Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi


The Interdependency had endured for thousands of years.  All the far flung countries that composed it were connected by the Flow, the mechanism that allowed travel between places so far apart that without the Flow there would be no way to reach them in a man's lifetime.  The Interdependency was ruled by the Emperoux who resided at the capital, the Hub.  Another place of note was The End, a small world which had been originally populated by criminals exiled from other worlds.  

But things are changing.  There is a new Emperoux, a young girl who never thought she would be in charge and thrust into the role when her brother, the heir, died in an accident followed by the death of their father.  The merchant families, which hold much of the power in all worlds and control the traffic between them, seem to be embroiled in a power struggle.  End is engaged in a native rebellion that seems likely to topple its ruler.  Most importantly, something seems to be happening with The Flow.  Some of the entry points seem to be collapsing, which means no one can enter or exit there. 

On the End, a friend of the Emperoux continues his work.  A brilliant physicist, he had come to the Emperoux decades ago showing him the prediction his math equations showed; the entire collapse of the Flow.  Since that time, he appeared to have been exiled to End but in reality he is there continuing his work.  Now his son must reach the Emperoux and weeks into her reign, inform her that everything on which the world has been built, will change in the near future.  How will humanity survive?  Will the Emperoux prove up to the challenge?

This is the first in a planned trilogy about this world and the challenges facing it in the collapse of everything on which their reality is based.  There are many interesting characters and the struggles between trading families trying to secure power and wealth is fascinating.  But what drives the novel is the idea that humanity could be faced with a challenge of the entire system collapsing and the survival of life at stake.  Readers will want to continue the series to see what happens next.  This book is recommended for readers of science fiction.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Breakdown by Jonathan Kellerman


It's been six years since Dr. Alex Delaware has thought of the actress Zelda Chase.  Then, she was working on a comedy series but a complaint had been filed and he was called in to evaluate her parenting.  Zelda had a five year old son, smart beyond his years and talented and Ovid seemed fine to Alex.  After his evaluation, he put Zelda and Ovid out of his mind.  

But now she is back.  The six years have not been kind to Zelda.  Her series ended soon after Alex met her and before long, her mental disturbances took everything from her and she is now homeless.  Someone found Alex's name in her files when she was arrested for going into someone's yard, shouting and screaming and digging up bushes.  By the time Alex sees her, she is sedated and unresponsive.  Although she was never his patient, he finds her shelter for when she is released from the short mental hospital hold.

But the next time he hears about Zelda, the news is worse.  She stayed in the shelter for only a short while then walked out.  The next she was heard from, it was her body, found in the yard of a gated estate.  The homeowner, an elderly widow, had returned from a stay in Palm Springs to find Zelda's body when she strolled in her garden before bed.  No one knows how Zelda got there, ten miles from the shelter.  No one knows where Ovid is or where he has been while Zelda has been on the street.  Did something happen to him and was that what sent Zelda over the edge?

As Alex and his friend, Detective Milo Sturgis, try to find the answers, more mysteries occur.  The maid at the home where Zelda was found is missing, and soon they find that another maid is missing as well.  A man they talk to is found dead.  What is happening and how is Zelda connected?  Can they find the answers as well as finding Ovid or what happened to him?

This is the 31st novel in the Alex Delaware series.  While most series cannot carry the weight of so many novels, this one is always fresh and interesting.  The mystery is compelling and the reader wants to find out what happened to Zelda and where Ovid could be.  The interplay between Alex and Milo is always fascinating and the mystery comes to a satisfactory resolution.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold by C. Pam Zhang


When their Ba, father, dies, Lucy and Sam are left alone in the mining camps of California.  Their parents were immigrants from China but Ma has been gone for a while and now Ba has died.  Lucy and Sam are young girls, not even teenagers as they decide to pack up what they can and move on.  Their father hoped to become rich mining gold but that didn't work out.  He took a job as a coal miner and as pay got cut, left Samantha cut her hair and masquerade as a boy in order to work alongside of them.

As Lucy and Sam travel, Lucy takes charge.  Sam is the hunter but Lucy is the one with a plan.  They ward off men on the trail and those who would try to map out their lives for them.  After they bury Ba, they travel to a town.  Lucy longs for other people, education and a structured life and she moves into town and finds work.  Sam is less settled; her life working alongside Ba in the mines and the gold fields has left her with a quest for adventure and she takes off after a while by herself. 

The two girls try to interpret the family stories they know bits and pieces of.  As they unravel the past, they learn about the family secrets and how they impacted their family life.  The two eventually reunite and decide to move back to China and find themselves there in their parents' first home.  

This novel was nominated for the Booker Prize.  It is a fascinating view of an underreported minority in the immigrant stories of the American West.  The hardships the girls meet and conquer are daunting and will make one wonder if our children today could be as hardy.  The love the two girls share and their quest to understand their family and to carve out a life for themselves is inspiring.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Real Life by Brandon Taylor


Wallace is working on a biochem graduate degree.  But he seems out of place in this midwestern university.  He is not the typical graduate student.  He is black, gay and comes from a challenging childhood.  As a child, he was largely self-educated as no one in his family valued learning.  His family life was chaotic with his father abandoning the family while Wallace was a child.  Although his father only moved a few blocks away, he made it clear that he was cutting all ties with his family, something Wallace never understood.  Through a desire to move to a better life, Wallace managed to study and catch the eye of teachers who helped him work toward a goal of a different life.

Now he is in a stressful graduate environment with a limited social life.  The hours in the lab are long and grueling and his research is not going particularly well.  He doesn't have the favor of the graduate supervisor and in fact, she takes the word of other students, mainly female, against Wallace.  He is considered to have come with deficits and his supervisor and his peers are open about speaking about this as if there is nothing Wallace can do to compensate for it.

His friends are not much more help.  The novel follows a weekend where Wallace interacts with his circle of acquaintances.  He starts an affair with another student.  He gets caught up in the relationship of two of his friends as one of them pushes for the relationship to become open to other people.  He is insulted and insults others.  

This novel was a Booker nominee and in fact, is shortlisted.  Other critics call it a searing portrait of youth and coming of age.  I found it a challenging read with lots of negativity and the expectation that this is the experience of most young people.  That goes against my experience with this age group although I'm sure it is true of some of this group.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Three Seventeen by Darren Shell


From the Greensboro News And Record, author Nancy Mclaughlin

Darren Shell didn't decide to write a book about suicide after his father and best friend took their lives. It was after being awakened by a voice shortly after 3 a.m. one morning, years later.  "It's a higher power ... telling me to get up and write," recalled Shell, 49.

The losses had been devastating. Ed Shell, just 59, shot himself in 2006 — two days after holding his son's newborn daughter.  For Darren, the sermon at church the following Sunday seemed to address his hesitation. He didn't decide to write the book as much as he was pushed in that direction it seemed.

"I went into this with a blind promise that there is at least one person who needs to read it," Shell said.  This is his story of taking two of the worst days of his life and making the decision to not let it define him but work to prevent suicide. On Sept. 29, the 14th anniversary of his father's suicide, Shell's book,  "Three Seventeen: A Suicide Loss Survivor's Story," officially goes on sale.

Released during Suicide Prevention Month, the book tells the story of Shell's struggle, survival and recovery. People contemplating suicide might not think anyone will care or that they will be missed, Shell said. They're wrong. Suicide always leaves survivors. "I've not sat in an empty church yet," Shell said.

Before starting on the book, Shell spoke to his mother and his best friend's wife, mother and sister about what he planned to do. "I said, 'I need y'all to be OK with this," Shell recalled.

Suicide claims the lives of at least 132 people a day in this country. But research shows that for each of them, their deaths affect scores of other people. According to experts, those struggling are often too ashamed to admit they have suicidal thoughts and might only offer a hint at what they are feeling — if at all.

The April day in 2014 he hung himself, the Rev. Robert McKeehan — a High Point pastor, husband and father — got up and went to the gym. Afterwards, he posted a humorous account on Facebook. His death made national headlines. As did the suicide that same year of a young man who posted "suffering is optional" on social media before jumping off the downtown Marriott parking deck.

Shell's father had been Darren's hero for as long as he could remember. Well, him and Major League Baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan. Shell always spotted his father in the stands at his baseball games, despite the elder Shell working two jobs to pay his son's way through school. Before his death, Ed Shell had health problems related to a battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and he carried baggage from his childhood. His mood lifted, but it didn't stop him from taking his life.

In the months after his father died, Darren threw himself into helping his mother and being a husband and father. He later sought therapy and learned how to better deal with his emotions. "You only learn to accept it," Shell said of the grief. "It never goes away." As he struggled to understand what happened, Shell was caught in a cycle of shock, anger and immense pain. The "what-ifs" haunted him. "Did he not think what (his suicide) was going to do to Mom and me?" he said. "I was surprised at how mad I was." Overwhelming guilt followed. He had been on the phone with his dad hours before and would repeatedly relive their conversation, trying to find any indication that his father was planning to take his life. "You spend a lot of time trying to figure out what you could have done different," Shell said.

And then his friend was gone, too. When Shell started writing the book, he didn't spend his time delving into the "whys" of what happened in either case. "I don't know what happened," Shell said of the deaths. "And it wasn't fair for me to add anything to that. You spend months or years trying to find an answer and the person who can provide the answer isn't here."

Shell's book is self-published, so he has taken on a larger amount of the risk that anyone will pick it up. A friend took photos and another friend served as editor — which Shell said was a monumental task because even his sixth-grade teacher will remember how horrible of a speller he can be. The COVID-19 pandemic has doomed all the fall book festivals Shell was hoping to attend. "I wanted it to be more than my mother and three people buying the book," he said.

A friend pushed him to set up a website for the book when Shell was happy just to get it on Amazon. "He was like, 'No, you are going to get lost in the crowd,'" Shell said. He's already looked into dropping off a few free copies at local libraries. Co-workers have been supportive.

"I did what I was supposed to do," Shell said.


Monday, September 21, 2020

Crime Beat by Michael Connelly


This nonfiction anthology is a collection of various newspaper articles written by the novelist Michael Connelly during his time as a newspaper reporter.  Some are from his time in Florida while others are from the time he spent working in Los Angeles.  It is possible to see from these short pieces, the genesis of Connelly's most famous character, detective Bosch, and the attitudes and habits he brings to his work.  Connelly worked the crime beat in both places and has a wealth of stories to share.

The book is broken into three sections.  The first is The Cops, the second is The Killers and the last is The Cases.  In the cops section, my favorite piece was Crossing The Line which showcased the procedure of trying American criminals who fled to Mexico there and having them serve their time in Mexican prisons.  This was controversial as the same legal protections don't apply in other countries.  In The Killers section, I liked Killer On The Run which was about the serial killer Christopher Wilder who drove across the country, posing as a photographer and killing women.  I remember this case when it was in the news so it was interesting to see a piece about it.  In The Cases, I liked Death Of An Heiress about the murder of Judy Kanan, a businesswoman with so many enemies that the police had a multitude of suspects although they eventually charged her nephew.

This was an interesting book which allowed the reader to watch the development of Michael Connelly as a writer over the years.  The pieces are much drier than the fiction readers are used to as they are another category of writing all together.  Several of the pieces had a short conclusion where as an afterward the conclusion of the case was given, as newspaper articles rarely have that perspective as they are written during or immediately after the events.  This book is recommended for true crime readers and those interested in the development of Michael Connelly's career and skills as an author.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie


The novel opens with an airplane crash, probably a terrorist bombing.  The passengers are thrown out into the air, to plummet to the sea and die.  All but two passengers.  Those two, both Indian actors, are named Gibreel and Saladin.  They clutch each other, spiraling downward and somehow through their combined efforts, they survive.  But they are not the same.  They are two sides of the coin, evil and good.

After the wreck, each becomes an extreme example of one side or the other.  Gibreel becomes an angel, Gabriel specifically, and has visions of what the world will become.  Saladin becomes the embodiment of evil, an actual devil with horns and hooves.  Each is still tied to the other, any win of one is mirrored with a loss of the other.  

Each mirrors each other in other ways.  Each is in love with an English woman while an Indian love beckons them from afar.  Each has issues with their fathers and with reconciling their native country and cultural backgrounds with the experiences of being an immigrant and trying to fit in and be successful in a different culture.  Each must find a way to handle their issues in order to move forward, although this may require them to be in a lifelong battle with the other.  

This novel was written in 1988.  What most people know about it is that it is the novel that ended with Rushdie being put under fatwa or death sentence by the Islamic faith.  That forced him into years of seclusion having to live his life and write under constant police guard.  The portions of the novel that caused the trouble is a small portion that claims to be Indian legend about how the Koran was written and the role of three female Indian goddesses in it.  I don't know the culture or history well enough to know if this is indeed a legend or something Rushdie made up.  

What is clear, however, is the wonder of this novel.  It is full of characters, each of whom's life story is set out.  It is full of miracles and horrible deeds, of the interplay of good and evil, the constant battle to see which will emerge successful in their conflict.  It is full of magic realism, of a torrent of words that carry the reader along, of all the wonderful ways that Rushdie engages with his readers.  It won the Whitbread Prize.  This novel is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zeran


The location is Santiago, Chile and the time is after the dictatorship that decimated the country.  Felipe and Iquela are young adults who were children during those violent times.  Their parents were involved in the resistance and were responsible for others being killed.  People disappeared from the streets or from their homes and were never heard from again.  Those remaining were those who did nothing to offend, who stayed below the notice of others.  Felipe parents were killed and he was sent to be raised by his grandmother.  She periodically brought him to Iquela's home to stay as she blamed her situation on Iquela's parents so the two grew up almost as brother and sister.

Now that they are grown they have not grown past those days.  Felipe has occasional work as a manual laborer but spends his days searching for dead bodies, his mission to account for them all to get back to ground zero.  Iquela spends her days holed up in her apartment, translating for a living.  Her only expeditions are the eight blocks between her apartment and her mother's home where she goes several times a week.  

Paloma is the daughter of German parents who were in Chile for a while during The Disappearance and then returned to Germany.  Now her mother has died and Paloma has brought her to Chile to be buried.  But the airline has lost her body and she comes to Iquela and Felipe for help.  The three drive to a town up in the mountains where they believe the body might be found.  What they find is beyond belief and a sight that sums up all the horror of the times. 

This novel was nominated for the International Booker Prize.  It is an analogy for the violence of war and the residue that the survivors of such wars carry for life.  It is a bleak volume and readers might be negatively affected by some of the images but it carries an important message.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell


Hamnet is a retelling of the family life of William Shakespeare.  He and his wife, Agnes, had three children.  First was a girl and then there were twins, a boy and a girl.  The first part of the novel explores Will and Agnes' courtship; Will was a tutor to Agnes' brothers.  Agnes was considered a 'wild child', a woman who spent her time outside gathering herbs, flying a falcon and could see the future.  Many considered her a witch or next to one.  Will was from a family of tanners and glove makers.  His father was an abusive man and Will was his main target.  He feels constrained by village life.

After their marriage, the couple finds a way to live together.  They live in a house which is joined to the family house of the Shakespeares.  There is still tension with the father but he has lost much of his power. Agnes is closest to her brother Bartholomew.  She goes to him when she has issues or needs advice.  With his help, Agnes comes up with a plan that allows Will to go to London where he is out from under his father's thumb and where he grows successful, starting a playhouse.  She and the children remain in the village of Stratford as the younger girl is too frail to handle life in a city.

But disease can find you anywhere.  One day the girl, Judith, is fine before supper and deathly ill by night.  She has the plague and there is little hope.  Will is sent for but when he arrives he finds that Judith has rallied and instead her twin brother, Hamnet, has contracted the illness and died.

The rest of the novel explores the grief of losing a child.  It is one of the finest stories of this grief I've ever read.  Each parent is consumed with guilt about the boy's death; each must find their own way of grieving and moving forward.  There are the other children to be considered and life must go on.  But how can it go on without their Hamnet?

This book won the Woman's Prize For Fiction this year and the announcement was made as I was in the midst of reading it.  I can heartily concur with its selection.  The writing is fresh and immediate and it is a retelling of life in that period that the average person can connect with.  The death of a child was so common in this time and the novel explores what that fact must have been like and what effect it had on marriages.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Lost City Of The Monkey God by Douglas Preston


For centuries in what is now Honduras, there have been folklore rumors of a vast city full of treasures in the jungle.  It was often called The White City or the City Of The Monkey God and it was rumored that anyone who went there would sicken and die which was the reason the original inhabitants had disappeared and deserted the city.  It was one of the last remaining mystery locations that explorers have on their bucket list.

In 2012, technology and resources met in a way that allowed an expedition to be mounted to find this city.  A new technology named lidar, similiar in some ways to radar, allows a three dimensional image to be formed from a plane flying above a site.  Prior work had narrowed the possible location to several tracts in impenetrable jungle and after the lidar work, there were three possible sites that might be profitable to explore.  An expedition was formed of archologists, geologists, explorers and media to try to find the city.  

It was a daunting expedition.  There were no roads and even the roads closest to the jumping off place were controlled by the wars of the drug dealers in the area.  There was hostility from the inhabitants whose ancestral cultural artifacts would be disturbed.  The terrain was unimaginable and there were snakes, insects and other natural obstacles.  Yet the exploration went ahead and a city of treasures that advanced knowledge of the cultural background of the area was found.  There were obstacles even after discovery.  Looters are a constant threat in this world as the artifacts found can be worth thousands.  The Amazon jungles are being clear-cut, sometimes for logging and often for agriculture.  There is tension between the government which sees this as a boon for their country and those opposed to the exploration.  Preston documents all of these.

There are also other issues.  Many of the expedition later were diagnosed with a parasitic disease called leishmaniasis.   This disease is common in tropical areas.  Preston discusses how climate change means that many of the diseases found in tropical areas are now spreading into the United States and even Canada and will be a challenge in the coming years.  He also discusses the war between academics over exploration and whether such sites when discovered should be removed or left in situ.  If left, they are in danger of destruction; if removed there is the possibility of destroying cultural barriers that prohibit such actions.  Preston documents the exciting nature of the find and the difficulty the expedition encountered.  This book is recommended for nonfiction readers.  

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Better Sister by Alafair Burke


Chloe Taylor seemed to have it all.  A prestigious job as a writer at a woman's magazine and fame for her series on sexual harassment.  A successful attorney husband.  A stepson she had raised from the time he was two and whom she considered her own child.  A Manhattan apartment and a house out on the coast.  What more could anyone want?

But under the surface, things are not as enviable as they seem.  Chloe got her marriage and stepson by marrying her sister's ex-husband after taking his side in the marriage breakup.  Her sister, Nicky, was taking drugs and drinking and had endangered her son's life in the backyard pool.  Chloe and Adam had cut Nicky out of Ethan, the son's life after that.  Chloe's job is high stress and she's been getting a lot of negative press and social media lately.  Adam seems to resent her success and money and hates the job he took to make more money to compete with her.  Now Adam and Ethan seem to be caught in a typical teenager stormy relationship that fills the house with tension.

But when Chloe walks in on Adam's lifeless body at their beach house, she knows things won't ever be the same.  There's no way to avoid the negative press, especially when the police focus their efforts on Ethan and arrest him for the murder of his father.  Chloe must reach out to Nicky after years of estrangement as they fight to free Ethan of the charges against him.  Who killed Adam if Ethan didn't?

This was my first Alafair Burke novel.  There were lots of twists and turns and a main character that I had a hard time relating to.  As the reader progresses, more and more secrets are revealed as Chloe's perfect life is peeled back layer by layer.  This book is recommended for mystery readers. 

Monday, September 7, 2020

A False Report/Unbelievable by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong


This book is the basis of the hit Netflix documentary series Unbelievable.  It was first published as A False Report but is now being sold under the title Unbelievable.  Regardless of title, it is a sobering oversight of the status of rape reporting in the United States.

The book focuses on the issue through the lens of one serial rapist who terrorized Seattle, Washington while he was stationed there in the military and then in the Colorado suburbs around Denver.  The first known victim in Washington was a young woman named Marie.  She had a troubled upbringing and had spent most of her life in foster homes.  Now as an eighteen year old, she part of a program that supported teens such as her.  She had her first job and her first apartment.  That was where she was attacked one morning around dawn.  

Then and in his later attacks, the rapist had a pattern.  He would restrain the women, often blindfolding them.  He would rape them multiple times over hours.  He would take pictures incessantly, telling the women that if they reported him, he would put their pictures on the Internet.  Afterwards, before he left, he made them shower for at least twenty minutes and he took anything he thought might have evidence such as clothes and bed linens.

Marie did everything right.  She reported immediately and went to the hospital for an examination.  But by the next day, things started to go wrong.  For some reason, her former foster mother called the police and expressed reservations about whether Marie was telling the truth.  The police investigator, with minimal sexual crime experience, was quick to pick up on this and interrogated Marie, calling her a liar until she recanted.  She later disagreed with this but was again browbeaten into saying she was lying.  The sympathy she had gotten disappeared.  She lost her job and was in jeopardy of losing her apartment.  The crowning blow was when the policeman heading up the investigation charged her with making a false report, giving her a criminal record.

Several years later, a different police force handled the cases they had much differently.  There the investigators were mainly female and had trained for the work extensively.  They were quick to do things that had not been done in Washington.  They looked for other cases that fit the pattern, even out of their jurisdiction and were quick to cooperate with other divisions.  They spent extensive time taking the victims' statements, looking for connections and clues.  They, most importantly, believed the victims and threw enough resources at the case that they were able to identify and arrest the perpetrator.  

This is an important book.  It outlines the severity of the rape crisis and the many ways that it is downplayed and given minimal investigative resources in many cases.  Rape is not a primarily sexual crime although it is expressed in a sexual fashion.  It is a crime of power and control and those who are serial rapists often escalate trying to get the same feelings of mastery.  The steps that need to be taken in rape cases and the counseling afterwards is clearly defined.  This book is recommended for those interested in women's issues and social justice.  

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Land Of Marvels by Barry Unsworth


The time is 1914 and the place is Mesopotamia (now Iraq).  In the leadup to the First World War, a collection of individuals from around the globe have gathered to attempt to attain their goals.  Somerville is a British archaeologist and believes that he has found an undiscovered Assyrian palace.  He has financed the expedition himself to a large extent and he is desperate to make a momentous discovery and assure his place in history.  He is accompanied by his wife, who chose him over more prestigious matches because she found his quest fascinating but now that she is here, she is bored and looking for excitement. 

Others in the party include graduate students who have found romance with each other and of course, the native men who do the actual work.  Jehar is one of these men, a scout whose main interest is getting enough money from this work to pay the dowry of his love and make her his wife.  He is scouting and reporting back on the progress of a railroad to Baghdad which Somerville is fearful will come through his digging and ruin his plans.  There are also government officials who have paved the way for Somerville's work and a shadowy businessman who cares not a whit about the upcoming war, ancient history or what will happen except for how it affects his fortune.  These last two make a pact with Somerville.  He will allow an American geologist, Elliot, who is scouting for oil reserves to join his expedition, hiding his true plans behind that of being another archaeologist.  

Tensions mount as each individual pursues his own agenda.  Somerville makes a breakthrough in the excavation and it appears that he does have a major find.  Elliot is also successful in his explorations and believes that he has discovered a massive oilfield.  He knows that there are both business and military rivals that would do anything to know his discoveries.  Jahar becomes more and more frantic as the time grows shorter for him to find the money to marry and he comes up with a plan to blow up the railroad works to delay their progress.  Somerville's wife starts an affair with the American out of boredom and fear that her husband is not as impressive as she believed when she married him.  The tension rises and it is inevitable that there will be clashes between the opposing agendas.  Who will emerge victorious?

Barry Unsworth had a long and distinguished career as an author.  He wrote seventeen historical fiction novels, usually with some connection to the British Empire.  He was shortlisted three times for Booker Prize and his novel, Sacred Hunger, won the Booker in 1992.  This novel with its' conflicting agendas and personalities is an exploration of the urges that drive men to complete amazing feats and their willingness to do whatever it takes, good or evil, to accomplish their goals.  It starts slowly but the tension and pace increase until the book reaches its thrilling climax.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.  

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Fair Warning by Michael Connelly


Reporter Jack McEvoy is surprised to find LAPD homicide detectives at his door.  They are there about a woman who has been found murdered and Jack had briefly dated her a year ago.  The detectives are suspicious of him and even though Jack offers up his DNA for elimination purposes, they seem to be treating him as a suspect.  Jack uses his reporter training to try to find out more about the woman and the murder and that makes the detectives angry, with Jack even ending up in jail for a night to give the detectives probably cause to search his apartment.  

Jack finds that the woman's neck was broken in what is called an internal decapitation.  Using his contacts, he finds that there are other women who have died this way recently and they all share a common trait; they all used a specific DNA testing service.  Now Jack starts to believe that there is a serial killer on the loose who uses the results from that service to target women who are vulnerable to his approach.  

Jack realizes he needs help with the story and more importantly, the investigation.  He contacts Rachel Walling, a former FBI profiler and his former lover.  She is now doing investigative work and agrees to help him.  His editor also assigns another reporter, Emily, to help him with the legwork and writing.  Together the team starts to make breakthroughs to finding the killer but the killer soon realizes that someone is on to him.  He starts to kill those involved in any way who might know his identity and then starts to target the investigative team.  Who will be successful, the killer or those seeking him?

This is the third novel in the Jack McEvoy series.  Jack was the reporter who found The Poet, a serial killer that was the subject of one of Connelly's best ever novels.  His relationship with Rachel has ebbed and flowed over the years and usually ends up badly due to Jack's inability to fully trust anyone and his unfortunate trait of putting his career and the story ahead of any relationships he is involved in.  The novel also highlights the ethical issues involved in the popular DNA testing that so many have participated in.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan


George Washington Black is born as a slave on a sugar plantation in Barbados in the early 1830's.  The slave plantations were known as the worst of the slave environments and Wash, as he was known, saw evidence daily of the brutality and indifference to human life that those plantations embodied.  His life was constant brute physical labor in the fields, punctuated with the sudden cruelty of overseers or his master, whose only goal was the total domination of the individuals who worked there.  He did have one protector, a huge powerful woman named Big Kit.  

When Wash was eleven, his master demanded that he and Big Kit serve at the table one night.  This was unheard of, as field slaves had no idea how to serve or take care of the fine china and crystal.  They suspected that it was only a showpiece designed to end in some punishment meant to serve as a warning to the others.  But they went.  His master was a cold man but his brother, Christopher, seems a different sort.  Christopher is a scientific man, interested in exploration and discoveries.  He sees in Wash someone who might help him with his latest obsession, a hot air balloon.  He asks his brother to give him Wash's services and the brother surprisely agrees.

Thus begins a different life for Wash.  His master starts to educate him, showing him how to make various measurements and to read  Christopher, or Titch as he is known, is shocked to see the artistic talent that Wash has and soon Wash's life is full of new knowledge and ease.  He is content for the first time but when a man on the plantation dies in Wash's presence, both he and Titch know that someone will have to pay for the death and Wash is the most likely candidate.  The two escape at night in the balloon and soon are off to the colonies and then on to the Arctic to find Titch's father.  

Over time, Wash moves from the Arctic to Nova Scotia, where he meets a famous marine biologist and his daughter, and then to London.  He becomes separated from Titch along the way and he realizes that his life won't be complete until he can see Titch again and resolve the mysteries of his childhood.  He travels the world until he finds him and learns what he can about his origins.

This novel was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2018.  It is a searing look at the repulsive practices of slavery and the absolute waste of intelligence and talent such a system entailed.  Yet the character of Wash is such that he never gives up hope and fights to insure that he can live a life of meaning.  This book is recommended for readers of historical and literary fiction.