***Selection Day

Mumbai, cricket

photo: David Brossard, creative commons license

By Aravind Adiga, narrated by Sartaj Garewal – Adiga’s 2017 novel purports to be about two brothers, growing up in a Mumbai slum, under the obsessive protection of their cricket-crazy father—a helicopter parent with a swinging cricket bat for a rotor blade. Adiga’s debut novel The White Tiger was such a witty, penetrating exploration of economics and capitalism and how they affect the average person (and a winner of the Man Booker Prize) that I eagerly awaited this one. If he can make economics entertaining, cricket should be a snap, right?

To read the book, it thankfully isn’t necessary to understand cricket’s impenetrable mysteries. The novel is in essence a coming-of-age story, a story of when to hold on to parental values and when to abandon them, of the choices that come the boys’ way and what they do with them, and the intrusions of fate.

There are some wonderful characters: the boys Radha Kumar and his principal rival in cricket and in life, his younger brother Manju, their clueless dad—the lowly chutney salesman Mohan—and the local cricket talent scout Tommy Sir, among many others. Years of effort are guiding the boys’ efforts to “selection day,” when just a couple of up-and-coming 17-year-olds will be chosen to play for Bombay Cricket. That one day will make the boys’ future or break their father’s heart. Possibly both.

One of the best aspects of the book is the relationship between the boys. Said Carmela Ciuraru in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Adiga superbly captures the intimacy between the two brothers, as they bicker, tease and protect each other” and as Manju struggles with his sexuality. Also entertaining were the cricket officials’ efforts to keep the father away from the playing fields. Anyone who’s been especially close to a brother or who’s observed the obsessive parents at their children’s sporting events can identify with the dilemmas of this striving family. Again, says Ciuraru, Adiga’s take is “both satirical and affectionate as he shows how the sport is less a means of lifting gifted kids out of poverty than reinforcing boundaries of privilege in rather ruthless ways.”

The book begins three years before the Selection Day in which Radha will participate and a short concluding section takes place eleven years later. As a tremendous fan of audio books, I was quite disappointed in the narration by Sartaj Garewal and believe it is at least partly responsible for my not becoming fully engaged with this book. Read a print version.

*****Blue Light Yokohama

Tokyo - Rainbow Bridge

photo: mytokyoguide.wordpress.com, used with permission

By Nicolás Obregón – What an entertaining debut! Told almost exclusively from the perspective of Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Inspector Kosuke Iwata, it’s a multilayered police procedural involving murder, official corruption, and dangerous secrets.

A brief prologue set in 1996 describes the death of a woman who jumped from a dangling cable car into the sea, despite the efforts of police detective Hideo Akashi to save her. Fifteen years later, Akashi is investigating the quadruple murder of a Korean family. In the midst of his investigation, he commits suicide by jumping off Tokyo’s Rainbow Bridge (pictured above). No one knows why. This theme of falling pervades the novel and ties together many of its strands, past and present.

The brass at the police department asks their newest detective, U.S.-trained (and therefore highly suspect) Iwata to pick up Akashi’s investigation of the family’s murder. Iwata is aided by Assistant Inspector Sakai, transferred from the Missing Persons department to work with him. These two inexperienced homicide detectives are assigned such a complex investigation because the department is short-handed, having lost Akashi, and is focused instead on another of his cases, the mysterious death of high-profile actress. A little racism creeps in, as well; as Iwata’s supervisor explains, “The family were Korean, so not exactly front-page news.”

Iwata and Sakai manage to get along rather well, considering. He is haunted by memories of his childhood in an orphanage, and she is a feisty young woman whose reflexive prickliness provides a lively counterpoint of humor. (I loved her!)

Iwata and Sakai haven’t made much progress in their investigation when the lonely widow of a judge is murdered. Striking details at the crime scene are similar to the Korean family’s case. Though Iwata and Sakai energetically pursue multiple lines of inquiry, they cannot begin to figure out what links these deaths until he starts breaking rules.

The author, who has lived in Japan, not only evocatively describes the physical and social settings of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hong Kong, he also carefully explores Iwata’s complex interior life and motivations. The atmosphere he creates is dense with possibilities and a bit dreamlike.  This is in part because a dozen or so mysteriously poetic lines repeatedly float through the detective’s mind: “The lights of the city are so pretty”; “I walk and walk, swaying, like a small boat in your arms.” You don’t learn the origin of these lines until well along—a song that is the source of the book’s title (hear it here).

But Obregón is a more subtle writer than that, and the title also echoes other blue lights. A local suicide prevention program uses them, based on the supposition that the color blue is calming. The flashing blue lights of police cars, another recurrent Obregón image, would belie that assumption. Blue Light Yokohama is an immersive police procedural that uses its exotic setting and distinctive characters to great effect.

*****What You Break

Long Island

photo: Shinya Suzuki, creative commons license

By Reed Farrel Coleman – Coleman’s latest crime novel is the second to feature retired Suffolk County cop John Augustus (Gus) Murphy. Coleman portrays his Long Island environment so well that his books carry a gritty realism and his characters live real, if doggedly unglamorous, lives. Says Washington Post reviewer Patrick Anderson, “His Long Island is scruffy, blue-collar, corrupt, choked by traffic and fueled by fast food, cheap beer and unrelenting anger. Jay Gatsby isn’t in the picture.”

Murphy is the security detail and after-hours van driver for the ironically named Paragon Hotel, located near Long Island’s MacArthur airport, and its night spot, the Full Flaps Lounge. His girlfriend Magdalena calls it a third-class hotel—“Second-class,” he corrects her. The job’s easy and doesn’t require any emotional investment. In other words, he can stay on auto-pilot, as he has been in almost every arena of his life since the sudden death of his 20-year-old son, a centerpiece of the earlier book.

The pain of losing his son and all the consequent chaos in his personal life has not gone away, but he’s managing it better now. The downside is that Murphy’s a bit less conscientious about his own safety than he perhaps ought to be, with two separate catastrophes looming on his personal horizon. He’s called in to investigate the apparently motiveless death of a young Vietnamese woman and he fingers one of the hotel guests as potential trouble. Correctly.

Murphy pokes the beast with inquiries into Linh Trang’s past and the hotel guest’s intentions, which puts him and possibly even Magdalena in jeopardy from rough and  determined characters. The plot moves quickly as the circle of people involved in both cases widens, ultimately reaching an inspired conclusion.

Award-winning author Coleman is also a poet, so it’s no surprise he’s been called the “noir poet laureate.” He paints compelling scenes and circumstances, as well as complex psychological portraits.  If you like non-stop action thrillers that nevertheless have some intellectual weight, this is a book to pick up and enjoy.

Solace in True Crime?

In Cold Blood, Truman CapoteEditors of The Guardian gave a topping headline to a Rafia Zakaria story about the attractions of the true crime genre: “Reading a genre where the worst has already happened is an odd comfort.” There’s truth in that. A few years ago, I was struck low by life circumstances and in a rare (for me) state of malaise sat down in front of the television in the middle of a Saturday afternoon to watch The Pianist. Oddly, when the end credits rolled, I felt better. When I told my daughter about this, she said, “Ah. A movie about someone with real problems.” Exactly.

Zakaria suggests true crime as a corrective, even for political angst. “No other genre is a more apt testament that our evil, primal, fearful selves linger just beneath our calm, civilised exteriors, that life goes on even after the worst has happened, and that all catastrophe, central or marginal, has to be understood and confronted before a future becomes possible.”

In our household we’re stuck back at the first stage: probing the calm, civilized exteriors, looking beneath Victorian London with our six books on Jack the Ripper—each with its earnestly promoted theory of the villain’s identity—our five books about the Lizzie Borden case, six about the 1930s Lindbergh kidnapping, and more.

The distance afforded by time provides a bit of psychological insulation, and weighting the theories about these “unsolved” or “unresolved” cases have enlivened many a dinnertime conversation. Perhaps if you visited Cleveland, you went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or even a ballgame at Progressive Field. Not likely you made a pilgrimage to the 1954 home of Dr. Sam Sheppard and his soon-to-be-late wife, Marilyn (LMGTFY). We did.

If in these trying times, you want to test the true crime palliative, Truman Capote’s 1966 book In Cold Blood still sets the standard. (Both the Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones movie versions are riveting as well.)

Here are four more excellent possibilities:

****The Idol of Mombasa

Mombasa, Africa, Masks

photo: Angelo Juan Ramos, creative commons license

By Annamaria AlfieriSet in 1912 in the British Protectorate of East Africa (now Kenya), The Idol of Mombasa is Alfieri’s second novel featuring Justin and Vera Tolliver. In this book, the newlyweds embark on a none-too-welcome stay in the steamy, smelly coastal city of Mombasa, where Justin is the new Assistant District Superintendent of Police.

In Mombasa, they find themselves in a deliciously rendered stewpot of mixed racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds and loyalties. Though the local government is British, Mombasa—and that portion of its population that is Arab—remains under the significant influence of the Sultan of Zanzibar. The British have introduced into the police service their loyal Indian subjects, and Africans of many tribes fill the population.

The Tollivers are a mix too. Justin is the second son of a Yorkshire earl. He had a conventional if aristocratic upbringing, but possesses no fortune. Vera is more of a free spirit. She’s the daughter of a Scottish missionary, born and raised in the Protectorate’s pastoral up-country region.

The conflicts inherent between and among such wildly diverse people are tailor-made for both social and domestic drama.

The novel’s prologue describes a daring nighttime slave and ivory smuggling operation, and the book’s central dilemma relates to the illegal, but quietly tolerated practice of holding and selling slaves. Vera is an absolutist, unable to countenance slavery in any form, whereas Justin may be as morally opposed, but constrained by unwritten policy and his superiors.

When a runaway slave is murdered, followed soon after by the death of a notorious Arab slave-trafficker, Justin and Vera both set out to find the perpetrator—he in his official capacity and she with secret, possibly risky, and sometimes unaccountably naïve actions of her own. Conflict between the couple is thereby assured, as Justin alternately admires and is frustrated by Vera’s passionate, impulsive personality.

Alfieri’s descriptions of exotic Mombasa and its environs a hundred years ago vividly evoke the setting. Her writing is clear and interesting, yet somehow doesn’t exude a strong sense of menace, despite the cast of desperate characters and perilous environment. She keeps multiple plot balls up in the air, through a set of intriguing and well-drawn secondary characters. The net result is that this atmospheric novel transports you back in time and across continents to set you down in the middle of Mombasa, 1912.

A longer version of this review appeared at crimefictionlover.com.

*****Burning Bright

photo: Kevan, creative commons license

By Nick Petrie – Petrie’s debut thriller, The Drifter, was a 2016 favorite. In these novels, Petrie’s protagonist, Peter Ash, is a veteran Marine lieutenant who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. His war experience left him with a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that he calls “the static,” and it starts up whenever he’s in a confined space—indoors, for example—threatening to bloom into a full-blown panic.

For that reason, he’s spent a lot of time tromping around the deep forests of the northwest United States, living in a tent, trying to convince himself no one is shooting at him. Unfortunately, in this book, someone is.

When he climbs a young redwood tree to escape a rampaging bear, he discovers he’s not the first or the only one hiding out up there. Following a trail of ropes, he finds a woman with a bow and arrow, the arrow aimed at his heart. (Hits it, too, but not in the literal sense.) The sound of automatic weapons on the ground tells them they need to fly. Their escape through the treetops, thirty stories up and above the forest fog is pure excitement. And that powerful opening just begins their non-stop adventure.

The woman, June Cassidy, is on the run. Her mother—an artificial intelligence researcher at Stanford University—was killed by a hit-and-run driver, all the contents of her office were carried away in the middle of the night by “government” heavies, who later tried to kidnap Cassidy. Her mother has developed an algorithm to penetrate secure networks called Tyg3r, and quite a few determined folks think now Cassidy has it.

Cassidy wants to know who killed her mother. Ash’s interest is in Cassidy, and he wants to use his considerable tactical and physical skills to protect her. In a recent essay about thriller superheroes, London Review of Books editor John Lanchester described his Superman Test for plausibility: “Is what I’m being asked to believe less likely than the character’s being able to fly?”

Somehow, Petrie’s depiction of Ash and his actions would pass that test. In part that’s because the author is meticulous about explaining how Ash and Cassidy do what they do. Whether you understand all those rope climbing terms or not, the details are utterly convincing.

At the same time, it seems less believable that multiple teams of heavily armed pseudo-governmental agents are driving around in phalanxes of black Ford Explorers. Yet, Ash needs a significant foe, and there’s a high-tech prize of inestimable value here. Perhaps it makes sense that considerable human and firepower resources are focused on acquiring it.

Though heavily overmatched, Ash and Cassidy are not without resources of their own. In addition to their personal skills, Ash calls on some a few pals, including one from The Drifter, Lewis: genius investor, crack shot, awesome sense of humor. Banter between Cassidy and Ash is pretty genuine and entertaining too.

The Northern California and Seattle-area settings are refreshing and full of possibility for the kind of mental isolation that breeds paranoia. And there’s plenty of it in this novel, given the game-changing significance of the technologies it explores. As Petrie says in an author’s note, “large institutions, both public and private, operate with few controls in a fast-changing environment. For some reason, I don’t find this entirely comforting.” Nor will you.

*****The Sellout

Elephant - Sam Felder

photo: Sam Felder, creative commons license

By Paul Beatty, narrated by Prentice Onayemi – I write, knowing this review cannot do justice to this stunning satire—winner of both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award—which tackles a tricky subject: U.S. race relations and the essential absurdity of the human species. I can only urge you to read it for yourself as a journey to important places, dark and light.

Near the end of the story, Beatty’s narrator, Bonbon Me comments on a black comic who m.c.’s the Dum Dum Donuts open mic nights. He says the comedian “did more than tell jokes; he plucked out your subconscious and beat you silly with it, not until you were unrecognizable, but until you were recognizable.” Beatty has just spent 285 pages doing exactly that with his readers’ every racial attitude and carefully buried prejudice, whether toward blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, or whites.

Perhaps the only way for Americans to approach this difficult subject is with the tools Beatty wields so well: wicked perceptiveness and devastating humor. He slaps them down like a bricklayer troweling thick mortar, building his case brick by brick.

At first I thought his approach was to come at racism obliquely, like an artist using negative space, rendering everything around an object, not the object itself. Draw all the plants and trees, the shape of the dirt patch, the rocks, the pond, the lines of fencing, and every other feature surrounding an elephant and, when you’re done—voilà—out pops the pachyderm.

His descriptions of his southwest Los Angeles neighborhood, his administratively erased home town of Dickens, his father and his friends, with their intellectual floundering and frustrations as members of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, “the local think tank.” All seemed designed to produce that elephant.

We meet unforgettable characters, not least Bonbon himself: erudite, fearless, hell-bent on offending and sure to succeed. Bonbon’s father was a psychologist who subjected his son to bizarre experiments growing up, which the boy’s psyche was lucky to survive. His slave (yes) Hominy Jenkins, was a minor celebrity in his youth as a member of the Little Rascals cast; on-again girlfriend and city bus driver, Marpessa, tries to talk sense to him. And more. Much.

However, as the story proceeds, Beatty brings the hammer down. As a joke, Bonbon puts a temporary sign inside a bus that reads “Priority Seating for Whites.” When it’s inadvertently left in place, behavior on the bus becomes exemplary. People are treated with respect. Marpessa says, “Crip, Blood, or cholo, they press the Stop Request button one time and one fucking time only. You know where the kids go do their homework? Not home, not the library, but the bus. That’s how safe it is.” The sign is just the start of a Bonbon crusade. If there’s a word for “this is sooo crazy, it just might work,” Bonbon must have had that word in mind.

The book’s Prologue at the U.S. Supreme Court was a little slow for me, but when Beatty starts to roll, you are in for an amazing, hilarious, heart-breaking ride. Bonbon never breaks character. But at some point, all the comedy flips and you see it for what it is, the mask of tragedy.

It’s also a feast for people who love language. Beatty’s talent as a poet shows up in the rhythm of his prose; in multi-meaning slant rhymes, like the name of his lawyer, Hamilton Fiske; in direct rhymes, like the reference to his father’s farm, “forty acres and a fool”; and his imagery, “he was unpaid-electricity-bill dark.”

I’m sure reading this book in print would be transformative, with the advantage of being able to go back and reread and pause to reflect. Yet, Prentice Onayemi’s narration of the audio version was pitch-perfect. His Hominy addresses Bonbon as “Massa,” with just the right combination of obsequiousness and insolence; Foy Cheshire and the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals bloviate convincingly; Marpessa keeps her wits about her. You see each of them in front of you, just like you cannot avoid seeing the elephant in the middle of our collective living room.

Paul Beatty is coming to Princeton on February 8, 2017, and will appear at the Berlind Theater, 4:30 p.m., sponsored by the Lewis Center for the Arts. Open to the public. Free.

****The Shanghai Factor

Shanghai, woman

photo: Fabrizio Maestroni, creative commons license

By Charles McCarry – This Shanghai-U.S. East Coast-based spy thriller is reminiscent of the early works of John le Carré, where the question always is, Whom can you trust? And the answer: no one. At least that’s how the unnamed narrator, a new CIA recruit, chooses to operate. Paranoia 101. Throughout, it’s McCarry’s wry observations of characters and their situations that make the reading such a pleasure.

Undocumented CIA agents, like the narrator,

. . . never carry official ID. This absence of proof that they’re up to no good is their protection. Otherwise, they are warned, they’re on their own. If they get themselves into trouble, they’ll get no help. If they do well, they’ll get no thanks. That formula is, of course, catnip to romantics.

McCarry gives his protagonist a deceptive openness and surface sociability. A Chinese languages major in college, he’s been sent to Shanghai to improve his language skills and cultural acumen and to keep a lookout for potential Agency recruits.

Early in his stay, a beautiful young woman crashes her bike into his, he buys her an expensive replacement, and before long, they’re lovers. It’s a fun way to learn the language not generally endorsed by Berlitz. From the beginning, he assumes she’d been sent by the Guoanbu, the Chinese intelligence service. Other than her name, Mei, he never asks her any questions about her background—what would be the point?—except to learn she was an exchange student in Massachusetts, which accounts for her American English. Nor does she ask such questions of him—ditto. Plus, he figures she already knows.

Through Mei, he meets wealthy, upwardly mobile young Chinese, disdainful of their stodgy Communist parents. Through one of them, he meets a prominent Chinese CEO and receives an employment offer he suspects is a feeler from Guoanbu. Such a placement could be invaluable to the CIA, if highly risky to him.

McCarry creates a number of entertaining secondary characters, especially lusty Mei, the hot-and-cold Chinese spy Lin Ming, and his mother’s former crack-addict cook, Magdalena. Are any of them what and who they seem? Then there’s his handler, the eccentric CIA director of counter-intelligence Luther Burbank (to the surprise of horticulturalists everywhere), who advises him take the job.

Burbank is the only man at the Agency who knows what he’s up to, and they talk only rarely. When they do, Burbank counsels that becoming a an effective espionage agent and undermining Guoanbu, will be a long game, vulnerable to exposure at every turn. They have to be content to wait for the payoff. He does take the job and, from there, life gets complicated.

McCarry’s writing is smooth and literary, and one of my favorite authors, Alan Furst, calls him “a master of intelligent, literate spy fiction.” If you like an old-fashioned spy story dependent more on agents’ wits than electronic wizardry and body count, you may enjoy this one too.

****The Expatriates

Hong Kong - aotaro

photo: aotaro, creative commons license

By Janice Y.K. Lee – In December I read Lee’s debut novel, The Piano Teacher, only to realize her second book was the January selection of my book club. I now feel quite immersed in the fascinating multicultural community of Hong Kong. This book, which takes place in the current era, is told from the point of view of three American women in Hong Kong for indefinite periods.

Mercy is a young, single Korean-American graduate of Columbia University who can’t seem to get started in a career or a relationship. This would be no surprise to the Korean fortune-tellers back in Flushing who threw a pall over her future when they said her life would be muddled and full of bad luck. Margaret is a happily married mother of three on whom terrible tragedy falls. And Hilary, who has a husband and gobs of family money but lacks the one thing she thinks would make her happiest—a child of her own. In the hothouse, insulated community of Hong Kong that Lee describes, the three women’s stories inevitably intertwine.

“The new expatriates arrive practically on the hour, every day of the week. They get off Cathay Pacific flights from New York, BA from London, Garuda from Jakarta, ANA from Tokyo, carrying briefcases, carrying Louis Vuitton handbags, carrying babies and bottles, carrying exhaustion and excitement and frustration. . . . They are Chinese, Irish, French, Korean, American—a veritable UN of fortune-seekers, willing sheep, life-changers, come to find their future selves.”

For the women, Hong Kong is a revelation. Everyone has help—the near-invisible Chinese maids and cooks and nannies and drivers. The married ones have come for their husband’s job and left their own careers, if they had them, mostly behind. Freedom from whole categories of daily routine enables a different, more demanding social life. Luncheons, the club. And a fixation on motherhood. Lee is a beautiful writer and an expert observer of people, creating many moments that are funny as well as painful.

Each of the women finds herself in key situations that probably never would have existed stateside. And how that will eventually play out is in her own hands. While I never did understand Mercy’s inability or unwillingness to get hold of her future—she’s like the smooth side of velcro—and while New York Times reviewer Maggie Pouncey complains that too much of Margaret’s suffering occurs off-stage, the book was nevertheless an absorbing read. Perhaps we’re observing the characters more with a weak pair of binoculars than a magnifying glass, but we see a lot of the landscape that shapes their actions.

Glimmer Train Short Stories

tapas, small plates

photo: Ken Hawkins, creative commons license

Catching up with two back issues of Glimmer Train—one of the premiere U.S. venues for short story writers—with thoughts about writers to watch, based on these pages. The winter 2015 issue (#92, 13 stories) and fall 2016 issue (#97, 14 stories) are culled from a vast sea of literary output—some 32,000 stories submitted to the GT editors each year.

Most GT writers appear (from their bios) both youngish and frightfully accomplished. Their work and how the editors’ tastes have reacted over the years suggest an evolution in concepts of narrative and characterization, plot and story. Some stories in these recent issue push the envelope of narrative, depending less on scene and dialog. Others deliver their message in short bursts, perhaps thematically linked but otherwise superficially disconnected from what comes before or after. Some require a bit of figuring out. I like the challenge!

Among the stories I enjoyed most from Issue 92 were:

  • “Language Lessons” by Barbara Ganley, each section of which is a mini-story in itself. Ganley is the founder of Community Expressions, LLC, whose purpose is “to help small communities bring storytelling to civic engagements and change efforts”—an enterprise at least as interesting as her fiction.
  • The multiple point-of-view story “Keller’s Ranch,” by award-winning essayist Ming Holden, which includes the memorable line, “I knew that hope can be as sharp as our teeth.” Not an abstract danger, an incarnate one.

Several stories in Issue 97 deal with death, an ambitious topic for a young author and yet dealt with effectively by A. Campbell (“On Fleck/ Fleck On”), a debut author, Matthew Iribarne (“We Are Heaven”), and Lauren Green (“When We Hear Yellow”): “. . . if the heart were a lighthouse, I wouldn’t be able to count on mine. Mine would send out distress signals only after the shipwreck had taken place.”

I also enjoyed:

  • “Pepper,” dog-park action by Weike Wang, author of the novel Chemistry, forthcoming in May, and
  • “Jumping Doctor He Come in Future” by Karen Malley, a story whose good humor starts with the title. Fires and storms and recalcitrant cats.

Tap a source of fine short stories—find them in the magazine section of your big box book store and on many websites—for “small plates” that satisfy.