Sunday, April 27, 2014

She's in the Dunes

Forgive me, but I am still trying to find the right words to describe Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes.  So many simple words can circle the reading experience.  Strange.  Suspenseful.  Mysterious.  Engrossing.  Weird.  Metaphoric.  Sand.  I suppose I should first express that I enjoyed the book.  I was anything but bored by it; it made good company while I sat in a hospital waiting room a couple of weeks ago.  Nevertheless, I have yet to fully form a view of the book in its entirety, because it's so multi-layered with potential expressions and thoughts.  However, I have a clue concerning what I left the book feeling--or even what I learned.  But for certain there are layers upon layers of material worth an appropriate and systematic analysis (I sound like a computer guru there).  Some may end the book believing something differently, however.  And some (truthfully like myself) may remain reeling through the psychological breakdown of a Japanese entomologist trapped in the vortex of a village surrounded by spilling dunes of sand.  Which affords him the undeserved privilege and responsibility of containing the dunes from ruining a village he doesn't even belong to.

But first let’s talk about what the book is about.  A quick summary before I try to work my thoughts out on a book that clearly needs a re-reading.  Opening the novel outside of a railroad station on an August afternoon, we meet Niki Jumpei.  As I mentioned, Niki is an entomologist.  However, it’s much more of a budding hobby.  Niki’s actual profession is that of a school teacher.  So in pursuit of his side passion, he spends a quiet vacation hunting for bugs in an unnamed area near the sea.  From the beginning we (the reader) are given facts and speculations related to his character, as a sort of set up to his impending disappearance and breakdown.  One speculation tackles his unmarried status while sharing a home with a woman.  And other speculation of the more stereotypical generalities point toward his possible homosexuality.  

After missing his bus ride home, Niki finds himself at the mercy of three old men who glide him--in a sincere manner--toward a pit in the dunes near that village.  In that pit lies a single home--or shack.  Offering him food and board for the night, the men direct Niki toward taking a rope ladder down into the pit where he will meet the woman offering his boarding.  While Niki, with the woman, is calm, if not strange, he is unprepared to spend the coming days with her and makes it clear that he is simply there for the night.  She giggles slightly in turn.  However, Niki’s situation is anything but amusing when the next day he proceeds to climb out of the pit only to find that the rope ladder is missing.  Trapped, his official role is to help the woman with maintaining the spread of sand encompassing the village.  This entails hauling swells of sand out of the pit via the three men’s dropping buckets.  Should Niki decide not to take part, the exchange of water for work will end.  It’s more or less there that he realizes he is captured.  Nonetheless, the real intrigue lie in the solitary woman residing comfortably in the pit.  And so, the psychological arguments and metaphoric unbinding begin.

The summary sounds like a fairytale because the tone of the book is like one.  Nonetheless, if I could pick up and examine one aspect that I’ve gathered from this book, it’s that sometimes we have to weather our storms and make the best out of what we are given.  That’s not to say that I wasn't enraged at Niki’s situation--just as he became.  However, as the story progressed during his eventually Niki conformed to his situation.  Or the idea that the carte blanche way of creating your life is an internal deception.

If you're read this book, what do you think?  Do we live life unaware that we are trapped, yet strongly believing that we are free?  Regarding my personal circumstances, I believe so. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

“But until then we would stay in America just a little bit longer and work for them, for without us, what would they do?  Who would pick the strawberries from their fields?  Who would get the fruit down from their trees?  Who would wash their carrots?  Who would scrub their toilets?  Who would mend their garments?… And so we folded up our kimonos and put them away in our trunks and did not take them out again for years.”

Otsuka uses the nobody narrative to encompass the voice of Japanese women who once arrived in America underneath the circumstances of a picture bride.  Whether these brides embarked to America a virgin, a farmer’s daughter, a seamstress, or a geisha, she’s in the boat's berths envisioning an ambitious future in the west.  Of course she sailed into the journey unaware of the reality surrounding her destination.  Nevertheless, she (actually many shes) left from places such as Tokyo, Yamanashi, Lake Biwa, and Manchuria with hopes for good fortune in another country.  The opportunity seemed life enhancing, as opposed to a life working a field or following a servitude path behind men.  Unfortunately for these hopeful women, the futures they tried to escape mostly occurred anyway.  This became clear the moment they walked over American soil, looking into the faces of their disappointment in the form of husbands ten years older than the initial photographs they received previous to their voyage.  Many weren't prepared for that first night when their husbands took them without aversion.  They were their wives after all.  Nor were the women prepared for the valleys and orchards of Sacramento, where their time lay spent picking fruit and potatoes under the watchful eye of white landowners who didn't share their language.  

Nevertheless, they were here.  In America.  Only later will they see that their civil conditions will allow them opportunities, even after America's betrayal toward them.  Some grew to support their husbands, fulfilling their roles as helpful wives assisting him with his aspirations.  Some grew swollen with resentment.  Some went back to Japan.  Sometimes under force.  Some moved out of the fields and into wealthy white households as the help.  And some gave up completely, seeking American opulence in the pockets of many men.

I kind of wish I read Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic before When the Emperor was Divine.  Actually, I encourage reading it before her debut, should you decide to become swept by both books.  I suggest this for two reasons--though not necessarily… necessary.  One: The Buddha in the Attic limelights an era before the 1940s, specifically before the subject of Japanese-American internment camps that governed Otsuka's previous book.  See, some time between the mid 19th and early 20th century, Japanese men and women began immigrating to America.  While many arrived as labor in the sugar plantations of Hawaii, some arrived as picture brides to established (as well as not so) Japanese men.  Otsuka uses The Buddha in the Attic to tell the stories of these immigrating women, beginning with their voyage aboard a boat headed to their selective husbands residing in 1920s San Francisco.  

The second reason why I suggest you read The Buddha in the Attic first runs right into my first reason.  See, about a quarter away from the end the story moves into a rehashing of the subject Otsuka spent her debut illustrating.  She re-addresses the subject that constructed When the Emperor was Divine organically, though.  However, I caught a couple of anecdotes pulled from Emperor and placed in Buddha, particularly those describing the fate of unseen characters "re-effected" by the internment crisis.  Maybe I had no business reading both books back to back, but I did find myself slightly disinterested.  I say that only because the detailings, themes, discussions, and tone was so defined in Emperor that I went into Buddha for those same elements told exclusively in relation to Japanese picture brides.  Don't get me wrong because I did get and enjoy Buddha.  I just left wishing I'd read Emperor first.  It just seemed correct to have done so.  Hard to describe I suppose.  Anyway, I guess I’ll have to get into all that another time, and instead explain more of what I took from The Buddha in the Attic.

So lastly, while there’s no direct plot or narrator per se, The Buddha in the Attic unfolds the many, branching stories of Japanese picture brides through six chapters designated with subjects related to their journey.  An example, like a chapter titled “First Night“, details a bride’s dreadful first night in America with her husband.  And chapters titled “Babies” and “Children” centers around a picture bride’s birth into motherhood.  Otsuka shares their stories through poetic imagery, told in a collective that I would consider a 129-paged character portrait.  Because no one story is exactly the same, and it’s an encompassing portrait of picture brides, sometimes Otsuka would dish the various viewpoints of the brides and their life-related details through a list of short, rote-toned sentences.  Therefore, some of those branching details go unexplored beyond a simple sentence, whereas some gather a little more detail.  Some instances Otsuka provides framed narratives in the form of letters sent to their families in Japan.  Which are always eye-opening.

I really enjoyed The Buddha in the Attic.  I suppose I should considering I picked it up at 8am and finished it a little after 12pm.  Meaning I was hypnotized to it throughout a single sitting.  Maybe that’s a nod to its slim length--and maybe not.  The truth is that once I attached myself to the voice of Otsuka’s picture brides, I couldn't let go.  Chapter by chapter I had to witness the uncovering of her life.  Add it to your reading list!

More on Julie Otsuka's first book, When the Emperor was Divine.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Big Book Phobia Tag Video

Another tag video/discussion.  I was tagged by another booktuber, MsJROD1980.  Nevertheless, all of that information (including the originator of the tag) takes place in the video's ABOUT section.  I rather share the video and dedicate a post pertaining to the books I mention, and why I have a "phobia" of reading them.  I use scare quotes over phobia because I actually like large, fat books.  See, there's always a sense of triumphant after finishing them because you've conquered a book that many may have abandoned because of its intimidating size.

Anyway, the books I mention in the video.  First...

1.  The Wild Rose by Doris Mortman

Doris Mortman… what compelled me to pick up my first book by her [First Born] two summers ago?  I really can't say, only that I was browsing through my local public library when I saw her author photo.  Upon a quick gaze, it screamed 80s; and rightfully so considering the book was written/published later in that decade.  Nevertheless, I think that was enough for me, and without another thought, I grabbed the book.  But seriously I was settling down after reading Jackie Collins’ Hollywood Wives and must’ve craved more 80s glam and Dynasty-style drama.  Needless to say, Mortman’s First Born delivered that.  Additionally, while some complain that she’s long-winded on the details, Mortman remains a better wordsmith than Collins.  With that said, I loved her mix of prose and drama.  I enjoyed that massive book [First Born] with its slow-burning saga detailing the lives of four wealthy women.  Oh, and the sprinkled family secrets, hot affairs, and overall bitchiness aflare melodrama.  

So when I went thrifting last spring with a few friends, I was super excited to run across The Wild Rose.  I think I screamed.  Here was another Mortman book, and now that I was familiar with her and her literary theatrics, I gladly put my dollar down on the title.  The only problem is that I haven't read it yet.  I started to open it up a couple of months ago and just never got far into it.  As I mentioned in the video, something about the characters’ names and accent marks distracted me.  Or maybe I was looking more for that American glam magnetism of First Born, whereas The Wild Rose introduce the legacy and paths of a Hungarian family drama.  Or maybe I haven't sunk into the book yet because it didn't open up with as much boil over as my previous Mortman excursion.  Whatever the case, I refuse to give up, and have since held on tightly to the book.

Is anyone else familiar with Doris Mortman or The Wild Rose?  Or tell me I'm not the only one who fell in love with First Born.  

2.  A Good Fall by Ha Jin

I was first introduced to Ha Jin during a lazy stroll through Barnes & Nobles.  As always, I was sniffing for a new Asian writer.  Thankfully I found his works.  Ha Jin grew up in 1960s China during the Cultural Revolution.  Ensuing, he partook in the Chinese army for five years before working as a telegraph operator.  As an operator he began to learn English.  Eventually he arrived in the West as a student, and immigrated permanently after the Tiananmen Square event where the Chinese government attempted to clean-up on student demonstrators in Beijing.  Having all this life experience tucked underneath him, Ha Jin began to share many of his life responses (or at least how I see most of it) through poetry and fiction.  His focus and themes surrounds his experience in the Chinese army [War Trash] as well as his eye-opening view of the immigrant experience [A Free Life].  Also worth mentioning his is fictionalize reflection on the Raping of Nanjing in his book Nanjing Requiem (I should actually finish that book soon).  Nevertheless, I’ve learned that he’s a lot more expansive than that, sometimes finding myself feeling the same confinement that his characters express.  Nonetheless, I got to taste his writing through the introducing ease of A Good Fall.  A Good Fall consist of collections of Ha Jin’s short stories, including my personal favors, “The Bridegroom” and “Children as Enemies”.  Each story peels back the day-to-day struggle that lie in Chinese immigrant communities with all of Ha Jin’s sensible planting of language and intonations.

3.  Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

Long Walk to Freedom fell into my hands on Black Friday.  My mother wanted a TV, and as a reward for helping her through the crowded experience, I asked and received a book.  There’s no explanation as to why I still haven’t read Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.  I could maybe try to explain why I want to--or need to.  Trying would pull forth a complex string of inspired thought, though.  Nonetheless, I intended to dedicate the month of April to reading many of the 500+ books I haven’t gotten to yet.  This was one.  Now… I won’t say anything more until it’s finally read and finished.  Then I can indulge this blog with all of my thoughts.  Sorry to keep it brief, but that's where I stand right now.  

4.  Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie

I can across Sherman Alexie for the first time in an ethnic American literature class, with Reservation Blues as the shining introduction.  Needless to say, I ended the book won by his magical use of words, dialogue, and symbols.  Pile that on top of the charm of his characters and their needs and wants expressed through desperate voices; and I knew Alexie was an author worth keeping.  On the surface, the plot of Reservation Blues appears simple.  Its opens on the Spokane Indian Reservation where we meet a famed blues player named Robert Johnson.  With his guitar in hand, Johnson’s presence on the reservation is in search of a medicine woman named Big Mom.  He seeks Big Mom’s traditional practices (leaning toward spiritual) to save his soul.  Why?  Because he insist that he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play phenomenally at the guitar.  

The first Native American upon the reservation to encounter Johnson is Thomas Builds-the-Fire.  Thomas opens up his van to Johnson's destination.  In turn, Johnson purposely leaves his seemingly cursed guitar in Thomas’s van, propelling the story of Thomas Builds-the-Fire and his reservation friends striking up a band.  All that aside, what really churned out the magic of this book came from the outlook of modern Native American lives on reservations.  There’s a dark humor within Alexie’s characters after generations of lost land, dealings with federal officials, and the Americanizing practices pressured into them.  Many of those aspects formed depression and alcoholism, both present and expressed within the book.  And from another stance, the prejudice they faced and survival off government food rations furthered illustrated how edifying this book shines to the observant reader.  A strange combo, but one that works here in an "ah ha" sense.

Do you have a 400 or 500+ page book just sitting on your shelf unread?  Why haven't you read it?  What are you afraid of?  Share your Big Book Phobias in the comment below.

Monday, April 14, 2014

When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka

For such a thin novel there’s much in Julie Otsuka’s debut, When the Emperor was Divine, worth exploring and analyzing.  Probably too much if you tend to overthink narrative offerings--to the point where a red bucket becomes a metaphor for a character's desperation.  That sort of thing...if you will.  Nonetheless, since I'm not much of a methodical reader, and many times suffer from the dreaded blocked response, I don't believe I can touch on each area that Otsuka presents surrounding her story of migration and life inside of an internment camp.  See, there’s a casserole of ingredients in the small 144 pages she serves readers, all told through the eyes of a nameless Japanese-American family and their individual collection of meditations concerning the experience.  Frankly, I don’t believe I can tackle each layer that creates her divine dish.  However, I'll try to encourage readers "not to sleep" (slang for don't miss out) on Julie Otsuka, as her tiny book does pack an informative and decent punch.

So let me cut to the chase and share what When the Emperor was Divine is about before I suggest you read it.  As I mentioned, the characters in the book are a nameless Japanese-American family consisting of a mother, son, daughter, and a father.  Upon the opening the father isn't immediately present.  His whereabouts slowly unfold, but in the meantime, his family worries themselves concerning his absence.  Each of the four players share a piece of their reality in a somewhat distance narrative moved by Otsuka’s imagery of their individual ordeal, as well as their personal contemplation of the civil changes set before them.  Nonetheless, the book opens from within their subtle lives as your average--yet not considerably so--American family living in the suburbs of 1942 Berkeley, California.  Heading the list of narrators is the mother.  Otsuka uses her to propel the tone and setting of the novel, through the woman’s silent confrontation with Evacuation Order No. 19 posts scattering her community.  

Department of the Interior. War Relocation Authority
Imagine waking up to this
Without much contemplation, the mother follows the instructions within the notice.  She begins packing away her house in a voice seemingly immune to the jilt in her domestic circumstances.  She appears emotionless--or undisturbed.  You can only wonder if she's already settled with the blunt realization that America is rounding up Japanese citizens and sending them off as a response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Perhaps it's her missing husband that better explains her jaded disposition.  Nevertheless, all you know is that the government is uprooting her family and now she must close ties with the comfortable life she once lived.  That includes bludgeoning a stray dog--without a hint of hesitation--before burying its body underneath a tree in her backyard.  Later she releases the family’s pet bird that reluctantly soars away.  The next morning her and her children head to the Civil Control Station where they are tagged and shuttled on a train pointed toward a desert in Utah.  

It’s here that the narrative switches to the daughter (in her nameless state she is simply referred to as “the girl”).  While her thoughts populate most of the family’s train ride into the desert, her brother (or “the boy”) chronicles their experience in the internment camp before and after their release.  Lastly, after the U.S. government issues their apologies and reparations, the father's narrative finally surfaces.  Otsuka concludes the novel through his shattered experience enduring integrative detainment, dressed in his house slippers and bathrobe.  According to one of the messages in the book, finding oneself taken in pajamas and slippers means you were careless, unprepared for that eventual other shoe to drop.  In turn your pride is stung, swelling you with shame.

It might be hit or miss for some readers, but When the Emperor was Divine does have a plot.  The reason I point that out is because you may find yourself wondering about its direction while trapped (happily) in each characters' musings and rationalizations of the events.  Without a doubt the novel has a powerful core, you just may not realize it right away because its tonal quality appears quite meditative.  
Nonetheless, I believe my minor problem with the written aspect of When the Emperor was Divine lie in Otsuka’s fence straddling between narrative voices.  One moment I felt as if she offered a stapled narrator, the next I felt she utilize the nobody narrative to tell the story.  Then sometimes I had no clue exactly who/what was narrating, though I got the message that the exchanges happened between each consecutive chapter.  Nevertheless, I saw most of this fence straddling in the chapter exchange between the two children.  Their voices were somewhat similar in both their desires to stay connected with the friendships they left, as well as longing for their father.  It’s minor, but there came a moment of narrative confusion somewhere in the middle of the book.  That much came clear to me.  

I think much of that has to do with how Otsuka kept the occupants (the storytellers anyway) of the book nameless.  However, I refuse to label that a fault to my individual reading experience, despite my issue with the narratives.  I saw a few reviews that waggled their finger at this, though.  Undoubtedly names are helpful, but that would've taken away from Otsuka’s technique of telling the overarching stories some 127,000 Japanese-American citizens experienced during her topic era.  Experience in the sense that she uses her characters to address the devastating feelings and reactions of facing anti-Japanese paranoia (without evidence), and forward into one of the ten internment camps created to house the U.S.’s unwarranted betrayal and mistrust of its citizens.  Nevertheless, on the surface, wrapped in Otsuka’s use of expressive writing, When the Emperor was Divine wasn't written to move a political slant.  Between the nameless character meditations and the factual history that inspired its conception, When the Emperor was Divine provided a considerate voice and identity to those who experienced the actual events it addresses.

Last thoughts on Julie Otsuka's second book, The Buddha in the Attic.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Intro to Bloglovin'... So They Say

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

I assume this is necessary as part of the Bloglovin procedure (creating a random post to support a somewhat random link to your Bloglovin profile).  I'll do a quick snapshot of my incoming books just to curve the flow.

In any regard, if you are linked to Bloglovin please help me out and follow me so that I can follow you and we can support one another in this endeavor.  It was suggested that Bloglovin is a useful tool.  Let's make it happen.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Guest Post: The Hirelings by Greg Strandberg

It’s been six months since the horrendous incident atop Mount Misery, the incident that broke Beldar Thunder Hammer’s band of adventurers apart.

Now Beldar’s putting the band back together with the aim of heading back up Mount Misery to end the Kingdom’s Hireling system for good.

Of course that would upend the whole socio-economic balance of The Kingdom and usher in a time of peace and plenty for all.  The powers-that-be can’t have that, and they’ll do everything in their power to thwart Beldar and his band of Hirelings from bringing that about.

Author Bio

Greg Strandberg was born and raised in Helena, Montana, and graduated from the University of Montana in 2008 with a BA in History. He lived and worked in China following the collapse of the American economy. After five years he moved back to Montana where he now lives with his wife and young son.


More on The Hirelings

If you’re tired of formulaic fantasy plots and tired tropes than look no further, this novel has none of that trash!  Here’s what you will find:

  • Characters struggling economically;

  • Graphic violence that’s not for the weary;

  • A view of what really happens with battlefield spoils;

  • The untold plight of monsters and the causes they care for;

  • What becomes of the battlefield wounded;

  • Sinister systems, not stupid villains;

  • Characters that don’t suck up to you;

  • Happy endings going out the window.

If any of those things appeals to your warped senses then I urge you to check out The Hirelings today.  

What are you waiting for?  These characters could be kicking back a cold tankard of ale at the tavern right now, but instead they’re waiting on you!

Yes, that’s right – they have better things to do.  See, there are many creatures in the Kingdom that need to be skewered on the end of their axes, swords, halberds, pikes, daggers, longbows, and helmets.

What are these terrible creatures that need to be done away with?  Why, none other than the following:

  • Goblins
  • Kobolds
  • Stone Giants
  • Giant worms
  • Crawlers
  • Man-eating Insects
  • Slimes
  • Oozes
  • Harpies
  • Pixies
  • Nixies
  • Unicorns
  • Shambling Heaps
  • Night Shades
  • Waffle Tops
  • and Blobs.

For fantasy with an attitude, read The Hirelings!  Or don’t – these characters have been waiting for an excuse to join the Kingdom’s growing bread lines, after all.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Abandoning Books Video

Have you ever just totally abandoned a book?  Whether you were 2 pages in or 200?  The need to just throw the book aside overpowered the experience more than the actual material.  Sadly, I just went through that reading Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.  I was so excited to read this book.  So much so that I chose The Big Sleep over P.D. James' Cover Her Face, the first in her Adam Dalgliesh series.  Pfft!  What the hell was I thinking...  

There’s not much I can say about the book only that I was disinterested in it after page 114.  That disinterested took a steady climb after page 45.  Now, it had nothing to do with my dithering in starting the book concerning its age and hard-boiled male lead.  It just wasn't resonating with me.  The writing was so terse and thin that I hardly managed to gather the details, as well as Chandler’s ability to direct a usable scene.  For a book so thin, it read thin.  I like a little more meat on my book bones, and this was way too meatless for me.  If you want to read about 30s style P. I.s, then maybe it’s a winner on its own accorded.  Other than that, I couldn't grasp anything Chandler had to share; his characters, plot, and mystery structure.  A part of me says that I'm simply not in the mood for the book.  Another part of me is screaming how important it is to stop lying to myself and move on. 

I read a review that the next book in his Philip Marlowe series shows strength in his storytelling and writing.  Will I make it to that?  I have no idea at this point.

So what makes you abandon a book and why?  Do you keep going?  Do you cut the book off at a certain page number?  And how do you deal with the guilt of leaving a book out in the cold? 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

March Mystery Madness: Survey Says

March is over.  It’s been a solid month filled with icky weather, but some outstanding books to pull me through the storm.  As you know I dedicated the month of March to catching up and clearing the mystery books/series off my shelf--the majority of them at least.  I want to move up at least one book in each series, and for the most part, I succeeded.  Cleanly I might add.  I stuck to my commitment book by book, except for an unfortunate few that I'll name later.  Now it’s time for me to reveal the verdicts on my readings, considering most of my progress with these series were stalled between 5-2 years.  Included in the verdicts is my version of ratings--in the form of "Brooklyn Heads" for that extra creative juice.  I want to thank those who have commented on my March Mystery Madness video, shared their favorite mysteries, and etc.  Much, much appreciated.  If you've read any of these books, also share your opinions below.

The Flower Master by Sujata Massey

“Life in Japan for a transplanted Californian with a fledgling antiques business and a nonexistent love life isn't always fun, but when the flower arranging class Rei Shimura’s aunt cajoles her into taking turns into a stage for murder, Rei finds plenty of [the] excitement she’s been missing.

Unfortunately too many people have a reason for committing the crime--her aunt included.  While struggling to adjust to the nuances of Japanese propriety, trying to keep her business afloat, and dealing with veiled messages left under her door, Rei sifts the bones of old skeletons to keep her family name clear--and her own life safe from an enemy with a mysterious agenda.  If Rei doesn't want to be crushed like fallen cherry blossoms, she's going to have to walk a perilous line and uncover a killer with a dramatic flare for deadly arrangements." ~ The Flower Master blurb

I breezed through this book; hooked the second I got through the first chapter.  However, I remained upset that I didn't continue the series two years ago, having been burnt by the second book in Massy‘s series, Zen Attitude.  Seriously, The Flower Master sat on my shelf for two years!  I could’ve been at least seven books deep into the series by now, had I continued.  Nonetheless, now that I'm done with The Flower Master my commitment to Massey’s series is so real.  And so strong as I browse Amazon for The Floating Girl--book four in the series.  I wouldn't say that Massey’s mystery set-up is out of this world in The Flower Master.  It was certainly stronger here than in the previous book.  Nonetheless, it’s not necessarily the mystery that causes this series to glow.  No, it’s Massey’s system of introducing and acknowledging traditions centered within Japanese culture that makes this series stand out; and the un-bustled parts of Tokyo in which she explores her murders.  

Nonetheless, The Flower Master took the histrionics behind Japanese flower arrangement, as well as today's modern approach, and wrapped a cryptic revenge murder around it.  And the pages are thick with the entrapping details--expressed between characters and lite exposition--that unfold throughout the reading.  Now, I will mention that sometimes Massey's scenes and character choreography were off.  That might seem trivial to some, but when I read I put my trust into the author and her ability to carefully paint and direct a scene.  Nevertheless, some online reviewers’ complain of Massey’s knowledgeable understanding of Japan and Japanese culture alongside their personal definition of the subject.  Forget all of that, I say.  I held on to Massey's words on the subject and flew through Rei Shimura’s third mystery with glee.  I couldn't be contained.

Deadlock by Sara Paretsky

"Deadlock, V I Warshawski's second case, involves the huge Great Lakes shipping industry.  Once again the subject is murder--this time the "accidental death" of Boom-Boom Warshawski, an ex-hockey star and V I's beloved cousin, who fell--or was pushed--off a rain-slicked pier on Chicago's busy waterfront.  Convinced that Boom-Boom was in fact killed because of information he had uncovered about criminal doings on the shipping lines, V I begins a long and frustrating search for her cousin's murderer.  In the course of an investigation that takes her to a remote Canadian port city and a calamitous trip on a sabotaged freighter, V I finds all too many possible candidates for the killer, including a grain company executive involved in extortion; and rivals heads of two shippers, one of whom is being blackmailed for his criminal past; a hockey player whose specialty is graft; and Boom-Boom's lover, an icily beautiful dancer with expenstive taste in men and merchandise."

Let me be real in stating that Deadlock’s themes of freighters and shipments spread itself just as convoluted as the insurance scam in V. I.’s previous book/case, Indemnity Only.  And while that is all somewhat insufferable to the reading experience, what I will also frankly state is that I'm a step above becoming enamored by V.I. herself.  She pulled no punches in Deadlock, reaffirming that she’s a strongly-crafted and capable character.  She definitely goes a lot harder than her counterpart in hard-boiled detective fiction, Kinsey Millhone.  So whether V.I. is struggling to control a wire-snipped runaway car, or holding on for her life as explosives detonate in the engine room of an occupied freighter, she recapitulates that women P.I.s can go a tab or two above men.  Naturally, I love all of femme maven excitement, enough so to move into Paresky’s third V.I. book, Killing Orders.  Nonetheless, as I mentioned earlier, the problem I had with this book is that I didn't understand a damn thing surrounding its setting and theme.  Consisting of freighters, wafts, and the elevator lay of the Port of Chicago, I was mostly lost Deadlock's set-up.  Paretsky's system just wasn't clear to me.  Had I lived in Chicago I may have struggled less to absorbed Paretsky’s detailing--but I don’t.  Never even seen the Port of Chicago until I had to pause my reading to do a quick Google Image search on my phone.  So while all that screamed for a proper visual, Paretsky’s run down on shipping rates, private papers, and contracts between suspects kept me further in the clouds.  

Additionally, it didn't help that I found myself mostly confused between the numerous introduction and motivations of the men involved in this business, particularly when one is a killer worth concentrating on.  I still pushed through for the gold, mostly driven by the murder mystery and action scenes.  A splash of softhearted scenes related to the victims also encouraged me to move forward.  Nevertheless, it was only toward the end that all of the convoluted set-up finally began to make some sense.  Once I shut the last page, that’s when I exclaimed, “I GET IT NOW!”  I will be continuing this series after that year long hiatus between the first and second book.  On the third go-round I'll try harder to "get it" in the early quarter of the book.  Especially now that I have a better grasp on Paretsky's style.

Real Murders by Charlaine Harris

"Lawrenceton, Georgia, may be a growing suburb of Atlanta, but it's still a small town at heart.  Librarian Aurora "Roe" Teagarden grew up there and knows more than enough about her fellow townsfolk, including which ones share her interest in the darker side of human nature.  With those fellow crime buffs, Roe belongs to a club called Real Murders, which meets once a month to analyze famous cases.  It's a harmless pastime--until the night she finds a member dead, killed in a manner that eerily resembles the crime the club was about to discuss.  And as other brutal 'copycat' killings follow, Roe will have to uncover the person behind the terrifying game, one that casts all the members of Real Murders, herself included, as prime suspects--or potential victims..." ~ Real Murder blurb

Let me go ahead and get this part out of the way: I did/do not like Aurora Teagarden.  Unfortunately, you can't get away from her, considering the books are told through the first person via her snarky perspective.  I can't pinpoint the gradient in which I did not take to her character.  Maybe it was because her mother owned the apartment complex that housed a number of the supporting characters--giving Aurora reason to look down on the cast Harris created.  I just know that my dislike of her had a lot to do with how she viewed the supporting characters.  Her view of them had this unpleasant, impatience taste to it.  For a character described as plain looking--of an extreme librarian quality--Aurora housed a high opinion of herself.  Especially in concerns to others.  

Furthermore, she took it upon herself to snoop into everyone else’s business, granted she's an amateur sleuth solving a murder.  However, with that snooping lie more of this hint of self-righteousness she sometimes exuded.  I remember reading Aurora’s antics and aloof disposition toward others, wondering to myself “just who the hell are you to think that way.”  I saw this to a degree in Harris’s other first person protagonists from her numerous series.  However, something about Aurora, with her plain clothes and large glasses, just rubbed me the wrong way.  At least that’s what I was left feeling, which consequently takes a chunk out of my verdict for the actual mystery.  

Oh, and I wasn't exactly won over by the fake charm Aurora shined over her younger brother from her father’s current marriage (her parents divorced; her father re-married).  Aurora's attitude was as if the boy was a burden to look after.  However, later he became the catalyst to the events that took place (in watered-down fashion) toward the final reveal.  As for the mystery element, it was cozy with a touch of bloody, but nothing outstanding or even witty.  I know that's not much, but it was hardly what I was left with the minute I closed the book.  There's a wonder why it took me from January 2010 till now to start this series.  Seeing that I already own the first four books, I'll give the series a further go in the hopes that maybe Aurora will chill on the subtle bitch-mobile.  Insecure much?

Concourse by S. J. Rozan

"Bill Smith has been hired by an old friend to investigate the killing of a security guard at the Bronx Home for the Aged.  Going undercover, Smith wades out into a sea of violence and lies washing up against the old brick building.  When a second murder is committed, Smith knows that there's a method to the madness.  With the help of bright, young Chinese-American investigator Lydia Chin, Smith uncovers a web of corruption that's found a home in the Bronx.  Now he has to figure out who will die next." ~ Concourse blurb

Certainly one of my favorite reads of the month of March.  Concourse delivered.  For the sake of sounding cliché… it did so in spades.  I sit back and wonder why was I really so hesitate to read the second book in the Lydia Chin/Bill Smith mystery, after devouring the first book two years ago.  It wasn't so bad uncovering a mystery in Bill Smith’s perspective, partly because Rozan did (but at the same time did not) paint Bill Smith underneath the gossamer of your average male P.I.  His voice had a very reasonable ting to it, that I liked instantly.  He wasn't overtly cynical or a masculine brute.  

The mystery was packed, and somewhat twisted, but the delivery was nowhere near as convoluted as what I experienced in the two Paretsky books I've read.  I think most of that is in part to Rozan’s writing, which is very clear and succinct.  Each measure and beat of her words and sentence all seemed to fall right into place.  I barely stumbled over the text to devour her point.  This helped in the immersion, in turn guiding me through the offering of her mystery.  Tie those elements to the emotionally driven motivations of her characters (between justice and greed) and here I was closing the last page with a grin plastered all over my face.  Needless to say, I'm anxious for the next book, Mandarin Plaid.  Concise is the magic word here.  Concise with all the right ingredients for a great mystery.  I'm only sorry that it took me so long to warm up to Bill Smith.

Takeover by Lisa Black

"In the tradition of Kathy Reichs and Jeffery Deaver, a talented novelist introduces a gutsy forensic investigator caught in the middle of an explosive crisis.
Early one Thursday morning, forensic scientist Theresa MacLean is called to the scene of a gruesome murder. The body of a man has been found on the front lawn of a house in suburban Cleveland, the back of his head bashed in. Although it's not the best start to her day, Theresa has been through worse. What unfolds during the next eight hours, though, is nothing she could ever have imagined.
Downtown at the Federal Reserve Bank, her police detective fiancé is taken hostage with six others in a robbery masterminded by two clever criminals. When she arrives at the scene, Theresa discovers that the police have brought in the city's best hostage negotiator: handsome, high-profile Chris Cavanaugh. He hasn't lost a victim yet, but Theresa wonders if he might be too arrogant to save the day this time around.
When her fiancé is injured, she seizes the opportunity to trade places with him. Once on the inside, she will use all her wiles, experience, and technical skills to gain control of the situation. But what initially appears to be a bank heist turns into something far more complex and deadly, and Theresa must decide how much more she is willing to sacrifice in order to save the lives of innocent people as well as her own." ~ Goodreads
In all and total fairness, I should not be providing a verdict for my experience with Takeover by Lisa Black.  Why?  Because I only made it to page 30 before I knew--deep in the craw of my reading spirit--that it wasn’t going to work.  However, since I plugged it as a book involved with my March reading, I feel the next to explain why.  It was boring.  The main character, Theresa, was uninteresting and detached.  Within those 30 pages I never gathered exactly why I should stick by her.  The set-up involving a murder and a bank robbery was kind of sped, while monotonous in its delivery.  Black's speeding pace could have been spent fleshing Theresa out a little more.  Also, the writing was without color to me.  Heck, I would even stay to a startling degree.  I was four mystery books deep when I realized Black’s voice/syntax read like an a-type narrative.  Every word seemed meticulous and in place.  No banter.  No wit.  No clever passages.  No sense of creative abandon and risk.  I’m more than positive that a little more color will come out of the next book.  But concerning Takeover, I just didn’t feel inspired to finish it.

Wish You Were Here by Rita Mae Brown

"Small towns are like families:  Everyone lives very close together... and everyone keeps secrets.  Crozet, Virginia, is a typical small town--until its secrets explode into murder.  Crozet's thirty-something postmistress, Mary Minor "Harry" Haristeen, has a tiger cat (Mrs. Murphy) and a Welsh corgi (Tee Tucker), a pending divorce, and a bad habit of reading postcards not addressed to her.  When Crozet's citizens start turning up murdered, Harry remembers that each received a card with a tombstone on the front and the message "Wish you were here" on the back.  Intent on protecting their human friends, Mrs. Murphy and Tucker begin to scent out clues.  Meanwhile, Harry is conducting her own investigation, unaware her pets are one step ahead of her.  If only Mrs. Murphy could alert her somehow, Harry could uncover the culprit before another murder occurs--and before Harry finds herself on the killer's mailing list." ~ Wish You Were Here blurb

I knew like I knew like I knew that this was going to be a good, cozy mystery.  The receipt says I bought it 7/2/2012 and here I am finally giving this book the chance it deserves.  I’ve turned my back on a lot of books, but this one was destined to be read and enjoyed.  It’s almost spiritual in its explanation.  Nonetheless, I’ll first admit to what halted me from diving into my first Rita Mae Brown mystery back in 2012.  See, Wish You Were Here introduced too many characters too quickly; and it didn’t help that each and every one of them had off-beat names, causing you to pause and recount what name matched what character.  Yes, Brown's name-game can work instantly for the rapt reader, or a reader familiar with Brown’s technique (through her non-mysteries) of employing unique character names in her books.  

However, it didn't seem worth the trouble when the narrative is tied to the first person, and that a sliced portion of this off-beat named cast was destined to die any way.  Essentially, these names probably deserved a proxy name come publication, while letting the author indulge in her cleverness from the desk.  But that’s neither here nor there considering Brown’s been publishing since the 70s.  Nevertheless, after 100 pages or so, I got the hang of it.  With all that aside, I loved this book because of Brown’s “creamy” writing.  No, seriously.  That’s how I envisioned her use of words and language.  She has a certain je ne sais quoi with words and their unfolding in concerns to her plot.  This made for a comfortable and alluring read.  Aside from the revealing narrative between the cat and dog duo, Mrs. Murphy and Tucker, Brown’s ability to knock sleeves of information about characters without the reader really knowing it had me in wonder.  In wonder as in I sometimes wanted to put the mystery aside to explore a full on character portrait instead.  Let me provide an example from page 33:

“Did Susan do this for Ned?  In the beginning of the marriage, yes.  After five years and two kids she had felt she was losing her mind.  She balked.  Ned was rip-shot mad.  Then they got to talking, really talking.  She was fortunate.  So was he.  They found common ground.  They learned to do with less so they could hire help.  Susan took a part-time job to bring in some money and get out of the house.  But Susan and Ned were meant for each other, and Harry and Fair were not.  Sex brought them together and left them together for a while, but they weren't really connected emotionally and they certainly weren't connected intellectually.  They were two reasonably good people who needed to free themselves to do what came next, and sadly, they weren't going to free themselves without anger, recrimination, and dragging their friends into it.”

Like, I’m sorry.  But that was one amazing passage to me.  That’s how you bring just enough information to provide a background for a character and disguise him/her from the rest of the crowd.  And it’s just enough information--as I mentioned--to leave you wanting to explore it elsewhere, while remembering that it just might provide itself as a hint to the mystery.  The second Mrs. Murphy book, Rest in Pieces, is shipping my way as we speak.

Sadly, my reading of Frankie Y. Bailey's Death's Favorite Child did not proceed forward.  Unlike Takeover, I have even less to say about it at this point.  The fact is that after Rita Mae Brown's Wish You Were Here, I developed a taste for something else in the mystery genre.  So I ended up with Elizabeth Peter's Crocodile on the Sandbank and will share my verdict on it later.  Nevertheless, the month of March made for a huge success.  I've caught up on mystery series that I stopped reading years ago--and enjoyed them all.  I've come to realize that some stayed on my shelf too long, and some needed to be remove long, long ago.

So what is your take?  Read any of these books?  Liked them?  Hated them?  Would you like me to provide clarity if necessary on my verdicts?  What did you read in the month of March?  Share you responses below!

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