Sunday, December 29, 2013

Books in Brief: Mister Max, Japan 1941, Once Upon a Lie



Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voigt; Alfred A. Knopf Books, 367 pages $16.99 Ages 8 to 12.


Cynthia Voigt, winner of the Newbery Medal for “Dicey’s Song” and recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards Award for Outstanding Literature for Young Adults, has published a marvelous adventure story, the first of a three-book series for middle-grade readers that should appeal to fans of Trenton Lee Stewart’s Benedict Society series. Max’s parents are actors and prone to unpredictable behavior. So when a letter arrives inviting them to visit the Maharajah of Kashmir, they accept. Max is sent a ticket for the voyage as an afterthought, and when he arrives at the dock on his bicycle at the appointed time, he discovers there is no ship and his parents are gone. Have they abandoned him, or have they been kidnapped? His grandmother lives in the little house in the back garden but Max wants to be independent. He discovers he has a talent for finding things, a lost child, a runaway dog, a missing heirloom. He doesn’t just find things; he has a talent for seeing the larger picture. But a mysterious woman demands to be let into the house; later the house is ransacked. Does it have something to do with his parents’ disappearance? And does the mysterious postcard he receives include a code that means something? Voigt offers a colorful cast of characters, a story that is both heartwarming, funny and gently mysterious with such marvelous elements as a gypsy with long earlobes, delicious pastries, a hard-hearted baroness and an extremely valuable lost spoon.

– Jean Westmoore


Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy by Eri Hotta; Knopf, 352 pages ($27.95)


The government wanted to get out of a war that wouldn’t end. World opinion was increasingly hostile. Resources were running out. The economy was in trouble. Even beer was in short supply.

Some of those problems seem disturbingly modern, but the year was 1941. Japan’s leaders recklessly decided to gamble with the lives of millions by starting a war with the United States. Almost none thought the war could be won. But they hoped that fate would intervene. In “Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy,” Eri Hotta exposes the false assumptions, wishful thinking, political turmoil and cultural baggage that contributed to fatally flawed decision-making.

And that led to a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Years of horrific warfare. Firebombed cities. And mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Demonizing the enemy has long been a toxic byproduct of war. Both the United States and the Japanese were enthusiastic practitioners who produced racist caricatures and misinformation as part of their war efforts.

But such distortions fail to provide any real insight, unlike Hotta’s relentlessly honest and revealing portrayal of Japan and its leadership.

Hotta is no apologist. “Japan 1941” does not try to rehabilitate leaders who are richly deserving of criticism or rationalize their conduct. It is a contextual case study of personal and collective failures in a time of crisis. Hotta’s groundbreaking work is both a fascinating history and a cautionary tale for those who wield power today.The nation had been wracked by civil conflict. In the decades leading up to the war, assassinations by ultranationalists created “a fearful atmosphere that would partly compromise the outspokenness of Japanese leaders in 1941.”

Hotta writes that Japan’s often-baffling political process “involved a complicated structure and a political culture that straddled different institutions, including the military, government ministries, and the Imperial Palace.”

The root problem in the Japanese government, Hotta concludes, was that “none of the top leaders, their occasional protestations notwithstanding, had sufficient will, desire or courage to stop the momentum for war.”

So they ultimately opted for war, with “an unlikely Japanese victory” predicated on external conditions “that were beyond Japan’s control.”

– Ed Timms, Dallas Morning News


Once Upon a Lie by Maggie Barbieri; Minotaur (304 pages, $24.99)


Maggie Barbieri sets a high standard in “Once Upon a Lie,” her exciting first stand-alone novel. Best known for her charmingly witting Murder 101 series, Barbieri shows an affinity for realistically delving into the dark psyches of her characters.

“Once Upon a Lie” goes beyond the typical family thriller. It is an enthralling tale about complicated bonds, what keeps families together and drives them apart while exploring just how far one will go for a loved one. Barbieri eases into “Once Upon a Lie,” setting up familiar domestic scenarios as she deftly moves her plot into unpredictable and unnerving situations.

Maeve Conlon feels nothing when her cousin, Sean Donovan, is found murdered. Maeve is too busy raising her two teenage daughters, trying to run her coffee shop / bakery and coping with her aging father, Jack, who is in the first stages of Alzheimer’s and keeps disappearing from the assisted-living facility where he lives. Adding to her stress level is her ex-husband who has married her former friend.

Her cousin, Sean, was considered a leader, a Wall Street whiz who donated generously to town and church projects. But ever since they were children, Maeve knew her cousin as a manipulator and a bully, “every attempted show of ‘affection’ tinged with cruelty and just a touch of pain.”

Maeve is pulled into the investigation when the police suspect that her father may have killed Sean. Jack, a former cop, was missing the night that his nephew was murdered and can’t remember where he was.

Maeve’s concern for her father leads to her to question her own moral code and leads her to commit several actions that are against her nature. Barbieri constantly keeps the reader off kilter and she fuels “Once Upon a Lie” with myriad surprise twists.

– Oline H. Cogdill, McClatchy-Tribune News Service