Lev Raphael is a noted author and joins Todd once a month to offer book suggestions. Lev reviews books for The Washington Post and The Jerusalem Report. He's also the Mysteries Columnist and reviewer for The Detroit Free Press. Lev's detailed reviews of these and other books are available at RealBooks and MysteryPages.


LEV RAPHAEL'S TOP PICKS FROM THE LAST FIVE YEARS:
*Best fiction:

The Crimson Petal and the White
Michel Faber

This luscious page-turner set in Victorian London took 20 years to write so you may feel embarrassed wanting to gobble it down in a few sittings. It'll be hard to resist. Writing with the kind of delightfully intrusive narrator you find in Fielding or Thackerey, this is a rich, complex, dramatic meditation on class and sexuality played out primarily in the relationship between an industrial scion and the thriller-writing prostitute he becomes obsessed with. The sweep and detail of the book are extraordinary, and the prose never flags in inventiveness. But best of all is the warm, confiding, sly voice of the narrator whose reminders that this is just fiction only take you deeper into your surrender to the world he's spread out for you like a Roman orgy. Unforgettable.

*Favorite mystery 1:

Kingdom of Shadows
Alan Furst

The thrillers of Alan Furst usually take place in the dark days preceding World War II, but while the main participants in that war are of course portrayed, Britain, France, Germany, and the United States do not usually star in Furst's novels. He prefers instead to focus his stories on the citizens of those countries whose allegiances and roles in that particular theater of operations are much more contradictory and conflicted.

Kingdom of Shadows is set in Paris during 1938 and 1939. Nicholas Morath is an Hungarian aristocrat who fought bravely in the Great War. He is now part owner of an advertising agency in Paris, while his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, is a minor diplomat stationed in Paris. Polanyi calls on Nicholas to take part in missions against the Hungarian Fascists: carrying letters or bringing individuals back across the border in the course of his business trips.

Nicholas Morath is a charismatic and sympathetic figure who will come to understand, as the war progresses, the consequences, both good and bad, of his smallest actions during that turbulent time.

*Favorite mystery 2:

Blood of Victory
Alan Furst

The author of the amazing Kingdom of Shadows returns with another thrilling and densely atmospheric novel set in the early years before WW II, when victory over Germany seems unlikely. The plot involves an attempt to destroy Romanian oil fields to hinder the Nazi war effort, but as always Furst's genius lies in recapturing a time and a place. His portrait of civil-war torn Bucharest, for example, is unforgettable and the book is peopled with a fascinating array of emigrees and stateless people. Though not as consistently gripping as Kingdom of Shadows, this is deeply pleasurable and beautifully written.

*Best non-fiction:

Theodore Rex
Edmund Morris

Edmund Morris' second volume of a projected three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt is a marvel of storytelling and reads like a novel. Morris gives us TR's two terms of the Presidency in all their political and personal complexity, painting a dazzling portrait of TR as a force of nature as much as a man. Exuberant, athletic, amazingly well-read, egocentric, a loving father, verbose, TR was a giant among presidents and Morris ably presents him in technicolor and Dolby sound.

*Lev's favorite character to read out loud:

Michel Faber characters

*Books that Todd must read now that he has some more time:

SIX EASY PIECES
Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley's latest take on his best-selling hero Easy Rawlins is a book of smooth and compelling short stories. The thread is Easy's belief that his old friend, the violent crazed Mouse, isn't really dead. Easy pursues what little evidence he has while unofficially solving crimes like arson, kidnaping and murder in a mid-60s LA where blacks are rightfully suspicious of the police. Beautifully-told, these stories are full of deft social history and warmth of the heart in the face of life's cold surprises.

*Books that Todd must read now that he has some more time:

Fearless Jones
Walter Mosley

In this poetic and tense noir, Paris Minton's used book store in Watts is in short order visited by suspicious cops who want to hassle him, a gorgeous dame in trouble, and a bruiser who beats him up. The chase is on to figure out why trouble has him in range, and Paris enlists his tough ex-con friend Fearless Jones. This debut in a new series is as tense and beautifully wrought as Mosley's acclaimed Easy Rawlins books. Like that series, this new novel offers us insight into racism in LA after WW II, deft characterizations, and a complex plot, gift wrapped in prose by an American master.