21Feb/17

Review: Nightshade: a riveting Only in Tokyo Mystery by Jonelle Patrick

Nightshade (Only In Tokyo Mystery #1)Nightshade by Jonelle Patrick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For a mystery fan, what’s more fun than discovering a terrific new author? I heard about Jonelle Patrick from a mutual friend who’s also her agent — a recommendation I trusted enough to buy her first book, Nightshade. Now I can’t wait to read her whole “Only in Tokyo” mystery series.

Nightshade starts with three bodies in a car in the parking lot of a Shinto shrine — an inexplicable scene which looks like a triple suicide, except that the third victim has no link to her two “parents.” When the dead girl’s best friend, Yumi, learns the horrible news, she spots other distortions in the picture the police are eager to accept. Yumi’s discovery that the detective in charge is her old school friend Kenjo, who’s grown into an unexpectedly attractive man, churns up all kinds of complications, first to the case and then to her ripening romance with a corporate heir. Woven through the Tokyo scenery are online connections which become strands in the web that threatens to drag Yumi to the same deadly fate as her friend.

Jonelle Patrick is not only an outstanding plotter (rare) but an outstanding writer (very rare). To top it off, she has a sharp sense of what makes Japan fascinating and also baffling to Americans. I was intrigued to learn about the Goth Lolita crowd, maid cafes (where the waitress’s job goes beyond serving the customer to fawning all over him), arranged marriages, the hierarchy in Japan’s police force, and so much more. This is a compelling mystery with distinctive characters, a fast-moving plot, a strong romantic thread, and a wonderful setting. I’d have preferred a full resolution at the end rather than a read-the-next-book teaser, but the core mystery was resolved, so that’s a minor quibble. Highly recommended!

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06Feb/17

A Valentine for Massachusetts: Patriots, Cape Cod, & Mount Holyoke

The New England Patriots’ odds-defying Super Bowl victory was exhilarating. No, I didn’t watch it. In the decades I lived in Massachusetts, the Pats were an embarrassment. Only when I left for California did they vault to stardom (while the previously stellar Golden State Warriors tanked). Call it superstition, but when I saw the Pats were too far behind to have a prayer, I decided not to rejinx them and rebreak my heart.

Anyhow, the top takeaway of Super Bowl LI is the paradigm. Patriots buoyed by years of dominance take their eyes off the ball. Success vanishes. With no hope of winning, re-energized Patriots charge back into the fray. It won’t be easy, it won’t be quick, but if they fight hard enough and persist long enough . . .

That narrative of victory is one of the few shared themes on both ends of our nation’s agitated political spectrum. Thank you, Patriots. And thank you, Lin Manuel Miranda and the cast and producers of Hamilton, for your dramatic reminder of what patriotism looks like.

2017 also marks the 150th anniversary of Mount Holyoke College, a hub of beauty, intellectual exploration, and women’s empowerment ever since Mary Lyon started her Female Seminary in South Hadley in 1837. I was delighted to find a report on my mystery novels in the latest Alumnae Quarterly, and even more delighted as fellow alums have been discovering them. The Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod series (Croaked and Zapped) features a reluctant sleuth who’s best known for his creepy little black-and-white books. The Cory Goodwin series (Silent Night Violent Night) stars a Boston journalist and MHC alum whose father is Rex Stout’s New York private eye Archie Goodwin. This Spring, in Another Number for the Road, Cory heads to Paris to cover an upscale exchange program and its long-lost 60s Mystery Band.

 

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The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical TalesThe Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Back in the pre-social-media late 20th century, it was The New Yorker magazine that “broke” many of my favorite authors. That’s where I discovered Oliver Sacks’s remarkable book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” Literary categories were less Procrustean then, & readers were more adventurous. At the time, what made this book a sensation was Sacks’s extraordinary blend of curiosity, compassion, & academic rigor as a neurologist.

The case studies he presents here are astonishing, fascinating, sometimes heartbreaking. Each was referred to him because of some unusual, even bizarre, biochemical & physiological syndrome which sets this person apart from other people: the navy man whose memories ended around 1945; the elderly woman who suddenly began hearing loud Irish songs, like a radio that wouldn’t shut off; the distinguished musician of the title, who’d forgotten how to recognize a human face. Some of these patients frightened or repelled “normal” people, but Sacks approaches each one as a multifaceted person worthy of respect & help. He watches, he listens, he tries different tactics; he sets aside the judgment of others who dismiss the patient as defective, less than human. Often his best collaborator is the patient, who is more eager than anyone to find out what’s wrong & how to deal with it. Sacks’s expertise coupled with sympathy enables him to help nearly all of them.

But what kind of book is this? Sacks the healer & writer tells us heart-wrenching human stories — & emphasizes the need that humans have for stories, whether in the form of memories or constructed narratives that make up for inaccessible memories. Yet Sacks the neurologist is writing for his peers, in an era before political correctness ruled out classifications like “retarded” & “defective” (although he repudiates them). Some of the prose is so technical that any 21st-century editor would have refused to publish it. Yet when this book came out, it became a best-seller. Rereading it now, decades later, I was surprised to see how rare it’s become for such rich 3-D human interactions to be presented in a mostly accessible but sometimes stuffy medical style.

The rise of algorithms has encouraged modern publishers to underestimate their readers, much as Sacks’s fellow physicians tended to underestimate his patients, & likewise has led us as readers to underestimate our own ability to grapple with complex writing for the sake of illumination. This is a book that’s well worth reading, even if one chapter at a time.

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05Jan/17

Review: Robert Goldsborough’s off-key Murder in E Minor

Murder in E MinorMurder in E Minor by Robert Goldsborough
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The dilemma: Why would anyone but a devoted Rex Stout fan read another author’s sequel to the Stout’s long, glorious Nero Wolfe series? Yet why would any other author grab Stout’s mantel except to cash in on his success? I picked up this book looking for something I could be pretty sure I wouldn’t find. The core of the series’s appeal — narrator Archie Goodwin’s voice — is patently inimitable.

Robert Goldsborough makes a dogged attempt in Murder in E Minor, but his ear is off. He knows his “facts”: the location & layout of the old brownstone, who the supporting characters are, & what happened in some previous Wolfe-Goodwin cases, particularly the final one. His narrator’s voice, though, grates. As for Nero Wolfe, he sounds like a computer-generated robot whose program needs tweaking. Reading this book is like listening to a note-perfect violin sonata played with 1 or 2 strings out of tune.

OK, I’m biased: as a devoted Stout fan & a mystery writer, my response to missing Wolfe, Goodwin, et al. was to give Archie a journalist daughter who narrates her own series (see book 1, Silent Night Violent Night; book 2 will be out in Spring 2017). Although I was tempted to quit reading Murder in E Minor on page one, I didn’t. Goldsborough’s command of the Stout oeuvre is encyclopedic, & his plotting & pacing are good. That combination kept me from hating this book. But since Goldsborough’s Goodwin & Wolfe are even more unlike Stout’s fictional detectives than Timothy Hutton & Maury Chaykin’s were in the TV series, I won’t read another one.

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zapped-frontc-contrast-line300If inventor Pam Nash is right about Zappa, she could revolutionize law enforcement. If she’s wrong, they’ll kill her daughter.

Now you can read ZAPPED: AN EDGAR ROWDEY CAPE COD MYSTERY on your phone, tablet, or computer for just $3.99. Click to see it at Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Kobo, or Barnes & Noble.

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04Dec/16

A Perfect Victim by Patricia Dusenbury (mystery review)

A Perfect VictimA Perfect Victim by Patricia Dusenbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This suspenseful mystery drops us into the Louisiana Bayou with a local oyster-poacher who’s about to blunder into the wrong place at the wrong time. From an explosive start it cuts to a business deal — at least, restoration expert Claire Marshall hopes it’s just a business deal. Her wealthy good-ol’-boy client has been making inappropriate moves. Now he’s stopped his check for the work she’s just done. When Claire tracks him down to find out what’s going on, she discovers he’s disappeared, leaving behind the startling news that they’re secretly engaged. That inspired variation on romantic cliche is just one of many twists and turns in “The Perfect Victim.” With its diverse and interesting characters, its roller-coaster plot, and its vivid depiction of pre-Katrina New Orleans (and beyond), this Epic Book Awards winner is a treat for mystery fans.

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02Dec/16

Ngaio Marsh’s Colour Scheme (review), & 6 Things to Know Before 2017

You’re invited! Join San Francisco writers & readers at the Mechanics’ Institute, 57 Post (nr Montgomery BART), at noon on Friday, Dec. 16 for drinks, snacks, & a Writers’ Lunch panel: “Indie or Traditional Publishing: Six Things You Need to Know Before 2017.”

Colour Scheme (Roderick Alleyn, #12)Colour Scheme by Ngaio Marsh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fascinating armchair journey to wartime (1943) New Zealand. The setting is a low-end spa on the north island, surrounded by sulfurous bubbling mud and just over the hill from a Maori village. The proprietors might have wandered in from an Agatha Christie — or did Britain actually produce a whole class of hapless, feckless expats wandering from colony to colony in search of post-military careers? Most of the characters are a bit miffed to be so far from the action in Europe, & eager to believe that Britain’s enemies are poising to attack, or at least infiltrate, the Antipodes. Marsh stokes this mood of sulky suspense with two arrivals who clearly are not what they seem: a slick, tacky self-styled entrepreneur who’s planning to take over & modernize the spa, & a reserved, perceptive last-minute guest. As usual, the cast is diverse & colorful, including the local drunk, a famous actor & his small entourage, one of whom is ambivalently drawn to the clumsy daughter of the house, & her chip-on-shoulder brother. The story boils up as slowly as the mud baths, erupting at a Maori entertainment which would be worth the trip even without the mystery. Marsh’s theatrical expertise makes this a compelling book, although I got a little tired of the nastier characters — sometimes the brother felt more like a dialect showcase than a real young man — & one or 2 plot devices seemed rather contrived. Both those cavils relate to mystery conventions that were very popular in the day but stick out now. Another plot device — introducing Superintendent Alleyn of the Yard far outside of his usual police-procedural context — I enjoyed & admired. Enfin, I’m glad I reread Colour Scheme, & I recommend it to anyone who likes New Zealand, non-twee cosies, &/or Golden Age mysteries.

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20Nov/16

Faint Promise of Rain (review): Dancing in 16th-century India

Faint Promise of RainFaint Promise of Rain by Anjali Mitter Duva
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a luminous journey into a long-ago time, faraway place, & little-known vocation I was fascinated to learn about. Congratulations to Anjali Mitter Duva for leaping — bravely & lovingly — into the 16th-century Rajasthan dance world, & also to SheWrites Press for publishing this unique story. It’s quite an achievement to paint a convincing picture of a scene so thoroughly foreign to the 21st-century West. The Indian desert, temple buildings, & characters’ homes all emerge into sensuous 3-D plausibility. Especially poignant are the transitory aspects: the sacred dance tradition to which the narrator’s father has given his life & family is is a world — sites, people, values — is about to pass into history. With a new ruler, political & social changes filter out from the capital, & the main characters can see their long-held assumptions about their lives eroding. Duva adeptly brings out the parallels with our own cultural dissolution in the 21st-century: we can’t help feeling for these people.

Yet I never felt completely enveloped by Duva’s Rajasthan. Partly that’s my own unfamiliarity with the area & its customs; partly it’s her choice to give her narrator a sort of second sight which lets her write in the first person while jumping from one character’s point of view to another — to me, not quite believable. Also, although there’s plenty of conflict & incident, the dramatic arc isn’t as strong or the dynamics as varied as I’d have expected (& wished).

I did enjoy this book, & I recommend it.

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Leonard Cohen is dead; Gwen Ifill has vanished; San Francisco’s DPW has brazenly flouted its own rules, local protests, and city law to OK a Verizon antenna right outside my and my neighbors’ windows. Last and worst, an unabashed bigot, liar, and crook is poised to assume the presidency of the United States.

waiting-for-godot11The Internet’s abuzz with recriminations (mostly pointless) and questions (infinite). Given that, like Beckett’s characters, we have no choice but to go on, here are the best answers I can offer to two of the most immediate questions about the travesty-in-chief:

Q: What can I tell my children/students?

A: See “Teaching Trump” by Daniel J. Kevles, an insightful, realistic, constructive response by an experienced historian and teacher.

Q: What practical information have we learned from this national upheaval?

A: Lots and lots. As yet, much of it is still amorphous, ambiguous, and/or contentious. Here’s one point that strikes me as significant, which I posted on Facebook the morning after the election:

twee-of-knowledgeOne key revelation from Trump’s victory is that we live in a post-literate era. What does it mean that American schools literally don’t teach writing anymore? The high-school student working at my local polling station yesterday couldn’t find most people’s names in the roster unless they showed her an ID; yet she’s college-bound, & spent her breaks thumb-typing on her phone. People who rely chiefly on audio & video info, who rarely read or write anything longer than a social-media post, don’t expect or seek or value the kinds of logically constructed arguments, or even sequences of cause & effect, that we book-&-newspaper types rely on. How can Trump’s fans not care if he promises all things to all people and fails to back up any of his promises with plans? The answer lies (in both senses) in the very structure of what we might call disposable vs. durable thought.

This is an observation, not a value judgment, except in the sense that I value an awareness of cause-and-effect sequences and an appreciation of logic, along with critical thinking, as essential tools for living which should not be shunted aside as passe in the Internet age. Quite the contrary: they underpin the Net and all the other technology that saturates 21st-century existence.

I hope my country can find more and more ways to encourage more and more young people to take pride in utilizing their individual talents, intelligence, and skills as part of the socioeconomic web. We ARE stronger together! I fear the encroachment of neo-feudalism, in which work is a stick, bread-and-circuses a carrot, and status lies in attachment to celebrity = authority = security. Reopening coal mines and assembly lines is not only unrealistic in the present economy, but patronizing. The U.S. doesn’t need more jobs for human robots; we need more paths to success for makers and shakers.

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28Oct/16

There is no Frigate like a Book

Last night, while my noisy next-door neighbor was out, I enjoyed the rare luxury of a peaceful evening. Instead of insulating myself from his TV (explosions, gunfire, car crashes, fistfights, screaming) with work, music, or my own TV, I lounged on the sofa and read a book.

rajasthan-dancer-camelEmily Dickinson was right: There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away. Anjali Mitter Duva’s Faint Promise of Rain carried me around the globe and back 5 centuries with a Rajasthan temple dancer and her family. Once I got used to the desert landscape, the unfamiliar sights and sounds and smells of Adhira’s world, I had to struggle to re-emerge into 21st-century San Francisco.

San Francisco’s urban landscape is thick with tech and social-media companies. On a field trip to Goodreads a few years ago, I learned that today’s model reader is a multitasker who’d rather travel through a book (like any other journey) in the company of friends, sharing passages as s/he goes. Presumably that’s why my e-books from the library are dotted with distracting snail-trails. For my age cadre, reading was a solo activity, and marking up someone else’s book was a rude desecration. Was it when publishers began redefining readers as consumers that they encouraged them to add their own input to the author’s, so as to make books more disposable and increase sales? Instead, apparently they’ve made reading more social.

I’m focusing on the social side of reading this month as I launch my new book Zapped: an Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod Mystery. For an author, as for a reader, there is no frigate like a book! Writing it is a harrowing but addictive odyssey through treacherous waters, past seductive islands, slithering between Scylla andsailing_home_book_sculpture_by_wetcanvas-d6s607s Charybdis. When you finally get home, you may not even recognize the place. And what’s this? Your long, arduous 4-D adventure has compacted into a small rectangular 2-D object. Now you must think up a log line, an elevator pitch, a Tweet-length summary which you’ll toss like a hawser in the hope someone will catch it. What passage can you read aloud to a sea of preoccupied faces that will call up the music (already fading in your own ears) of the mermaids singing?

Yet among those faces are old friends you haven’t seen in years, and recent friends who never knew you wrote but are happy to celebrate with you, and soon-to-be friends who discovered the book first and now are eager to meet its author. This too is an adventure — for me, as for many other writers, a voyage outside my comfort zone, and all the more rewarding for stretching familiar boundaries.

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