*****Ill Will

Cemetery

photo: Andrew, creative commons license

Written by Dan Chaon – Past and present crimes haunt the two main protagonists of this beautifully crafted new literary thriller. In the present day, psychologist Dustin Tillman lives in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. One son is away at college, and his younger son, Aaron, is supposedly taking college courses locally. In truth, he and his friend Rabbit are heavy into the drug scene, and part of the story is told in Aaron’s spot-on voice.

Dustin grew up part of a closely knit family in small-town western Nebraska. Two brothers had married two sisters, and Dustin was the child of one pair, and his twin cousins Wave and Kate the daughters of the other. In addition, his parents adopted a teenager, Russell Bickers, whose previous foster family died in a fire. Rusty and Dusty.

Dusty is a dreamy, highly suggestible kid. Rusty and the twins entertain themselves with manufacturing Dusty’s memories, putting him places he hasn’t been, including him in scenes he hasn’t observed, making him not trust his own senses and memories.

Dustin’s parents are oblivious to all this, boozing and using, and the siblings may be careless about which spouse they sleep with. Early on, you learn that when Dustin was thirteen and the girls seventeen, all four parents were shot to death. Kate believed Rusty did it. Wave did not. And Dustin’s memories are, well. Thirty years later now, DNA evidence exonerates Rusty, and he’s released from prison to lurk on the fiery horizon of the story like a rising sun.

Interwoven with the exploration of these past events is a narrative about mysterious present-day deaths. Dusty’s patient Aqil Ozorowski—a police officer on medical leave—is obsessed with the accidental drowning of a series of male college students. Over a period of years, young men’s bodies have been found in lakes and rivers of the Midwest, some with what Ozorowski deems significant dates of death, like 10/10/10. The authorities are frustratingly unconcerned, saying the students simply fell into the water, drunk, but Ozorowski rails at the lack of proper investigation. Eventually he inveigles Dustin in some unofficial research.

Aaron thinks his dad is a fool. The whole family mocks the “astral traveling” when Dustin’s attention just . . . goes. Dustin suffered bouts of sleepwalking after his family’s murders, and in some respects, he still sleepwalks through life. Chaon typographically expresses the tendency of minds to wander, through blanks in the middle of         You get the idea. After a while, this technique establishes a dreamy disconnect that seems not just real, but really dangerous.

Chaon is a widely praised short story writer and was a National Book Award finalist for an early collection. He has no trouble here sustaining interest in the actions and fates of his fascinating, flawed characters. If you tire of thrillers where the characters are no deeper than the page they’re written on, you’ll find this richly presented family a welcome change.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com. You can order a copy with the affiliate link below.

***The Art of Hearing Heartbeats

market, Myanmar

photo: Eustaqulo Santimano, creative commons license

By Jan-Philipp Sendker, translated from the German by Kevin Wiliarty – I guess this “international best seller” was just not to my taste. While the premise was intriguing, as was the exotic Burmese setting, the author never went deep enough to engage me.

One day Julia Win’s father leaves his wife and grown children and disappears out of his life as a prominent Manhattan attorney. The authorities lose his trail in Bangkok. A new lawyer herself, after a few years, Julia determines to find him and is drawn to a remote village in Burma named Kalaw, based on the only clue she has, an unmailed love-letter addressed to a villager named Mi Mi.

With more than a little trepidation, Julia travels there to find out who Mi Mi is and whether she can tell her where her father has gone.

Before even settling in, she’s approached by an “old man” who seems to know who she is and who her father is. “You must be asking yourself how on earth I know your name when we have never met before, and this is your first visit to our country.” It seems she’s followed the correct path, all right, but the man, whose name is U Ba, won’t reveal more about her father’s whereabouts until she listens to his story, which makes up most of the rest of the book.

That set-up strongly reminds me of the beginning of Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi. Just as Martel’s narrator meets an elderly man who says his story will “make you believe in God,” U Ba at the outset asks Julia, “Do you believe in love?” It’s clear that Sendker’s tale is intended to make sure that she—and the reader—do.

If you’re looking for a sweet read, one that skates across the surface of relationships and emotions, perhaps something for the beach this summer, you can order it through the affiliate link below.

*****Moonglow: A Novel

Tarot cards

photo: Meg Lessard, creative commons license

By Michael Chabon – It’s interesting Chabon labels Moonglow a novel right on the cover, because it’s also has one foot in the memoir camp. The character Michael appears, but the book is only tangentially about him, somewhat about his mother, and mostly about her parents. And what a fascinating set of grandparents he has! The story is based in truth—bolstered by footnotes as an occasional reality check—and leavened with humor. Yet many details and conversations must have sprung from Chabon’s impeccable imagination and his obvious love for two characters called only “my grandfather” and “my grandmother” throughout.

His grandmother, a beautiful and elegant Frenchwoman, survived World War II and the camps. With little more than a set of fortune-telling cards that would be springboards for stories she told her grandson, she emigrated to Baltimore. There the would-be Dolly Levis of the synagogue hoped to match her up with their young rabbi. The night they were to meet at a temple social event, the rabbi dragged his unwilling brother along, and a match was made, just not the one the women expected.

The Frenchwoman had a daughter already (Chabon’s mother), but his grandfather accepted her a hundred percent, as is. And “as is” was not easy. She suffered from severe bouts of depression that resulted in several hospitalizations, and the delusion that a skinless horse lay in wait for her. Nevertheless, they were a good pair. Keeping bad news away from her, as the grandfather insisted upon, “suited his furtive nature. She was always threatening rain; he had been born with an umbrella in his hand.”

The main story is the grandfather’s, and the premise of the book is that he was close-mouthed throughout life until the week before he died, when he told Chabon everything. “Keeping secrets was the family business. But it was a business, it seemed to me, that none of us had ever profited from,” Chabon says.

Chabon skips gleefully back and forth across time and space in recounting his grandfather’s World War II experience (where he participated in Operation Paperclip, an effort to snatch up the German rocket experts before the Russians could get them), his lifelong fascination with rocketry and model-building (NASA obtained some of his precisely detailed models), his prison experience, businesses built and lost, and a late-life romance in a Florida retirement village where a giant python was stealing the pets.

In short, the grandfather reveals and Chabon skillfully assembles and polishes a treasure chest of experiences, Dickensian in their variety, one to be explored with delight and wonder.

For very good reason, Moonglow (affiliate link below) was selected by numerous publications as a “best book” of 2016.

*****Ed’s Dead

Bookstore

photo: Kate Mereand-Sinha, creative commons license

By Russel D. McLean – Jen Carter, the young Glaswegian bookstore clerk who narrates this book, makes one tiny mistake at the novel’s outset.

When she comes home late at night to find her apartment broken into, she searches the place, holding a kitchen knife. She panics when the hall closet door opens and the person inside stumbles out onto her knife. Her boyfriend Ed has just stabbed himself. And now he’s dead.

Confused and wracked with guilt, she compounds her dilemma. Instead of calling the police, she calls Ed’s nerdy roommate Dave. Dave gets into the spirit of concealment and, while Jen sleeps, he dismembers the corpse to make it easier to dispose of. He even cleans up. After that, there’s no going back, no possibility of bringing in the cops after all. Dave and Jen deposit poor Ed—that is, the pieces of him—in a remote stretch of Loch Lomond.

A closer examination of Jen’s messy hall closet reveals what Ed was doing in there. He’d concealed two duffel bags among her disorderly belongings. One contains an enormous stash of money and the other an enormous stash. Dave takes the drugs and Jen takes the cash. Why not, really? Really? And the hunt is on. Glasgow’s crime lords want their money and their drugs, and soon the cops are on Jen’s trail too.

Though the body count is high, McLean writes this first-person story with a light touch and a bit of heartbroken bemusement, if those two words can live in the same sentence. In Jen, McLean has created an appealing protagonist, with a strong and consistent voice.

Jen can’t understand how her relatively orderly life has gotten so out of control and never expects to have the resources, internal or otherwise, to foil the determined criminals, led by the evil old man, Solomon Buchan. Nevertheless, she keeps trying to rise to the occasion.

Though you may see some of the plot twists coming, and some may not bear close examination, the writing is so silky smooth it focuses your attention on whether Jen can slip out of trouble again and how she will try to do it.

Short Mystery Fiction – Ellery Queen Picks

baby sea turtles

photo: Chris Evans, creative commons license

Short stories are a great diversion when you don’t have the time or attention span for a novel. The pacing is different. Every word should count. A paperback or magazine of short stories travels well too. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, now in its 76th year, is one of the best.

The EQMM editors select a wide variety of stories from the broad categories of mystery, crime, and suspense and now publish six times a year. Here are a few from recent issues that I found particularly entertaining.

  • “Frank’s Beach” by Scott Loring Sanders – a bit of sea turtle ecology and a dead body. Sanders’s stories have appeared in Best American Mystery Stories and he has a new collection out last month, Shooting Creek. (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November 2016)
  • “Flowing Waters” by Brendan DuBois – a prolific writer of short stories, this one focused on a woman with PTSD and her formerly abused rescue dog. A classic case of who rescued whom? DuBois latest novel, Storm Cell, was published late last year. (EQMM, January/February 2017)
  • “Oh, Give Me a Home” by Gerald Elias – tracking down a rogue group of survivalists in Utah’s Uintas Mountains. Elias (a former violinist) has a novel, Devil’s Trill. (EQMM March/April 2017)
  • “Ruthless” by Judith Cutler – a Black Widow meets her match. Cutler’s novel Head Start will be out later this year. (EQMM March/April 2017)
  • “The Model Citizen” by William Dylan Powell – love these humorous tales featuring former cop Billy Raskolnikov and his monkey Ringo who live on the boat David’s Fifth Margarita. (EQMM March/April 2017)

If you follow this blog at all, you may recall that my own story, “A Slaying Song Tonight” led off the EQMM holiday issue (January/February 2017), with a tale of how relationships are tested when a Christmas caroling excursion becomes the opportunity for murder.

 

*****Lola

Bodega, Los Angeles

photo: Alissa Walker, creative commons license

By Melissa Scrivner Love – Lola, the energetic protagonist of this Los Angeles-based crime thriller, is an eminently likeable young woman, flirting with death at the hands of rival drug operatives and flouting the legal establishment.

Lola lives with Garcia, the supposed leader of the Crenshaw Six, a four-person gang in their Huntington Park barrio. In the book’s opening scene, a backyard barbecue Garcia is hosting is visited by El Coleccionista, an emissary from Mexico’s Los Liones drug cartel. When you see how intent Lola is on monitoring the conversation between the two men, you understand she is much more than Garcia’s girlfriend. Lola battles throughout the book with the desire to be known and respected for her fearlessness and strategic acumen and the need to remain invisible for safety’s sake.

One of the gang members is Lola’s younger brother Hector, which poses particular challenges for her leadership, because, unfortunately, Hector keeps messing up. He fumbles a two million dollar cash-drug exchange that could lead to the gang members’ arrest or their deaths at the hands of Los Liones, their Los Angeles partners, or their mysterious and well-heeled competition. She must figure out a way that her gang can satisfy the competing—and apparently irreconcilable—demands of these multiple players, without becoming beholden to any of them.

The drug business is not a business just like any other. It has terrible downstream consequences, and you aren’t spared a glimpse of those either. Lola and Hector’s mother is a frequently relapsing addict, which has caused considerable grief in her children’s lives, a hole in Lola’s heart where maternal love should live.

Love does a persuasive job evoking the barrio flavor—its sights, sounds, and smells. This Latino neighborhood is down, way down, but not out. She expertly draws the desperation and determination of her complex characters. You become so immersed in their world that the degree of their alienation from mainstream society becomes clear only when Lola has to interact with people from outside

This debut crime thriller is exceptionally well-written, with nice literary touches. It offers strong and varied personalities, an intriguing and multi-layered setting, and believably dangerous situations. Finding such a talented new author is a delight!

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

****Jade Dragon Mountain

Red Lantern, China

photo: Jakob Montrasio, creative commons license

By Elsa Hart – This charming debut mystery hits my personal buttons, set as it is in China, 1708, and incorporating many of the conventions of novels of Old China. Elsewhere I’ve written about my admiration of the Tang Dynasty’s quasi-historical Judge Dee, made famous by the detective novels of Dutch author Robert van Gulik.

Of course, the romantic vision of historical China in novels—A Dream of Red Mansions and those written by Westerns alike—and movies—from Raise the Red Lantern to The Assassin—bears no resemblance to China under Communism, nor to the everyday lives of poverty and privation of most Chinese of the past. The novels, even the mysteries dealing with lust, avarice, and murder are generally set among the nobility and the scholars. The tea may be poisoned, but it’s served in a translucent porcelain cup.

In Hart’s debut, exiled former librarian in the Forbidden City Li Du (already we encounter a scholar), traveling in a remote southern area, enters a town where his cousin is the magistrate to register his presence. On his arrival he learns that the Emperor of China is visiting the town in six days! He will preside over (and pretend to instigate) an eclipse of the sun. This visit accounts for the enormous bustle and elaborate preparations Li Du observes.

The town and the magistrate’s compound, including its impressive library, are evocatively described. Hart took me right to those places. For me, a delightful return. Although the Emperor’s visit will be a great honor for the magistrate and the town, it creates great risk as well. Many people, including foreigners, are anxious to influence what the Emperor sees and believes.

The magistrate, beset with difficult decisions and details, would prefer to dismiss the untimely murder of a Jesuit astronomer as simply the work of a group of Tibetans camped in the nearby mountains. But Li Du knows these men and believes them innocent. As an exile, he cannot afford to create any difficulties, yet he cannot let the false accusation rest and a murderer go free. His cousin allows him just a few days to solve the crime, as the Emperor’s visit comes ever-nearer. But is a worse crime in the making?

Hart has woven an intricate plot, drawing on real-life politics: the historical isolationism of China versus European pressure to open trade, conflicts between the Jesuits and the Dominicans, the friction inherent in the rigid Chinese class structure. These elements make the story both fascinating and subtle.

****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.