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From the time he was shipped off to work in Vietnam with the Foreign Service in 1962, Richard Holbrooke dreamed of becoming Secretary of State. While Holbrooke never reached that lofty office, a case can be made that he was one of America's most brilliant diplomats. The summit of his achievements were the Dayton Peace Accords of 1995, which brought peace to the warring factions of the former Yugoslavia. But Holbrooke was also a shamelessly ambitious egomaniac who treated both friends and enemies in an appalling fashion. He's found the perfect biographer in New Yorker journalist George Packer, author of The Unwinding. Packer treats Holbrooke's meteoric rise and fall as a combination of a Joseph Conrad and Game of Thrones, with a tableau that stretches from the Mekong Desert to Kabul to the darkest corners of the Harry S. Truman building. His book is both a political masterclass—turns out the men's room is where the real power negotiations go down—and an unforgettable portrait of a man who would have been as comfortable chatting with the Borgias as he was advising presidents from Johnson to Obama. ~ Reviewed by Charles Bottomley
The disappearance of two young girls from a Maryland mall had been a cold case for decades. When the police tracked down one last lead, they were completely unprepared for the web of deceit that was about to ensnare them. Bowden was a cub reporter when Katherine and Sheila Lyon vanished in 1975. He went on to become the best-selling author of Black Hawk Down and Hue, among others. The Last Stone relies a lot on transcripts between the police and their suspect, a child molester named Lloyd Welch. As such, the dodge-and-weave of police interrogation becomes as enthralling as watching Bjorn Borg face up to John McEnroe. The level of mythology and deception can become vertiginous at times, but Bowden delivers a white-knuckle true crime story of appalling malfeasance. ~ Reviewed by Charles Bottomley
As a newcomer to the Lizzie Borden story, I had no idea a) that this happened in the 19th century b) that the ensuing courtroom spectacle was the Gilded Age equivalent of the O.J. Trial or c) the unexpected verdict on the matter of whether Borden did away with her father and stepmother with an axe. Robertson is a student of the case and has pored through acres of reportage to provide what may be the definitive work on the murder and trial. As well as the unknowable Lizzie Borden herself, the cast of characters includes a former governor-turned-defense lawyer, a dashing prosecutor and a press pack of yellow journalists. In assembling her evidence, Robertson gives an insight into a society where immigrants were despised, femininity of a certain class had to be protected at all costs, fake news was a thing and many could not countenance the evidence that was directly in front of their face. ~ Reviewed by Charles Bottomley
The disappearance of a mother-of-ten in 1972 from her Belfast tower block is the unexpected starting point for Keefe's marvelous history of the Troubles, the sectarian violence that raged between the IRA and the Loyalists in the last third of the 20th century. During that time, disappearances, bombings and assassinations rocked Belfast as walls went up between communities that identified as Catholic and Protestant. Keefe grabs the reader by the throat as he sketches in the personalities of IRA leader Gerry Adams, foot soldiers like the glamorous Dolours Price, the British intelligence officer known as "the Butcher of Belfast," and hunger striker Bobby Sands. He also recreates a time when safety depended on how much one was willing to deny their own identity and to “say nothing.” It's the finale of the book which is truly jaw-dropping, though. Scores are settled, peace is brokered, and an ambitious oral history conducted by Boston College brings secrets (and bodies) to light. Keefe has one hell of a story to tell and he navigates each twist and turn with the smarts of a Belfast cab-driver. Easily a book of the year. ~ Reviewed by Charles Bottomley
This second volume of Dubus's collected short fiction finds the emphasis moving from adultery to relationships between parents and their children. As Richard Russo explains in his excellent introduction, the errant Dubus was more or less neglectful of his own brood. His stories about estranged dads, however, have a sincere tenderness missing in his personal life. And they are wondrous to read. The title story is a beautiful, comic snapshot of a divorced dad digesting his kids' life over custodial weekends. The closing "A Father's Story" is, as Russo says, simply one of the best American short stories, its incantatory, remorseless prose carving a deep emotional scar in the reader. Also included is "killings," a tale of vengeance that became the basis for the 2001 Oscar-nominated film In the Bedroom. ~ Reviewed by Charles Bottomley