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!