Author Archive

Mother and daughter love   Leave a comment

Crying in H Mart is Michelle Zauner’s beautifully-written tribute to her mother. The memoir recounts a relationship fraught with cultural and generational differences, but is also filled with love and kindness.

As the daughter of a South Korean woman and Caucasian father, Zauner’s looks often confused people. She was caught between two worlds with her mother only able to help her navigate one. Consequently, Zauner found ways to rebel against her over-protective mother. After graduating from high school in Eugene, Oregon, she moved to Pennsylvania to attend college and stayed after graduating.

The narrative blends the past with the present as Zauner struggles to make a living as a musician in Philadelphia, while working as a waitress to make ends meet. It’s during this time she learns her mother is battling cancer. She puts her life on hold and returns home to help.

The happy memories outweigh the negative ones; as Zauner grows older she understands her mother’s actions were demonstrations of love. And, she recognizes that they have more in common than she’d been willing to admit.

Food is a major source of unity, particularly the Korean dishes her mother (and the relatives in Seoul) prepares. The author’s efforts to learn the recipes, which aren’t written down, are a way for her to reciprocate her mother’s affections.

Rich with humor and tear-inducing accounts, Zauner has crafted an endearing love letter to her late mother. She’s also established herself as a singer and guitarist with the pop band Japanese Breakfast.

Crying in H Mart

Four Bookmarks

Alfred A. Knopf, 2022

239 pages


Past demons resurface in Three Pines   Leave a comment

World of Curiosities cover

A World of Curiosities, Louise Penny’s 18th novel in the Inspector Gamache mystery series, is perhaps the most discomfiting.  It’s due, in part, to the convergence of the past with the present: old demons and new ones creating new threats.  With Gamache even more unwavering to protect his loved ones.

Years ago, when Gamache first took Jean-Guy Beauvoir, now his second-in-command, under his wing, their investigation led them to two young children. Their mother had been murdered. It evolved that the children had been sexually trafficked. Now adults, the two reappear in the inspectors’ lives. Gamache has always been supportive of the young woman and Beauvoir of her brother.

Penny alternates the time frames which provides not only the back story, but allows the reader to question each inspector’s assessment of the traumatized children/adults.

Meanwhile, a letter written more than a hundred years ago is discovered describing a secret room in the attic of the Three Pines Bookstore. Inside is a large, contemporary reproduction of an old painting. As Gamache, his investigators and the townspeople work to unravel hidden meanings in the artwork, another monster from the past emerges. This one determined to kill Gamache and those he holds dear.

In her usual style, Penny injects elements of humor while further fleshing out the regular characters comprising Three Pines and Gamache’s investigative team. The hunt to decipher the painting’s significance, the disconcerting presence of the now-grown troubled children and several recent murders make for a compelling, albeit occasionally disturbing, read.

A World of Curiosities

Four Bookmarks

Minotaur Books, 2022

390 pages, including acknowledgments

A Tall Tale   Leave a comment

As told through the eyes of Woodrow “Woody” Wilson Nickel, West With Giraffes is Lynda Rutledge’s fictionalized account of the 12-day road trip from New York City to the San Diego Zoo on the Lee Highway in 1938.

Looking back from his vantage point of living more than a century, Woody is suddenly compelled to share his experience as a 17-year-old helping transport the giraffes cross country. He’s enthralled with the long-necked beasts at first sight. They’re something neither he, nor many others, have seen before.

When he learns the giraffes, whom he names Girl and Boy, are en route to California, the Oklahoma-born and raised Woody is determined to make the trek with them. Initially, he’s turned away by Riley Jones (affectionately referred to as Old Man) in charge of getting the giraffes to the zoo in a custom-made truck.  Old Man eventually agrees to temporarily hire Woody, but only for a short distance. Augusta, aka Red, who aspires to be a Life magazine photographer, is the other major character.

Rutledge has crafted an exciting adventure rich with descriptions of the country’s people and landscapes. The former represent the best and worst; the latter reflect abundance and scarcity.

There’s tension as Woody worries Old Man will make good on his word to find another driver and whether or not the animals can survive the journey. Old Man gives directions, Woody drives the truck, which is (somewhat) surreptitiously followed by Red, across country, and all want to leave something behind.

West With Giraffes

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

Lake Union Publishing, 2021

316 pages, includes epilogue, author’s note, historical notes and acknowledgements

A timely topic   2 comments

This Common Secret by Susan Wicklund must be read with a receptive mind – and open heart. It’s subtitled My Journey as an Abortion Doctor.

Wicklund candidly recounts her life as a single mother who embarks on a quest to become a medical doctor specializing in women’s reproductive health. This includes, but isn’t limited to, abortions.

As she establishes her career she reassures patients, and readers, about what’s involved in the process while stressing the fact that the decision is solely the woman’s. Myths are dispelled by detailing the procedure. Efforts are made through counseling patients to establish that this is the situation. Wicklund’s sensitivity to her patients is evident throughout the narrative.

Despite being the target of daily threats by anti-abortionists and the loss of time with her family, Wicklund is committed to providing a service in a caring, professional manner. She’s aware the decision to have an abortion is not easily, casually or haphazardly made. This is highlighted through the stories shared about many of the women (in some cases girls) Wicklund has supported through the years.

Although Wicklund shared the writing with Alan Kesselheim, it is clearly her story and voice that permeates the book. Frustration with government regulations, close-minded people, intimidation, the back-alley abortions that do put women’s lives (and reproductive health) in danger and numerous other obstacles drive Wicklund to help those in need.

Wicklund makes a strong case that the choice to abort is a discussion that should involve only a woman and her physician.

This Common Secret

Almost Four Bookmarks

Public Affairs, 2007

268 pages, includes Epilogue, Afterword, Acknowledgements and Appendix

Culture Theft   2 comments

In Stolen Ann-Helene Laestadius’ coming of age novel, Elsa is nine-years old when she witnesses the murder of her reindeer, part of the family’s herd. Threatened by the killer, Elsa remains silent, despite others’ suspicions regarding his identify.

It’s only one incident endured by the Sami in this far northern region of Sweden. Despite entreaties to authorities, nothing is done to quell tensions endured by the indigenous people whose livelihoods depend on the reindeers.

Ten years later, little has improved for Elsa’s family and the Sami community. Reindeer, which have cultural significance, are still tortured and slaughtered. When Elsa takes it upon herself to speak out, she and others are terrorized. Despite being haunted by her childhood memory and the overhanging threat, Elsa is a strong, intelligent woman with dreams of one day overseeing her own herd. This, however, is yet another battle in her male dominated world.

Disregard by the authorities, xenophobia, personal demons, Sami culture and familial relationships are all addressed. Laestadius is Sami and provides a unique perspective to all the above. She deftly describes the frigid, beautiful landscape as well as the joys and traumas shared by the Sami villagers. The disregard by non-Sami supported by an apathetic police force is heart breaking.

It’s not just the animals that are lost when they’re killed. In Elsa’s case she was also robbed of her childhood. For other characters, beyond what the herds mean as their occupations, their hopes and mental health are also at stake.


Four bookmarks

Scribner, 2021

384 pages

Murder in a man’s world   Leave a comment

In Sara Blaedel’s The Midnight Witness, set in Copenhagen, the strangled body of a young woman is found in a park. Before long, a journalist investigating drug trafficking is discovered dead in a hotel alley. Questions soon arise: Could these cases be related but how?

Detective Louise Rick is initially assigned to the young woman’s case; later, she’s transferred to the second murder.

Blaedel’s writing is engaging thanks to well-crafted characters. Louise is smart and despite her expertise she’s often diminished because she’s a woman; nonetheless, she has worked her way through the ranks to become a detective. Her best friend Camilla Lind, a journalist investigating the same murders, is set on establishing a connection.

The author provides enough detail about the women’s lives without it overshadowing the who-dun-its. Both are single, although Louise is in a long-term relationship with a man who’s been offered a job in Scotland wanting her to join him. She’s confronted with the personal vs professional battle many women face. Camilla is earnest in her journalistic role, but also is often not taken seriously due to her gender. She’s motivated to prove otherwise.

As they pursue the cases in their respective roles their bond is strained. The tension between the two is palpable. Even as Louise becomes increasingly frustrated with her friend’s involvement she can’t help being concerned for Camilla’s safety.

A third murder victim not only amps up the police efforts, but also raises suspicions about possible leaks among everyone involved in the investigation.

The Midnight Witness

Almost four bookmarks

Grand Central Publishing, 2018

284 pages

Spies sent out to pasture   Leave a comment

In Nick Herron’s Slow Horses, Slough House is where disgraced and shunned Great Britain’s MI5 agents are sent on the theory it’s where they can do no further harm.

Jackson Lamb is in charge of the has-beens who’ve been relegated to his watch for various security infringements. These include, among others, alcoholism; misplaced classified documents and misidentifying a terrorist in a training exercise.  Besides being crude and disdainful, Lamb has his own reasons for being at Slough House.

Mostly, the disgraced agents do nothing but while away the hours. River Cartwright, whose task is to transcribe phone conversations, resents being among the misfits. He’s anxious to return to the spy game. He’s also the one accused of botching the training drill.

When a young man of Pakistani descent is abducted and his captors threaten to live broadcast his beheading, River sees an opportunity to restore his reputation.

A discredited journalist, an addition to the Slough House team and River’s family history contribute to the fast-paced narrative. At the risk of providing a spoiler, high level corruption is an evolving factor.

Different viewpoints are provided, as are brief histories of some of the other “slow horses.”  That of the kidnap victim is compelling. He’s a British citizen with no ties to any radical groups. Yet, his racist abductors think otherwise.

Slow Horses is the first in a series by Herron, an award-winning crime writer. A television production of the same name closely follows the book, but lacks its character detail.

Slow horses

Four Bookmarks

Soho Crime, 2010

329 pages

Posted March 22, 2023 by bluepagespecial in Books, Reviews

Tagged with , , , , , , ,

Stolen through fear   Leave a comment

Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng starts slow; initially it’s too easy to put down, until, well, it isn’t.

Much has to do with the mystery surrounding the absence of 12-year-old Bird’s mother who his father refuses to acknowledge while insisting his son to do the same.  They live in a not-too-distant dystopian world where fear and suspicion rule based on safeguarding America’s culture known as PACT.

It’s a time when children are removed from parents suspected of seditious thoughts and behaviors. Those of Chinese, and by default all Asians, are considered threats. Bird’s mother Margaret is Chinese American and a poet. Her work goes largely unnoticed until one day PACT protesters use a line from one of her poems for their cause: Our Missing Hearts. To protect her son, she leaves the family.

Despite his father’s pleas, Bird’s curiosity about his mother becomes a driving force. These efforts to find her are where the narrative revs up.

Margaret’s story catches the past up with the present. This includes her childhood in the neighborhood’s only Asian family, later surviving on the streets when the economy collapses (blamed on the Chinese), and meeting Bird’s father and becoming a mother.

It’s been years since Margaret has written poetry, but she embraces a new passion based on the protester’s slogan: she tries to meet and interview as many parents as possible whose children have been taken from them.

Ng’s writing is vivid and frightening in its depiction of how self-preservation is manipulated by fear.

Out Missing Hearts

Four Bookmarks

Penguin Press, 2022

335 pages (includes  author’s notes and acknowledgements)

Serial despair   Leave a comment

Danya Kukafka begins Notes on an Execution 12 hours before Ansel Packer is to die by lethal injection for the murder of three young girls. His final hours and minutes alternate with the stories of three women whose lives impacted his: Lavender, his mother; Hazel, a victim’s sister; and Saffy the resolute police investigator who pursued the cases.

It’s a foreboding narrative. There’s no doubt as to Ansel’s guilt, yet the author deftly – uncomfortably – describes the forces behind his actions.

Ansel’s mother was 17 when she gave birth; four years later she abandoned him and his infant brother after years of abuse by the boys’ father. When the children were picked up by social services, they were hungry and filthy. Ansel’s memory is of the constant cries of his brother, who he was led to believe died soon after.

In and out of foster care, Ansel’s behavior is odd from the start.  He’s intelligent, a loner, yet knows how to charm when necessary. He’s 18 when he commits his first murder; two more follow shortly afterwards. Many years later, he’s a suspect in the murder of his ex-wife.

The writing is tense and the themes raise a lot of questions. Time is played out in years for Lavender, Hazel and Saffy evidenced in their aging and experiences. For Ansel, time passes in the present, although he does reflect on his past.

Kukafka builds suspense with a sense of irony while combining hope with despair – something deeply felt by those in Ansel’s life.

Notes on an Execution

Three-and-a-half bookmarks

William Morrow, 2021

306 pages

When imagination becomes real   Leave a comment

In a small, post-war French village, two young teenage girls, Agnes and Fabienne, are the main characters in Yiyun Li’s The Book of Goose. Yes, it’s a strange title, more unusual than the story itself.

As an adult married woman living in the U.S., Agnes learns of Fabienne’s death whom she hasn’t seen in more than 10 years and reflects on their friendship.

Out of boredom, the girls played games relying on Fabienne’s imagination and rules. The two were opposites in personalities, with Agnes always willing to follow her friend’s directives.

Fabienne devises a plan for the two to write a book; she dictates and Agnes, who has better penmanship, puts it down on paper. They enlist the help of the old widowed postmaster, who ultimately fine tunes the book before contacting a publisher in Paris.

Thus the game takes on a new dimension with unsophisticated Agnes recognized as a child prodigy. This farm girl is scrutinized and celebrated as she goes beyond Paris eventually to a finishing school in England, unhappily leaving her friend behind.

Although Fabienne often called her friend an idiot or imbecile, Agnes is more than she appears. Agnes could have other friends, but chooses Fabienne. They fill an unspoken need in each other.

The novel’s essence is grounded in the meaning of friendship with an underlying thread of deceit, loss and discovery. The adult characters are one-dimensional in sharp contrast to the multilayered portrayal of the young girls.

As for the title, Agnes has geese.

The Book of Goose

Four Bookmarks

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2022

348 pages