Wednesday, March 18, 2015

BOOK LOG 42: THE SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN


by Naomi Hirahara

Another entry in the Mas Arai mysteries, about the geriatric Japanese-American detective whose English nor his Japanese are neither so good. But he nevertheless manages to find the culprit! Hiroshima survivor Mas Arai is a widower and longtime resident of Southern California, whose daughter lives in New York City. He lives alone and while his clientele is steadily dwindling (either they move or they find someone cheaper or they die off), he nonetheless knows a lot of people. In this story, an acquaintance has won the lottery! Literally, he’s won the lottery, and to celebrate, he throws a party, complete with musicians, one of whom plays an Asian stringed instrument. The Japanese call it a shamisen, but the Okinawans call it a sanshin. One covered with snakeskin is unusual (but not necessarily unique) and catches our hero’s eye shortly before The Incident, and this particular instrument is the crux of the story.

And once more, I really appreciate Hirahara’s work. Through all her Mas Arai books she has the characters use Japanese terms, with small, inobtrusive translations. She reminds those of us who may have forgotten, and she explains to those who never did, about Japanese terms and cultural references and historical bits (only some about the atom bomb, referred to as pikadon, a reference to the blinding light and then the noise). And in this story, we learn about the Okinawans, who aren’t Japanese, even though they’ve been classified as such by the Americans, and about their particular culture and communities here in the US. We also learn about the Red scare in the 1950s and how that played out in the Asian community back then. We also find out about the Japanese Peruvians and how they tried to start a new life down there—only to be kidnapped by government forces and used for their own nefarious purposes.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Hirahara’s books make me want to visit Southern California again and completely ignore the part that everyone hears about. I want to try Japanese Peruvian cuisine and hear a sanshin. And I look forward to another Mas Arai story.

COMING UP: THE SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, GASA-GASA GIRL, STRAWBERRY YELLOW, 1,001 CRANES

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

BOOK LOG 41: BLOOD HINA (A Mas Arai Mystery)


by Naomi Hirahara
I read the introductory novel of Hirahara’s new series, about LAPD’s Officer Ellie Rush, a young bicycle cop assigned to an ethnically diverse area, and on then became interested in her previous series, about Hiroshima survivor Mas Arai, whose advancing age and dwindling Southern California clientele (he’s a gardener) nonetheless has him investigating in things that are none of his business (sometimes). I chose this book to start reading about this amateur detective simply because of the title—not the blood part, the hina part (in this case, it’s a reference to the formal figurines you see set up for the Japanese holiday of Girls’ Day, not dolls to be played with, but deep tradition). The sociocultural intricacies of Japanese-American society are fascinating, and while I knew about some of it, a lot of it came as a surprise. For instance, I had no idea there was a particular term for Japanese-Americans born in the US but educated in Japan, which is Mas’s background (the term is kibei, in case you’re interested). And of course, since he was in Japan during World War II, an American but not, Japanese but not, the character’s constant sensation of being out of place shapes the character.

The characters are well written, the descriptive details of Mas’s world are clear and distinct (like my first reaction after reading Ellie Rush’s introduction, Murder on Bamboo Lane) and I wanted to visit the area (but not too much, because, after all, there’s a lot of disturbing murders there). I finished this and promptly picked up another in the series, a testament to the intriguing world and characters of the society that Hirahara has created. (And the cherry on top is the mention of someone I knew mentioned in the acknowledgments, whom I knew was a gardener, but I didn’t realize he was known for his talents! I asked him how to keep my plants alive, since they kept committing suicide. He suggested hosta, and gave me a few. And I killed them pretty steadily. RIP, Frank!)

COMING UP: The Snakeskin Shamisen!

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

BOOK LOG 40: DIE AGAIN


by Tess Gerritsen
I've read a good number of Tess Gerritsen's books ranging from her earliest, the Harlequins, to the more recent, in this case a Rizzoli and Isles novel (the TV series starring Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander is a much chirpier and lighter take, but that's enjoyable too, nonetheless). This time Jane and Maura are, if not at odds, certainly struggling to understand the mindset of the other, which is fairly unusual, since they can usually figure out the reasoning of the other woman. 

The story opens in the past, in first POV, of a young woman who's come along with her ass of a boyfriend who's decided that he wants to be Y chromosome personified by going on a safari in Botswana, living on the land. But it turns out the young woman's relationship with the ass is fraying; she doesn't want to be there, she knows he's an ass, and even worse, the other clients are being picked off, one by one, possibly by a large predator, a big cat. Her ordeal, and the aftermath works into the present-day homicide investigation that Rizzoli gets involved in, with puzzling pieces that make it difficult to understand what was going on that would have caused what turns out to be a series of murders...caused by large cats?

And as a cat fancier, I found the theme of cats as cold-blooded murderers, no matter the size, to be somewhat dismaying, but really, it wasn't information that I didn't already know. (Let me pause here as I remember my late cats, recalling as they cuddled against me, purring, flexing their little claws. My darling little mouse murderers.) Something called a leopard cult comes into play here, something I've never heard of before but certainly worth looking into when I get a chance. 

The killer kitty theme aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Gerritsen knows her characters well, and she weaves their personal lives, their tribulations, and their interactions into the homicide investigations effortlessly, forming an absorbing story. One thing's for sure: I'm never going on an African safari.

Coming up: So many choices!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

BOOK LOG 39: EVERY SECRET THING


by Susanna Kearsley
As a reward to myself before the fact—I have eight books to read for a contest—I treated myself to a read of this book, by an author who has to be one of the best writers around today. Talented, nuanced, detailed—whatever you can say, that's Susanna Kearsley. And guaranteed teary eyes by the end, and it's not even embarrassing!

This story is a historical of sorts, but it's also a romantic suspense, but in some ways it's also a tragedy, but it takes place—well, no, it's not per se contemporary. It's a bit of all those things. First of all, Kearsley wrote this a few decades back, and it was reissued, but ... before I go on blithering, it's easier to explain that the death of an elderly man who wanted to tell our heroine something propels her into a run for her life and for those around her as she has to delve into a secret from World War II, a secret that involves her grandmother. 

Second, my description of the story makes it sound downright dull. It is, as you may have guessed, not. Stories about spies are for the most part exciting and over the top, whereas the reality had to be dull and unnoticed. (Like ninjas. Same thing. Real ninjas had to stay in the background.) Actions that meant life and death had to be low-key. Every Secret Thing is a story about the heart and humanity behind those spies, and how the ones who survived the war lived afterward.

Oh heck. Read it. Sniff a little. Love it a lot.

COMING UP: Lots of books with headless half-naked men! None of which I will discuss.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Taking Apart the Hot Premise


By Elizabeth MS Flynn, w/a Eilis Flynn
We’ve all had that experience of stepping into an elevator or other confined space, realizing you’re in there with an editor or an agent, and en lieu of pointless small talk, he or she asks you what you’re working on. As you stammer out your longwinded answer, the moment ends (i.e., the elevator door opens) and said editor or agent goes on his or her way. Could you have made use of that opportunity by blurting out the hot premise version of your synopsis? You betcha!

This is for everyone who’s been asked to boil down their story idea into one sentence, ten words or less. This is for everyone who’s had a hard time boiling their stories down into the simplest terms, a necessity in today’s short-attention-span era.

First of all, what’s a hot premise, anyway? You’ve heard of the term “high concept.” It’s the term that Hollywood types are known to use to mean a movie or TV show idea that can be summed up in just a few words. It’s a premise (a hot one!) that can impart as much as a paragraph or even a book could, but just hitting the highlights that take people aback and make ‘em blink (Hollywood types not being known for their enjoyment of reading more than a few words at a time. Are they literate? One wonders).

That “what-if” thing is the very essence of fiction, but in the case of the hot premise, it’s everything. In just a few words, it has to intrigue and inspire, and most challenging, no matter how old the idea, it has to be made fresh. The idea could be an old one, but it has to be translated for the modern age. The best way to be able to do this is to know your own plot and story very, very well and give it a twist that rejuvenates it.

Okay, by now you might have gotten the idea about what a hot premise is and how you can go about boiling down your story idea into a few words. One of the most frustrating things you may have learned in school is that too often teachers don’t want short and simple, they want complex and high-falutin’. So instead of the simple answer you were about to give, you find yourself having to make it sound way more complicated than you think it needs to be. This sticks to you through school, through college, through graduate school and your doctoral dissertation…but it doesn’t work when you’re trying to sell your story. Because people who’re going to be buying your story don’t care about how high-falutin’ you can make it, they care about how your story makes them feel. And that’s as basic as you’re going to get.

Now look at your story. Can you tell people what it is in ten words or fewer, using a twist you want your readers to focus on?

I’m breaking this all down into its basic elements in an online workshop for the Carolina Romance Writers this February. Come on over and see if you can be succinct!

Elizabeth MS Flynn has written fiction in the form of comic book stories, romantic fantasies, urban fantasies, historical fantasies and short stories, a young adult novel, and a graphic novella (most published under the name of Eilis Flynn). She’s also a professional editor and has been for more than 35 years, working with academia, technology, and finance nonfiction, and romance fiction. If you’re looking for an editor, she can be found editing at emsflynn.com and reached at emsflynn@aol.com. If you’re curious about her books, check out eilisflynn.com. In any case, she can be reached at eilisflynn@aol.com.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Book Log 38: Finding Zero


Finding Zero by Amir D. Aczel

Zero. What a nothing concept, you may think. But it is an everything concept, it turns out; it hasn’t been a concept to mull over for that long in the history of mankind. Because we’ve had the concept all our lives and we take it for granted, and everything we’ve studied presumes the existence (or the nonexistence) of the concept, to imagine a train of thought without it just blows my mind. And to play zero investigator and track it to its roots? Even better!

The subhead of this book is “A Mathematician’s Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers,” and since most of my math classes ended in high school and college and my life went on without using much else other than simple arithmetic uses (despite thirty years of Wall Street—but as I've often said, that’s fake math they use in Wall Street. It’s not real numbers), there was a numerical world referred to and explored in this book. Well, not really explored, more referred to, but that’s to be expected, since this was meant to be a work for the masses. (You can tell it’s meant for the masses, once you mention Fibonacci and explain what the sequence is and then who Leonardo of Pisa was. And after having had to do the research about Leonardo of Pisa at the magazine I worked at and then having to correct so many times the articles there afterward that referred to “Leonardo Fibonacci,” I was so happy to see it RIGHT.)

Anyway, back to the book. It was eye-opening, because all this time we’ve been told that the numbers we know today came from India by way of Arabia. But then we see the characters we’ve been told were the basis of the numerals we know and we realize that there has to be more to the story. And there is!

Because the concept of zero did sort of come from India by way of Arabia. But it didn’t originate there, either, apparently. Now consider this: the zero WE know may have come from Buddhism’s concept of nothingness, and have been first referred to much, much earlier, in the 7th century—in what we know as Cambodia. Yes, Cambodia, that poor country torn apart by war and politics. Let me indulge in something silly: BLEW. MY. MIND. (Cliche, but so true!) Hurray for zero!

COMING UP: Oh, so many choices, so little time, and more!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Booklog 37: Murder on Bamboo Lane

Murder on Bamboo Lane by Naomi Hirahara
Like most people, I have limited knowledge of Los Angeles, even though it's one of the biggest cities in the country. With Naomi Hirahara's Murder on Bamboo Lane, the first in a series, we get the city behind the glitz of the TV and movie industry, the light rail (which I read about and then forget, just because it's a juxtaposition I don't expect), the various small neighborhoods with their distinct personalities. And the ethnicities. Thank goodness we have authors interested in the various and numerous ethnicities of major cities! 

Ellie Rush is a young college graduate, a rookie cop assigned to the bicycle unit, related to a high muckety muck in the police force, and is half-Japanese American, half-Caucasian. That last is going to get my attention. But the story, full of rich detail about a city filled with Asians of all kinds coexisting with each other, is more; it reminds me that although I've never lived there, Los Angeles is a diverse city, as interesting as New York, worthy of exploration. I actually want to go visit again, now that I know there's something more to see than Hollywood and its surrounds.

I can't wait to read more about Ellie Rush and her adventures!

Coming up: Who knows? Happy New Year!