Sunday, January 31, 2021

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu


Willis Wu has a typical life for an Asian man.  He lives in a SRO where both his parents also live although Willis is grown.  He tries to make a living in film and television starting as Generic Asian Man.  From there there are stages, Asian Man Number Three, then Two then One, then Guest Star then for those who work the hardest on their craft and are the luckiest, the pinnacle.  Kung Fu Guy is the absolute top achieved by only a few.  His father had been Kung Fu Guy when Willis was a boy and his dreams are focused on achieving it as well.

Daily he leaves the SRO for the Golden Palace restaurant which is the set of the detective series Black And White as well as the locale where his mother was the receptionist and his father works as a fry cook.  The detective show talks about the prejudice and stereotypes of black men and women who attempt to pursue jobs in male environments.  Yet its' use of Generic Asian Men is as stereotypical as any other show and Willis must fight for a couple of lines.

But this is where he meets Karen, his love.  They have a child but their lives are threatened by Willis obsessions on becoming Kung Fu guy and they start to drift apart.  Can Willis break free and have a real life?

This novel is a National Book Award Winner and a best book of the year by such organizations as NPR, the New York Public Library, Shelf Awareness, The New Yorker, Southern Living and others.  It is a wry expose of the invisibility that minorities feel in a culture where white is the majority.  It explores the fact that there is rivalry between the various minorities such as African American and Asian and Hispanic about which encounters the worst treatment and the shame of competing in such a venue.  Although it doesn't feel factually correct in this time where there are opportunities outside of the entertainment venue for minorities, it feels emotionally correct about the reality minorities encounter daily.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction and those interested in the minority experience.  

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Mortal Prey by John Sandford


Lucas Davenport remembers Clara Rinker well.  Years ago, he almost died at her hands.  Clara was an assassin, hiring out to crime bosses to eliminate their enemies.  Lucas, as a policeman, was another category of person Clara often killed.  She was charming enough that when Lucas met her in a bar, they actually spent the evening flirting and dancing before she tried to kill him and missed.

But that was years ago.  No one has heard from her in years.  The word on the street is that she left the life and left the country.  But now there are rumors she is coming back.  The local crime bosses found out she went South and reached down there to try to kill her.  Instead they ended up killing her fiance and hit her.  She was pregnant and lost the baby as well as her future husband.

Now she is back in Minnesota with a blood lust and determination to kill the men on her list.  She kills the first before the police even hear about her coming back.  As the FBI tries to locate her, they draft Lucas to join the team as he has experience with her and a reputation for doggedness and never stopping until he finishes the mission.  But no matter what they do, the list of killed crime bosses continues to grow.  Can Lucas and the team catch her before she ends her revenge trip?

This is number thirteen in the Lucas Davenport series.  In this one, he is about to marry Weather and is determined to eliminate the threat of Clara before his wedding occurs.  The characteristics Davenport brings to law enforcement are in full display here along with his preference for regular police over federal agencies and their employees.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Friday, January 29, 2021

The Survivors by Jane Harper


Kiernan left Evelyn Bay, Tasmania shortly after the accident.  The accident that killed his brother, Finn and another man.  The accident that everyone thought was Kiernan's fault, that the men had been coming to save Kiernan when he went in the caves known to be unsafe and got caught in the storm.  The men's boat had run into the rocks surrounding the caves and sunk and both men where killed.  In a place as small and insular as Evelyn Bay, everyone knew about the deaths and everyone thought they knew exactly what happened.  Kiernan knows that even his parents blame him.

Another death occurred in that storm; a young girl went missing and her body was never found.  It was suspected that she had been swept into the sea while walking home.  Only her book bag was ever found.

Now Kiernan has returned to Evelyn Bay but this time is different.  He's a grown man now, not a teenager.  He is married to Mia and they have a baby.  He has come home to help his mother move his dad, in the first stages of dementia, into an assisted living situation and to pack up their house for sale.  he meets with his old friends and acquaintances but can tell there are still those who remember the past and still blame him.

Then the unthinkable happens.  Another girl is found, this time murdered.  She was a waitress at the pub where Kiernan had gone the night before with his wife to meet old friends.  Suspicion falls on Liam, the son of the other man killed with Kiernan's brother.  Liam still blames Kiernan but apart from his surly nature, Kiernan can't believe Liam is involved.  

As the investigation into the girl's death unfolds, secrets from that time a decade ago start to emerge.  Why was Kiernan in the caves which were known to be off-limits?  How did Finn know to try to sail past the Survivors memorial to rescue him?  Why was Kiernan's father seen with both girls shortly before their disappearance?  

Jane Harper has created another brooding mystery that could only be set in the Australian and Tasmania lands that she has claimed as her locale.  The tourist town wouldn't exist except for fishing and tourist diving trips but both can be dangerous pursuits, especially in weather that can change in an instance and transform the sea from placid to murderous.  The smallness of the town and the sense that once the town defines you your personality is set for life to them combine with the ruggedness of the environment to create a claustrophobic atmosphere that makes escape seem impossible.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Terrier by Tamora Pierce


Beka Cooper is starting her career in the police force.  She is a rookie, a Puppy in the Dog Patrol with two mentors, Goodwin and Cantrell.  As a Puppy, she is to listen and learn and figure out how to police a place as crime-ridden as the Lower City.  But Beka has an advantage.  She was born and bred in the Lower City and knows most of the people there.  She and her family were plucked out of poverty by the Lord of the area and he is her mentor and protector.  The Dogs are in his employ and he approves of Beka's decision to join them.

The streets are teeming with criminals.  There are pickpockets, thieves, smugglers, beggars and plenty of aggression and fights.  There are also murders and two murderers are currently at large.  One is the Shadow Snake.  He kidnaps the children of poor people and the ransom is the one treasure they have somehow acquired and hung on to.  If they pay, their child is returned, if not, their body is.  Tansy, Beka's childhood friend, has just lost her three year old son to the Shadow Shape and Beka is determined to bring him to justice.  There is also a shadowy figure who is mining opals in secret.  To keep the secret, the workers are killed and buried on the site.

Beka's other advantage is her magic.  She can hear the voices of pigeons, who carry the ghosts of the dead and can pick up clues from their stories.  She can also understand the voices of whirlwinds who also know the gossip of the dead along with all the other stories they sweep up.  Beka uses these secrets to work with her Dogs to investigate the crimes, while forming an alliance with the Rogue's Court, many of whom live in her building.  Finding the murderers will make her place with the Dogs permanent and bring justice to those she loves.

This is the first book in the Beka Cooper trilogy, which in turn is part of a huge world with many novels.  It is written in the young adult genre yet there are dark occurrences like the omnipresent slavery and the casual violence of both the police and the criminals.  Beka is a lovable character and the reader will cheer as she advances in confidence and ability.  This book is recommended for readers of young adult fantasy.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel


Haven Kimmel grew up in Mooreland, Indiana, a small rural town of three hundred inhabitants and four churches. It was a poor town and no one had much money.  Everyone knew everyone and they knew their families and backgrounds.  There weren't a lot of secrets in Mooreland.

Haven's nickname was Zippy and that's what everyone called her.  She was a spunky girl, not always kind but the view into how she innocently saw her world is priceless.  There were older siblings to contend with and look up to, parents who loved her, friends who might be a friend today and someone else's friend tomorrow and pets.  Zippy might not have been worldly but she wasn't a perfect child either.  She reports that none of her teachers liked her and she spent her time in school making their lives difficult.  She was sometimes cruel to her friends but usually loyal, much as other children are.  Zippy didn't believe in the whole Jesus legend, but she was in church every Sunday and other times throughout the week as her mother was very religious. 

Her family was normal as seen through Zippy's eyes.  Her mother spent her time not in church laying on the couch reading books.  She probably suffered from clinical depression.  Her father was gone for hours every day but always seemed to know what Zippy was doing and when she might need him.  He was the largest presence in her life even though he refused to enter the church at all so was considered strange by others in the town.  Her big brother was quiet and smart although he refused to read until well into his high school years.  Her big sister was also so much older than she was definitely a separate presence to Zippy.  

This is one of the most charming books I've read in years.  The reader cannot help but fall in love with Zippy even while thanking the gods that they didn't have to raise her.  I'm not a reader who laughs out loud at books, but found myself doing exactly that multiple times in this story.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction and those interested in small town rural life.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Admissions by Meg Mitchell Moore


Those looking in from the outside envy the Hawthorne family.  They live in a suburb of San Francisco in a lovely home.  The parents both have good jobs.  Gabe is a business consultant and Nora is a top-notch realtor.  They have three healthy and happy girls.  

But an inch below the surface, things don't look as good.  The eldest daughter, Angela is a senior in high school.  She is class valedictorian, active in sports and outside activities and has her heart set on Harvard.  But she is always exhausted and has little time to have a social life.  She has tons of homework every day after she finishes all her practices and charitable hours.  Anxiously, she wonders if she can really make it into the golden circle of Harvard admittees.

Cecily is the middle daughter.  She is obsessed with Irish dancing and considered an expert at it; something that requires hours of practices and classes.  Maya, the youngest girl, is in second grade and still not reading, getting bullied by her classmates about it.  Nora's career is always precarious dependent on whether or not she can sell the next house.  Gabe's saddled with an intern from hell who has managed to uncover his deepest secret and is trying to use it to blackmail herself into a permanent job.  Can the Hawthorne's keep all the plates spinning?

Meg Mitchell Moore has nailed the exhaustion and constant striving that success in America requires of families.  Children are overscheduled and set higher and higher bars to be considered a success.  Parents constantly balance careers and family responsibilities, spending hours after work trying to get everything done so that everyone can be everywhere they need to be.  Readers will probably recognize much of their own lives in that of the Hawthornes and read avidly to see how they solve the pressures of modern life.  This book is recommended for readers of family relationship novels.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood


Iris Chase has always been rich.  As a girl she and her sister, Laura, were the daughters of the wealthiest man in town who owned the button factory where most of the townspeople worked.  When the factory failed Iris was basically bartered to another wealthy man who saved the factory but controlled and abused Iris.  She was whisked away from Laura and isolated by her husband, Richard, and his sister.  

Laura didn't fare any better.  Just entering her teen years when Iris was taken away, she lived in the big mansion with her increasingly remote father.  After she died, Richard brought her to live with he and Iris and started his campaign to control her.  When that didn't work, he had Laura hospitalized in a mental hospital that served as a prison.  Laura got out and disappeared.  She turned up later and gave Iris the book she had authored before stealing Iris' car and driving it off the bridge.  She was twenty-five and became a celebrity author after her death.  Her book detailed an illicit affair between a young girl and her poor lover.

Now Iris is an old woman and she is looking back at her life.  She writes in her journal everyday and along with her recounting of her daily life are excerpts from Laura's novel.  As the journal progresses, the secrets that this family kept are revealed in layer after layer of deceit and cruelty.  

This novel won the Booker Prize in 2000.  The reader is drawn into Iris' life and the sacrifices she made to try to have and keep a family and find love.  As the secrets are revealed one after the other readers will feel tenderness toward Iris, fury at the abuse and shock at what occurred.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Greenwood by Michael Christie


Greenwood starts out at an eco-entertainment refuge in 2038.  The Earth is choking on dust and people are dying everywhere, their children coughing so hard their ribs snap like kindling.  Greenwood Island in Canada is one of the last places with forested land and rich tourists pay fortunes to come and visit the trees.  Jake (Jacinda) is a ranger there and when she sees the first sign of disease in the trees, she is horrified and knows something must be done although her bosses do not agree.  

From Jake the novel travels back in time thought the generations.  There is Jake's father, a carpenter and furniture maker who works in reclaimed wood.  His mother Willow is considered an ecoterrorist and she threw away the fortune she inherited to live in the forest and do what she could to save them.  

But the majority of the book tells the stories of the original Greenwood brothers back in the 1920's and 1930's.  Harris and Everett are not really brothers but are raised that way, survivors of a horrific train accident that took their families and left them in the wooded Canadian north.  No one knows their family names so they are given the Greenwood name and left to the raising of an elderly isolated woman who sheltered them in a shack outside her comfortable home and ignored them.  That made the boys close, probably closer than those who did share blood.

Harris grows up and loses his sight to disease.  Regardless of his handicap, he becomes an influential and wealthy man, his fortune based on the timber he cuts and sells to those building railroads and houses in frontier and foreign lands.  His brother Everett goes to war in Harris' stead and returns a broken man.  They become estranged and only come together over their love for Willow and the mysteries surrounding her birth.  

This novel was longlisted for the Giller Prize.  It's structure echoes that of the great trees, with concentric circles leading backwards to the start of the tree's story.  There are analogies between trees and human families and an exploration of family secrets and love that spans the generations.  This book is recommended for readers of historical fiction.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Trunk Music by Michael Connelly


It was a routine case, if murder can ever be called routine.  The victim was Tony Alisio and he was found on Mulholland Drive near his home in the hills, shot and stuffed in the trunk of his car.  Harry Bosch gets the call.  It's his first murder in a while as he has been in another department and has just come back to Homicide.  He leads a team of two other detectives, Jerry Edgar and Kiz Rider.  

The victim is returning from a trip to Las Vegas.  As the detectives start to investigate they discover that Tony is often in Vegas.  His wife is a cold beauty who doesn't seem that upset by her husband's demise and it soon emerges that Tony went to Vegas to gamble and have other women.  It's also quickly apparent that the source of his wealth is not the low-rent porn movies he makes but laundering money for the mob.  Was this a robbery of mob cash or was his wife finally tired of Tony's disrespect and catting around?

Bosch investigates the case in both Los Angeles and in Las Vegas.  While there, he runs into someone he thought he'd never see again.  Eleanor Wish had been an FBI agent the first time she and Harry had met.  They had a love affair but Eleanor ended up caught up in crime.  She lost her job and served time in federal prison and Harry feels that it was partly his fault.  Although he is still interested, he doesn't know if they can ever get past what happened before.  

This is the fifth novel in the Harry Bosch series.  For those following the series, this one fills in more of Bosch's background and introduces the woman who will be so important in Harry's life going forward.  The murder involves not only a twisted plot line but insights into the criminal world of gambling, the inner politics of the police force and the interrelationships between various police forces and other agencies such as the FBI.  There are multiple surprises and this novel is recommended for mystery readers.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Unwilling by John Hart


It's Gibson French, or Gibbie as he's known to friends, senior year.  He isn't sure what he wants to do with his life after that.  Should he go to college as his parents want?  The war in Vietnam is raging and he feels a pull to enlist and go there as his two older brothers did.  But Robert, his oldest brother, was killed there and Jason, the middle brother, came back but as a broken shell of what he had been.  Does the war deserve another French brother?

Then rumors start to float around that Jason has come back home after his dishonorable discharge and his time in prison.  It's said he runs with the motorcycle gangs now, that he deals drugs and guns and that he doesn't care for anyone.  So Gibbie doesn't know what to do when Jason seeks him out and seems to want to get to know him now that he has grown up.  He goes on an outing with Jason and two girls and finds a man very different from the rumors.

But more trouble arrives.  The girl dating Jason is found horribly murdered.  Jason is arrested and sent back to the penitentiary where he is at the mercy of a psychopath who runs the place.  When the other girl is kidnapped, the police assume that Gibbie is at the heart of that crime and now they are looking for him as well.  But Gibbie has also been kidnapped, a pawn in the power play between the man who runs the prison, Jason and the police.  Can he be saved?

John Hart has written a compelling view of a family torn apart by the times.  The French brothers grew up with a policeman as a father and his black and white view of the world makes it difficult for him to accept his sons as they grow up and have their own ideas.  He is quick to judge and although he loves his sons, he acts first and finds out the facts afterwards.  The novel touches on the national nightmare that the Vietnam war was for so many families.  It highlights the difficulties in growing up and separating from the child one was and it emphasizes family love above all.  The tension is high and is ratcheted higher with every plot twist.  This book is recommended for thriller readers.

I listened to this as an audiobook.  The narrator was clear and did an excellent job.  Although the book is set in the South, there is no jarring Southern accent that so many outside the region get wrong.  He especially did a good job narrating Gibbie and his high school sweetheart.  The only wrong note was that of the powerful psychopath.  His voice is given as a slow, accented voice with a lisp and it doesn't set the stage for the fear that the reader is meant to feel for him.  Overall, the narration was clear and easy to listen to.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener


In her mid-twenties, Anna Wiener is in New York City, working a low paid job in the publishing industry.  Everyone she knows is working the same kind of barely making it job as they check their safety net of parents wondering how long they could subsist as they 'paid their dues'.  When she has the chance to change her life and move to California and work in the technology industry, she jumps at the chance.

She works there for half a decade, cycling between several tech start-ups and more established technology companies.  Anna doesn't have technical skills; she isn't a programmer or a data scientist or a security guru.  She works in customer service, fielding calls for help, tracking down copyright infringements and checking company content boards for offensive and illegal content.  She is incredibly well paid compared to her NYC days and the culture is very different.  Employee structures are flat and perks abound.   Remote work is allowed and encouraged.

But there are drawbacks as well.  A higher salary doesn't mean much when all the technology money has made the real estate market so expensive that it is the rare person who doesn't have to have roommates well past the age that most people are on their own.  Perks don't mean much in work weeks that routinely are expected to be eighty to a hundred hours weekly.  Women are marginalized as are the non-tech employees.  The buzz word for compensation is meritocracy but it's strange how the merit all seems to reside in young, white males who look just like the founders of these young companies.

Uncanny Valley is a term used in the technology industry.  It refers to the fact that individuals respond more favorably to robots that appear human, but if the robot gets too human appearing, a revulsion sets in.  It is a metaphor for the technology industry that appears fascinating and desirable from the outside but is anxiety producing and barren from an insiders' view.  It is the casual data driven environment where every purchase and opinion is tracked and sold to companies so that they can better target their products and influence society.  It is a cautionary tale that only an insider can tell.  This book is recommended for readers of nonfiction and especially for those considering a career in technology.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen


The signs are all there if Vanessa had known to watch out for them.  Fleeing from a disaster in her college life she has fled to make a new life in New York City.  She has a good friend in her roommate Samantha and a job she loves as a preschool teacher when she meets him.  Richard is older, wealthy, a successful businessman.  He sweeps Vanessa off her feet and soon she is engaged to be married to him.  But there are little things that are off.  Sam and her other friends don't like Richard.  He gives Vanessa a trivalizing nickname, Nellie, rather than using her name.  He arranges all their dates and trips.  He even buys her a huge house in the suburbs as a surprise, without asking her if she wants it or if she wants to move elsewhere.  He assumes she will give up her job after their marriage.

By the time the beatings start, Vanessa has been totally isolated.  She is out in the countryside with no friends, no job and nothing to take up her time except cleaning and cooking for Richard.  When he starts an affair at work, she is more relieved than anything and soon they are divorced with her accepting whatever Richard deems is her right.  But now Richard is engaged again and Vanessa feels that she needs to do whatever she can to keep the marriage from occurring.  Can she thwart Richard's plans?

Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen have written a suspenseful tale with twists and turns in the plot at every juncture.  The reader isn't sure if Vanessa is a heroine or a vengeful ex-wife or what her motives are in following Richard's life after their marriage.  The flashbacks to her earlier tragedy fuel speculation about why she does the things she does as does the role of Richard's older sister, the one woman who is a constant in his life.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

A Measure Of Darkness by Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman


When Deputy Coroner Clay Edison gets the late night call, he didn't expect what he found.  A huge block party had erupted into violence.  Opposing groups had opened fire and a panicked stampede had occurred.  There was a vehicle death on top of the gun deaths.  There was a six year old boy killed when a stray bullet came through the walls of the apartment he and his mother shared.  

All of this was bad and everyone turned out.  Clay was the last to leave and so he got the last body found.  It was found hours after the initial call and was the body of a young woman hidden in a shed at the back of the large property.  She didn't seem to have a gunshot wound; instead there was blunt force trauma and strangulation.  She was the victim of a murderous attack, probably by someone she knew.

Clay's job is to identify all the victims he is assigned, notify their next of kin and make sure all of the paperwork that accompanies a sudden death is correctly filled out and filed.  His job is not to investigate crimes but his curious nature and tenacity leaves him unable to leave things unexplained.  It takes weeks to identify the woman in the shed and when he does, he and a policewoman uncover credit card fraud of a massive nature the woman had been involved in.  Did this cause her death or did the answers lie even further back in her background?  

Readers will enjoy this father/son team of authors who combine talents to bring another Californian professional to life.  Clay is a former basketball star who lost his chance at a professional career when his knee was hurt.  He has fallen into the coroner's office by happenstance but enjoys the work and the occasional mystery he encounters.  He is dealing with the return of his black sheep brother into his family and with the intensifying of his relationship with his girlfriend.  All of this makes Clay as interesting as the mystery he solves.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Saturday by Ian McEwan


Henry Perowne is a man at the top of his game.  In his fifties, he is a renowned neurosurgeon working in a London hospital.  He is married to Rosalind who is a lawyer and who he still loves after many years of marriage.  They have two children.  Daisy is living in Paris and has just had her first book of poetry published.  Theo is still at home and is a jazz musician.  Everything in his life is going well.

This is a routine Saturday.  He plans to go to his weekly squash game, followed by a visit to his mother who is in care.  Then he needs to shop for a large family dinner.  Both Daisy and Rosalind's father are coming home to visit and Henry plans to cook for everyone.  The streets are crowded as there is a large antiwar protest against the intended invasion of Iraq which will set off a war.  

Because of the protestors blocking the streets, Henry takes a different route than usual and it ends in a fender bender.  The car isn't that hurt but the other man, Baxter, is upset and tries to intimidate Henry.  Baxter has two friends with him and it could end badly but Henry has learned skills that allow him to defuse the situation and go about his day.  But as everyone gathers, he sees that he didn't defuse the situation when Baxter and his friends show up unexpectedly at the Perowne household.  

This is a lovely slice of life novel.  McEwan captures the actions and thoughts of a middle aged man starting to wonder what the rest of his life will hold.  Unlike his operating theatre where he controls everything, his life cannot be controlled.  Children grow up and head off to their own lives, parents age and need different relationships.  Physical strength starts to wane.  World events seem to spin out of control and there is little the average person can do about things that will have a huge effect on their lives.  Few authors can capture a life in prose better than McEwan and the reader will be entranced with their viewpoint into Henry's life.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.