Saturday, October 22, 2011

Precious Blood, Jonathan Hayes

Ah, the serial killer.  That sociopathic individual that gives Americans such a delicious thrill.  I'm not sure what it says about us as a people that we are so fascinated with sick, twisted, violent death, but given the number of books, movies, and true crime shows on the subject, we seem to have a never-ending curiosity.

I will admit to this morbid fascination in myself.  I like to think that my interest is as a result of my profound desire to understand the human mind, but I suspect there is a fair amount of of rubbernecker syndrome as well.  It's almost as though we (I) want to be shocked and horrified.  Well, if revulsion and horror is what you are looking for, then you could do worse than to pick up a copy of Jonathan Hayes book, Precious Blood.

The book centers around Dr. Edward Jenner, a former pathologist with the New York City police who had to retire after the daily horror of trying to identify 9-11 victims caused him to have a breakdown.  Now living off his savings, he agrees to take a job as an independent pathologist in the murder of the daughter of a friend-of-a-friend.  The murder scene is obviously staged, the victim nailed upside down on the wall.  Her roommate, Ana, managed to get away, but not before seeing the killer-and him seeing her.  Afraid for her safety, Jenner takes her in until his friend, Ana's uncle, could return.  It soon become apparent that this was not the first time this killer has struck, and they soon have new cases to investigate as well.  Jenner, while not having any real authority in the case, continues to investigate, his investigation gaining more urgency once he begins having feelings for Ana.

As thrillers go, this one was pretty good.  The killer's religious motivation is not exactly original, but it did have a different twist on the theme than most books.  Jenner's character is fairly well-developed, though his relationship with Ana does not really feel entirely authentic.  The final show-down is suspenseful, and the ending satisfying.  While there is nothing earth-shattering about Precious Blood, as popcorn books go it does its job admirably.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Kellerman Whose Books I Am Still Reading

Faithful readers of this blog know that I have broken up with my long-time mystery/thriller favorite, Jonathan Kellerman.  You can read my Dear John (pun intended) letter here.  Lucky for the Kellerman family, they will not lose all of their income from my corner of the world.  Faye Kellerman, wife of Jonathan, is still writing fresh stories with all of the characters I love.

In Hangman, Kellerman brings us another story starting Rina (Lazarus) Decker and Pete Decker, Orthodox Jews and crime fighting team.  Well, not really a team, exactly-Rina is more logistical support than boots on the ground.  But together they have a chemistry that humanizes Decker and keeps him from being the stereotypical hard-boiled detective.  There's a lot going on in Hangman.  The main crime is the murder of one girl, and disappearance of another.  There is a second story line, which I found the more intriguing of the two, about Decker and hit man Chris Donnati.  Donnati and his wife are having marital problems, which rarely works out well for the non-homicidal maniac in the relationship.  When Donnati's wife disappears, Decker is sure that he killed her, and takes in Donnati's 15 year old son while he investigates.  During the investigation they stumble upon a serial killer-like a twofer deal.  Eventually Decker and his team solve all of the mysteries, but justice is not done-one of the killers flees and can't be tracked.  But it is a satisfying story nonetheless.

Kellerman's characters are interesting, the story is well-paced, and while the crimes and situations are not exactly believable, I didn't really care, because they were entertaining.  All in all a good popcorn book!

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Secret Daughter, Shilpi Gowda

A young wife in a rural village in India lies in a small hut, screaming with the pain of childbirth.  The widwife tells her she has a daughter.  Her husband comes to the hut to meet his son, and when he sees the baby is a girl, he takes her away to be killed.  They can't afford a girl-a girl will not be able to do the hard manual labor, and for a girl they will need a dowry.  The year was 1985.

That's right, 1985.  As recently as the end of the 20th century, the culture of valuing boys more than girls was flourishing in places like India and China.  Cultural practices regarding marriage and family, as well as the need for laborers to work on small subsistence farms, caused some families to abandon their newborn daughters to orphanages, or worse.  In The Secret Daughter, Gowda tells the story of one such family.  Kavita Merchant has three children.  The first was taken away and killed at birth for being a girl.  When the second girl, Usha, was born, she sneaked away from her husband and took the baby to an orphanage, so that at least she'd have some chance of a better life.  The third, a boy, was cherished and celebrated by the family.

Usha was adopted by a couple from the United States, Krishnan and Somer Thakkar.  Kris grew up in India wealthy and well-educated.  Somer is as American as apple pie.  After having multiple miscarriages, Kris convinces Somer that adoption from his home country is her chance to be a mother.  Usha, now named Asha, comes to live with them when she is just one year old.  She grows up surrounded by love and privilege, but it's not until a trip to India at 20 that she truly learns what her birth history and adoption mean to her life and the lives of her parents, biological and adoptive.

The story is told from the perspective of the two mothers for the first part of the book, and mostly from Asha's for the last portion, though her two fathers (bio and adoptive) also get short chapters from their point of view.  It would be easy to demonize a society that throws away 5% of their girls (there is a 5% difference in the population of men versus women that can't be explained by natural or health factors), but Gowda shows both Kavita and her husband Jasu as real people who are faced with impossible decisions in order to survive crushing poverty.  And while Somer seems like an easy choice for sympathetic character (inability to have children, swooping in to save a little brown baby from a third world orphanage), the fact is that she was pretty hard for me to like in this book.  Once she has her daughter, she is constantly afraid that she won't really have a connection to her, because she looks more like her husband, and people in the streets don't know she is the girl's mother.  She tries so hard to hold on to the girl that she ends up pushing her away, into the very thing that she feared most-a search for her biological parents.  While Asha begins her journey as a spoiled, surly teen, what she finds on that search makes her reevaluate her own assumptions about identity and a mother's love.

Gowda does a great job of showcasing the differences between the lives of the classes in India, and the culture shock that westerners, even those of Indian descent, have when they see the beauty and history of the culture transposed with the poverty and environmental issues.  Asha and her Indian family  portray the mixture of pride and shame that must come from being a part of a culture that brims with thousands of years of history, yet still devalues girls such that female infanticide, child abandonment, and honor killings are still taking place today.  One can't help but wonder which India will win out in the end-modern, technological India, or the India of subsistence farming and poverty.