Saturday, January 11, 2014

Kinder Than Solitude: A Novel by Yiyun Li

Kinder Than Solitude: A Novel.  Yiyun Li. Random House. February 2-14. 336 pp.  ISBN#: 9781400068142.

The choice to be a conformist, protestor or apathetic young man or woman during the years surrounding the horrific Tiananmen Square uprising was pivotal for one’s self and its impact on family and communities throughout China.  So Yiyun Li chooses Boyang, Ryu, Shaoai, Moran, Celia and Sizhuo as representative youth who over a span of twenty years reveal how insidious the impact of that dramatic time was on the human personality.  It’s a remarkable transformation that is unique for its successes and failures, producing outlooks that are idiosyncratic to readers of the Western world.

The novel focuses on an act of poisoning one of our central characters.  The question is implied by many as to who was responsible for that deed that mentally and emotionally crippled Shaoai, a formerly phenomenally intelligent young woman who has now, twenty years after a crippled life, died.  A telegram is sent to mark the death but the responses or lack thereof are also unexpected.

Orphaned as a child, Ryu was raised by two “great-aunts” who taught her to disdain excesses of emotion, a Spartan-type training that never fails to upend the reactions of her friends and acquaintances.  Moran is a friendly, outgoing young woman who is practically undone by the apathy of Ryu, the sarcasm and bitterness of Shaoai, and the denial of Boyang’s connection to her.  Boyang wants the best of both worlds, a world of dalliance with a free spirit woman but also a woman who will allow him to experience the heights and depths of meaning, a search that has thus far proved futile.
While all these characters appear to cause great emotional or psychological harm, accruing in small tidbits over this twenty-year span, to each other, an iota of vulnerability in each one, as brilliantly crafted by the author, pervades the thoughts and feelings of each person.  The reader is constantly waiting for a breakdown in the “void” each fights to maintain and the crack does appear in fleeting moments.  The cost is huge to maintain this isolated stance but the “breaks” are definitely worthy of the title of this character study. 

The actions, dialogue, controversies, and partial responses on every page parallel the ways of coping with constant change in China’s government during this tumultuous time.  A few months after the Tiananmen Square, a planned demonstration celebrating an anniversary of Communism highlights the coping skills by quite simple responses says more about the surface veneer of Chinese life than it does significant meaning behind the propaganda.  Again, the response of all seems to bear an “inevitable” burden one must negate in order to survive.

Yiyun Li has crafted an important novel with superb characterization that leaves more questions than answers about a significant historical period and how one survives a repressive government, while still appreciating all the positive realities that life has to offer.  Excellent and highly recommended!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Return to Tradd Street by Karen White

Return to Tradd Street.  Karen White. Penguin Group (USA). January 2014. 336 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780451240590.

Melanie was shattered when she told Jack she loved him and he replied, “I’m sorry.”  Add to that misery that she responded no to his marriage proposal later, words she sorely regretted.  But Melanie won’t have anyone marry her out of pity now that she’s pregnant, with her body swelling and morning, afternoon and evening sickness overwhelming her. Add to that the baby cry she keeps hearing.  Add to that her mother, best friend Sophie, Jack and just about every other human being are now bombarding her with healthy food she finds revolting, that is when she’s hungry in between pregnancy sickness bouts!  However, her intrigue increases over the baby sounds and the fact that the bones of a newborn child have been found in the foundation of her inherited old house.  She and her Mom have  a motto from past experiences with ghosts, “We are stronger than you.” That mantra they repeat when alone or together will be tested in the near future!

Now, to confound matters, Jack and his daughter Nola have reappeared.  Jack is determined to be an endearing partner in her pregnancy and motherhood despite her rejection of marriage.  Melanie is torn between her strong feelings about him and her anger over his own rejection of her in the past.  A couple appears and they intend to contest the will that left the house to Melanie.  While the house is a definite money pit, Melanie finally resolves to fight for what is legally hers.

No spoiler alert necessary here – just be prepared to connect a baby cradle, an old baby outfit, a secret involving two or possibly three woman, and an old ghostly friend who is trying to protect Melanie and you have the makings of a thrilling mystery tale, with some gently evolving passion interspersed in the riddle crying out for a solution. The addition of a woman who specializes in South Carolina antiques and history adds a zesty, realistic twist to it all. 

Karen White’s writing skills have increased remarkably with this new novel, and that is saying quite a bit.  She knows exactly when to insert humor, pathos, and perplexing skills into a unique combination that makes for riveting and engaging reading.   Return to Tradd Street is a wonderful read to enjoy on a quiet day when you have nothing else to do – because you won’t want to put it down once you begin this ghostly journey!

Hippie Boy: A Girl's Story by Ingrid Ricks

Hippie Boy: A Girl’s Story.  Ingrid Ricks. Penguin Group (USA). January 2014. 304 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780425274002.

Ingrid Ricks has a heart-breaking story to tell.  It’s about a mother so yearning to be loved and cared for that she can’t see the trouble in front of her face.  First she divorces Ingrid’s father because he doesn’t buy into the Mormon religion she follows with almost fanatic intensity.  Then her Mom begins dating Earl, a guy who gives the word “mean” a reality that is painful to read about, let alone what it must have been like to live with.  Ingrid at first stays and does her best to ignore the fierce orders and beatings constantly inflicted on her and her siblings. Mom at first seems to accept it all as Earl uses the excuse that he prayed about whatever issue is at hand and then concludes with the “God told me….” line.  Yes, it is heart-wrenching but also increasingly frightening as Earl ups his domination.

Meanwhile Ingrid’s Dad is a salesman of whatever idea he currently has in his head to “get rich quickly.”  Ingrid is devoted to him, primarily because he’s a soft antidote to the Mormon tyranny in her home with its constant prayers and Scripture reading, along with the orders and physical abuse.  But all is not perfect with Dad as Ingrid experiences disappointment after disappointment.  She actually realizes she is often being used. Yet she still remains loyal, although now cautious, as she has no alternative plans of action. 

Enough said about the family dysfunction which will increase until Ingrid becomes even stronger, with the help of good friends and some lucky breaks when her father is arrested on an embezzlement charge. 

This is a memoir that MUST be shared.  For it’s not just about some Mormon craziness but what happens when persons with psychological needs and dangerous behaviors inflict their illness on innocent children.  To be clear, not all Mormons share these devastating traits.  Any religion attracts those with mentally handicapped backgrounds and intentions; here is a prime example.  But what is more frightening is the lack of any observation or intervention by a neutral party to stop behavior that must have negative repercussions because of years of living in such a terrorizing atmosphere.  This reviewer didn’t like this account at all – who possibly could?  However, this memoir is both an alert for those who might be near such families and a cry for action where it is so clearly warranted. One also wonders why some Mormon leaders refuse to address this issue and why desire for privacy and denial issues are more important than action and termination of such misappropriation of church doctrine.  Justice is sorely in need of being served in like situations and Ingrid Ricks deserves multiple kudos for having the courage to present the truth to the larger public.  Here’s to hoping this was a healing experience as well for her! 

The Moses Virus by Jack Hyland

The Moses Virus: A Novel.  Jack Hyland. Taylor Trade Publishing. January 2014. 232 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9781589799080.

Millions of people have read or heard the story of Moses and the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt.  We also know of the plagues visited upon the hard-hearted Pharaoh and the Egyptians who refused to yield to the command of Moses’ God.  But few have ever questioned the cause of those plagues other than the miraculous intervention of God. 

The Moses Virus: A Novel is that long awaited explanation and the villainous consequences of that plague throughout history.   Here in this present generation Thom Stewart, eminent forensic archaeologist, is invited to be present at the opening of a famous archaeological site at the Roman Forum. It’s a day that ends in excitement but not of an expected historical discovery; instead another notable archaeologist and his student are found dead, accompanied by a group of skeletons attired in white lab coats.  It’s obvious they all died in ferocious agony!

The majority of the characters herein work for the American Academy in Rome, Italy, a scholarly society dedicated to the research and publications of archaeologists, artists, architects, writers, musicians and other scholars.  With the sudden disastrous deaths Tom, assisted by an ally, Alexandra Cellini, begins to search for the cause of this lethal virus, increased when he is followed, robbed, kidnapped and attacked because everyone believes he knows where a secret cache of the virus is hidden.
What starts out as a staid normal crime turns out to be a hair-raising, frantic search for answers.  Throughout this story, the author presents a lovely description of all the main sites of Roman history in an enticing way that makes the reader want to visit this famed city.  We also get quite an education of the specific nature of the plagues that have killed millions of people during the time of Egyptian pharaohs, the Black Plague of Europe, and other events in which millions of people died quickly and violently.

No, this is by no means the whole story.  Tom and Alex discover they are being continuously watched by many different groups.  The novel moves in and out of Italy and results in several deaths beyond that of the initial scientists.  It also compels the reader to ask some important questions about the role of the Catholic Church in secret negotiations with Hitler during WWII. 

The Moses Virus… is deceiving and unique in how slowly it starts out, how calm everyone remains even with the intense possibilities of this conflict, and how it grows into its intensity where life and death scenes appear over and over and quickly as well.  The central conflict is similar to most “virus or secret weapon” plots but is unique in its intelligent and sensitive presentation.  One suspects that there will be a follow-up to his very interesting piece of criminal fiction.  Nicely done, Jack Hyland!

Fear Nothing: Detective D. D. Warren Series #7 by Lisa Gardner

Fear Nothing: Detective D. D. Warren Series #7.  Lisa Gardner. Penguin Group (USA). January 2014. 400 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780525953081.

Detective D. D. Warren is called to work on a horrendous crime scene with a signature rose left at the scene but a killing technique that is a shocker!  Having to visualize such a scene is bad enough but soon D.D. returns to the scene where she herself is viciously attacked and shot off her gun three times.  Although she is physically recovering from the event, in excruciating pain beyond description, she pursues two directions.  One is fulfilling the orders of her superiors to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Adeline Glen; and the other is meeting with her peers to continue to solve the initial crime that has now occurred a second time.

Dr. Adeline has her own problems, the first being an inability to feel any physical pain whatsoever. While that might seem terrific, in reality it’s a huge risk because she has to monitor against infection or the breaking of any body parts several times a day.  Feeling is a protective device against any external or internal threat to the body.  What would it be like to be lacking such an essential part of one’s internal defense system? 

Add to Dr. Adeline’s dilemma the fact she has a psychopathic sister, Shana, who is serving a life prison sentence.  She’s the emotional opposite of her Adeline.  Shana seethes with unbridled hate against her sister.  Adeline has no idea why she committed vicious murders both outside and inside prison.  Their father, by the way, was the famous Harry Day, who killed woman and buried them under the floor boards of their home, that is until the day he was killed by another family member.

With all of this mayhem continuing and now connecting all of these characters and two other critical people, detectives and D. D. are attempting to discovery the identity of the Rose Killer.  Ironically, one begins to believe it may be one of our main characters who is doing the killing, logically thinking.  But logic is a liar over and over in this hair-raising tale.  One feels the tension building by leaps and bounds as the story continues and ends with several solutions that the reader is in no way prepared for – phenomenal!

Lisa Gardner writes a novel that is thriller, crime fiction, paranormal tale, and mystery that clearly marks her as a professional in her trade and one to follow avidly.  Stunning, mind-boggling, amazing novel, Ms. Gardner!