Bluff, by Michael Kardos

36452743They say there is honor among thieves, but that honor is thin on the ground in Michael Kardos’ Bluff. This is unfortunate because magician Natalie Webb could use all the help she gets after a trick goes wrong at one of her rare gigs. Her bright idea to make some money to pay her legal bills lands her in bigger trouble than she could ever have realized.

When Natalie does things wrong, she does them spectacularly wrong. At her corporate gig, she lets a jerk get under her skin and throws a card in anger, almost blinding the man. The jerk doesn’t end up blind, fortunately for Natalie, but the jerk sues her for more money than she can make even if her career weren’t on the skids. She comes up with the bright idea of profiling a professional cardsharp (basically a cheat) because there are a lot of similarities in how they handle cards. Everyone tries to dissuade her, but she dives headlong into the idea.

The first card cheat she finds is awful, but he accidentally introduces her to a woman with real skills. When that woman offers Natalie a one-time-only-big-pay-low-risk scam, Natalie tries to resist. She doesn’t see herself as a cheat. She’s a magician. But those bills aren’t getting any smaller, so she says yes. And then things get even worse.

Reading Bluff is like watching a car wreck. I couldn’t look away. I just kept hoping that something would go right for Natalie. Her problems are not really her fault. She just has poor impulse control. I don’t want to say what happens at the end of the book; that would ruin a fantastic heist plot. But I can say that at least the book delivers a big payoff for its readers. I had a blast reading this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 3 April 2018.


The Very Marrow of Our Bones, by Christine Higdon

36347504After Lulu’s mother goes missing at the start of The Very Marrow of Our Bones, by Christine Higdon, nothing goes right for her or her siblings. Only Lulu Parsons knows that her mother wasn’t kidnapped or murdered. She knows that her mother couldn’t bear to live in poverty in a small town in British Columbia. She never tells anyone else and, while everyone else searches for Mrs. Parsons and hopes she will come back, all the Parsons children seems to lose their way. This novel tracks Lulu’s story and the story of Doris, a mute woman who sells eggs, moving back and forth in time from the early 1960s to the 1980s.

We meet Lulu on a very bad day. She is meeting her brother, who has been clean for a few months and is expecting a child with his latest girlfriend. He talks her into taking a ride on his motorcycle, but when she jerks at the wrong moment, they crash. Trevor is killed. Lulu’s mistake at this moment is like other mistakes she’s made in her past, which we get to see as a kind of cruel parade of events. Lulu never meant to do wrong. She just jerked at the wrong time and things went awry.

While the Parsons’ family drama takes up the most space in The Very Marrow of Our Bones, I was far more interested in Doris, the silent egg-seller. Both Doris and Lulu are molested by Mr. McFee, a creepy man with a knack for talking girls into things they shouldn’t do. Doris can laugh and, once, scream, but she doesn’t speak. And so people tell her things. She knows a lot more about what’s going on in little Fraser Arm—though she doesn’t know what really happened to Mrs. Parsons and Mrs. McFee, the other woman who went missing the day Mrs. Parsons ran away. I would happily have read a book just about Doris and her slow romance with the man who brought her books, her wild garden, and her quirky observations about everyone and everything.

The Very Marrow of Our Bones is an overstuffed novel, though I enjoyed the characters’ rich development. I think if this book had been about either Lulu or Doris, it would have been a lot better. I know that presenting us with both characters means we should compare them, to see how differently someone can respond to tragedy and trauma. But I think this comparison is unnecessary. In fact, I think it reduces two fully realized women into object lessons.

Aside from my issues with the inevitable comparison between the two female protagonists and the fact that there is so much packed into this story, I found The Very Marrow of Our Bones a fascinating look inside a very dysfunctional community and family. This book is perfect for readers who like drama stacked on top of drama in their fiction.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 3 April 2018.

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

29983711In each generation of the family at the center of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, individuals must decide if they are going to try to fight others’ expectations or become what people expect them to be. In other hands, this book might be about the triumph of individualism and determination. This novel, however, takes a harder look about how difficult it really is to break loose from parental expectations, cultural strictures, and racism. I found it incredibly moving because of its emotional honesty, but an abrupt ending makes me reluctant to want to recommend the book to other readers or even give it an unequivocal stamp of approval. Seriously, the book just ends. I suddenly found myself in the acknowledgements because I thought there had to be more pages to the story.

Pachinko opens around the turn of the twentieth century, introducing us to the parents of one of the main characters. At times, the novel reads like a family history; it was only missing the documentation. Things start to slow down in the 1920s, when Sunja (whose parents we just met) comes onto the stage. Sunja’s family runs a boarding house on Yeongdo in what is now South Korea. They’re poor but managing. They might have carried on with the boarding house if it weren’t for Koh Hansu and, later, Baek Isak. Hansu seduces Sunja. He likes her innocence, but not in an icky, Lolita way. Rather, he is used to women who make their living as mistresses or hostesses, who ask for money and gifts in exchange for companionship and sex. When Sunja becomes pregnant and learns that Hansu is married, she surprises him by breaking up with him. An unwed pregnant woman is shocking to the morality of her village, but she refuses to take the easy route offered by Hansu. Instead, she marries a kind-hearted pastor (Isak) who learns about her situation and wants to save her from social ruin.

The rest of the novel follows Sunja’s family for the next sixty-plus years. We watch them migrate to Osaka, where they face implacable racism from the Japanese. We see them weather the Second World War. After that catastrophe, we witness Sunja’s sons rise in the pachinko industry and even become rich. Each generation’s struggle is to try and better themselves, either through education or money, to leave behind the stigma of being Korean in Japan. But no matter how hard they try, none of the family is able to succeed when they try to break out of what other people expect them to be. For example, Sunja’s son, Mozasu, becomes rich at pachinko only because it’s considered a job for crooks—which is what some Japanese people expect Koreans to be. Mozasu’s brother, who ironically also works in pachinko, fights hard against being seen as just another Korean in Japan, with tragic results.

What I liked most about Pachinko (apart from the setting) was the determination of the female characters. Sunja, in particular, bucks tradition, suffers for it, and yet keeps going. I found her deeply admirable. In comparison to the men in this novel, the women seem to be able to get their way through stubbornness. When one way is barred to them, they find another. They are never as successful as the men, but they don’t fall as far when circumstances turn against them as they invariable do for the men. Their lives are hard, full of pain and sorrow, but their determination means that they make permanent, though small, steps up the ladder to success.

If they can look past the stunningly abrupt ending, I think readers who like sinking into the lives of family members through the generations and/or are very interested in the Korean experience will enjoy Pachinko. Personally, the ending soured the whole experience for me. I feel cheated out of a resolution.

This week on the bookish internet

  • Alberto Manguel, bibliophile extraordinaire, writes about the joy of dictionaries. (Chronicle of Higher Education)
  • Charlotte Bailey profiles five amazing libraries that are open in dire circumstances. (The Guardian)
  • When I visit someone’s house or see their shelfies online, I, like Jen Sherman does this piece, absolutely look at people’s books. (Book Riot)
  • Ian Dreiblatt has written a highly entertaining history of people attacking each other over literature. (Moby Lives)
  • This isn’t a specific post, but I wanted to point out this great series from LitHub in which they interview book critics/reviewers. The interviewer always asks the same questions, which can reveal some interesting things about how the interviewee sees literature and their role in the bookish world.

Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland

30223025Sometimes I worry when authors introduce supernatural or horror tropes to tragic historical events. But I couldn’t resist Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation when it was getting so much positive buzz from readers I know care about diversity and sensitivity. I’m glad I listened. This book is absolutely incredible for the way it introduces zombies to American slavery and institutional racism. Yup: zombies.

Jane McKeene had a privileged but tenuous position at Rose Hill Plantation.The fact that Jane is the black daughter of the plantation mistress is still a scandal, but everyone’s position gets a lot more tenuous when the dead start to rise after the Battle of Gettysburg. The next time we see Jane, she’s drilling with the other (black) students at Miss Preston’s federally-created school for black and Native American children, designed to teach them how to fight the undead—so that the whites don’t have to risk their skins.

On top of the undead, Jane has to deal with the overwhelming racism from the whites around her. They condescend. They punish her when she speaks up for herself. And when she and two of her friends uncovers clues that the there is an unspeakable conspiracy going on that involves shipping people (black and white) out to a places called Summerland when they become “troublesome,” she gets sent on a train out to a town under siege in the middle of Kansas.

Dread Nation is a gripping read. There’s plenty of zombie-killing action and the alternate history is richly imagined. Even though there are undead creatures running around, I found this book incredibly plausible—and incredibly heartbreaking because some of the worst things people say and do in this book are based on things that were really said and done after the Civil War. This book made me very angry, like it was supposed to. Thankfully, Jane’s prowess at killing the undead is hugely satisfying after someone white says something unforgivable.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 3 April 2018.

Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Alfred Döblin

35886439Originally published in 1929, Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Alfred Döblin, has been newly translated by Michael Hoffman and published by the New York Review of Books press. This novel is a classic of German literature for its portrayal of Weimar-era Germany and its use of sound effects and other cutting edge (at the time) writing techniques. I marvel at Hoffman’s ability as a translator because he was able to translate a lot of the weirdness so that it made sense, while preserving Döblin verbal fireworks and the central tale of Franz Biberkopf’s trials and tribulations.

The novel opens when Biberkopf is released from Tegel Prison. He has just finished serving four years for beating his girlfriend so badly she died of her injuries. I was never able to forget this fact in spite of the novel’s attempts to get readers to sympathize with Biberkopf. And it certainly does try. Over the course of the novel, Biberkopf gets tangled up with criminals more dangerous and intelligent than he is, only to suffer the consequences (which include losing his right arm after his nemesis throws him out of a moving car). He wants to go straight but, in the late 1920s, there are few options for a man with no skills, a violent temper, and lacking in the brain department. It’s really just a matter of time before he ends up dead or in prison. The only mystery is how that happens.

There are frequent references to Job, the Whore of Babylon, and Death (who does make an appearance late in the novel) that reminded me of old medieval Everyman plays—though a lot dirtier. In the Everyman-type plays, an ordinary man seeks heaven or atonement while life and fate through everything they can at him to try and knock him off the straight and narrow. Without these references, Biberkopf’s story is rather sordid. I mean, it’s sordid anyway, but the references force us to take a step back and think about what we might have done in Biberkopf’s shoes. Would we have been able to go straight with a criminal record and no trade? The closest Biberkopf gets to making legitimate money is selling copies of Völkisher Beobachter, a Nazi newspaper.

Biberkopf and Mitzi, in a still from the 1931 film Berlin-Alexanderplatz

I was entertained by the openings of the chapters that seemed to be taken straight from the front pages of the many newspapers referenced in Berlin Alexanderplatz. While Biberkopf gives us a view of his little corner of criminal Berlin, the excerpts give us a better look at a vibrant city with all sorts of ventures in the offing—they also show us many stories of people reinventing themselves only to be exposed, providing frequent doses of foreshadowing for Biberkopf. These snippets might have been my favorite part of Berlin Alexanderplatz, given my dislike of Biberkopf and the portrayal of the women as hysterical dupes who, for some reason, work to support men like Biberkopf who just mooch off of their earnings.

In translating the word salad that is Berlin Alexanderplatz, Hoffman used low class London accents to try and capture the flavor of Biberkopf’s criminal acquaintances. In fact, there are parts that are translated as “Leave it aht.” I understand why. More English speakers are familiar with how low class Londoners sound—at least from the movies—than they would be with how low class Berliners would’ve sounded. But this struck me as odd more than once as I made my way through the book. I kept forgetting we were in Berlin in 1929 until someone mentioned marks or the litany of S-Bahn (tram) stops started up again. I can’t fault Hoffman too much; this book must have been a monster to translate.

Even though it was a challenge and I hated the protagonist, I’m glad I decided to read Berlin Alexanderplatz. It really does capture a time and a place that was definitively lost a few years after the book was published. More than that, the Weimar-era is a time and place that personally fascinates me because it gave rise to Hitler and National Socialism. There are hints of what’s coming in this book, but the sense I got was that everyone seemed like the party and the liberties would continue forever—except for the doomed Biberkopf, anyway.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

That’s It?!? Thoughts About Bad Endings

Unknown Artist

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (review pending) has been sitting in the stack of books I brought home from my library months ago. The setting intrigued me; I’ve been fascinated by pre-Korean War Korea lately. But then I started to see readers on the Silent Book Club complain about the ending. I read the book anyway…and I discovered exactly why all those readers were disgruntled.

An unsatisfying conclusion to a book that is otherwise quite good seems to be just that much worse, like a smack in the face after someone has offered you a nice meal. The experience of reading Pachinko led me to thinking about what I consider a bad ending. As it turns out, there are a several types of endings that I hate. This list doesn’t include rushed endings (that’s just bad pacing) or implausible endings (that’s bad writing). This list includes the types of endings that actually make me angry, assuming that I like the rest of the book.

It Just Ends & Cliffhangers

After spending hundreds of pages with a character, the book seems to just suddenly stop. I have been tricked by books like this only a couple of times, thankfully. With Pachinko, the ending was so abrupt I turned the page and got confused because I was suddenly reading the writer’s acknowledgements. I put cliffhangers in this category because they also just end, though they’re supposed to encourage readers to get the next book in the series. I’m not sure which is worse: a ploy to keep me getting books or a sudden stop with no resolution whatsoever.

Undeserved Happily Ever After

I am a fan of bittersweet or even tragic endings. Not every book needs a happy ending; sometimes an unhappy ending is the only way to conclude a story. So it bothers me when I see the writer suddenly sweeping away the storm clouds, tie up loose ends with Dickensian coincidences or dei ex machinis*, and have everything work out for the protagonist so that they can get married/defeat the baddie/do the thing/etc.

Out of Character Resolution

This is similar to the undeserved happy ending in that it involves sudden changes so that the book can end happily. The difference is that instead of dropping in a deus ex machina or a Dickens move, it involves a character just suddenly deciding that the thing they were hung up on doesn’t matter so that they can get married/defeat the baddie/do the thing/etc. This kind of ending makes me feel like I’ve wasted time putting up with the protagonist’s struggles.

What other kinds of endings do you hate?

* Thanks to Smithereens for giving me the correct plural.

The Master Key, by Masako Togawa

36481157It’s such a lovely feeling to finish a mystery novel after the realization that the author not only fooled me once about what really happened in the book, but twice! Masako Togawa’s The Master Key, translated by Simon Grove, is a terrific and unusual mystery set in the K Apartments for Ladies, in Tokyo, in the late 1950s. The usual part of the novel is that it follows the travels of the apartment’s master key around the building as it is stolen and returned by various inhabitants. As the key changes hands, we enter the perspectives of those woman who take it upon themselves to spy on each other and investigate each other’s crimes.

The first crime to take place at the K Apartments is the death and burial of a child underneath the building. One of the people responsible becomes a recluse, while the other is killed in a car accident. Then, years later, we are given three clues about what might have happened through a series of short chapters in which we also learn a lot about the women of the Apartments. I’m trying not to reveal too much about The Master Key, because the plots are so much fun to read and take apart one’s self.

There were times when I go so interested in the other women in the Apartments that I lost sight of the original crime. By the time this short book is over, we learn about a kidnapping, a stolen Guarneri violin, an arson, a cult, and more murder-y shenanigans. For a building full of middle-aged and elderly women of limited means, they sure get up to a lot. Of course, they all have a lot of time on their hands. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that a five floor building of single women would contain so many secrets.

The Master Key is another novel rescued from obscurity (at least obscure to English speakers, I don’t know how popular this book was in Japan) by Pushkin Vertigo. It was originally published in the early 1960s. I’m so glad they’ve rereleased it. It’s complex, brilliant, and very, very sly. I enjoyed every page.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Bury What We Cannot Take, by Kirstin Chen

35433674There are some decisions that one should not overthink. Then there others that absolutely require long deliberation. Ong Seok Koon’s mistake at the beginning of Bury What We Cannot Take, by Kirstin Chen, is that she makes a very important decision without any thought at all. She and her family pay for that mistake for months. It’s only through the sheerest luck that they manage to survive that one bad decision.

Though they don’t know it, 1957 is a year for getting out of mainland China. The Ong family of Drum Wave Islet in Fujian are still fairly well off, thanks to the family’s factories. But 1957 is the beginning of what will become the Anti-Rightist Campaign and impulsive acts like Ong Bee Kim’s smashing of a portrait of Chairman Mao could condemn the entire family. Just after Bee Kim smashes the portrait and her grandson denounces her in an application to the Youth League, Seok Koon puts her plan to get the family to Hong Kong into action. She pulls every string she can reach, but only manages to secure exit papers for herself, her mother-in-law, and one of her children. When pressed to choose which child to take to Hong Kong, she blurts out the first name to pop into her head: her son’s name. Her daughter, San San, is left behind.

The rest of the book follows San San’s efforts to not get caught by Party officials in Fujian; Seok Koon’s increasingly frantic efforts to get her daughter back; her son, Ah Liam’s, stubborn clinging to Party thought and hoping to return to the mainland; and her husband’s efforts to support Seok Koon’s quest as well as his mistress while his business fails. Because the book is mostly told in dialogue, there isn’t as much character development as I would have liked. This is definitely not another Sophie’s Choice in spite of the superficial similarities. The lack of exposition also meant that I didn’t think the setting was given enough attention.

What bothered me most about Bury What We Cannot Take was its miraculous ending. Perhaps I’m not used to books set in China anywhere between 1911 and, say, 1980, that have happy endings. I just couldn’t believe that everything would work out as well as it did in this novel. Between the ending and lack of character development, I found Bury What We Cannot Take unsatisfying, even though it was interesting to read. That said, I might recommend it to someone who wants to broaden their reading horizons, but still wants a happy ending.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 20 March 2018.

The Brightest Sun, by Adrienne Benson

35135020Given the selection of mothers on display in Adrienne Benson’s The Brightest Sun, it’s not surprising that they’re among the most judged members of any society. With the exception of Simi, they are cold or overprotective or disastrously absent. This novel takes us inside the head of three women, at first, before broadening out to their daughters and an unwitting father. Unlike so many other stories, this book seems to be about the darker psychological aspects of motherhood.

The first mother we meet is Leona, an anthropologist who is studying the way grazing restrictions have changed Maasai ways of life. A one night stand left her pregnant and she gives birth in the hut the Maasai built for her, but she refuses to feed or bond with the baby. Being a mother brings up too many memories of her own terrible parents. Fortunately for the baby, Leona’s friend Simi—who very much wants a child but hasn’t been able to carry one to term—steps in to become the second mother of the trio of protagonists. Before long, the baby is adopted as a Maasai and named Adia.

The third mother is Jane, a former elephant researcher turned diplomat’s wife, who has the misfortune to be pregnant in Liberia during a period of unrest. Where Leona is completely detached from her child and Simi is a joyful mother, Jane is terrified. Her fears are justifiable at first, but they soon overwhelm her, even after she and her husband return to the States.

The novel lets the women take turns at telling their stories. In fact, there’s a lot more telling than showing in this novel. I rather wish that the story had unfolded in a, well, more story-like way. The second and third parts have less exposition than the first. Leona and Simi’s daughter, Adia, and Jane’s daughter, Grace, are both so headstrong that they shove the plot along in ways their mothers can’t or won’t.

The Brightest Sun tells stories about motherhood that I haven’t encountered in literature before. With the exception of Simi, few of the mothers in this book want to or feel prepared to parents. People who judge mothers, I’ve noticed, are rarely mothers themselves or don’t face the psychological traumas Leona and Jane have. All mothers are unique, this book shows us, and have to face their own struggles until they manage to come out the other side.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 20 March 2018.