A Grave Talent by Laurie R. King (Literary Mystery)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 5/5

The first in the Kate Martinelli mystery series (for which she won an Edgar), and I’m completely hooked! Completely bizarre, twisted plot, fully developed characters and tight writing. Writing quality is right up there with Louise Penny (which I don’t say a lot) — feels more like literary fiction embedding an intriguing mystery rather than a (boring) cozy or a mystery that is all plot/action filled with stock characters.

A serial killer has begun murdering young girls, depositing them all on a road in the midst of an odd colony outside of San Francisco. A seasoned cop and a newly promoted Detective (Kate) have been assigned the case with no real leads — and then they find out that one of the colony residents was associated with a similar crime many years before …

In the Time of our History by Susanne Pari (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 5/5

I loved this character and culture driven drama about an extended Iranian American family post the 1979 Islamic revolution. The characters have depth and nuance that take them far beyond the obvious stereotypes that could describe each of them: the family patriarch, the obedient wife, the rebellious daughter, the faithful family retainer. The depictions are honest — no clear heroes or victims, no melodramatic righteous rage — just people finding their way while blending an inherited traditional culture with the modern practices of their new home.

The language is powerful but never manipulative, and the stories feel real. Moral dilemmas — with no clearly correct solutions — abound, and the frank and straightforward discussions of some of them — perceived racism, roles for women, infidelity, etc. — are captivating. I loved the way immigrants were depicted as individuals, each with their own backstory, set of initial circumstances, and eventual integration paths — none following the same script. Also — one of the best first lines I’ve read in a long while.

Set in the late 1990s and taking place in New Jersey and San Francisco. Great for fans of “Of a Place For Us” by Fatima Farheen Mirza. Highly recommended!

Quotes:

“Espresso and anxiety — well behaved on their own, rambunctious as urchins together.”

“Mitra, on the other hand, had once told a flirtatious union official that if he didn’t smell like a sewer in non ninety-degreee weather, she might consider thanking him for staring blatantly at her breasts. Another time, Mitra told the mayor’s secretary — a consistently rude person — to call after her PMS was over.”

“Anahita had innately understood that it was a traditional woman’s responsibility to refract unwanted male attention, a concept Mitra once denounced as a direct offshoot of the idea of hejab, invented and perpetuated by men who didn’t want to take responsibility for their own lust.”

“I also had a difficult father. Some people cannot abandon their misery. Mitra studied him. His face was drawn, his mouth pulled down either end. ‘Is that how you justify their behaviour?’ ‘No, it is how I keep from hating them. Hate takes too much energy.’ ”

“This was the dynamic, false though it was on its face. Mitra tried to see Akram the way Julian did. ‘She’s just confused, Mitra. Wouldn’t you be? She’s never known anything different. We have to teach her.’ Mitra hates those lines; they sounded like something from a Kipling story about the civilized enlightening the natives. As if the Western world was devoid of poor, uneducated, and bitter people.”

“Surely someone had reminded her of this fact: that few people escaped the tragedy of senseless death, that suffering had no purpose, no meaning, no justification. But she hadn’t heard, hadn’t listened. Until now. Why now? She didn’t know. It didn’t matter. She got it.”

“This is what I’m explaining, Shireen. You came to America, and while you were here, Iran moved forward. After the Kennedys invited the Shah and Farah to visit America, the rush to reform was on. Not only did the landscape change — the buildings and roads and modern conveniences — but also the people, the culture. Even the traditional families couldn’t ignore the excitement of it — the opportunities for prosperity, technology, for resistance against Soviet influence.”

“Mitra squinted at the tube of the jetway and spotted her mother between the hulking arms of two businessmen, their suit bags hanging off their shoulders like slaughtered game.”

“Perhaps she’d seen too many TV talk shows where women displayed their mistakes and misfortunes as if they were wares on a blanket at the bazaar. Or perhaps she knew now that so few outcomes in life could be controlled.”

“The mere fact of their abandonment was a stigma, a curse almost, that prevented them from being wanted by anyone. They came from bad stock, from people in such dire straits or lacking such humanity and sense of goodness that they could abandon their own offspring.”

“Those were the days when she didn’t want to have much to do with her parent’s culture, which prized opaque symbolism excessively. The harder a person had to work to discover hidden meanings, the higher its value.”

Thank you to Kensington Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 3rd, 2023.

At the Edge of the Haight by Katherine Seligman (Literary Fiction)

Thank you to Algonquin Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 19th, 2021.

Writing: 3.5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3/5
A very readable book about Maddy — a 20-year old homeless girl in San Francisco who unwittingly witnesses the tail end of the murder of a homeless boy and gets tangled up with the victim’s parents and general ineffectiveness of the judicial system.

The writing is good and it does thoroughly depict at least one homeless person’s life in San Francisco — the utter tedium of hanging around doing little but scamming for money or getting high all day, sleeping in the park but waking at 4:00 am to avoid the cops, heading to the shelter for showers and food — rinse, repeat. While the book was clearly supposed to trigger a feeling of empathy, pity, and a desire for more social programs to “help,” it really did the opposite for me. Maddy and her friends were given so many opportunities to live a different life: in addition to all the free food, showers, medical care, etc. they got from the shelter and free clinics, they were constantly offered entrance into all kinds of programs to help by a slew of well-meaning social workers. Instead, they spend their days hanging around doing nothing, begging for money to get high, and sitting in the park gathering program pamphlets from do-gooders. Which they didn’t want. Eventually, after watching the young boy bleed out, engaging with the boy’s heartbroken parents, seeing one of her friends almost OD, and having a social worker make the effort to find her in the park every day offering encouragement, more programs, and a round trip bus ticket to find her estranged mother, Maddy begins a journey we hope will be more productive. I was honestly left feeling like maybe all of the money behind these programs could have been better spent elsewhere. I’m completely behind offering people opportunities to get out of a hole — whether of their own making or not — but I’m not enthused about chasing them down repeatedly until they deign to give it a try.

The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

Unusual family drama (with an element of mystery) that takes place before, during, and after the big San Francisco Quake of 1906. Irish immigrant Sophie Whalen answers an ad for a mail order bride. The husband? A handsome widower with a young, motherless, daughter. Things are not as they appear, however, and one morning when her husband is away, a knock on the door changes everything. And then … the big one hits.

Decent writing, likable though somewhat two-dimensional characters, and some interesting surprises in the plot. The best part is the detailed, historically accurate descriptions of San Francisco and the Bay Area (eg San Mateo) during and after the quake.

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 2nd, 2021.

Paper Wife by Laila Ibrahim

Thanks to NetGalley and Lake Union Publishing for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on Oct. 30, 2018.
Writing: 3/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5

A gripping, and ultimately uplifting, tale highlighting a piece of American immigrant history. The date is 1923 and Mei Ling is an 18-year old girl in Guangdong Province whose family fortune has suffered “the triple devastation of war, famine, and disease.” With little warning, she finds herself a “paper wife” — married to a stranger (and mother to a two-year old named Bo) under the false name of his recently deceased wife in order to enter America. Her true identity is buried under a second layer — her elder sister was the intended bride, but a last minute illness forced the substitution. Mei Ling must keep this quiet as her husband is expecting a timid Rabbit wife and is instead receiving a fierce Dragon.

The story follows Mei Ling through her wedding, the trip in steerage to San Francisco, her new family, including a six-year old orphan named Siew whom she meets on the boat, and immigration through Angel Island. Beautiful and detailed descriptions of San Francisco and Oakland Chinatowns, the people she meets, the lives they lead, and the way different people try to succeed in the new country. I love that each of the characters (even the unpleasant ones) has real depth — the author did not resort to stereotypes in this fictionalized account of a Chinese immigrant experience. The story takes some surprising turns as Mei Ling the Dragon takes steps to maintain harmony and protect her family.

As a way of setting the context, the book’s epigraph comprises a single disturbing quote from then President Rutherford B. Hayes: “I am satisfied the present Chinese labor invasion (it is not in any proper sense immigration — women and children do not come) is pernicious and should be discouraged. Our experience in dealing with the weaker races — the negroes and the Indians, for example — is not encouraging.” Ugh.

A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for an early review copy of A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua, which will publish August 14, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 3.5

Heavily pregnant, Scarlett and Daisy, meet at Perfume Bay — the exclusive maternity home in Los Angeles for Chinese women who want to have their “anchor” babies in the U.S. for automatic citizenship. Neither wants to be there — teen-age Daisy has been placed there by parents anxious to separate her from an “unsuitable” boyfriend; Scarlett has been placed there by the baby’s father — also her married boss — who wants the son he believes she is carrying.

After an opportunistic escape, they make their way to San Francisco’s Chinatown where they learn about motherhood while trying to bulldoze their way to legal status and financial stability (Scarlett) and find the boyfriend (Daisy).

Woven throughout the modern day narrative are the historical stories of Scarlett’s China — highlighting the contrasts between the traditional and modern, the city and the country, and China and the U.S. There are a lot of interesting details included: Scarlett’s estranged mother was the village “family planner” — the woman charged with upholding the unpopular “one child” law (only recalled in 2013, this novel takes while the law was still in effect). Historical immigration policies in the U.S. had banned Chinese women from immigrating as families “weren’t supposed to take root here.” The backstories of other characters reveal even more detail of life in China under Communist rule.

While the end is tied up perhaps too neatly, the story is unpredictable and engaging, the characters are appealing, and I appreciated the inclusion of historical and cultural detail. It is simultaneously a novel about China and San Francisco, quirks and all. It shirks from neither!