Crime and politics in Scotland

It’s always a pleasure to read a book review by Tom Dillon. He reads such interesting books. This time, he’s enjoying a bit of detective fiction, but as you might expect, it’s a bit more complicated than shoot-’em-up and whodunit.

SAINTS OF THE SHADOW BIBLE. By Ian Rankin. Little, Brown and Co. 389 pages. $26 hardback. Also available in paperback and on Kindle.

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

Do you ever get the feeling certain authors are playing around with you? That’s how I’m beginning to feel about Ian Rankin, creator of the Scottish detective John Rebus, after reading Rankin’s latest, Saints of the Shadow Bible.

I started reading Rankin’s Rebus novels on a trip to Scotland in 2006, and I was immediately drawn in by a detective who puts solving crime above being deferential to authorities and nice to bigwigs. That’s long been Rebus’ modus operandi. It reminds me of some newspaper reporters I’ve known.

Rebus’ life is police work. It’s one of the things that broke up his marriage long ago and allows only occasional contacts with his daughter. That, and the fact that he’s an out-of-shape older cop still smoking and drinking too much.

Anyway, I followed Rankin’s John Rebus novels right up through Rebus’s retirement five years ago in the novel, Exit Music. I said then that I didn’t think retirement was a very good fit for Rebus, and boy, was I right. Barely skipping a beat, Rankin came out with Standing in Another Man’s Grave, in which Rebus is working part-time with a “cold case” unit looking at old crimes.

And now here’s Saints of the Shadow Bible, in which the retirement age has been raised and the old guy is, believe it or not, back on the force – albeit at a lesser rank. He retired as a detective inspector; now he’s back to being a sergeant, and his former protégé, female detective Siobhan Clarke, is his boss.

Adding to the ironies, Rebus is paired with one of his old nemeses, Malcolm Fox, late of the Complaints Division of Police Scotland. Complaints is the unit that investigates rogue cops, and they’ve had ample reason to look at the career of John Rebus through the years. Can Rebus and Fox, now on the road to becoming a detective himself, get along?

Rebus, Fox and Clarke start out investigating a young woman’s car crash that quickly turns suspicious. Her boyfriend is the son of a high-ranking Scottish politician involved in the Scottish independence movement, and neither wants to talk to the police.

Then there’s a subplot, a reopened old case involving some of Rebus’ colleagues when he first joined the force more than 30 years ago. Those colleagues, known as the “saints,” swore an oath of loyalty on something called “the shadow bible,” and now some of their work may be coming back to haunt them. Was John Rebus involved in corruption all those years ago?

Handling those two plot themes at the same time is a tall order, but Ian Rankin has long since proved himself adept at such things. Further, he lives in Edinburgh with his wife and two sons, and his work shows he keeps a steady hand on the pulse of Scottish life and politics.

The whole novel, published a few months ago, takes place amid the politicking for the Scottish independence vote, which has been scheduled for Sept. 18 this year (700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, for the record, which first achieved Scottish independence from England). But the vote is just part of the background. Don’t expect a solution.

More important is this look into John Rebus’ early life as a policeman, and the delicate interplay between Rebus, Clarke and Fox as they both navigate the back roads of Scotland and try to come to terms with their former selves.

As I said, I don’t know where Ian Rankin is going with the late-life career of John Rebus, and I’ve given up guessing. But wherever the destination, the trip is going to be adventurous. I’ll keep reading.

  • Tom Dillon is a journalist who lives in Winston-Salem.



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Beware the wild New Jersey Chihuahuas

What fun!

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

TOO SECRET TWENTY-ONE. By Janet Evanovich. Read by Lorelei King. Random House Audio. 6 hours; 5 CDs. $32.

How many wacky adventures can Stephanie Plum get into? How many cars can be destroyed? How often can her apartment be trashed? How long will her relationship with Joe Morelli survive her continued attraction to Ranger?

Infinitely, apparently. Janet Evanovich manages to keep this delightful series fresh, book after book. And not only fresh, but better and better. Top Secret Twenty-One is, if anything, more entertaining than the books that preceded it.

If you thought nothing could top Kevin, the 7-foot-tall giraffe galloping around a neighborhood in Trenton, N.J., in Takedown Twenty, you underestimated Evanovich’s zany imagination. Try a pack of feral Chihuahuas, alternately shivering in terror and attacking ferociously.

Stephanie Plum, for anyone who might not know, is a bounty hunter who nabs people who jump the bail provided for them by her cousin, Vinnie. Some of her cases start out sounding as if they’ll be pretty routine, but there are always surprises, some of them involving the possibility of serious bodily harm. In her spare time, to pick up a little extra cash and because he’s a good friend, she helps out Ranger, the sexy and mysterious owner of a security firm that seems awfully secret and high level. Those expeditions also thrust her into dangerous situations, and that’s only one of the reasons they bother Stephanie’s more-or-less regular boyfriend, Morelli, who is a homicide cop.

This time, Stephanie is looking for Jimmy Poletti, a big-time used-car salesman who jumped bail after he was arrested when it turned out he was dealing a lot more than cars.  She’s having a little trouble catching Poletti, and it doesn’t help that people associated with him keep turning up dead. Then there’s the problem of Randy Briggs, an obnoxious 3-foot-tall former hospital security guard who’d been keeping the books for Poletti and therefore knows way too much. Briggs turns to Stephanie for protection after his apartment is hit by a rocket, and she’s too softhearted to turn him down.

Meanwhile, somebody is seriously trying to kill Ranger in a particularly nasty way, and Stephanie tries to help him figure out who has it in for him and why.

All this gets complicated by the Chihuahua pack, not to mention the feud between Stephanie’s Grandma Mazur (who develops a very interesting bucket list) and Morelli’s evil-eyed Grandma Bella.

One of the amazing things about all this is that Stephanie, despite the zaniness and danger of her life, remains a more or less normal, unassuming young woman. She wears jeans and T-shirts, takes care of her pet hamster, visits her parents and grandma frequently, tries to be true to Morelli and has no super powers whatsoever. She hates guns and is a terrible shot if forced to use one.

Did I mention Lula? A former “ho,” Lula is Stephanie’s sidekick, which only adds to the craziness.

As audio books, the Stephanie Plum novels are high-level entertainment. Lorelei King is perfect, whether she’s issuing Lula’s sassy remarks or uttering Ranger’s trademark, “Babe…”

The only fault I can find with this book is that it had to end.





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Disaster, public and private

If you haven’t discovered the books of Chris Bohjalian, you need to. I first encountered his work in Secrets of Eden (December, 2009), which impressed me a great deal. Since then, I’ve been equally impressed by The Sandcastle Girls and The Light in the Ruins  (both of which are reviewed here). The man has written 15 other novels and a collection of essays. That’s a lot of good reading to be enjoyed.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

CLOSE YOUR EYES, HOLD HANDS. By Chris Bohjalian. Random House Audio. Read by Grace Blewer. 8 ½ hours; 7 CDs. $41. Also available in print from Doubleday.

Chris Bohjalian has a well-earned reputation for beautifully written novels that provide rich insights into the sometimes-heartbreaking complexities of the human condition. He also is known for introducing his readers to an impressive variety of subject matter, often blending historical fiction with more contemporary settings. The Sandcastle Girls, for example, deals with the little-known story of the Armenian genocide during World War I and a modern-day suburban mom who is a descendant of Armenians. The Light in the Ruins is a murder mystery of sorts set in 1950s Italy, and also a story of how an Italian family was affected by their government’s alliance with the Nazis in World War II.

This book is different from those earlier novels in that, on the surface, it’s much simpler, set in the present or a not-too-distant future, and told in the first person by one teenage girl. But from the moment that girl, Emily Shepard, begins to tell you her story, Bohjalian will have captured you as surely as he always does. Before long, you will be deeply moved by what Emily has endured, what she has to say and – for this is part of Bohjalian’s genius – what she does not say.

Emily is a high school junior in the rural northeast corner of Vermont, an only child who lives in a “meadow mansion” development with her parents. She’s a somewhat introverted girl who’s a great admirer of Emily Dickinson and aspires to be a poet and novelist herself. Like most teenagers, she has her gripes and quirks, and maybe a little more problem with impulse control than some of her more laid-back peers. But things are basically OK.

And then one day, near the end of the school year, the nuclear plant near her home has a catastrophic meltdown.

Such a disaster would be terrible in any case, but for Emily, it’s much worse. Her father was in charge of the nuclear plant; her mother worked there too, in public relations. In her heart, she knows they must be dead. Worse yet, her father, who had problems with alcohol, is being blamed for the meltdown.

With passions high and her father being vilified all around, Emily is terrified. Rather than stay with her classmates as they evacuate the area, she flees and makes up a different identity.

As we get to know Emily, we learn she’s been at a hospital for a while, and that she’s talked with therapists. Saying she wants to try to tell the reader only what is true, she begins her story by talking about the igloo she made of trash bags and frozen leaves hen she was homeless in Burlington, Vt., six months after the meltdown. She lived there with Cameron, a younger boy who’d fled an abusive foster home.

Haltingly, recalling her life before the meltdown, how she survived as a street person since and the desperate decisions that finally brought her where she is now, Emily tells her story in unadorned, matter-of-fact prose. Like her idol Emily Dickinson, she uses words sparingly, and each carefully chosen word says a great deal.

In some novels, Bohjalian has helped his readers understand how people in other places and other times dealt with adversity and even atrocity. This time, the worlds are closer to home: the life of a troubled teen who finds herself on the streets, dealing with drugs, sex, bullies and self-abusing “cutters”; and a “typical” American suburban region where disaster suddenly crumbles the illusion of comfort and safety.

Emily’s story is utterly compelling. Her voice will haunt you. There is an added bonus for those who “read” the audio version. Bohjalian’s daughter Grace Blewer, who was 19 when he was writing the book and helped him with Emily’s voice and contemporary expressions, is the reader who brings that voice to life. Now an acting student, she does a marvelous job.


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Travels with Tooly

Some books are just made to be read aloud. This one is a great story, and I’m sure it’s enjoyable when read in print. But in its audio form, it’s utterly captivating. I quickly felt that the reader, Penelope Rawlins, was a dear friend, telling me a fascinating story – one that I didn’t want to end. And the voice she gave to our heroine, Tooly, brought her endearingly to life as well.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE RISE AND FALL OF GREAT POWERS. By Tom Rachman. Read by Penelope Rawlins. Random House Audio. 15 hours; 12 CDs. $45. Also available in print from The Dial Press.

When we meet Tooly Zylberberg, she’s an eccentric young woman in her early 30s who curiously seems to have little connection to anyone. She’s recently bought a moldering bookstore in a remote village in Wales, having invested her remaining funds from some mysterious source in an enterprise that’s bound to go broke. But she loves the books, and her living quarters upstairs, and is content living a mostly solitary life. Her one regular companion is an equally eccentric, quite dramatic, young Welsh man who works for her in the shop.

For the most part, Tooly is happy to be left alone in her quiet existence, but she does occasionally succumb to curiosity and prowl the Internet searching for news of some of the people from her past.

Then one day, a message arrives from one of those people, a boyfriend she was with for a while in New York back around the turn of the new century, when she was college age. Her father is very ill and badly needs her help, the old flame tells her.

Tooly is puzzled. Who is this “father”? So she’s off to the United States to solve that mystery and see what’s going on.

The identity of the ailing father is far from this book’s only mystery. Tooly, we learn gradually, knows more than we do about her past, but her understanding is incomplete and flawed. Tom Rachman deftly moves the story back and forth among 1988, when Tooly is 10, to the days in New York and to the present, slowly revealing bits and pieces of Tooly’s life.

Was she an heiress, victim of a kidnapping that went wrong? The pawn of people involved in international espionage? Something unimaginable? The action, both in the past and the present, moves in a sometimes-breathtaking way across Asia, Europe and the United States. Always in the background, affecting Tooly and her associates, are the major events of a momentous quarter-century in world affairs. The Iron Curtain crumbles, the Internet rises, 9/11 happens, entrepreneurs rise and markets crash.

Through it all, whether she’s a delightfully precocious 10-year-old, a 20-something trying to fit in with “normal” kids her age, or the 30-something woman who hopes finally to confront her past, Tooly is thoroughly endearing. She’s smart, funny, spunky, a lover of words and books, and a person who wants to do the right things despite what’s been done to her. She has done some things wrong, and has some regrets, but the wrongs that have been done to her are much greater – even though she may not always think so.

To say too much about the intricate plot of this book, about the secrets that ultimately unravel, would be to spoil the fun of Rachman’s energetic, surprising, witty and sometimes poignant story-telling.

Suffice it to say that you’ll love Tooly and enjoy her peripatetic journey through recent history. With her, you’ll come to ponder those big questions about what’s important in life in a way you probably haven’t before.



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Where there’s Hope, there’s a good story

It’s always a pleasure when the latest installment in a good series arrives.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE PRIME MINISTER’S SECRET AGENT. By Susan Elia MacNeal. Bantam Books. 301 pages. $15, paperback.

Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope series has become one of my favorites. In Maggie, MacNeal has created an intelligent, sensitive, complex heroine who’s a convincingly real person. She’s spunky, but human. She has romantic interests, but real life – complicated by war – intervenes.

Maggie’s life story becomes a bit more complex with each book. At first, we thought she was a British orphan, reared in America by her college professor aunt. Gradually, we learn that her parents are alive – and in many ways more problem than blessing. And, surprisingly, she has a half sister in peril in Germany.

Maggie, a recent Wellesley mathematics graduate, came to England to sell her late grandmother’s house, and found herself in the midst of the action as England was thrust into World War II. She decided to stay and do her part, which soon turns out to involve spying for His Majesty’s government.

Like the previous three books in the series, The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent is a winning combination: a well-plotted mystery, a thriller with a proper share of danger, a romance, and a historical tale in which Winston Churchill and other real people march convincingly through the pages.

This time, Maggie, recovering from physical and emotional wounds suffered during her recent adventures in wartime Berlin, thinks she’s winning some peace and quiet by taking a teaching job at the remote camp in Scotland where she was trained to be a spy.

But when she visits an old friend in Glasgow, the sudden illness of three ballerinas – including her dear friend – plunges her right back into the thick of things. She finds herself working with MI-5 to uncover what might be terrible secrets.

Meanwhile, as 1941 draws to a bloody close, events in the Pacific are about to come to a head, and Churchill is planning a trip to Washington – a trip that he insists must involve Maggie Hope.

MacNeal tells Maggie’s story well, and in the process, she also tells the broader story of what it was like to be caught up in a terrible war – a war in which good people must figure out how far they can go to combat evil without becoming evil themselves.



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Before Paris Hilton, there was Zsa Zsa

Our roving correspondent, Paul O’Connor, whiled away some driving time by listening to a true story that could provide ample fodder for a prime-time TV soap.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

THE HILTONS: THE TRUE STORY OF AN AMERICAN DYNASTY. By J. Randy Taraborrelli. Hachette Audio. 16 CDs. 19.5 hours. $35. Read by Robert Petkoff.

The good news about this audiobook is that it isn’t about Paris Hilton. The bad news is that it is too much about Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Conrad Hilton was an amazing man. The eldest son of a small town New Mexico merchant, he tried and failed at a number of endeavors in early adulthood. After he found his niche as a hotelier and built a small profitable chain, the Great Depression nearly broke him. After he survived that, he went on to build one of the nation’s great businesses, making a fortune in the process.

He was a devout Roman Catholic, extremely generous to charitable and civic undertakings, and he did his best not to spoil his children.

But he also married Zsa Zsa. Poor guy. The second marriage for both of them. She’d have seven more husbands, he only one more wife, but their lives were inextricably bound together.

Hilton believed strongly in family, and because Zsa Zsa was pregnant at the time of their divorce, Hilton always publicly treated the child of that pregnancy as his own. (The author never determines whether the child was biologically Hilton’s daughter, but Hilton denied her being so in private and later in legal documents.)

Hilton also had two sons by his first wife, the elder being a fun-loving guy who married Elizabeth Taylor, the younger being a serious guy who went on to become Paris’s grandfather and a billionaire in his own right. Oh, and then there was a third son by that first wife, conceived while Conrad was working all the time and while the first wife was probably having an affair with the local football coach who would become her second husband.

I don’t remember any reference to J.R. Ewing in any of this.

So, here’s my advice on this audiobook: Listen to it if you like People magazine and those Hollywood news shows that come on at 7 p.m. Find another Hilton biography if you’re more interested in learning how this amazing businessman built and sustained the Hilton operations.

While the author does wander into the business details of Conrad Hilton’s, they obviously take second priority to the family gossip. Paris does show up on the final CD, and that was all most of us would want to know about her.

Robert Petkoff does an admirable job of reading the book, although his Zsa Zsa voice does grate after 19 hours.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at


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The pet patrol rides again

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

NINE LIVES TO DIE. By Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown. Bantam. 253 pages. $26.

Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy mysteries are light and easy-going despite the inevitable presence of at least a couple of murder victims. There’s also always some danger for Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, the human protagonist and amateur sleuth, but her four-legged, furry friends are around to avert disaster. (Of course, you understand, Rita Mae Brown’s cat, Sneaky Pie Brown, helps her write the books, providing the insight into the animals’ points of view.) Even though – or maybe because – the writing team has worked this formula many times now, “Nine Lives to Die” is fresh and fun to read.

The mysteries are good enough to keep the reader interested, but it’s the characters – human and animal – that provide the real entertainment.

In the latest tale, winter has Crozet, a small town on the edge of Virginia’s Blue Ridge, in its grip. It’s the Christmas season, and Harry, her veterinarian husband, Fair, and their friends are busy with their usual year-end activities: distributing care packages to neighbors, and attending the posh fund-raising gala for Silver Linings, an organization that helps teenage boys from needy homes.

But this year, trouble stalks the Silver Linings organization. In fairly short order, two of the prominent men who work as volunteers mentoring the boys are found dead in mysterious circumstances. Irregularities surface in the organization’s accounts, and then two severed human fingers turn up in a pencil jar in the bookkeeper’s office at a church.

Meanwhile, Harry’s intrepid animals discover old human remains in the woods near her farm.

What in the world is going on? Has somebody been getting away with murder for years? Is somebody getting away with murder now?

As usual, Harry and friends get involved in the mystery. Interesting characters in the community make the tale livelier. And the passel of pet detectives – all of whom talk in ways the readers, but not the people they live with, are privy to – leads the charge. This time, the domestic animals get help, warily, from a coyote who has moved into the neighborhood.

This would be a good book to provide a break when the run-up to Christmas gets hectic. But if you’re a fan and can’t wait that long, the descriptions of snow and cold in Virginia’s mountains can serve as a respite from summer’s heat. Either way, enjoy!




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Hindsight’s clear vision

Paul O’Connor once again has put his driving time to good use, this time listening to a troubling book about how the U.S. put Nazi scientists to work in this country after Hitler’s defeat.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor


The passage of time allows us to see very difficult choices from the past with a clarity that was missing in their moment.

Today, Americans are embarrassed that their country, fresh from the Greatest Generation’s contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany, recruited some of Hitler’s most ruthless scientists to come to the United States, work for the country that had defeated them and gain the rights and privileges of American citizens.

But in late 1944, and the years immediately following, the decision to recruit those scientists and use their expertise for U.S. national defense was not so obvious as wrong. The Allies first faced the possibility that developing Nazi war technology could, in the very latest days of the war, either swing the flow of battle back to German advantage or, somehow, be transferred to the Japanese to prolong the Pacific war.

Then, after the war ended, it became clear that the Soviets, who were quickly emerging as America’s newest enemy, were themselves recruiting Nazi scientists and employing them in the search for new weapons to potentially use against the West.

Annie Jacobsen does a good job of providing historical perspective to the situation that American military and intelligence officials faced at the time.  The Cold War was under way, she explains, the Soviets were perceived as a very credible threat to the West, and there were horrible implications imaginable should the best German scientists land on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

It is only in the latter chapters that, equipped with hindsight’s clear vision, she judges. It is appropriate that she does.

She concludes that the U.S. erred in two key areas of intelligence. The first was in its knowledge of the Nazis who were being admitted to the U.S. – or in a few cases, being employed by the U.S. in Europe. Much that should have been known about these people was either unknown in the 1940s or was deliberately overlooked. These were not the Good Germans we often hear about.

Many were monsters. Some conducted or oversaw scientific experiments on human beings, often killing the test subjects in the process. Others employed slave labor, often working the slaves to death. Others were involved in research and development aimed at chemical and biological weapons.

Her work is exhaustive and, quite frankly, exhausting. Had I been reading this book at home, I’m sure it would have taken me months to finish. The detail and minutiae would have worn me down. But, it was in the CD player of my car as I drove from Raleigh to Denver, and when my mind wandered, I was always able to refocus, even if I’d missed something.

This is a work, however, that most readers of history would prefer in book form if for no other reason than to be able to use the index to refresh memories of the many characters. I say this despite the author’s credible job of reading the work.

Are there more entertaining ways of passing the time on a cross-country trip? A fictional thriller might have been a better choice on my part. But, having endured the bad news that this book provides about my country’s leaders in the postwar years, I’m glad I listened.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at



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Beware the “undid”

Victorian London, with its veneer of manners and morals and its dark realities of poverty and crime, is often depicted in fiction. In this first novel by a young English woman, the dark side of Victorian London is even darker – and more terrifying – than usual.

THE QUICK. By Lauren Owen. Read by Simon Slater. Random House Audio. 15 CDs, 19 hours. $50. Also available in print from Random House.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

This book is as full of twists, turns and dangers as a back alley in a poor section of 1890s London. The biggest shock of all comes fairly early, and it shouldn’t count as a spoiler to reveal that the gentlemen with pale countenances and the occasional spot of blood on the collar – as if from a shaving mishap, but not quite – turn out to be vampires. Even though the word vampire is almost never used in the book.

Lauren Owen writes well, and Simon Slater reads the audio version of her novel exceptionally well, so the early chapters intrigued me. We see the girl Charlotte Norbury and her younger brother, James, spending their lonely, eccentric childhood on a country estate that’s fallen on hard times. Then James goes off to Oxford while Charlotte remains in the country with an elderly relative, because that’s how things go for young men and young women of a certain class in England.

After Oxford, James, trying to succeed as a poet, stumbles into sharing lodgings with another young man, a younger son who has more charm than ambition or principles. Eventually, James falls into an inconvenient romantic attachment that begins to consume him. Then, as far as Charlotte knows, he disappears.

Despite knowing nothing about how to get on in the world beyond her home, much less in the crowded, bustling streets of London, Charlotte sets out to find her brother.

When I realized that Owens’ tale involved the “undead” (or “undid,” as some of the less sophisticated characters call themselves), as differentiated from the “quick,” I briefly thought about giving up on the novel. I don’t usually read vampire tales. But the story thus far had been engrossing, and Slater’s dramatization of it had lured me in. I kept listening, ever more fascinated and entertained in a sometimes-ghoulish way.

Charlotte stumbles into an alliance with a young American man who has run afoul of one group of the undead: the exclusive, mysterious Aegolius Club. Together, they become involved with a couple of unlikely vigilantes who are determined to fight the bloodthirsty monsters who roam London disguised as normal humans, looking for prey.

There’s another prominent group of the undead, of a social class much lower than that of the Aegolius Club, and including a number of street urchins destined to be bloodthirsty children as long as they survive.

As Charlotte desperately looks for James; as the Club members look for James, Charlotte and Charlotte’s American companion; and as all the undead look for the blood they need to keep going, the uneasy rivalry between the two main groups of London vampires (dare I say that word?) seems destined to become a veritable war.

Owen tells all this in a convoluted way, moving back and forth in time and shifting from one viewpoint to another, sometimes recounting the same events through different perspectives. As a result, the reader (listener) begins to share some of the feelings of bewilderment, anxiety and even horror that plague Charlotte and her fellow “quick.”

A reader could look for metaphors about the dark side of Victorian society in this gory tale. A reader could, as I did before deciding to suspend disbelief, wonder if other Londoners might not notice that certain prominent “people” seem never to age or perish.

Or a reader might just, as I eventually did, get caught up in this unusual, well-told tale and enjoy it.



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One island, two stories

For the first 10 years of my life, I was an Army brat. My father’s last duty station before he retired was the island of Okinawa. In the late 1950s, being the child of a U.S. Army officer on that island was like living in paradise for two years. But not so many years earlier, Okinawa had been anything but a paradise. It was the site of a nightmarish battle, the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific during World War II.

Sarah Bird, a former Air Force brat who now lives in Austin, Texas, wrote about life in an American military family on Okinawa in the 1960s in her 2001 novel, The Yokota Officer’s Club. I enjoyed that book. Her new novel set on the island is much more ambitious and powerful.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

ABOVE THE EAST CHINA SEA. By Sarah Bird.  Knopf. 318 pages. $25.95.

Separated by 70 years and vastly different circumstances, two teenage girls are nonetheless bound by culture, tradition and shared sorrows in this memorable novel by Sarah Bird.

Luz James is a contemporary Air Force brat, whose mother, a tough sergeant, is head of police at Kadena Air Force base on Okinawa. Dragged to yet another base, another high school, Luz mostly hangs out with the kids, American and “Smokinawans,” who get high on the beach every night. Moving repeatedly, never feeling that she belongs, is bad enough. But Luz has just lost her only real anchor: Her older sister, who shocked her by enlisting after high school, has been killed in Afghanistan. Luz is sinking further into despair and depression.

In 1945, Tamiko Kokuba, along with her beautiful older sister, is swept up in the Battle of Okinawa. The girls and their classmates at an elite high school are pressed into service in the hospitals deep in the Okinawan caves where the Imperial Japanese Army brings its wounded. The Japanese who occupy the island have talked boastfully of how they would easily defeat the invading Americans, but things do not go as expected. At the mercy of both the Japanese, who have contempt for the native Okinawans, and the invading Americans, who don’t understand or care that Okinawans are not Japanese, the girls suffer terrible hardships. Eventually, Tamiko is alone, pregnant, and mourning her sister and the rest of their family. She finds suicide the only way out.

Luz’s grandmother was Okinawan, but Luz’s mother has only vague information about the family. Being stationed on the island has not given mother and daughter the connection they might have hoped, and the loss of Luz’ sister has widened the gulf between mother and daughter.

Then one summer night, straying from the crowd at one of the beach parties, Luz sees a haunting vision of a dying young woman and a baby in a cave. Is she going crazy? Have the drugs and booze finally gotten to her? Or is there something else, something mysterious and mystical, going on?

Although most people today think of Okinawa as just another part of Japan, it historically has a distinct culture. As Bird makes clear, the Japanese were occupying Okinawa, and they sacrificed the island and its people as the American forces closed in on Japan itself. Then after the war, huge American military installations covered much of the island, further threatening its beauty and heritage.

Many Okinawans believe that the spirits of the dead are an important part of life, continuing to exert influence, and that your relatives will be with you in the next world. Remains must be properly honored; souls must not go astray. Bird has obviously done a great deal of research, but for the most part she conveys information deftly, without slowing the narrative.

As Luz tries to make sense of her own life and of the vision she saw, Okinawa is preparing for the annual festival of Obon, when the spirits of the dead are honored. Jake, an Okinawan boy who may be more than just a friend, helps her in her quest.

The increasingly connected stories of Luz and of Tamiko unfold in counterpoint, until they eventually intersect.

Tamiko’s account is heartbreaking, as the forces of war destroy a way of life and an island paradise. For Luz, though things seem bleak, there is more hope, fed by her awakening sense of family and connections.

Through these two teenage narrators, Sarah Bird tells readers much about the rich, sad history of an island that was a pawn in a war between great powers, an island that today is little more than a dot on the map to most people. Above the East China Sea is a story, too, about very different cultures living side by side. And it’s a haunting tale about war and its tragic effects, on those who fight and those who find themselves in the way.




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