STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
I've got a stack of books here.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOOK PAGES FLIPPING)
INSKEEP: Stack of books sent to me by librarian Nancy Pearl, who's in Seattle, Wash., joins the program from time to time to suggest books that are under the radar, she says, books that we ought to know about and that we may well want to read in this new year. Hi, Nancy.
NANCY PEARL: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: So the one that I'm flipping here is called "Slow Horses" by Mick Herron.
PEARL: Yes, this is the start of a series. And unlike some series of thrillers or mysteries, it gets better, each book is better than the one before. So slow horses are disgraced MI5 agents.
INSKEEP: Oh, British intelligence agents, OK.
PEARL: British intelligence agents...
INSKEEP: All right.
PEARL: ...People who did something a little stupid but have too many connections to be fired, so they're all housed in the same house away from where the rest of the agency is.
INSKEEP: It begins with a sentence, (reading) this is how River Cartwright slipped off the fast track and joined the slow horses.
PEARL: Yes, yes. And what River Cartwright did is badly screw up a surveillance assignment. And he's convinced he was set up by his rival in the service in MI5, but now the slow horses have a new task. A kidnapping and a potential beheading has been announced in London, and it's up to the slow horses to try to figure out what's going on.
PEARL: I love the characters in this. And the guy who is the head of the slow horses is this man who is probably the most thoroughly disagreeable, not particularly nice person that many people will ever read about. And I did read an interview with Mick Herron where somebody asked him how he could put words like that in this guy's mouth...
PEARL: ...And he said he just thought of the worst thing that anybody could say in every situation and that's what River's boss says.
PEARL: And I - and it's just great fun.
INSKEEP: Let's talk about another author here who's got a connection to London, Kamila Shamsie, based in London, often writes about Pakistan. The book is called "Broken Verses."
PEARL: Yes, this is one of my all-time favorite novels. And it was published originally in 2005, but it's a truly under the radar book. I think more people need to read this remarkable Pakistani author. And this is a novel that really brings to life that phrase the political is personal and the personal is political. And it's the story of a 30-year-old Pakistani woman whose mother was a leader in the women's movement in Pakistan, the kind of burgeoning women's movement in the '70s and '80s. And her kind of stepfather, her mother's lover, was the great poet of Pakistan who angered the government with his poetry.
INSKEEP: An interesting period in Pakistan where they were heading toward military dictatorship.
PEARL: Yes, they were. And the government tortured and killed The Poet, as he was known. And two years after the Poet's death when Aasmaani - who was the young woman - when she was 16, her mother disappeared. And then Aasmaani receives a letter written in the code that only the Poet and her mother knew. And so that raises all of these questions, is the Poet alive? And it's a love story, it's about mothers and daughters. It's a tribute to Pakistan that might have been had things gone differently.
INSKEEP: And it's close to the headlines, even though it's fiction because this is one of many countries where people who write, who speak out are constantly in danger, are often in danger of being arrested or killed.
PEARL: Yes. And perhaps one of the saddest things about the book is that it could have been written this year.
INSKEEP: Let's move on to another book here. The author is Becky Masterman, and the title is "A Twist Of The Knife."
PEARL: Yeah. Becky Masterman is an author that I recently discovered. And what I love about these books, they're page turners, they're really thrilling novels. And the main character is a woman named Brigid Quinn, who is a former FBI agent, now retired. Brigid is 60, I love that. When have we last seen the hero of a thriller age 60? But when Brigid was in the FBI, she was mostly assigned to cases where she had to go undercover, and all of her working life she has had to be somebody other than herself. And now she's retired and trying to figure out what it's like to be her, Brigid Quinn, and not somebody else. And then a case very similar to some of the cases that she worked on when she was in the FBI kind of falls into her lap, so the present and the past are coming together in this page-turning thriller.
INSKEEP: We're developing a theme here, I think, of violence and secrecy and fear.
INSKEEP: And now we have a novel by Duane Swierczynski called "Revolver," what's it about?
PEARL: Yes, this is the first novel I've read by this man. And as soon as I finished "Revolver," I went back and read three more of them by him. This is the story of three generations of a Philadelphia family, the Walczaks. And the book moves between three time periods - 1965, around 1995 and then 2015. In 1965, the grandfather in the family, Stan, is a Philadelphia policeman. His partner is one of the few black officers in Philadelphia, and both of them are gunned down as they're sitting in a bar talking. And Stan's son, Jimmy, becomes a policeman, and he's investigating the rape and murder of a young woman. And then Jimmy's daughter is studying forensics, and she's doing a class project on her grandfather's death. So we're moving between these three time periods. But really this illuminates race relations in the '60s, particularly Philadelphia because that's where the book is set, but in the country at large.
INSKEEP: OK, so how does it illuminate them in more recent times?
PEARL: Well, what you see in this book is the racism both overt and unspoken, even from Stan who grew up in a Polish family and is trying to come to terms with the fact that he doesn't have a white partner, he has an African-American partner. And when we're talking about racism, which we are doing a lot these days, I hope more has changed than it appears to me to have changed since the 1960s.
INSKEEP: Nancy, thanks very much as always.
PEARL: You're welcome, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's librarian Nancy Pearl.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANCIENT ASTRONAUTS' "I CAME RUNNING")
INSKEEP: All Nancy's recommendations plus 300 other titles picked by NPR staff and critics are at npr.org
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