Words for Nerds

I have been rich in good reads as of late. Three great books in a row!

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (The Road to Nowhere #1)

I loved this novel so very much and I could not put it down. It was completely engrossing.

In the wake of a fever that decimated the earth’s population—killing women and children and making childbirth deadly for the mother and infant—the midwife must pick her way through the bones of the world she once knew to find her place in this dangerous new one. Gone are the pillars of civilization. All that remains is power—and the strong who possess it.

 

A few women like her survived, though they are scarce. Even fewer are safe from the clans of men, who, driven by fear, seek to control those remaining. To preserve her freedom, she dons men’s clothing, goes by false names, and avoids as many people as possible. But as the world continues to grapple with its terrible circumstances, she’ll discover a role greater than chasing a pale imitation of independence.

I LOVED reading a survival story featuring a woman who was smart, tough, and compassionate. I often get frustrated by people who consistently make stupid mistakes or are silly about survival. I also believe that this may be the first book I’ve read that features a bisexual woman as the main character, and I liked the way her thoughts and feelings were written regarding her sexuality. It didn’t feel contrived and her sexuality was not used a plot point.The story moves at a good pace, and I never felt bored by the plot. The story is a stark view of humanity and the quick inhumanity of men, and it’s dark with pockets of hope. I also did not feel like the terrible things that happen to women (rape, assault, mutilation…) were used in service of advancing the plot. Anyway, I loved it!

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The Book of Etta by Meg Elison

The Book of Etta (The Road to Nowhere #2)

Much to my total shock and delight, I learned after finishing The Book of the Unnamed Midwife that it is actually a series! The third book is not out yet, but the second one is and I blew right through it.

Etta comes from Nowhere, a village of survivors of the great plague that wiped away the world that was. In the world that is, women are scarce and childbearing is dangerous…yet desperately necessary for humankind’s future. Mothers and midwives are sacred, but Etta has a different calling. As a scavenger. Loyal to the village but living on her own terms, Etta roams the desolate territory beyond: salvaging useful relics of the ruined past and braving the threat of brutal slave traders, who are seeking women and girls to sell and subjugate.

 

When slavers seize those she loves, Etta vows to release and avenge them. But her mission will lead her to the stronghold of the Lion—a tyrant who dominates the innocent with terror and violence. There, with no allies and few weapons besides her wits and will, she will risk both body and spirit not only to save lives but also to liberate a new world’s destiny.

This story takes place a hundred years after the Unnamed Midwife’s time which proved to be very cool. The newly constructed world was fascinating, and learning about how each of the different societies made their own rules was endlessly interesting. I could have honestly followed Etta through all of time. Etta, like the Unnamed Midwife, is also smart, tough, and uncompromising. They are both survivors who have to navigate the brutality of a broken society.

I found both to be thoroughly interesting and unique, and I can’t wait for the third. These novels do feature a lot of sexual violence, so if that is something that is especially hard for you to read, then you might want to skip them.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

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Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan.

 

So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.

This novel was exception and beautiful, but it broke my heart in about a million different ways. The pacing was excellent and the characters were wonderfully well-developed. I thought about them frequently when I was away from the book. I (shamefully) had no idea about the turbulent history between Korea and Japan, and the discrimination that ethnic Koreans faced while living in Japan. At its heart is a story of immigrants, and the feeling of not having a home. It’s particularly timely (always timely I suppose) in the United States. We are not kind to new people. I really enjoyed the novel even though it made me deeply sad over and over again. I really wished it had been longer.

Words for Nerds!

The Immortalists by Chloe BenjaminThe Immortalists

Heather lent me an early copy of this before Christmas because she had interviewed the author. It is SO COOL to have a friend who is a book critic.

It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

I got through this book quickly because I was deeply into the stories of three of the four Gold kids. I felt like the fourth story didn’t meld as well with the others, but I still enjoyed it overall. There were sections I found gripping and devastating, and parts I didn’t really care for. There is also a character that shows up throughout several of the stories who I was SURE was connected somehow, but oddly wasn’t. Overall I would recommend it.

I also know that I definitely do not need to know when I am going to die. I feel like I would easily make terribly irresponsible decisions if I knew it was sooner than later. Although, by behaving more irresponsibly than I normally would, am I bringing death sooner? Maybe I would have less anxiety and treat life as more precious if I knew? Much to ponder. Would you want to know?

The Boat Runner by Devin Murphy

The Boat Runner

It is odd to me now that all World War II novels are likened to All the Light We Cannot See or The Nightingale. They all take place around the same time, but other than that I do not see the comparisons. It annoys me. Anyway, The Boat Runner:

In the tradition of All The Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale, comes an incandescent debut novel about a young Dutch man who comes of age during the perilousness of World War II.

 

Beginning in the summer of 1939, fourteen-year-old Jacob Koopman and his older brother, Edwin, enjoy lives of prosperity and quiet contentment. Many of the residents in their small Dutch town have some connection to the Koopman lightbulb factory, and the locals hold the family in high esteem.

On days when they aren’t playing with friends, Jacob and Edwin help their Uncle Martin on his fishing boat in the North Sea, where German ships have become a common sight. But conflict still seems unthinkable, even as the boys’ father naively sends his sons to a Hitler Youth Camp in an effort to secure German business for the factory.

When war breaks out, Jacob’s world is thrown into chaos. The Boat Runner follows Jacob over the course of four years, through the forests of France, the stormy beaches of England, and deep within the secret missions of the German Navy, where he is confronted with the moral dilemma that will change his life—and his life’s mission—forever.

I didn’t care for the main character Jacob much, but I had to continually remind myself that he was young and therefore a bit of a knucklehead. I did like that it followed someone with a shifting moral compass who was constantly struggling to find his place in a war. I also felt like his logic and choices were true to someone his age. I really loved Uncle Martin though. He was an excellent character. I also imagined him as Chris Hemsworth in Heart of the Sea which probably only served to further endear me to him.

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What was most interesting about the book was that I had NO IDEA about the use of midget submarines by the Germans. NO CLUE. When I asked my dad if he knew about them I got his version of this face:

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WHERE HAVE I BEEN?

Anyway, I think I might have blocked out their existence because they are all of my claustrophobic nightmares wrapped up in one craft. This is a man sitting in a tiny bubble with a missile attached to the bottom of his vessel:

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And then they looked like this in the water:

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*hyperventilates*

And they could also be submerged.

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For the Neger model, 80% of the operators were killed. There were soldiers that launched in that thing who just never came back. Can you imagine being lost at sea while trapped in that thing???? NOPE. Anyway, I had a very hard time reading that part of the book and had a terrible time sleeping for several nights because I couldn’t stop thinking about the sheer terror of being in there.

A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time (A Wrinkle in Time Quintet, #1)

I never read this as a kid for several reasons, but mostly because the cover of the copy we had was creepy as hell.

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WHAT IS HAPPENING.

I was much relieved to learn that my friend Heather avoided it for this same reason. WTF illustrators?? I think I missed my window for enjoying this book because I didn’t like at all. Large pieces of it made no sense and all of the problems were solved too easily (I know it’s a children’s book and that this an unreasonable comment). I also didn’t expect that there would be so many religious references. I finally realized that I need to accept that I don’t enjoy science fiction/fantasy. I don’t like reading it, but I do enjoy watching it, so I will definitely be seeing the movie.

I would also like to put in a fantasy request for a Mindy Kaling and Reese Witherspoon premium cable drama where Mindy Lahiri and Elle Woods are solving crimes with style and an abundance of confidence.

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Words for Nerds

First off, my friend Gretchen shared this wonderful video about how you can help people in need using Amazon Now. Socks, underwear, backpacks, and toiletries are so easy to buy, and Amazon can deliver them for you. This is such a wonderful idea and an easy way to help people.

The Revolution of Marina M. by Janet Fitch

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Knowing my love of Russia, my friend Heather recommended this to me and I could not get enough of it. Janet Fitch is also the author of White Oleander which I was deeply obsessed with in high school and through my mid-twenties. The Revolution of Marina M. is 816 pages of mostly greatness.

St. Petersburg, New Year’s Eve, 1916. Marina Makarova is a young woman of privilege who aches to break free of the constraints of her genteel life, a life about to be violently upended by the vast forces of history. Swept up on these tides, Marina will join the marches for workers’ rights, fall in love with a radical young poet, and betray everything she holds dear, before being betrayed in turn.

As her country goes through almost unimaginable upheaval, Marina’s own coming-of-age unfolds, marked by deep passion and devastating loss, and the private heroism of an ordinary woman living through extraordinary times. This is the epic, mesmerizing story of one indomitable woman’s journey through some of the most dramatic events of the last century.

Obviously, I am totally biased because I pretty much love anything having to do with the Russian Revolution, but I have not read a lot from the other end of the situation (the pro-revolution side – it is too dreary, and there is a serious lack of JEWELS.). Marina is 16 when the novel begins and she’s a bit of a pretentious pill. Her life quickly changes as the Revolution sweeps across Russia, and she gets herself into numerous messes, but they are realistic to her age and experience (mostly extreme naïveté as a member of the bourgeoisie class). There were plenty of moments when I wanted to shake her, but her problems made sense for her age and point of maturation. Despite the fact that she often makes completely frustrating choices, she remains a likable character. She’s strong, and she pushes through several truly terrible experiences.

I liked that the novel explored a lot of the day to day minutia of her life, and a life in a city going through a revolution and extraordinary cultural and social change. The story never felt slow, and I didn’t feel like it was too long. It wasn’t linear storytelling and a lot of pieces never seem to come together, but I don’t see how a story of revolution could ever be a linear thing anyway. I absolutely loved it and it is perfect for a winter day spent  inside reading! I wasn’t crazy about the final section of the book and the way the story ended abruptly. Luckily, it says “End of Book I,” and this article seems to think a second part is coming!!

Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown

Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret

If you love stories of royalty, and in particular bitch royal battle axes, then this is the book for you! Princess Margaret had a LIFE and it was filled with drama. And a lot of unhappiness. A large part of me feels for her despite the fact that the was a total pill. After Elizabeth became queen, she clearly never felt like she had a meaningful role in the royal family. I think this sense of uselessness contributed to her often rude, snobbish, and demanding demeanor, but she sure made a lot of sassy lemonade out of some sour ass lemons. I was really shocked at how little education she and Elizabeth received (which is touched on briefly in The Crown).

The book is a collection of 99 stories about the Princess. Many highlighting small and insignificant, yet hilarious encounters. Others explore more bizarre parts of her life such as Pablo Picasso’s gross (to me) obsession with her. A lot of men had a gross obsession with her. She was teeny tiny and totally gorgeous, but calm your tits, guys.

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Also, some of the tidbits (like her daily schedule) are incredible. That sounds like a truly lovely four hour start to the day.

The only negative is that the book is currently only available in hardback, and I have only found it online. Anyway, I loved it and it’s full of interesting facts and gossip which is a total joy to a nosy witch like me.

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I was REALLY hoping for the above scene in this season of The Crown since the photograph was taken in 1962 (you can see Lord Snowden in the reflection of the mirror). Here’s to hoping for the scene behind this one. I wonder how much emphasis they will have on their 16 year break up.

Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year by Tavis Smiley

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I wrote a review for this book before the news broke that PBS has suspended Smiley for sexual misconduct last night, but now that doesn’t matter. Why, man, why???? Reading that someone’s job depended on their sexual relationship with a powerful man makes me want to scream. What is wrong with you???

I wanted to recommend this book to you because I learned a lot, but I will not because he doesn’t deserve the money. Asshole.

He must have been speaking from experience in his commentary about Cosby, “But I also believe that some of us is not the sum of us; we are not our worst acts.” When your actions consistently harm people and threaten their livelihood, then I disagree with that sentiment. This wasn’t a single bad decision or tragic mistake.

Limetown Podcast

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Limetown is a fictional story told as a series of investigative reports by Lia Haddock (played by Annie-Sage Whitehurst), a journalist for American Public Radio (APR), detailing the disappearance of over 300 people at a neuroscience research facility in Tennessee.

Michelle recommended this podcast and I listened to most of it on my way back from Yosemite. I don’t think I have listened to any serialized stories like this via podcast, so it was a new experience. I had no idea what it was about when I started it, so every twist and turn was a total surprise. I thought it was really well done and was quite interesting, and I am excited for a second season. I do have to warn you against listening while driving on narrow winding roads because there were several times that I completely jumped out of my seat because of creepy sounds.

Accused PodcastRelated image

A soft-hearted prison minister was found killed in her Kentucky apartment, and Newport police zeroed in on an ex-convict she’d counseled. Thirty years later, the conviction is overturned and the case is once again unsolved. The Cincinnati Enquirer investigates: Was William Virgil wrongly convicted for murder?

This was a terribly sad case to listen to. I was sad for the woman who was murdered, I was sad for her family, and I was sad for the man who appears to have been wrongly convicted. What a mess. I particularly liked Chapter seven which detailed the work of the Kentucky Innocence Project and their review of the police work. So many ruined lives and still no answers.

Words and Listens for Nerds

Two books with two podcast reviews!

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton

What Happened

This was at times light and funny, yet also difficult and infuriating to read. There were times when I could read it for an hour and other times where after 10 minutes I couldn’t handle it because I was so mad. And to everyone who said this book is about Hillary Clinton blaming everyone else for her loss, YOU ARE WRONG. In the very first lines she states, “I’ve tried to learn from my own mistakes. there are plenty, as you’ll see in this book, and they are mine and mine alone.” And that is repeated throughout the books. Reading about what she perceived as her missteps and mistakes was the most interesting part of the book. I liked reading her thoughts and words about why they were mistakes and what she would have done differently.

It was difficult to read the thoughts of a woman who could have changed history, and should have. The book didn’t feel bitter to me at all. It felt at times sad and regretful about should have been and at other time joyous for what she was able to achieve. It made me like her even more and I wish more people could have seen that side of her personality. She’s funny, wry, thoughtful, and compassionate. I don’t think a lot of people saw those sides of her.

I was already familiar with the role that Russia and Comey’s convenient re-opening of the e-mail case meant for her election, but there was so much more specific detail that she gave that was fascinating (and INSANE). The book isn’t perfect and at times it was a bit on the rambling side, but I still feel lucky that I got to vote for her and I enjoyed her words. As a woman, too much of it left me infuriated because I can see the sexism in so much of what happened. If you are someone who isn’t willing to accept those issues as problematic, then this book isn’t for you. Hillary Clinton wasn’t the perfect candidate (no one is) and she has made some mistakes, but she was still the most qualified for the job. You will never convince me otherwise and I will continue to resist the Cheeto Autocracy.

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The Lost History of the Stars by Dave Boling

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In turn-of-the-century South Africa, fourteen-year-old Lettie, her younger brother, and her mother are Dutch Afrikaner settlers who have been taken from their farm by British soldiers and are being held in a concentration camp. It is early in the Boer War, and Lettie’s father, grandfather, and brother are off fighting the British as thousands of Afrikaner women and children are detained. The camps are cramped and disease ridden; the threat of illness and starvation are ever present. Determined to dictate their own fate, Lettie and her family give each other strength and hope as they fight to survive amid increasingly dire conditions.

I remember learning about the Boer Wars in middle school and being extremely confused as to why the British were fighting with Dutch settlers in South Africa. I could not get it because it was completely illogical to me. I had clearly not yet grasped the concept of colonialism and that all of these people had no business being in South Africa in the first place.

This novel had strong reviews, but I never got into it. I don’t know if I was just in the wrong state of mind or distracted, but the characters never resonated with me. The pacing felt tedious and I struggled to even finish it. Most of what I know about the Boer War is through the eyes of the British and the antics of Winston Churchill, so learning more about the horrific concentration camps that the Boer women and children were sent to was pretty appalling. Unfortunately, this novel just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Dirty John hosted by Christopher Goffard

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A true story about seduction, deception, forgiveness, denial, and ultimately, survival. From Wondery and the L.A. Times. 

You read the full story here in the L.A. Times and the podcast is embedded there as well, but I recommend listening to if you can because hearing the voices makes a difference. You need to hear the pain, frustration, sadness, and anger.

This review does not contain spoilers, just general thoughts on the larger themes of relationships, abuse, and manipulation. I had no idea what to expect from this podcast and no clue what the story was about, but several people had recommended it, so I listened to it on my way to and from Tahoe last weekend. It was hard to listen to and I spent the majority of it feeling sick to my stomach with dread.

It’s the real-life story of a successful, beautiful, middle-aged woman (Debra) who falls for a total piece of shit (John) who happens to be good looking, charming, and a doctor. Listening to him manipulate her left me breathless. I’ve never dated someone who is that level of scary, but I have certainly had my experiences with manipulative assholes. It is embarrassing and shameful once you realize it because it seems so freaking obvious in retrospect. I’m a smart person, so how did I fall for that obvious crap for so long? It made me even sadder thinking about Debra because she is like so many women I know in that she is just looking for a partner who gives a damn about her. After multiple failed relationships, she has the misfortune of meeting John and, as those creepers tend to do, he overwhelms her with attention. He does so many odd things in the beginning and there are so many terrifying red flags throughout the relationship, but she just keeps going.

It is painful to listen to her share all of the ways she rationalized his behavior and dismissed the concerns of her family. I have friends whose moms have remarried to assholes and I feel pretty strongly that if all of your kids hate a guy and won’t even let their kids be around him, then you need to GET OUT OF THERE. Some of my friends just don’t get along with the new husband or don’t care for his personality, but that is a totally different kind of issue than everyone hating him and being afraid.

The mental abuse, emotional manipulation, and psychological violence made this series one of the hardest things I’ve ever listened to. The final episode was like a gut punch and I could feel my own pulse increasing as the terror escalated. I just wish we (as women) were better at trusting ourselves, believing our own doubts, and having the confidence to walk away from bad situations. In light of the current revelations spewing forth about abuse and assault towards women from men in power (Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, James Toback, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, Roy Price…), this series is sickeningly timely. There are too many Dirty Johns out there!

My Favorite Murder! (exclamation point is my own)

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I FINALLY got caught up earlier this month with all of the episodes (been working on that since February). I still love it and look forward to it each week. I know many people get annoyed by their random chitchat at the beginning, but I love it. I always enjoy a good aside and a heavy dose of irrelevant tangents. My only annoyance (which they admit) is when it sounds like they are reading their story for the first time. It drives me bananas. I don’t ever need to be read a Wikipedia article, but I certainly don’t need a Wikipedia article read to me in a crappy and unprepared fashion. Otherwise, I love them and I hope they come to Sacramento one day even though Karen hates it. I also work at the University Karen briefly attended here, and I really want to show her that things have changed so much! Sacramento isn’t a crappy place I swear!

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Words for Nerds

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

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JUST RIP MY HEART OUT WHY DON’T YOU???

World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, many with something to hide.Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the “Wilhelm Gustloff.” Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer to safety.

Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people adults and children alike aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.

I initially picked this up because it involved the Wilhelm Gustloff which is one of the worst maritime disasters in history (9,000 died), yet very few people are actually aware that it happened. Time has a worthwhile article on this novel and the ship if you are interested in learning more.

It took me a bit to feel anchored to the characters as there are four narrators and I wasn’t sure which one was which for a while. I typically struggle with these types of narrative choices, but I thought it all came together exceptionally well. I was quite stressed during the latter half of the book because I knew what was coming, but it unfolded in an unhurried way. I had a hard time putting the novel down and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys WWII historical fiction.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah

I really enjoyed this story and the characters. Event though it was almost 600 pages, I wouldn’t have been sad for 600 more. There are a lot of issues she touched on and some of them did not get explored as much as I would have liked, but I still really enjoyed it. At times it was a kind of all over the place and rambling, but I found it thoughtful and lovely. I pretty much always enjoy an immigration story and reading about people navigating a new land.

As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are fleeing the country if they can. Ifemelu–beautiful, self-assured–departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze–the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor–had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Fifteen years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion–for their homeland and for each other–they will face the toughest decisions of their lives. Fearless, gripping, spanning three continents and numerous lives, Americanah is a richly told story of love and expectation set in today’s globalized world.

Cockroaches by Jo Nesbø

Cockroaches (Harry Hole, #2)

I don’t know if it was because so many other things were going on in the real world at the time, but I never really got into the story and it was a labor to finish it. I blame the Nazis.

When the Norwegian ambassador to Thailand is found dead in a Bangkok brothel, Inspector Harry Hole is dispatched from Oslo to help hush up the case.

But once he arrives Harry discovers that this case is about much more than one random murder. There is something else, something more pervasive, scrabbling around behind the scenes. Or, put another way, for every cockroach you see in your hotel room, there are hundreds behind the walls. Surrounded by round-the-clock traffic noise, Harry wanders the streets of Bangkok lined with go-go bars, temples, opium dens, and tourist traps, trying to piece together the story of the ambassador’s death even though no one asked him to, and no one wants him to—not even Harry himself.