Friday, December 28, 2012

Dead Wrong,by J.A. Jance, AKA Desert Popcorn

Imagine you are the sheriff of a large county in southern Arizona that is routinely understaffed and over-extended.  Now imagine that you are also almost nine months pregnant.  That is exactly Joanna Brady's life at he beginning of Dead Wrong.  When she and her team of detectives gets a call to a murder scene in the desert, she is surprised to find a man brutally beaten to death, missing is fingers.  The victim is an ex-con, who was paroled recently after serving over 20 years for allegedly killing his wife in a drunken black-out. Convicted, despite the fact that her body was never found.  In addition, one of her animal control officers is beaten and left for dead while investigating a couple of local thugs for running a dog fighting ring.  With her manpower shortage, Joanna has no choice but to keep working-but this turns out to be a relief, when her overbearing mother-in-law shows up unexpectedly to wait out the birth of her grandchild.  Joanna and her deputies will soon be facing the consequences of a decades old secret, one that puts Joanna and her unborn son at risk.  But being a sheriff is part of her now, and finding a way to balance her career and her family is a challenge.

It took me a little while to get into this book, but once I did it was hard to put it down.  The Joanna Brady series is one I have dipped in and out of over the years.  I haven't read all of them, but when I do pick one up I am never disappointed with the story.  Her character combines the traits of all great female crime fighters-inner strength plus common sense plus compassion and a deep sense of justice.  Not to mention she's kind of bad-ass when it comes to taking down the bad guys.  The plot is fairly intricate but pretty believable  which enough wiggle room in how it could play out to keep a person guessing until the end.  I figured out the broad strokes of the secret fairly early, but I still wasn't sure about the details prior to the big reveal.  As popcorn books go, I'd say Jance's books are pretty much a safe bet.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Lost Wife, In Which We Learn Once Again the Evils of the Holocaust

If there is one era of human history that has been well documented and analyzed and memorialized in books and film, it is the Holocaust.  And rightfully so.  The tragic events of that time, perpetrated with such callous disregard for all that is good and right about the world, deserves to be kept alive in our memories, if only to remind us never to let the evils of racism and xenophobia on that scale happen again.  Of course, it has happened again-in Rwanda, and Darfur, and Srebrenica-but most of the Western world at least has heeded the lessons of the Holocaust and has responded fairly quickly and decisively to any hint of the rise of neo-nazism or ethnic hatred.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I belong to a denomination that believes in radical inclusion.  One of our central beliefs is the right of all people to determine their own path to the divine, to search for their own truth and meaning through a variety of theological or ethical beliefs.  And as a youth advisor, I spend a great deal of my time discussing our faith tradition with my youth.  Whenever we talk about inclusion and acceptance, we inevitably get around to "the Hitler Question", as one of my youth put it.  Would we as accepting, radically inclusive Unitarian Universalists accept Adolf Hitler?  The answer, of course, is that we would never be put into that position, as Hitler would not have been likely to associate with a progressive church that loves Jews and gays, but also because everything he stood for was antithetical to the Untiarian Universalist principles.  But Hitler, for all of his evil, was also perhaps one of the most successful manipulators of public opinion in history.  In The Lost Wife, by Alyson Richman, we are offered as proof of this manipulation in the form of the Terezin, a prison work camp for Czechoslovakian Jews that also served as a way station for Jews headed to Aushwitz.

The Lost Wife begins with a recognition-Josef, in his 80s, meets an elderly woman at his grandson's wedding who seems very familiar.  It is not until he sees the numbers tattooed on her arm that he begins to suspect that she could be his long-lost wife, Lenka-a woman he thought died in Auschwitz over 60 years before.  The rest of the novel details their lives in Czechoslovakia, from growing up privileged pre-occupation to the terrible run up to the war, to the camp and to America.  Josef, a doctor, escapes to American, promising to send for Lenka and her family.  Lenka is sent with her sister and parents to Terezin, a work camp that was used as a cover for the Nazi's real agenda-the extermination of the Jewish people.  Because of the chaos that ensued, both Josef and Lenka believed that the other had perished, until that fateful night when Josef's grandson was to marry Lenka's granddaughter.

For me the book was an education in the way the Nazi's attempted to keep the world in the dark about what was happening in the concentration camps.  Built specifically as a ghetto, meant to hold 5,000 people, was home to up to 55,000 at a time.  A film was made about the town, proclaiming to the world that the Nazi's had built a "city for the Jews".  The one time that the Red Cross was allowed to visit, the ghetto was dressed up along the route the officials would take, with prisoners given extra food to make them look healthier, allowed to bathe and given new clothes.  The shop windows were filled with goods, which were immediately taken away when the Red Cross left.

One of the things that made the camp unusual was the incredible number of artists of various kinds that were housed there.  Richman said that part of her motivation behind writing the book was to tell the story of the Holocaust from the point of view of an artist.  Lenka was a painter, and she was given work with other artists making art that the Nazi's sold to help fund their war effort.  But that was not the only art that made it out of the camp.  Many artists stole painting supplies and smuggled out pictures of what was really going on in Terezin.  There were also many musicians in the camp, and there were operas and plays and concerts performed whenever a group could find a secret place to hold them.  The Lost Wife, while being a testament to the enduring power of true love, also shows the triumph of the human spirit and artistic endeavor over pain, fear, powerlessness, and violence.

Monday, December 10, 2012

I'd Know You Anywhere, Laura Lippman

One of my favorite popcorn authors is Laura Lippman.  Her thrillers are smart and action-packed and always have an interesting psychological component.  But I'd Know You Anywhere falls short of the emotional impact that I have grown to expect from her books.

Eliza Bennet is a happily married mother of two.  After living in London for about a decade, her family has moved back to the US, to a quiet suburb of Baltimore.  But her idyllic family life in the present has a horrific past at its core.  Twenty years ago, when she was only 15 and called herself Elizabeth, Eliza was kidnapped and held for six weeks by a serial killer named Walter Bowman.  Known by some as the "one who survived", and by others as a possible accomplice to Bowman's killing spree, Eliza has worked hard to put her past behind her, changing her name, moving away from her family, and keeping herself out of the public eye.  Only her parents, sister, and husband know her story.  At least until Bowman, on death row and scheduled for execution in a few short weeks, reaches out to her, asking for contact.  Eliza, seeing a chance to get him to confess to the other murders he committed and give some families long-awaited comfort and justice, agrees to talk with him.  What she doesn't know is that he plans to try and use her to get his sentence commuted.

The story is told in chapters that alternate between the past and present, with certain sections of the book being told from the point of view of Walter Bowman.  The chapters that detail Eliza's imprisonment were surprisingly non-threatening.  Bowman made her travel with him, and even kidnapped another girl while she was with him, but I never got that feeling in my gut that I get when I read a really good thriller.  The chapters that detail the present day are even less emotionally satisfying.  I understood her feelings of guilt, and how she could question her own perceptions of something that happened to her when she was young and traumatized, but at times it felt like so much navel-gazing.  And the ending was way anti-climactic.  Let's just say that all the angst boils down to a rear-view mirror.  There was no real sense of menace, and given that one of the most violent character is locked up on death row for the entire novel, there is no real action either.  I'll not give up on Lippman, but this was not her best.