Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

I actually started this book a year or more ago. It’s very, very long. I was interested, and as I’ve said before and elsewhere, I’m not against long books. But they can be demoralizing, especially when they’re about evil dictators who murdered millions of people. Sometimes you just aren’t in the mood, you know? But it was important to me to finish it, so I did. I finished it. Take home lesson: Mao was really evil. According to this book, he really wasn’t much of a Communist, at least not ideologically. He didn’t really have an ideology. He wanted power. Communism was just his vehicle. The weird thing is that it appears he didn’t have any particular talent, except for making people fear him. That’s what I could never figure out: nobody liked this guy, but everyone feared him. How did that happen? I guess he just had a knack for teaming up with the right moderately-evil people who could help him further his totally-evil agenda. And then he’d have them killed once they’d outlived their usefulness. Frankly, it’s hard to believe that someone like this existed, much less ran a whole country for decades. But then, it’s impossible for anyone to get inside Mao’s head and understand why he was the way he was. One can only document what he did, which was murder people and terrify everyone he wasn’t murdering. Unlike Hitler, he took way too long to die. Another tidbit: Hitler painted; Mao wrote poetry. But unlike Hitler, who gave up painting for mass murder, Mao continued to write poetry while he murdered. I don’t know if his poems were any good. I don’t read Chinese.

The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang

This book was possibly more depressing than Mao. Mao orchestrated such large-scale evil, it’s hard to wrap your head around it. This book is about atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War. It’s a controversial book, since many historians take issue with Iris Chang’s treatment of the facts, as well as her bias against the Japanese, or Japanese culture. I should probably say “alleged bias” or something, but I don’t have trouble believing that Iris Chang was biased. That doesn’t make her book worthless; however, it probably makes it less valuable as history. Why did I want to read this book? I don’t even remember, except that I read it right after the Mao book, and it was way too much. Too much suffering. Poor Iris Chang eventually succumbed to mental illness and committed suicide. I was at a very low point when I finished reading this book, which might explain my subsequent reading choices…except that nothing really explains some of my reading choices.

Silenced by Allison Brennan

Lucy Kincaid was attacked and almost killed by an online predator, and now she’s in law enforcement working against cyber sex crime. Except right now she has to help solve the murder of a call girl involved in a Washington sex scandal. It really has nothing to do with cyber sex, but that’s Lucy’s background, and I guess it’s important to know even though it doesn’t really have any bearing on the plot at hand. This book is fourth in a series, and while you don’t need to have read the first three (I didn’t) to understand what’s going on, it is possible that you need to have read the first three in order to give a crap about the characters. It’s therefore probably unfair of me to judge this book out of context, but I’m doing it anyway because I can. I mean, I’ve read series books out of order before. If the book is good, it makes me want to go back and read the rest of the books in proper order. This book did not make me curious about the first three books. I thought her boyfriend was kind of a douchebag, frankly. That’s unfair because I don’t understand how he saved her life and taught her to love again in a previous book, but whatever. I don’t even remember who killed the call girl.

A Time To Kill by John Grisham

Can you believe I had never read A Time To Kill until now? I’ve never read much John Grisham at all. I read The Firm, back in the day, and…that was about it. Really can’t remember anything else he’s ever written. I think I started to read The Client, once, when I was at my dad’s house and had nothing to do, but then I had something to do so I stopped. You can tell this is Grisham’s first novel because he has a lot to say about the justice system as practiced in Mississippi. In fact, this book is more about that than it is about the plot–which you probably already know: a young black girl is raped and tortured by two rednecks and left for dead; she doesn’t die, but the rednecks are arrested and the victim’s devastated father takes it upon himself to execute them before they are tried; an ambitious young defense attorney tries to get the father acquitted. But it’s not really about that. It’s not about whether or not vigilante justice is okay. It’s about how much of the justice system is a game, how much of it is rigged from the outset, and how much of it is just dumb luck. It’s actually very interesting. I wouldn’t dream of judging Mississippi by one John Grisham novel (or several John Grisham novels); to the extent that his portrayal of Mississippi justice is accurate, I assume that these truths are not necessarily unique to Mississippi. In any case, it’s very cynical-making.

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher

I thought the premise for this young adult novel was interesting, which was why I picked it up. A fat kid buddies up with another social outcast, the aforementioned Sarah Byrnes, who has so little to lose in terms of social capital, i.e. nothing, that she actually fights back against the bullies. They become best friends, united in their disdain for the peers who reject them. Over the years, though, the fat kid (whose name I can’t remember because it isn’t in the title) starts to change, or his circumstances do; he joins the swim team, successfully competes, and while he’s still a pretty big boy, he also starts to enjoy some social acceptance. He’s conflicted about it because he doesn’t want to leave Sarah Byrnes behind, but Sarah Byrnes doesn’t want to go anywhere. I was interested in the aspect of changing dynamics in a friendship and how people can drift apart, outgrow one another, even if they don’t want to. However, because this is a YA novel, there have to be suicide attempts and abusive parents and laughable stereotypes and an unbelievably pat ending. Okay, I guess those last couple things aren’t strictly necessary, but they are to be expected.

I didn’t think this book was bad. It diverted me, and I do enjoy being diverted. But I am starting to wonder how common it is for YA literature to be so lacking in nuance. The villains in this story are just pure villainy; they have less complexity than Darth Vader. For some strange reason, the author chooses to have the characters spend a lot of time discussing the issue of abortion in school (discussing in school the issue of abortion, not…oh, never mind) as a means of furthering the plot. It really doesn’t make a lot of sense, and while it isn’t annoying to the point of distracting you from the story, it is annoying to the point of “Really? Is this how you want to encourage young people to think about this debate, or are you still in the eighth grade yourself?” But overall it was okay. Three stars, not two.

Minerva: The First Volume of the Six Sisters by Marion Chesney

This is another book I read during a time when I was desperate for something to read. I might regret a little bit having read it. It’s one of those 99-cent Kindle books, but don’t worry, I didn’t pay 99 cents for it. I borrowed it from the Kindle library, but don’t worry, I borrowed it at the end of the month, so it wasn’t really a waste of my monthly rental. It’s a romance novel, set in eighteenth century England. It is meant to be lighthearted romp, and I suppose it is. A father sends his eldest daughter, aforementioned Minerva, to London to procure a wealthy husband who can then bail their family out of their dire financial straits. Minerva understands it’s her duty to help her father out; the trouble is that while she is very pretty, she doesn’t know the first thing about attracting a man, nor is she particularly interested in men. No, I don’t mean she’s a lesbian. She’s just priggish and prudish–which really annoys the bachelors in town, who then plot to humiliate her by making a bet amongst themselves as to who will be the first to bed her without wedding her. I know, so wrong. But it’s the eighteenth century. Stuff happens.

Minerva meets a handsome rake who has not the least interest in marrying anyone, certainly not Minerva, but who feels kind of sorry for her and anyway, she is pretty and definitely doesn’t deserve to get raped or anything, so he decides to protect her and guide her toward making a suitable match for herself. Yeah, I know you can see where this is going. I mean, I certainly saw where it was going, but I was hoping the journey would be slightly more entertaining. I thought the author had enough wit to make it interesting, and I was prepared to like this handsome rake–any time there’s a handsome rake, I just pretend he looks like Jeremy Northam and I can forgive him almost anything–buuuuuuuut in the end, there wasn’t enough wit and I just didn’t care anymore. I don’t ask a lot of my books–you know that–but I do ask that they make me care.

Hush by Eishes Chayil and Judy Brown

As Gittel prepares for her impending (arranged) marriage, she is haunted by the events of nine years ago, when her best friend committed suicide and her Chassidic community covered up the circumstances surrounding her death. Gittel was expected to forget about her friend and everything that happened, but she can’t forget, and she feels guilty for her failure to protect her friend and for her silence. The story is about how she finds the courage to speak the truth, despite the severe social costs of doing so. The book is certainly an indictment of the insularity and secretiveness of this closed community, but it is sympathetic to the characters who are faced with the choice between covering up abuse within the community, even though they know it’s wrong, and being shunned if they expose it. “Eishes Chayil” is a pseudonym (meaning “woman of valor”), so I assume the author draws largely on her personal experience, but this is a work of fiction. It is rather beautifully written, but the ending did strike me as rather abrupt. I felt like the book was building toward something and then lost steam. Actually, more like the author just lost patience with her own story. I don’t know. I thought it was good, but three stars, not four.

Stay tuned for Part Four: murder, espionage, prostitution, vampires, and Iran. Plus some more romance.