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Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl's Book Reviews for 7/18/2009

Jeremy Richards

Secrets, betrayal and the shadowy corners of moral ambiguity — hey, that's just high school. It's also a good preparation for the deadly schemes of modern thrillers. Today, Seattle–based author and librarian Nancy Pearl brings us two very different novels that explore ethical uncertainty: Olen Steinhauer's new thriller, "The Tourist," and E. Lockhart's "The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau–Banks." Nancy Pearl talks with KUOW's Jeremy Richards.

I was lucky enough to have lunch with Olen Steinhauer when he came through Seattle a few months ago. I'm pleased to report that he's a totally nice guy and I loved his new book, "The Tourist" (Minotaur, 2009). I'm happy about that for two reasons: one, of course, is that I'm always delighted to find a really good thriller, and two, it's hard to read a book with an open mind if you've met and didn't care for the author, which, sad to say, I've had happen more often than I'd like to remember or recount. During lunch Steinhauer mentioned that one of his favorite books is John le Carré's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," which is the novel by le Carré that I like best. This didn't come as a total surprise, because while I was reading "The Tourist" I kept thinking that of all the contemporary thriller writers out there, Steinhauer is the one who comes closest to delivering the same pleasures that le Carré does: a tightly constructed, smartly complex plot played out in the morally ambiguous universe of spycraft, a healthy dose of cynicism, and a main character with many secrets and much pain in his life. And like le Carré, Steinhauer has come up with terminology for aspects of the espionage game that seem so natural it's hard to believe that it isn't used by spooks themselves. (Maybe it is. Who knows?) Milo Weaver is a field–based spy, a "tourist" in his agency's lingo (their counterparts who work in the home office are known as "travel agents"), whose assignment is to hunt down a wily, longtime foe known as "the Tiger." When Milo runs into an old friend, Angela, who, in fact, may be more of a Judas than a Peter, it turns out that Angela is also trying to get to the Tiger. For spy novels, uncertainty is the name of the game. Unlike le Carré, though, who's pretty pessimistic about the possibility of rewarding and happy personal relationships for his characters, Steinhauer gives Milo a happy home life, which points up all the more insistently the bleakness of his profession and the particular job he's been assigned to in this novel.

E. Lockhart's "The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau–Banks" (Hyperion, 2008) is not only one of the most enjoyable teen novels that I've read in a long time, but it's also one of smartest. It's smartly written, with a cast of well–drawn characters; it has an intelligent and witty narrative voice; and Lockhart has created an original and thought–provoking plot that carries a serious message along with its good humor. (This would be a terrific choice for mother–daughter book groups.) Twelve to fifteen year old girls looking for a relationship novel that's neither sappy, angst–y, nor a fantasy need search no further: here it is. Frankie starts her sophomore year at Alabaster Prep a changed young woman from the geeky freshman she was just a few months ago. When she starts going out with handsome Matthew — the senior boy who's the catch of the campus — she's pretty sure she's left all remnants of the old nerdy Frankie behind. But when she learns that Matthew is the president of an all–male secret society of juniors and seniors at the school called "The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds," her immense annoyance at being excluded simply because she's female leads her to come up with a brilliantly inventive (if perhaps slightly illegal) scheme to get back at the club members. But I think the caper–filled plot — entertaining as it is — is Lockhart's method to get us interested in knowing Frankie, who is pure and simply a delight. She's a fan of P.G. Wodehouse, she loves words (I can foresee a lot of engaged readers playing with the notion of "neglected positives" (if being disgruntled means you're not happy about something, why not use gruntled when you are?) and she's not afraid to either ask questions or challenge accepted norms. I wish I had been exactly like her when I was 15.

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