When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen

Read August to September 2019
Recommended for fans of poetry
★   ★    ★   

#3 on the recent attempt at TBR books that Turned Out to be Okay But Not Amazing

Asthetics were totally pleasing and tempting. Love the cover, love the formatting of the poetry, love the repetition of the name. And that title! How could I not give it a try?

Along with a ‘Foreword,’ it contains an introduction, three sections and an afterword. In the foreword, Jericho Brown writes, “a speaker whose obsessive and curious nature is that of an adult who refuses to give up seeing through the eyes of an adolescent, one who believes that the world is a malleable place and that asking the right questions changes its form.”

I don’t know about the later bit, but I would agree that the feel of these poems is that of an young person, though through collegiate age more than ‘adolescent.’ In fact, I was highly reminded of my own college years and discussions with non-American born friends. This, I suppose, a testament to a strength and weakness of the collection. Most of it was about identity (gay, Chinese, immigrant, young), and the not unexpected issues that come with that time period. Relationships are particularly important, particularly with parents and God (or lack thereof), along with themes of sexuality, race, parental illness and love.

‘In the Hospital’

My mother was in the hospital & everyone wanted to be my friend.
but I was busy making a list: good dog, bad citizen, short
skeleton, tall mocha. Typical Tuesday.
My mother was in the hospital & no one wanted to be her friend.
Everyone wanted to be soft cooing sympathies. Very reasonable
pigeons. No one had the time & our solution to it
was to buy shiner watches. We were enamored with
what our wrists could declare. My mother was in the hospital
& I didn’t want to be her friend. Typical son. Tall latte, short tale
bad plot, great wifi in the atypical cafe. My mother was in the hospital
& she didn’t want to be her friend. she wanted to be the family
grocery list. Low-fat yogurt, firm tofu. She didn’t trust my father
to be it. You always forget something, she said, even when
I do the list for you. Even then.’

Warning: he tends to talk a lot about his mother.

Style is usually free-form, with a lyricism that reminds me of Adrienne Rich and usually works for me. Occasionally he is capable of sublime description:

‘The reader’s face is a child’s rapt face. The book is her latest
soul, disguised as a more or less acceptable concrete object.
The child is happy. The afternoon a novel.’

–from ‘In Search of the Least Abandoned Constellation

There’s also some playful, lyrical bits:

‘i pledge allegiance to the already fallen snow
& to the snow now falling. to the old snow & the new.
to foot & paw & tire prints in the snow both young & aging,
the deep & shallow marks left on cold streets, our long

misbegotten manuscripts. i pledge allegiance to the weather
report that promises more snow, plus freezing rain.
though i would minus the pluvial & plus the multitude

of messages pressed muddy into the perfectly
mutable snow, i have faith in the report that goes on to read:
by the end of the week, there will be an increased storm-related
illegibility of the asphalt & concrete & brick. for i pledge’

–from ‘For I Will Do/Undo What Was Done/Undone To Me

Interestingly, though it reminded me in many ways, both stylistically and thematically of The Dream of a Common Language,** the poetry was more temporal and culturally defined, and thus didn’t transcend as well. Here, in 2019, I can read Dream and empathize. Chen mentions Starbucks, reality tv, Journey to the West, Monkey King’s quest, Power Rangers, Cheney (as in Dick), and Harry Potter (at least twice). Which is fine–don’t get me wrong–but I think that is part of what feels both adolescent and specific about this collection.

It also feels like Chen occasionally works too hard to mash some of his images together (see above list). Along those lines, the poems seem to occasionally lack a consistent finish, despite many of them seeming to tell a story. The above poem that ostensibly talks about snow, streets and writing concludes with a stanza about the listener forgetting a suitcase as they fly to another country “& the weather where your true love is/ governed by principles or persons you can’t name” which just seems abrupt from everything that went before.

Still, there’s a lot to like here. I think it will resonate more fully if one is finding themselves struggling with similar issues or in a similar age period.

‘Self Portrait As So Much Potential

Dreaming of one day being as fearless as a mango.

As friendly as a tomato. Merciless to chin & shirtfront.
Realizing I hate the word “sip.”
But that’s all I do.
I drink. So slowly.
& say I’m tasting it. When I’m just bad at taking in liquid.’

I agree; lots of potential.

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Bad Blood by John Carryou

Read July 2019
Recommended for fans of exposés
★   ★    ★   

Lessons learned:

  1. Elizabeth Holmes speaks in an unusually deep voice.
  2. What matters is who you know. If you look good and have the right connections, you can get millions of dollars for your imaginary device, particularly if you model it on the iPhone and dress like Steve Jobs.
  3. Even very rich people can be stupid with money.
  4. Sometimes the people that aren’t stupid are only supporting you for the money.

Rather outside my normal genres of mystery, sci-fi and fantasy, Bad Blood intrigued me both because of its medical focus and because I heard it was a particularly well-done story. Although I will once again offer up a more appropriate title: Bad Blood Tech, because the blood itself here is perfectly fine. Absolutely normal, in fact. Perfectly healthy blood that’s put into a nefarious machine, sold by a flim-flam operator of the highest level.

The storytelling is very straight-forward, generally devoid of literary flourishes and with only minor asides. In fact, at times the writing seems simplistic. On reflection, I think Carreyrou had to keep his sentences as factual as possible, knowing that Holmes’ lawyers would go over every word looking to dispute it. As such, it reads quickly. Until, that is, you you develop Toxic Exposure Syndrome, the experience of immersing yourself in the world of unrepentant and awful people. I found I had to take a break, and once stopped, was reluctant to pick it up. I solved my little dilemma by reading backwards, and was relieved to discover that the narrative eventually switches from the meteoric ‘rise’ of Thantos to the development of the Wall Street Journal‘s expose. That’s when the crazy took an actively evil direction with Thantos harassing former employees, potential sources and anyone who might speak to Carreyrou about Thantos.

What surprised me the most about this story is how many people Elizabeth Holmes was able to convince to part with their money. Sure, it seems she genuinely believed in her product and its potential. But the goal was a product used to test blood for diagnostic purposes. Even the most simple nurse (cough-cough) could tell you that there’s certification involved. This isn’t a Kickstarter for your new book, or a new design for luggage, or even an up-and-coming app that will tell you if the concert you are at will burst your eardrums (this is a thing). Tests almost always have to be run past the FDA. But basically, thanks to an impressive amount of seed money through family connections, she was able to keep her pyramid scam going by finding new people and just enough opportunities to parlay small successes into looking like big ones. Until they turned to outright lies.

I do have to thank Carreyrou, though. We were sitting around work in the break room the other day, in our fifteen by fifteen space shared by roughly twenty people a shift, and someone was commiserating on how awful our jobs were right now. “Well,” I said, “at least we have our souls.”

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A Time of Torment by John Connolly

Read July 2019
Recommended for series fans
★   ★    ★  

Here’s the thing: I’ve been reading Bad Blood and I was in the mood for some retribution, so I switched to Connolly’s Charlie Parker series. Being more than a bit skittish with torture-porn, the title stirred some misgivings, but I can’t skip a book this late in the game. To absolutely no one’s surprise, much of the book seems to center on torture. While that’s not unusual for Connolly, what is unusual is the extent of it as a leitmotif in many variations. This, apparently, allows Parker to become a hunter of evil.

I mean, I get it. You aren’t going to use a vengeful fallen angel on just any old embezzler or murderer, right? But the book opens with a peek into the head of the current home of an evil spirit who resides in a man who really gets his groove on by torturing the survivors of missing persons. Parker & Co. pay a visit, seeking some information. We then move on to a bar, where a woman is picking up a man, the mark for her three-person team, but little does she know that the tables will be turned. Parker is then visited by a heroic ex-con who wants justice against those who set him up, and who have likely ‘disappeared’ two of the people he saved. Is he a genuine hero or a pedophile or both?

Meanwhile, we are checking in with a small town and a small boy who lives with his mother and grandmother and who has a talent for seeing things he shouldn’t. There’s a very tightly knit family at the center of a large piece of property and they have no tolerance for trespassers–or anything that might draw legal attention their way. Yes, yes; Parker runs into yet another cult.

The beginning is rather distressing for those with low torture tolerance (me) and may require some skimming. But it’s still written well, and if it isn’t fun, at least the reader knows there will be punishment. But the Evil does seem to get out of control in this book, mostly because the sheer preponderance of the ways people can inflict torture on each other (really; if I can’t think of one that wasn’t used, it’s because I don’t want to brainstorm), but also because doesn’t come close to being balanced with Parker, Lewis or Angel, all of whom carry their own kinds of darkness. 

The narrative and plot unify in the last half of the book; in the Acknowledgements, Connolly calls it an ‘odd book,’ and I’m inclined to agree, because it feels more patchwork than it ought for the first third (quiet about my math). A slight bit touching on the supernatural as always. Does it progress our knowledge? Only slightly, to note Parker’s role is no longer tortured, but purposeful.

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Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry by Christie Wilcox

Read July 2019
Recommended for people who really like venoms
★   ★   1/2

First of all, let’s just knock it off with those subtitles, shall we? Because I am so tired of having to rewrite them in my head. If you took all the biochemistry in this book and distilled it, I think you’d have fifteen pages, plus a couple of diagrams. So, no. How about, ‘Exploring Venoms and Their Various Effects’? Not sexy, I know. But frankly, is biochemistry? No, it’s not. In fact, they were the geeks at my school. The only ones higher on the nerd-brain scale were the neuro-psych majors. (You could argue geo-physics was pretty nerdy too, but I didn’t know anyone who actually did such things). What, you say? I digress? Well, yes, I do. Just like Wilcox does.

You want a very good review, please check out Jennifer’s thoughts here . I read it anyway, because Jennifer is a biologist, and I was kind of hoping there was a fair amount of information in here that she was taking for granted. Not really. Listen to Jennifer, people!

And I’ll tell you quite frankly, she was absolutely correct: Wilcox is not a very good writer. I hope she is better at research in the lab, because frankly, her anecdotes show she is also kind of terrible at decision-making in the field (approaching a Komodo dragon? Touching a rock without looking while diving? Sending kids to find sea urchins where they can find dangerous ones?) Furthermore, the pictures in the book are of rather poor quality. That is to say, were they blown up and poster-size, they’d be awesome resources. Shrunk to 5×4 inches, not so much. I can’t even read what’s going on. The one with the different animals acting on different parts of the clotting cascade is ridiculous, and not in a ha-ha kind of way.

But, if you are tempted, this is what you will find in Nine Chapters:

  1. Masters of Physiology: platypus. So cute! Except their venom-secreting spurs. Venoms and how chromotography advanced their study. Genomics now advancing it.
  2. Death Becomes Them: median lethal dosage to determine potency (with a Phylum chart, fun! Stay away from box jellies and taipans (snake) where it takes 0.01 IV. She then discusses some ins and outs of how humans perceived venoms through history, then segues into evolution. There’s a theory, the ‘Snake Detection Theory,’ that predation pressure pushed primates into needing more acute vision. This is tied to the fact that primates seem instinctively afraid of and visually sensitive to snakes, as well as the more ‘lethal’ snakes being the Old World vipers. She then points out mosquitos actual have the most ‘lethal’ venom in the sense that they kill millions through being a vector for bacteria. (There’s also an aside on what it might mean to kill all the mosquitos. Answer: no one is sure, but it’s a large biomass to remove).
  3. Of Mongeese and Men: co-evolution, mostly between snakes and victims. Goes into innate and adaptive immune systems, and a short bit on how some anti-venom is made by injecting a horse with venom and then harvesting blood a few weeks later. Back to co-evolution; the reason mongooses can shrug off venom is because it has evolved changes in the cells that most snake neurotoxins target. Pigs, honey badgers, and hedgehogs all have evolved versions of this as well. There’s some speculation that snakes may have developed more lethal venom because of pressure from predation. It concludes with a segment about “self-immunizers” who actually have an acronym, ‘SI,’ and are clearly a little nutty.
  4. To the Pain: bullet ants (with picture), scorpion fish, Odysseus. The ‘cost’ of making venom and the evolution pressure. Sea urchin spines (with picture). This feels like the least sciency- chapter and is about Wilcox being daring.
  5. Bleed it Out: a nice explanation of blood, platelets, hemoglobin and hemotoxic venoms. Searching for the Lonomia moth caterpillar in Peru, whose spines cause a hemorrhagic syndrome by first setting off a clotting cascade and causing DIC. Interestingly, she wears skinny jeans on the airplane, her luggage gets lost and so she has to wear them in the jungle, because she’s never learned anything about the carry-on spare outfit. Then there’s leeches. She tells a story of a college instructor’s story (!) and has this for a paragraph, “Some venom molecules start at the beginning of the clotting cascade, binding to the platelet receptors or exposed ECM components such as collagen. Others break down or tie up ADP, XA2, epinephrine, and serotonin to keep them from acting. Then there are the ones that act further down the line, blocking thrombin and its key role in coagulation. There are enzymes: phopholipases, metalloproteases, hyaluronidases, and apyrases….” The list continues, then a new paragraph goes on to all the ways leeches have been used and how three anticoagulants in use now are venom-derived. Last little bit is a journey to meet a Komodo dragon (and having to be told not to get too close!) and learning it’s bite isn’t toxic so much as an anti-coagulant.
  6. All the Better to Eat You With: venoms can cause necrosis. She spends two pages imagining this in general. There’s a little bit of biochem here, where the phosopholipases break down muscle cell membranes, but then gets vague, as in, “additional venom enzymes, including hyaluronidases and serine proteases, add to the carnage.” The cell death activates the immune response, so inflammatory pathways also cause some of the damage. The ‘spider bite’ people have that sends them to the MD are probably MRSA in many cases. Brown recluse bites are nasty as a result of sphingomyelinase D which is also found in bacteria toxin. Snake imagery was very popular on flags during 1778. Then there’s two pages on what makes a good venom protein: secreted, do fundamental biochemical actions, are fast-acting, are stable, and come in bunches.
  7. Don’t Move: the blue-ringed octopus illustrates the sodium ion channel, which Wilcox tries very hard to explain. There’s even one of those small diagrams. This leads into cone snails,  which, once they injected into the brain, discovered different effects, including a pain-killer for people but a paralytic for fish. She then discusses the evolution rate of the cone snail gene and how it came to evolve so many different toxins.
  8. Mind Games: snake venoms and the weirdos who use them to get high, the jewel wasp and it’s zombie-making-neurotoxic venom.
  9. Lethal Lifesavers: famous drugs from venoms, including the newest diabetes drugs (Trulicity) from the Gila monster and Captopril (pit viper vasodilator) as well as potentially harvesting immune response to use in cancer or immune disorders


tl;dr: I think if you lower your expectations, you might glean some factoids, depending on your biological or animal or evolutionary knowledge.
You are welcome. You all owe me a thorough book review.

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Blanche Cleans Up by Barbara Neely

Read July 2019
Recommended for 
★   ★   ★   1/2

The other day I was thinking about what a mystery story would be like if the main character wasn’t an investigator, or an ex-cop, or a rich person with a penchant for trouble. What would a story be like, I wondered, if someone found themselves in it, so to speak? And then along comes Blanche Cleans Up to answer my question.

Blanche White has been working as a household domestic and has recently moved with her sister’s two children up to Boston from South Carolina. As a favor to a cousin, she agrees to temporarily replace Miz Inez as the housekeeper-cook for the wealthy Brindles so Miz Inez can vacation with Cousin Charlotte.

Although there are two Blanche books before this one, here is where Neely really hits her mystery stride. It’s more complicated than prior mysteries, although parts are perhaps a little passé, coming from the perspective of 1998. Maybe not. But still, it is good. It reads quickly and is moderately suspenseful.

“Blanche always called her employers ma’am and sir to their faces. It put just the right amount of distance between them and her and was good cover when she couldn’t remember their names.”

What’s really the most enjoyable here is Blanche. Her reflections on the social dynamics at the house of her temporary employers’, her efforts to provide a safe environment for her kids, her participation and support of black women and the larger Black community; as she goes about these things, the reader experiences them with her, and occasionally even learn with her. There’s quite a diversity of experiences and thoughts, and if there’s a social message that may seem a little heavily applied at times, it doesn’t last long, or it is balanced out with humor or interesting characters.

I recognize’s Blanche’s tendency to ‘poke the bear,’ as we used to call it, in one of her interactions with another worker at the Brindle’s:

“‘I don’t get it,’ Blanche said. ‘You Christians say god made everything and everybody, which has gotta include lesbians. But then you say lesbians are ungodly. Seems to me that you, your pastor, or your God is very confused, honey.’

Carrie looked at her as though Blanche had just grown horns. ‘I’m gonna put you in my prayers.’ She hurried away to the laundry room and closed the door firmly behind her. Blanche could hear her shrieking some hymn about being delivered from the heathen. It was so tuneless and off-key, Blanche suspect Carrie had made it up for her benefit.”

I can’t help but chuckle a little at her obstinacy.  But she keeps working at building a relationship as well as opening Carrie’s mind to positive acquaintance-ship, if nothing else.

She ends up getting a resolution to the various puzzles she encounters not because she’s determined necessarily to solve a mystery, but because she wants to help a friend, or to make things right. A quick read with a lot of broad insight into what life might be like for an empowered woman of color.   Recommended.

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Finder by Suzanne Palmer

Read July 2019
★   ★   ★   ★   

A bit of a slow start that required a reboot, then once I reached chapter seven or so, became very hard to put down.

It didn’t occur to me while reading, but when I set out to review, well, there’s this Scottish Earther-turned-Martian-rebel repo man, Fergus Feguson, far out in the farthest reaches of the human-occupied galaxy on a run to reclaim a stolen starship for some Shipmaker friends:


He meets up with a friendly, feisty, elderly lichen farmer who turns out to be a good person to know in a pinch, which leads him to her extended family and their neighbor the weapons dealer.

He’s in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up touching off a troublesome series of events that were probably going to happen anyway.

But don’t worry, this is a good kind of book.


It was particularly fun in it’s use of gravity and deep space, requiring me to think a little harder about the spacial dynamics of what was happening. Yes, there’s some problems, but you don’t read a book like this looking for them. You strap in and go for the ride.



Recommended for fans of Leviathan Wakes, Blade Runner, Locke Lamora series, Star Wars–you know, fans of rogues with-a-heart-of-gold, fast action and daring heroics.

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Genesis by Bernard Beckett

Read July 2019
★   ★   ★   1/2



I present for your consideration this 150 page work by Bernard Beckett. While we might expect a story framed as a four-hour thesis presentation would be dry, the use of historical reinactments as well as the integration of personal memories and thoughts of Anax, the lead charcter, give it an unexpected liveliness. Thus, though it occasionally has the feel of a Socratic dialogue, it is a surprisingly quick read.

Anax is applying to The Academy, and her thesis project is on Adam Forde, one of the key historical figures in the Republic, an island nation founded and isolated behind a sea wall while the rest of the world went through climate change and infighting.

“EXAMINER: Define spirit.

The Examiner’s voice was carefully modulated, the sort of effect that could be achieved with the cheapest of filters. Only it wasn’t technology that Anax heard; it was control, pure and simple. Ever pause, every flickering of uncertainty: the Examiners observed them all. This, surely, was how they decided. Anax felt suddenly slow and unimpressive. She could still hear Pericles’ last words. “They want to see how you will respond to the challenge. Don’t hesitate. Talk your way toward understanding. Trust the words.” And back then it had seemed so simple…

ANAXIMANDER: By spirit I mean to say something about the prevailing mood of the time. Human spirit is the ability to face the uncertainty of the future with curiosity and optimism. It is the belief that problems can be solved, differences resolved. It is a type of confidence. And it is fragile. It can be blackened by fear, and superstition. By the year 2050, when the conflict began, the world had fallen upon fearful, superstitious times.”

I present to you a novel of ideas, and like a novel geared towards the young and new adult reader, some of the ideas are intriguing in presentation but ultimately, lack both subtlety of thought and depth of discussion. I posit the somewhat heretical view that Beckett becomes constrained by format and that his desire for a surprise ending limits what can be achieved.

The history of the Republic apparently hinges on an AI learning through interaction with Adam. For me, that was a major stop point when I first read it. Like the teenagers who venture into the basement in a horror movie, there was no good rationale politically, so I felt very conscious of either a deus ex machina or a complicated political rationale that did not square with Anax’s presentaiton.

Still, once I accepted this shockingly illogical construction, the rest of the book flowed smoothly. I appreciated the discussion of ideas, and while I had anticipated this might be the tinest sleep-inducing novel, it wasn’t in the least. I think that, as much as anything, demonstrates how surface level the points raised were–let us call it Overview of Philosophy. That isn’t a complaint, mind you; it’s a statement meant to provide illumination for potential readers. 

As a final note, I’ll say that unlike others, I disliked the ending. I felt like it was trickery over story/world congruity. Still, an otherwise enjoyable, mildly thought-provoking read.

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The Toll by Cherie Priest

Read July 2019
Recommended for fans of Southern Gothic
★   ★   1/2   

Loosely billed as ‘horror,’ I don’t think that The Toll earns the genre. With a Southern Gothic atmosphere, it has a dual plot line that only intersects near the end. One story begins with a bored seventeen-year-old boy, Cameron, his elderly witchy godmothers and the restless feeling of wanting change. The other plot surrounds a squabbling honeymooning couple headed to a cabin in the Okefenokee swamp, who experience something surreal as they cross a strange bridge. Because the tone between the two stories feels so different, it almost feels like two books in one. I read an advance reader copy, and parts of it still felt like a draft. In fact, in the end notes, Priest notes that it was written around the time of a cross-country move and selling a house, and I can’t help but feel quality was sacrificed. Still, it was occasionally diverting. 

Characterization was decent. Although the cast was often interesting, one of the challenges for me is that they were difficult to care about, as almost all of them were ethically challenged. The honeymooners, Titus and Melissa, are a mess. Cameron, the seventeen year-old, is basically a shallow, developmentally younger boy. The elderly godmothers were the most entertaining, but felt a little to contrived and cryptic at times. Still, they were by far my favorite characters. Dialogue occasionally feels awkward but actually quite real. A quote from Titus:

“He had a feeling that much of his forseeable future would be dedicated to keeping his mouth shut. He didn’t like how he felt about that feeling.”

Setting was decent, but didn’t really immerse me in the swamp until the last quarter. I had more of a feel for the idiosyncrasies of the town than the swamp. While Titus goes into the general description of the bridges and the water as they approach the reserve, it’s more the affection of an alligator fan and casual visitor than a person that knows the biology and plants of the swamp. I’ve read quite a few mysteries set in swamps that gave me a much better appreciation for the heavy, still air and stagnant pools of algae-crusted water.

Many points in the book felt underdeveloped or not well-thought out. At one point, Priest throws in something about Nick in the bar being a ghost. It was a moment of mental whiplash; not that I minded, but suddenly there was this new thing I had to integrate into my understanding of this village. Likewise, Cameron is surprised to learn the object of his crush is actually in her thirties. We’ve already read how this is a one-horse town; this seems surprising to me when he’s lived there for fourteen years. The fact that Priest makes a point of small facts is frustrating as they seem to provide points to catch oneself on instead of enhancing the scenery–somewhat like walking a path with many branches blocking the way. I suppose it added to the atmosphere of strangeness in the town, but mostly it left me a little bit puzzled.

Take Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman, cross it with American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett. Change the desert cliffs to deep swamp, throw in squabbling honeymooners instead of a gentle romance, and there you go: The Toll.  Mostly it felt like a lot of ideas jumbled together and needed more development to grow them into something intimidating and ominous. On my diverting read scale, I’d rate it below Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep. If you want a good Lovecraft tale, go with Winter Tide or The Ballad of Black Tom.


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Newcomer by Keigo Higashino

Read July 2019
Recommended for fans of Miss Marple
★   ★   ★   1/2

In each Higashino Sgt. Kaga mystery I’ve read, he’s done something quite unique, and in Newcomer, he surprised me again with his unusual approach to the mystery of a strangled woman.  One of the conceits of the story is that Sgt. Kaga is new to the Nihonbashi district, which apparently resembles “old” Tokyo; as he goes into different shops and houses, the reader gets the feel for a distinct place and time. Much like Miss Marple going to visit Dottie Bantry for tea and stopping to talk with Bert the gardener on the way, this is as much a slice-of-life as it is mystery.

The book is broken up into a series of nine chapters, eight of them focused on a cluster of interviewees related by household or shop, such as ‘The Girl at the Rice Cracker Shop,’ ‘The Apprentice at the Japanese Restaurant,’ and ‘The Daughter-in-Law of the China Shop.” The stores are quiet businesses, family-run, often with the family living in back or upstairs of the shops.

There’s a cast of dramatic personae at the beginning, which was much appreciated by the end. There’s a wide group of people involved, and it is interesting to see their reactions to the police investigation, wondering what is going on, and how their information will be used. It’s also interesting as a reader to be playing detective and wondering where people are being inaccurate or fudging the truth. However, after the third chapter or so, it’s clear that the author has something other than just slight-of-hand in mind. I won’t spoil the approach he took, except to say that I especially appreciated it in context of a particularly brutal and anti-heroic time in literature.

If you are looking for something outside the normal noir or humorous mystery, perhaps something along the lines of a Japanese Miss Marple in modern-retro Japan, Lt. Kaga is the way to go.


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Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn

Read July 2019
Recommended for those who want hope at the end of the world
★   ★   ★   1/2

Vaughn has a easy-to-read style, and it didn’t take me long to finish Bannerless, despite persistent déjà vu.  I read the second book in ‘The Bannerless Saga,’ The Wild Ones, last year, and a short story set earlier in this world, but I at times I was so disconcerted that I ended up checking Goodreads to see if I had read this book before.

As in The Wild Ones, Bannerless involves Investigators called to a seemingly idyllic small town to investigate a dead body. In both cases, the circumstances are vague enough that it could potentially be ruled an accidental death, but is just suspicious enough to deserve investigation. In Bannerless, Enid is with her professional mentor, Thomas, and in the second book, she leads her own mentee. Narrative in both is interspersed with Enid’s own memories.

The world-building is very intriguing. With a combination of decimation of population and a return to agricultural-based, mostly-subsistence lifestyle, at times the story is literally pastoral. Bannerless sets it up almost believably, with the explanation that the world slid into chaos gradually, with one disaster after another, until rebuilding became financially impossible.

The mood is thoughtful, and introspective. Because the narrative flips back and forth between Enid’s adolescence and the investigation, it feels as if the stories progress well, even as there is rather incremental and non-dramatic action. The earlier narrative is a coming-of-age story that gives an intriguing opportunity to explore the world. The set-up of the investigation is interesting, because Investigators are not precisely police and have to also rely on political presence over force. I wouldn’t go into it looking for an edgy or fast-paced crime; more a slice-of-life challenge.

But the rest of it feels similar.Part of the first chapter was included in an apocalypse anthology some time ago, edited by John Joseph Adams. There was also a short story prequel to this world as well, so part of the sense of familiarity was justified. At any rate, ‘familiar’ in this case did not mean ‘bad.’ Overall, I recommend it, particularly if you enjoyed Station Eleven, or want to take a look at post-fall in a more hopeful, potentially real fashion (no zombies, asteroids or supernatural events).

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