Here’s another blog about books that have recently made their way through my reading list. This one completes the list of 2021 books I’ve read, and it’s the best list of all. All of the books are excellent, four are by women authors, and of those four, three are among the best I’ve ever read, which I don’t believe is a coincidence (see related blog). Feel free to guess which one of the two male authors has the upper hand here. 😊
And on an important side note: This blog is being delivered by my new computer, which I blogged about last week. I have it all up and running – well ahead of schedule, and all done by my merry own luddite lonesome! If this book blog seems brighter and more techno-cosmic than usual, thank my prowess with futuristic technology, or at least my ability to read instructions and tap the right keys.
These aren’t really reviews. Just short snapshots of what the books are about, and maybe a nugget or two about my reaction to them. If you’re a big reader, maybe you will find them useful.
Also: It’s a way to pimp my own book. So fair warning…
Wild Swans, Jung Chang: An epic, non-fiction account of three generations of Chinese women and the endless parade of horrors they had to endure in that country during the 20th century. This is a beast of a book at around 700 pages, just about all of them recounting tales of misery and abuse that befell the Chinese under various brutal regimes. It was published in 1995, when the author was in her 40s and far away from her homeland.
It begins with the story of Jung’s grandmother, Yu-fang, who was born early in the century into a world where women were little more than property to be traded and discarded at will. Next comes the story of Jung’s mother, Bao Qin/De-hon, a strong-willed and independent-minded woman who was born into an only slightly more enlightened world that would change dramatically with the rise of Chairman Mao’s communist revolution. Bao Qin initially embraced the revolution, then came to realize it was no better than what it replaced. She openly challenged some of the things she saw and experienced, and paid dearly for her outspokenness. Finally, we get to the author’s story, who was born in 1952 with China already fully immersed in the cult of Mao.
This is a difficult book to read, but an immensely important one. It spells out in grim detail just how cruel humans can be to one another under the right circumstances. In China, those circumstances were put in place by corrupt dynasties that gained and retained power by demanding blind devotion to its leaders, and either killing, imprisoning, or ostracizing those who fell short. Jung’s father was a case in point. He was so devoted to Mao that he allowed his own family to be mistreated in the name of “revolution,” and didn’t realize the error of his ways until it was too late. The only escape was literal escape. After the tyrannical Mao died in 1976 and his equally tyrannical wife was jailed not too long after, China opened up just enough that the book’s author, Jung Chang, could travel to the UK to study. It was only after seeing the rest of the world that she realized how brutal life in China really was. Forty years later, she still lives in the UK.
Music Love Drugs War, Geraldine Quigley: I wrote about this 2019 debut novel in a separate blog, so you can link to that to learn more about it. It’s set in Derry, Northern Ireland in the early 1980s, and told through the eyes of several high school kids growing up in that troubled city during that violent time. When I finished it, I decided it’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I will read it again in a few years, just to make sure I was right the first time.
Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: This is one of the most powerful novels you will ever read. It’s certainly one of the most powerful I’ve ever read. Published in 2006, it won the Women’s Prize for Fiction a year later and eventually landed on numerous best book lists, including being ranked by the Guardian as the 10th best book since 2000. Half of a Yellow Sun is set in Adichie’s native Nigeria during the 1960s, before, during and after that country’s bloody civil war. It is told mainly through the eyes of ethnic Biafrans, who lived in the west and wanted to form an independent state. Half of a Yellow Sun begins before the war and reads almost like a political satire during the early chapters, featuring a group of university intellectuals who meet and discuss the problems with Nigeria and the powers that prop its oppressive government up (including the U.S., Great Britain, and the Soviet Union).
We meet various characters and protagonists: a houseboy servant named Ugwa who works for an activist university professor named Odenigbo; Odenigbo’s girlfriend, Olanna, who comes from a wealthy family; Olanna’s wise and jaded twin sister, Kainen; and Kainen’s white English boyfriend, Richard.
The book takes a dark turn when it jumps ahead a few years, during the beginnings of war. Witty intellectual banter is replaced by bloodshed, hunger, paranoia, and want. Many of the main characters wind up as refugees trying to find safe haven as the war widens, often with little food and no medicine. Death is always right around the corner, ready to pounce. The book jumps around from one year to the next, which is an effective tool to show just how quickly political instability can change things. It has a lot to say about love, power, tribalism, colonialism, race, gender, morality, religion, and the seemingly endless failure of humans to be more humane. My only quibble is that Adichie trots out the usual stereotypes of a couple of clueless, selfish, slovenly, and one-dimensional Americans. Other than that, it’s pretty much perfect.
In a Lonely Place, Dorothy B. Hughes: I somehow didn’t get around to reading this classic 1947 noir crime thriller until a few weeks ago, even though I fancy myself quite the aficionado of classic noir crime thrillers. I can only chalk it up to good old male chauvinism – both in terms of my own reading habits (I naturally gravitate to male crime writers), and the media gatekeepers of noir crime fiction (who always seem to steer readers to male crime writers like Hammett, Chandler, Cain, etc.).
The protagonist (sort of) is Dix Steele, an ex-WWII fighter pilot and handsome ladies’ man who you suspect from the jump has some dark skeletons rattling around in his closet. He moves to Los Angeles (of course) to be a writer, bankrolled by a rich uncle back east. While in LA, Dix runs across an old Air Force buddy, Brub, who’s also an LA police detective, and they become close pals. Dix figures out pretty early on that Brub’s pretty wife, Sylvia, doesn’t really trust him. Meanwhile, women are being murdered in Los Angeles, and Brub is on the case, frustrated about his lack of progress running down the killer. We spend a lot of time inside Dix’s tortured head, and you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out who might be committing the murders. This is essentially a first-rate psychological thriller, decades before psychological thrillers became a thing. The writing is taut, and the story is mesmerizing.
The Cocktail Waitress, James M. Cain: Never trust your narrator, my friends. In this crime noir novel, the narrator is Joan Medford, an attractive young woman who just buried her husband and has to care for a young son, with little money or resources to do so. She finds a job as a cocktail waitress in a little Maryland bar, where her charms (physical and otherwise) grab the attention of a couple of suitors – one much older and with money, the other about Joan’s age, but with no money or prospects. The older man seems nice – and he’s rich. The younger man seems not so nice, but he has a certain sex appeal. Much of the plot revolves around which man Joan will gravitate toward, and why.
The sister of Joan’s late husband is caring for Joan’s son while Joan gets her financial ship in order, and said sister-in-law is openly suspicious of Joan, particularly as it concerns how she became a widow in the first place. A couple of local cops also enter the picture, ratcheting up the suspense. Because Joan is the narrator, you only get her side of the story. But can you trust her? This book was written by Cain in the late 1950s, but never found a publisher during his lifetime. Someone discovered the manuscript about a decade ago, and Hard Case Crime published it in 2012. It’s typical Cain – dark, moody, suspenseful, and written with a jagged edge.
Voodoo Hideaway, Vance Cariaga. What a thrilling, magnificent read this is. In this debut novel, the author reinvents the crime fiction genre, bringing an extra dimension to a noirish tale of a homeless man who stumbles through a mysterious door one night and finds himself caught up in a deadly money scheme between a brilliant scientist, a wicked nightclub manager, a beautiful jazz singer, and a mobster on the lam. The reader is taken on a mad journey through a world of greed, deception, revenge and vanity, with plenty of blind alleys, sudden twists and dark humor along the way. Just when you think you’ve got the story figured out, it tosses you a curveball.
Here’s how to order it: