Saturday, December 31, 2011

Pop Pop Poppity Pop: A Plague of Secrets, John Lescroart

Summary, from Goodreads-

The first victim is Dylan Vogler, a charming ex-convict who manages the Bay Beans West coffee shop in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. When his body is found, inspectors discover that his knapsack is filled with high-grade marijuana. It soon becomes clear that San Francisco's A-list flocked to Bay Beans West not only for their caffeine fix.
But how much did Maya Townshend-the beautiful socialite niece of the city's mayor, and the absentee owner of the shop-know about what was going on inside her business? And how intimate had she really been with Dylan, her old college friend?
As another of Maya's acquaintances falls victim to murder, and as the names of the dead men's celebrity, political, and even law- enforcement customers come to light, tabloid-fueled controversy takes the investigation into the realms of conspiracy and cover-up. Prosecutors close in on Maya, who has a deep secret of her own-a secret she needs to protect at all costs during her very public trial, where not only her future but the entire political landscape of San Francisco hangs in the balance, hostage to an explosive secret that Dismas Hardy is privilege-bound to protect.

Dismas Hardy and the rest of the cast of characters from Lescroart's books are some of my favorites.  Lescroart does a decent job of making them into real people, and I care about what happens to them.  The mystery itself is fairly compelling, and there is enough misdirection to make it unlikely you'll figure out whodunnit early enough to ruin the rest of the book.  There was a bit more deus ex machina in this one than I usually care for-from the accident that took homicide detective Abe Glitsy's eye off the ball, to the last minute detail that reveals the true killer, it was a little less Hardy being brilliant (though he was) and a little more luck of the draw, but enjoyable nonetheless.  A good popcorn read, especially if you are following the series.  If you've never read Lescroart before, go back and start at the beginning of the Dismas Hardy series-you won't be disappointed!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Life Sentences by Laura Lippman

For many years I prided myself on the fact that I never gave up on a book.  Even if a book was not really doin' it for me, I stuck with it, sure that the author was trying to convey something that I just needed to work a little harder to pick up on.  After all, they took the time and care to write the darn thing-I should at least put in the time and effort to finish it.
Then one day (perhaps struck by a growing sense of my own mortality) I decided that there are too many good books in the world to waste my precious reading time on bad ones, and I've put down many a snoozer since.  But not my favorite authors.  Surely if I have loved everything a person has ever written, then if I just keep slogging through one of their books I will find that moment of joy in the written word.  Surely my favorite authors would not let me down?

Laura Lippman, I am sad to say, you've let me down.

Life Sentences is the story of Cassandra Fallows, an author who became successful writing about her father's infidelities and their affect on her.  After writing a less-than-stellar novel, she goes home to Baltimore to mine her childhood friendships for another memoir, something that will take her back to her bestseller status.  The irony is that in writing about an author who is afraid she's lost her mojo, Lippman has written a novel that shows that perhaps her mojo took a bit of a vacation.

The impetus for Cassandra's return to her childhood home is the story of an old schoolmate of hers who went to jail for seven years rather than reveal what happened to her infant, who disappeared and was never found. In revisiting her childhood friendships, Cassandra discovers just how fallible memory can be.  Her old friends are upset with her portrayal of them in print, and they refuse to help her find their old classmate.  Lots of intrigue ensues, revealing a conspiracy that involves politicians, blackmail, and twenty years of secrets.

To which I say "yawn".  Lippman usually pairs really good character development with intriguing plots to create suspense novels that are not formulaic, but little windows into human behavior.  Her novels usually carry some kind of emotional punch, but I found myself not really caring what happened to any of the characters, including the narrator.  I made myself stick with it, partly for the reason above and partly because the mystery was (just) engaging enough to make me want to know how it resolved, but even the ending was a disappointment-more whimper than wow.  Since this Lippman book is a stand-alone, I'd say skip it.  Her Tess Monaghan books and other stand-alones are a much better use of your reading time!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Buddha in the Attic

The experience of immigrant groups in the United States is something that has interested me ever since I took a multicultural education class a few years ago.  I read some really moving testimonials from people of various immigrant groups (beginning with Italians and the Irish and moving on through Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican) describing their experiences (or the family stories passed down by their grandparents) and how their families never gave up on making it in America.

My own family immigration history is fairly recent.  My paternal grandparents came to America in the early 20th century from Quebec.  They settled in New England, in an area where there was already a community for them to join.  While my great-grandparents spoke Quebecois French almost exclusively, it did not take long for my grandmother and grandfather to learn English and assimilate into mainstream American culture.  My grandfather fought in World War II, and was proud to serve the nation he saw as his, even though he had only been in the US for half of his rather short life at that point.

We as a society have never been particularly welcoming to new arrivals, regardless of where they are from or what the words on the Statue of Liberty may imply about how inclusive we pretend we are.  The myth propagated is that as long as immigrants are willing to work-hard and respect American values we will accept them with open arms.  The reality is that every immigrant group has started out on the lowest rung of American society, doing the jobs that no one wants to do, being discriminated against in public services, and being used as a pawn by politicians who want to scare people with the image of being overrun by the "other". Perhaps the most egregious case of this phenomenon happened to the Japanese in America during World War II.  It is this immigrant experience that Julie Otsuka chronicles in her book The Buddha in the Attic.

Otsuka's book is written in the third person plural, from the perspective of women who were brought to the United States from Japan after World War I as wives to Japanese men they had never met.  This rather interesting literary device  is used to highlight the similarities of the immigrant experience for these women, even as it describes the variety of experiences that defined them as farm laborers, shop clerks, maids, and laundry workers.  This very short novel, spare in its language, presents a portrait of women who try to find some way to survive in a world that has turned upside down, taking them away from everything they know to a world where not even the man they are going to marry is familiar.  Through back-breaking, heartbreaking work, they bring children into the world, and watch them become more American than Japanese.  Despite their fear that their children are moving away from them, they are hopeful that their futures will be better-until World War II brings it all crashing down around them again.

Like Otsuka's first book, When the Emperor Was Divine, The Buddha in the Attic is filled with carefully chosen words, meant to evoke specific ideas and feelings without extraneous language.  While occasionally the long, collective paragraphs start to feel a bit listy, the book works because the snippets of women's stories that are elaborated upon are compelling enough to provide a frame for the rest.  By the end I felt overwhelmed by the struggles of these women-and once more furious and regretful that it is my country, whose ideals I revere, that interned so many of our own citizens out of racial fear and prejudice.

Nothing speaks as well to the way that communities changed after internment as the last portion of the book.  Suddenly, instead of the voices of the women, the narrator changes to a collective white American voice.  That voice describes how ignorant and/or arrogant white society was during World War II, when any injustice could be justified if it was for "national security" purposes (Sound familiar?  Patriot Act, anyone?).   What was startling was not just that people seemed to approve of their improper jailing of their neighbors, but that any negative reaction to it came from a selfish concern about who would pick their crops/clean their shirts/scrub their toilets.  As a reader, I couldn't help but wonder what happened to the women who's lives I had been invited into, and perhaps that's the most startling thing-that an entire group of people can just be disappeared while the rest of us go about our lives.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Pop Pop Poppity Pop: Obedience by Will Lavender

A good popcorn book is one that is entertaining but easy...something that doesn't require a ton of cognitive energy but is still engaging.  Most mysteries and thrillers fall easily into this category for me-books that I read when my brain is already busy with meetings, paperwork, lesson plans, and grading.  Obedience by Will Lavender falls into this category, but just barely.  It's not exactly the "thinking man's" thriller, but it's convoluted storyline at times made me break a little sweat.

Given the complicated plot and the fact that I've only had half a cup of coffee so far this morning, I'll use the Goodreads summary:
When the students in Winchester University’s Logic and Reasoning 204 arrive for their first day of class, they are greeted not with a syllabus or texts, but with a startling assignment from Professor Williams: Find a hypothetical missing girl named Polly. If after being given a series of clues and details the class has not found her before the end of the term in six weeks, she will be murdered.
At first the students are as intrigued by the premise of their puzzle as they are wary of the strange and slightly creepy Professor Williams. But as they delve deeper into the mystery, they begin to wonder: Is the Polly story simply a logic exercise, designed to teach them rational thinking skills, or could it be something more sinister and dangerous?
The mystery soon takes over the lives of three students as they find disturbing connections between Polly and themselves. Characters that were supposedly fictitious begin to emerge in reality. Soon, the boundary between the classroom assignment and the real world becomes blurred—and the students wonder if it is their own lives they are being asked to save.

As first novels go, this one is fairly well written, especially for the genre.  The characters feel like real people, and the way that the mystery unfolds creates a pretty creepy, obsessive feeling in the reader (at least, in this reader).  Given the number of thrillers I've read it's hard to find a plot that really keeps me guessing, but I didn't have this one figured out til close to the end, and not because the author pulls one of those deus-ex-machina maneuvers that tick me off.  I actually thought several times while reading the book that it would make a good movie, the kind that people leave the theater shaking their heads over because they feel like they just went on a mindbending ride.  If you are looking for a not-too-mindless popcorn book, this is definitely a decent choice.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

What If?

This weekend during youth group at church, my youth played a game where everyone writes a question on a piece of paper, then we crumple them up into balls and have a "snowball" fight.  Everyone reads their question aloud and answers it.  Some of the questions are silly, but some of the questions really cause the person to think, and can start some great discussions.  Here is the question that struck me Sunday morning-"If you could kill someone with the power of your mind, and no one would know, would you do it?"

This question led to a discussion of Unitarian Universalist values, as the activity is supposed to ultimately do.  But it also led to a discussion of whether it is possible to change history.  If you add the ability to time travel to the ability to kill people with your mind, many of my youth said that maybe going back and killing Hitler as an infant would be an acceptable use of that power.  Because you already know what evil he created, and you would have a responsibility to stop it.  This exact idea is the central focus of Stephen King's latest tome, 11/22/63.


In the book, small town high school teacher named Jake Epping is floating through a rather drab existence.  Newly single, he spends his days teaching, grading papers, and eating his meals at a local diner.  One day the diner's owner and chief fry cook, A,l shares a secret with Jake-in the back of his store is an unexplained tear in the fabric of time.  Step through that tear and it takes you back to the same exact time on the same exact day in 1958.  No matter how long you stay or what you do while you are there, stepping through the tear resets any effect you may have had on the past.  Since Al discovered this mysterious tear, he's been travelling back and forth frequently.  His last trip lasted four years-because he had a mission, one that a lung cancer diagnosis is now forcing him to push on Jake.  His mission-to stop the assassination of JFK by Lee Harvey Oswald, thereby stopping one of the most turbulent times in American history.  At least, that's this theory...

What follows is a loooooong history lesson about Lee Harvey Oswald.  Jake studies Oswald like a scientist, trying to discern what kind of man he was, what kind of husband he was, whether he did, in fact act alone...He follows his movements, and as a result we learn a lot about the man who shot Kennedy.

At 849 pages, this is one of King's doorstops of a book, but unlike Under the Dome, which I thought could be shortened by a hundred pages or so, I was riveted every moment of this one.  Maybe it's the historical fiction lover in me, but I actually liked the minute descriptions of Oswald's life, and King provides a personal storyline for Jake that is mildly predictable but very engaging.  Not horror by any means, this genre bending book-part historical fiction part science fiction-evokes the optimism of mid-20th Century America and the tension that builds as Jake gets closer to his goal.  And if he succeeds, will things really be better?  Consider this a novel of unintended consequences...