The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters

Disappointing! I loved Magpie Murders  and I love Horowitz’ TV work (Midsomer Murder, Foyle’s War) so I was looking forward to this book, which I picked up in London last year and finally got around to reading. But … it did not live up to my expectations.

Horowitz likes to experiment with writing style. In this book, he includes himself as a character who has been asked by real-life detective Daniel Hawthorne to follow him around and write a book about his cases — to be the Watson to his Holmes as it were.

The Horowitz character is annoyed that Hawthorne doesn’t give him any personal background or share his ongoing thoughts or inner procedures on the case (I bet Holmes frustrated Watson in the same way).

While I don’t mind this blurring of fact and fiction, I found the Horowitz character’s issues with his agent, his wife, and trying to out-think the detective (and getting it wrong) just a distraction from the actual murder mystery (that part was well done!). Instead of objectively following a detective and watching him work, we had a whiny author complaining about getting pulled out of an important meeting with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson in order to go see the body, or complaining that the detective wouldn’t open up so he had no background to write.

I’m not sure why it didn’t work for me — it was obviously supposed to be playful and funny — but I just found it tedious!

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Writing: 4 Plot: 5 Characters: 4

The sweeping, emotionally intense story of an Akha village girl in the Yunnan Province. Spanning 1988 through 2016, Li-Yan (commonly known as “Girl”), goes from tea picker in Yunnan to Guangzhou Tea Master to global businesswoman.

While the characters are well developed and the plot riveting, my favorite aspect of the book is the way the author brought recent Chinese history, American adoption of Chinese children (usually girls), and the tea trade to life.  Especially the extensively researched tea trade — a fascinating discussion of pu’er tea — from the resurrection of the old methods of production (which were discouraged during Mao’s reign) to the history, economy, and medicinal applications going back centuries. Supporting this thread was the impact of various Chinese policies, and slogans on regular people — from the Cultural Revolution to Deng Xiaoping’s slogan “ To get rich is glorious” to The Thirty Years No Change Policy, the One Child Policy, and the Great Leap Forward. and the recognition of the 55 ethnic minorities (even though there were actually many more).

Another thread follows the experiences of Li-Yan’s baby girl, adopted by Caucasian parents in California with only an ancient tea cake to connect her to her birth parents. While happy with her parents and life, Haley and other Chinese adoptees face the issue of not fitting in — with either the Caucasians or the other Asians. Interestingly, while the bulk of the book is in Li-Yan’s voice, all information about Haley comes through letters, school reports, and other external forms of documentation.

Lisa Yee is a master at sweeping you into a story that you can’t help but care about. Warning — I found the events of the second chapter so disturbing that I almost stopped reading the book but I’m very glad I kept going. I found the descriptions of China fascinating — it was constantly surprising to me to be reminded that some of the things that sounded so “primitive” had been a way of life only 30 years ago. Intriguing plot, well-developed characters, and a rich and historically accurate background environment.

I’m looking forward to reading Lisa See’s upcoming book “The Island of Sea Women.”

The Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

A chilling history of the “Osage Reign of Terror” in which a large number of wealthy Indians from the Osage tribe were killed over a period of several years, possibly even decades, in the early 1900s. The thoroughly researched story includes the background and social context of the killings, the investigators, and the individual politicians, bankers, and relatives involved in the case. Additionally, the launch of the FBI and some fascinating detail on the evolution of detection and law enforcement techniques.

For me, this is the best kind of non-fiction — told with clarity, drawn from original sources, not over-dramatized (a plain retelling of the events was dramatic enough), and told linearly such that no hindsight colored our perceptions of the players or events as they unfolded.

While it’s hard to be unaware of the gross injustices perpetrated on the Native Americans in this country since the arrival of the European settlers, the humiliating details of how the Bureau of Indian Affairs systematically dehumanized Native Americans and left them subject to institutionalized theft, mismanagement, and even murder was newly shocking. The Osage tribe was more susceptible than most as they were unfortunate enough to have chosen “worthless” land that ended up being oil rich — making them multi-millionaires and therefore prime targets.

A big part of the story is the attitude of most of the non-Indians. As one prominent member of the Osage tribe said during the trial of a set of conspirators to multiple murders, “It is a question in my mind whether this jury is considering a murder case or not. The question for them to decide is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder — or merely cruelty to animals.”

In some ways this reads like a good murder mystery, but as is the case with all non-fiction, there is never the complete closure you get with a good novel. While several of the perpetrators were caught, tried, and sentenced, it is clear that the number of murders was far greater than originally expected … and most of the perpetrators got away scot-free.

Extremely well-written — highly recommended.

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project by Lenore Appelhans

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Lerner Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on March 5, 2019.

(My last YA review for a while…)

Cute and whimsical, this early YA book explores the world of stereotypes using fictional characters who long to be more than their boilerplate dictates. Riley is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy who works hard and is true to type, but chafes a bit under perceived Author mismanagement. He is sent to Group Therapy with a set of Manic Pixie Dream Girls — just one step away from termination — in order to learn to “remember his place” and “The Author is always right.” However, when the Trope Town Council decides that perhaps the Manic Pixie Dream trope is more trouble than it’s worth, Riley and his therapy cohort have to come up with something big to show how truly important their trope is.

On the surface this is fun and a little silly and will appeal to the younger part of the YA demographic. However, there is some depth to the discussion of literature, the use of stock characters (stereotypes) and the impact that can have on readers. In the Trope Museum the characters bear witness to old stereotypes that have been “retired” due to being offensively racist, sexist, etc. The Uncle Tomfoolery trope is a prime example. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is on the chopping block for being sexist. But Riley, as an experimental “Boy” version, shows how it may be the association of a particular race, gender, sexual preference with a particular trope that is the issue, not the trope itself. I liked that a lot — there are various personality stereotypes that exist in the world — the damage (I feel) is associating them with whole groups of people based solely on physical characteristics.

*** Spoiler alert *** One more small thing I appreciated. Riley finds himself at the center of a love triangle between Zelda (a Manic Pixie Dream Girl) and Ada, a “Developed” girl in the novel he is working on. At the end of the book, all three step off into the sunset on the Termination Train to Reader World without having to resolve the triangle. They are happy to pursue their own lives and see where it takes them without necessarily “winning” the boy. When I was growing up, just about every movie I saw and book I read focussed on the girl falling in love with the right boy. Regardless of her other pursuits, if she didn’t get the boy at the end, she felt like a failure. Since I was never taught this explicitly, it was difficult to question to the premise. Fiction has a powerful ability to teach us norms of expectations and behavior under the covers as it were. I like the not-so-subtle messages in this book.

The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown

The last of the three!

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Pushkin Press through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on March 12, 2019

An utterly delightful re-publication of a classic children’s series from the 1940s. I’m both embarrassed that I never knew this series existed and happy that I get to discover it now. Originally published in 1941, the author began work on it in 1938 when she was 14 years old — helping to explain why the children all feel so authentic. Maggie Smith says, “I wanted to act before I read this book, and afterwards there was no stopping me.”

This story follows seven children from three families in the town of Fenchester (based on Colchester in the UK) as they found the Blue Door Theater company and forge a future in the dramatic arts. Nigel (15) wants to be a commercial artist and designs and builds all the sets; Vicky (13) is a dancer; Bulldog (13) is a comic and a builder (he does the electric work himself and designs a mechanism to make the curtains “swish”); Jeremy (14) composes music and plays the violin; Lynette (13) is the consummate actress of the group; Sandra (14) sings beautifully and designs and makes all the costumes; and Madeleine (9) acts and works as the group promoter!

What I love about the story is the detail about every aspect of the theater — from converting an abandoned church into an actual theater to writing the pieces to performing them. The children do everything themselves — they create the costumes, they build the sets from abandoned materials, they write the plays and the music and act in them. They learn new skills and use them to create something where nothing had been before. They even make use of one of their mother’s “hair” — the ringlets she cut off and saved ages ago. They also make mistakes and while the story in the book does not revolve around these mistakes, they do lend an air of credibility to the story. Not everything goes perfectly all of the time! I also learned a lot about life in Britain in the 40s: an introduction provides currency translations (12 pence to the shilling; 20 shillings to the pound; 21 shillings to a guinea) and distinct art forms like the English pantomime are introduced. Each performance they give is described in great detail as well — the music, the drama, and the comedy.

This is the first volume of five and I’m happy to find that the publisher intends to release them all. Great for fans of Noel Streitfeld.

Famous in a Small Town by Emma Mills

#2 in the children / YA review series!

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on January 15, 2019.

Writing: 4 Plot: 4.5 Characters: 5

A beautifully written book about the strength of friendships.

Sophie loves everything about her small Illinois town of Acadia — the Yum Yum Shoppe with its fourteen flavors, the school marching band, and the music of their one famous singer / songwriter — Meagan Pleasant. Most important is her close friend group, encapsulated in their WWYSE (where will you spend eternity) group chat — though newcomer August is a pretty intriguing addition.

There is plenty of plot — some romance, some adventure, and some revenge planning along with a well-paced unfolding of surprising secrets. However, the real attraction of the book lies in the characters themselves — likable kids dealing with the realities of life in ways that are focussed, but not dripping with drama. The dialog is natural and (very) funny. There were several points where I teared up reading inspired descriptions of the importance of friendships and family in life. While there is little of the grit present in some urban YA novels, it doesn’t shy away from elements in the environment that today’s teens may be exposed to: blended families, drug use, casual sex, single mothers, open sexual preferences, and even relatives in jail. Acadia isn’t a fairytale locale but a very real place where teenagers are simply trying to grow up and understand what is important to them.

The Library of Ever by Zeno Alexander

I took a break from all the heavy stuff I’ve been reading and read three wonderful children / YA novels.  Here is a review of the first (and my favorite) in the trifecta!

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on April 30, 2019.

A brilliantly imaginative story combining history, science, and the importance of knowledge into a children’s adventure story centered around the most impressive, awesome, majestic, humongous library of all time.

Lenora — our eleven-year old heroine — escapes from her (luckily) inattentive nanny through a secret arch of her local library and lands in the aforementioned “Library of Ever.” Confronted with a ten-foot tall stern and very pointy librarian who insists that only library employees may enter, she applies for and is immediately granted a job as the 4th Assistant Apprentice Librarian. Her largely self-directed adventures take her through the Calendar help desk, the cartography section, and a live-action diorama of Bubastes (look this up!). She helps penguins find their way home, a tardigrade (yes — this is a real thing — look this up too!) get directions to Alpha Centauri, and a King in the year 8000 unravel some trouble with time. My absolutely favorite part is when she dons a pheromone interpreter (in her nostrils) in order to help her understand a group of troubled ants.

Most importantly throughout, she works to fight off the Forces of Darkness personified as beings dressed in overcoats and bowler hats, who seek to extinguish the light of knowledge in the world around them.

This should be required reading for all middle schoolers — an ode to librarians and a concise and pithy description of the importance of libraries and knowledge freely available to all.