Pick of the Month, June 2013

 

Fiction

Six Years by Harlan Coben, Dutton, $27.95


Jake Fisher, a professor of political science, becomes obsessed with Natalie Avery, an artist he met at a retreat. When she dumps him and marries Todd, he goes to the wedding where she makes him promise to leave them alone. However, she lives on in his fantasies. He keeps the promise for six years until he sees an obituary for a Todd who resembles Natalie’s husband.  He resorts to rationalizations similar to those of stalkers to try to find her but encounters unexpected roadblocks. He continues the search even after she sends him an e-mail stating “You made a promise,” others warn him that he is placing himself and her in danger, and he narrowly escaped attempts on his life. The novel culminates in an exciting, action-packed ending.


Nonfiction

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French, Penguin Books, $26.00


On January 8, 1937 in Peking, an old man walking his song bird in a cage discovered the mutilated body of Pamela Werner, 19. She had been beaten, sexually molested, and stabbed so many times her face was unrecognizable, and her heart, bladder, kidneys, and liver were missing. Clues to the killer or killers remained elusive.


During this time, upheaval reigned in China, with Japanese forces circling Peking. Japanese thugs brought opium and heroin into the city, and their Korean collaborators peddled these subsidized narcotics at cheap prices in Peking’s Badlands, an area of dive bars, brothels, and opium dens. The motive was “part of an effort to sap Peking’s will to fight.” Pamela’s murder led to widespread gossip, fears, and cover-ups. British Detective Chief Inspector Richard Dennis, who had been trained at Scotland Yard, joined the Chinese investigator Colonel Han as a consultant. However, he found his efforts blocked, and eventually he was ordered off the case.


Pamela’s grieving father, the distinguished Sinologist E.T.C. Werner, had devoted his life to China and spoke fluently several dialects. Now his mission became to find the killers of his only child, whom he and his late wife had  adopted. Over and over again he met with rejections, which failed to deter him. The quest would take years and much of his wealth and reveal cover-ups and the planting of false clues. With help of private detectives, he followed the evidence to a sadistic American dentist, Dr. Wentworth Prentice, head of the nudist colony in Peking who held nude dances at his home and with his friends would trick young girls to his parties, then gang rape them and intimidate them into silence.


Midnight in Peking is an interesting dramatization of the Pamela Werner case and her father’s desperate search for justice. It is winner of the 2013 Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best True Crime Book.


A minor criticism involves the author’s repeated use of the term “White Russian,” which can cause confusion for readers. Why not say just “Russian”? “White Russian” can refer to the ethnic Belarus, who at most were a tiny percentage of the Peking Russian community. It can also refer to the various fractions, ranging from socialists to monarchists, who opposed the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War (1917-1922). Upon being defeated, large numbers of Whites fled to China. Not all Russians in Peking, however, were these White Russians. Peking’s Russian community predates the Civil War, some references going back to the 17th century.

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Also, Red Russians resided in China. An Estonian man (acquaintance of Shurik) who escaped from Siberia to China and eventually home, mentioned meeting in Peking a Russian who was born in Harbin and a pro Bolshevik family who had fled to China to escape the Povolzhye famine. In the 1930s, for example, scores of Soviet agents operated in Chinese cities. One such agent was Karl Rimm who was sent to Shanghai to oversee the spy ring from 1930 through December 1935, His wife joined him in efforts to infiltrate the Russian communities; recruit; and spread propaganda and disinformation, notably to foreigners. They were assisted by several Western journalists and writers, among them the American Agnes Smedley who became a Soviet spy and had an affair with Rimm’s predecessor, the spymaster Richard Sorge. In addition, Moscow sent spies to spy on their own spies.


Incidentally, White Russian refugees are credited with the development of ballet, opera, and other aspects of high culture in China.


Children’s/YA

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles de Lint, illustrated by Charles Vess, Little, Brown and Company, $17.99, ages 8 & up


Lillian, an orphan who lives with her Aunt Fran on a farm, feeds the cats of Tanglewood forest and other creatures and searches for fairies. One day she is bitten by a snake. To save her life, the cats turn her into a small calico cat. Now she can communicate with animals but not with humans. During her search for magic that will make her a girl again, she encounters an array of interesting characters. The story appears to take a sad turn. Then unexpected twits occur, and youngsters will enjoy the ending. The eye-catching cover of this delightful fantasy novel made it stand out at bookstores.


Charles de Lint is the recipient of the World Fantasy, White Pine, Crawford, and Aurora awards. Charles Vess is a three-time winner of the World Fantasy Award and of other awards, and his art has been featured at several gallery and museum exhibits around the world.


Specialty/Small Press

Hachai Publishers, founded in 2010, specialize in picture books for Jewish children that teach Jewish history and tradition and promote universal values such as kindness, honesty, and charity. One of their publications is Purim Guess Who? A Lift-the-Flap Book by Arielle Stern.


Author submissions: Their emphasis is on the 2 to 6 year group. They are also interested in historical fiction for ages 

7 to 10 that highlight devotion to faith and the relevance of Torah. For submission guidelines, see www.hachai.com


Commentary

An EF5 tornado 1.3 miles wide, the winds reaching 200 mph, demolished Moore, Oklahoma on May 20. It killed at least 24 persons, injured 237, damaged over 12,000 homes, and left entire neighborhoods in rubble like found in a war zone. Tornados also hit communities in other parts of the state, Kansas, Missouri, and Iowa. Earlier, North Texas witnessed a devastating tornado, and the area remains in need of assistance. Kudos to the dedicated volunteers from across the nation who are contributing their time and resources to help the victims. On May 29, Blake Shelton, Usher, and numerous country singers held a concert to benefit the United Way of Central Oklahoma’s tornado relief fund. To find out what you can do, see “How to help those affected by last week’s tornadoes” on www.tulsaworld.com 


Winners and Losers

Winners

  1. Amanda Berry, 27, Cleveland, Ohio. Berry’s heroic escape from the monster Ariel Castro likely saved her life and that of a small child and two other captives, Gina DeJesus, 23, and Michelle Knight, 32. Neighbors disagreed as to who helped Berry to escape.

  2. Veterinarian Jenni Doll, 48, Solon, Iowa. She founded the Witty Kitties nonprofit animal rescue farm, performs spaying and neutering services on a voluntary basis, and inspired the main character in the science fiction novel, Zenn Scarlett by Christian Schoon.

  3. Anita Messerschmidt, owner of EmbarkIT Inc., an information technology company, Iowa. She was recognized in April as West Des Moines’ Citizen of the Year for her community service (one of them the West Des Moines’s Incubator that helps small businesses succeed).

  4. Morgan Andrews, senior at Milford High, New Hampshire. She is the ninth athlete to win successive Gatorade National Player of the Year awards, taking the honor for the 2012-13 National Girls Soccer. The award is based on a combination of athletic excellence, academic achievements, and exemplary character. In high school, she was also the kicker for the football team. She will be attending Notre Dame University.

  5. Orb, a 3-year-old bay colt from Kentucky, won the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby.


Losers

  1. The IRS. Disturbing revelations exposed the agency as out of control,, breaking laws, and harassing Tea Party, pro-Israel, and Conservative groups, making the IRS a target of Jay Leno’s jokes. The violations are sufficiently egregious for the guilty parties to be fired and criminally charged. It’s been a bad month for Washington, with three additional scandals swirling: Fast and Furious; AP reporters & James Rosen of Fox News controversy; and the Benghazi fiasco.

  2. California. According to ALA’s 2013 “State of the Air” report, 8 of the 10 most polluted cities in America (No. 1-7 & 9) are in California.

  3. Campbell County Circuit Judge John T. Cook, Virginia. He reduced the sentence of teacher Kathleen Cawthorne, 33, convicted of sex with a student, to a mere four months. According to his twisted reasoning, she had a compulsion for sex with students and thus should not serve much time in prison. Incidentally, Kathleen’s hubby Duncan stood proudly by her side during the trial. Would Cook have this same compassion for bank robbers who claim a compulsion? Or does the judge have a soft spot for sex offenders?

  4. Governor Martin O’Malley and the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center. The scandal (the second one) at the jail involved drugs, money, sex, cellphones, and gangs running the joint. Investigation led to 25 indictments of inmates and guards and exposed major incompetence.

  5. Amazing Family Dental Clinic, Indianapolis, Indiana. When Christopher Crist, 21, an autistic man, wanted his three bad teeth pulled at the clinic, a yet unnamed dentist pulled all of his teeth without his permission. Crist’s family is considering a lawsuit, and the dentist made Judge Jeanine Pirro’s Creep of the Week list.


15 of the Most Beautiful Women of All-Time

(regarding physical appearance only; alphabetic order}

  1. Kim Alexis (1960- ), model/author (for book review & photo, see Oct.-Nov. 2012 blog)

  2. Brigitte Bardot (1934- ), actress/singer/model/animal rights activist.

  3. Cindy Crawford (1966- ), model/actress; in the 1990s was the highest paid model in the world.

  4. Linda Darnell (1923-1965), actress; died from burns from a house fire.

  5. Bo Derek (1956- ), actress/producer/model, best known for film 10.

  6. Greta Garbo (1905-1991), acclaimed actress; valued privacy, shunned publicity, and was known for the quote, “I want to be left alone.” She described Hollywood as “soul destroying.”

  7. Angelina Jolie (1975- ), actress/director. “Surely she can do much better than the dumb Brad Pitt,” stated a fan who thought People should have chosen Jolie instead of Paltrow.

  8. Carmen Kass (1978- ), model/actress/businesswoman/chess player.

  9. Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000), actress/inventor; divorced six times.

  10. Gina Lollobrigida (1927- ), actress/photojournalist/sculptor.

  11. Maureen O’Hara (1920- ), actress/singer.

  12. Coco Rocha (1988- ), model; has spoken out against prevalence of eating disorders in the modeling industry.

  13. Reeva Steenkamp (1983-2013), model, lawyer, and advocate for victims of domestic abuse; killed by boyfriend Oscar Pistorius.

  14. Taylor Swift (1989- ), singer/songwriter/actress.

  15. Irene von Meyendorff (1916-2001), actress. She and first husband were part of a right-wing group wanting to kill Hitler, but before he could act, he was arrested.

Threshing barn and well, 18th century, at the Open Air Museum near Tallinn.

Shurik’s cousin (left) and his daughter (center) visiting Minna Vallimäe, then about age 90 and ailing, 1973

Photo © EVS

Harlan Coben, author of Six Years and other international best sellers, is the first writer to win the Edgar, Anthony, and Shamus awards.

Photo of Pamela Werner taken three days before her murder. Perhaps a Russian orphan, she was adopted in China by E.T.C. Warner and his wife and was said to have incredible gray eyes that seem to look through you.

Linda Darnell - Carmen Kass - Reeva Steenkamp

People magazine named Gwyneth Paltrow as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Some disagree and mention their own favorites, among them Coco Rocha (below). It is a subjective call, depending on the preferences of the judges and their agenda, if any.

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New releases: The 4th Detective Kubu mystery Deadly Harvest by Michael Stanley (Harper Paperbacks) and A Taste of Africa (e-book) that contains recipes for the food Kubu enjoys.