• July 27, 2012

A fabulous fiction foursome for your summer or anytime read. Fascinated by issues of cultures crossing and clashing? Then you might want to read The Book of Jonas followed by A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar. Or vice versa. Longing for a mystery? Read here about the kidnappers of The Professionals. Explore an octogenarian’s search for Nazi loot hidden in the deep South in Don’t Ever Get Old. Enjoy!

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar

by Suzanne Joinson


370 pp.

In A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, the reader travels between the worlds of Eva and Frieda.  Eva’s world is 1920s China, where she has faked a religious calling so she can accompany her sister on a missionary pilgrimage to Kashgar. Her true mission is a Far East bicycling adventure and the publication of her own travel guide. Frieda’s world is current-day London, where she dates a married man, has lost interest in her job and receives a mysterious inheritance. The novel moves between Eva’s journal entries of her adventures in China and Frieda’s handling of the inheritance. Eva’s story envelops the reader with its rich descriptions of the culture, the landscape and the characters. The calamities she faces engage the reader, as does her singularity of spirit. Eva symbolizes the women found in each generation who fight societal expectations. She pursues unlikely goals, and although she struggles with her choices, she makes decisions based on her internal voice, not society’s conventions. Her depth of thought and feeling make her more engaging than the modern-day Frieda, and it is difficult to leave her between chapters and move to Frieda’s world. Unlike Eva, Frieda’s choices seem to be by happenstance. She adopts an owl, drags out an unfulfilling romantic relationship and befriends a stranger who slept outside her apartment one night. But why? The mystery of the inheritance keeps the reader’s attention, and Frieda eventually takes a step with forethought, but her world lacks the vividness of Eva’s.  In the end, the connection between the two women is not surprising. However, readers may question where the individualistic Eva finds herself. Should there be validation or even a reward for making the self-inspired but socially objectionable choice? Could that validation be happiness ― does Eva find that validation?

~AnnaMarie Bena

The Book of Jonas

by Stephen Dau

Blue Rider Press

256 pp.

Younis, also known as Jonas, is the loneliest boy on earth. He is a child from an unnamed country that can only be modern-day Afghanistan, with its racing icy rivers, soaring arid mountains and American soldiers patrolling its war-weary villages. His story, skillfully told by debut novelist Stephen Dau, is a sad tale, a small, ornately carved thing of cool beauty. There is much truth here, but not a moment of joy. The novel rolls out in quick snippets of Jonas’ life as a refugee relocated to Pittsburgh, first as a high-school student and then into his college years.  Woven in are flashbacks to his childhood and excerpts from the diary of a soldier named Christopher, who, it turns out, is from a town outside Pittsburgh. Christopher and Jonas’ paths crossed back in Jonas’ home village. Christopher has been missing in action for quite some time, and eventually Jonas encounters the soldier’s mother, Rose, who has turned her life into the sole pursuit of what happened to her son. About halfway through the novel, we read an excerpt from Christopher’s diary, something he witnessed during an earlier posting in Uganda. Deep in the forest, he came across a wildlife biologist observing an incredible sight: a lioness caring for a baby gazelle. The lioness’s mate had killed both the gazelle’s mother and the lioness’s cub. Shock, grief and maternal instinct had briefly united the two. But neither animal was eating, and soon the lioness’s loving lick on the gazelle’s face would end, and the instinct for survival, with all its pitiless violence, would take over. It is an image that carries over to the story of Christopher and Jonas, the well-intentioned but troubled soldier and the shell-shocked, orphaned village boy. But with the mismatched humans, who takes on the role of the hunter and who the prey, who will survive and who will fall victim, is not nearly so straightforward.

~Bob Gibson

Don’t Ever Get Old

by Daniel Friedman

Minotaur Books

304 pp.

I really wanted to like Daniel Friedman’s Don’t Ever Get Old. Protagonist Buck Schatz is a feisty 87, both appealing and original, and he’s Jewish, which I find connective. Seeing aspects of Jewish life in the Deep South is interesting and unusual ― a good combination ― and the relationship between Buck and his wife, Rose, is vivid. He may be one big gripe and grouch, but his tenderness toward her and her ability to put up with him feel warm and real. The book takes Buck and (almost as an afterthought) Rose on a wild search for supposed Nazi treasure to be found not just in the United States, but in the Deep South. Buck’s nephew, a genial law student, becomes Buck’s sidekick. He’s likable, but most of the other characters are either wicked or idiotic. An intrusive pastor seems ridiculously cartoon-like, and the idea of cranky, feisty ol’ Buck letting this jerk in the house for dinner, much less into his life in general, strained my suspension-of-reality ability past belief. Most of the bad guys come across as flat and cardboard-like, not evil enough to generate much fear while alive or relief when dead (even when the means of disposal are graphically nasty and violent). Buck’s exploits, given his age and health, become increasingly unlikely. His habit of creating play-on-words nicknames for people has its moments, but his language, to me, is unnecessarily crude throughout the book, although that may not bother other readers. And the Nazi treasure-hunt theme doesn’t ring true ― unfortunate, since it is the core of the book.

~Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

The Professionals: A Novel

by Owen Laukkanen

G. P. Putnam’s Sons

372 pp.

This is one of those books you read because you expect it to get much better. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. That’s not to say that it’s a bad book. The premise is interesting. A quartet of friends, confronted by a dismal job market, become kidnappers rather than work at Burger King. It’s not a choice one hopes many people make, but it suits them. They research their well-heeled targets, try not to hurt anyone too badly and make regular six-figure scores. Compared with some of the crooks still running around Wall Street, they seem almost benign. (They don’t kidnap kids.) But they screw up, kidnapping the wrong person. Blood is shed, and soon the F.B.I., a hotshot Minnesota cop and the mob are after them. A billion-dollar derivative scheme would attract less attention. The author, Owen Laukkanen, a former tournament reporter for a poker Website, has a way with words, but not with characterizations. The two main police protagonists ― the state cop, Kirk Stevens, and his F.B.I. associate, Carla Windemere ― spend a lot of time flirting in hotel rooms, but it goes nowhere since Stevens is a devoted family man. Perhaps Laukkanen should have brought in the Secret Service for some sexual tension. The most interesting character is a savvy mob killer named D’Antonio, who is tracking the kidnappers and seems to be one step ahead of everyone, the fuzz included. The kidnapper yuppies (for want of a better word) are a fairly uninteresting lot, led by Pender, whose five-year dream is: “No job market, no unemployment, no Social Security or foreclosures. No 401(k) and no tax-payer bailouts.” To be followed, naturally, by a cushy retirement in the Maldives with his main squeeze, Marie. What sounds like a 2012 campaign platform, of course turns into a disaster. It doesn’t take too many gunshot wounds before a career at Burger King starts to look more attractive. The Professionals can be enjoyed for its cross-country chases, violent set pieces and competent writing. But the author will have to up his game if he intends to bring Stevens and Windemere back for sequel.

~Lawrence De Maria

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