Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Horse by Geraldine Brooks



Hardcover, 416 pages Pub June 2022 by Viking, ISBN13: 9780399562969


Horse, the story of a great racing stallion from Kentucky named Lexington, encompasses an arc of American history that cuts still today. Australian author Geraldine Brooks puts her finger on the sensitive places in America’s living history which we as a society have not yet resolved: our relationship with America’s early racial legacy, slavery.

The colonial powers of the 18th- and 19th centuries all have complicated histories with race, but America stands apart as a country built explicitly on the notion of equality for all men. The founders just didn’t ‘cotton’ the connection properly between Blackness, economic prosperity, rights and freedom. The Civil War was meant to set them straight, but it didn’t actually do that. There was nothing civil about it…then or now.

The horse Lexington, described on two continents as the “greatest racing stallion in American turf history,” and slavery have a shared history, both in reality and in this fiction. There are pre-Civil War written and painted records of Lexington’s groom and trainer, both Black men in Kentucky, a state which would hover in-between the Union and Confederate armies and be bled by both.

We hear the story of a White Union soldier who initially finds himself seeking out prisoners “to better understand their minds.” Gradually, he realizes those men “were lost to a narrative untethered to anything he recognized as true.” Author Brooks connects our history with America today.

In a Brooks novel, readers enjoy the author’s passions…for history, science, horses, art…and for her native land, Australia. Brooks doesn’t give her own country a pass in the race relations area, giving voice to a critic of Canberra’s policies. She successfully details examples of microaggressions, some that go out into the world and are recognized for such, just as they land, by all witnesses.

The embarrassment of recognizing one’s own prejudices spills onto the reader, making us cautious but willing to learn more about how these impulses buried deep inside suddenly materialize and how they impact those around us. One of the more interesting characters who brings out the reader’s prejudices remains sketched only lightly in the background: a gruff woman of diminished means who throws out on the sidewalk an old and dirty painting of a horse and to whom we impute a nasty attitude totally dissimilar to our own good intentions.

Horse is a wonderful read, filled with surprising discoveries and twists we do not see coming. In the Afterword, Brooks reminds us that her husband, Tony Horwitz, was a Civil War historian who approved of her turn towards this history in her novel before his untimely and sudden death in 2019. What a wonder that this terrific book was birthed in midst of such great sorrow and loss.



Monday, March 21, 2022

We're Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America by Jennifer M. Silva


Hardcover, 224 pages Pub Aug 1st 2019, Oxford University Press, ISBN13: 9780190888046

I don’t quite know what to make of this book. I read it because I now live in a state a large portion of whose population is deluged with far right TV and talk radio. A large number of people do not have broadband and therefore often do not know there are newspapers and TV stations which make an effort to substantiate news.

There is a disparity in information: the rural areas have been kept the equivalent of “barefoot and pregnant” by a state legislature that couldn't figure out how to fund failing schools and provide broadband.

This book is a study of Jennifer Silva’s time interviewing residents of a former coal town in Pennsylvania, finding out what their lives are like, how they see their personal and professional trajectories, and who they vote for and why.

Not being a social scientist, I found the stories Dr. Silva shares with us confounding. Maybe someone can come up with solutions for these folks, but the reason they don’t vote is that they basically don’t trust anyone after the life they’ve led. In one of the first couples described to us, Silva writes,
“They are not single-issue voters who prioritize social issues such as abortion or fund control over economic interests, not do they place themselves into clear-cut categories of Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative. Most of the time, as they attempt to come to terms with their past traumas and future anxieties, they do not think about politics at all.”

Right. Silva’s mentor/thesis advisor might have anticipated this and suggested a less-stressed environment. If Silva was just wondering what was going on in towns like Coal Brook, I would understand that, too, but she admits she’d been hoping to find out what white rural conservatives were thinking about politics when she began.

Soon enough she found out her interviewees were unschooled and inarticulate on the subject of “politics.” She did hear, though, these white residents’ dissatisfaction with Black and Latin “newcomers” to the coal region, former city dwellers and immigrants. So she changed her focus a little to include the newcomers. That was smart, and refocused this work into something approaching Arlie Russell Hochschild’s award-winning Strangers in Their Own Land.

Maybe someone, after reading outcomes for poor white folks who grew up in an abandoned coal town or poor city dwellers who moved in to live inexpensively and get away from inner-city violence, will figure out a way to point these folks in a different direction, in the direction of a life that is more fulfilling and less crushing. But this is way outside my wheelhouse.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Rhode Island Red by Charlotte Carter

Paperback, 192 pages
Published July 27th 2021 by
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard (first published 1997)
Original Title: Rhode Island Red,
ISBN13: 9780593314104,
Series: Nanette Hayes Mysteries #1

Charlotte Carter. We are lucky to be alive in this time when publishers are doing the right thing for themselves AND for us by republishing terrific, under-read authors. Charlotte Carter is new to me but she is one of the best writers for a kind of hard-boiled mystery reminiscent of Raymond Chandler and the kind of glamour and won’t-look-away savvy of Nina Simone and James Baldwin.

Nanette Hayes is the series. Described as “a Grace Jones lookalike in terms of coloring and body type (she has the better waist, I win for tits)”, Nan is, when we meet her, busking on NYC streets with a saxophone, supplementing part-time work as a translator, French to English.

As far as I can tell, the series is only three novels long, but Carter has such a delicious and particular voice, you’re going to want to read all of this in a rush of indulgence. The first book in the series, Rhode Island Red, comes out July 27, just in time for long hot days in the hammock. August and September bring the last two, Coq Au Vin and Drumsticks. It’s like eating bonbons—very hard to resist.

First published in 1997, Rhode Island Red is written from a Black woman’s perspective and set in New York City just after stop-and-frisk was added to our lexicon. Cops were hated then, maybe even more than now? Even the title is a mystery; we don’t even know what the title means until close to the end but if you were to guess…

Nanette longs for France but grew up in the States as a child prodigy in maths, languages and spelling, of all things. One day another sax street player—a White man a little older than she—shows up needing a place to stay…and who ends up dead within hours.

It’s a complicated story, as it always must be when a stranger gets killed inside one’s own apartment. Nan calls the cops, only to have them question her motivation in bringing him home to her apartment. It’s a good question, one that Nanette will spend the rest of the story asking herself.

Carter wasn’t ahead of her time. She was playing old tunes in the 90s, but they were the anthem of the century. In a sense, she was closing the joint. We as a country are just catching up with her now. Radical. Real. Rhode Island Red.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Crisis Deluxe by Chris Coffman

Kindle Edition, 271 pages
Published June 1st 2021 by Odysseus Press (first published March 29th 2021)
Original Title: Crisis Deluxe, ASINB091BKKDJ1


Crisis Deluxe is the debut novel of a former investment banker. Honestly, the work sounds as though it would kill with anxiety anyone who suffers from imposter syndrome. A rougher bunch of the over-compensated would be hard to find.

Super-charged self-satisfaction is not hard to find these days in lots of professions; it may even be a prerequisite for some positions. I am quite sure it has something to do with compensation: “I mean, if I’m paid this much, I must be good! Right?”

What works in this novel is the complicated story of the buy-out of an investment bank headquartered in Hong Kong by a bigger investment bank based in New York. Money, as ordinary folks know it, is a different beast in this world; our interest lies in learning its new definition, realizing the dimensions of its reach and the emptiness of its pleasures.

Things we would ordinarily treasure—out-of-reach gustatory delights, trips around the world, rides in Rolls Royce and expensive clothing—are paired with the scent of sweat, exhaustion and even blood.

Mostly we recognize money is not worth what we give up to get it, something minimum wage and gig workers have discovered post-pandemic in America. But I cannot be completely sure if that lesson is one I learned in this book or if it was merely confirmed to me there.

The investment banker at the heart of this fiction introduces himself like James Bond: “Street. Alexander Street.” Great name. Street is sent to Hong Kong from South America where is he finishing one deal so he can save another going very bad as Asian financial markets teeter and crater. Why the market is unstable is never discussed which prompts my usual skepticism over Wall Street and SEHK shenanigans.

Financial markets are built on trust, and bankers showed us their empty shirts in the last 20 years. IMHO, they simply know there are ways to make money in shaky markets but don’t have the brains, heart or knowledge to tell us why.

Street works out of NYC but his parentage is European. With that he has the best of both worlds: credibility and deniability. He can deny being a hated Yank while having the backing of a big, fat American investment bank. The story involves us in the details of the Hong Kong company’s balance sheet and its status as the continent’s first successful purveyor of corporate bonds. As the market falters, holders of commercial debt begin to limit their exposure by calling in loan payments just when companies are least likely to be able to pay.

Powerful interests around Hong Kong’s city-state begin to move as the investment bank buyout is reimagined. When a wealthy but uninvolved friend of Street’s is murdered before his eyes at dinner one night, we never really get full satisfaction. Murder, and its cousin poisoning, usually require more explanation both to and by the police than we received in this novel. Like in any country, when a rich person dies, there are ripples.

There is a romantic interest in this novel but it is odd. In the manner of all things masculine, Alexander Street does not excessively, or even adequately, question when his gorgeous high-school sweetheart of thirty years before suddenly shows up, willing and able to involve herself in a romantic liaison with him, despite the fact both are long-and-happily married. That she is the older sister of a difficult young bond salesman involved in the bank buyout raises warning flags for women readers but barely touch the consciousness of Street. Alexander Street.

The ending kept me guessing and was climactic. See for yourself.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Diamond Queen of Singapore (Ava Lee #13) by Ian Hamilton

Paperback, 428 pgs, pub Aug 2020 (ePub May 26, 2020) Spiderline, ISBN13: 9781487002060 (ebook ISBN 9781487002084), Series: Ava Lee #13

The e-edition of Hamilton’s latest in the Ava Lee series is out and you will want to take this trip with Ava as she hits several continents: Amsterdam and Antwerp in Europe, Singapore and mainland China in Asia, and back to Toronto in North America.

Ava’s collecting debts but for a friend, as she had in her early career. It brings back memories. This time it is not debts Ava is following but cold, hard investment theft wrapped up in a not-so-generous evangelical megachurch on the outskirts of Toronto. Hamilton creates the cruelest, most unambiguously unforgivable villains to walk the earth, and places them in a world we recognize. From there, the scandal just gets bigger…

Has anyone read the 14th-century Chinese novel called, variously, The Water Margin, Outlaws of the Marsh, and All Men Are Brothers? It is a rip-roaring 4-volume Song Dynasty yarn, a masterpiece of storytelling, packed with colorful characters whose names tell it all: Little Whirlwind, Blue-Faced Beast, Impatient Vanguard, etc. The epic story tells of 108 bandits who live by the margin of Liang Shan Marsh and pursue justice by unconventional means.

Hamilton’s story this time has elements of this ancient tale. He named his thieving church leaders Cunningham, Rogers, and Randy. Ava’s triad connection in Chengdu, Han, is blustery and loud, his crass manner and crude-but-effective methods modeled on characters in the ancient tale. Han uses his fists when words are not enough. He carries a large weapon to focus the attention of his opponents on their limited options.

I adored this tale for these elements, and for outlining and pointing to the real and acutely painful problem that Ava uncovers in the course of her investigations, something that has been plaguing the West, particularly the United States and Canada, for some years now. The problem has its source in China and concerned North Americans have wondered how on earth this is happening without and/or despite Chinese government oversight.

The answer to that question echoes what we hear when contemplating the indescribably painful political atmosphere in the United States: it is completely within the realm of the country’s leadership to stop the trouble. For some reason beyond our understanding, the leadership prefers chaos. God help us all.

Another fantastic addition to Hamilton’s box of jewels.

P.S. If you are going to pick up Outlaws of the Marsh, please choose Sidney Shapiro’s translation, the language of which made me fall in deeply love with Chinese culture, habits and humor. Shapiro’s word choices make the ancient book immediately relevant, laugh-out-loud funny, and the long read tireless.



The Chow Tung Series
Fate (Uncle Chow Tung #1)
Foresight (Uncle Chow Tung #2)
The Ava Lee Series
The Water Rat of Wanchai (Ava Lee #1)
The Disciple of Las Vegas (Ava Lee #2)
The Wild Beasts of Wuhan (Ava Lee #3)
The Red Pole of Macau (Ava Lee #4)
The Scottish Banker of Surabaya (Ava Lee #5)
The Two Sisters of Borneo (Ava Lee #6)
The King of Shanghai (Ava Lee #7)
The Princeling of Nanjing (Ava Lee #8)
The Couturier of Milan (Ava Lee #9)
The Imam of Tawi-Tawi (Ava Lee #10)
The Goddess of Yantai (Ava Lee #11)
The Mountain Master of Sha Tin (Ava Lee #12)





Thursday, May 21, 2020

Foresight (Uncle Chow Tung #2) by Ian Hamilton

Paperback, 336 pgs, Pub Jan 21st 2020 by Spiderline, ISBN13: 9781487003999, Series: Uncle Chow Tung #2

A tense and absorbing political thriller is not what I was expecting for this second book of a trilogy about the head of a Hong Kong triad establishing businesses in southern China. Ian Hamilton, creator of the Ava Lee series, does some of his best work here, recreating exactly how it is possible for corruption to take place in China’s Special Economic Zones.

Life in Chow Tung's Fanling triad has had a long period of calm. Uncle Chow Tung is young for a triad leader, in his forties, but for all the criminality of gang-life, his daily existence is remarkably staid. His only vice appears to be cigarette-smoking, his only hobby playing the horses at Hong Kong’s Happy Valley Racecourse. Lesser leaders get up to more deviltry in their free time, perhaps, but the fact that Uncle provides a stable, low-drama income from off-track betting shops, restaurants and massage parlors is what his triad and others in the area appreciate about him.

We get a course in foresight, the savvy business planning Chow engages in to supplement the triad’s falling income as a result of societal and economic changes in Hong Kong. It’s the 1980s. Chow reads in the paper that Deng Xiao Ping was trying something new: socialism at the top of new economic structures and a loosened market-based environment at the individual level.

The circumstances in Shenzhen and the other special economic zones were unlike anywhere else on earth at that time and the Chinese government was making it up as they went along. If things started booming a little too wildly, they would clamp down with a blinding ferocity. Hamilton walks us through a mini-purge and it is terrifying. The individual is insignificant and rule of law is virtually unknown.

Despite the fact that only two women had speaking parts in this entire book--Mrs. Jia is a restaurant owner selling congee and Gao Lan is wife of a Chinese Communist Politburo member--I was surprised to find I did not really feel the lack. To me, learning the relative ease with which Uncle began his empire in China as well as concise details about the bribes he had to pay and the coercive conditions of his continued investments was utterly absorbing. I was as stressed as Uncle through the twists and turns of his fortunes.

At the very end of the book, I was left pondering the dubious legality of all the foreign investment enterprises in those special zones and the odd criminality that comes out of political infighting in China. In politics as in business, there is hardly a safe place of truth and virtue. Is that something we just have to acknowledge and get on with the business of skimming, lying and personal advantage? What a chump I am. I have often felt I can’t make it in the real world, and this is some weird confirmation.

I love the work Hamilton did here. The tension is ratcheted up high and then screwing the clamps takes our breath away. For Chow Tung and us both, it is exquisite torture. I can’t wait to read the next installment which should bring us our first glimpse of Ava Lee. This is terrific, addictive storytelling.

The Chow Tung Series
Fate (Uncle Chow Tung #1)
The Ava Lee Series
The Water Rat of Wanchai (Ava Lee #1)
The Disciple of Las Vegas (Ava Lee #2)
The Wild Beasts of Wuhan (Ava Lee #3)
The Red Pole of Macau (Ava Lee #4)
The Scottish Banker of Surabaya (Ava Lee #5)
The Two Sisters of Borneo (Ava Lee #6)
The King of Shanghai (Ava Lee #7)
The Princeling of Nanjing (Ava Lee #8)
The Couturier of Milan (Ava Lee #9)
The Imam of Tawi-Tawi (Ava Lee #10)
The Goddess of Yantai (Ava Lee #11)
The Mountain Master of Sha Tin (Ava Lee #12)
The Diamond Queen of Singapore (Ava Lee #13)




Monday, May 18, 2020

Fate (Uncle Chow Tung #1) by Ian Hamilton

Paperback, 304 pgs, Pub Jan 22nd 2019 by Spiderline, ISBN13: 9781487003869, URL: https://houseofanansi.com/products/fate, Series: Uncle Chow Tung #1

This trilogy began as an aside to the long-running Ava Lee series by Ian Hamilton. Ava Lee, you will remember, was mentored by a much-older man called Uncle who wasn’t a relative but who became closer than blood. Before he died, they worked together collecting debts around Asia. Later she learned he held the highest-ranking post in a Hong Kong triad, as Mountain Master.

Earlier in the Ava Lee series we were treated to Uncle’s passing, replete with noisy, atonal bands playing discordantly at his funeral march. The detail in that description was lovingly crafted, introducing us to a lively, diverse triad scene that we sense has been something of a fascination for Hamilton. We revisit in greater detail here since this title begins with the death of the Mountain Master who preceded Uncle in the role.

For those readers who have despaired of office politics, this book may bring on a kind of PTSD. Triad life appears to be office politics with machetes and sub-machine guns. The leadership team all have very cool monikers, like White Paper Fan, Red Pole, and Straw Sandal, all of which operate under the Deputy Mountain Master, the Vanguard, and the Incense Master. They don’t sound scary.

This trilogy begins with Uncle Chow Tung leaving mainland China with his financée in 1959 and then jumps to 1969 where the action of this novel takes place. The action in the follow-on books appear to be spaced by a decade. Next up is Foresight.

The Chow Tung Series
Fate (Uncle Chow Tung #1)
Foresight (Uncle Chow Tung #2)
The Ava Lee Series
The Water Rat of Wanchai (Ava Lee #1)
The Disciple of Las Vegas (Ava Lee #2)
The Wild Beasts of Wuhan (Ava Lee #3)
The Red Pole of Macau (Ava Lee #4)
The Scottish Banker of Surabaya (Ava Lee #5)
The Two Sisters of Borneo (Ava Lee #6)
The King of Shanghai (Ava Lee #7)
The Princeling of Nanjing (Ava Lee #8)
The Couturier of Milan (Ava Lee #9)
The Imam of Tawi-Tawi (Ava Lee #10)
The Goddess of Yantai (Ava Lee #11)
The Mountain Master of Sha Tin (Ava Lee #12)
The Diamond Queen of Singapore (Ava Lee #13)