“Nothing to Envy” by Barbara Demick
One of the great benefits of reading is the chance to step outside your world. Some readers prefer fiction for this, but given a book like Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick, one is reminded that truth is stranger than fiction. This is full of astounding information on the lives North Koreans have been living for the past fifty years. The title, a line from a patriotic North Korean ballad, does double duty as a warning of what is ahead for the reader: a journalistic look at what must be the modern world’s most completely totalitarian regime.
Demmick, a newspaper bureau chief stationed in Seoul, got to know former North Koreans who defected to South Korea. She tells the stories of six of them. No matter what their station in North Korea, they all suffered through waves of famine in the 1990s, and watched malnourished countrymen drop dead in the street. Privileged university students and professionals hardly fared better than the rank and file; even if they had their daily rations, they had no heat, electricity, or medicine to get through their days.
This review can’t do justice to the deprivations and fear that are customary for North Koreans. People who gathered the courage to defect knew that if discovered, they would be banished to prison camps, and that fate would meet their families if the government realized their disappearances were defections, not deaths. Defection required either a great deal of money for bribes, or a willingness to endure arduous border crossings in terrible weather with little or no gear for protection.
While the book focuses on six North Koreans, it’s also a summation of the history of the Korean peninsula post-World War II, and an insightful look at how totalitarianism functions from the ground up. It’s full of details on everyday life, and every page presents a tremendous contrast to the life we know.
“Frog Music” by Emma Donoghue
The summer of 1876 was a harrowing time to be in San Francisco. A heat wave exacerbated a smallpox epidemic. Life would have been difficult enough without those travails, as the protagonists of the book know. One, Jenny Bonnet, lives outside the law as a cross-dresser, and her newly found friend, Blanche Beunon, a saloon dancer and courtesan, is the sole breadwinner in her unusual family. Both women have backstories of damage, abuse, and heartbreak, which are expertly revealed, bit-by-bit, by Donoghue.
The book opens with Jenny’s murder. (Donoghue fictionalized an account of a real, unsolved crime.) Blanche’s attachment to Jenny and concern for her own safety draw her to investigate, and in the process she learns Jenny’s secrets that were meant to remain hidden.
This was a raw time in our history, when life was cheap. The historical backdrop comprises anti-Chinese riots, “orphanages” for unwanted children, and of course, the running theme of the domestic abuse both Jenny and Blanche try to whitewash.
It’s a rich setting, and Donoghue pairs it with a fast paced plot. Is it Jenny’s eccentric persona that invites her murder, or were Blanche’s own messy relationships the catalyst for that? The ancillary characters are colorful, and the motif of contemporary music is engaging. Donoghue really did her homework in preparing this book, and every page is a pleasure.
“Death Comes to the Village” by Catherine Lloyd
Having suffered an injury at Waterloo, Maj. Robert Kurland is now a restless bedridden invalid. On one sleepless night, he catches sight of the silhouette of someone on his grounds carrying a suspiciously heavy load. When Lucy Harrington, the dutiful but secretly frustrated daughter of the selfish village rector, visits Kurland Manor on behalf of her inattentive father, she is drawn into the major’s confidence. Now, Lucy must not only help identify the major’s mystery figure, but she must also contend with missing servants and an outbreak of local robberies.
Death Comes to the Village is the first in a promising new cozy Regency mystery series. Catherine Lloyd’s debut is a delightful combination of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. I look forward to reading future adventures featuring Lucy Harrington and the Major. While waiting for Catherine Lloyd’s next installment, fans may enjoy reading similar Regency mystery series by Stephanie Barron, Carrie Bebris, Anna Dean, and Andrea Penrose.
“Black-Eyed Blonde” by Benjamin Black
Fans of specific authors often bristle when someone else takes on a character or style. After all, it’s rare to best the originator. Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black is an exception. It’s a Raymond Chandler-style detective story (complete with Phillip Marlowe) and it’s true to the noir style and plots while being elegantly written and fast moving.
Marlowe is hired by a beautiful perfume heiress, Claire Cavendish, to find an ex-boyfriend, Nico Peterson. Peterson doesn’t strike Marlowe as Claire’s type, and as he investigates, his intuitions are confirmed. He uncovers a complicated circle of shady characters. There’s Claire’s loutish husband, her ne’er-do-well brother and coarse, overbearing mother. There are suspicious bartenders, club owners, and dangerous thugs. The case grows to include mistaken identity, both accidental and purposeful, as well as drugs and murder.
Black writes in Chandler’s style, without a hint of parody. It’s no surprise that he’s so accomplished; Black is the pen name of John Banville, the Booker Prize-winning author. If you are looking for a noir detective story, this one won’t disappoint.
“Where Monsters Dwell” by Jorgen Brekke
The curator of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, is found decapitated and flayed alive. In the meantime across the Atlantic, the archivist of the Gumnerus Library in Trondeim, Norway, is found slaughtered in a similar fashion. It turns out both the victims were researching a rare text known as the Johannes Book, a journal of a suspected sixteenth-century Norwegian serial killer that is disturbingly bound in human skin. Upon discovering the common factor between the two recent murders, the respective American and Norwegian homicide detectives, Felicia Stone and Odd Singsaker, join forces to catch a sadistic monster.
I began this book expecting more of a Dan Brown type of thriller, what with the author’s literary references to Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie and hints to secret societies, but I quickly realized this narrative veered more into Thomas Harris Hannibal Lector territory. While the story unfolded in a different direction than I originally anticipated, I still enjoyed this fast paced mystery, which though grisly was not overly bleak.
“A Place of Confinement” by Anna Dean
The sharp-witted spinster, Miss Dido Kent, is dependent upon the good will of her brothers, but when she turns down the marriage proposal of a dismal clergyman, she is in disgrace. As punishment, Dido is exiled to act as a companion to her hypochondriac-but-wealthy Aunt Manners, who is visiting her childhood home, Charcombe Manor. However, the ladies’ arrival coincides with the disappearance of another visiting houseguest, the heiress Letitia Verney. When Letitia’s suitor, Mr. Tom Lomax, is suspected of spiriting her away, Dido is inclined to believe in the young man’s claims of innocence against her better judgment. While Dido has no personal liking for Tom, who is a known fortune hunter (and the feeling is mutual), she does have decidedly tender feelings for his father, William. Dido is determined to keep the Lomax family name respectable, at least for William’s sake, but to do so she will have to solve the mysteries of Charcombe Manor.
A Place of Confinement is the fourth book in the Miss Dido Kent Regency mystery series. The story is an engaging whodunit, while staying true to the era by gently exploring its social norms such as inequality in gender and rank. Written in prose similar to the style of Jane Austen, Anna Dean’s work is a great choice for fans of this classic novelist. Readers may also enjoy Stephanie Barron’s mystery series featuring Jane Austen herself as the intrepid sleuth.
“World After” by Susan Ee
In the sequel to Angelfall, Penryn has found her kidnapped sister Paige only to lose her again when other survivors of the angel apocalypse, thinking Paige a monster, stage an attack. Paige has now fled for cover into the ravages of what’s left of San Francisco, with Penryn mounting a desperate search to find her before an angry mob does. But Penryn’s search will lead her directly into the heart of the angels’ nefarious plans for humans, and her path will once again cross with the hunted angel Raffe, who is still on a search of his own for his stolen wings.
Thankfully, this urban fantasy sequel does not suffer from the “sophomore slump” like many second books in a trilogy. World After picks up right where the action left off in the previous book and continues at a breakneck speed, and fortunately Susan Ee has managed not to sacrifice her characters’ development for the sake of said action. I eagerly await the next installment in this series.