Wednesday, July 28, 2010

LITTLE BEE by Chris Cleave

I've recently read T.C. Boyle's Tortilla Curtain, which dealt with the heartbreaking, backbreaking lives of illegal immigrants in the U.S. The tension and turmoil leap off the page in that book, but I found Little Bee a disappointment. Yes, the true grit of the novel unfolds little by little, but the plot failed to engage me for some reason. The accolades on the back indicate that it's supposed to be witty, but I missed the wit somehow and found it to be one of the most depressing books ever. Sixteen-year-old Little Bee, along with several other women, is released without immigration papers from a detention center in London. She is a refugee from Nigeria, where all of her family members were murdered for the oil deposits in their village. She makes her way to the home of Andrew O'Rourke and his wife Sarah, whom she met on a beach in Nigeria. (The beach encounter is the crux of the story and not fully revealed until at least midway through the book.) She appears at Sarah's door on the day of Andrew's funeral, after he has committed suicide, ostensibly from anguish after Little Bee phoned that she was on her way to his house. What bothered me here were how many asinine decisions the characters made, which had extremely tragic consequences. Why would Sarah's married lover, Laurence, show up on her doorstep the day of Sarah's husband's funeral? Why would she let him stay? Why would he ask Little Bee, who is in danger of being deported, to make the call to the police when Sarah's son Charlie goes missing? (OK, maybe he had an ulterior motive here.) Why would you allow your 4-year-old to wear a Batman outfit 24/7 for months, complete with full face mask, until you finally had to buy a second costume so that the other could be laundered? This is all head-scratchingly absurd. I will say this for Charlie in the Batman outfit. There's obviously a metaphor woven throughout the story about his being a superhero, but it didn't occur to me until the end that it also hides the (white) color of his skin.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist are back but not together. Let's face it. Blomkvist is a cad, and Lisbeth is perplexed to realize that she's in love with him. She travels for a year and then goes into hiding. She becomes even more scarce when her fingerprints are found on a murder weapon. We know, of course, never to count her out, as she's the weirdest heroine since Pippi Longstocking, another Swede whose name keeps popping up. This series ranks right up there with Harry Potter, just as improbable, but more adult. I enjoyed this book even more than the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, partly because the characters were a little easier to keep track of, but mostly because it's just a better story—an action-packed murder mystery with Lisbeth and her friends Miriam and Paolo kicking some butt. As the cops set their sights on Lisbeth as a suspect, Blomkvist launches his own investigation, not just to exonerate Lisbeth, but also to find the real killers of his two colleagues Mia and Dag. He also knows that there are people in high places with motives, since they were about to be exposed for sex trafficking. Along the way we discover some details of Lisbeth's past, including why she was declared incompetent by the courts and assigned to that scumbag guardian Bjurman. I was on the edge of my seat during the finale, with Blomkvist to the rescue, periodically checking his watch, as his train is delayed. Then he gets lost, becoming more harried and squandering precious minutes. There are several loose ends that I'm looking forward to seeing tidied up in the third book, beyond just the bad guys getting their due. I'm particularly interested to see what happens with Erika Berger, Blomkvist's married lover and business partner, as she plans to accept an editor-in-chief job at another magazine. Will this cause a rift and free up Blomkvist to have a real relationship with Lisbeth? Why am I rooting for 20-something and a 40-something to get together?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

THE REAL McCOY by Darin Strauss

The first thing that struck me about this book is the tone. It immediately brought to mind an old-time radio announcer—pitch-perfect for this fictionalized saga of Kid McCoy, a scrawny prizefighter from the late 1800s and early 1900s. These are pre-radio times, though, and the details of the time and place transport the reader from dreary small-town Indiana to backstreet St. Louis to the seediest areas of New York and beyond. The Kid's real name is Virgil Selby, but he takes the name McCoy from another boxer who dies from injuries incurred in a fight. The "new" McCoy is more colorful than Chang and Eng in Strauss's earlier book, as he's a flimflam artist on the side. (I love that word, and this book is full of others that evoke the era. I found myself singing "Mack the Knife" while reading it, because the setting was so tawdry—another good word.) In fact, the cons that he performs with his fat Chinese mentor, Johnnie Gold, are some of the most entertaining scenes in the book. The irony is that the term "the real McCoy" may have referred to Kid McCoy, but in the book his life is a complete sham; he's a liar and a bigamist and even obtains his welterweight title by scamming his opponent. Likeable he is not, but I couldn't help hoping that he would eventually straighten himself out so that he could hang on to his true love, Susan Fields. As in Chang and Eng, Strauss embellishes the lives of historical characters and leaves us wondering what's true and what's not. In this case, I think that very little is true, but who cares?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A RELIABLE WIFE by Robert Goolrick

A mail-order bride steps off the train in Wisconsin in 1907, and the treachery has already begun. Catherine is more beautiful than the photo of a plain friend that she sent to her husband-to-be. Ralph Truitt would have preferred a woman that would not have awakened his sexual desires. At first, Catherine sees Ralph strictly as a means to an end, but an accident on the way home from the train station changes their attitudes and the development of their relationship. For some reason not totally explained, Ralph sends Catherine to St. Louis to retrieve Ralph's long lost son whose father is probably not Ralph at all and who is leading the same sort of dissolute life that Ralph led in his youth. Catherine's inner conflict about who she is and what she wants is the heart of the novel. One woman in my book club described this book as lascivious, and I can't disagree with that assessment, although the lust is largely more thought than action. The melodrama is pretty engrossing and somewhat unpredictable, though not necessarily original, with a midway surprise that I won't reveal. The plot could be compressed into about 5 sentences, so there's a lot of verbiage here, but it paints a sumptuous picture. The descriptions of gardens, furnishings, fashions, the winter landscape, the streets of St. Louis and the people that inhabit these scenes are vivid, and the food descriptions are mouth-watering.