A lookery at “Jade Dragon Mountain” by Elsa Hart

Jade Dragon Mountain

Jade Dragon Mountain

Elsa Hart

St. Martin’s Press

Minotaur Books

September 1, 2015

336 pages

$25.99

Elsa Hart’s historical mystery Jade Dragon Mountain takes place in early 18th century Dayan, located in China’s southwest province. The Manchu Emperor, the Kangxi of the Qing dynasty is due in the city in six days to command a solar eclipse. For nearly a year, the Emperor has been traveling from Beijing to this outpost of his empire, while the local population has been preparing for his imperial visit and the wonder and power of the eclipse.

Li Du, the exiled and disgraced court librarian arrives in town, unaware of the Emperor’s upcoming presence and the festival to be held in the Kangxi’s honor. As an exile, Li Du must inform the magistrate of the province of his arrival, and obtain permission to pass through the area to his intended destination of Tibet. Tulishen is the province magistrate, and cousin to Li Du. When Li checks in with him, Tulishen is anxious to have his cousin leave the city before the Emperor arrives. It would be inappropriate for an exile of the court to cross paths with the Emperor, and Tulishen does not want to lose face.

But the magistrate allows Li Du to stay for dinner at his mansion. The town is abuzz with activity and visitors, and the magistrate has many guests. China is a closed country, with Jesuits being the only foreigners allowed in the empire. The Emperor favors the order because of their extensive knowledge, and the priests are eager to learn about Chinese history, customs and culture.

There are two Jesuits staying with the magistrate — Brother Martin and Brother Pieter. Other guests include the Arab storyteller, Hamza, who entertains with his tales and Sir Nicholas Grey an ambassador from the East India Company who is to present the Emperor with gifts, and perhaps gain trading rights within the empire.

The household is run by Tulishen’s favorite consort Lady Chen, who has yet to provide the magistrate with a son, Jia Huan the administrator’s efficient secretary, Old Mu the recordkeeper, Mu Gao, the librarian and Old Mu’s cousin, as well as various other staff, including the disgruntled but pretty maid, Bao.

Tulishen hosts an elaborate dinner for his guests, and Hamza provides the entertainment after the meal with his storytelling. Several people come and go during the story, including Brother Pieter, who is later found murdered in his room.

It is imperative that the murderer be caught before the imperial visit in six days. The magistrate calls on his cousin, Li Du, to remain in Dayan to solve the mystery of the murder.

False leads have Li traveling to visit the Khampa traders outside the town, interviewing members of the household, the guests, as well as a few outsiders. Hamza, who is staying at the same inn as Li Du, often discusses the case with Li. The motive for the murder is increasingly confusing and most believe Li Du will not be able to solve the crime prior to the powerful Kangxi’s eclipse.

At first, I was confused about the plot of the book. Jade Dragon Mountain starts with a brief history of the Yunnan territory, the reason for the presence of Jesuits, and background information on the Qing Dynasty. The story is told in 1780, but flashes back to the first decade of the century. Up until the murder, it wasn’t clear where the story was headed.

However, Li Du’s adventures lead the reader into the meat of the mysterious murder. As a historical mystery, the important role of the Jesuits, provincial and imperial politics and history, the inner-workings of a magistrate’s estate, and the politics of trade are explained.

The murderer is elusive, the rush to find the culprit is critical, and the suspects are many. The book was hard to put away when other priorities called. I found myself thinking about the characters and the country wile anxiously waiting to get back to Jade Dragon Mountain to learn more about the hunt and the era.

Once the story gains traction, Elsa Hart’s fast-paced debut novel Jade Dragon Mountain is an intriguing murder mystery wrapped up in historic background. Much is learned about China’s culture at the beginning of the 18th century while Li Du sets about solving the problem of the Jesuit’s untimely death. Elsa Hart is a new author worth following.

With thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for an advance copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

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A lookery at “My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry” by Fredrik Backman

my-grandmother-asked-me-to-tell-you-shes-sorry-9781501115066_lg

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrick Backman

Atria Books

June 16, 2015

384 pages

$25.00

Precocious seven-year-old Elsa, and her seventy-seven year old Granny, who is quite possibly bonkers, are inseparable. Elsa is very different from other children her age, but Granny says that it’s okay to be unique. Granny is a retired surgeon, Elsa’s greatest champion and a superhero with a wicked sense of the absurd. The pair have their own secret language, which Granny uses to entertain Elsa with fairy tales about the Land of Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas.

Elsa and Granny live in a large house with several flats. Among the residents of these apartments are oddball characters with quirky personalities such as a rigid rule enforcer, a taxi driver, a drunkard, a woman who bakes dream cookies, a boy with a syndrome, and perhaps most frightening of all, The Monster and Our Friend the Wurse. Granny delights in teasing some of their neighbors while giving preferential treatment to others.

But when Granny dies, she sends Elsa on a hunt through each of the lands, delivering letters apologizing for her ways. It is the adventure of a lifetime, and one full of peril and danger to Elsa. Still, Granny has provided protection for Elsa as she goes about her journey. With each letter, Elsa meets the natives of each of the seven lands in the fairy tales, and learns more about herself, her mother and others in her real life. The journey transforms not only Elsa, but reveals much about her grandmother’s secret life as a superhero.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Swedish writer Fredrik Backman, author of the best-selling novel A Man Called Ove, is both humorous and heartbreaking. The characters are intricately drawn, the plot is engaging and moves at a rapid pace as Elsa makes good on Granny’s last wishes. Beautifully translated and impeccably developed, the charming novel My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is not to be left on the shelf unread.

With thanks to NetGalley and Atria Books for a preview copy of the novel, in exchange for an honest review. 

A Lookery at: Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express”

Murder on the Orient Express                   

Agatha Christie (1933)

Harper Paperbacks (reprint 2011)

$6.99

As a kid, I devoured Bobbsey Twin Mysteries by Laura Lee Hope, but was never a big fan of Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys mystery series. From Hope’s books, I graduated to mystery novels by Agatha Christie. Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple and Tommy and Tuppence all became favorite characters of mine very quickly. In the 1970s, several Christie mysteries were released in film – just at the time when I was beginning to enjoy outings to the movie theatre with friends. My favorite was the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express, starring Peter Ustinov as the internationally famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Something about that movie, and perhaps the beauty of the train itself captured my imagination, and I still get a thrill watching the movie nearly 40 years later. For some summer fun, I decided to revisit the tale of the storied train, both in film and in novel form.

At the conclusion of a case in Syria, Hercule Poirot arrives in Stamboul in order to catch the Orient Express to Calais, continuing on urgent business to London in order to solve another crime. Although it is December, the first and second class coaches to Calais are completely booked. M. Poirot’s Belgian friend M. Bouc, director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagon Lits demands that the conductor of the car puts Poirot on the train, albeit in a shared compartment, when another passenger fails to appear close to departure time. The spectacular train takes off to its first stop in Belgrade, its first class car populated with over a dozen passengers from all walks of life.

One rider, an American businessman by the name of Ratchett stops the detective in the empty dining car, and tries to hire him to protect him from an unnamed person who has been sending him threatening letters. The Belgian firmly declines the offer.

After a brief stop in Belgrade, where Poirot is transferred to a compartment of his own, the train becomes stuck in the snow in Jugo-Slavia in the middle of the night. The passengers pass the night in various states of rest or activity. In the morning, Ratchett is discovered murdered in his bed. He is the victim of a dozen stab wounds to his chest – all of varying degrees of damage.

M. Bouc immediately implores Hercule to solve the murder before the train is rescued and becomes subject to a traditional police investigation on arrival in Brod. The sleuth quickly establishes that the victim is not named Ratchett, but rather Cassetti; the mastermind of the kidnapping and murder of a young girl, Daisy Armstrong, several years earlier. Most of the Armstrong family and household died shortly after Daisy’s body was discovered. Cassetti was caught and put on trial. But Cassetti was acquitted of the crime due to crooked deals made with his illegally-gained fortune. The brain behind the crime disappeared from America, out of reach of the public eye.

Poirot obtains the floor plan of the passengers’ compartments, their passports and train tickets. Hercule, Monsieur Bouc, and a Greek physician riding in another car on the train, Dr. Constantine, examine the scene of the crime and the body before setting up shop in the dining car. There the Belgian detective conducts interviews of the various passengers who boarded the train when he did. The dozen or so passengers are of all classes and status – from the Hungarian diplomat and his beautiful young wife, a Swedish missionary, an obnoxious American woman, an English valet – even a Russian princess and her German lady’s maid.

As is typical of an Agatha Christie mystery, the suspects are numerous, decoys prevalent and motives obscured. Most Agatha Christie stories seem to be solved almost magically, using vaguely presented clues. Christie deftly distracts the reader from noticing a glaring clue with a multitude of seemingly unrelated facts and tales. But Hercule Poirot uses his “little grey cells” (as he refers to his brain matter), and ultimately solves the mysterious crime.

A film following the release of a successful novel is very often a disappointment. But to me, both the trips back in time to re-read Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and watch the 1974 movie version of the book, were a great thrill. Thebooklookery gives 4 eyes to the book and the movie. Both are recommended in tandem for a delightful summer vacation!

A Lookery at: “The Book of Lost Fragrances” by M. J. Rose

The Book of Lost Fragrances        

M.J. Rose

Atria Books (2012)

$24.00

Founded before the French Revolution by the family of the same name, The House of L’Etoile is an exclusive perfumery. L’Etoile has developed some of the world’s most famous and beloved scents for centuries. But now, the future of the company is threatened because of the mental deterioration of its current director, Louis L’Etoile. It is up to Louis’ children, daughter Jac and son Robbie, to sort through the mess left in the company office by their father.

Jac is convinced that the only way to save the company is to sell off the formulas and rights to two of The House of L’Etoile’s signature scents. Robbie feels the business has a future if the storied and elusive family treasure – Cleopatra’s “Book of Fragrances” – can be recovered. Central to this ancient document is a formula for a fragrance that can induce memories of past lives using exotic ingredients that may be extinct. Neither sibling has ever seen the mysterious book, but in his Alzheimer’s confusion, Louis has torn apart his workshop looking for it.

Jac, who has the most highly developed “nose” in the family, has rejected the perfume industry in favor of becoming a mythologist. She studies and researches the origins of myths and presents her findings on her American television program and in books she’s authored. For much of her life she has experienced psychotic episodes. Most of these visions reveal stories of Egypt and France’s pasts. Several specialists have tried to treat her for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. Jac finally consults with psychologist Dr. Malachai Samuels, who believes in the possibility of discovering past lives through hallucinations like Jac’s. Malachai teaches Jac to analyze her trances and eventually, her episodes decrease.

Robbie lacks Jac’s gift of a finely developed nose for fragrances, but is still talented enough as a perfumer to develop niche scents for The House of L’Etoile. He is dedicated to saving the business without compromising it in any way. Robbie is also a follower of the Dalai Lama and is a believer in reincarnation. He discovers pieces of an ancient Egyptian fragrance pot amongst his father’s possessions that he feels may have contained Cleopatra’s famous “Fragrance of Lost Memories”. Jac’s brother is determined to analyze the remnants of the pot’s contents and the symbols on it to prove that such a scent existed, thereby making it possible for The House of L’Etoile to recreate the perfume, thus rescuing the business.

The search for the Egyptian document wanders through the epochs of Cleopatra’s reign, pre-revolutionary France, modern Tibet and the People’s Republic of China, and even the centuries-old underground tunnels beneath Paris.  M. J. Rose’s The Book of Lost Fragrances explores the possibilities of reincarnation and the effect of scent on memories and emotions. In scenes set throughout history and the world, myths, legends, politics, belief systems and of course, the perfume industry are explored within this novel of suspense. A very intriguing read, The Book of Lost Fragrances rates three eyes from thebooklookery.

A Lookery at: “Day After Night” by Anita Diamant

Day After Night

By Anita Diamant

Scribner Paperback Edition 2010

$15.00

You will find, dearreader, that I am particularly interested in both fiction and non-fiction about WWll. Not the battles or military side of it, but the social and psychological aspects of the era and the war, both here and abroad. Oftentimes, these books can be somewhat depressing. Today’s novel, Day After Night by Anita Diamant, based on historical facts and events that occurred in Palestine after the end of the war, is somewhat different from most WWll themed books that I have read.

To put the story and events into historical context for thereader, a brief history lesson is in order. Israel did not become a nation until 1948. From 1922 until then, Palestine (as the area was called), was under the administrative jurisdiction of Great Britain. Initially, Britain supported an independent Jewish nation. However, by 1939, the government of the UK reneged on its previous mandate allowing the immigration of Jews into Palestine. Only 10,000 people of Jewish heritage were allowed to immigrate to Palestine each year from 1939 to 1944. After that, legal immigration to Palestine for Jews was down to a mere trickle. WWll lasted from 1939 until 1945. Moving from Europe to Palestine could have saved millions of Jewish lives.

After the war was over, many of the remaining European and Middle Eastern Jews were homeless, or had no desire to live in countries that had turned their backs on them. In decrepit, dilapidated boats, and by some overland routes, Jews began arriving in Palestine with the help of the Haganah resistance movement. Most of them were “illegal” immigrants, without permission to settle in the country. These “illegals” were herded into detention centers by the British and languished there until decisions about their individual settlement rights were made.

Day After Night takes place in the Atlit detention center near Haifa between August and October 1945.  The four main characters are all Jewish women who have survived the war in Europe. Shayndel is a Polish Zionist who spent most of the war fighting Nazis along with the partisans in Poland’s forests. Tedi, the tall, blonde Dutch woman is the only survivor of her entire family. A French beauty, Leonie spent the war enduring her own indignities and horrors. The only concentration camp survivor is Zorah, an angry, bitter Polish woman who refuses to forget her wartime experiences. In the camp, “there was an unwritten rule… against asking survivors about their experiences” (p. 112). Although the reader learns each woman’s backstory, very rarely do the detainees share their stories with others.

The wartime encounters of each character are revealed in the novel, but not dwelled upon. The primary story is about life in Atlit – the arrival of new immigrants, the boredom, the anxiety, the waiting are all detailed. Palestine is so entirely different from Europe, that many find simple things, such as a cucumber and tomato salad for breakfast, the heat, real cigarettes and learning Hebrew to be amazing as well as confusing.

All of the women and camp residents are anxious to be released. Starting a new life free of barbed wire and foreign administrators is of paramount importance. Atlit is no picnic and is still confinement for each person. There is significant distrust among the detainees. Secrets abound. Spying becomes critical to the Jewish wish for freedom. Tedi, Leonie, Zorah, Shayndel and many others are possessed by the desire to break free of camp life.

While the women portrayed by the author are fictional, organizations, events and the incredible resolution of the story are not. Anita Diamant’s Day After Night is not your typical story of the Holocaust. It is a story about hope, new beginnings and the will to build the new, independent, Jewish nation of Israel. It is a very enlightening look into what life was like for the survivors of Hitler’s insane vision who arrive in Palestine. All the more so because the story is based on fact.

Another 3+ eye rating for a relatively unknown look into post WWll history.

A Lookery at: “Girl in Translation” by Jean Kwok

Girl in Translation

Jean Kwok

Riverhead Books (2010)

$25.95

It has been a long time since a novel has captivated me so completely that I have read it in one day. Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation did just that. Author Kwok’s debut novel draws on her own experiences to bring thereader the story of ah-Kim Chang and her mother, Ma.

ah-Kim and Ma are emigrants from Hong Kong who come to New York, desperate to leave Hong Kong before it reverts to Chinese rule in 1997. Sponsored by Ma’s sister Aunt Paula and brother-in-law Uncle Bob, mother and daughter begin their new life in a miniscule and squalid condemned apartment in a Brooklyn slum. Ma is employed at Uncle Bob’s piece-work sweatshop in Chinatown’s garment district, finishing clothing for one and a half cents per skirt. At the same time, Aunt Paula unwittingly provides ah-Kim with her first step toward a better future by giving her a false address that allows her to attend a better public school than the one nearest her home.

It is soon obvious that Kimberly (her new American name) is going to struggle academically in the US in spite of her scholastic success back home in Hong Kong. Likewise, Ma has an impossible quota to fill each day at the clothing factory. Kimberly must join her mother on the job after school every afternoon so that Ma can make her daily allotment of finished skirts.

Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob effectively become the jailers of their relatives and the other workers by paying them for each item shipped rather than a regular minimum hourly wage. In addition, each payday Uncle Bob deducts from Ma’s income, cash to cover her debt to him for medical treatment in Hong Kong, the plane tickets to America, the visas (plus interest on the debt) and utilities for their apartment. Not much cash is left over for food, rent and clothing.

There are others who treat Ma and Kim with kindness. And, once Kim’s talent at school is noticed, both she and her mother realize that Kimberly’s academic aptitude is the key to improving their lives. There will be no help coming from their own relatives.

The struggles of balancing school, work, finances and social situations become staggering for the two women. Both Kim and Ma are forced to make decisions along the way that will have an immense impact on their future together.

The challenges the Changs are faced with and the consequences of their decisions — particularly Kim’s — will have to be explored by you, dearreader. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok is an excellent novel, great for personal enjoyment or even a book club selection. Easily a 4+ eye rating.