Review of “The Ink Black Heart” by Robert Galbraith

The toxicity that can be stoked by the anonymity of the online world takes center stage in this sixth book in the Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott detective series set in London.

Strike is now 40, and ten years older than his partner Robin. For the past five years as a team, they have grown to be “best friends,” although each secretly would like more. But neither of them wants to risk the great friendship and great business they have to act on their desires.

Their detective agency has more work than they can handle, and so they have taken on a number of subcontractors to help with surveillance. In addition to the usual unfaithful spouse cases, they have two more complex cases that use up most of their time.

One is related to Strike’s former relationship with Charlotte, a beautiful but unstable woman who tried to keep Strike’s affections even after their breakup. Strike has reason to believe he will be named in the divorce suit brought by Charlotte’s current husband, Jago Ross, and the publicity could destroy the anonymity needed by a private detective. [Anonymity and the alternate identities taken to preserve it are a main theme in this book.] Strike would like to get enough dirt on Jago to threaten him not to go public about any role Strike might have played in the breakup, however unasked for.

But most of the agency’s efforts are consumed by a case generated by the murder of Edie Ledwell, who along with her sometime boyfriend Josh Blay had created the smash-hit cartoon, “The Ink Black Heart.” Josh was injured, but did not die, in the same attack in which Edie was killed.

The main suspects are the anonymous players of “Drek’s Game,” a computer-simulated world that originated as a spin-off of “The Ink Black Heart.” It is populated by users – many of whom were originally fans of the cartoon – who have created pseudonymous avatars by which they can move around the virtual world and communicate with others. Communication is usually by text in game-sponsored chat rooms.

Both the cartoon and the game are plagued by rabid fans and nasty trolls, many of the latter seeming capable of violence. Research has shown that anonymity and the wide reach of the web incentivizes the creation of a dysfunctional community of people who cannot conform with, or succeed in, the greater society. But rather than allaying members’ anger and frustration, the existence of a virtual community seems to exacerbate these emotions. Adherents often encourage one another to wreak revenge upon all those they see as a successful contrast, or worse yet, against anyone perceived to have rejected them. Moral values and standards break down into anomie, and the idea of revenge takes ascendency. As Juliette Kayyem, former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security recently observed “The idea that there is a difference between online chatter and real-word harm is disabused by a decade of research.”

Moreover, in the game, some of the players appear to be aligned with a far-right, misogynist, white nationalist group called “The Halvening.” That group was claiming responsibility for Edie’s death, along with the deaths of other prominent left-wing young women. (Josh’s injury was thought to be an accidental by-product of being with Edie at the wrong time.). But there was another credible possibility.

“Anomie,” one of two moderators who created “Drek’s Game,” was now boasting of having killed Edie. Members of Edie’s family, along with a group of investors who were about to make “The Ink Black Heart” into a Netflix series, hired Strike and Robin to find out the identity of Anomie.

Robin joins Drek’s Game as a player as part of the agency’s investigative efforts, and she and Strike quickly come up with a list of suspects for the real identity of Anomie. But it is a dangerous game they are playing, in both senses, and everyone in the agency faces life-threatening situations.

Discussion: J.K. Rowling, the author using the name Robert Galbraith for this series, is certainly familiar with the pitfalls of fame, and how fans can begin to feel a sense of ownership over works, as well as turn on authors when they feel betrayed by them. (See this article, for example, for an explanation of the controversy between Rowling and trans activists.)

Thus Rowling is no doubt more than familiar with pedophiles, incels, racists, and other nasty, hateful types who have nothing better to do with their lives than troll other people on the web and plot revenge against their successes. She gives them a great deal of coverage in this book, in the form of extensive group and private chats among the gamers. [Incels are self-identified members of an online community of young men who consider themselves unable to attract women sexually, and are typically associated with views that are hostile toward both women and men who are sexually active, but especially women.] I wouldn’t ascribe an “agenda” by Rowling toward this feature of the book beyond showing what goes on online these days, in case one is blissfully unaware; taking advantage of the large extent of knowledge she has about it; and the desire to construct a good, suspenseful story that turns on two web-enabled sociocultural developments: the freedom (for both good and evil) of anonymity, and the magnifying effect of being able to connect with others sharing the same derangements.

Evaluation: The unraveling of the mystery and crimes committed was well constructed, with great attention to detail rather than the abbreviated process one encounters in shorter books. The author is an excellent storyteller, and keeps you engaged with both her plotting and her writing ability.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, 2020

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Kid Lit Review of “Magnolia Flower” – A Short Story by Zora Neale Hurston Adapted by Ibram X. Kendi

As Ibram Kendi writes in a note at the end, this book is adapted from a short story by Zora Neale Hurston published in 1925.

The story is told by a river to a brook, wanting to know about people in love. The river complies, and begins to tell the brook about Magnolia Flower, a girl born of an escaped slave and a Cherokee woman four years before the Civil War.

When Magnolia Flower grew up, she fell in love with a man named John.

“John had taught Magnolia to read strange marvels with her dark eyes, and she had taught John to sing with his.”

But Magnolia’s father disapproved of John – this poor man of words instead of guns, and the young couple had to flee, taking a boat northward: “‘That happened more than forty years ago, as humans reckon time,’ River said.”

But River still knew of them: “The tide brought all their tears to me. And their joy. And their love. Their love is Mighty and ever flowing like me.”

What happens at the end of the story is beautiful.

Lush, gorgeous illustrations by Loveis Wise bring the setting alive and add a magical quality.

The book concludes with an historical note and an author’s note. In the latter, Kendi writes:

“Love is a consistent theme in Hurston’s work and again in this book. Love is conveyed as a formative force, a binding force, an eternal force, marking this book as another moving Hurston love story. A love story of freedom. A love story of nature. A love story of Afro-indigenous resistance. A love story of home.”

The book is bracketed by luxuriant and exquisite magnolia flowers on the end papers.

Evaluation: Readers aged 4 and over will pour over the narration and pictures in this stunning and moving book. In addition, the story will introduce many readers to the pre-Civil War existence of colonies of free Blacks and relocated Native peoples, and how their fates sometimes intertwined.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2022

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Review of “Clark and Division” by Naomi Hirahara

Clark and Division is historical crime fiction set mainly in Chicago during World War II. Aki Ito and her family have been released from the Manzanar internment camp to work in Chicago.

[As a National Park Service site dedicated to Manzanar explains, “In 1942, the United States government ordered more than 110,000 men, women, and children to leave their homes and detained them in remote, military-style camps. Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten camps where the US government incarcerated Japanese immigrants ineligible for citizenship and Japanese American citizens during World War II.”]

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Aki’s older sister Rose went ahead of the family to Chicago, and she secured an apartment for them. They then brought their scant belongings with them to Chicago, as well as the considerably heavier baggage of having been put into camps by the US Government simply because they had Japanese heritage.

When the Ito family arrived, however, they were greeted at the train station with the news that Rose had just died, killed by a subway train at Clark & Division. The report was that she jumped in front of an oncoming train.

Aki refused to believe that her sister – so full of life, would have committed suicide, and she was determined to find the truth about what happened to Rose.

Aki, always a shadow behind Rose’s sun, now comes into her own as she investigates what happened to Rose, and in the process, leaves her childhood shyness behind. At first it is Aki’s naivety that allows her to be fearless, but soon her efforts are enhanced by her growing courage and determination to get whatever justice can be had for Rose.

Evaluation: Hirahara provides a glimpse of what life was like for the Issei (Japanese-born immigrants) and Nisei (ethnically Japanese children born in the US) both in the internment camps and in Chicago, as well as a portrait of Chicago at mid-century. The mystery aspects of the novel are interesting, but it is the struggles of the American citizens of Japanese heritage that take center stage, and the coming-of-age aspects of Aki’s life that personalize it.

Note: Winner of the Mary Higgins Clark Award and a New York Times Best Mystery Novel of 2021

Rating: 4/5

Published by Soho Crime, 2021

From the excellent website “Clark & Division: Japanese Americans on Chicago’s Near North Side, 1940s-1960s” at http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2020/1/20/clark-and-division-2/

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Kid Lit Review of “Child of the Flower-Song People: Luz Jiménez, Daughter of the Nahua” by Gloria Amescua

Julia Jiménez, known as Luz Jiménez, was born into a Nahua family in Milpa Alta, Mexico in 1897. (Nahuas comprise the largest indigenous group in Mexico. The ancient Aztecs were of Nahua ethnicity.) She became an indigenous Mexican model for such famous artists as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, as well as a Nahuatl-language storyteller.

As a child, Luz loved listening to stories about her Aztec Nahuan ancestors, who were also known as the flower-song people. According to a history by Carlos Herrera Montero printed in The Sopris Sun, Carbondale, Colorado’s nonprofit weekly newspaper:  

“The Nahuatl language did not have a specific word for poetry but it did have the concept, a metaphor, ‘flowers and songs’ to indicate poetry. This concept was key in their perception of the world and Aztec mythology. It was the search for truth, for God, for the answers to the compelling and ancestral questions of humankind. It was their philosophy and theology. Poetry came from the god Ometeotl, a dual god: the father and the mother, the convergence of masculine and feminine principles.”

Montero explains further that poetry played an important role in daily life:

“Among the Aztec, there was a special kind of priest responsible for calling the locals to gather in a place known as the House of Penance and Prayer, to learn the ‘flowers and songs’ well.”

[Many of these poetic works were destroyed by Hernán Cortés and his men when the Spanish invaded, however. ]

The author tells us that Luz listened to all the old stories and songs and wove them into her heart:

“Through them she tasted bitter sorrow – how the Nahua suffered – and sweet joy – how her people survived. Luz was a child of the flower-song people.”

The government decreed that Spanish should be the language of Mexico, and if students in school were caught wearing Nahua clothes or speaking Nahuatl, they were punished. Amescua writes: “The budding flower in Luz’s heart might have withered. But it did not.”

Instead, Luz got strength from the old Nahua stories, and wanted to protect their ways.

In 1916, the Mexican Revolution came to Milpa Alta. Most of the men, including Luz’s father, were massacred. Luz, her mother, and sisters fled to Mexico City in the night. They struggled to make ends meet until Luz won an indigenous beauty contest and began posing for artists at painting schools. She became the most well-known model in all of Mexico for the most prominent artists:

“The world recognized the beauty and strength of the native people after five hundred years of being in shadows. Through Luz, the world came to know ‘the spirit of Mexico.’”

Luz Jiménez early in her modeling career, is shown posing for Ramón Alva de la Canal, Fernando Leal and Francisco Díaz de León at an outdoor painting school in Coyoacán, ca. 1920.
Credit:
Photographer unknown. Fondo Documental y Fotográfico Luz Jiménez.

After the Revolution, Luz returned to Milpa Alta and began teaching Nahua culture, leading anthropologists and artists on tours of her town. One of those anthropologist, also a professor, wrote down all Luz told him in her own language, Nahuatl. Luz became “a living link” to the Aztecs. The professor asked Luz to help him teach Nahuatl at the College of Mexico City.

At long last, the author concludes, Luz realized her dream of becoming a teacher and breathing life into the flower songs of the Nahua.

Back matter includes a timeline, glossary, notes, and bibliography.

Duncan Tonatiuh, who is an award-winning illustrator, creates gorgeous folkloric art work, inspired by Mixtec (native Mexican) codices from the 14th century. He juxtaposes the indigenous style with modern characters and settings. He also uses the pictures to enlarge upon the text. Because the illustrations also tell the story without words, they serves to extend the recommended age range of this book (age 6 and up).

Evaluation: Meticulous research enhanced by outstanding art will help children learn more about the important history of our nearest neighbor to the south.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021

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Review of “The Ways We Hide” by Kristina McMorris”

Kristina McMorris writes unforgettable novels of historical fiction, which means a lot to me since I read so much that I forget a good many books. But not hers.

This well-researched story begins in 1942 in Brooklyn, New York, when we get introduced to Fenna Vos, who is working as an assistant and behind-the-scenes manager of a magic act. It flashes back to 1928 in Michigan when Fenna is just shy of 11, and then ends up in 1943 London with Fenna working for the Allies in the war effort.

We learn that in 1943 Fenna has been recruited by Christopher Clayton Hutton, a real person who was responsible for helping prisoners of war by “tricking out Monopoly games and designing countless other escape-and evasion ‘toys’ for MI9.”

[MI9, as Wikipedia explains, was the the British Directorate of Military Intelligence Section 9, a highly secret department of the British War Office during WWII. It had two principal tasks: (1) assisting in the escape of Allied prisoners of war (POWs) held by the Axis countries, especially Nazi Germany; and (2) helping Allied military personnel, especially downed airmen, evade capture after they were shot down or trapped behind enemy lines in Axis-occupied countries. To this end, the department devised a number of – in effect – magic tricks to give to soldiers as equipment, such as compasses hidden inside buttons, hollow boots in shoes that were filled with dried food, or maps concealed in playing cards. McMorris tells us in her Author’s Note that MI9 used the services of former magician Jasper Maskelyne to design some of these devices, and it is thus she got the idea to add Fenna as an assistant to Hutton.]

An MI9 concept drawing for what Jaques of London called their ‘Whittington Chess Set’. The sides of the set have been hollowed to include a variety of escape and evasion items. Read more about it in this article.

McMorris also adds a strong romance element to her stories, and this one is no exception. Fenna, orphaned young, grew up with the family of Arie Jansen, one year older than Fenna, and like her, the offspring of a Dutch family who had come to America to work in the copper mines. She and Arie had always been close, and it was Arie who gave Fenna a book, Houdini’s Big Little Book of Magic & Stunts to help distract her from nightmares. Fenna buried herself in learning magic and tricks:

“The art of escape became more than a tool to rein in my fears and reduce my nightmares. It was an all-out obsession.”

It served her well during WWII, not only during her stint with the British War Service, but after she was sent into enemy territory and came under mortal danger.

Thereafter the tension escalates exponentially, as Fenna has to muster the courage to use her skills to orchestrate the ultimate escape.

Evaluation: As with the other novels by McMorris, you find yourself swept up in the historical events and romance she depicts, and you can’t turn the pages fast enough. Afterwards, you find yourself haunted by the story she has told, and grateful for the opportunity to have read it.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, 2022

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