Saturday, March 31, 2012

Running the Rift

Testimonies, historians, novels, movies, documentaries and especially the distance of time have all given us all a limited appreciation of the horrors of the Holocaust. Not being survivors how could we ever fully understand what it was like? What about the more recent holocausts and genocides? Who is telling those stories? Who is attempting to make us more aware, more understanding and more outraged about these atrocities?  One person is first time novelist NaomiBenaron in her Bellwether Prize winning book, Running the Rift.

Running the Rift is the story of the Rwandan Genocide as seen through the eyes of a young athlete. According to various human rights watchdog organizations an estimated 800,000 people were murdered during the Rwandan genocide over the course of a year.  To say the least that is a daunting event to try and capture on paper.

It is 1985 and Jean Patrick Nkuba is a young boy as Running the Rift begins. His life has been happy. He is part of a large, close knit family. His Father is a respected teacher. He is a gifted, record breaking middle distance runner and dreams of going to the Olympics. Jean Patrick doesn’t know this yet but there is a shadow already hanging over his life. The Nkuba are Tutsi. This heritage will put his family on a collision course with horror.

The sudden death of Jean Patrick’s Father coincides with the beginning of the Hutus governments’ more overt restrictions on the Tutsis and the stepping up of resistance to the government by the Rwandan Patriotic Force (RPF), a Tutsi-led rebel army. Over the course of the next ten years a civil war will tear away the Nkubas security and their future.  One by one friends, employers and neighbors turn away from the family because of their ethnicity. Jean Patrick becomes a political pawn when the government wants to use him as a human rights poster child. As the government sanctioned genocide accelerates not only is Jean Patrick’s dreams of representing his country in the Olympics on the failure track but as a Tutsi his life is also endangered.

Running the Rift is an impressive novel. Benaron has done an incredible job of tracking the origins of the government approved interracial strife in Rwanda and its drastic hastening into a holocaust. In a situation where there is a crystal clear right and wrong she does not take the easy road and use cardboard characters to push her story forward and expose the villainy. Instead Benaron allows us to experience Jean Patrick’s journey from innocence to inhumanity to hope with his and every other character’s flaws and strengths as they are tested. The juxtaposition of this beautiful country and the citizens who strive for the betterment of their country and the other citizens who either participated in the genocide or looked the other way makes for a powerful story and Naomi Benaron captures it all.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The People's Act Of Love

Siberia. The name conjures up images of harsh landscapes and even harsher punishments. Will I ever open a book set in Siberia and find myself in the middle of a feel good novel? Yikes. I hope not.

The People's Act Of Love by James Meek is set in a Siberian village and believe me there isn’t even a whiff of feel good anywhere in this book. It’s the last dark days of the Russian Revolution. The hard times have left their mark all over the place. Among the population of this hellish village of Yazyk are: Anna a passionate, widowed single mother, a group of stranded Czech soldiers with a cocaine addicted Captain, a separatist Christian sect obsessed with purity, a creepy local shaman and--bonus-- the Red Army is approaching. Prior to the soldiers showing up the classic Mysterious Stranger appears. We have all read enough to know that when an outsider arrives they bring ill tidings and so it is with this novel as well.

The new guy in town is Samarin. He is a charming revolutionary who immediately starts spouting stories of his traumatic escape from a distant labor camp that include being chased by a cannibal. He also has ideas to share. The kinds of ideas that authorities don’t like, ideas that make people take sides, ideas that manipulate. Suddenly where there was watchful ignoring between the citizens in Yazyk there is now violent division. The revolution, in microcosm, has arrived.

Forever it seems authors have brought together strangers and desperate characters in isolated locations: country mansions, air plane crashes, war zones, pioneer settlements, space stations, 20,000 leagues under the sea, etc in order to create a laboratory of humanity. Despite using this hairy old conceit (not to mention the use of the Mysterious Stranger) Meek has made his dark novel original and intriguing. This is no casual reading experience. The tight plotting, complex relationships, reactions, audacious and grotesque action sequences all bubble up into a fantastic psychological stew worthy of grown-ups. The People’s Act Of Love an amazing novel but I have to say—not for the faint of heart.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Game Of Thrones Why Do You Toy With Me?

Game of Thrones what the heck is wrong with you? It's all so annoying my friends.

I did not see Game of Thrones when it aired on TV but over the years I have read and enjoyed the first four novels in the series. I don't get HBO. Oh well. The problem right now is Game of Thrones on DVD--which I bought (pre-ordered even) and have now returned and had replacement copies sent to me four times.

What's going on here? I have had plenty of time to think about that while I await my fourth copy of the boxed set of season one to arrive. Each of my previous copies of Game have been damaged in different ways although all of the damages have been the result of packaging. The plastic wells that hold each DVD have been cracked, the little sunburst things that hold the discs in those wells have been broken, the booklet in the case has arrived looking like origami and once one of the discs was missing.

Can we talk a moment about the amount of packaging used on this boxed set? The two slip cases and then a fold out case for five discs. Ten episodes on five discs. I realize that ten on five makes for easy math but these episodes are an hour long. They couldn't have done this all on three discs? Ten divided by three isn't even-steven but it is less packaging all way around. And. Maybe a tad less expensive?

I will freely admit I am a picky-pants when it comes to the purchases of books and DVDs. I buy them new and I expect them to be pristine. If I was willing to accept cracks, rips, bends, etc. I would buy them used. I am really, really looking forward to watching Game of Thrones and I have heard nothing but good things about it but I can wait to watch it until I have a copy that is physically worth what it is costing me to buy it. Is that so wrong?

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Golden Scales

One of the fun things about mysteries is the wealth of peculiar characters they always have---without any of that cases of cutes crap you can find so easily in general fiction.  There are the savory and unsavory, heroes and villains and then the Damon Runyon-esque populace. You’d be hard pressed to find a mystery that doesn’t follow that pattern no matter where that book hails from. These broad types are one of the delights of The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal.

Cairo is the setting for this new mystery, The Golden Scales, with a gallery of interesting characters. So great setting, great people we are half way to reading happiness right? To finish this book off on the plus side there is also a detective who is outside of the ordinary and a plot that twists and turns. We have a winner.

Our detective is Makana a former Sudanese policeman. Forced to leave Sudan under a cloud, Makana squeezes out a hand to mouth living as a private detective in Cairo. As much as he would like to he doesn’t have the luxury of only taking cases from the righteous and innocent. That is how he ends up employed by the corrupt and underhanded entrepreneur Saad Hanafi. Makana is hired to find the sleazy Hanafi’s missing star soccer player.  During his investigation Makana  is quickly rubbing elbows with hucksters, failed starlets, icky film directors, Russian gangsters, Muslim extremists, a fraught mother searching for a long missing child, an old enemy from his past and  a murderer. Despite increasing danger, threats and painful memories Makana is dogged in his pursuit of a killer.

Bilal packs his plot with details and loads on the crime novel picturesque. One of my favorites is Hanafi’s soccer stadium decorated with statues of gods who all look remarkably like Hanafi. Bilal creates a mood of barely contained chaos that suits his underbelly picture of Cairo. There is more to The Golden Scales than a reader usually finds in gumshoe fiction. Bilal by way the charismatic Makana and his adventures amid the shady and desperate has plenty to say about Cairo, politics and the economics of survival.

P.S. Bilal is the pseudonym of author Jamal Mahjoub author of seven books  including The Drift Latitudes.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


The Romanovs have their own special cottage industry in historical fiction. The romances, the revolution, the eggs, the hemophilia, the assignations, WWI, Anastasia and Rasputin have all combined to make the Romanovs the most fictionalized royals this side of the Tudors. So you have to figure that a writer must have a powerful love for those families and/or feel as though they have something new to bring to the already existing legends in order to pen another 80,000 words on them.

Is this why Kathryn Harrison wrote Enchantments? Is she fascinated by the Romanovs? Does she have some new insight or fact to bring to their history?

Enchantments is a sort of sideways novel about the Romanovs. The star is Masha, one of Rasputin’s daughters. In 1917 after a few unsuccessful attempts Rasputin was finally assassinated. Masha and her sister Varya had been living with their Father in St. Petersburg at the time and after his death they are sent to live with the royal family. Tsarina Alexandra wants to convince herself that Masha has inherited her father’s healing abilities and to that end she has the girl spend her days with her hemophiliac son, Prince Alexei .

Masha plays Scheherazade for Alexei. She enthralls him with stories. Enchantments is all about stories. The kinds of stories a government tells, the stories that make up your past, the stories you tell yourself in order to go on and the stories that make up popular opinion they are all here. In time Masha and Alexei even make up stories about how they will escape to Chicago and marry. It will be their happy ending.

That Harrison has chosen Masha as her conduit is interesting in that it creates a different perspective on the Romanovs compared to the many, many other novels about them. Intellectually Masha is a compelling character. She’s the favorite daughter of one of the most controversial figures ever (It’s Rasputin for crying out loud!), on the cusp of womanhood, afraid of having inherited her Father’s sexual appetites and living with a deposed royal family in a country undergoing a revolution that is a list of dramatic fodder the likes of which authors rarely have at their fingertips and yet… the novel is lifeless. Even the inclusion of –surprise—sexual games and denials does not add any passion to this novel.

Enchantments is imaginative, filled with intriguing historical detail and the wonderful writing you expect from Kathryn Harrison but it never takes off. Maybe all those stories defeat the inherent drama of Romanov, Rasputin and Revolution?

Monday, March 19, 2012


The Mutiny by Julian Rathbone is about 460 pages and the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Both of those things make me happy. For me chubby books are cheesecake level temptation and stories set in India are always to be scooped up.
The British Army enlisted thousands of Indians as soldiers or “sepoys” as the Europeans called them and was reliant on these soldiers to help govern the huge country. If the civilian colonists thought about the natives at all it was as master and servant and not in a pretty Masterpiece Theater way. By 1857 this dynamic had been business as usual for decades. Add to this: oppression, unfair taxes on Indians, the attitudes of the authorities concerning the religions of India, racism and the British owned East India Company’s habit of annexing land from independent Rajas when the company wanted it.

From the moment his recreation of the Rebellion begins Rathbone makes the most of the historical, political, racial, religious and cultural elements available to him to construct an epic. He doesn’t populate the story with the usual historical walk-ons nor does he stray from the actual timeline of the major events of the Rebellion but within these parameters Rathbone has plenty of room to develop plotlines and characters that are good, bad and human. As the stories expand and intertwine Rathbone successfully balances our sympathy and outrage within this ambitious novel.

The Mutiny is old fashioned storytelling but that doesn’t mean that the story is old fashioned. In this novel the view is broad, the action is intimate and the writing is elegant.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Gods of Gotham

Normally when I am reading a new mystery book and I feel the tentacles of a potential series creeping into my read I get resentful. It’s childish but it makes me feel used somehow. You write the book, I’ll read the book and then we’ll all decide if this should be a series, ok? Ok. What can I say? I want to be the boss of everything. Oh well. It looks as though in a year or so The Gods of Gotham will be looked back on as book one in the Timothy Wilde mysteries.

Once you make it past the late 1940’s-esque cover art---really. Can’t you see that image selling The Gods of Gotham movie starring Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Mitchum, Jennifer Jones, and Van Heflin. The Gods of Gotham…a world torn apart by burning passions! Anyway. As I was implying the cover art is aged at best but the contents? Much better than the cover would have you believe.

My guess is that The Gods of Gotham will most often be compared to The Alienist. Both books are cut from the same cloth in that they are historical mysteries set in New York City and the crimes are gruesome. After that? The big difference is that The Gods of Gotham is not bogged down by the inclusion of historical figures in key roles in its storyline. Real people do make some cameo appearances but really they are passersby.
Set in 1845, Lyndsay Faye’s new novel is certified USDA Grade A historical mystery. It’s well plotted and well written. The story is wrapped around the founding of New York City’s first police department and your recruit Timothy Wilde. Wilde is a luckless fellow. At 27 he is unlucky in love, out of a job, out of money, scarred by the fire that burnt down his home and destroyed his looks and now has to accept a job with the police arranged for him by his shady brother. He is also Irish at a time when the immigrants of longer standing in NYC are spoiling for a fight against the latest influx of immigrants, the Irish Catholics. When Wilde stumbles upon an unsavory exploitation of children he also finds that he has a talent for investigation.

Wilde is a very enjoyable, alluringly damaged creation but it’s his brother Valentine that gets all the flash. He is a charming, self-absorbed, villainous drug addict who tries to keep his nicer instincts at bay. Mercy Underhill is Wilde’s unattainable love interest. She is a clergyman’s daughter who works for the benefit of the poor. These three will be the recurring characters as this novel develops into a series and Faye has done a terrific job with them.  

There is a fourth main character in The Gods of Gotham. New York City. The entire apple. Lyndsay Faye has taken a cross section of 1845 NYC, squeezed every bit of research out of and rebuilt it for us to marvel at. The squalor, the language, the politics, the architecture and the people are laid out like an all you can eat buffet of delights so come prepared!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Are you completely ignorant as to how rude you are being?

Do you know how to set the table? You should. You have been doing it all your life. You think you do, right? Well sorry to be the one to tell you this--but you don't.
You are picturing this:


Dream on. See that space over by the cup and saucer? It's missing something.... Can you guess? A phone! That's were the phone goes at meal times. It comes out of the pocket or purse and gets set on the table at the end of the place setting. Remember that, OK? Whether dinning at home or at a restaurant, the phone goes on the table.

It's a must. It completes the Schizophrenic Toast To Rudeness Dinning Experience. If the phone is on the table your companion can talk to you and the invisible other person at the table, the person on the phone. It's great. It makes you feel special to be so important, so interesting to another person or persons.


Sisterhood takes a turn for the worse in Out by Natsuo Kirino when four women in no-hope jobs have a murder to cover up. This is no 9 to 5 romp where a group of gals try to cover-up a murder and out pops bonding, empowerment and happy endings. Out is more a spiral of desperate and questionable choices out of Dostoyevsky.
Pretty Yayoi works the night shift in a Tokyo factory that produces boxed lunches. During the day she battles with a cheating husband who gambles away what little income she brings in. When rage and frustration lead to murder, Yayoi looks to older, wiser co-worker Masako for help. In an attempt to extricate Yayoi, Masako enlists two other co-workers help in getting rid of the body. All four of these women are smart and caring but they are also trapped in lives that are grimly doomed to never get beyond a difficult daily struggle survive. As loyalties, violence, money, accessories to murder, body parts, police, gangsters, pimps, casinos and the power of self-preservation collide with tenuous friendships a riveting and realistic read opens up.  
If the thought of reading about Japan and/or Japanese women conjures up images of cherry blossoms and geishas think again. You will find none of that picture postcard fodder in Out. Kirino’s description of the underbelly of Tokyo is as sensational and gritty as her characters are. This is a tasty slice of hard boiled life. Out is as dark and revenge filled as any noir novel populated by men and twice as psychologically shrewd.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The House at Sea's End

Raise your hand if you get happy all over when you discovery that a much enjoyed, new-to-you author has multiple titles waiting for you to gobble up. Yeah, me too!

The “new” author is Elly Griffiths and the books are her series of mysteries featuring detective Ruth Galloway. I came upon Elly and Ruth while browsing at my local. The cover of their latest book , The House atSea’s End, hit a number of my impulse purchase buttons. The unevent typeface, house of nooks and crannies, the cliff, the stone barrier, the sea and the almost monochromatic tone of the palette all combine in a siren song way for me.

Ruth is a forensic archaeologist. Her Born Again parents have left their mark. She’s brainy, independent, forty-ish, chubby, not fashionbale, a bit awkward and in general a difficult person. Things in her life are messy but she’s no tortured loner—although she would just as soon be left alone.  Though of course she has two cats.

The first of the three Ruth Galloway mysteries is The Crossing Places.  Ruth is living the quiet life in an area of England known as Saltmarsh in Norfolk. Oddly enough the local detective inspector, Harry Nelson, calls on Ruth because he needs help identifying a body. Nelson has been taunted by letters for years regarding the unsolved case of a child. I know. Poor fictional policemen so lost without the local historian, middle school teacher, scientist, librarian or spinster! It’s a hairy old beginning for an amateur detective but it gets it all started up.

Second in the series is The Janus Stone. This time the demolition of an old home in Norfolk leads to the discovery of a body and Nelson again asks Ruth for forensic and historical help.  Roman gods, sacrifice, a charismatic priest, a questionable new age spiritualist, an Iron Age excavation, adultery and romance all mix together with atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere to great effect.

Third up is where I first came in, The House at Sea’s End. Six well persevered skeletons are reason enough for Nelson to call in Ruth Galloway, right? The bones turn out to be German and date back to World War II. The dead in Norfolk really pile up when a visiting German journalist and several octogenarians who might have been witnesses or accomplices to murder also bite the dust. It’s nice and complicated.

Elly Griffiths has done a bang up job. Ruth Galloway is a stand out among amateur sleuths. Aside from that universal Not A People Person quality that is wired into the fictional DNA of every detective, pro or part timer, ever created since 1940, Ruth is unique. She can be tough to enjoy even for the reader at times but she is completely three dimensional and worthy of the time you want to spend with her.
 The ancient history worked into the books is natural given Ruth’s work but Griffiths makes it organic to the stories and not a display of her own research. Each of these mysteries feels as though it couldn’t possibly take place anywhere else but Norfolk. Griffiths is building a world in this series and she is doing a fantastic job.

The fourth book for Elly and Ruth, A Room Full of Bones is due out in July 2012!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Gift of Rain

In 1939 life in Malaya (now called Malaysia) changed forever. The haze of British colonialism, class structures, calm and everyday life disappeared with the invasion of the Japanese. Author Tan Twan Eng uses this dramatic backdrop for his novel The Gift of Rain, a vivid coming of age story. And. A 2007 Man Booker nominee.

When the novel opens a surprise visit from a stranger forces Philip Hutton to look back on the changes that over took his life fifty years earlier when he was a young man. It was a time that took him from The Huttons are one of Malaya’s most powerful, white families. Their place in society and their wealth are long established. The youngest son in the family Philip, in spite of money and privilege, feels like an outsider. His mother is Chinese. As half English half Chinese he is well aware of what his mixed race means and how protected he is by his family’s’ money and position.

Shortly before the war Philips’ father placed him in charge of the family’s trading company. Without what little security he feels when surrounded by his father and brothers Philip drifts into a friendship with another outsider, Hayato Endo a Japanese diplomat. Philip is excited to finally have someone to share things with and Endo reciprocates by teaching Philip aikido, how to speak Japanese and about the Japanese culture. In fact Endo becomes Philips’ mentor. When the war arrives in Malaya by way of invading Japanese soldiers, Philip is unsure of where is loyalties lay. Has he already betrayed his family?

Tan Twan Eng layers the complications into The Gift of Rain artfully. The full weight of choices and behavior, the conflicts created by war and family relationships build steadily until Eng has the tension set at page turner degree.  The Gift of Rain is not perfect: the dialog can get clunky, the flashback technique is a little cumbersome and Eng sometimes has a heavy had with morality. However there is also a sweeping plot, a captivating recreation of place, intrigue and strongly developed, charismatic characters.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Technologists

Matthew Pearl has made a career out of capitalizing on authors we love. He’s the ultimate success story in fan fiction.  In his novels: The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow and The Last Dickens Pearl  build  on our general knowledge of the lives of  Dante, Poe and Dickens to become enjoyable  What If mysteries that allow us to visit a favorite writer. However Pearl’s latest novel, The Technologists doesn’t have that classics author hook that has served him so well. I guess in that regard it is his first stand alone.

The Technologists is about Marcus Mansfield. He is a survivor of years in a Confederate prison trying to adjust to civilian life in Boston.  Mansfield is a loner with a gift for invention. By night he works on his designs and by day he is a student at the newly founded MIT. Guess what? His inventions are ahead of their time.
When Boston experiences an attack of seemingly otherworldly proportions the local police are baffled. Mansfield and some of his fellow students decide to investigate on their own. These new kids on the block, first generation American geeks are up against a fiendish foe and the respected and well heeled Harvard crew that’s on the same case. That’s gumption at work my friends.
The Technologists has its moments; specifically, Pearl’s use of the science of the times to battle steampunk-esque villainy and his convincing portrait of Boston in 1868. Good thing as these two elements are the heart of this boys own adventure novel. The failure in The Technologists is in the drama. There isn’t any.
Oh well.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Rain Before It Falls

 It is a death that sets Jonathan Coe’s novel The Rain BeforeIt Falls in motion but in the novel it isn’t always death that is the worst life has to offer. Coe’s story is a family saga where wretchedness begets wretchedness through successive generations.

As a little girl Rosamund is evacuated from London and sent to live on the Shropshire farm of her aunt and uncle. Once there she forms a deep bond with her cousin Beatrix who is horribly emotionally abused by her mother. The repercussions of Beatrix childhood reach out to successive generations.  

Years later after Rosamund passes away she leaves a record –literally—of her life on cassettes and in photographs. Rosamund records her stories right up to her death. She wants these things to go to Imogen, Beatrix’s granddaughter and it is up to Rosamunds’ niece Gill as executor to make this happen. Gill has a vague memory of Imogen as the blind woman met years ago at a family gathering. Unable to locate Imogen right away Gill listens to the cassettes.

Rosamund is the character you fall for in The Rain Before It Falls. Her experiences: being sent away from her family during the war, her first true love, attempting to raise Beatrix’s daughter, life for a woman in 50’s and 60’s Great Britian, her life with her companion Ruth and her choice at the end all come together in Coe’s wonderful writing to create a treat of a character. She is what you cling to when the miseries –inflicted by woman—mount up.

 The conceit of the tapes, the photographs and Gill’s examination of them all isn’t perhaps the most inventive way for Coe to get his story out there and it does lend itself to some meandering but these are minor points. The Rain Before It Falls is something different for Coe. It’s more touching and less shiny.  The keep up with me brilliance of The Winshaw Legacy: Or, What a Carve Up and The Rotter’s Club are set aside in The Rain Before It Falls in favor of a bit more humanity.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Darlings

Here where I live in the Northeast we are having Weather. Yesterday we got snow, sleet and ice and today we are getting more snow. In like a lion, right?

I wish could say the same for my snow day read, The Darlings by Cristina Alger. In this debut novel, a financial thriller, Alger was unable to convince me why I should care about stereotypical, self centered, extremely rich characters who might lose all their money and their family owned investment company in a Madoff-esque event.

The only real interest—and it was mild-- I had in The Darlings was wondering if Alger had meant to reference Peter Pan by naming her family the Darlings. Is it that the financial crisis is putting an end to living in Neverland?  Deep.
I could have stopped reading The Darlings at any time and gone on to lead a full and happy life. So why didn't I? Blame it on the snow day. Coziness won over literary merit.
It’s been a long time since I read as big a snooze fest as The Darlings. The cover is attractive though.