Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Butcher Bird

The Butcher Bird is a sequel to Sarah Sykes' Plague Land.  In this installment of the series Oswald de Lacy must solve the murders of infants Catherine Tulley and Margaret Beard. The villagers of Somershill believe that they were killed by a butcher bird but Oswald knows that no such bird exists.  Oswald also has to contend with the villagers who work his farm fields.  With half of them dead from the Plague, the survivors have twice as much work to do and want to be paid more money.  The Ordinance of Labourers prohibits raising wages above what they were before the Plague and the local earl enforces the Ordinance with the area lords. Oswald does not want to break the law and he certainly fears getting caught if decides to increase wages.  As usual he has to contend with his contrary mother and sister who manipulate him well.

Oswald is a loveable character. However, I think I like his spiteful mother and sister Clemence better. Clemence knows how to push Oswald to his limits in order to get what she wants, a trait that I share. His family reminds me of my own so their interactions are humorous to me. Ah . . . sibling rivalry.  You gotta love it!

It goes without saying that the author knows her medieval history well.  She shows the era as it was and uses many terms of the day.  I have had to pull out an old English language medieval dictionary that I bought years ago at a travel bookstore to keep track of everything. However, if you do not have such a dictionary you should be fine using the glossary at the end of the book.

I am looking forward to reading the next Somershill Manor Mystery.  Since The Butcher Bird was published last year I assume the third book in the series will be published in 2017.  Can't wait.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Wizzywig

Wizzywig is a story about a brilliant child computer hacker.  Kevin Phenicle gets beat up daily at his elementary school until he finds a way to cheat the phone company out of excessive fees.  He then becomes popular.  His first hack is of the phone company.  After overhearing 2 older men discuss sex as "boingthump" he takes that word as his online name.  After finding ways to scam free pizza and rigging radio contests, Kevin creates some of the world's first worms and viruses all before graduating high school.  He has to go on the run though as several companies have each lost $10,000,000 from his hacking of their computer systems.

I loved this kid.  He is a composite character of 3 young hackers of the early computer era.  If you want to learn about this era you should read this book. Though informative, it is hilarious.  I really enjoyed this one.

Insomnia Cafe

Peter Kolinsky is an expert on rare books and had a good job at an auction house. After black marketers use him in their schemes Peter loses his job and a friend gets him a job at a book depository company.  However, Peter has insomnia, stays up all night, wakes up late and is frequently late to his new job.  He is fired again.  Peter has found a cafe that is open all night called Insomnia.  There he befriends a waitress named Angela and she helps him get a job at the cafe.  On one of their dates she takes him to the archives-a place where books being currently written by famous writers are on the shelves.  However, the black marketers have not forgotten about him and are pursuing him.  Peter is terrified and seeks refuge in the archives.  Most of the story, though, takes place at the cafe.

Insomnia Cafe is a cute book and is a fast read since it is only 80 pages.  The artwork consists of black and white drawings in comic strip panels. Turkish illustrator M. K. Perker wrote and drew the book.  It was a relaxing read for me last weekend where I read it in a park on a hot and sunny day.

5 out of 5 stars.

Plague Land

This is S. D. Sykes' first novel and it was published in 2015.  The sequel, The Butcher Bird, was published last year and I hope that this series has an annual installment.  They are both medieval mysteries featuring Oswald de Lacy as the Lord of Somershill Manor and the amateur sleuth.

Upon hearing of the deaths of his older brothers, Oswald de Lacy has to leave the monastery where he is studying to be a priest in order to take over the management of his family's estate. His mentor, Brother Peter, comes with him. Oswald has not been trained to manage the property as he entered the monastery at age 7 and is now just 17.  The Pestilence has changed the estate with half of its residents succumbing to the Pestilence and those that survived are now quite fearful and superstitious.

After his arrival home, Oswald hears of the death of a local girl, Alison Starvecrow, and is told by Brother Peter that it is his job to investigate the death as he is now Lord of the manor.  The parish priest John Cornwall believes she has been killed by a demonic dog headed monster and convinces the village people that they are in danger of these creatures.  Oswald knows these creatures do not exist but has to deal with the villagers' beliefs in order to solve the crime.

Oswald gets grief from his mother and sister Clemence as well as from John Cornwall as he learns how to investigate the crime and manage an estate as well. He gets alot of advice from Brother Peter who seems to always know what the best approach to a problem is.

I am so happy that someone is writing a medieval mystery series.  I haven't seen too many of them lately and miss them. The medieval period is my favorite period in history.

Anyone who loves the medieval era will like this book.  The author has well-researched the era and it shows.  She has created plausible characters and there are many twists and turns in the solving of the crime.  A great read.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Pachinko

I just finished reading Min Jin Lee's 2007 novel Free Food for Millionaires.  I loved it so I had to pick up her latest novel Pachinko.  It took the author 30 years to write this story and I am glad that she persevered.  It was wonderful.

The story involves 4 generations of a Korean family who originated in Pyongyang.  The novel covers the early 1900s through the 1980s. After Sunja Kim became a pregnant teen whose father refused to marry her, a Christian missionary lodging at her parents boardinghouse, Isak Baek, offers to marry her and take her to Osaka, Japan where he will be serving a church as its pastor.  The family had cared for him while he suffered a bout of tuberculosis during his stay.  The family feels this is a generous offer as Sunja and her baby will be ostracized if they stay.

Sunja and Isak leave North Korea for Japan where they will live with his brother Yoseb and Yoseb's wife Kyunghee.  Sunja and Kyunghee become fast friends and the newlyweds become accustomed to harsh discrimination from the Japanese who even Japanize their last name to Boku.  Koreans are believed to be a lesser sort of people and are treated accordingly by the Japanese. However, life is better for them in Japan because food is more prevalent.  Sunja gives birth to a son, Noa, and a year later gives birth to another son, Mozasu. Yoseb and Kyunghee treat them as their own as they are unable to have children.

Noa is smart at school and plans to take college entrance exams so that he can attend university.  Mazuso gets into alot of trouble for repeatedly fighting with Japanese classmates at school and is told to go work for a family friend who owns a couple of pachinko parlors.  There he blossoms but Noa is unhappy with the arrangement because he feels that it is beneath the family's dignity to be involved in pachinko.

Pachinko is a mechanical game that is both an arcade game and a gambling device which is popular in Japan.  It is similar to slot machines in Western casinos but operates differently.  Small steel balls are given to the operator to use inside the machine and they are both a bet and a payout.  Many pachinko parlors are run by Yazuki (organized crime).

I loved the characters in this novel, especially the women.  They had hard lives and were constrained by societal expectations of what a woman can do. Sunja got lucky with Isak.  They had a good marriage even though it was short. Kyunghee was barren but her husband stayed with her.  Sunja's mother, Yangjin, married Sunja's father Hoonie, who had physical disabilities, so that she would have food to eat but they had a good marriage too and ran a boardinghouse together.

The story moved along at a good pace. The plot grew out of the tumultuous lives of the characters who lived in an uncertain time for Koreans, both in Korea and in Japan. The Baek family's experiences with discrimination kept them at hands length from the Japanese as much as possible.  One wrong move by any of them and they could have been deported back to North Korea even though most of the family was born in Japan.  It did not make them Japanese citizens and it was difficult for Koreans to obtain Japanese citizenship.

This is a must read.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Free Food for Millionaires

The theme of Free Food for Millionaires is resentment.  The main character, Casey Han, resents her parents expectations for her success and whenever they find out about a mistake that she has made her father hits her. The parents, likewise, resent Casey for not following their native Korean customs while living in their new American homeland.  They also resent her for not having a job lined up yet especially after all they have saved from their dry cleaning business to help support her.

The story opens with Casey returning home with a degree from Princeton. After a fight with her father she is thrown out of the house and with no where to go other than her white, American boyfriend's house. Upon arrival she sees him in bed with 2 girls and walks out.  Eventually they get back together and she lives with him; a secret from her parents and their Korean friends.  All of Casey's friends have trust funds and have great opportunities after graduation but Casey doesn't.  Since she has no money she has to adjust her expensive habits to her pocketbook.  That proves to be difficult and she gets into alot of debt, another secret she must keep from her parents.

Casey takes a job as an assistant at an investment banking firm which is basically secretarial.  She is qualified to be a banker but failed to apply for jobs while she was still in school and was unable to get one of those jobs.  She lives in Manhattan with her boyfriend and socializes with her Korean girlfriend Ella and Ella's Korean husband.  In order to make a few extra bucks she continues to work weekends at her mother's friend Sabine's retail shop.

Sabine would like Casey to take over her shop when she retires but Casey cannot decide what she wants to do with her life.  She seems to be just going through the motions with her career and personal life and does just that for several years.

As I have said in earlier posts I like Asian fiction so I loved this book.  The fear of and the need to break cultural traditions by the first generations in America are always fascinating to me.  The native Korean culture is on full display with the thoughts and actions of her parents. Casey, her sister Tina and friend Ella all have different ideas on how to assimilate into the American society.

The younger characters were perfect examples of the dilemma facing Korean Americans.  The author did a great job creating them as well as how they related to each other.  The pace was perfect for this 500+ page book as was the writing. If you decide to read this book I don't think that you will be disappointed.  It is wonderful.



Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

This is the first book of Dominic Smith's that I have read and it was fabulous.  The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is part mystery and part historical fiction.  The book alternates between the 17th century, the 1950s and year 2000.

The back cover blurb summarizes the book as follows:  "Amsterdam, 1631: Sara de Vos, the first female master painter in the Guild of St. Luke, defies convention by painting a haunting landscape. New York City, 1957: Her only known surviving work, At the Edge of a Wood, hangs in the bedroom of a wealthy lawyer descended from the original owner. Ellie Shipley, a struggling art history student, paints a forgery for an art dealer. Sydney, 2000:  Now a celebrated art historian and curator, Ellie mounts an exhibit of female Dutch painters and finds that both versions are en route to her museum."

Loved, loved, loved this book.  Each era depicts women artists in the male dominated art world.  There was alot of information on art history, art restoration and forgeries which I found to be exciting.  Of course, there is also alot of information about Dutch painters of the 17th century.  The author was well researched in these areas.

All of the characters were appealing, especially Sara.  I enjoyed reading about her life even though the author created her from a composite of real Dutch female painters.  She seemed real to me and I felt that I had known her.  Another great feature was that there were at least 3 strong female characters, remarkable in a book written by a man and done so well.

This book is a must read.



The Obsidian Chamber

The inside cover blurb summarizes the book as follows:

"After a harrowing, otherworldly confrontation in Exmouth, Massachusetts, Special Agent A. X. L. Prendergast is missing, presumed dead. Sick with grief, Pendergast's ward, Constance, retreats to her chambers beneath the family mansion at 891 Riverside Drive-only to be taken captive by a shadowy figure from the past. Proctor, Pendergast's longtime bodyguard, springs to action, chasing Constance's kidnappers through cities, across oceans and into wastelands unknown.  And by the time Proctor discovers the truth, a terrifying engine has stirred-and it may already be too late."

The Obsidian Chamber is the 16th Special Agent Pendergast mystery.  I have only read one other book in the series, Blue Labyrinth and my lack of knowledge about the series definitely affected how I felt about the book. I felt that it was a little slow.  There is alot of back story written into the novel which I needed to know to understand what was happening, but it made the reading less suspenseful for me.  The book is described as a thriller by the publisher but I did not feel any thrill.  The plot was definitely interesting but because half of the book was back story, it fell a little flat to me.  

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Runaway

I had a hard time getting into this novel but after the first 50 pages I became interested. The story alternates between events that occurred in 1965 and the present time.  I liked the 1965 story better but it ended with the present and all the loose ends were wrapped up.

The story opens in 2015 with 4 childhood friends getting reacquainted. The story then goes back to 1965 with 5 teenage friends running away from their homes in Glasgow for London with hopes of making it big in the music industry. Guitarist Jack Mackay makes the decision to leave after being expelled from high school and his bandmates decide that they don't really want to stay home either. Luke is tired of going door to door with his Jehovah Witnesses parents, keyboard player Maurie wants to give up the opera lessons his parents have forced him into taking , drummer Jeff is a school dropout selling cars and bass player Dave just wants to leave. They lose all their money from a fellow traveler who takes advantage of them and upon arrival they are taken advantage of again by a man who says he can get them a demo record that they can market to an agent.  While they are in London a new friend is killed. When the group are seniors they decide to retrace their steps in London.  Maurie gathers the group together telling them that he has something to finish in London that got started all those years ago.  With Jack's grandson as the driver they set off for London.

While this was a good book it was not as good as earlier May novels.  The plot was simpler and the characters were less developed.   It just wasn't as interesting as the usual Peter May novel.

3 out of 5 stars.