River of Angels – An excellent tale of two families and their divided city: Los Angeles – #fiction #bookreview

 

River of Angels

Alejandro Morales

(Arte Público Press, paperback )

 

This third novel by Alejandro Morales is a compelling, evocative portrait of  two very different families whose lives become intertwined through their children, in ways both loving and tragic.

Set in the 19th and 20th centuries, River of Angels is also the story of a burgeoning U.S. city divided by a dangerous river yet   linked by bridges and marriages, as well as shifting economic, cultural and racial balances.

Los Angeles today is divided by many ethnic, political and financial lines. And these divisions have been defined not only by major currents and undercurrents in California and American history but also by the river powerfully described in Morales’s book:  El Río de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de la Porciúncula, “The River of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula.”

The completion of a bridge over that river in 1887 provided a more convenient way for people to cross from either side, the author makes clear. But the bridge also helped set discriminations into easier motion.

“Most of the Los Angeles residents and people in neighboring communities were soon enjoying the convenience the bridge offered,” Alejandro Morales writes. “Laborers who worked on the west side of the river used the bridge every day to return to their dwellings on the east side. On certain days and hours during the week, it seemed that only workers moved back and forth across the river. Mexicans, blacks and Chinese had settled in the center of the city around the old plaza. However, that was changing, and [after the bridge was built] there was a deliberate and obvious push to house Mexicans on the east side of the river. The City Council made it easier for Mexicans to buy property and build houses on the Eastside.”

Some years later, a savage storm and flooding washed away the first bridge, and two more were built. Meanwhile, as this tale of families makes clear, the growth of Los Angeles’ Anglo population continued to push and squeeze minority groups, including Mexicans, African-Americans, Chinese and Japanese, out of their homes and businesses and into other areas of the city.

“The residents of the original Mexican colonias in Los Angeles proper–near La Placita and other sections newly designated as Anglo-only–were evicted and forced to relocate to the immigrant quarters of Los Angeles that were thought of as Mexican reservations,” Morales writes. “The city’s Anglo population needed the Mexicans for labor. The Mexicans had to live near, but not among, the Anglo families.”

That segregation sets up major tensions and drama within this engrossing novel as two families from widely separate realms are forcibly pulled together.

River of Angels delivers a unique and vivid portrait of Los Angeles at some of its worst and best. At the same time, Alejandro Morales skillfully illuminates racial, cultural, political and economic tensions that can be found today in virtually any other American city, whether a river runs through it or not.

Si Dunn

The Ides of April – An entertaining new Lindsey Davis detective series debut – #mystery #bookreview

The Ides of April

A Flavia Albia Mystery

Lindsey Davis

(Minotaur Books, hardback, paperback, Kindle, Audio CD)

Many fans of the Marcus Didius Falco mysteries set in first-century Rome will delight in this new spin-off series by London author Lindsey Davis. Readers eagerly seeking another unusual detective to follow may relish this series debut, as well.  

In The Ides of April, Flavia Albia, the adopted daughter of Falco and Helena Justina, makes her series debut as a private informer in Rome during the reign of Domitian, an emperor who later will be ranked somewhere in the safe middle between the best and worst rulers of the Roman Empire.

The year is A.D. 89, and a young widow named Flavia Albia has taken over Falco’s old apartment and is struggling to build up her business as an investigator. Flavia is British-born and served as nursemaid to Falco’s children before Falco and his “unofficial” wife Helena Justina adopted her.

The pay scale for a private informer is “no win, no fee.” Also: “As a female, I had no rights at all in matters of law, but why let that stop me?” Flavia has two other qualities that work in her favor as a detective in Rome: She doesn’t like to be defeated, and her adoptive parents taught her how to comfortably blend into virtually all levels of society.

Of course, it’s never easy to be a female detective in ancient Rome. As Flavia points out: “Fortune never favoured me and the problem with being a woman was that sometimes I could only obtain business that all the male informers had sniffed and refused.”

One of those “refused” cases, of course, starts out simple and soon turns into a murder investigation that includes the hunter being hunted by the killer.

The cast of characters in The Ides of April extends for two pages, and new readers of a Lindsey Davis novel likely will find themselves frequently flipping back to it for reminders of who exactly Junillus or Robigo or Felix or Serena is.

Indeed, if this is your first exposure to Lindsey Davis’s well-detailed, history-based fiction, you might consider photocopying the extensive cast list and keeping it close at hand so you won’t have to keep flipping back to the front of the book.

One other note. While the setting is ancient Rome, many of the descriptions, attitudes, and dialogue exchanges would not seem out of place in a 21st century English detective novel. This can be at least momentarily jarring for new readers of a Lindsey Davis mystery. However, we must remember that English had not yet been cobbled together in A.D. 89. And, thankfully, the author does not throw a lot of Latin at us.

Fans of Marcus Didius Falco may grumble about Falco being downsized to a much smaller character in this tale. Yet as Lindsey Davis points out on her website:

“After 20 novels, I need a break and have no current plans for a new Falco novel. I am enjoying the ‘spin-off’ series about Flavia Albia….” (The one that will follow The Ides of April will be titled Enemies at Home).

“I am also excited to be writing a ‘QuickRead’ for 2014. These are a special series of short books for adults who came to reading late or who don’t read very much. Mine is called A Cruel Fate and is set in the Civil War.”

So Marcus Didius Falco is not dead. He has just been put out to pasture while Flavia gets an entertaining and engrossing chance to make her mark in the family business.

Si Dunn

Sophie’s Diary: A Mathematical Novel – Imagining French mathematician Sophie Germain as a young teen – #bookreview

Sophie’s Diary: A Mathematical Novel
Dora Musielak
(Math Association of America, hardback)

The Mathematical Association of America recently has published the second edition of this intriguing “mathematical novel.” Its story is built around a fictional diary and a real-life French mathematician, Marie-Sophie Germain.

The well-written tale imagines Ms. Germain writing down her thoughts and experiences while coming of age and learning mathematics amid the social turmoil that is roiling 18th-century Paris.

Marie-Sophie Germain is remembered primarily for her number theory work that offered several “novel approaches” to solving Fermat’s Last Theorem.

Si Dunn

Steven Saylor’s ‘The Seven Wonders’ – A fine intro to Gordianus the Finder, famous sleuth of ancient Rome – #bookreview #in #mystery #fiction

The Seven Wonders: A Novel of the Ancient World
Steven Saylor
(Minotaur Books, hardback, list price $25.99; Kindle edition, $12.99)

To be honest, until I picked up this book, I had paid zero attention to best-selling author Steven Saylor’s long-running Roma Sub Rosa series of mysteries set in ancient times, in the Roman Empire. The hero in that series’ 10 novels and two short story collections is Gordianus the Finder, Rome’s most sought-after investigator.

I’ve never been keen on stories (or movies) where people run around in togas and sandals, swear upon assorted gods and goddesses, and kill each other with swords or poisons.

Also, my notion of private detectives has tended to go back only as far as Sherlock Holmes. I’ve mainly been a Spenser/Marlowe/Hammer kind of guy. You know, fists and firearms, not swords and sandals.

The Seven Wonders, the new “prequel” to the Roma Sub Rosa series, has, however, just expanded my horizon quite a bit. Saylor has created a mystery- and adventure-packed tale that introduces Gordianus as a young man, before he has assumed the mantle of “The Finder” from his father.

The tale is set in 92 B.C., a time when the Roman Empire still dominates Greece. But rumors of war are afoot (literally), spies are everywhere, and even the most seemingly trustworthy friend cannot really be trusted amid all of the anti-Roman political intrigue.

It is also the year when Gordianus has reached – and at last crossed – the dividing line between childhood and getting to wear the “manly toga” of an adult. He’s now ready to leave home – Rome – and have some adventures.

He soon gets much more than he expects as he travels with his tutor and travel guide, the aging Antipater of Sidon, “one of the most celebrated poets in the world, famed not only for the elegance of his verses but for the almost magical way he could produce them impromptu, as if drawn from the aether.”

A real figure in history, Antipater has been given at least some of the credit for coming up with the famous list of the Seven Wonders of the World.

In the novel, the poet leaves Rome under mysterious circumstances but takes Gordianus along as he revisits each of the Seven Wonders. He carefully tutors the young Roman, yet things quickly and repeatedly go awry. At their first stop, for example, the Greeks’ wondrous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, a young girl drops dead unexpectedly during a major celebration. And Gordianus stealthily investigates, using skills learned from his father, a man who “called himself Finder, because men hired him to find the truth.”

The Finder’s son soon determines that the young girl was murdered. Meanwhile, another young girl has been blamed and will die if Gordianus can’t solve his first case fast enough. He succeeds in a clever way, kills his first bad guy, and also has his first sexual encounter, thanks to the sensuous generosity of a beautiful slave woman who has helped him trap the murderer.  

There are then six more Wonders to see, and at each stop, Saylor provides the reader with mysteries rich in history, legend, danger, plot twists and engrossing entertainment as the youthful Gordianus struggles to puzzle them out.

Steven Saylor, who lives in Berkeley, California, and Austin, Texas, is a rare kind of writer, one who deftly blends scholarly detail with fast-paced fiction and makes dead worlds seem to come alive again.

I’m now a Spenser/Marlowe/Hammer/Gordianus kind of guy when it comes to detective fiction. And, thanks to this clever prequel, I’m ready to stop ignoring and start reading the Roma Sub Rosa series.

The Seven Wonders will be available starting June 5, 2012 and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com.

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Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir. He is the author of an e-book detective novel, Erwin’s Law, now also available in paperback, plus a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.

The Silver Lotus – fine historical fiction by Thomas Steinbeck – #bookreview

The Silver Lotus
By Thomas Steinbeck
(Counterpoint, hardback, list price $25.00; Kindle, $9.99)

Written in the style and language of a 19th-century novel, The Silver Lotus is a grand, sweeping, absorbing tale of Pacific seafaring, romance, family, and business and cultural interactions that ultimately help spur the growth and development of the Northern California coast.

This elegant work of historical fiction has surprisingly little dialogue. Its author, Thomas Steinbeck, son of the great novelist John Steinbeck, relies, instead, on heavy doses of exposition. Yet The Silver Lotus remains an engrossing, well-written story throughout. And it is a refreshing change from books full of fast and furious action and characters who engage in taut exchanges of clever words, while revealing little about their feelings, emotions or sense of place.

Thomas Steinbeck’s novel begins in Canton, China, the late 1890s, in the home of Master Chu-Woo Yee, a man of “high moral principles.” He also is a successful grain merchant with profitable experience in “a great many [other] varieties of exported and imported goods.”

Master Yee allows very few foreigners into his home. But one of them fascinates and intrigues him: Captain Jeremiah Macy Hammond, “one of the last of a long line of the great Nantucket seamen.”

Steamships now have begun to dominate cross-ocean trade. Yet Captain Hammond continues to transport his cargoes under sail, for a very practical reason: profit. He has amassed a small fleet of schooners that can carry large cargoes while sailing inexpensively with only a few crewmen.

When political turmoil suddenly erupts in China, Captain Hammond uses two of his ships to help to move Master Yee, his family, and the Yee fortune to safety in Singapore. Soon, Captain Hammond and Master Yee’s beloved daughter, Silver Lotus, are in love, and Master Yee is in no position to refuse their marriage.

Lady Yee, as Silver Lotus is known, is a remarkable woman with many talents and interests, as well as uncommon beauty. Before their marriage, she informs Captain Hammond that if he chooses to go back to sea, she will “sail with him, and make her life and home by his side.”

In her honor, Captain Hammond repaints his newest ship his wife’s favorite colors, emerald green with yellow trim outlined in black, and rechristens it “The Silver Lotus.” And Lady Yee proves very adept at living at sea beside her husband. She takes “total interest in everything to do with her namesake, her crew, and her cargo.”

Despite its calm narrative and languid pace, Steinbeck’s book has plenty of action and tensions. There are encounters with pirates, sea storms, illnesses, racism, drug abuse, great wealth, and death. There also are dangerous rescues and glimpses into the intricacies and risks of seafaring commerce, as well as clashes over medical and immigration practices in early 20th-century California.

At one level, The Silver Lotus is simply old-fashioned, entertaining historical fiction, enjoyable to read. On another level, however, Thomas Steinbeck’s second novel is a modern, intelligent reflection on how the melding of cultures, talents, dreams and resources has been a driving force behind the growth and prosperity of Northern California, as well as the rest of the United States.

Si Dunn