The Night Tiger, by Yangtze Choo****

Choo is a force to be reckoned with. Her dazzling second novel, The Night Tiger, crosses genres from historical fiction, to literary fiction, to mystery, to romance, to magical realism; it’s deeply absorbing and unlike anything else being published right now. My thanks go to Net Galley and Flatiron Books for the review copy. It’s hot off the presses; get yours before they sell out.

We have two protagonists, Ji Lin, whose widowed mother has married a tin ore dealer, and Ren, an eleven-year-old orphan that works as a houseboy. The story takes place in 1931 in Ipoh, Malaya, which was the name of Malaysia when it was still occupied, part of the British Empire. As the story commences, Ren’s master, Dr. McFarlane, has died of malaria, and his last words instructed Ren to go to Dr. William Acton, find McFarlane’s amputated finger and return it to McFarlane’s grave. He has 49 days, and the clock is ticking. Go.

So powerful is Choo’s storytelling voice that I was most of the way through the book before it occurred to me to wonder: who puts that kind of responsibility on a little kid, especially since the task involves traveling alone to a different town? But Ren loved his master, and he’s a loyal kiddo. Despite an offer by his former master’s housekeeper to take him in, he forges forward, determined to do as bidden.

Ji Lin has a different set of problems. She recently reached marriageable age, but the only man she’d have considered desirable is engaged to someone else. Her stepfather is looking for candidates so he can be rid of her, and Ji Lin doesn’t like the same men her stepfather prefers for her. And in 1931, there are very few respectable alternatives for women to support themselves. She might like to train as a teacher, but she needs money right this minute, before her stepdad finds out about her mother’s Mahjongg debt. That man beats her mother savagely over much smaller things, and this gambling debt is potentially ruinous. Ji Lin takes an apprenticeship with a dressmaker, but secretly makes a lot more money as a dance instructor, a risky job that can lead to assault, a ruined reputation, or both. One night on the dance floor, as she skillfully parries a handsy salesman trying to make a move on her, her hand brushes his pocket and a little glass tube rolls out. She pockets it so she can check it out later, and oh hey, there’s a finger in there!

Ji Lin’s stepbrother, Shin is an intern at the local hospital, and that place is seriously messed up: “There’s a secret, white and yeasty maggot, which threatens to undermine the neat and orderly life of the hospital.” Just for starters, what happened to all the amputated fingers that are supposed to be in the storeroom with the other medical specimens?

At the same time, an unusual number of deaths have occurred lately, and there’s concern that it’s a weretiger that’s behind them. A weretiger is like a werewolf in reverse: instead of originally being a human that changes to a monstrous sort of wolf when the moon is full, a weretiger actually is a tiger that can at times become human.

Choo is masterly at weaving a complex plot, developing characters, and using imagery and possibly allegory as well; the river is a symbol that has been around as long as literature. But her greatest contribution here is in the way she uses all these things to create suspense. Once the possibility of the weretiger is raised in more than a passing way, I find myself examining every secondary character—and some fairly important ones—whose whereabouts are unknown at about the same time a corpse is discovered with tiger tracks nearby. Could that person be a weretiger? Could this one? No. Well, maybe. We learn that a weretiger is distinguished by a limp or otherwise deformed back foot, and so then I am eyeing anybody with a hurt foot or a limp or a wheelchair.

There are a number of threads that weave in and out of the story: troubled dreams are shared by Ren and Ji Lin, who have never met, and Ren’s dead twin, Yin, speaks to him. Ren’s “cat sense” guides him away from trouble and toward the finger. I often struggle with magical realism, because I’ll be trying to solve the story’s main problem using real world information, but then someone will do something people cannot do, and I yelp with frustration. But Choo sells me on the notion that there’s a weretiger, because now I know that a dead twin that magically communicates here; who’s to say there can’t be a magical tiger monster that’s killing the local folk too? Somebody sure as heck keeps leaving tiger tracks, and I know it’s not me.

The author provides information about Chinese folklore, including the weretiger, in notes following the story, and about halfway through the book I read the author’s notes before finishing the story.

The only part of this book that I don’t like is the romance that pops up between Ji Lin and her stepbrother. Ew, ew! Why does Choo find this necessary? It doesn’t add interest so much as distraction. When their mother goes bonkers and tells them to stay the hell away from each other, I’m right there in her corner. You tell them, honey. Hit them again. You can borrow my umbrella. Let them have it! Sick little bastards. The author goes to pains to stress that they aren’t biologically related and that Shin’s father never legally adopted Ji Lin, but who the hell cares? The incest taboo has nothing to do with biology; it’s a social construct. We don’t screw the siblings we grow up with, period. This aspect of the story is just plain tasteless, and if I were her editor, I would cut it clean out of there, making Shin the fantastic brother that he had been when they were younger and nothing else.

That said, I nearly went for a five star rating anyway, because it is so gratifying to see a well written story about any part of Asia during the colonial period that is not written from the point of view of the colonists and whose main characters are native residents rather than the occupiers. By showing the ignorant, patronizing way that local Brits—many of whom are expatriates because they aren’t decent enough people to be accepted socially back home—Choo exposes the true nature of colonialism, and for this alone, I could stand up and cheer.

With the single caveat emphatically mentioned, I recommend this story to you.

The Wedding Guest, by Jonathan Kellerman****

The wedding guest is dead, slumped on the toilet, strangled. Is she someone invited by the bride’s family, or the groom’s? Neither one. Total stranger…or so they say. The thirty-fourth book in the Alex Delaware series comes out tomorrow, February 5, 2019. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine. 

Kellerman is a child psychiatrist, and his knowledge and experience dealing with children and their families provides him with a rare ability to invent quirky but believable characters. Here we find a wedding reception unfolding in a seedy building that used to be a strip club, and this provides the world’s tackiest wedding theme. All the women—including the bride—are supposed to dress to look “hot.” The groom’s family, a more conservative, scholarly bunch, are less than delighted, but they bear it stoically, till someone finds a dead guest in the loo. The bride—already turned bridezilla–is just undone. How could someone ruin her big day like this? How thoughtless. They should have killed that woman somewhere else. Or maybe on a different day. 

This series never fails to delight me. Once again, Detective Milo Sturgis gets the call; once again, his best pal Alex is tapped to analyze a young guest, and from there he becomes further involved in the case. 

There have been other books in the series that pushed this improbable situation too far, with Alex the doctor donning a Kevlar vest to go chase and apprehend bad guys with Milo. This time I find Alex’s involvement much more believable. On the one hand, he still does things that doctors advising cops never do, but limiting Alex’s participation to interviews held either in his office or at the police station wouldn’t make for good fiction. All we want is to believe. Kellerman helps us along by creating a strong friendship bond that makes Milo and Alex want to work together, and that’s coupled with Milo’s unpopularity among his colleagues due to the fact that he’s gay. Nobody else wants to get in the car and go places with Milo, and Alex does; and after all, the police do employ him, so it’s not like some random civilian is partnered with Milo. I thought this was finessed nicely this time around. 

Kellerman always writes strong dialogue that includes some very funny bits here and there, and the pages turn rapidly. It’s a lot of fun to read, and if I hadn’t been able to get the galley for this one, I’d have hunted it down later at the library rather than miss out. 

Highly recommended for fans of the genre. 

The Winter Sister, by Megan Collins****

Sylvie doesn’t want to go home. Sixteen years ago her sister Persephone was murdered, and her mother, a single parent, was undone by it. Sylvie’s built a new life for herself and would prefer not to revisit the old one, but her aunt calls and summons her. Sylvie’s mother is gravely ill and Aunt Jill says it is Sylvie’s turn to take care of her. Reluctantly, Sylvie packs and heads home to face her demons.

I was invited to read and review this compelling debut novel courtesy of Net Galley and Simon and Schuster. It will be available to the public tomorrow, February 5, 2019.

Persephone went on a date the night she was killed; she wasn’t permitted to date and so she had to sneak out. And right away my antennae twitch, because who doesn’t let their seventeen-year-old daughter date? The heck? She was a senior in high school, yet was reduced to climbing in and out of the bedroom window to avoid her mother’s anger. At fourteen, Sylvie was her confederate, leaving the window just a finger’s width ajar so that Persephone could return home undetected. But Sylvie had become increasingly ambivalent; Persephone came home with bruises with increasing frequency, asking her little sis to paint temporary tattoos to cover them up for her. Should Persephone be seeing Ben, the boy responsible for the bruises?  One night she decides not to leave the window open. That way it will be out in the open. Persephone will have to come in through the front door. She’ll be busted, but then the problem of the abusive boyfriend will be where it belongs, right on their mother’s plate.  Let the adult do the adult job, she figured. But that night, unable to sneak back in, Persephone instead returned to her boyfriend’s car, hopped in, and never came home.

Her body wasn’t found for three days.

The guilt of the thing followed Sylvie everywhere she went. She told no one. Their mother took to drink and locked herself away, refusing to respond to her daughter’s pleas on the other side of the door. Aunt Jill took Sylvie home with her when it became obvious that her mother had ceased to mother.

But now, Sylvie has to go back. And she carries so much anger with her; how is it even possible that Ben, the boyfriend, was never arrested or charged? How is it possible that he is working—of all places—in the clinic where her mother goes to receive her chemo?

Collins’s narrative is deeply absorbing, with a component of the psychological thriller in that at times, I wonder whether she is reliable. Things are certainly not what they seem. The resolution is surprising, yet fair to the reader. It’s a clever plot with layered characters, and I look forward to seeing what Collins writes in the future.

Recommended to those that love the genre.

Alumni Association, by Michael Rudolph**

I received a review copy courtesy of Net Galley and Random House Alibi. It’s a short book, but the time I took to read it felt like forever. The teaser says it is for fans of John Grisham, but this story is nowhere even close to the caliber of Grisham’s legal thrillers. It isn’t much of a thriller at all. 

Our protagonist is Beth Swahn. An old school has come up for sale, and there is all sorts of subterfuge involving nepotism, drug smugglers, and international intrigue surrounding the deal to purchase it; Beth’s stepfather is part of it. The premise is a decent one, but by the time the author is done with it, it’s dead on arrival. The book will be available to the public February 5, 2019. 

There are overlong passages of deadly dull dialogue, and then there are overlong passages of tedious narrative. The transitions are ragged, and all told it is surprising to me that Random House would go anywhere near this thing. It’s possible that the hand of a high profile editor might be helpful, but were anyone to weed out the extraneous crud, what would be left would be either a lengthy short story or a short novella. I would love to point to some positives, but beyond the premise, I simply cannot find any. 

Not recommended. 

As Directed, by Kathleen Valenti****

Oh, I do love me some Maggie O’Malley mysteries. Thanks go to Henery Press and Edelweiss Books for the review copy. This is the third in the series, and will be available to the public March 12, 2019.

Maggie is recovering from brain trauma inflicted on her by a bad guy in an earlier book. Maggie 2.0 is more savvy than before, tougher than before; yet she is impaired sometimes in memory and thought because of her injury, and this adds to the suspense.

But you can’t keep a good woman down and she is here to prove it. She is healing and also planning her wedding to Constantine, which is a delicate balancing act, with the senior women from her family and Constantine’s ready to do battle over critical world issues like frosting choice and the cut of the bridal gown. These things fade in importance, however, when three pharmacy customers collapse after ingesting cyanide that is traced to Petrosian’s Pillbox. They are forced to close indefinitely, and the police—who Maggie and Constantine agree are “falling short of Magnum P.I. status”—focus on two people of interest: Maggie, and her boss. Once again Maggie and Constantine must team up in order to save her job and her reputation. They have to unravel the problem themselves as they have done so successfully before. 

“What could possibly go wrong?”

Along the way we encounter newsman Brock, who follows Maggie relentlessly as he jumps out from behind dumpsters and whatnot with a microphone at all hours, and an admirer of sorts who is following her, leaving her threatening notes. Constantine points out that Maggie has a “two-fer” on stalkers, and he isn’t wrong. We also meet The Boulder, a steroidally enhanced bodybuilder that teaches spin class at the local gym; Maggie’s friend Ada works at the gym and serves as confidant. 

And Maggie gets a dog. 

Insightful humor pops into all the best places. Valenti knows all the timeworn clichés that hack writers utilize, and she turns them all on their heads in a delightfully satirical way. As we go, she deepens Maggie’s character and the bond she shares with Constantine, her father, Miss Vanilla, and now of course, the dog. 

I love the ending, and the creative uses that Maggie finds for bridal ribbon.

This is a damn fun series and you should get all three of these books, but if you want to read this as a stand-alone novel you can do it without getting lost. Recommended for those that like humorous mysteries.

An Anonymous Girl, by Hendricks and Pekkanen*****

Come into my lair, said the spider to the fly.

Jessica Farris is under a lot of stress, and she has a head full of secrets that she is afraid could bury her. It’s a lot to carry around, especially at such a tender age. She’s constantly worried about money, and so when she sees an opportunity to make easy money by taking a psychological survey, she leaps on it. And at first, it seems too good to be true.

I was invited to read and review this hair-on-fire novel by Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. It’s for sale now.

The study involves morally ambiguous questions.  When is it acceptable to lie? When is it acceptable to know something that’s important to someone you care about, yet choose not to share that knowledge? At the outset, the study appears to be scholarly and philosophical. And when Dr. Shields, the study’s author, invites Jessica to participate in field work for additional compensation, she can’t believe her good luck.  But from there, things escalate, and before she knows it, Jessica is perched on the edge of the inferno, and Dr. Shields is inching up behind her with outstretched fingertips.

Just at the moment that I grow impatient with Jessica’s helplessness and naiveté, she clues in and tries to work out a game plan, but it’s an unfair contest, because Dr. Shields has so much more money and knowledge. It’s like watching a heavyweight and a Bantam weight in the ring together; all that the smaller, less powerful contender has on her side is agility.

The story is told using alternating narratives, primarily between Dr. Shields and Jessica with occasional input from Thomas, Dr. Shields’s husband.  The chapters are quick ones, and the pacing is accelerated to where I sometimes forgot to breathe.  Every time I think I see where the authors are headed, it turns out to be a red herring, and yet there are no gimmicks or unfair tricks used to deceive the reader. It’s all right there.

Highly recommended.

New Iberia Blues, by James Lee Burke*****

New Iberia Blues is the twenty-second addition to the Dave Robicheaux series, which I will love till the day I die. The Denver Post has called Burke “America’s best novelist,” and the Mystery Writers of America made him a Grand Master. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book will be for sale January 8, 2019. 

The qualities that have made Burke’s writing famous include his lyrical prose, particularly with regard to setting, and a host of memorable characters, often with quirky names. His bad guys are wealthy and often come from Hollywood to the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, where the series is set, but he often also features a character or two that works for the wrong side, but is complicated and has redeeming qualities. All of these things hold true for this novel, which is one of Burke’s best. 

Dave Robicheaux is a cop in New Iberia, Louisiana, a senior citizen, thrice widowed and lonesome when our novel begins. Then an old acquaintance comes home after making it big:

Desmond Courmier’s success story was an improbable one, even among the many self-congratulatory rags-to-riches tales we tell ourselves in the ongoing saga of our green republic, one that is forever changing yet forever the same, a saga that also includes the grades of Shiloh and cinders from aboriginal villages. That is not meant to be a cynical statement. Desmond’s story was a piece of Americana, assuring us that wealth and a magical kingdom are available to the least of us, provided we do not awaken our own penchant for breaking our heroes on a medieval wheel and revising them later, safely downwind from history.
Desmond was not only born to privation, in the sleeper of a semi in which his mother tied off the umbilical cord and said goodbye forever; he was nurtured by his impoverished grandparents on the Chitimacha Indian Reservation in the back room of a general store that was hardly more than an airless shack. It stood on a dirt road amid treeless farmland where shade and a cold soda pop on the store gallery were considered luxuries, before the casino operators from Jersey arrived and, with the help of the state of Louisiana, convinced large numbers of people that vice is a virtue.

Desmond returns to the bayou in glory after hitting it big in the motion picture industry; he brings with him an unsavory character named Antoine Butterworth. While Dave is welcoming Desmond home, a terrible surprise looms into view: a boat on which a dead woman hangs on a wooden cross. It is plainly visible from Courmier’s deck, and yet he and Butterworth both deny seeing it. And with that, the story commences. 

A complicating factor is that screenwriter Alafair, Dave’s daughter, has begun dating Lou Wexler, a man involved in the film Desmond is making. She is an adult woman, and her father has absolutely no authority in any of her affairs, and yet he feels as if he should. He doesn’t like Wexler, and this creates friction between himself and his daughter.

But at the same time, Dave has plenty of issues of his own. The bottle still calls to him, and sometimes he experiences a ‘dry drunk,’ in which he consumes no alcohol but exhibits many of the same poor impulses as if he had done so. Alafair tells him in exasperation, “Dave, you use a nail gun on the people who love you most.”

One aspect of this book bothers me, and I briefly considered removing a star from the rating but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Nevertheless, the female characters in this novel, and in this entire series, need to be discussed. The very moment a young, nubile newcomer joins the force and is made Dave’s cop partner, I made a note. “Oh Christ, here we go. There’s no way she can exist and not be a romantic partner. Will she walk on the tops of his feet like his first three wives did? [yes.] Will his ears pop when they have sex? [yes.] And will he marry her and make her wife #4?” (Not telling.)

Burke has difficulty creating a female character who is not Dave’s relative and whose sexuality is not prominent or at least discussed. (His boss, Helen, is allowed to be an exception, but in every book we are told that she is a lesbian, as if business couldn’t proceed without this news.) Can we have an important female character whose sex life isn’t an issue, and can we see her developed in other respects? Of course, Burke is hardly alone in this regard, but the rest of what he writes is so outstanding that this one obvious flaw stands out like a ketchup stain on the Mona Lisa. 

Having said that, I can get back to the novel’s more congenial aspects, one of which is Dave’s closest friend, Clete Purcel. Clete can’t be a cop anymore because he doesn’t honor boundaries; however, this quality, combined with his loyalty to Dave, is what makes him so engaging and entertaining. Moreover, it is he who is most effective at pulling Dave away from the bars and the bottle. I cannot think of any literary sidekick that has been better developed across any series ever than Clete. I have a mental movie that runs when I read this series, and in my mind, Dave looks like a younger version of the author, and Clete—I only just realized the other day—shows up in my head as a sunburned Rodney Dangerfield. 

One other regard in which Burke consistently shines is his ability to create tragicomic side characters, and Smiley Wimple is unforgettable. Smiley is not all there, until he is. In fact, he may surface from beneath your bed. Smiley works as an assassin, but he also has standards. He needs to believe he is taking out a bad guy, or he won’t take the job. Smiley is fond of children, and he likes ice cream. Who knows? He might want to be your friend. And while I am on the subject—there’s some graphic material here, as is true for all of the books in this series; don’t count on this as meal time or bedtime reading. In fact, you may want a few extra lights turned on when you pick this one up. 

Lastly, this book can be read as a stand-alone. I entered the series halfway in when I was given a free paperback copy of The Tin Roof Blowdown; you can enter the series anywhere you prefer. However, if you love a complex, literary mystery and can tolerate a fair amount of violence, you will probably like it well enough to go find the rest and read them too. 

Masterfully written, and highly recommended. 

The Burglar, by Thomas Perry****

Thomas Perry’s tightly plotted suspense novels always keep me on the edge of my chair. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Mysterious Press for the review copy. This book will be available to the public January 8, 2019. 

Our protagonist is Elle, a twenty-four-year-old Californian that is also a professional burglar. She was raised by relatives that ditched her when she was barely grown, and so she makes her living taking jewelry from rich people’s houses. They in turn will file the loss with their insurance companies, so no harm, no foul. She is on one such expedition when she comes across three murdered people that were apparently killed while they were having a three-way on the homeowner’s bed. Worse: there’s at least one camera involved. It might provide the identity of the killer, but then it might provide her identity as well. What’s a girl to do? 

In the real world, the answer would be simple: you were never there. Destroy the camera, go through the wallets for any cash, then get gone fast. Elle has no police record, so even if she wasn’t gloved up, her prints wouldn’t matter, nor would her DNA. Just go. 

But that wouldn’t make for an interesting story, now would it? 

Elle decides to make sure that the cops get the camera, but without her identity on it. This adds a twist, requiring her to break in again in order to return the camera once she’s looked at it and done the other things she needs to do, but in the midst of all this she is being stalked by a mysterious black SUV. In time it becomes clear that someone associated with the house, and likely associated with the murders, wants to kill her. In order to stay alive without going to jail, she must learn the killer’s identity and get the proof to the cops, again without being implicated herself. 

There are a number of places here where I stop, roll my eyes and say, No way. For one thing, Elle owns her own house. How does an orphaned 24-year-old afford a Los Angeles home? I could easily see her squatting in a house that’s for sale, or even inheriting a house from a dead relative after her other family members scarper out of the area, but to have purchased real estate by age 24? No no no no. How does a young woman like that even have a credit history? It defies common sense. In addition, Elle has a vast amount of knowledge in many different areas despite her lack of formal education. How does a 24-year-old know about the history of architecture in Southern California, just for one example? 

But here’s the interesting thing. Despite all of these inconsistencies, I wanted to keep reading. I usually have somewhere between four and ten books going at a time, in various locations and on various devices, and this was not the only good book I was reading at the time; yet when it was time to kick back and read, this one is the one I most wanted to read. And this has never happened to me before. Usually a book with so many holes in the plot and in the construction of the protagonist either causes me to abandon the title or more frequently, plod through it simmering with resentment because I have committed myself to writing a fair review. But not here. With Perry’s book, while part of my brain is tallying the impossible aspects of the novel, the other part of my brain asks, “So what happens next?”

The simple truth is that despite everything, Thomas Perry is a master of suspense. This is what keeps me coming back to him, every stinking time. There’s nobody that writes taut, fast-paced novels of suspense the way this guy does, and so come what may, I had to finish this novel, not out of obligation but for myself, and for the same reason, I will come back to read him again, again, and again.

Best Mystery of 2018

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TheCraftsman

Best Fiction by a Pacific Northwest Author 2018

Seattle Book Mama counts it down. For the genres already named, see the separate link at the top of this page.

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