Wednesday, July 25, 2012


I've read novels about missing children, who may or may not still be alive, and about dead parents, where the children express their many regrets about their relationships with the deceased.  This book has elements of both types, as it is about a missing parent/wife with dementia.  We glean a portrait of "Mom" from the viewpoints of her oldest son and daughter and from her husband, who bears the guilt for having lost track of his wife at busy Seoul Station.  The daughter's sections are in second person, which I found unnecessarily confusing.  I kept thinking that "you" was Mom, rather than the narrator, since the book is a collection of memories of Mom, peppered with apologies for not having valued her and with vows to show more affection and appreciation, if she ever turns up.  The only first-person section is where Mom gives us a glimpse of her life, sharing a few secrets that she's managed to keep hidden from her family.  It's not that her life has been one of pain and suffering, but with all these ingrates around, I found it uplifting to discover that she had a source of personal joy outside the family, as well as a younger daughter who treated her with the kindness she deserved.  Having no idea how expensive certain luxuries were, she had asked the younger daughter, a struggling mother herself, to buy her a mink coat.  (Asking her husband for one would have been an exercise in futility.)  The nearly destitute daughter bought the coat, and then Mom was mortified to learn how much it cost.  Mom is also illiterate and encouraged her children's education so that they could rise above her status in life, and they did.  However, they are not likely to match her generous spirit and the bountiful gifts that she has selflessly bestowed on them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

THE WOODCUTTER by Reginald Hill

Wolf Hanna's perfect life—thriving business, beautiful wife—is shattered when, out of the blue, someone plants child pornography on his computer.  Not one to go quietly, his rage gets him into further trouble, not to mention this other little matter of fraud where his company's finances are concerned.  His prison psychologist, Alva, happens to be a beautiful young woman who is attracted to Wolf, despite the fact that she is certain of his guilt.  When Wolf realizes that nothing he can do will convince her of his innocence, he dupes her into thinking that he realizes the error of his ways so that she will lobby for his release.  After regaining his freedom, Wolf starts to unravel the events that landed him in prison, including discovering why his wife divorced him to marry his attorney.  There is a rather odd twist at the end, but it's not enough to salvage this effort that's not thrilling enough to be called a thriller.  In fact, if this is the best that Reginald Hill has to offer, I won't be reading any of his other books.  This is the second novel I've read this year about someone being framed as a sexual predator, but DanielPalmer's Helpless is definitely the better book, with a more appealing protagonist.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


We know from the beginning that Katey and Tinker will not end up together, because she is with her husband Val when they come across some photos of Tinker in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.  In the 1938 photo, Tinker is well-dressed and dapper, but in the 1939 photo, although his demeanor shows contentment, his clothes are shabby.  Most of the novel is Katey's reflection on the year 1938 and how Tinker went from riches to rags.  The author makes a good case for quitting your job the day after you're promoted.  Of course, being lead secretary in the secretarial pool at a Manhattan law firm is exactly where Katey does not want to languish.  She has a nimble mind and is well-read, despite her working class upbringing.  Her roots don't hold her back, though, as she rolls the dice and lands a job with Gotham, a new magazine being launched by the publishers of Condé Nast.  In the meantime, she and her brazen friend Eve meet Tinker, whom both women have a thing for.  Then an automobile accident reduces the threesome to an unstable couple, as Tinker applies the "you break it; you buy it" slogan to his newfound devotion to Eve, who is seriously injured in the accident.  Katey is now the odd woman out, but she's better company than Eve and creates other, more fruitful liaisons.  When Eve tires of being Tinker's albatross, Katey and Tinker reconnect and embark on a tentative course to togetherdom, until a sudden revelation shatters Katey's respect for Tinker.  All the clues should have made Tinker's flaws more apparent, but love has a way of allowing us to see only what we want to see.  I so enjoyed going back in time to spend a few delicious hours with these New York denizens and seeing the city from their perspective.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


At the end of Shanghai Girls, Joy has left her home in Los Angeles, with her idealistic socialist beliefs in tow, to seek out her biological father in Communist China.  It's the 1950s, and her family fears for her safety.  Family, though, is partly what she is running away from.  Pearl, the woman who raised her but is really her aunt, follows Joy, knowing that neither she nor Joy may ever be allowed to leave China.  Before Pearl arrives in Shanghai, Joy takes off with her father, Z.G., to a collective farm.  At first, Joy finds confirmation for her ideology, as the commune is thriving and contented.  Then Mao's ambitious plan to increase output backfires, and the country is thrust into extreme famine.  Contrast the starvation with the sumptuous banquets for foreign dignitaries, and you have anything but an egalitarian society. The author paints a vivid and horrifying portrait of this period in Chinese history, but Joy's rescue and disillusionment with the Chinese government, not to mention her marriage to a peasant, are way too predictable.  I don't have a problem with neatly wrapped-up endings, but I would like for there to be a surprise somewhere along the way.  I had the feeling that this book was intended as a crowd pleaser for the author's loyal fans and thus found it a little disappointing.  In fact, I probably could have summarized the plot without reading a page.  One surprise at the end wasn't even that surprising.  Even so, there were enough harrowing near-misses to keep me pressing forward to find out how Pearl and Joy would find their way out.

Monday, July 2, 2012


Pearl and May are "beautiful girls" in Shanghai; they are an artist's calendar models.  Pearl is older and more studious, but May is beautiful and charming and appears to be the family favorite.  While these two are out until all hours and spending money frivolously, their father is sealing their fates with arranged marriages to pay off his gambling debts.  And all this happens just as the Japanese are invading China.  Tragedy ensues, but the girls are resourceful enough to make their way to the U.S. and their unwanted husbands, who are living with their parents and trying to make a living in a touristy Chinese section of Los Angeles.  May is pregnant, and since her marriage was never consummated, the sisters make a pact to pass her daughter off as Pearl's.  The daughter, Joy, causes a tug-of-war between the two sisters, but generally the ruse works.  Pearl narrates this story of building a family with strangers, while her bond with her sister boomerangs from one extreme to the other—the ultimate love-hate relationship.  Pearl finally has to evaluate her performance as a mother and a wife and put her competition with May aside.  May, certainly not  blameless herself, commits an act of treachery that Pearl may not ever be able to forgive, regardless of May's motivation, and Joy naively puts their immigration status in jeopardy.  My only beef with this book is that you have to read the sequel, Dreams of Joy, to find out how everything pans out.