Book Review: MONA IN THREE ACTS, a painful, beautiful character study

We first meet Mona when she is almost ten, locked in a dark room in the basement by her mother, Agnes and accepting the punishment as her due since she has internalized her mother’s criticisms of her being difficult and poorly behaved. But, the cruel discipline soon ends when her parents are in a devastating car accident that kills Agnes.

Mona’s distant father, Vincent, waits only nine months before marrying Marie whose moods are erratic. Marie often lapses into paranoia, believing Mona or her brother Alexander’s benign behavior to be a deliberate slight. Mona learns to repress her emotions to humor Marie and keep peace in the family. Highly verbal with a rich interior life, the precocious child is observant and insightful but given her age is not always accurate in her observations.

Part II finds Mona, in her mid-twenties, at a turning point in her life when she accepts a position with an acclaimed theater producer/director and meets a famous author while Part III presents Mona in her mid-thirties as she faces personal and professional crises wondering if she can ever escape the patterns she learned as a child.

For me, reading Mona in Three Acts, set in Belgium, written by Griet Op de Beeck, and translated by Michele Hutchison, was a pleasure. I really felt for Mona in my bones, and I particularly enjoyed Part I, when she was trying to understand adult problems through a child’s perspective. Above all, the book is a character study, and its structure allows the reader to watch Mona’s evolution over time. Personally, I also really like books that have gaps like this where the events of the intervening years are puzzles to solve.

Mona’s central challenge—the pull between fulfilling family responsibility and expectations and pursuing individual passions—as well as her challenging relationships with her father and stepmother reflect universal conflicts, and I think many readers can if not see themselves in Mona certainly empathize with her. She also has some brilliant reflections: I highlighted many passages!

I was satisfied with everything in the book, but I did wish the novel had developed certain areas more, particularly how outsiders like spouses and boy/girlfriends relate to the family dynamics and a subplot about a conflict between Marie and one of Mona’s younger siblings which felt incomplete.

I really enjoyed Mona in Three Acts, and I wasn’t ready for it to end. Readers who enjoy literary fiction, character-driven novels, and books in translation should consider this book.

Thank you to NetGalley and Amazon Crossing for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS, a teenager confronts prejudice in his small Missouri town as he investigates a missing persons case

Esken, Allen - Nothing More Dangerous (4)𝗛𝗮𝗽𝗽𝘆 𝗽𝘂𝗯𝗹𝗶𝗰𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝗱𝗮𝘆 𝘁𝗼 𝙉𝙤𝙩𝙝𝙞𝙣𝙜 𝙈𝙤𝙧𝙚 𝘿𝙖𝙣𝙜𝙚𝙧𝙤𝙪𝙨 𝗯𝘆 𝗔𝗹𝗹𝗲𝗻 𝗘𝘀𝗸𝗲𝗻!

In 1976, freshman Boady Sanden’s widowed, depressed, and overwhelmed mother sends him to St. Ignacius high school, a private Catholic school, after getting into trouble with the wrong crowd. He is friendless and awkward, drawing band logos in a notebook to avoid the attention of the popular boys who enjoy tormenting him. With only his dog and his next-door neighbor, Hoke, as company, Boady dreams of leaving Jessup, Missouri behind and is only waiting until he turns sixteen.

That same year, Lida Poe, an African American bookkeeper at Ryke Manufacturing disappears, and town gossip says she left with $100,000 of embezzled funds. Ryke’s home office sends Charles Egin to manage the plant and clean up the operations. Charles, his wife, and his son, Thomas, Boady’s age, move across the street from Boady on rural Frog Hollow Road.

Boady’s been so busy keeping his head down, he’s noticed little about the tensions in town, but when the black family moves across the street, he is drawn into the racial battlefield of the community and confronted with the prejudices both his classmates and he himself hold. With a new awareness of the secrets people hold, he sees new dimensions in Hoke, Wally Schenicker, his boss at the drywall company down the road, and even his mother.

As Boady and Thomas hone onto the mystery behind Lida Poe’s disappearance, Boady is forced to choose loyalties—and the wrong decision may be deadly for him, his friends, and his family.

𝙉𝙤𝙩𝙝𝙞𝙣𝙜 𝙈𝙤𝙧𝙚 𝘿𝙖𝙣𝙜𝙚𝙧𝙤𝙪𝙨 deftly combines mystery and bildungsroman, charting Boady’s growing compassion, both for others and himself and challenging assumptions about race, personality, and motivation. While I found this a compelling read, I was incensed by the injustice Boady both uncovered and experienced. The rural mid-1970s Missouri setting focuses the mystery and allows Esken to bring race to the forefront, with discrimination more overt and the Civil Rights Legislation still just over a decade old. At the same time, the themes are highly relevant to today’s society.

For me, the dialogue, though, was a bit of a challenge. I trust that the author reliably represented the local dialect, but it was slightly awkward. I also wish that some of the minor characters such as Mrs. Elgin and Diana, one of Boady’s classmates, had been given more development. However, this is definitely a worthwhile book for readers who enjoy coming of age stories, literary mysteries, or novels about social issues.

𝑻𝒉𝒂𝒏𝒌 𝒚𝒐𝒖 𝒕𝒐 𝑵𝒆𝒕𝑮𝒂𝒍𝒍𝒆𝒚 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝑴𝒖𝒍𝒉𝒐𝒍𝒍𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝑩𝒐𝒐𝒌𝒔 𝒇𝒐𝒓 𝒑𝒓𝒐𝒗𝒊𝒅𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒂𝒏 𝒂𝒅𝒗𝒂𝒏𝒄𝒆 𝒓𝒆𝒂𝒅𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒄𝒐𝒑𝒚 𝒊𝒏 𝒆𝒙𝒄𝒉𝒂𝒏𝒈𝒆 𝒇𝒐𝒓 𝒂𝒏 𝒉𝒐𝒏𝒆𝒔𝒕 𝒓𝒆𝒗𝒊𝒆𝒘.

Book Review: THE NIGHT FIRE, Bosch and Ballard make sparks fly again

Harry Bosch, somewhat humbled by a knee replacement surgery, attends the funeral of John Jack Thompson, 40 year LAPD veteran who mentored Bosch when he joined Hollywood Division in his first detective assignment. From this legend, Bosch learned how to interview suspects, how to organize an investigation, and how to keep a motivational fire burning.

Thompson’s widow gives Harry an old murder book detailing the murder of John Hilton who was killed in 1990 in a deserted alley known to be a hotbed of drug activity. At first, Harry believes solving finding the murderer will honor his old mentor, and he brings the case to Detective Renée Ballard, his tough, independent, unofficial partner who works the Hollywood Division late shift. As Harry and Renée dig deeper into the investigation, they wonder if Thompson wanted to solve the case—or prevent others from finding the truth.

Meanwhile, Renée is butting heads with her nemesis, Captain Olivias, over the case of a homeless man killed in a case of arson, and Bosch crosses sides to help Mickey Haller exonerate a defendant accused of murdering a popular judge.

Their work brings them closer together than ever, but their vulnerability may cause them to lower their guard and put them in danger.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series has long been among my top five, and I love the introduction of Detective Renée Ballard. This is her third book, the second in which Bosch and Ballard are paired. Ballard’s character suffuses a new energy into the series and the synergy between Bosch and Ballard allows Connelly to present Bosch in a different light. He’s still irascible and intractable yet he is also more collaborative.

Besides the wonderful characters Connelly has created in Bosch and Ballard, his novels are heavily researched and informed by current police procedure and infused with the essence of Los Angeles.

In The Night Fire, the three primary mysteries are interesting, and are surprisingly resolved. The only off-note in the book was a scene in which Ballard was called out to a suspicious death. Certain details signaled that the death was unresolved and that Ballard would return to the mystery, but it wasn’t mentioned again. That, however, is a small complaint for an incredibly entertaining book. Connelly’s mysteries are realistic, gritty though not gory, and fun to read.

Book Review: THE GRAPES OF WRATH, timeless

When I was young, my grandfather gave me a copy of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and said every self-respecting Oklahoman should read the novel. Since I did just about everything he said, I read the book. But that was a very long time ago, and while I always considered it an an amazing book, I forgot much about it.

For that reason, I was thrilled Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939, was the first book in the #yearofsteinbeck buddy read hosted on Instagram. In the book, set during the Great Depression, the Joad family, long-time tenant farmers in Oklahoma, packs all their belongings that will fit onto a jalopy, burning or abandoning the rest. They‘ve literally tractored off their land, forcing them out of the only livelihood they’ve ever known. However, with handbills from fruit growers in California advertising for jobs, they are optimistic that as soon as they make the journey across Route 66, they will no longer face poverty and hunger.

Steinbeck weaves intercalary chapters throughout the novel that serve as short stories, offer foreshadowing, and provide context for the Joads’s journey as they join almost 500,000 other refugees fleeing drought and despair for for the elysian California.

With stark but beautiful language and powerful symbolism, Steinbeck imparts the harrowing reality of the migrant “Okies,” yet he also imparts the strength that comes from family and community ties, emphasizing the humanity and empathy of the poor while criticizing the heartless cruelty of those who are disenfranchised from the land and the laborers.

Despite all the tragedy in The Grapes of Wrath, the novel closes on an optimistic note of largesse. However, I find it lamentable that the issues explored by Steinbeck are still so prevalent, albeit with different migrant groups replacing the Okies. Our society can and should do better. I encourage others to read it: the book remains timely, relevant, and brilliant.

Book Review: DECEPTION, a continuation of the Dark Matter Trilogy

Happy publication day to Deception by Teri Terry, Book Two in the riveting Dark Matter Trilogy!

Shay, believing herself a carrier of the deadly Aberdeen Flu, flees her boyfriend, Kai, in the night to turn herself in. She’s imprisoned with a group of other survivors under the management of physicist Dr. Alex Cross, Kai’s hated stepfather.

Although angry Shay abandoned him, Kai can think of nothing but finding her. However, with no leads, he decides to find Freja Eriksen in London—a mysterious woman who has been posting videos disputing that survivors are contagious. Callie, Kai’s “cured” sister who can only be seen by survivors, follows him.

Meanwhile, as the epidemic spreads across the UK, jumping quarantine lines, a cure seems ever more elusive.

Deception expands the cast of characters from the first novel in the Dark Matter Trilogy, Contagion, and explains more about the mechanisms of the Aberdeen Flu as well as the surprising powers of the survivors.

With Freja, Shay and Kai enter a love triangle made complicated by distance and distrust as well as the survivors’ new capabilities. Dr. Cross’s motivations remain suspicious—and while Shay is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, Kai is certain he is a malevolent force. At the same time, Callie must confront uncomfortable truths about her situation.

Written for a young adult audience, this trilogy offers an entertaining series that engages questions of identity, difference, and power. Deception is a satisfying continuation, and I look forward to the final volume, Evolution.

Thank you to NetGalley and Charlesbridge Teen for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.