Monday, September 18, 2017

THE CROSSING by Andrew Miller (fiction)

I love Andrew Miller’s writing.  Like Hilary Mantel, he is one of Britain’s most lauded authors. In the past his subjects have been historical.  Considered his best book, “Pure” which takes place on the eve of the French revolution, won a number of literary prizes and was deemed one of the world’s 10 best historical novels by The Guardian.

This book is completely different. It takes place in present day England and opens with a young couple, members of a university sailing club, preparing a dry-docked sailboat for the season, when Maud  Stamp suddenly falls from the boat.  Surprisingly she survives.  The young man working with her, Tim Rathbone, eventually becomes her husband. Tim is from an aristocratic family which has nothing in common with Maud’s middle class parents.  There are some uncomfortable moments for each when the families meet.
 The story then takes a leap forward, and we find they have a daughter.  Maud who was trained as a chemist, is working for a pharmaceutical company while Tim is a stay-at-home Dad.  He spends his time dreamily composing music.  Maud herself has a dreamy quality which is attractive to men. She is something of an enigma.  The reader gets the feeling that these two are not deeply committed to each other, and when an unfortunate accident occurs Maud drifts into her own world.

 In her attempt to heal her deep depression, Maud sets sail on Lodestar, a boat she and Tim had lovingly refurbished.  The main part of the book takes us on this solo thousand mile journey across the Atlantic with Maud. The details of her life aboard with its daily chores and adjusting to the wind and currents is so accurate that the author must have sailing experience.  Every moment and each movement is real.  As someone who had sailed for many years, I appreciate Miller’s attention to life aboard and found it doubly anxiety making when Maud finally runs into a major storm.

As we move into the final third of the novel, the dismasted ship, has drifted off course and Maud is rescued by a young girl who is part of a cult group made up of children and teens left to fend for themselves.  I will give no other detail of what happens next, but the book takes a strange and intriguing twist.

Andrew Miller is a gorgeous writer.  His sentences flow effortlessly and one drifts, buoyed by their beauty.  For example:
“…the boat’s shadow like black silk hauled just beneath the water’s surface.”
or, “..a face that is starting to talk about him….though looked at casually he can still be whoever you want him to be.”
or, “Nights are like the bottom of somewhere, a kind of seabed.  As for the days, they have a cunning of their own.”

I recommend reading any of Miller’s novels for their style and grace.  You don’t have to be a sailor to appreciate this book.  It comes to an odd conclusion, but I loved every minute of the reading.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

COCKROACHES by Jo Nesbo (fiction)

This is the second Harry Hole book Nesbo wrote.  If you are a fan of Nordic noir and Jo Nesbo and you haven’t read this thriller, you will like it.  It is not necessary to read the Harry Hole mysteries in older and this book, while written in the 90s, was not published in the States until 2013.  The story takes place in Thailand, and though not as good or as polished as his later work, you can see how Nesbo developed as a writer.  There is no need to write a review of this book, because you are either a Nesbo fan or not.  If you have never read one of his books, I would not start with this one.  You might try “The Snowman,” or “The Redbreast.”  You may find yourself hooked and move on to others.”The Snowman” is currently being made into a movie, so it might be a good one to begin with.  Michael Fassbender plays Harry Hole.  Good choice I would say, and I hope the movie lives up to its namesake.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON by David Grann (non-fic)

The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

David Grann has written a well-researched and deeply disturbing account of the systematic destruction of the great Osage Nation throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.  The book is mainly the account of the conspiracy against the Osage in Oklahoma where by chance they ended up sitting on the most valuable oil fields in America.

The story can be said to begin in 1804 when leaders of the Osage Nation met in Washington with Thomas Jefferson who had just completed the deal for the Louisiana Territory.  Jefferson was impressed with the strong handsome and well-spoken representatives who met with him, and at that time assurances were given by Jefferson that no one would take tribal lands from the Osage. At that time the Osage possessed 100 million acres of rich land within the territory.  In less than 20 years, all that sweet talk was for nought, and the nation was not only decimated by small pox, but forced back into Kansas, their territory reduced to 4 million acres.  Soon the white settlers came pouring in with promises from the American government of cheap land.  Once again the Osage were relegated into a smaller area, this time in Oklahoma. Homesteaders had claimed all the good land in Kansas and Oklahoma territories.  Unknown to those in power at the time, the dry useless land the natives were forced onto was atop of a mega oil field.

The main part of the book takes place in the 1920s, and Grann, an excellent writer, examines the fate of one Osage family, and how the FBI became involved in what was to be its most publicized case, the foundation on which J. Edgar Hoover built his powerful organization.  At this time the Osage were the wealthiest people in the world, per capita.  The newspapers played up lurid stories of exaggerated profligacy of tribal members spending money on orgies of bling and waste.  This sparked jealously and outrage among the white settlers and was further fanned by newsmen throughout the country.  The national government decided the Osage were incapable of handling their own money and each family was assigned an guardian, white of course, who lined their own pockets and bilked the natives.  Because by law, the mineral rights to the oil could not be sold and could only pass by inheritance, there was a preponderance of white men who married into the Indian families.

By 1925, an overwhelming number of Osage died under violent or mysterious circumstances. No great effort was made to solve these murders.  It was only when Mollie Burkhart, (whose husband was white) fearing for her own life after 3 of her sibling suffered unnatural deaths, enlisted the help of a white oil man to petition the national government to step in.  Mollie had been victimized by two doctors in the pay of her husband who were poisoning her with shots they claimed were for diabetes.

Once Hoover and an investigator named Tom White became involved, things began to change.  The killers of Mollie’s family were eventually brought to justice and the FBI garnered national publicity and praise.  By the end of the decade the Great Depression had wiped out what was left of the fortunes of the Osage.  While official documents show 24 people had died in mysterious circumstances, modern research had shown the number to be closer to 100.

Unfortunately the greed for oil and territory grabbing is still going on. Witness the recent standoff at Standing Rock and the oil pipelines which are scheduled to go through land belonging to the Lakota Nation. Grann has written an important book furthering our understanding of the injustice done to Native Americans which sadly continues today wherever greed finds a foothold.  I recommend this book to all readers and book reading groups.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

SIX FOUR: A NOVEL by Yokohama, Hideo (fiction)

This hefty book is an international best seller and the first book this author which has been translated into English.  It is a crime thriller, but unique in its style and tone. In Japan, it sold six million copies in six days! It was translated into English by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies.  The translator should be noted, as this was surely a daunting task. Meanings can be lost in translation, especially as Japanese is one of the most difficult languages to translate into English.  Complicating it all are the social conventions and nuances which don’t translate well. Inflections in voice can be important in Japanese, and complex thought must be handled with particular care or the meaning is lost. So kudos to Mr. Lloyd-Davies.

The narrative centers around a crime that occurred years before the story opens.  Shoko, a seven year old girl, was kidnapped in 1987;  later, compounded by police errors, she was found murdered.  For 14 years, the crime has remained unsolved.  The title of the novel comes from the way the crime is referred to in the police department.  The murder took place just before the death of Emperor Hirohito, which ended the Showa era which lasted for sixty-four years.

Yoshinobu Mikami, a detective who had worked on the case, becomes interested in it again when he hears the Police Commissioner wishes to pay a visit to Shoko's father to pay homage to the long dead child.  Mikami is particularly drawn to this case as his own daughter, Ayumi, has been missing for three months, and he and his wife live in dread of hearing of her death, especially as they have received several mysteriously silent phone calls.  Mikami, who once worked in criminal investigations, in the years since had been relegated to the position of press director. This keeps him out of the loop of crime investigations.  Any information he receives is highly controlled by his superior officers. Relations between reporters and police have a formal method to them, as do the interactions between police and victim’s families, which will seem unusual to readers used to western crime novels.

As Mikami delves deeper into the cold case file of the old murder, he begins to find discrepancies and possible cover-ups of the detectives’ handling of evidence.  Now the story becomes one of relationships and games of cat and mouse in the crime department.  Getting to the bottom of departmental corruption is compounded by the social dynamics of the characters and cultural tropes and politenesses that are not part of western crime departments. At one point Mikami muses, “The kind of people who made it to the top, the survivors, were those who kept their secrets close.  The moment you let go of them…….was the moment you lost.”

This is a rich and complex novel. The cast of characters is large and I often returned to the helpful listing of characters at the beginning of the book.  It is an intricate and unusual crime novel that cannot be placed in any ordinary category.  If the reader sticks with it, he or she will be rewarded with a brilliant work of fiction and an interesting look into the workings and everyday relationships of a Japanese police department where motives in the end are not so very different than those of the west.

Friday, August 18, 2017

DEAD WATER by Ann Cleeves (fiction)

The excellent crime and mystery writer, Ann Cleeves, has written a series of 6 books based in the moody and gray Shetland Islands.  I am reading them out of order which doesn’t seem to matter as long as you keep your time frame referenced.  In the last Cleeves book I reviewed, Jimmy Perez the Islands chief detective had recovered from his wife’s death and was on the cusp of a romance with his superior officer, Willow Reeves.  “Dead Water” is an earlier book and Perez is deeply mourning the death of his wife; he is on leave from his work, and is having trouble getting through his days and nights.  When a body is discovered on a boat in the harbor, belonging to Rhona Laing, the public prosecutor, Willow Reeves is called in to lead the investigation.  Having been born in the equally isolated beauty of the, Hebrides, she understands the nuances of life on an island.

The dead man is a London reporter who had been raised in the Shetlands.  It seems he was working on a story about the demise of the oil boom and the growth of renewable energy in the islands.  People were just beginning to invest in wind power and tidal energy.  Jerry Markham, the reporter, has a past history. It seems he bolted off to London, leaving a young pregnant girlfriend behind.  His return to home territory was unwelcome by a number of people.

As the case becomes more complicated and another death is involved, Perez cannot help being drawn into the investigation.  This involvement hastens his recovery and it isn’t long before he begins to connect events and clues which at first appearance seemed to be red herrings.

If you are looking for a good mystery with dense and detailed plotting, you can’t do much better than Ann Cleeves.  Unless you have been watching the Shetland series on PBS, you won’t guess the killer’s identity until the final pages.  The Shetlands are a perfect setting for a murder mystery.  The weather is unpredictable, often foggy and the landscape is one of bleak yet beguiling beauty.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

THE WOMEN IN THE CASTLE by Jessica Shattuck (fiction)

Right off, let me say I enjoyed this book.  I think the title is unfortunate, though, as it has a whiff of chick lit.  It is so much more than that.  The story is haunting and has a different approach to the aftermath of war.  Being World War II Germany, there is guilt, depravation, and survival. Besides, it is an interesting plot with secrets and their consequences.

The story opens in 1938, the threshold of the war, when Hitler is wildly and widely popular, seen as one who will make Germany great again.  Marianne and Albrecht von Lingenfel are giving a party, which turns out to be a cover for Albrecht and a group of like-minded men who are plotting in a back room to assassinate Hitler.  Among the men is Martin “Connie” Fledermann a childhood friend of Maryianne (one whom she is most likely in love with).  Connie asks Marianne to be sure to take care of the the wives and children of the plotters should things go wrong, as indeed they did.  The plot failed and the men were put to death.  (This part of the book is based on a true incident).

The main part of the story takes place after the war in 1945, when Marianne, still living in the largely boarded up and abandoned castle, begins a search and rescue mission for the missing wives.  She finds Connie’s wife, Benita and then her son who had been placed in an orphanage.  Benita had been living in Berlin and badly used by the invading Russians.  Marianne brings them, badly shocked, back to Bavaria where they attempt to begin a life with her.  Around the same time, the Americans who were trying to repatriate large groups of displaced German prisoners asked Marianne to take in Ania and her two sons, who had barely survived a German prisoner-of-war camp.  Post war times were rough for the survivors and Marianne, with her strong personality, kept everyone going.  They eked out subsistence through bartering and gardening.  Marianne was rigid and strong and ran a tight ship.  Benita was beautiful, apolitical, and soft-hearted without survival skills.  Ania was resourceful and practical who as a youth had been under the spell of Hitler’s propaganda.  The secrets and trauma each character suffered are revealed as the book develops and serve to move the plot along.

The book is more than just a story of the survival of three women and their children.  It is a story of how ordinary Germans handled the war and its aftermath of guilt and confusion.  Shattuck’s characters illustrate individual responses to the horror of Hitler’s Germany.  The writing is excellent and the reader becomes caught up in the story of these women and their children who mature and move on to their own futures.

I highly recommend this book to all readers for its fine writing, interesting characters, and different look at the aftermath of war.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

KANE AND ABEL by Jeffrey Archer (fiction)

Seeing that it is high summer, I thought to read a beach book with plenty of action and not much concentration involved.  Archer first published this book in 1979 and after many many printings, he revised his novel for the 30th anniversary of the book in 2009.  This book sold more copies around the world than Gone With the Wind.  It is in its 100th printing and it is estimated that 100 million people have read it.  With that said, how could I resist!

This is the story of two men who only meet once in their lives, but that meeting changes the direction their lives take.  They were born a world apart and in vastly different circumstances on the same day.
William Lowell Kane, the son of a Boston Brahmin banker, Kane was destined for success.  Well educated and brilliant at money making, when his father died at an early age, he was a natural successor to a life in banking.  Abel Rosnovski was born under mysterious circumstances in Poland.  Early in life he was adopted by a wealthy Baron.  Though named his heir, he was imprisoned by the invading Germans in World War I and after a series of adventures escaped to America.

While they never meet, the lives of these two brilliant men of business cross again and again through the years.  Abel nurses a grudge again Kane until the final chapters of the book.  It began when Kane refused a loan to a friend of Abel.  Abel blames Kane for his friend’s suicide after he loses all in the 1929 Market crash.

The novel is dense with action; short chapters, with cliff hangers at the end of each, encourage the reader to read on.  I recognize that the book has given millions of readers pleasure, however, I am not one.  I found it to read like a television serial which one keeps on watching with all its contrivances because you want to know how it will end.  It is an easy read.  The characters are stereotypes with little depth.  The reader can predict how they will react.  However, if you are looking for a quick read with plenty of plot, you could do worse. Definitely a good choice for the beach on a lazy summer day.