with the astonishing success and acclaim earned with his genius for songwriting. The unanswered question running throughout Carlin’s narrative is: Why? Where does Simon’s dissatisfaction come from, and are his dark edges inseparable from his creativity?

Part of the answer may lie in young Paul’s relationship with his father, Louis, a musician and teacher who never seemed to fully appreciate his son’s talent or his success. The younger Simon was academically gifted, a natural athlete and a leader in school, but his father considered his son’s musical achievements unimportant. Lou would have preferred Paul to be a teacher, or perhaps a lawyer; being a singer-songwriter wasn’t serious work, and according to Carlin, Paul carried his father’s judgment around all his life.

Simon’s other major source of dissatisfaction lay in his lifelong friendship with singing partner Art Garfunkel. Paul was the one with the stellar songwriting talent as well as the business smarts. But Carlin says Paul often felt overlooked because he was short, dark and average-looking where angel-voiced Art was tall, blond and more conventionally handsome. For years, the two of them spent more time together than they spent with their own brothers, but the relationship grew strained as their interests diverged.

Simon and Garfunkel split up in 1970 after five years and five albums, ending with the smash LP Bridge Over Troubled Water. While they periodically reconciled and even did a couple of reunion tours over the next 30 years, their friendship has been basically off-again for the past decade and a half. Carlin accurately describes Paul’s relationship with Art as being “by turns his oldest and best friend and a guy he can barely stand to be near.”

Paul’s solo career has lasted 45 years now, and despite its ups and downs, he has never failed to produce critically acclaimed music that has garnered three generations of fervid fans. His 1986 album Graceland, inspired by South African township music, was a landmark on the level of Bridge Over Troubled Water. His third marriage, to Dallas singer-songwriter Edie Brickell, has lasted almost 25 years and produced three now-grown children. He is a philanthropist whose co-founding of The Children’s Health Fund has helped children in Dallas and across the nation.

Paul Simon would seem to have everything a man could want, including a dozen Grammy Awards, the Library of Congress’ first Gershwin Prize for excellence in popular song, the Kennedy Center Honors, and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well as the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

And yet… and yet. Is he content? Probably not. On Paul’s 75th birthday, his lifelong rival Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Dylan doesn’t even seem to care about the Nobel, and it is clear from what Carlin writes that Paul would have cared enormously.

Six months ago, on his Stranger to Stranger tour, Paul appeared to have a great time with his adoring North Texas audiences, showing no sign of moodiness onstage. But, as Carlin says, “When he’s not making it look easy, he’s nearly buckling under the burden.” The songs come more slowly as time passes more quickly, and as the tour continued, he talked to interviewers about retiring.

In this tough but compassionate examination of his life, his fans will come to understand Paul Simon a little better. Here’s hoping he knows that by working through his darkest moments, something of lasting joy was created – and the roots of rhythm will remain.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer who has been listening to Paul Simon’s music for 50 years.

Homeward Bound  
The Life of Paul Simon 
Peter Ames Carlin
(Henry Holt, $32)

 

http://www.dallasnews.com/arts/books/2016/10/07/victorian-london-never-looked-creepier-steven-prices-mesmerizing-gaslight

By Gaslight
Steven Price 
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux,  $28)

By Joyce Sáenz Harris
Special Contributor

Steven Price, author of "By Gaslight."<p><span>Stephanie Rae Hull</span><br></p><p></p>    Canadian poet Steven Price’s second novel, By Gaslight, is a dark Victorian thriller that will put paid to such fancies. If you loved big, atmospheric period mysteries such as Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx or Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, here is a novel with similar hypnotic qualities. By Gaslight draws in and magically transports the reader, as if by time machine, to another world.

Price mesmerizingly blends history and imagination in a monster of a novel – some 750 pages – filled with the lurid, Dickensian realities of a great world capital. This is a London where you might not want to linger long, even with Holmes beside you. Here is a city celebrating itself at the height of its glittering power, even as it suffocates on filthy air, drowns in fetid water and wallows in the grimmest depravities.

By Gaslight begins with William Pinkerton, elder son of famed Scottish-American detective Allan Pinkerton, threading his way through London’s slums to find a friend, one of his late father’s old agency operatives. He wants to ask Sally Porter, an ancient African-American woman, about two local criminals, Edward Shade and Charlotte Reckitt. Sally says she doesn’t know Charlotte, and as for Shade, she advises: “There ain’t no catchin a ghost, Billy.”

Meanwhile, a dapper businessman named Adam Foole arrives in Liverpool aboard the RMS Aurania. Foole is not quite what he appears, but “he had lived among the very poor and the very rich both and he knew which one he preferred.” On the Aurania, Foole meets a “burly doctor from Edinburgh,” an affable and well-read Scotsman who is interested in spiritualism and thinks detective stories would be much improved if they featured a truly intelligent detective.

“Foole had smiled at the simplicity of it but the doctor only chuckled and said Deduction, my good man, deduction.” The unnamed doctor, of course, is Doyle, who published his first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, in 1887.

Like William Pinkerton, Foole heads to London in search of Charlotte Reckitt. But for him, Charlotte is not a fleeing perp; she is his lost love, the one who got away. The two of them are veterans of the flash life, operating in the shadows and pulling off nonviolent crimes in order to live well above their modest means. Though they’ve been apart for years, a letter now has called him back to her.

When Foole learns of Pinkerton’s quest for Charlotte, the men briefly become uneasy allies – after all, both want answers about her, albeit for very different reasons. Clues emerge with the investment of much shoe leather and risk-taking as the two men venture into some truly seamy parts of London.

William Pinkerton works his case with the aid of Scotland Yard, where he encounters the Met’s own Holmes in the person of a certain Dr. Breck, who has a “long thin figure [and] grey eyes” and an uncanny gift for deduction. By the end of By Gaslight, Pinkerton also has developed an eerie knack of sussing out the truth. Whether justice lies where truth does is, he discovers, another matter entirely.

Price drives his narrative at a leisurely yet relentless pace, segueing with ease to the characters’ recent past, and even further back to the American Civil War, as more and more secrets are uncovered. Every so often, he casually drops a dazzling twist for a big reveal that leads only to more questions.

Price’s writing style, with idiosyncratic punctuation eschewing quotation marks and most commas, is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy. There are lines that you could swear came from Hemingway, such as: “But his brother also was a man of great physical courage and together they had ridden several times on the outlaw trail with loaded rifles and there was no man William would rather have at his back.”

In his acknowledgments, the author writes: “There are many excellent nonfiction accounts of the early Pinkerton Agency, the Civil War and the lives of criminals in Victorian London. This is not one of them.” That’s true, but By Gaslight nevertheless will make you feel as if you really had explored London in 1885.

It’s a deeply unsettling, fascinating place to visit. You probably wouldn’t want to live there.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

 

 

http://beta.dallasnews.com/arts/books/2016/07/29/chilling-thrilling-end-world-sunlight-pilgrims-last-one-fine-novels

By JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS

Special Contributor

Post-apocalyptic literature may be as old as the Epic of Gilgamesh, but in the postwar years it became a midcentury-modern, atomic-era genre all its own. Where it once was considered the province of pop and pulp, this branch of fiction achieved considerable critical acclaim in 2006 with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. By late 2012, The New Yorker was calling the genre “postapocalit.”

Nuclear annihilations, climatic or ecological collapses, pandemics, technological failures, fascist dystopias, zombie plagues and alien invasions: Each disaster category has its subgenres and its enthusiasts. And, with more postapocalit novels now being written by women, readers are finally getting more end-of-days stories with principal characters who are female.

In Jenni Fagan’s second novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims, melting polar icecaps have cooled the Gulf Stream, and the world may be facing a new Ice Age. Coastlines are vanishing, and the British Isles are frozen over, with temperatures already below zero and falling week by week in the autumn of 2020.
Yet humanity shuffles doggedly along; after all, the internet works, and while ever-grimmer news is being reported on TV, electric power still exists and transportation has not yet come to a standstill. How bad could things really be? Surely this is just an unusually severe winter looming.

So orphaned misfit Dylan MacRae, with nothing left for him in London, travels to a small coastSunlight Pilgrimsal town in the far north of Scotland, lugging the ashes of his mother and grandmother. He settles into his mother’s shabby old caravan and makes fast friends with his neighbors, who dominate much of the narrative: free-spirited Constance Fairbairn and her trans daughter Stella, who is almost 13 and struggling for acceptance as a goth girl who likes boys.

Not a great deal happens in The Sunlight Pilgrims, but Fagan draws an unsentimental, bleakly realistic picture of ordinary people refusing to believe the worst actually is at hand. Instead, they persist in living their everyday lives, worrying more about sex than about planetary doom, as they wait for the springtime that has always come before.

This is, we understand, how many humans cope with death: by believing that it can’t really happen. Not to us. What, after all, is the world without people in it? A depopulated Earth is almost beyond our imagining.

As intimate secrets slowly are revealed, winter closes inexorably upon Dylan and his little surrogate family. The mercury drops and drops, snows become impassable, food becomes scarce, and finally a drifting iceberg the size of a mountain looms off the Scottish coast.

Fagan is good at capturing the delusions allowing her characters to fool themselves that everything will be just fine if only they can find ways to cope until the vernal equinox, until the spring thaw that surely must arrive. This numbing, killing cold can’t last forever … can it?

***

Alexandra Oliva’s debut novel, The Last One, is the perfect postapocalit novel for people who watch reality TV. But even if you don’t follow those shows, you’ll be able to appreciate Oliva’s cleverness in creating a fictional TV series called “In the Dark” that seems every bit as “real” — that is, just as fake, manipulative and shrewdly edited — as the network shows that actually appear on our flatscreensThe Last One.

A young woman, named Sam but nicknamed Zoo on the show, is one of a dozen contestants competing for a million dollars on “In the Dark,”the series that is part Survivor, part The Amazing Race and all cynicism. Oliva invents a diverse cast of competitors and a self-obsessed host for the reality show, as well as a Greek chorus of snarky viewers commenting online (including an apparent Firefly fan using the handle LongLiveCaptainTightPants).

The reader knows something is up from the opening sentence: “The first one on the production team to die will be the editor.” But Zoo and her fellow contestants don’t have a clue that while they are busy trekking for dollars through the countryside, cut off from everything familiar, something strange and scary is happening in the outside world.

The contestants know that many of their encounters in the forest will be set dressing: scenes realistically faked for maximum impact, designed to cause emotional upset and create alarmed reactions for the cameras. But the reader begins to suspect, long before Zoo and the others do, that some of these horrors are more real than others.

Hungry, thirsty, stressed by competitive challenges and worn down emotionally and physically, the contestants are slow to realize that they are walking through unplanned dangers. Their survival game now includes uncontrollable risks that were not mentioned on the legal releases they were required to sign.

The Last One is psychological suspense skillfully played out for modern electronic media, and it just might keep you glued to your e-reader all night.

Joyce Saenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

The Sunlight Pilgrims
Jenni Fagan
(Hogarth, $26)

The Last One
Alexandra Oliva
(Ballantine, $26)

STILETTOhttp://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20160617-fantasy-stiletto-by-daniel-omalley.ece

By JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS
Special Contributor
Published: 17 June 2016 06:35 PM

In early 2012, Daniel O’Malley’s debut novel, The Rook, was published to heady reviews, and enchanted fans immediately demanded a sequel. Fifty-three months later — not that we’ve been counting, or anything — we finally have Stiletto, a worthy successor to O’Malley’s original tale.

“Original” was the word for The Rook, a novel that defied easy description. Equal parts mystery, comedy, spy drama and supernatural fantasy yarn, it introduced heroine Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany) Thomas as a seemingly shy, ordinary Briton who is, in fact, a ranking official on Her Majesty’s Supernatural Secret Service.

Myfanwy is a Rook, an operations executive of the Court, which administers the Checquy Group, sort of MI5 and MI6 rolled together with Torchwood.

The Checquy is a super-powered, black-ops government agency dedicated to fighting Great Britain’s supernatural enemies, of whom there are many. The most formidable of these foes are the Grafters, a despised Belgian army of superhuman monsters and the Checquy’s worst nemesis throughout history.

In Stiletto, something entirely unexpected has happened: The Checquy and the Grafters have declared an uneasy truce, and a formal peace agreement is being brokered in London. This masterstroke is engineered by Rook Thomas and Graaf Ernst van Suchtlen, the wily, centuries-old patriarch of the Broederschap (as the Grafters call themselves). The big question in Stiletto is: Can sworn enemies become allies without spilling oceans of blood along the way?

Some readers may be disappointed that Myfanwy plays more of a supporting role, albeit an essential one, in Stiletto. But O’Malley’s pivot opens up his universe with a zest that demonstrates his mastery of it, plunging us into the hearts, minds and intrigues of two engaging new protagonists.

One is Felicity Clements, a feisty urban-assault warrior for the Checquy. The other is Odette Liliefeld, the five-times-great-granddaughter and protégée of Graaf van Suchtlen. Both regard Rook Thomas with respect — deservedly so, as she possesses truly fearsome supernatural powers.

Unfortunately, the two young women dislike each other, with mistrust turning to loathing when Felicity is assigned to protect Odette during the peace conference. Meanwhile, acts of supernatural terrorism keep breaking out in London and around the U.K., casting suspicion on both sides as their delicate diplomacy is endangered by a mysterious gang of Antagonists. If the peace process breaks down, both the Checquy and the Grafters know the resulting war will bring destruction so catastrophic that even the average Muggle might be forced to notice it.

Having encountered the Grafters in The Rook, we know that mere mention of them is enough to make a Checquy agent turn pale. Grafters are Frankenstein monsters, so chemically and surgically altered that the Checquy regards them as barely human. Odette, at 23, has retractable bone-spur stilettos implanted in her wrists, and she sleeps in a bathtub full of life-extending goop that slows her metabolism and heals her numerous surgical upgrades. As O’Malley puts it: “Everything about her was bespoke, specially made. Her whole body was couture.”

In Stiletto, the Grafters view the Checquy as equally weird and scary, if not more so. After all, Rook Thomas and her cohort possess inborn supernatural powers, whereas the Grafters’ peculiar abilities are acquired through their scientific, medical and alchemic skills. But as we get to know Odette, her little brother Alessio and their doughty great-grandfather, it becomes apparent that perhaps these mortal enemies are not so unalike after all.

O’Malley faced a classic sophomore challenge with Stiletto: How could he pull off a sequel that would satisfy his eager following of Rook fans? Whenever readers are subject to delayed gratification from a favorite storyteller, expectations are bound to be insanely high. Moreover, there’s no recapturing the delicious element of surprise at discovering something fresh and inventive, as happens in the reading of a writer’s first, unexpectedly wonderful book.

However, O’Malley works his magic in adroit new ways, recalling all the legerdemain that delighted us the first time around. Stiletto is laugh-out-loud funny, occasionally bawdy and paced like a spy thriller replete with chases, betrayals and tragedies. There is slime, there is heartbreak, and there are wardrobe malfunctions. We even get allusions to E. Nesbit’s classic fantasy The Enchanted Castle and to Sherlock Holmes’ villainous archenemy, Professor Moriarty. Fear not, dear reader: Daniel O’Malley’s in charge, and the Checquy Files are in masterful hands.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Stiletto
Daniel O’Malley
(Little, Brown, $26)

City of Mirrorshttp://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20160520-horror-the-city-of-mirrors-by-justin-cronin.ece

By JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS
Special Contributor

Published: 20 May 2016 05:16 PM

When Justin Cronin’s The Passage was published in 2010, many compared it to Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic dystopian opus The Stand. King himself was so wowed by Cronin’s multilayered work — the first in a planned trilogy — that he bestowed upon The Passage’s book jacket a heartfelt blurb that concluded: “Read this book and the ordinary world disappears.”

The Passage was a phenomenal success, and two years later, so was The Twelve. Readers have waited almost four years for Cronin to deliver his finale, and their impatience, as recorded on social media, has been palpable. But The City of Mirrors is here, and I’m happy to report that the wait has been worth it.

By the way, you may be wondering: Do you have to have read the first two books to enjoy The City of Mirrors? Simply put, having read them will make the experience of No. 3 much richer for you, with a far bigger emotional payoff. (If you did not read the first books yet, watch out for spoilers below; if you did read them but haven’t reread them lately, get over to enterthepassage.com and zip through the detailed synopses that Cronin provides.)

Our back story: The Passage saga opened with a world in deep environmental and ethical trouble. As Cronin put it succinctly in the May issue of Texas Monthly: “In The Passage, science and the military and the government get together and make a super-predator that eats the North American continent.”

This seriously misguided attempt to create an American super-soldier, using a virus from a vampire bat, results instead in the creation of super-vampires. The Twelve, a group of former death-row inmates transformed by top-secret Project Noah, are inhumanly strong vamps: fearsomely quick, hard to kill and not even the least little bit sexy.

Their creators cannot control these monsters, so the Twelve escape and their 40 million horrendous offspring — dubbed “virals” or “dracs” — roam North America after efficiently infecting or devouring all but a handful of humans. The entire continent is quarantined, and the United States is a dead zone.

Cronin has said that The Passage germinated when his young daughter asked him to tell her a story in which a girl saves the world. That girl is the trilogy’s hero, Amy, the 13th test subject of Project Noah, who receives a refined strain of the virus. But Amy, who is just 6 when she is transformed, becomes not a monster but an enhanced version of herself, with psychic powers and preternatural awareness, plus an extended life span powered by super-immunity.

A century later, a still-adolescent Amy becomes the spiritual leader of a group of survivors who, as the series’ tough but good-hearted protagonists, remain battle-ready and on the move through Colorado, Southern California, Iowa and Texas for the duration of the trilogy.

Cronin, currently a Distinguished Faculty Fellow at Rice University, is a native New Englander who admits that Houston’s humid heat made Texas an acquired taste for him. Nevertheless, The Twelve and The City of Mirrors take place mostly in Freeport, Houston and Kerrville, where Amy’s friends set up a new Republic of Texas. The Republic is the antithesis of The Homeland, a grim slave-labor state in Iowa, where survivors were exploited and sacrificed by creepy “redeye” virals on behalf of their overlords, the Twelve.

The City of Mirrors spends a sixth of its pages on the back story of Amy’s ultimate antagonist: Zero, a.k.a. Dr. Timothy Fanning, a biochemist who was the virus’ original human carrier, infected by vampire bats in South America. A brilliant man who is disappointed in life and bereft of his true love, Fanning finds a dark purpose in his unsought role as progenitor to the Twelve.

Even after the Twelve and their masses of followers are destroyed in the second volume of the trilogy — ushering in 21 years of seemingly viral-free peace for the Republic of Texas — Zero sits like Lucifer in the shadows of Grand Central Terminal, planning his viciously triumphal comeback in the heart of Manhattan, his “city of memories, city of mirrors.”

The Passage’s ambitious arc of time leaped first a century and then a millennium. In The City of Mirrors, Cronin gives readers the deep satisfaction of taking us to that far future, where Amy and her friends left their imprints on the world, both with words and through the blood and memories passed generation to generation.

“It’s children, [Caleb] thought, that give us our lives; without them we are nothing, we are here and then gone, like the dust.” The raison d’être for these Texans always had to be the children, those precious sparks of humanity whose future Amy fought to save.

It’s not easy to successfully wind up a beloved trilogy. But with The City of Mirrors, Cronin has produced a rarity: a great, beautifully fulfilling ending for a huge story about mankind’s failure, imperfection and redemption. There aren’t too many series whose endings make me perfectly happy. But this one did.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

The City of Mirrors

Justin Cronin

(Ballantine, $28)

Available May 24

A Friend of Mr. Lincolnhttp://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20160129-fiction-a-friend-of-mr.-lincoln-by-stephen-harrigan.ece

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln marks a departure for the Austin-based writer. Just like his other books, this one quickly engages the reader’s imagination with its deep perspective, rich historical authenticity and a lively cast of striving, imperfect humans.

By Joyce Sáenz Harris
Special Contributor

Of all American presidents, Abraham Lincoln is the one most often accorded something like reverence. Most of us were taught a grade-school version of his life that sketches his triumph over crushing backwoods poverty, his moral conversion to abolitionist beliefs, and his rise to become Father Abraham, the Great Emancipator, savior of the Union and martyr to the cause of freedom.

But in Stephen Harrigan’s splendid new novel, A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, we meet a very different Honest Abe. This young Mr. Lincoln is a politically ambitious but socially awkward frontier lawyer of the 1830s and ’40s, one who often falls victim to “the hypo,” meaning depression and anxiety. He is driven by his concept of honor as if by Furies, yet he also relishes using his mercilessly sharp tongue to win at the law or the ballot box. He hates slavery but doesn’t really believe in racial equality. He tells terrible, ribald jokes. He is a fatalist, wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove.

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln is written from the third-person viewpoint of Micajah “Cage” Weatherby, who meets the future president as a roughhewn youth during the Indian wars and later becomes one of Lincoln’s bachelor cronies in Springfield, Ill. (Given that Harrigan wrote the superb historical novel The Gates of the Alamo, it may be no coincidence that “Micajah” also was the first name of an Alamo defender.) Cage Weatherby is a fictitious character, but Harrigan inserts him neatly and believably into Lincoln’s social circle of real-life Springfield friends such as Joshua Speed and Billy Herndon.

Lincoln takes an immediate liking to Cage, in awe that he is a published poet who has traveled to Europe. Cage, meanwhile, knows there is something special about his new friend, no matter that Lincoln is shabbily dressed, reedy-voiced and awkward as a young stork. Ambition burns inside this man, Cage realizes, and he senses that Lincoln is destined for some sort of greatness: “Lincoln was a man people tended to develop a deepening fascination with.” Yet for all the camaraderie they share, Harrigan’s Lincoln remains a riddle even to his best friends.

“The interesting thing about Lincoln,” Joshua Speed remarks to Cage, “is that he’s both the most public man and the most private man I’ve ever known. He has to hover rather precisely between the poles of his personality. Any deviation might pull him apart.”

The turning point in the men’s friendship comes when Kentucky belle Mary Todd arrives in Springfield in 1838. Lincoln is bowled over by the fact that “she knows Henry Clay! She lived only a few miles from him in Lexington and used to visit him as a girl. … It’s like living down the road from George Washington!”

Cage can’t imagine that the refined Todds would ever consider the rustic Lincoln as a possible suitor: “The union of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd was as unlikely in theory that night as it would later prove to be in reality.” But Mary is one of those people with a deepening fascination with Lincoln, and like Cage, she senses his potential for greatness.

Lincoln, in turn, knows he needs a political helpmate, and Mary is perfect on paper: a skilled hostess with charm, useful connections and an astute, calculating mind. Nevertheless, Lincoln is reluctant to commit, and the courtship is a long, rocky one. Cage’s efforts to support his friend end up backfiring, and he learns firsthand just how vindictive Mary Todd Lincoln can be.

Harrigan’s previous novels all have been set in Texas, so A Friend of Mr. Lincoln marks a departure for the Austin-based writer. Just like his other books, this one quickly engages the reader’s imagination with its deep perspective, rich historical authenticity and a lively cast of striving, imperfect humans. His Lincoln is one of them: a young man subject to the same torments, infatuations, ambitions, enthusiasms and sexual appetites as other young men. But unlike the others, he is peculiarly fated to become a tragic, heroic figure whose best speeches are the immortal poetry he yearned to write.

After a century and a half, he also remains America’s most beloved enigma. That homely face and those weary gray eyes guard a well of secrets so unfathomable that we, even as friends of Mr. Lincoln, have yet to plumb its depths.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Plan your life

Stephen Harrigan will speak Thursday, Feb. 4 at Highland Park United Methodist Church, 3300 Mockingbird Lane, Dallas. The 7 p.m. talk is free; a 6 p.m. reception, which includes a signed book, is $30. Register at hpumc.org/ or 214-523-2240.

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln

Stephen Harrigan

(Knopf, $27.95)

Available Tuesday, Feb. 2.

http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20160102-memoir-dear-mr.-you-by-mary-louise-parker.ece

MARY-LOUISE PARKER - Bebeto Matthews - AP

I have seen Mary-Louise Parker act in three very different Broadway plays: Craig Lucas’ Prelude to a Kiss (1990), Alan Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors (1998) and David Auburn’s Proof (2000), for which Parker won a Tony Award as Best Actress in a Play.

Witnessing those performances probably influenced my perception of Parker as a fiercely private person, a reluctant celebrity who is as elusive as a shapeshifter. She admits that she is strongly opinionated, and some who have worked with her might not call her particularly collegial. But her acting talent is undeniable — and so, it would appear, is her talent as a writer.

DEAR MR. YOU

Dear Mr. You is billed as a memoir, but it is different from virtually any other memoir I have read. Most are fairly straight-ahead narratives, moving from Point A to Point B and onward in chronological order, including or excluding juicy details as the teller prefers. Generally speaking, you will get names, dates, places and specific happenings in various degrees of candor.

Parker, 51, does not do any of this. Instead, Dear Mr. You is written as a series of letters or thank-you notes addressed to the various men who have influenced her life. She starts with Grandpa and Daddy and includes lovers, friends, acquaintances and strangers, but not her brothers.

Almost no names are given. Dates and places aren’t often specified. There’s a fair amount of mystery here, at least if you thought you were really going to get the skinny on Parker’s past. But this memoirist isn’t giving up the goods that easily.

“People are consistently curious about other people’s business,” Parker recently toldThe Washington Post. “They always have been. They probably always will be. … No one’s entitled to anyone’s information about anyone else.”

Nevertheless, Parker reveals a fair amount of herself, or at least of the self she wants us to see, and it feels real enough that one can believe she sincerely means it. Each chapter in Dear Mr. You is a prose poem of sorts, filled with emotional memories — though Parker says in her prologue that she loathes the word memories “for both its icky tone and wistful graveyard implications.”

She fondly recalls men who “can fix my screen door, my attitude, and open most jars … slam a puck, build a decent cabinet or the perfect sandwich.” This book, it seems, is her chance to say “thank you for the tour of the elevator cage, the sound booth, the alley; thank you for the kaleidoscope, the get-well tequila, the painting, the truth.”

Among them was “Man Out of Time,” an elegant guy she met at a party, with whom she struck up a necessarily short but lovely friendship because “I just liked you so much.” It’s an elegiac story that rings true for all of us who have lost special friends much too soon.

Then there was “Mr. Cabdriver,” whose egregiously wrong turns on a bad day threw a hugely pregnant Parker into an f-bomb-fueled panic (in her defense, she had just been dumped by her longtime beau, actor Billy Crudup) and prompted the cabdriver to make an abrupt stop for her unscheduled departure. When the cabbie shouted, “Go! I am not taking you to anywhere, you are very awful! I don’t want you anymore,” Parker replied, “No one does.” Then she wailed: “I am alone. Look, see? I am pregnant and alone.”

Her misery at that moment is palpable. But so is her later joy, in “Dear Orderly,” when she writes about her son, the one perfect thing that came out of that bad time: “Look at him there, would you? I mean, have you ever? I almost can’t believe it. He’s my only and my one. He’s my ever and after. … He is my job now, the best one I’ve ever had, by a zillion, and I will be doing this one until I drop.”

In a way, Parker’s writing reminds me a bit of Anne Lamott’s, even to its offbeat, unconventionally spiritual aspects. Her most affecting chapter is her last one, “Dear Oyster Picker,” which is about her beloved father’s death. Upon finishing it, not only did I understand the meaning of the oyster shell pictured on the book’s dust cover, but I also understood exactly why Parker felt compelled to become a writer.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a freelance writer in Dallas.

Plan your life

Mary-Louise Parker will appear with Mary Karr at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 11 at the Dallas Museum of Art as part of Arts & Letters Live. VIP tickets, which include priority seating and access to the signing line as well as a book, $75; general admission $35, with discounts for students and DMA members, at dma.org/tickets or 214-922-1818.