Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

When a barnacle covered bag washes ashore on a small island in British Columbia, Ruth is immediately drawn into the narrative of Nao, a 16-year-old from an ocean away in Tokyo, Japan.

Nao lived with her parents in California, where Silicon Valley and the California sun held nothing but hope and happiness for the Japanese family. But her father's job loss returned Nao's family to Japan, where she went from happy well-adjusted teenager, to a bullied outcast. Escaping the constant pinching, stalking, and even fake funeral put on by her entire class, Nao finds solace in her diary, which Ruth finds in a Hello Kitty lunch box in the bag on the shore. She writes as if to an unknown friend, sharing how her own thoughts of suicide are complicated by her father, who when he isn't sulking or making origami insects, is trying to depart his own now. 

Nao also writes extensively about her buddhist nun grandmother, Jiko. The Japanese equivalent of Yoda, Jiko guides Nao through contradictory one-liners and an extended visit to her mountain monastary.  Through the Tao of meditation and scrubbing old ladies' backs, Nao's energy focuses on her family's mythology, which includes a journey to World War II via Nao's great uncle's letters.

Back in boring land, Ruth delves into her own research, trying to locate Nao or anyone from her family. Ruth hopes to help Nao before it's too late. But is she already dead? Was she a tsunami victim? Does she even exist?

In a nutshell, this description from The Guardian does a great job: 

"If a Japanese-American writer who is also a Zen Buddhist priest wrote a post-Japanese tsunami novel, what themes might you imagine she would address? Biculturalism, water, death, memory, the female predicament, conscience, the nature of time and tide? Tick. All there. Throw in the second world war, the reader-writer relationship, depression, ecological collapse, suicide, origami, a 105-year-old anarchist nun and a schoolgirl's soiled knickers, and you have Ruth Ozeki's third novel, A Tale for the Time Being."

If that sounds like a lot, it is. Nao's story is intruiging enough, but Ruth annoyed me. She would internalize Nao's characteristics by talking like Nao and even fighting with her husband, Oliver, due to his inappropriate reaction to one of Nao's diary entries. One particularly grating moment was when Nao's diary essentially catches up with itself, and Ruth and Oliver are reading together by kerosene light (small island issues apparently) when one of them implores, "go on, don't stop." Sigh.

Ruth's part in the story aside, I liked reading about Nao and her family. There is a good mix of philosophy and even the supernatural that raised things a level for me. But Ruth's part in the story canceled that out. So in total, kind of like the bag that washed on Ruth's shore, this book was a mixed bag for me. There's a lot going on with an interesting story, yet it was a book I could put down.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Lost Girls by Caitlin Rother

San Diego is truly a wonderful city to live in. But if you've been here the past 5 years, then you know that San Diego was faced with a tragedy we as a city didn't want to admit could happen. Over the course of a year, two young, beautiful high schoolers went missing. And when one was later found murdered, it appeared there might be a serial killer stalking our most innocent and vulnerable citizens, our children.

Amber Dubios was a ninth grader at Escondido high school. Eager to get to school with a check in hand to buy a lamb through the school's FFA program, Amber set off to school but never made it. Her disappearance became a mystery that the city of Escondido couldn't get past.

Almost one year later, Poway high student Chelsea King went missing during her after school run at Lake Hodges. Her parents immediately reported her missing and an intensive search for Chelsea began. Although it was a missing person's case, the FBI and SD Sheriff's homicide became involved.

The search for Chelsea led to clues being unearthed that pointed the finger at one individual. Within months of Chelsea's disappearance, two of San Diego's most troubling cases were laid bare for not just the city, but the nation to see. Although things happened at lightning speed in those months (in terms of legal proceedings), understanding what really happened started decades before, with the birth of a single man, John Gardner.

This book was a hard one for me. It literally hit close to home for many reasons. I know exactly where these girls went to school and lived. I know many of the people involved in the investigation, particularly that of Chelsea King. In casual conversations with neighbors, someone might mention the King family. Although we are a city of over 1 million, sometimes it can feel like a small town. I also know that one of the last things Amber and Chelsea's parents probably want is for John Gardner to get any type of additional press. And this book is mostly about him. So there's a part of me that feels disloyal to these beautiful girls for reading Lost Girls. But what Rother brings to the table is something that you won't get from all the media and news reports. John's backstory is not well-known. And perhaps something can be learned from it.

Although a fascinating story for anyone to read, Lost Girls is a tough pill to swallow for many San Diegans. This book may or may not help you understand Gardner's actions. But Rother's careful, thorough retelling just might be the most comprehensive look at a side of this story that some people would rather ignore.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Black's Beach Shuffle by Corey Lynn Fayman

I had the opportunity to meet with Corey Fayman one afternoon. We sat at a small cafe in Little Italy and talked about books (duh)  and writing. I was interested in knowing how someone just *decides* to self-publish a book...or two. I was also curious about what, if anything, lay on the horizon for Rolly Waters.

Waters is a private investigator living in San Diego. When he's not searching down runaway teenagers or spying on cheating spouses, he's playing gigs at local events with his band. When his latest gig ends with a body floating in a pool, Waters finds himself involved in a case more far reaching than his usual PI repertoire.

If on its face this book is a whodunnit, at its heart it is a peek into Fayman's love of music and San Diego. It's clear Fayman lives in San Diego, based on details throughout the book, from where Waters drives to what he's eating at two in the morning. Being an SD native myself, I knew exactly who Waters was, his scene, and how he lived. The SD references are so detailed, I wondered at times if it would alienate some readers, but ultimately, it's something that makes Fayman's writing unique.

Fayman also doesn't hold back with the music references. Not only is he a San Diegan, but he's a musician as well, as is clear from his characters' hobbies to their names. If you're a music fan, you'll get a kick finding all the little eggs Fayman has hidden.

While mystery isn't really my genre of choice, the book was a quick read and kept me entertained. Extra bonus points for giving it an SD noir feel. Kinda unexpected. I think I'll give his second book, Border Field Blues, a try.