Sunday, April 22, 2018

THE THIRST by Jo Nesbo (fiction/thriller)

I thought I was Jo Nesbo(ed) out after I finished this latest Harry Hole thriller.  But, I read a review of his latest book, “Macbeth,” and I might have to reconsider.  “Macbeth” is part of the reconfigured Shakespeare series, in which authors write a contemporary novel based on Shakespeare’s original.  I reviewed Anne Tyler’s “Vinegar Girl” which is part of the same series.  The thought of Nesbo taking on “Macbeth” is too juicy to ignore.

At any rate, “The Thirst” follows the same formula that has made Nesbo famous, lots of gore, angst, murders, and Harry.  In this book Harry is married to Rakel and his step-son, Oleg is a police intern and has shaken off his addictions, Harry though, maybe not.  Harry’s workmates are also here with all their hangups.  Early in the book, we meet the murderous villain, this time a vampire-like killer who wreaks havoc with some specially made steel dentures.  Enough said.

If you are a fan of Nesbo and Harry, this will not disappoint.  I still think “The Snowman” is his best.
Enjoy.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

PACHINKO by Min Jin Lee (fiction)

“Pachinko” was a National Book Award finalist as well as one of the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2017.  The story spans the years from about 1910 when the Japanese occupied Korea until the end of the 1980s.  The author has given us the story of four generations of a family who lived through the two World Wars, the Cold War and the Korean War and the effects these events had on ordinary people.
The story opens in a small fishing village, Yeongdo, on the southeast coast of Korea. There, in an arranged marriage a young girl named Yangjin weds a good man who has a double disability, both a cleft lip and a club foot.  Despite the difficulty of making a living, the couple had a happy marriage, especially when a daughter, their only child, was born.  It is this girl, Sunja, who is the center of the novel.  The family remained desperately poor, and more so when the father dies early on.

The young Sunja was an innocent and naive girl, and she was attracted to a well dressed Japanese man who came back and forth to her little village, though we are never quite sure what his business there was.  He took notice of Sunja in the marketplace, and then took advantage of her.  As these these tales often go, it wasn’t long before Sunja found she was pregnant.  Hansu was married with a family back in Japan, and what’s more he was a powerful member of the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia.  In a strange way, Hansu loved Sunja for her purity, and though he could not convince her to leave with him, he continued to secretly follow her whereabouts and support her in ways she was unaware of.  He appears again and again throughout the book, never losing his love for Sunja.

One day a young Korean Christian missionary, Isak, en route to join his brother in Japan, stays at Yangjin’s boarding house.  Sensitive to Sunja’s condition and the shame and rejection she would bring upon the family, he offers to marry her and bring up her child as his own if she will join him in Osaka.  It is the story of this family which is the centerpiece of the novel.  Because the story follows four generations in the Baek family, it is not possible to give a plot summary, of this well-written book, rich with detail.  Poor and forced to live in the Korean ghetto where they were known as Zainichi, the first generation faced discrimination and often brutality.  Feeling shame the women worked hard to make and sell kimchi in the marketplace. Three strong steadfast woman kept the family intact and close. Though they longed to return to Korea, they could not because of occupation and war.

Sonja and Isak had two sons and these men became very successful but by different pathways. Noa, the oldest, longs to be Japanese and eventually changes his name and moves to Nagano where he passes for Japanese, his wife and children unaware of his roots.
Mozasu, the second son, who was never much of a student, becomes wealthy by running and eventually owning Pachinko parlors.  Pachinko is a game similar to vertical pinball. Wildly popular, they are everywhere in Japan, noisy and full of people at all hours.  In the past, it was a path out of poverty for the many Koreans who ran them. Inevitably they were targets for the Yakuza.

Mozasu’s son, Solomon, faces different challenges.  He is a modern child, educated in America, with a degree in business.  Sadly, he discovers that working for a British investment bank does not shield him from discrimination and even sacking, when he is considered redundant after completing a large deal for the company.

Min Jin’s characters are strongly drawn and realistic.  Family ties, the role of women, the shame and struggle of being an immigrant, are all themes which run through the book.  I enjoyed the novel and highly recommend it as a great read as well as a bit of history one may not be familiar with.




 





Tuesday, April 3, 2018

THE DEAD HOUR by Denise Mina (fic/mystery)

This is an early Denise Mina thriller, written in 2006, and continues the story of Paddy Meehan who works the graveyard shift for the Scottish Daily News in Glasgow.  Paddy appears in a previous book, “Field of Blood,” which I haven’t read, but this novel stands on its own as an enjoyable read.  Paddy is young, tough and feisty.  She more than holds her own in the rough nightly news room and with the police at the local precinct. She comes from a large and poor Irish family, and she wrestles with her share of guilt about her weight, her snacking, and her relationship with a sleazy detective on a case she is following for a news story.

Paddy’s job entails chasing down police calls with her driver in case there is a lead she can make into a story.  The usual night news room stories are fairly dull, and when she stumbles upon a call in an upscale neighborhood, Paddy is sure there is more to the case than a simple domestic dispute. She becomes part of the case when she glimpses a battered woman behind the well-dressed handsome man who answers the door.  The woman quickly disappears from sight as the man smoothly puts off  the police, slipping them and Paddy hush money.  The exchange happens so quickly that it doesn’t register with her until she is warned to keep her mouth shut by the police.

Mina weaves dark nourish tales, and most of the action in this story takes place in the wet, gritty streets of nighttime Glasgow.  It involves murder, police corruption, suicide and drugs.  Mina’s characters are real and Paddy is unusual and likable.  The reader feels her pain and her struggle to do the right thing while trying to help support her family and especially her mother.

Finding an older Denise Mina book at a library book sale is a treat indeed.  If you haven’t read anything by her and you like mysteries, I recommend you give her work a try.  She writes well and realistically and her characters are always psychologically interesting and deeper than the usual crime novel sleuth.


Friday, March 23, 2018

THE HORSEMAN by Tim Pears (fiction

This beautiful story by Tim Pears completely mesmerized me.  I was back in Somerset and Devon, Thomas Hardy country.  The measured pace of each day in one year in the life of a country manor farm, and the mood that the author creates with his lyrical writing reminds me very much of the pleasure of reading Hardy.  “The Horseman” is the first of a trilogy of the West Country of England.

It is the story of Leo Sercombe, a 14 year old boy in the years 1911-12.  These years are the last before the Great War broke out, and Leo’s life parallels the calm before the storm.  We are reminded that though nature is calming and beautiful, it can also bring destruction, and the reader knows that despite the slow cadence of everyday life, something big is coming.

Leo is a silent observer, serious, honest and true.  He rarely speaks, yet takes in all around him, and in turn we see all through Leo’s eyes. School and book learning are something to be gotten through until real life begins.  He is the youngest of a taciturn family where everyone has a job and that job fills every minute of every day.  Everyone contributes his or her work which like a well-oiled gear keeps the large estate running smoothly.  The chapters are named by the months of the year and each is centered around a seasonal chore, whether it is preparing the ground for planting until it is time for reaping, or birthing animals, or the brutality of their slaying for food when they mature.  The quiet dignity of the farm workers and the cadence of their speech has a calming effect.

Leo is like a horse whisperer.  He has a gift that all recognize, even Lord Prideaux who sees a future for Leo that will eventually put him in charge of all the manor stables.  Only things don’t always go as one plans or wishes.  Leo’s passionate love of horses is equally felt by Miss Charlotte, daughter of Lord Prideaux. She also instinctively understands the animals and is a talented horsewoman.  She shares an unspoken bond with Leo, as if they are two sides of the same person, bound by their deep love and understanding of horses.  Their innocent relationship is misunderstood by others. The difference in their social classes dictates that they cannot overstep the boundaries they seem to ignore. The climax and ending of the book is very powerful, especially since events leading up to it are so peaceful.

This elegiac novel touched me deeply and I look forward to reading the others in the series.  I highly recommend it to all who feel a kinship with nature, love horses, and to those who love Thomas Hardy’s West Country novels.

Monday, March 19, 2018

& SONS by David Gilbert (fiction)

I enjoyed this book; I like the writing, and I especially liked the recognizable setting in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  Explaining the plot is not easy without giving away the climax of the novel, and there a number of characters with their own stories.  The novel largely focuses on one family, the Dyers, and opens with the funeral of Charlie Topping, the childhood friend of Andrew Dyer, a celebrated author.  Andrew Dyer has a cult following, a la J. D.Salinger, even to his sobriquet, A. D. Dyer.  His reputation rests mainly on his novel “Ampersand,” which won him the Pulitzer Prize and 50 years later is still being published. Chapters are introduced with letters from Dyer to Charlie from day camp and beyond.  They remained best friends through childhood, summer camp, their days at Exeter Academy and into old age.  Dyer’s novel has a lot to do with their days at Exeter, and this crops up throughout the book.  Philip Topping, Charlie’s son, newly divorced and a lost soul, narrates the story and is privy to all events even into the minds of the characters.  It works perfectly from a reader’s point of view.

Dyer, not surprisingly, is absent to his children, spending most of his time barricaded in his office writing.  His two older sons, Richard a former addict who has turned counsellor, and Jamie a free spirited documentary film maker who has drifted through life, are immersed in their own stories and arrive on the scene only when summoned by Dyer who is convinced he is dying.  Dyer and their mother divorced after 31 years of marriage when he had an affair which resulted in the birth of a third son, Andy who is now a teenager.  It is important to Dyer, for reasons the reader will discover, that he exacts a promise from his elder sons to look after Andy when Dyer passes on.  This family reunion orchestrated by Dyer is awkward to say the least.  His first wife, settled in a second marriage and living in Connecticut, is also asked to attend to the narcissistic “dying” man.

Readers familiar with Central Park and the museums of the East Side, will find much that is recognizable.  The setting adds to the enjoyment of the novel.  Gilbert is an accomplished writer who spins a good tale.  I recommend this novel to all readers.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

AMONG THE LIVING AND THE DEAD by Inara Verzemnieks (memoir)

A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe

Of all the reading I have done on World War II, I had never given much thought to Latvia and its place during and after the war.   Inara Verzemnieks eloquent and poetic memoir about her search for her roots opened up an immigrant family’s story and shed light on a Baltic country I knew little about.

Inara was born in Tacoma, Washington.  Her childhood was an unhappy one until she went to live with her paternal grandparents.  Her mother was abusive and her father suffered from the effects of the war in Viet Nam and was a stranger to her.  All the love and warmth she received as a child came from her Latvian grandparents.  The ex-pat community of Latvians in Tacoma were committed to keeping up the old traditions and Inara was sent to summer camp every year where the children lived in cabins which were replicas of Latvian wooden farm houses; they sang Latvian songs, saluted the Latvian flag, ate Latvian food and learned traditional Latvian farming.  I have seen this before where immigrant groups in America keep strong traditions alive, but it is dying out as the older generation who brought these traditions die out.

After her grandparents die, the adult Inara travels to Latvia to satisfy the longing she feels to connect her to her grandparents story, a story they avoided speaking of.  She does this for a part of every year for five years.  Inara wants to find the "invisible cities, places constructed of memory.” On her first trip she says, “The road I must travel to reach my grandmother’s lost village is like tracing the progression of an equation designed to restore lost time.  Each kilometer that carries me from Riga seems to subtract five years.”  She travels to Gulbene, a rural farming community, in the northeast part of Latvia, close to the Russian border. There she meets her great aunt Ausma, the last of the old generation and the only one who can shine a light of Inara’s grandmother’s past.

It is difficult for Ausma to revisit the past and for a long time she resists it. She says, “Your grandmother’s stories aren’t my stories." Finally she relents and Inara and the reader begin to understand the complicated past of the Latvian people caught between Germany and Russia.  Inara’s grandfather never spoke of being conscripted into the German army, her grandmother never spoke about the perilous journey she took with young children across war torn Europe to land in refugee camp.  Gradually Ausma tells her the story of being sent to Siberia along with 200,000 Latvians after the war when the country became part of the Soviet Union.  There she was forced to perform hard physical labor.  Along with her family’s story Inara comes to see the thread that connects Latvia’s past to its present as a vibrant member of NATO and the European Union, a past that will never be erased, a past that contains both shame and glory.

Verzemnieks is a beautiful writer and tells a story that might be familiar to many refugee families.  Though it chronicles the past, it is connected to today’s world with its many families fleeing a torturous past, hoping for what can only be a better future. I recommend this book to all readers.











Wednesday, March 7, 2018

MANHATTAN BEACH by Jennifer Egan (fiction)

Jennifer Egan’s last book, “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  Egan is an accomplished writer and one of my favorites.   Her writing is prosaic and small meaningful details add to the depth of the story.

When we first enter the story, a young, somewhat precocious girl named Anna Kerrigan is driving with her father to meet a shady character connected to the Brooklyn underworld.  It is winter, the year is 1934 and the man, Dexter Styles, will play an important role in Anna’s life.  In this small introduction to the characters, we right away catch a glimpse of the strong woman Anna will become.  The depression is on and it is inferred that Anna’s father has fallen on hard times after the stock market crash. The car they are driving belongs to another, and in desperation to feed his family and buy a wheelchair for Anna’s severely handicapped sister, he has taken on a job as a bag man for a crooked Union boss.

The book then leaps ahead to the early 1940s when the US had just entered the war.  Anna gets a job on the Manhattan docks which at this time are servicing the many warships that come and go.  Her father has disappeared, and Anna is the mainstay of her family, what little money she earns going toward making her sister comfortable. Egan is at her best making the world of the docks and workers come alive in vivid detail.  It reminds me of the ambiance of the old movie, “On the Waterfront.”  Soon tiring of her boring line job, Anna becomes fascinated with the divers she sees working on the ships underwater hulls. Through determination and strength of character, Anna manages to join the crew in work that is meaningful to her, as the only woman diver. She earns the respect of the men she works with. Anna’s life at this time is reflected in the many many cultural details that Egan includes for us.  We can see how the War is beginning to change women’s lives and their importance in the workplace.

Not knowing the fate of her father is the catalyst that drives Anna to find Dexter Styles again, with the hopes that he will provide her with the answer.  Styles is rich and has married into an old, wealthy and respected New York family.  He is an alpha male moving the society of his father-in-law.  Egan brings in some of the politics of the era and is fabulous at describing family dynamics and how the depression and war changed family structure forever.

I love the way Egan weaves the characters together as their relationships ebb and flow.  I love Anna’s relationship with her father, her sister, with Styles and the bosses on the waterfront, and how these characters affect and change Anna. As a character Anna is strong, resourceful, open-minded and clever.  Just the same she makes mistakes and because of this is a real human being.

I really enjoyed this book and felt I was part of the life of the Brooklyn, lower Manhattan and the busy docks that are no longer there in the same way.  I highly recommend this book to all readers.