Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Monday, February 26, 2018

American War by Omar El Akkad

Vintage, 432 pages, $16.95 (c2017, Vintage c2018)

Yes, author Omar El Akkad has given us another American Civil War, this time because of the Free Southern States’ desire to keep using fossil fuels, despite an environmental disaster created by global warming. Yes, the war is between the Blues and the Reds, beginning in the year 2075. Yes, there is a plague that has forever sealed off South Carolina from the rest of the country. Yes, the United States of America is no longer the world’s leading power; that role is fulfilled by both China and the Bouazizi Empire (Egypt with parts of former Arabian and African countries). Yes, large portions of the coastal areas have been lost to the invading seas and rivers, so much so that the Capitol has been relocated to Columbus, Ohio. But this is all background noise.

The real story is about Sara T. Chestnut, who at an early age renamed herself Sarat. The willfulness and determination behind that act follows her for the rest of her days.

Sarat’s story begins at the age of six in a metal container where she lives with her twin sister, older brother, and parents. The war is getting closer, so the container’s useful days are numbered. After Sarat’s father disappears, she and the rest of her family struggle to get to a refugee camp. There Sarat learns survival and self-reliance. There she becomes a potential resistance fighter.

The crux to any story about war and a land under siege is how people are dislocated, both physically and mentally. Each time Sarat becomes acclimated to a place, she is then torn away. What can she believe in when there are only sham legal venues for aid and restitution? When there is much in-fighting among the “leaders” of the cause? When friends can turn out to be enemies? When the family center cannot hold?

I think this book is more about what war, any war, does to people and their motivations rather than it is a political statement about our current times or even an environmental warning. People can war about many things. If there are bloodshed and lines drawn in the sand, then there is trauma, and people must look deep to see what is inside themselves and what has importance to them.

“American War” is disorienting because Sarat doesn’t really fight against the Blues; she fights against the faceless people who have slowly taken away what she loves. Then she fights faces she knows, and victory seems an empty promise. Nevertheless, the book is situated in a Blue versus Red arena, and the geography — however misshapen by environmental forces — is familiar. That adds a dimension to “American War” that wouldn’t be there if it were a dystopian novel set in the far future or on another planet. Most of us will have a visceral reaction to El Akkad’s setup.

Omar El Akkad was born in Cairo, Egypt, and was a war correspondent for Canadian media. I don’t know how much time he spent in the U.S. South, but I like the flavor of his setting. Coincidentally, he now lives not too far from where I am in Oregon. Obviously, he has moved through very different environments, just as his story moves from the South and ends in Anchorage, of all places. His experience with war in the Middle East must have greatly informed the details of Sarat’s tale. The terror, anger, and deprivation seem so authentic.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Grist Mill Road by Christopher J. Yates

Picador, 352 pages, $26 (c2017)

Ah, success begets imitation. It’s only flattery if the imitation is successful, so say I, and this is successful on many levels. “Grist Mill Road” runs on the road paved by “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on the Train.” This, along with the recent “The Woman in the Window,” deals with narrative sleight-of-hand. You think you know where the trick is leading, but you don’t even understand how the game is being played.

Middle school children made the news the summer of 1982 in a small town in New York. Fourteen-year-old Matthew tied thirteen-year-old Hannah to a tree and shot her thirty-nine times with a BB gun. Twelve-year-old Patch witnessed some of it but didn’t do anything to stop it. Patch later untied Hannah from the tree and Matthew, his best friend, was sent to wherever fourteen-year-olds go who break the law.

Twenty-six years later, in a way only books of fiction can ironically devise, Patrick is married to Hannah. Patrick has had many nicknames in his lifetime, including “Tricky,” a name given him by his best friend, and “Patch.” Yes, that Patch. Hannah, one-eyed Hannah, having lost an eye in a BB gun incident in 1982, is a crime reporter for a New York newspaper. She knows a lot of cops. Patrick, because this later story is set in 2008, has lost his job in the financial downturn of the time. A lot of the first part of the book is eavesdropping on Patrick’s thoughts as he tries to re-make his life in light of his sudden unemployment. Hannah tries to entertain him, and unburden herself in the process, by describing the lurid details of the stories she covers in The Naked City.

Hannah often wakes up screaming from the nightmares she has. Patrick drifts more and more into a fantasy cooking world he has developed: a virtual The Red Barn Restaurant, where his innovative and delicious recipes can come to life. Both have not seen Matthew in decades.

Soon Hannah has some sections of the book to herself. Her friend, Detective McCluskey, eventually reveals the details of a disturbance that bears directly on Hannah. The shocking revelation propels a lot of the secrets that have been stored inside people for twenty-six years to come pouring forth.

Finally — and I don’t think this is much of a spoiler, since if you look at the table of contents, you will see Matthew’s name heading a lot of the chapters — Matthew’s story is in the driver’s seat for much of the last part of the book.

Who do you, poor befuddled reader, trust? Suffice it to say there are no straightforward paths here. And while tragedy piles upon tragedy, you should know that Christopher J. Yates infuses his book with humor. If you can’t know the joy of life without also knowing pain and suffering, apparently you cannot know tragedy without comedy. Yates uses his humor sparingly and to great effect. For instance, when Patch is getting ready to shop at the market, Hannah will add some sort of punny farewell, like “Don’t forget the cabbage, Patch.”

Then when Patch is hit by the lightning bolt that is his parents’ divorce, “The information was all there being fed into me like data, only what came out the other end wasn’t just the wrong conclusion, it was a table lamp. A swordfish.”

In describing being bored by talks by the local naturalist, “… while glaciers left me cold and pine needles didn’t spike my interest, there was something about the topic of cement that lit me up like gunpowder.”

Yates writes well and has created an intriguing, if somewhat convoluted, storyline. I had trouble with the final reveal of Matthew’s story, and that is the main reason I am not giving it an MBTB star. But that’s just me. Bet this book is a major hit and you’ll see it on the big screen shortly.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Soho Crime, 400 pages, $26.95

Sujata Massey created the Rei Shimura series, beginning with 1997’s “The Salaryman’s Wife,” a novel nominated for most of the big mystery awards. Keeping to her mission to introduce us to other cultures, her latest book, “The Widows of Malabar Hill,” is set mostly in 1921 Bombay, India. Massey “was born in England to parents from India and Germany, and was raised mostly in St. Paul, Minnesota, although her home for more than a quarter century has been Baltimore, Maryland.” She brings a believable sensibility to what it means to live at the crossroads of different cultures. She also brings an American perspective to it, in that she knows what most of us don’t know. What exactly does it mean to be designated “Indian”? She guides us through the complexity of a little part of India at a time when British rule was still in place.

Perveen Mistry has had a long and rocky road to becoming the first female solicitor in Bombay. She is a Parsi and her family lives a progressive Parsi life. What does that mean? We find out as Perveen navigates the legal shoals of helping a Muslim family, befriending a British woman, and dealing with a religiously conservative Parsi family. 

Massey actually has given us two stories, beginning with a nineteen-year-old Perveen in 1916 struggling to take classes at a Bombay law school, and suffering the bullying and vicious pranks of her male classmates. Should she succeed in graduating, she will not be able to take the bar. Because she is a woman. But her progressive father, Jamshedji, has a law practice and wants her to join his firm, even without bar credentials. When the action shifts to 1921, we are missing some of the crucial pieces of the 1916 story. How did Perveen meet her British friend, Alice, at Oxford in England? Who is this Cyrus of whom she is so afraid? Massey believes in tension held for as long as possible, as she gradually reveals what happened in 1916.

The 1921 story has to do with one of Perveen’s father’s clients who recently died. He left three widows and four young children. The women are in mourning seclusion and only a woman can talk to them about settling the estate. Enter Perveen. There appear to be some problems with how the women want the estate to be handled. In dealing with the brutish, dismissive male house manager, Mukri, to resolve the financial concerns, Perveen's simple task becomes onerous.

After someone is murdered, Perveen then has to deal with the dismissive police, most of whom are white. She manages with the help of her friend Alice and, better yet, the influence of her father, Sir David Hobson-Jones, a councillor to Bombay’s governor. Alice and her father exist mostly to show how difficult it would be to deal with the colonizing authorities otherwise. In the end, Alice proves to be a delightful sidekick. (If you watched the Melissa McCarthy movie, “Spy,” think of the character of Nancy, played by actress Miranda Hart. Alice is a less goofy but just as exuberant Nancy.)

Perveen’s past story is heartbreaking and her present story is a triumph of stubbornness.

MBTB star!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Black Fall by Andrew Mayne

Harper Paperbacks, 384 pages, $15.99 (c2017)

Apparently “Black Fall” is the third “Jessica Blackwood” novel. I admit to missing the first two. Shame on me. “Black Fall” is entertaining with the strong, endearing first-person voice of Jessica Blackwood, a magician’s assistant — by way of her magician father and grandfather — and now FBI agent.

Jessica’s strength is her ability to see past the “illusion” high-level criminals create because of her background. When a village in Bolivia is flooded out and many lives are lost, Jessica works her logic to figure out why the flood occurred. Was it really because of the big storm that hunkered over the village? Or was it something far more nefarious? Here’s a hint: It was something far more nefarious.

Strangely, Jessica’s charm comes from her admitted awkwardness and bluntness. But she’s far less blunt than one of her FBI cohorts, Jennifer, a computer nerd. Other members of Jessica’s team are Gerald, another computer nerd, and Dr. Ailes, Jessica’s mentor. They comprise the “X-Files” wannabe team. Actually, this book reminded me somewhat of Preston and Child’s Aloysius Pendergast series. Over-the-top situations occur and peculiar FBI agents must save the world.

Jessica is much more vulnerable and human than her woo-woo FBI predecessors. She is affected by her trickster childhood and the valuable lessons she learned at her family’s collective knee, but it is that background that she now attempts to flee.

As an FBI agent, she has racked up impressive wins and acquired impressive enemies, one reminiscent of the creepy and brilliant Hannibal Lecter, star of several of Thomas Harris’ books. But he’s in prison. So Jessica visits another creepy and some say brilliant criminal, Ezra Winter, a radical environmentalist. He, too, is in prison. Apparently, “prison” might be a relative term.

Let me back up a bit. In the beginning was an attempt on her life by a stranger. Then an earthquake hit the East Coast. Then came an old videotape of an eight-years-dead physicist predicting the present day quake. Then came the flood and another old videotape of the dead guy predicting that. Jessica, because of her background, is more likely to sniff a con than her fellow agents. And that is what happens. But who or what is pulling the con? And why did that woman attack her?

The situation becomes pretty outlandish and will probably make a visually thrilling movie until it sort of abruptly thuds to earth at the end. But this appears to be a setup for the next book.

"Black Fall" has been nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Mystery.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Riverhead, 240 pages, $26 (c2017)

This is not a mystery, but it is one of the best books I’ve read within the last few years.

Mohsin Hamid has created a thoughtful, elegant book whose characters have intricate inner concerns and beliefs. “This is a book about immigration” is misleading and unnecessarily harsh, even though that is what it is at a basic level. It is a book about the challenge of moving into a different culture or creating a different culture, of being popped suddenly out of where you felt you knew how to deal with life, whether that life was fulfilling or not, into an environment where you have to rethink the basics, into an environment where almost no one wants you.

Saeed and Nadia grew up and, as the story begins, live in a city not unlike Lahore, Pakistan, where author Hamid grew up, but the city intentionally remains nameless. Hamid wants his readers to include in their imagining the many places under siege from which people are trying to flee. Militants are warring against the standing government in Saeed and Nadia’s city. The war finally comes close to their neighborhoods. First the power goes, then goods are scarce, then people are disappearing, either leaving or dying, then bombs are exploding much too close for comfort. The next bomb may have their names written on it.

War in Saeed and Nadia’s city revealed itself to be an intimate experience, combatants pressed close together, front lines defined at the level of the street one took to work, the school one’s sister attended, the house of one’s aunt’s best friend, the shop where one bought cigarettes.

This first section of “Exit West” — the political change in the anonymous city and the realization that Nadia and Saeed must leave — was excerpted in The New Yorker. It showcases the power of Hamid’s language in the slowly dawning desperation of his characters.

The rest of the book deals with their re-location to Mykonos, London, and San Francisco. It would be a much longer book if Hamid had to detail how his characters got to these places. Instead, because his focus is on what happens once immigrants arrive in a place that isn’t politically, economically, or charitably ready for them, Hamid uses a device to expedite the process: He has created a door through which people travel, aka wormholes. But this is where everyone reviewing this book must state that “Exit West” is not remotely science-fiction. This device allows Hamid to get to the heart of his story about the waves of migrants fleeing intolerable situations and what the rest of the world should do about them? Is there really a separation between “them” and “us”?

In an interview with The New Yorker, Hamid makes the point that we must look to a future in which climate change, migration waves, animal and plant extinction, and other horrible foreseeable events occur, and think about what we as a world need to do. Right now there is a “failure to imagine plausible desirable futures,” he says. That is what “Exit West” in the end tries to do, present us with a potential plausible desirable future.

But first it will probably begin with this:

Reading the news at that time one was tempted to conclude that the nation was like a person with multiple personalities, some insisting on union and some on disintegration, and that this person with multiple personalities was furthermore a person whose skin appeared to be dissolving as they swam in a soup full of other people whose skins were likewise dissolving.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Other Side of Everything by Lauren Doyle Owens

Touchstone, 272 pages, $25

“The Other Side of Everything” is an elegant debut novel. Unlike some of the more “literary” novels I’ve read lately, crime is at the heart of this book.

Who is killing retirees in a southern Florida community? Is it for their homes? No, because this story is set in the aftermath of the recession and housing foreclosures in 2008. There are vacant homes aplenty. Once upon a time this was a great place for young families to escape their miserable lives elsewhere, a fresh start. And it was mostly good, as we see in flashbacks: neighborhood get togethers, friendships, warm summer nights. Now all that is gone.

The first victim is probably in her 70s. She has been clobbered and killed by a cast iron kettle. A lot of her fellow oldies have passed away or moved on, so the once active connections have frayed somewhat. Yes, new, younger people have moved into the neighborhood, and they are represented by a couple of the revolving narrators. But so far, it is only older women who are being murdered.

A lot of Lauren Doyle Owens’ characters were inspired by her own neighbors. She came up with the idea for this novel after a particularly trying point in her own life. She is beset by anxiety, lately induced by the recent release of this novel. If that anxiety is responsible for her detailed attention to the inner workings of divergent characters, then it may be a worthwhile sacrifice.

Amy, in her thirties, is one of the younger characters. Young as she is she already has battled cancer, a loss of confidence in the artistry of her painting, and a crumbling relationship with her husband. She lives behind the first victim, and it is that first view of her neighbor’s house on fire that propels her into the neighborhood mystery.

Maddie is a teenager in the neighborhood. She is fifteen. Her mother walked away, presumably, from her family not long ago. Her father works long hours to support her and her younger brother. She lives in a turmoil of hormones, depression, and anxiety. She is a cutter. She becomes involved in the neighborhood mystery when a homeless man she is fond of is arrested for the first murder. Also, someone broke into her room, specifically, and tore it apart. Was it this homeless man she considered a vague friend? Was it her quiet brother?

Bernard is the only old main character. Through him we relive life in the 60s when all the families were moving into the area and becoming friends. Through him we see the current survivors and the fear they have that any one of them might be the next victim. They begin pairing up to live together for safety. Bernard is assigned widow Maryanne, who reminds him of his dead wife, Irene, but mostly because Maryanne takes care of her home and can cook. Bernard’s home had been reduced to a dark, dusty place in Irene’s absence.

Still the deaths keep coming.

Owens does a great job of bringing each of her main characters to life. We see their concerns, their joys, their puzzlements. We see life isn’t cut-and-dried for them. The three main characters are lost in place.

At the point when Owens resolves the murders, so much more has broken free in her characters’ lives. This is the strength of her story.

MBTB star!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper

Ecco, 277 pages, $16.99

Polly is eleven years old. She is the “she” who rides shotgun in this unusual debut crime novel by Jordan Harper.

Nate McClusky, Polly’s dad, has just been released from prison. Shortly thereafter, the bodies of his ex-wife and her husband are found. They have been murdered. Polly knows who her dad is, where he is, or at least where he should be … in prison, so it is a bit of shock when he shows up, hard eyes and dangerous attitude on display, to pick her up from school. Polly is uneasy but goes with him. He doesn’t take her home but goes instead to a motel. He won’t explain what is happening, but the very smart Polly McClusky is no dummy. After Polly finds out about her mother, she sets Detective John Park on her trail to save her. Then she learns a crucial piece of information, and everything changes.

This is a very unusual crime novel, with an eleven-year-old protagonist. She starts out as a Charles Atlas weakling who develops strength, conviction, and intent, and blazes off to avenge her mother.

Harper has an unusual storyline with bad bad guys. However, there is one little bit in which a character goes to talk to a meth cook, because she knows “the language.” Without making us privy to the conversation, the important plot point is paved over. (I would have liked to have known what on earth would convince a meth cook to give up his boss’ hideout to a stranger.) It’s a hiccup in a generally dramatic and creative debut novel. My favorite scene stars Detective Park at the end of the book. Harper shines in depicting the short but galactic journey Park takes to save what he thinks is an innocent eleven-year-old girl.

With the movie “Kill Bill” currently a public focus in the news, it made me think that Polly will be “The Bride” when she grows up. Strong, smart, and kick-ass.

Friday, February 2, 2018

On Turpentine Lane by Elinor Lipman

Mariner Books, 320 pages, $14.99 (c2017, paperback c2018)

There is a murder mystery in this story somewhere. Maybe. But mostly “On Turpentine Lane” is a ‘ship book. As in relationship. Aka stars in the eyes luuurv. It is murder mystery lite.
Faith Frankel has a secret fiancĂ©, Stuart. He gave her a red thread as an engagement ring and then took off on an open-ended walk — if you don’t count the number of times he has hitchhiked — across America to find himself. His precepts about walking across the country seem to be loosely defined. He is a secret because he didn’t think it necessary to let anyone know. Faith loyally maintains a credit card that Stuart uses (abuses?). She earns her money by being in charge of stewardship at her old private school. (That means she writes a lot of thank you notes and cultivates alumni donors.)

Faith has been househunting with the thought in mind that eventually she and Stuart would get married. Strangely, though, she picks a tiny two-bedroom home, just right for one. It comes with a history which, in the best mystery tradition, she doesn’t learn until after she has signed on the dotted line.

Left behind in the attic are photos of twin babies. Who are they? As far as Faith knows the prior occupant had only one daughter. And three husbands, all of whom died propitiously. Nothing was ever proven, however. Years later a detective shows up at Faith’s new house and wants to search her basement. Uh, oh.

One of Faith’s colleagues is Nick. He is a fundraising hotshot who used to work at Exeter doing the same thing. Fortunately, he is easy to get along with. Faith keeps Nick up-to-date on her trials and tribs, and he maintains a sympathetic ear. If you were writing this book, what would you do with Faith’s errant fiancĂ© and Nick’s crazy girlfriend? Sorry, no points will be awarded for guessing right, because this is just too easy.

Predictability aside, it’s a humorous, charming story about love, fundraising, family dysfunction, and blood in the cellar.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Little, Brown & Co., 400 pages, $26 (c2017)

Zap! “The Power” moves along like an electric charge. Here is a story with a page-turning impetus and a thought-provoking take on gender advantages and disadvantages. With #metoo humming in the background, a record number of women wanting to run for government positions, and story after story having emerged over the years about sex trafficking, kidnapping for slave labor, rape and abuse during genocides and, unfortunately, many more awful stories, “The Power” serves up an additional message.

It is mostly the primary characters Allie/Eve, Roxy, Tunde, and Margo who tell their stories in rotating chapters. Suddenly girls and women discover they have a special muscle/nerve bundle/whatever that is capable of building up and discharging electricity. Depending on the female’s control, the discharge may be a tickle or a killing bolt. Suddenly the power dynamics of male and female change. Women literally have the power. Men do not. Women are slowly becoming the decision makers, the rulers, the heads of their families.

Perhaps you have frequently heard how women are better mediators, diplomats, gentle arbitors of disagreements, how politics would be a different game if women were in the majority. Here is the thought-provoking part Naomi Alderman is suggesting: Would women actually be better?

Women who have been betrayed, misused, abused, and relegated to lower positions by men are getting their revenge. But not all women initially are taking this course, because not all men have taken advantage of women. But “The Power” takes place for the most part over a few years, so we see what changes women make to the world.

Teenager Allie takes on the mantle of Mother Eve when she becomes one of the first females to use her power. The "other voice" in her head comes from what she wants to believe is God, and She guides Eve to help other girls and women come into their own. Roxie is the daughter of a British crime head. She is tough, has street smarts and a lot of attitude. Margo begins the story as the mayor of a large city, but she has ambitions and perhaps the power is the answer to advancement. Tunde is a man. He bears witness, first as just some guy in Nigeria who lucks into a video moment, then as a reporter and blogger for major news sites. He represents everyman (who isn’t abusive, volatile, demeaning, or annoyed). Through his eyes we watch the world change and his fear grow.

Is this a feminist book? Or is it just for entertainment? Is it Alderman’s point that absolute power corrupts absolutely? I was intrigued by this book, read it rapidly, but felt unsettled at the end. Is this our lesson: No lack of power goes unpunished?

P.S. In the acknowledgements, Alderman immediately thanks Margaret Atwood, Karen Joy Fowler, and Ursula Le Guin. A trifecta of strong women writers!