Review of “Sunrise Highway” by Peter Blauner

Peter Blauner has not only written other crime novels, but has worked on television shows such as “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” Like that TV series, this book is dark, with violence towards women as well as lots of corruption and unfairness plaguing the “justice” system. From a personal standpoint, I would have enjoyed it more if I could have looked at it as fanciful rather than as echoing so many unfortunate aspects of real life these days.

Lourdes Robles is an NYPD detective with the Queens Homicide Task Force. A body turns up with an unusual cause of death, and before long, Lourdes begins to notice a pattern going back thirty years. But she runs into opposition from the higher-ups in the police. As her old partner Kevin Sullivan pointed out to her, while there were plenty of good cops, “experience had taught him that within every constabulary force was a core of officers who were intolerant of democracy and far more sympathetic to authoritarianism.”

If only a tendency towards despotism were the worst of it…. Before long, the pushback on the investigation by Lourdes turns deadly.

Evaluation: This thriller is well-written, with the narrative going back-and-forth in time to fill in gaps in the story revealed in the chapters set in the present day. It’s the kind of story that if I saw Jim watching it on television, I would ask him to go sequester himself in the basement so I wouldn’t have to risk having nightmares. But Lourdes is a great protagonist (she also appeared in an earlier novel, Proving Ground) and the other characters are convincingly portrayed. The author is a sharp-eyed observer of the worlds both inside and outside the law, and also of that shadowy space in between them.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Minotaur Books, St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2018

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Review of “Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik

This enchanting fairy tale has several skeins of other stories woven into the plot, most notably Rumpelstiltskin. It is also heavily influenced by Russian fairytales, and even brings to mind Proverbs 31:10-31, the verses which define “a virtuous woman.” [Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil. She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life…..”]

Rumpelstiltskin is about a miller who boasts to the King that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The King summons the girl, shuts her in a tower room filled with straw and a spinning wheel, and demands she spin the straw into gold by morning or he will cut off her head. When she succeeds (through the help of magic), the next day he provides even more straw, and again she is successful. On the third day, the King tells her he will marry her if she can turn a whole room full of straw into gold; if she does not, he will execute her.

In Spinning Silver, the main protagonist and most frequent narrator is Miryem, the daughter of an unsuccessful moneylender. Miryem tells us right in the beginning that the story of Rumpelstiltskin is not about what people thought. It was, rather, she explained, about paying your debts. This too, is what Miryem’s story is about.

First, Miryem takes over her ineffectual father’s moneylending business. Then, hearing of her success in turning silver into gold [in this case metaphorically and through cleverness and persistence rather than magic], the Staryk King comes to her door and insists she turn his silver coins into coins of gold. The Staryk are the fairy creatures who bring winter, and often with it, starvation and death. Miryem thinks the King is irredeemably evil and greedy, but she is caught in a vise; if she does not meet his demands, he tells her he will change her to ice…. If she does, however, he will make her his queen. His demands are so outrageous, he doesn’t expect he will have to pay that particular debt.

Miryem’s story intersects with two other “virtuous women” who play large roles as well: Irina and Wanda. All three of these women exhibit a worth that comes from within them rather than from superficial beauty. As Miryem reflects, “I wasn’t a princess, or even a golden-haired peasant girl. . . I was short and bony and shallow, and my nose was humped in the middle and too big for my face.” When she meets the King’s demands, she is sure he will renege on his promise.

Because she is “small and dark and wren-colored, and entirely absurd as a wife for him,” she says to the Staryk King: … “You can’t want to marry me. What will anyone think?”

He answered: “What I have promised, I will do,” he hissed at me.” … “I leave no debts unpaid. …I shall not prove false myself, whatever the cost.” But he won’t tell Miryem his name.

Miryem confides her dilemma to her grandfather, who says to her about the Staryk lord: “…he is wise enough to value what you bring him, even if he doesn’t yet know the rest of your worth.” As the Proverbs verse reads: “Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain . . . let her own works praise her in the gates.”

Irina is another girl who “wasn’t especially pretty . . . only ordinary . . . ” Nevertheless, Irina has become the wife of Mirnatius, the Tsar. He did not pick Irina for her looks or because he loved her or even for her father’s wealth; he picked her to appease the demon that possessed him. This fire demon wanted to devour Irina because in her was a trace of Staryk blood, i.e., winter magic.

In one of my favorite passages in the book, Irina tells the Tsar:

“‘My mother had enough magic to give me three blessings before she died,’ I said, and he instinctively bent in to hear it. ‘The first was wit; the second beauty, and the third – that fools should recognize neither.”

Irina, too, knows that her life is in danger, and she negotiates for it daily, as does Miryem, in an acknowledged reference to “One Thousand and One Nights.” When Miryem and Irina meet, Miryem says to Irina:

“So the fairy silver brought you a monster of fire for a husband, and me a monster of ice. We should put them in a room together and let them make us both widows.”

Wanda is a girl whose father owes debts to Miryem’s father. She and eventually both her brothers come to work for Miryem’s family to pay off their debts. Wanda, loyal and steadfast, had not gotten an education, and believes that the many unusual things she sees at Miryem’s house, such as writing, must be “magic.” In fact, when she hears Miryem’s family singing Hebrew prayers, she asks if that is magic too:

“My father stopped singing; my mother said firmly, ‘No, Wanda, of course not. It is a hymn to God.’

‘Oh,’ she said…’So it would keep them off, wouldn’t it?’

After a moment, my father said quietly, ‘I don’t know, Wanda. God does not save us from suffering on this Earth. The Staryk afflict the righteous as well as the sinful, just as do illness and sorrow.’”

The gods will not help. But maybe resourcefulness will. And these three young girls have what it takes to change the fate of the world.

Discussion: This book has so many layers and levels. It begins with the typical fairytale anthropomorphism of the world’s dangers and fears that accompany them. It then introduces the notion of complexity and nuance into the stories, so we, along with the characters, discover that there is more to bad people and bad things that happen than meets the eye. Then it wraps it all up in a story of friendship and love – both familial and romantic – that is absolutely charming. In fact, one of the best moments in the book is when Miryem’s mother comforts Wanda’s littlest brother, who is filled with fear:

“Hush, sweetheart. You don’t have a mother anymore, but let me speak to you with her voice a minute. Listen. Stepon told us what happened in your house. There are men who are wolves inside, and want to eat up other people to fill their bellies. That is what was in your house with you, all your life. But here you are with your brothers, and you are not eaten up, and there is not a wolf inside you. You have fed each other, and you kept the wolf away. That is all we can do for each other in the world, to keep the wolf away. And if there has been food in my house for you, then I am glad, glad with all my heart. I hope there will always be.”

Evaluation: This is an outstanding book by an outstanding author. If you are looking for inspiring female role models, you can hardly do better. And the last sentence is perfection.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, 2018

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Kit Lit Review of “Frankie Finds the Blues” by Joel Harper

Any book illustrated by Gary Kelley is a treat. The striking set of portraits of important blues pioneers at the front of the book is outstanding. I’d say he is one of my favorite artists for kids books, but the truth is, he is one of my favorite artists in any format. His pastel illustrations are just stunning.

The story is about Frankie, a young boy whose grandmother invites him to a blues concert. Frankie isn’t familiar with blues, and protests that he likes hip hop. She says she is confident he will enjoy the show, and he agrees to accompany her. The musician turns out to be a guitarist who uses the fingerpicking technique. Frankie is amazed that it sounds as if the musician is “playing 10 guitars at the same time.”

Now he wants to learn how to do that too. He is excited about the blues – he explains to his mother:

“… did you know that people in Africa were taken away from their families and brought to the United States? They had to work all day for free. They sang work songs to help them feel better which developed into the blues. And that is where hip hop came from! I learned all about it at the concert.”

‘That’s right sweetheart,’ said Frankie’s mother. ‘Music was the one thing that could not be taken away from them.’”

Frankie tries to teach himself to play the guitar but he needs help, so he signs up for lessons. He doesn’t have much success and his friends make fun of him for always trying the same song.

Then one day, out in the park, he hears someone say “Sounding real good.” It was a homeless person. Frankie asks if the man knew how to play, and it turned out he did. Frankie loaned him his guitar, and “To Frankie’s amazement, he began listening to the most beautiful music.”

Frankie asked the man, whose name was Walter, if he would teach Frankie, and Walter said only if it was okay with Frankie’s parents. The next day, Frankie’s mom and grandma came with Frankie to the park to meet Walter. Walter told them: “I may be homeless, but I’m harmless.”

The women were skeptical, but then Walter started to play for them. Frankie’s mother and grandmother were won over “by Walter’s sincerity and his melodic music.”

The story ends:

“Frankie was so grateful for the guitar lessons that he used money from his own savings and bought Walter a guitar. They continued to play music together, often attracting crowds of people that would stop to enjoy their music.”

On the book jacket we learn that the author, when not writing and publishing books, plays and teaches lap slide guitar and Native American Flute.

Evaluation: This is a very nice story, and I loved the tight relationship among Frankie, his mother, and his grandmother, and their mutual respect for one another. I would have enjoyed some more background on the blues (which, admittedly, is hard to discuss without a soundtrack). I hope children will be inspired to seek out blues tracks on their own via youtube. Certainly they will be curious about what got Frankie so excited! And children are basically given a pictorial map of whom to listen to by virtue of Kelley’s opening thumbnail sketches.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Hal Leonard Books, 2018

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Review of “Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan” by Steve Coll

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Steve Coll’s latest book, Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is a sequel to Coll‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars, an excellent chronicling of the CIA’s involvement in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion through September 10, 2001.

As Coll painstakingly explains, U.S. relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan are, and have been, extremely complex due in no small part to the number of groups with conflicting interests.  Pakistan perceives itself in a life and death struggle with India, its neighbor to the east, with whom it has had three unsuccessful wars since its founding in 1947.  Its rivalry with India is largely based on religious differences;  Pakistan originally split from British India to carve out an Islamic State. 

Pakistan’s neighbor to the west is Afghanistan, a country that is nearly 100% Muslim.  But Afghanistan is riven with tribal differences (Pashtuns vs. Tajik vs. Uzbek, etc.) as well as different versions of Islam.  The capital, Kabul, is relatively modern and sophisticated;  much of the hinterland is dominated by an almost medieval, primitive version of Islam practiced by the Taliban. Indeed, Afghanistan is embroiled in a long-lived civil war between the Taliban and a more moderate, enlightened government in Kabul.  

Pakistan considers a friendly, or at least neutral, Afghanistan to be essential to its well being in its struggle with India.  Pakistan has exerted its influence in Afghanistan through the ISI, its Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which has found common ground with the Taliban largely through religious affinity.

The United States became involved in Afghanistan in the 1980s in a proxy war against the USSR by supplying arms to insurgents fighting the Soviet-sponsored communist government.  Those insurgents often were religious fundamentalists.  The Soviets purposefully decimated the country’s educated elites, leaving the country to radical preachers and armed opportunists.  Some of these morphed into Al Qaeda members after the defeat of the Russians.

The US supplanted the Soviets as invaders shortly after September 11, 2001, after it became known that Osama bin Laden had been operating as a guest of the Taliban, which at the time controlled the capital, Kabul, and most of the rest of the country.  Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda operated training camps for terrorists in Taliban controlled areas.  

Undated ABC photo of al Qaeda militant training in Afghanistan

By supporting the Northern Alliance, a rival of the Taliban, the US was able to drive the Taliban out of the capital, Kabul, and secure control of much of the country. Osama bin Laden was forced to go underground and eventually escaped to Pakistan, as it was learned much later. Then thing got “interesting” as the US and its allies failed to completely irradicate the Taliban, which underwent a “rebirth” of sorts and began to take back portions of the country. The US is still mired in that horrible quagmire seventeen years later.

The actual “Directorate S” is the section of Pakistan’s ISI that deals with the Taliban.  It is thought to be responsible for helping create the Taliban’s safe harbors within the borders of Pakistan.  Those safe harbors have immensely complicated the task of the American military in defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In a section of the book entitled “Losing the Peace,” Coll blames the Bush administration for failing to bolster the nascent Afghan government that replaced the Taliban in 2002.  It refused to pay even 10% of the war’s cost to secure the peace with new Afghan forces.  One American observer noted, “You get what you pay for, and we paid for war.”

Some of America’s lack of success in Afghanistan can be attributed to the Bush administration’s emphasis on Iraq even though it had been the Afghan Taliban that had sheltered Osama bin Laden.  For example, the CIA increasingly deployed lightly experienced officers in Afghanistan while sending the heavy hitters to Iraq.  The US was never able to obtain the complete cooperation of Pakistan, which (in Coll’s words) played a double game—assisting both the US and the Taliban.  

By the time Obama replaced Bush, Hamid Karzai, the man the Americans had put in place to head the new Afghan government, had soured on America’s participation in the war.  His primary rationale was that American’s tended to kill too many innocent Afghans in their pursuit of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.  Karzai also blamed Pakistan for its support of the Taliban.  

2016 – The resurgent Taliban hold more Afghan territory than before. Allauddin Khan / AP Photo

Another complication in trying to make sense of Afghanistan is that that country’s most profitable industry is opium production.  The Americans tried to destroy the poppy fields to deprive the Taliban of a source of income, but in doing so they also greatly depressed the economy of their Afghan allies.

One of the most moving sections of the book deals with “green on blue” murders—the phenomenon of Afghan army trainees turning their weapons on their American or European trainers.  The cultural differences between the two groups were extreme, with the exaggerated respect shown to the Q’uran by the Afghans being one of the most intractable aspects of the relationship.  Many religious Afghans simply could not tolerate the presence of large numbers of infidels (Americans) in their midst. For their part, many Americans showed an insulting lack of respect for Islam and the Q’uran.

The book also recounts an event in 2014 that should send shivers down the spines of all Americans.  Apparently, two fervently religious Pakistani naval officers hatched a plan to commandeer a Pakistani warship that may have had a small nuclear weapon aboard.  They planned to use the vessel, which also had a large naval gun and several missiles aboard, to attack American ships conducting joint maneuvers with the Pakistani navy.  Fortunately they were thwarted by alert Pakistani commandos assigned to guard the ship, but their efforts represent the first armed terrorist attack against a facility holding nuclear weapons.  Coll warns ominously, “Judging by Pakistan’s trajectory, it was unlikely to be the last.”

NS Zulfiqar, which Al Qaeda militants tried to seize on Sept. 6, stands in the background of this June 2011 photo. REUTERS

Coll asserts that the war became a “humbling case study in the limits of American power.”  He argued that “the failure to solve the riddle of ISI and to stop its covert interference in Afghanistan became, ultimately, the greatest strategic failure of the American war.”   He concludes that about the best the U.S. can hope for in Afghanistan is a sort of stalemate with the Taliban as long as it is supported by the ISI.  The situation may come to resemble Mexico’s struggle with narco-traffickers or Colombia’s long war with the F.A.R.C.  In each case the state, although fragmented and corrupt, remained more or less intact and continued to cooperate with the US and Europe.  

Evaluation: Coll’s masterful study is carefully researched.  It provides much more detail than can be duplicated in a (relatively) short review.  In Ghost Wars, we learned that events in the region could be characterized as missed opportunities, owing, as Coll suggested, to “indifference, lassitude, blindness, paralysis, and commercial greed” that shaped America’s foreign policy in Afghanistan and South Asia. Similarly in this book, we read about an endless number of strategic reviews and studies commissioned by the White House, Pentagon, CIA, and State Department, with no immediate effect.

The bleak assessment of this book is hard to gainsay in light of Coll’s thorough presentation.  This is an important book for Americans who hope to understand the complications involved in intervening in foreign, particularly Islamic, lands. 

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2018

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Review of “Sold on a Monday” by Kristina McMorris

This historical fiction novel is set in 1931 during the early years of the Great Depression. Ellis Reed is a young society reporter for the Philadelphia Examiner, but longs to be responsible for covering news of more substance and import. When the Editor-in-Chief’s secretary, Lily Palmer, sees a photograph Ellis took on his own in rural Pennsylvania of two young children in front of a “for sale” sign, she gives it to her boss. The Chief then asks Ellis to write a feature to accompany the story. Accidentally, the original picture gets ruined, and the paper asks Ellis to go take another one.

Ellis returns to the place where the kids were, but he finds out they are gone; the sign, however, is still in the yard. He decides to stage another picture, and asks two neighbor kids, Ruby, 8, and Calvin, 5, to pose. He feels guilty but thinks the story is important enough to justify it. Yet the more compliments and success the story garners, the more his conscience plagues him.

Meanwhile, he and Lily have been fighting an attraction to one another, and after Ellis thinks he has lost out to Clayton Brauer, the top crime reporter at the Examiner, Ellis decides to accept a position covering news at the New York Herald Tribune. But Ellis and Lily get together again when they discover that the second set of kids have been sold as well. They work together to find out what has happened to the children, and in the process, also find out about what matters to them the most.

Evaluation: As with previous books, the author does an excellent job pulling us into the historical setting. She makes you want to read more about the period, and in addition, this novel will give you insights into the current traumas being experienced by children separated from their parents. And she makes you wonder: what sacrifices would you make to keep your own children alive? I have yet to be disappointed by this author.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks, 2018

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