Friday, August 18, 2017

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan

Reviewed by Jeanne

Periodically, I will find a collection of first lines from novels that a compiler has found to be especially interesting or effective.  I have never done such a list myself, because I try not to judge a book on its first line any more than I try to judge it by its cover.  But if I do ever create such a list, the first line of The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra might be a contender:

“On the day that he was due to retire, Inspector Ashwin Chopra discovered he had inherited an elephant.”

Inspector Chopra is a reluctant retiree, handing in his resignation on doctor’s orders.  He enjoys his job; moreover, he believes in his job.  He knows corruption is widespread, that class and wealth grants privilege and too often immunity from punishment, but he loves his city of Mumbai and his country and he wants to make it a better place.

On this last day of work, he finds a poor woman crying over her dead son.  The official verdict is that the young man died after passing out drunk in a creek but the mother is insistent that he was murdered but “for a poor woman and her poor son, there will be no justice!”

There is some truth to her words, Chopra knows, but he is determined that the matter will be investigated—even if it has to be done unofficially.

I actually read the second book in this series first, just because it was handy.  It was good and I enjoyed it, but this one was a real delight.  The plot was well constructed, and the conclusion surprised me.  Chopra is a thoroughly likeable character: honorable, intelligent, kind, and persistent.  The supporting characters are also well developed, especially his wife Poppy, and his . . . um. . . opinionated mother-in-law, Poornima Devi. Khan makes excellent use of the setting, describing the sights, smells, and rhythms of Mumbai.

And of course, there’s the elephant, a doleful young calf later dubbed Ganesh.  He seems so sad and frail when he’s delivered to the apartment that the Inspector’s heart goes out to him. Chopra is determined to do what is best for him, though that might mean sending him away.  (Even small elephants do not make good apartment dwellers, and having an elephant in the courtyard draws complaints—from Poornima Devi.)   I gave this book to an elephant-loving friend and she was as charmed as I was. 

If you’re in the market for a solid mystery with an exotic setting, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra might be just the ticket.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Nevermore: Mingo County, Ebola, The Reader, Almost Sisters, Catching the Wind

Reported by Kristin

Our first reader took on a social history of a poor Appalachian community:  They’ll Cut Off Your Project: A Mingo County Chronicle by Huey Perry.  When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “war on poverty” in the 1960’s, Perry was a young history teacher recruited to the Mingo County Economic Opportunity Commission project in southern West Virginia.  Our reader was intrigued by the local history, although wondered at how much infighting happened over the allocation of resources.

The same reader turned next to Inferno: A Doctor’s Ebola Story by Steven Hatch, MD.  When the Liberian ebola epidemic began in 2014, Hatch knew that he had to go help.  After he arrived, it took him a while to figure out how to help in the middle of such desperation.  More of a memoir, Hatch writes about many of the people he met and treated in Liberia.  When he returned to the United States, he found that the ebola epidemic was a political football and people were quarantined over the fear of transmitting the disease.

Our next reader was inspired by The Reader by Bernhard Schlink to ask the question: “How do you take the past and go forward, when the history was so horrible?”  In postwar Germany, fifteen year old Michael falls into an affair with an older woman.  When he goes to university, he is assigned to watch a Nazi war criminal trial, where to finds to his horror that his lover Hanna is being tried.  Readers discussed Germany’s past, as well as the Confederate experience of the southern United States, and how they both affect the present.

Next was The Almost Sisters, by Joshilyn Jackson, a favorite author of our reader.  Leah Birch Briggs is a graphic novel artist who is blindsided by a call home to Alabama to help Birchie, her grandmother who has suddenly shown signs of dementia—unfortunately in full view of half the town in church one Sunday morning.  As Leah attempts handle her own changing circumstances as well as care for her grandmother, old bones and racial differences in the Deep South emerge in a way that will change her life and the lives of her family forever.

Catching the Wind by Melanie Dobson was another postwar novel enjoyed by a reader.  Daniel Knight and his younger sister Brigitte escaped when their parents were arrested by Gestapo agents, but were then separated from each other when they reached safety in England.  Seventy years later, Daniel hopes to reunite with his sister.  Our reader found this to be an interesting book, but said that in the end everything was tied up in such a neat package that it didn’t seem very realistic.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Survivors Club : the True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz by Michael Bornstein and Debbie Bornstein Holinstat

Reviewed by Brenda G.

            Michael Bornstein was born in an open ghetto in Zarki, Poland, in 1940, after the German invasion. His immediate family included mother, father, and an older brother. He had a large extended family, including his paternal grandmother who lived with his family. 

            Bornstein begins this work with a discussion of a photo taken from movies filmed by the Soviet Union in the days after they liberated Auschwitz. He had not known the films existed until stumbling upon them and excerpts like this photo. He had long refused to provide details of his imprisonment, until he found images of his four-year-old self on a Holocaust denial site. He was finally moved to share his story as a result.

            Bornstein enlisted the help of his daughter Deborah Bornstein Holinstat to tell his tale. With stories from his mother, who survived Auschwitz and other imprisonments, and assistance from other members of his extended family, each with a harrowing tale of survival, Bornstein recounts his experiences in war-time Poland, in Auschwitz, and in post-war Germany prior to his immigration to America.

            This story, though written for children, is housed in our adult collection. Adult readers are reminded of a recent similar book We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter; New York: Viking, 2017, 403 pages, reviewed earlier in this column. Fewer members of Bornstein’s immediate family survived than of Ms. Hunter’s. Both tales are harrowing but Bornstein’s family remained much closer to home during the war than Hunter’s did. To be a Jew in World War II Poland was to be in hell, at least to this reader of these two accounts of Jewish life there.

            Read this book. Read Georgia Hunter’s book. Repeat the vow, “Never again!”

Survivors Club : the True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz by Michael Bornstein and Debbie Bornstein Holinstat. New York : Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2017. 348 pages. Includes photographs, notes on sources, and glossary.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Lockdown by Laurie R. King

Reviewed by Kristin

Linda McDonald has made a huge difference in her one year tenure as principal of Guadalupe Middle School in San Felipe, California.  Many of the children under her care are at risk from gang violence, poverty, and more.  Even those with more affluent parents are not immune.  After all, middle school is a hormone fueled time of growing up, reaching out and trying new things, and sometimes reaching too far.

As Linda prepares her comments for Career Day, she contemplates the many threads running through the school and how all are woven together to create a strong fabric, (particularly as a weaver is coming to talk about her craft as a career.)  As local business people give their speeches in various classrooms, Linda has a moment to reflect that her school is more than a cloth tapestry, it is a stone mosaic created from jagged and mismatched pieces, but joined together and made beautiful and strong.

Far different from Laurie King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes or homicide inspector Kate Martinelli series, Lockdown begins with a sense of expectation that something is about to happen.  Yes, the title does give the reader a good clue, as well as the short chapters headed with the minute by minute timestamp as events unfurl.  Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different person, allowing the reader to understand the trepidation of Principal McDonald, the sneakiness of a would-be graffiti artist, the worries of a sixth grade boy whose friend is missing, the all-seeing eyes of a newly hired janitor.

The sense of community surrounding the school is very strong.  King does an excellent job of expressing how the many characters relate to each other, as well as what has brought them to that point in their lives.  On Career Day, as the students consider their dreams for the future, danger enters the school.  With so many threads being brought together, King holds the reader in suspense till the very end.

King states in the acknowledgments that this book grew out of a series of interconnected short stories she wrote over the last twenty years.  At the end, some of the characters are partially revealed but have enticing bits of mystery clinging to them, perhaps leaving room for a sequel.  Although this is a departure from King’s usual style, I look forward to reading more of her new work.