Saturday, September 30, 2017

China Boy

By Gus Lee

They could see the writing on the wall: the Communists were winning. As rich Chinese people, they could stay and end up in a re-education camp. Or they could flee. So leaving behind the wealth, status and position they fled, ending up in San Francisco, California. And California was were Kai Ting was born, the only son of his mother and father.
But life in California was so different. For one thing, they were no longer wealthy. Accustomed to lives of wealth and influence, in America, that was no longer the case. Even though the father had a steady job, they could only afford a home in one of the roughest neighborhoods of San Francisco.
Life was hard for Kai. He was the only Chinese boy in his neighborhood. Also, he was small and garbled his words. The local street kids were brutal and he stayed inside with his mom and his sisters where it was safe.
But then his mother died and his father remarried. The stepmother was not a kindly or understanding woman and she was determined to destroy Kai's Chinese culture. She locked him out of the house all day, only letting him inside at night. This left him to the mercy of the cruel street kids and he was constantly being beaten and abused by them. His father was incapable of standing up to his new wife and the best thing he figured out to do was enroll his son in boxing classes at the YMCA.
Kai meets a group of caring and committed men at the YMCA. They see his struggle and they guide him into understanding himself and his place in the community and they give him the tools to stand up to the vicious characters in his neighborhood. The novel ends with Kai facing the worst of them and finally also fighting against his stepmother's abuse.

This is an OK story. There is a huge amount of boxing in the story. Lots and lots of boxing. The only thing that makes all the boxing bearable are the stories about the instructors at the YMCA. But even so, I was getting pretty tired of the boxing towards the last section of the book. Not a fan of boxing, nor reading about boxing. All the boxing sort of ruined it for me. I know, the boxing saved his life.  But if I had known the book had so much boxing in it, I wouldn't have bothered to read it.

Kirkus Reviews:

In the Fall

By Jeffrey Lent

Norman Pelham left his family's farm in Vermont to fight against the rebels in the Civil War. He suffers a head wound and is found in the woods by a runaway slave, Leah. Leah is young and beautiful and, for Norman, it is love at first sight. He takes her home to Vermont.
His mother and sister are not thrilled to that Norman has married a black woman, but they accept it. Norman takes over the farm and he and Leah have three kids, two girls and a boy.
There are no other black people in rural Vermont where the Pelhams live. Leah encounters a black man at a fair and she starts brooding about her past. She decides she needs to confront her past and try to locate her relatives she left behind. So she leaves the farm and heads down south. What she finds out disturbs her greatly and she returns home to Vermont only to commit suicide.
Her youngest child is wrecked by his mother's death and grows up to runaway from the farm, never to return. He enters into a life of crime as a bootlegger. But he comes to a bad end, never telling his only child, Foster, the truth about his past. Finding a letter in his father's effects, Foster learns that he has family in Vermont and travels to the farm, which is now being run by Norman & Leah's two old-maid daughters. Foster is totally surprised to discover that his grandmother was a black woman. Getting to know his two aunts and learning about the grandmother's death, Foster decides he will go down south and try to understand what was so terrible that his grandmother preferred to be dead rather than live with the truth.

This is really engrossing family saga. I kept hoping that things would work out for these sad yet worthy people and it was heartbreaking to see them suffer and fall. But young Foster is the one who uncovers the past and brings a measure of justice to the author of his grandmother's despair. Just a wonderful story, I enjoyed tremendously.

Publishers Weekly review:

The Last Laugh

By Lynn Freed

Three ladies on the cusp of seventy decide to leave their homes in California for a house on a Greek island. They want to escape the demands of their families and just kick back and enjoy being together.
But all three women have complicated lives, with lots of attachments and kids and grandkids, ex-husbands, ex-lovers, dead husbands and other hangers-on. Inevitably, their attachments follow them to Greece and bring with them all the old complications. Because, no matter where you go, you are always there.

I read this book partly because it was described as, "wildly funny,"  "hilarious," and "rich in humor." These people who describe books this way must be much more easily amused than I am. I didn't find the book to be funny, in fact, it became rather grim and disturbing towards the end, when one of the ladies kills someone.
But, even though it wasn't particularly funny, I still found it interesting, especially since I have that fantasy too, of traveling to Greece and staying on one of the islands.  The book cover is the other reason why I picked the book up, the building on the cover looks like something you would see in Santorini. The author certainly fed the fantasy, as she makes the islands & the people & the food very appealing!

Kirkus Reviews:

Notes From a Small Island

By Bill Bryson

Bryson, originally from Iowa, lived (and maybe still lives) in Great Britain for many years. One of the things he enjoyed/enjoys doing is traveling around Britain and seeing the sights and hiking the trails and footpaths and viewing Britain from an American perspective.
Only a few pages into the book, Bryson describes how he spent his first night in Britain on a bench outdoors because he couldn't afford the rates at the only hotel open at that time of night. He got so cold he put on all his warmest clothes and even put a pair of flannel boxers on his head. Early the next morning, he got up and asked a local man if he knew of a restaurant that might be open. He did and directed Bryson to it, saying it was where the truck drivers ate and so would have good food. He then recommend to Bryson that, "You might want to take them pants off your head before you go in."
Bryson was smitten by British place names. He listed as "endearingly insane" towns such as Chew Magna, Prittlewell, Little Rollright, Titsey, Woodstock Slop, and Nether Wallop.
This book is a lot of fun. Bryson always amuses and he still manages to make parts of Britain sound appealing, even in the pouring rain. One of the best things about Bryson's travel tales is his great sense of humor and his ability to laugh at himself.

Kirkus Reviews:

Friday, September 01, 2017

Artists in Crime

By Ngaio Marsh

The setting is 1930s Britain. Inspector Alleyn is on his way home from the Far East when he meets a talented female artist. He admires her work, she is not receptive.
Back home in Britain, he is called to investigate a murder at a country estate that just happens to be the home of the standoffish artist, Agatha Troy.
Miss Troy is running an artist colony out of her home and several artists are working together on their projects. The current project is a nude study featuring a young woman model. This woman is the victim  that has sent Alleyn to the scene. She was stabbed to death while posing for the artists, by means of an unlikely trap.
So Alleyn has to interview this collection of free spirits and try to determine which one of them had it in for the dead woman. It turms out the woman was a blackmailer with multiple victims among the group. Alleyn has to figure out who had enough and decided to finish her off to shut her mouth. But first he has to get past the red herring set up to point the police in the wrong direction. And keep his mind on his work while falling for the aloof and elusive Agatha Troy.

This was an okay read. I did find the police interviews with the suspects rather dull after a bit. And I wasn't surprised when the main suspect turned up dead. But the identity of the real killer came as a bit of a surprise, although a person cleverer than me probably saw the clues right away.

I do have a quibble with the story. One of the plot details features aspirin. The story implies that taking aspirin is similar to taking a sleeping pill. Now, I don't know about the aspirin they had in Britain in the 1930s, but aspirin here in the States is merely a pain reliever and does not induce sleep.
My copy of the book was published in 1980, but the original novel dates from the 1930s. I am wondering if the author used some other pain reliever common in Britain with the soporific side effect mentioned in the story and the publishers here changed it to aspirin, which would be more familiar to an American audience. Because it is hard to believe that a woman as smart as Ngaio Marsh would make such an obvious mistake about the effects of aspirin.