****My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend, dolls

photo: SherryRose, creative commons license

By Elena Ferrante – Innate stubbornness perhaps delayed my reading of this smash literary hit, Book One of Ferrante’s four “Neapolitan novels,” and I read it now only because my book club selected it. I couldn’t get past the cover, where The New York Times Book Review is quoted saying “One of the great novelists of our time” and The Sunday Times says, “Elena Ferrante has established herself as the foremost modern writer in Italy—and in the world.” So much hype must surely propel expectations to unreachable heights.

A lot to live up to.

I’ve read it now, and it is lovely. Not four books’ worth of lovely, perhaps, but I am glad I read this first one. (My book group members who have read on have mixed views about the experience.) It is the story of two young girls, Lila and Elena, up to and mostly through their adolescence. The writing, in translation from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, is vivid and perceptive. An example:

“Children don’t know the meaning of yesterday, of the day before yesterday, or even of tomorrow, everything is this, now: the street is this, the doorway is this, the stairs are this, this is Mamma, this is Papa, this is the day, this the night.”

The book’s most memorable feature for me is the strong sense of time and place—a claustrophobic neighborhood outside Naples shortly after World War II. The intermingled families that live there demanded a list of characters, and the one in the front of my copy is well-thumbed. How this community weathered, survived, and felt about the war never featured prominently, perhaps because of the child’s sensibility expressed in the quote above. Yet, it’s hard to believe the war experience wasn’t an almost-physical presence in the characters’ lives.

There are other holes in my understanding as well. Because Elena is the book’s narrator, the reader has less access to Lila’s quirky—and likely more interesting—consciousness, and her character never came into sharp focus for me.

Ferrante has been coy about her true identity, and speculation about who actually writes her books is rife. Given that “Elena Ferrante” is a made-up name, why did she assign her narrator, a would-be writer, the same name? Are we to believe this is quasi-memoir? That decision seemed unnecessarily obfuscating and mildly annoying.

Bottom line: Well worth reading at least this first book. After that . . . ?

*****Say Nothing

By Brad Parks – After these powerful opening lines, you pretty much have to keep reading this new thriller:

Say Nothing, Brad Parks, cell phone

photo: Japanexperterna.se, creative commons license

“Their first move against us was so small, such an infinitesimal blip against the blaring background noise of life, I didn’t register it as anything significant.
“It came in the form of a text from my wife, Alison, and it arrived on my phone at 3:28 one Wednesday afternoon:
“‘Hey sorry forgot to tell you kids have dr appt this pm. Picking them up soon'”

With these few words, the deep anxiety all parents feel for the safety of their children bubbles up. The reader anticipates the next shattering revelations, and from there, the plot follows multiple tracks: part legal thriller, part financial thriller, and a big part psychological thriller, as a family confronts its horrifying challenges.

Most of the book is told in first-person, from the point of view of Scott Sampson, a judge for the U.S. Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, sitting in Norfolk. He, his wife, and six-year-old twins Sam and Emma live on the York River in rural Gloucester County, Virginia, “many steps off the beaten path.”

The kidnappers’ goal, it first seems, is to blackmail Judge Sampson into convicting a clearly guilty drug-dealer and murderer. At the last minute, his instructions change: “Let him walk.” It’s not an exercise in thwarting justice; it’s to show how much power they hold over him. One order the kidnappers are consistent about is, of course, the source of the book’s title, “Say nothing.”

Soon you realize the criminals have their sights on a much bigger, more consequential case—a patent dispute involving a multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical product. To accede to their demands, Sampson must throw away his professional integrity and much else, which he does with an enormous sense of loss. Once he has unshackled himself from the basic tenets of the legal system, how far will he actually go?

Parks believably portrays the dynamic between the parents, showing all the anger and sadness and second-guessing and mutual doubts such a high-stress game would generate. Alison’s mother, two sisters, and their families live close by and it’s impossible to keep from them what happened to the children. The family wants to help. That could be risky. Yet, their support gives the couple one solid thing to hang onto as events sweep on.

Parks does an especially good job describing the courtroom action and the interactions in the judge’s chambers. Although you probably have a pretty good idea who is manipulating Judge Sampson’s strings—and why—there are surprises in store. There’s also an unnecessary plot twist at the end that muddies the mother’s motives. Those are minor quibbles for a book whose writing is, on the whole, deft and a pleasure to read.

Parks’s earlier books, like The Good Cop, demonstrate a wicked sense of humor, which he says he deliberately excised from Say Nothing. This book shows he also can grab hold of your heart and keep squeezing.

****The Accusation

North Korea, flags

photo: (stephan), creative commons license

By Bandi – Dubbed “the Solzhenitsyn of Pyongyang,” Bandi is the pseudonym of a dissident North Korean author, and these are the first published stories written by a person still living under that repressive regime.

The seven stories in this collection were written between 1989 and 1995, a particularly bleak period at the start of a severe five-year famine, when Great Leader Kim Jong-un’s grandfather and father ruled the country. Like the overlapping circles of a Venn diagram, the stories share commonalities both in the psychological challenges their protagonists face and in the external environment they must negotiate. These common themes create an indelible impression of Bandi’s world.

Paranoia is prominent. A person who deviates from expectations in any way or complains about anything, significant or trivial, risks being observed, reported, and denounced. The actor in the story “On Stage” titles Act One of his satirical—and dangerous—skit: “It Hurts, Hahaha,” and Act Two: “It Tickles, Boohoo!”—to underscore how people must act according to expectations and contrary to their true feelings. This stunt, predictably, ends in disgrace.

Denunciation can lead to banishment from the city to a life of extreme privation in the country, even death. But death does not end a family’s downfall. A father’s error curtails the educational and occupational prospects for his children and grandchildren, as described in the collection’s first story, “Record of a Defection,” in which a family risks everything to try to escape this collective fate.

Winters are bitter, food is never plentiful, and loudspeakers harangue the population. Their constantly blaring messages from the government are full of “alternative facts.”

The stories were translated by Deborah Smith, winner of the Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Bandi’s writing style is markedly different from that of Western fiction, with little description and with character development mainly through action and dialog. This bracing style fits material with so much implicit drama and heartache. (For a more immersive approach, you might read the richly plotted Pulitzer Prize-winning Adam Johnson novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, which also puts North Korea’s absurdities and ironies on full display.)

Do Bandi’s stories give the impression that the North Korean people recognize the peculiar nature of their system and its injustices? Absolutely. And if the people are called upon to fulfill some outrageous government edict, will they break their backs trying to do so? Absolutely.

The story of how the book came to be smuggled out of the country and ultimately found its way into print is an exciting tale in itself, included as an afterword. For that heroic effort alone, the book is worthy of attention. It also can’t hurt to foster greater understanding of the suffering that ensues when totalitarian leadership proceeds to its natural end-state. The North Korea Bandi describes is one Westerners may have difficulty comprehending, yet the fact that in 2017 it exists at all proves it is not impossible.

****Victoria: The Queen

Queen Victoria

detail of portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1859

By Julia Baird – This extensively researched biography landed in my “to read” pile at the same time the PBS series about Victoria was ready to begin. Naturally, differences in style and tone emerge, but the tv producers have hewn pretty close to the facts of Victoria’s early reign, as established by historian Baird.

Victoria was not the prudish, sexually repressed old lady we think of when we think “Victorian era.” That was Albert, actually. Victoria enjoyed her sex life and was disappointed when, after her ninth child was born, her doctor told her to have no more. She said something like, “What, no more fun in bed?” She became queen at eighteen and married at twenty-one. A youthful portrait, with a dash of the sultry, appears on the cover of Baird’s book. It’s the image of herself Victoria chose to bury with her husband.

When she became Queen, she initially relied heavily on the counsel of Her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, to whom she was greatly attached. He was a good mentor for Victoria, except in three areas, says Baird. He should have persuaded her to deal even-handedly with Britain’s political parties, not favoring one over another; he could have encouraged more concern for the poor; and he should have helped her repair relations with her mother.

By the time of her marriage, this headstrong young woman was accustomed to being queen. Yet she was deeply attached to Albert, who chafed under his limited role in British affairs of state, and they struggled to find a useful place for him. Ultimately, he worked tirelessly for the benefit of her country and its evolution into a modern society. Had he not died young, the 1800s would have been called “the Albertine era,” Baird says. But Albert did die when he and the queen were in their early 40s, and she wore black for the rest of her life. Her template became, Baird says, “weep with the women and dictate to the men, all while cushioning herself with a dramatic large grief.”

Victoria, too, worked hard. She wrote some 2,500 words a day—about 60 million words in her lifetime—letters, memoranda, diaries. Unfortunately, her voluminous papers were carefully “edited” by her family after her death. Daughter Beatrice, Victoria’s youngest child, who lived until 1944, took on the job of rewriting her mother’s diaries, turning the Queen’s interesting, quirky observations into dry prose, then burning the originals. Baird terms this “one of the greatest acts of historical censorship of the century.”

Victoria is great-great-great-great-great grandmother to the children of England’s Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton. It’s hard to believe so many generations have passed when Victoria remains so vivid in our cultural memory, for reasons this book amply justifies.

***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.