An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King

33544902The Chinese government instituted a policy restricting couples to one child only in 1979. There are ways around it, but every decade since that year has seen a growing imbalance in the number of male and female children. In An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King, we see this imbalance extrapolated into a future where forty million men cannot find wives. They feel doomed to live alone, lamenting the fact that they will not pass on their names. The novel follows Lee Wei-guo as he attempts to marry a woman who already has two husbands—and as he ends up in trouble far over his head as secrets come out into the open and conspiracies get lethal.

An Excess Male begins like a gender-flipped version of a polygamist arranged marriage. Lee Wei-guo’s fathers (they are his mother’s widows) are trying to organize a marriage for their son. They’ve already worked with a matchmaker for months by the time we meet them, but they’ve only had one nibble—from the first husband of a woman who already has two. The fathers are not happy. Wei-guo, however, is charmed. He would love to marry Wu May-ling, even if it means sharing her with two other men.

It isn’t long before we learn why May-ling and her husbands are looking for a third husband. The Wus have their own secrets that they’d love to hide from a government that is all too willing to “re-educate” or simply do away with gay men (called the Willfully Sterile) or men with autism (Lost Boys). May-ling’s reasons are more complicated, but the short version is that she wants a relationship with a man that’s not just emotional or contractual.

I enjoyed the complex courting arrangements and I think I would have preferred it if An Excess Male had continued as social commentary. About halfway through the book, it takes a turn to become more of a science fiction thriller as the Wus secrets start to come out and Wei-guo ends up way over his head in a weird government plot to reduce the male population. There is still emotional depth in the interactions between Wei-guo and May-ling’s family, but they get a bit lost in all the chases and rescue attempts.

On balance, I was very interested in the story that An Excess Male tries to tell. What might happen in a society where women are coveted? It’s curious to see what changes and what doesn’t in this version of a near-future China, which has had its society run topsy-turvy by all-encompassing government policies. The problem with these types of grand policies is they fail to take into account the realities of peoples’ lives, wants, and abilities. Wei-guo, May-ling, and her two husbands are simply caught in the ugly place between policy and reality.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.

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The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, by Hannah Tinti

30556459Parent are mysterious creatures, at least from the perspective of their children. I doubt any parent is as mysterious as Samuel Hawley. Though he is a devoted father to Loo, Hawley carries around a platoon’s worth of guns and ammunition, knows how to hot wire cars, and is always looking for an escape route. Loo doesn’t think this is strange, nor does she think it’s strange that her father has so many scars from bullet wounds. As Hannah Tinti’s novel, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, unspools, we start to learn the mysteries behind the scars and find a wonderfully criminal story of a mostly functional family.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is told in two, intertwining halves. In the present, we have Loo as she finally settles down after years of roving in her deceased mother’s former hometown. In the other, we have a series of episodes in which Hawley received yet another bullet wound as he performs jobs for a violent, watch-collecting ex-boxer. Loo is a chip off the old block. When she first arrives in town, she’s more apt to settle things with her fists—or a rock in a sock. The town soon learns that father and daughter are best left alone.

Like all parents, Samuel Hawley had a very full life before he fell in love with Loo’s mother and became a father. But unlike most parents, Hawley’s past is starting to catch up with him almost eighteen years later. Meanwhile, Loo is starting to have serious questions about what happened to her mother and why she has memories of her grandmother’s house when she thought she had never been there before.

I enjoyed Loo’s stubbornness and disinclination to conform with what her grandmother and the locals want her to be. But I loved Hawley’s devotion to his wife and to Loo. He’s far from perfect, but he is fiercely protective when real danger threatens his family. In a way, he reminded me of my own dad, a former Navy senior chief who isn’t always great with emotional stuff but who I always knew would fight like a bear for me if necessary. (Of course, Dad never taught me how to shoot or hot wire cars. An oversight, I think.)

Tales suburban families usually bore the life out of me—unless it turns out that at least some of the family members have particular skills they’ve acquired over a very long career. I sank into this book like a warm bath because it had so many of the things I love in a good book. The characterization is deep and off-beat. The structure is perfect. The plot is brilliant. I enjoyed the hell out of this book.

The King of Fools, by Frédéric Dard

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The King of Fools

Jean-Marie Valaise should have listened to another king at the outset of Frédéric Dard’s The King of Fools (translated by Louise Lalaurie). One year before this book was published in 1962 as La Pelouse, Elvis sang that “Wise men say only fools rush in.” Valaise certainly rushes in. His holiday on the Côte d’Azur turns, in a matter of days, into a nightmare of murder and accusations that might send him to the hangman’s noose. And it’s all because Valaise fell in love at first sight.

Valaise was having a mediocre stay in Juan-les-Pins, without his girlfriend, when he spots a woman sitting in his car. The woman, who turns out to be an Englishwoman named Marjorie Faulks, is embarrassed by her mistake, which she later compounds by leaving her bag in Valaise’s car. Their relationship carries more than a dash of awkwardness. Valaise tries to be suave, but frequently overreaches. Marjorie is married and very uncomfortable about everything. Valaise finds this endearing and he quickly adopts a protective role.

Marjorie has to leave the day after they meet, but they agree to exchange letters—though Marjorie insists on using a general post office address rather than her real one. A wiser man would start hearing alarm bells at this point. Valaise is not that wiser man. After one impassioned letter from Marjorie, he packs up and follows her to Edinburgh. The Scottish turns out to be the perfect gloomy setting for a journey that becomes more like film noir with every hour. Valaise gets rapidly in over his head, the dope, as he chases Marjorie around the city and tries to figure out what on earth is going on with her husband.

To say more at this point would ruin the rest of the book, so I will close this review by saying that The King of Fools is a perfect example of a page-turner. It’s so short and tense that I read it in one sitting. It’s is a perfect beach read—especially if one is lucky enough to be traveling to a French beach and have some Elvis on an iPod.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 5 September 2017.

Marathon Man, by William Goldman

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Marathon Man

William Goldman’s Marathon Man wasn’t half bad. Unfortunately, the other half was. I picked this book up because I remember enjoying the film version, which starred Dustin Hoffman and Sir Laurence Olivier. (Also, I’m a sucker for stories about tracking down Nazis who escaped Europe after the war.) I fell into the trap of expecting the book to be better than the movie because there would be more background and plot. The original novel did have more of both, but it didn’t make for a better tale.

I loathed the first half of Marathon Man. Set in 1973, the book is filled with edgy slang that has not aged well. The protagonist, T.B. Levy, has a motor mouth and is frequently obnoxious rather than amusing. Then there’s the casual racism. With the exception of Levy and one or two other characters, everyone says or thinks horrible things about African Americans and Jews. Instead of making the novel feel “gritty” and realistic, it just feels like paint-by-numbers characterization. It didn’t help that I was waiting for the novel to kick into gear for most of the first half. There’s some action in the prologue and in a side plot that didn’t make sense until Levy gets caught up in the conspiracy at the half-way point.

Once I got to that half-way point, however, my attitude completely changed and I raced through the book. The turning point is when Levy’s brother is murdered. The brother dies in Levy’s arms and Levy is told shortly after that his brother was a courier for Christian Szell, who was Josef Mengele’s (fictional) dental counterpart at Auschwitz. The highlight of the book is the same as the one in the film—which means that this is definitely not a book you want to read before you go to your next appointment with the dentist. The last half of the book is a thrilling, nail-biting race, literally and figuratively.

I would recommend skipping the first half of the book and jumping straight to Part II. Anything that was important from the first half gets referenced in the second and third acts of the book, with the bonus of skipping a lot of obnoxious dialogue and the aforementioned casual racism. Or you could just watch the movie and see Hoffman and Olivier make something interesting out of Marathon Man.

The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne

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The Marsh King’s Daughter

Helena has a secret that she’s hidden for fourteen years. But at the beginning of The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne, the secret escaped from prison and is coming for her. The prisoner is her father, the man who kidnapped her mother and held them as captives in his remote cabin until they managed to run away. Now that he’s free, Helena knows that he will come for her and drag her back to the marsh where she was born and raised.

While the immediate plot of The Marsh King’s Daughter plays out over two very tense days of dead cat-and-mouse tracking, Helena’s mind constantly wanders back to the years she spent in the marsh with her father. He taught her everything she knows, but he’s also the reason why she doesn’t really fit into the wider world. She knows how to snare, skin, and eat animals—but she wasn’t taught how to play with other kids, respect private property, or deal with people who aren’t sociopaths or their terrified victims.

The Marsh King’s Daughter is ultimately a book about how people shape each other, for good or ill, even though Helena’s father tries to be the ultimate backwoodsman. He wanted a family in his swampy kingdom, so he kidnapped Helena’s mother and raped her. Once Helena was born, he attempts to shape her into someone as competent at backwoods living as he is. Even though Helena is favored over her mother, it’s clear that no one is to cross the man. Helena knows now that her father is a monster, but she retains a bit of her fearful, awestruck love her father. He’s the one who made her who she is.

I’m glad that Dionne chose to center The Marsh King’s Daughter on Helena rather than her parents. While other similar stories chose to understand the Stockholm Syndrome of the captive or the inhumanity of the captor, I don’t think I’ve seen one that explores the dilemma of a child who grew up not knowing that her family was not normal. (Beth Lewis’ stunning The Wolf Road might come close, however.) Even years later, Helena is torn between her parents. It’s fascinating to watch someone struggle between two “rights”—social “rights” of justice and law versus filial “rights” of a family that outsiders can’t fully appreciate. Between the tracking and the ethical wrestling, I couldn’t put this book down.

The Amber Shadows, by Lucy Ribchester

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The Amber Shadows

By the time I finished reading Lucy Ribchester’s The Amber Shadows, I felt like I was neck deep in red herrings. Fitting considering that this novel centers on a young typist who works at Bletchley Park, is receiving mysterious packages of amber and being followed by a strange man. The cover led me to think this book would be cozier than it really was. There are parts of this book that are psychologically very dark. Above all, however, The Amber Shadows is about puzzles that are matters of life and death.

Honey Deschamps is a quiet woman, used to staying out of the way when her opera singer mother and ballet dancer brother get dramatic. But she finds herself in her very own leading role when someone starts sending her pieces of what appears to be amber from Leningrad which, in 1942, was under siege. Then Honey discovers that the amber has been carved with some kind of cipher. In the paranoid atmosphere of Bletchley Park, it’s not good to have secrets like these.

Since Honey is not a cryptanalyst—she just cleans up decrypted messages from the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe—she has to seek help from others at the Park. Working out who to trust ends up being just as tricky as working out the cipher. The more she leans on her friend, Moira, and the attractive man who keeps turning up wherever she is, the less she can trust them. She even has questions about how much she can trust the commander of the Park.

The Amber Shadows felt uneven to me. It’s a bit too long and has too many dead ends for a thriller. It’s also a bit too action-packed for a literary historical fiction. On the other hand, all the red herrings add verisimilitude to a story about an amateur detective and code-breaker who has to go from zero to 60 in less than a week after getting tangled up in a stranger’s plot. What bothered me more was the way to tone would shift from serious thriller to disturbing psychological revelations to comical character sketches. Perhaps a bit of judicious editing would have ironed out some of these problems. In the end, after all the red herrings, I just get the feeling that this book doesn’t know quite what it wants to be.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 8 August 2017.

Afterlife, by Marcus Sakey

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Afterlife

There are hundreds of novels (probably more) that speculate about what happens after death, but I doubt that few authors* have the gumption to reimagine eschatology the way Marcus Sakey has in Afterlife. In this fantastical thriller, protagonists Will Brody and Claire McCoy have to chase a mass murder across the boundary between life and death. For these two, an FBI badge doesn’t expire after they die.

Afterlife opens with a short, disturbing prologue about a murderous boy named Edmund and how he came to the New World before leaping ahead to present era Chicago. Brody and McCoy are trying to track down a serial killing sniper who leaves little evidence behind. After answering a call about suspicious activity at an abandoned church, Brody becomes the sniper’s eighteenth victim. (This in the first quarter of the book, so it’s not a spoiler. Brody wakes up after his death in a curiously abandoned Chicago and has to quickly learn the rules of the afterlife—including why three people wanted to kill him as soon as he turned up dead-side. When Claire is also killed by the sniper, she and Will reunite and team up to take down the sniper.

As I read, Afterlife’s thriller-plot-with-fantastical-elements become a fantasy-with-thriller elements. The afterlife, as imagined by Sakey, is a bleak hunting ground for creatures (like Edmund from the prologue) that have gained enough power to warp their reality. Brody and McCoy have obviously never tackled anything like the antagonist of this story, but their shared hero complex and their soul-deep love for each other keep them from hiding until the danger passes over their dead heads. They just wouldn’t be able to live(?) with themselves if they didn’t try to take down the baddie.

The thriller elements of Afterlife never entirely go away. Even though this is a good-sized novel at 300+ pages, I couldn’t put it down. So many chapters have twists and reversals that kept the plot racing along that I was done with the book before I realized it. If you don’t mind dark stories that get very weird, very quickly, this is a cracking read.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 18 July 2017.


* The hands-down weirdest book I’ve ever read that was set in the afterlife is Mick Farren’s Jim Morrison’s Adventures in the Afterlife. In fact, it might be the most batshit book I’ve ever read.

Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane

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Since We Fell

Marriages are odd things when you start to really think about them, especially when the two people getting married have only known each other for a short time. Even when the couple has been together for a long time, how does anyone know that they will still love—or can even stand—the other person in ten, twenty-five, fifty years? I suppose that couples can comfort themselves with the thought that they, at least, will not have as dangerous time in their marriage as Rachel Childs does in Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane.

Since We Fell opens with a confusing, violent scene, in which Rachel shoots her husband in the chest while he tells her he loves her. We then go back more than ten years, to when Rachel first met Brian. He was a private detective when they met and Rachel wanted him to track down the father who left her when she was just three years old. We also learn about Rachel’s on-air panic attack in Haiti before looping back to the weeks before the shooting.

We learn a lot about why Rachel is the way she is, but very little about Brian. Rachel thinks she knows her husband. After all, he’s been on the edges of her life until he stepped forward to rescue her (literally and psychologically). Rachel is content with her life until small details start to make her doubt. She sees a man who could be Brian’s double, even with the same clothes, when her husband is supposed to be in London. There’re the receipts with the wrong date format. There’s the old friend who hints that there’s something Rachel doesn’t know. A less curious women would have let it go. Rachel, however, is a former journalist and is used to people not turning out to be who they say they are.

Much of this background fills the first half of the book. I was honestly starting to wonder if Lehane had written a dud because the plot so slow at first. But then, just as I was starting to give up hope, things get very interesting. I can’t say much more without ruining the whole book. I can say that nothing is what Rachel (or I) thought it was. I was just as shocked as our protagonist was when I found out the truth. If you can get through the first third or so of the book, the last two third more than make up for the slowness of the beginning. And after reading it, I’m sure a lot of readers will be looking suspiciously at their spouses for a while.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 9 May 2017.

The Language of Solitude, by Jan-Philipp Sendker

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The Language of Solitude

Jan-Philipp Sendker’s The Language of Solitude (translated by Christine Lo) is a strange hybrid novel. Some chapters read like a slightly overwritten literary tale of a Western man and his Chinese lover. Others could have been taken from a thriller. Still other chapters offer some gripping family historical drama. On their own, they work quite well. Together, the effect is of a book that tries to do too many things for no discernible reason. The characters rescue this book from itself, fortunately. Even though it’s messy, I found that I rather enjoyed the tribulations of Paul Leibovitz and the Wu family.

The novel opens in Hong Kong. Paul is worried about Christine Wu, who has become distant over the past few days. After prying, Paul learns that Christine’s astrologer has told her that she might kill Paul sometime during the next year. Paul is not a believer, but he goes to the astrologer himself in the hopes of finding something that will reassure his love. Of course, since this is the beginning of the novel, no such reassurance arrives. Instead, Paul received a fortune that rocks him to his core. Then Christine receives a letter from the brother she thought died during the Cultural Revolution and we’re off to the races, plot-wise.

The tone of the novel shifts at this point from that just a bit too overwrought literary style to thriller. The long-lost brother turns out to be in the middle of a medical mystery with huge political implications. Paul dives in head first, even though everyone warns him away. His conscience won’t let him stay detached. As the thriller plot unrolls, there are moments when the narrative takes us deeper into the Wu family’s history and the compromises they’ve had to make over the decades. (There are still a few overwritten chapters, but the writing got better as the novel moved along.)

While Sendker does manage to wrap up his various plots, I’m not sure why this book pulls from so many disparate genres. I could see these of forgiveness, justice versus compromise, and moving on after tragedy emerge in this book, all linked through Paul, but I’m not sure why the thriller elements were included. I think the book would have worked very well without the medical mystery. The family history alone could have fueled the whole book. It was the characters that kept me reading when I might have given up. I enjoyed Paul (even if he is a bit too good for this world) and loved Da Long, the long-lost brother.

The Language of Solitude is a puzzling book that I think I enjoyed in spite of itself.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 2 May 2017.

The Girl in Green, by Derek B. Miller

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The Girl in Green

Like divine revelation, quests aren’t usually something we see in this day and age. That sort of thing belongs to Arthur’s knights or poor old Don Quixote. At least, that’s what I would have thought before I read Derek B. Miller’s The Girl in Green. The novel follows the serio-comic adventures of Arwood Hobbes, as seen by Times journalist Thomas Benton.

Arwood was an ordinary soldier in 1991—more mouthy than most, but fairly ordinary—when he gets caught in an atrocity committed by Iraqi Republican Guard against a small town in the southern part of the country. Thomas meets Arwood while Arwood is manning a machine gun station near a small town by the Iraq-Kuwait border. They chat about the strangeness of war in the late twentieth century, American culture, and how much Arwood wants an ice cream because it’s damn hot out. Arwood talks Thomas into going into the town (which is closed to journalists) for an ice cream when all hell breaks lose. Then Arwood goes AWOL to try and save a girl in a green dress. He was very close to talking his way to safety for himself, the girl, and Thomas until his lieutenant interfered.

The incident scars Arwood, though he would never admit it. After a not-dishonorable discharge, Arwood disappears for twenty years. Thomas goes back to a fading career as a war journalist for the Times and a splintering family life. He might have disappeared entirely into obscurity when he is suddenly contacted by Arwood. Another girl in green has appeared on the news in Syria, in a video of a bomb attack by ISIL. Arwood is convinced that she survived somehow and that it is his mission to find and rescue this girl, who looks exactly like the young woman killed in 1991.

The rest of The Girl in Green is a series of strange, dangerous, and weirdly funny misadventures as Arwood and Thomas try to get to the site of the bombing and rescue the girl. Along the way, they (and we) reflect on how war has gotten even less clear-cut since the first Iraq War. There are many more players than we realize in a war zone than just the belligerents and the civilians who get caught in their way: NGOs, war profiteers, journalists, terrorists. Everyone’s out to fulfill their own agendas, in contrast to what we’ve been told about how war ought to be fought to restore peace. (Which is a bizarre concept when you think about it.) And in the middle of it all, are stories like Arwood and Thomas’s and their weird little quest to do something right for once. I very much enjoyed this book.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 3 January 2017.