-- "Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956" (Doubleday), by Anne Applebaum
Writing from the multiple vantage points of individuals across Eastern Europe rather than the perspective of governments and political leaders, Anne Applebaum sheds long overdue light on the devastation experienced across the region after World War II.
Traditional accounts don't misunderstand this history. It's well known how brutal and destructive Stalinism was. But Applebaum, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for "Gulag: A History," studied newly public archives and interviewed more than 80 survivors; she also read numerous diaries and personal accounts of the decade following the division of Europe. Her resulting account -- centered on East Germany, Poland and Hungary -- is singularly detailed, compelling and graphic.
By paying meticulous attention to individual experience, Applebaum offers a unique window into the mechanics of Stalinism's spread -- and how little it had to do with ideology and how much with self-preservation amid economic disruption, geographic dislocation and simple terror. She drills way down to offer multiple, highly tangible views of well-known events, but also to record the massacre of a family and to show why collaborators might live in denial or how a particularly promising grassroots youth group was erased.
Applebaum focuses each chapter on one aspect of personal, social or political life: policing, economics, ethnicity, youth, art and entertainment, and so on. She offers new and revealing nuance about apparatchiks' personalities and motivations, as well as the responses of everyday citizens. It's hard to overestimate the importance of this last-minute project -- most of Applebaum's interviewees were in their 80s and older, and she says several soon died. But readers may feel swamped by the wealth of detail: It might have been easier to assimilate this much information if it were presented with more variety, with an occasional step back to explore ironies like the stark contrast between Stalinists' dedication to securing ever more power and their naive faith in economic plans that absolutely everyone knew were based on fabricated statistics.
It is abundantly clear how Stalinism dominated reason, culture and even personal action across Eastern Europe. Applebaum's central thesis is clear: that Stalinism spread because Josef Stalin allowed only those who did exactly as he dictated to succeed -- not because regional politicians believed in it or even because they were particularly good leaders. Often, they were not even charismatic. But their devotion to Stalin made them extremely effective.
-- "The Black Box" (Little, Brown and Co.), by Michael Connelly
Michael Connelly has been writing books featuring Los Angeles police Detective Harry Bosch for 20 years, and his 25th novel, "The Black Box," continues his streak of telling stellar crime stories.
Connelly's writing is like the best flavor of ice cream: reliably delicious every time. This time, the case holds a personal connection to Bosch. In 1992, during the L.A. riots, a woman's body was found shot in a dark alley. She was a reporter from Europe who was working on a big case, but why was she deep in the middle of the chaos? Was her murder related to the riots or her investigation? Bosch never had a chance to find out because he was pulled to another crime and the case was turned over to another unit.
Her murder was never solved, and Bosch never forgot about it. Working for the cold case unit, Bosch decides to reopen the case, and soon discovers the gun used in her shooting was involved in other crimes involving gang members.
Instead of following the money, he decides to follow the gun. His hope is to find the plane's "black box." He knows that if he's persistent, he'll finally discover the truth.
His character and code of honor make Bosch one of the top detectives in crime fiction. Connelly has a gift for taking what seem to be cliches and making them fresh and vibrant. Readers should find this "Black Box" because what it unveils is extraordinary.
-- THE ASSOCIATED PRESS