Tag Archives: Betrayal

Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian

Secrets to EdenThe day after Alice Hayward is baptized, she’s found strangled in her own home; her husband George is on the couch with a bullet through his head. The apparent murder/suicide understandably has the couple’s tight-knit small Vermont town in shock, especially causing a crisis of faith for Reverend Stephen Drew.

Into Haverhill swoops an angel of sorts – at least a renowned celestial expert with two inspirational bestsellers to buoy her lofty (some might say loopy) status. Eerily enough, Heather Laurent is one of two surviving daughters who lost their parents to a gruesome murder/suicide decades back when they were teenagers. Which gives Heather much to talk about with the 15-year-old Hayward daughter, Katie. Meanwhile, deputy state attorney Catherine Benincasa is certain the Hayward tragedy needs further investigation, and at the top of her must-be-questioned list is the good Reverend Stephen.

The prolific Chris Bohjalian (my favorite hapa Armenian American writer, whose 17th title – Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands –hits shelves July 8) has become my latest go-to aural author, encouraged as I am with his repeat cast of dependable narrators, especially the versatile Mark Bramhall who is part of this title’s marvelously convincing quartet. Stephen, Catherine, Heather, and Katie, each get their unique say – although I can’t help wishing that Alice, too, might have had the chance to voice herself beyond snippets from her journal. Indeed, even after the whodunnit-reveal, only the two corpses will know the whole truth of that fateful evening … and their ‘secrets of Eden’ will remain forever buried in separate graves.

That sort of ponderous ambiguity is what keeps me going back for more books Bohjalian: what’s on the page (or stuck in the ears) is a many-layered story that always demands deeper engagement.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Armenian American, Nonethnic-specific

The Circle by Dave Eggers

CircleThanks to Annie, her college roommate and best friend, Mae’s escaped from her stupefying utilities job in her “wretched” hometown and entered the Circle, an enviable high-tech company (think Google + Apple + steroids) where Annie is one of the “Gang of 40″-power wielders.

Mae begins in CE – Customer Experience – where every call is scored and anything less than 100 is followed up with inquiries about improvement. Those numbers control Circlers’ lives far beyond work: personal worth becomes measured in smiles, zings, posts, responses, and rankings. The Edenic campus subsumes you: it’s abuzz 24/7 with concerts by the famous, epic parties, workshops that can take you virtually anywhere, and even luxurious dorm rooms so you never have to leave.

Initially drawn away from the halcyon Circle walls – her father is ill, her parents are struggling with inadequate health insurance – Mae is gently chided for not being more involved in her new enCircled life. But Mae succumbs to the unrelenting pressure to participate, quickly moves up the Circle rankings, until her very words (coached as they are) are literally cast in steel writ large: “SECRETS ARE LIES,” “CARING IS SHARING,” “PRIVACY IS THEFT.” When she embraces a life of total “transparency,” she’s catapulted into an unimaginable reality of neverending performance.

As intriguing and timely a premise as Circle presents, Dave Eggers (the bad boy-genius who wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and founded that legendary once-indie-now-almost-mainstream-literary-empire that is McSweeney’s) falters markedly here. Too much of Circle just doesn’t work [choose What is the What or Zeitoun instead]. Eggers’ doom-and-gloom-techno-warning-in-a-shiny-package is heavy-handed, clumsy, and incessantly whining. Less than a quarter through, we get the warning signs loud and clear, but must tediously wait for Mae to catch up (but will she?). Throwing in a hoodie-d object of lust feels merely desperate, and you can’t help but wonder why Mae is so blind to his not-very-mysterious identity. That obsession at least provides a modicum of distraction from her cringe-inducing encounters with former foster child Francis. And the whole subplot of ex-boyfriend Mercer (who creates light from discarded animal parts – go ahead and ponder that) as the sole voice of reason just might cause your rolling eyeballs serious damage.

Perhaps the most intriguing detail here is that if you choose to go aural, you might be surprised to learn that African American male actor, Dion Graham (who turns out to be the best part of all that is Circular), narrates this morality tale told from the point of view of a young, small-town, presumably white woman. Perhaps Graham’s casting is merely habit – Graham appears to be Eggers’ go-to narrator for all his titles – but his smooth voice underscores a visceral layer of creepazoid, interchangeable, lack of individuality. So much so that it might be the only reason not to lectio interruptus until the less than satisfying end.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Nonethnic-specific

Ripper by Isabel Allende, translated by Ollie Brock and Frank Wynne

RipperJust as her latest book was hitting shelves, the near-deified Isabel Allende opened mouth, inserted foot during an interview on NPR and set off a firestorm of negative reaction. On mysteries, she intoned, “I will take the genre, write a mystery that is faithful to the formula and to what the readers expect, but it is a joke.” Uh-oh. Two-and-a-half weeks later (after at least one bookstore returned all copies to her publisher), she was out apologizing, insisting her own comments were the joke. They say no press is bad press, but …

Having already loaded Ripper on my iPod before her ‘joke’ grabbed headlines, curiosity made me hit that ‘play’-button. I would have loved a studio sneak peek to see what sort of faces narrator Edoardo Ballerini must have made while recording what became the final 14.5 hours; to his credit, except for briefly stumbling over a Scottish accent, Ballerini admirably slogs through the almost-500 pages.

“My sleuth will not be this handsome detective or journalist or policeman or whatever. It will be a young, 16-year-old nerd,” Allende revealed in that infamous interview. [Call me wrong, but Amanda seems to be 17 here, referenced thusly on pages 30, 146, and 190.] “My female protagonist will not be this promiscuous, beautiful, dark-haired, thin lady. It will be a plump, blond, healer, and so forth.”

What Allende should have also warned was that she was throwing in just about every stereotype: the ex-vet Asiaphile who can’t satisfy his dragon-lady S&M girlfriend (because he couldn’t finish that “manual” with “something beige in the title – or maybe it was gray”), the arrogant old rich man who falls for someone of the wrong net worth, the innocent good girl corrupted by the popular big-boy-on-campus, the Asian houseboy (although he has the glorified title of ‘butler’ – so that at least one person can say, ‘the butler did it’; he didn’t), and on and on! Oh, she even adds ghosts (magic realism made Allende mega-famous, after all) – including one named Sharbat, “like the girl with green eyes on the famous National Geographic cover“!

So that ‘nerdy’ sleuth, Amanda, and her grandfather/”henchman,” Kabel (an acronym of his real name Blake), regularly play a computer-facilitated game called Ripper with a group of motley teens scattered around the world. They’re the first to discover that the gruesome murders plaguing San Francisco are the work of a serial killer, long before Amanda’s father – “deputy chief of homicide detail” – and his team catch on. Meanwhile, Amanda’s long-divorced mother Indiana – that “plump” protagonist – is caught between two men, leaving her rather oblivious to the rest of reality; after eight murders, she goes missing …

Mystery/thriller aficionado I’m not, but I had the whodunnit figured out as soon as the character appeared, with hours upon hours to go as yet. Because the murderer was so obvious, I convinced myself I couldn’t possibly be right, so I gritted it out to the bitter end; thank goodness at least I was multi-tasking because I’m never, ever going to get those hours back! Finally finished, I guess I can only claim temporary insanity.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Translation, Latino/a, South American

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

InterestingsMeg Wolitzer‘s latest bestseller begins with an intricate overview of the hierarchy of privileged teenagers. In the summer of 1974, six 15- and 16-year-olds meet in Boys’ Teepee 3 at Spirit-in-the-Woods, an arts-focused summer camp for the entitled, and baptize themselves the titular Interestings.

Four of the six – exceptionally advantaged siblings Ash and Goodman, gifted dancer Cathy, only son of legendary folk singer Jonah – are the anointed ones: “like royalty and French movie stars, with a touch of something papal.” On the fringe is the “touchingly ugly” Ethan, the one truly brilliant artist who is an animating genius. The last of the six, Julie Jacobson, a scholarship student from Long Island who can’t believe she’s been invited into this “hot little nucleus,” will emerge from the tent with a new name, Jules, and complementary reborn identity as Ash’s best friend and Ethan’s unrequited love.

Over the next four decades, these six lives will intertwine and overlap. Jules will serve as the primary narrator, her perspective clouded by both envy and loyalty. Ash and Ethan surprise everyone by choosing each other and detailing their wealthy glamorous lives in thick, vellum envelopes every year; Jonah will choose robotics over music after being drugged as a child by her mother’s not-famous-enough-lover who steals his youthful nonsensical tunes; Cathy will leave the dance world for a financial empire that literally collapses on 9/11; Goodman will have to find an alternative life; and Jules will bear her less-than-stellar life from her fourth-floor walk-up (although her life does eventually include an elevator).

As the Interestings mature, they bear witness to almost a half-century of quotidian Manhattan life in the latter 20th-century-into-the-21st: the many layers of class and privilege, the AIDS death sentence until it isn’t, the lure of the Moonies, the advent of a media-savvy generation of really rich, the neverending gender gap in business and arts, growing autism diagnoses, victims of multiplying global economies, the different degrees of legal as defined by income bracket.

At almost 500 pages or nearly 16 hours stuck in the ears (adeptly read by actor Jen Tullock), getting to know the Interestings requires commitment. Temporary adoption that might be, by story’s end, whether you disdain or admire Jules, wish less control for Jonah, believe Kathy or Goodman, forgive Ash, or understand Ethan, one thing remains true: “… as if the world itself were an animated sequence of longing and envy and self-hatred and grandiosity and failure and success, a strange and endless cartoon loop that you couldn’t stop watching, because, despite all you knew by now, it was still so interesting.” True that.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Nonethnic-specific

We Are Water by Wally Lamb

We Are WaterOver the past couple weeks, I’ve been a bit of an ethnic voyeur, picking up bestselling ‘mainstream’ titles in search of their APAness. I confess I picked up Wally Lamb‘s latest purely because I somehow learned the protagonist is named Annie Oh – Oh usually being a Korean last name. ‘Oh’ turns out to be Annie’s moniker only by (first) marriage, that Annie was born Anna O’Day. Her husband Orion is the official Oh, an Italian Chinese hapa whose only inheritance from his Chinese American father is his last name.

At almost 600 pages or over 23 hours stuck in the ears (the eight-member cast is superb, and includes Lamb himself reading Orion’s chapters), Water is not a light commitment. Here’s the skeletal overview: Annie’s second marriage is imminent, this time to a woman. To get to the wedding on time, over half a century of exposition must be revealed; Water then concludes with what happens three years after the blessed event.

The novel is sprawling, with complicated overlapping narratives that revolve around (essentially) little orphan Annie who survives a horrific past, is rescued by Orion, raises three children together, discovers her violently angry artist soul, falls in love with her gallery owner, and must finally face her demons on her wedding day. Intertwined stories include an African American artist who is murdered by a KKK member, the aging artist who first discovered Annie’s work whose son then gives Annie’s youngest daughter her major break, a monstrously abusive cousin who was both victim and victimizer, a manipulative student who ruins her professor’s career, and so much more – all compounded with issues of class, gender, politics, religion, and race, oh my.

While the novel occasionally felt overly detailed and therefore long (did I really need to know that the pantry had grape jelly to put on the muffins?), I admit that actively connecting the APA dots throughout proved to be a fascinating process. From the “effeminate Korean cashier” who is also the “hostile Korean boy” at the corner grocery where Annie gets her cigarettes, to the fact that the 1882 Exclusion Act can be so casually mentioned, to wondering if I’ve read the Chinese American history texts Orion orders from Amazon, added quite a different layer to my usual ‘let-it-just-sink-in-and-then-react’ usual intended approach.

By book’s end, this experimental literary engagement proved so engrossing, I’m in the middle of doing it again: stay tuned for the Moonies and an HIV-positive Japanese American lawyer in Meg Wolitzer’s much-lauded The Interestings.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave by Shyima Hall with Lisa Wysocky

Hidden Girl Hall“If this book leads to even a single rescue, then my time in bondage was worth it,” Shyima Hall writes in the penultimate paragraph in the final chapter of her new memoir. That “time in bondage” she refers to is four long years during which she was a slave. This is not a long-ago story. This is a 20th-into-21st century nightmare: “when you are a slave, your life belongs to someone else. It is an unimaginable existence for most people, and I am glad of that. I hope that soon no one will ever have to feel the overwhelming sense of loss, frustration, exhaustion, hunger, demeaning words, and physical abuse that I did.”

In her native Egypt, Shyima El-Sayed Hassan was born in 1989 into a large family living in extreme poverty. She was the seventh of 11 children of an abusive, usually-absent father and a powerless, desperate mother. She knew little of her older siblings, although she remembers being sexually molested by older brothers. She helped care for the younger children, whose names she is no longer “100 percent sure about.” And yet she remembers those early childhood years with longing and love.

At 8, Shyima’s parents sold her to a wealthy family; her enslavement was the price for a theft committed by Shyima’s older sister when she was a servant in that home. At 10, the captor family moved to southern California, smuggling Shyima into the U.S. with a hired attendant (who traveled first class, while Shyima went solo in steerage). For two years, she lived in “a tiny windowless storage room in the three-car garage” of a luxurious home in an exclusive gated community. Shyima, who had been one among substantial staff in the five-floored mansion on the sprawling compound in Egypt, was now alone in serving her captor family of two parents and five children. Two years later, when she was finally rescued from her captors, her English vocabulary consisted of three words: hi, dolphin, stepsister.

In spite of being ‘free,’ Shyima knew virtually nothing of the world outside her captors’ home. What most children, most human beings, took for granted – school, friendships, hobbies – were all unknown experiences for Shyima. She would endure two foster homes, and an adoptive family that gave her an American last name but little else, until she was able to choose her own life as a young adult.

As wrenching as Shyima’s life story is, as literature, her memoir ultimately disappoints. Co-written with author Lisa Wysocky, whose previous titles are mostly equestrian-focused, Hidden Girl tends toward uneven, repetitive, pedestrian at best. How unfortunate that such an important story – more 17,000 new slaves are trafficked into the U.S. each year; a mere 2% are eventually rescued – gets mired in such a mediocre narrative. That said, perhaps content trumps style here, and aware readers can work together to make Shyima’s wish – to “put an end to the terrible custom of slavery” – come true: “I hope that it is sooner rather than later.”

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Egyptian, Egyptian American

Schroder by Amity Gaige

SchroederThis is an immigration story. But not the sort of immigration I’ve become accustomed to … only a select few could make the sort of metamorphosis that being white and male affords Erik Schroder who, at 14, reinvents himself at a summer camp as Eric Kennedy. While an immigrant from, say, Asia or Africa, could make a similar change in nomenclature, he would be hard-pressed to carry off the new identity without at least a raised eyebrow. When Erik dons his storied moniker, just by virtue of his being an attractive white male, assumptions are made and eagerly accepted; he never denies those too ready to imbue him with Kennedy connections.

And yet Erik Schröder was born in East Germany. He lost his mother during his flight with his father across their divided homeland from East to West, then both father and son misplaced the umlauted-ö upon arrival in the new country. The pair eventually settled not too far from Boston, and given his youth, Erik was willfully able to shed his foreign accent. His carefully chosen moniker was inspired by that mythic American Berliner himself, a reference to JFK’s famed 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner”-speech (while grammatically accurate, the “I’m a jelly donut”-translation in this context is urban legend).

[Allow me a momentary logistical rant: if you're casting for a reader for a book about a German immigrant, wouldn't you find a narrator who might speak a little German?! Although Will Collyer is more than adequate as long as he reads in English, his German, alas, barely improves over the seven hours stuck in the ears.]

By the time Eric Kennedy has graduated high school, then college, married, and become a father to his own child, he’s grown accustomed to his self-annointed American identity. But a life built on lies is fragile at best: what was once a happy, nuclear family begins to implode. Suddenly, Eric is living alone, and relying on lawyers to get him access to his beloved 6-year-old daughter Meadow. In a fit of frustrated desperation, Eric takes Meadow too far – literally.

And so Amity Gaige‘s latest novel begins. Held in custody, Eric refuses to speak; instead he writes page after page, explaining how he ended up a wanted felon. It’s a love letter to his estranged wife, a tome of devotion to their daughter, a plea for sympathy of his jailers, and a desperate treatise attempting to confirm his own sanity. As readers, we get to play judge: to believe or not believe … that will be the ultimate question.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, European, Nonethnic-specific

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

Ghost BrideHauntings, posthumous marriage proposals, addictions, not-quite-human heroes, in-between spirits growing old, burnt offerings that are actually real in another world. Interest piqued? Get ready for this absolutely ingenious debut novel!

And (there’s more!), as an exponentially satisfying bonus, the crisply-voiced author herself – Yangsze Choo, a fourth-generation Malaysian of Chinese descent now California-domiciled – refreshingly voices the audible incarnation. Yes, without having to grit your way through errant pronunciations, Choo’s rendition is just about music to your ears!

The concept of ‘hungry ghosts‘ is centuries-old in China and other parts of Asia, but Choo goes far beyond lost and desperate spectres to create original, unexpected parallel world she calls “the Plains of the Dead” filled with the uniquely undead. Li Lan, a young woman in 1890s Malaya who is quickly bypassing socially-deemed marriageable age, receives an eerie offer. No longer an illustrious family, Li Lan’s father is financially diminished enough to present the unusual proposition to his daughter: to marry Lim Tian Ching, the wealthy heir to a privileged family … never mind that he’s … well … dead. His mother worries that her precious son will be lonely in his afterlife, and requests Li Lan as his bride.

Just in case Li Lan had other thoughts, Tian Ching quickly begins to lay claim from beyond on his intended. Li Lan, of course, is no obedient wallflower; in fact, her heart flutters for Tian Ching’s cousin, Tian Bai, who she initially mistakes as a servant. Her future, alas, is not her own if she can’t get herself unhaunted. Somehow, somewhere, she’ll have to chase down the undead Tian Ching and expose him for the less-than-honorable spirit he is …

Li Lan’s epic journey toward death in order to live is filled with unexpected meetings, devious servants, a trusty horse that never eats or tires, an arrogant yet irresistible guardian spirit, and plenty of corrupt officials (surprise, surprise – even in the netherworld!). Lest you worry about your own soul, Choo inserts a clever nod to tolerance: Keep an eye out for the centuries-old Dutchman who cannot help Li Lan on her deathly quest because “Those are not my beliefs … That is not my afterworld.”

The lengths a girl has to go through to escape unwanted attention reaches new heights – or should I say depths? – in this intriguing, wholly inventive, thoroughly entertaining debut title.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Chinese, Malay American, Malaysian, Southeast Asian

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

Twelve Tribes of HattieWhen Oprah reinvented her book club in 2012, she elevated Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to near mythic status (I found Wild so tedious, I didn’t have the energy to write a post). Oprah’s 2013 choice was a first novel that hasn’t found quite that Wild level of ubiquitous success, but mega-bestselling annointment is definitely the next best way to launch a literary career. Besides, Ayana Mathis‘ Twelve Tribes resonates much more with Oprah’s usual-suspects: long-suffering protagonists (especially women) who must fight not only social oppression – usually with racial or classist overtones – but degradation caused by so-called loved ones, as well.

Hattie Shepherd, the novel’s matriarch, is still a teenager when she moves from Georgia to Philadelphia in the 1920s. By 17, she’s a married woman with twins. Her babies fall victim to pneumonia at seven months and die; Hattie never quite recovers in the more than half century she births, raises, and lets go of nine more children. Hattie is crippled by her bitterness towards her philandering husband, her impatience with trying to control her needy offspring, her disappointment over their lives as adults. Her difficulties render her incapable of ever openly showing love and affection to those she cares about most.

Over 10 chapters that read like interlinked short stories, Hattie’s maturity from teenaged mother to weathered grandmother is revealed via dovetailing glimpses of her children’s lives, mirroring the restrictive, challenging, not-changing-fast-enough African American experience of the 20th century. Floyd womanizes to cover his homosexuality, Six’s violent temper leads him to become a man of God, both Ruthie and Ella will always be someone else’s daughters, Alice pops pills convinced her life purpose is to take care of brother Billy whom she couldn’t protect as a child, Franklin gambles away his family, Bell gives up, Cassie succumbs to voices, and … in the final chapter, only Sala seems to look at her future with any hope.

No, this isn’t a feel-good story by any stretch of the imagination [Oprah chose it, ahem!]. That Hattie survives with her back straight and her head held high is perhaps the title’s greatest achievement. For those who want to go beyond the page, a cast of veteran narrators adeptly imbue the characters with urgent immediacy. Here’s to resilience – Hattie’s and committed readers both!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American

The Little Hut of Leaping Fishes by Chiew-Siah Tei

Little Hut of Leaping FishesFor all the power and wealth of the Chai clan, discontent and tragedy haunts its three generations. With the challenges facing China at the turn of the 20th century as the last imperial dynasty crumbles and western colonialism looms, patriarch Master Chai’s once ironclad rule over his household begins to falter.

Born the first grandson, Mingzhi’s life is not necessarily his own to control as the family’s eventual heir. Obedient, hard-working, and honest, Mingzhi realizes early that his family’s extensive involvement in opium production is not an enterprise he supports nor wants to inherit. His path to redemption, as well as escape, is in education as he tenaciously works toward becoming a government official far from the family’s reach. Away from the Chai mansion, he finds reprieve and enlightenment in his eponymous “little hut of leaping fishes.”

In spite of an expansive cast of characters, author Chiew-Siah Tei tends toward simplified archetypes rather than multidimensional individuals. Mingzhi, for example, is the ‘good’ grandson with his laudable successes while his younger half-brother is the ‘bad’ counterpart – deceptive, lazy, and vengeful. Of Master Chai’s sons, one is a debauched opium addict with two wives, while the other is a filial, irreproachable, unmarried nurturer. Of the household’s two wives who belong to Mingzhi’s father, one remains a devoted mother and long-suffering silent wife; the other proves to be a scheming adulterous runaway.

Predictable as many of the characters might be, Tei manages plenty of unexpected plot twists and turns, from brutal rivalries to unexpected friendships to unrequited love. Her deft machinations earned her a 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize longlist nod – no small feat for the Malaysian Chinese, Scottish-domiciled author writing her first novel in English (she’s won multiple prizes for her earlier titles in Chinese). If, by chance, you choose to go audible, the elaborate family saga is engagingly read with breathless animation by Malaysian Australian actor Keith Brockett, whose androgynous voice works especially well here.

Mingzhi reaches manhood in spite of abandonment, repeated betrayals, and even unexpected death – who needs enemies when you have your own family too ready to watch you suffer and fail? Such survival merits Mingzhi another life, as his story continues a vast ocean away in last year’s sequel, The Mouse Deer Kingdom. Further adventures ho! Stay tuned.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, British Asian, Chinese, Malaysian, Southeast Asian