Abby and Her Sisters
By Melanie Bellah
Celestial Arts, $14.95
It's sad that Bellah endured the loss of not one but two teenage daughters: one a suicide, the other in a car wreck. But at the risk of insensitivity bordering on the inhumane, it's equally sad that she found it necessary to publish what amounts to little more than a haphazardly finessed scrapbook of grief. If there's dramatic tension to be found anywhere in this exhausting book composed of excerpts from the diaries of her two surviving daughters, it's neither a morbid curiosity about how Abby and Tammy met their respective ends, nor even an ethnographic curiosity about the family life of academic nomads who settled in Berkeley in the 1970s. Rather, it revolves around the author's deployment of exclamation points to compensate for the ineptitude of her storytelling. (There are seven in the first chapter alone.) A lawyer whose husband is the noted sociologist Robert Bellah, the author presumes her readers will start page one already fascinated by her family's history and idiosyncrasies -- and apparently none of these were too precious to leave out. But unfortunately, Anne Frank notwithstanding, there's a reason the vast majority of adolescent writing doesn't make its way from attic storage boxes and Hotmail draft boxes into print. There's little doubt that this book was a worthwhile therapeutic endeavor for its author and her family. What she thinks it offers anyone else is never made quite clear. -- John Dicker
By Will Rhode
Drugs drive this mad road story in which young Joshua King crosses India in search of -- well, drugs. But drugs are in the picture even before the story starts: Joshua's multimillionaire father, having committed suicide by way of a massive Viagra overdose, has left his son a million dollars in his will if, and only if, Josh can write a best-selling novel within five years. A pickle by any standards, but Josh, as he tells us in this deeply felt yet daftly funny first-person narrative, "didn't want to be a writer. ... I think I may have mentioned it -- once -- but I said it in the same way a six-year-old says he wants to be a fireman." Pondering his father's proposition, Josh is in Delhi -- taking drugs -- when he falls for the enticing Yasmin, whose boyfriend is conveniently languishing in the local jail. Bollywood wanna-bes, late-night Mumbai ravers, and little bags of brown powder flit and dash across the ever-shifting landscape as Josh and Yasmin mount an outrageous plan to track down India's most legendary drug dealer. Meanwhile, every character has his or her own very personal quest locked firmly in his or her sights. The fact that we aren't certain of anyone's objectives but Josh's makes this a thriller. That Josh recounts his objectives and his adventures with such charming, disarming, self-effacing frankness makes this a thrill.
-- Anneli Rufus
Getting Mother's Body
By Suzan-Lori Parks
Random House, $23.95
Such promise. This debut novel by the playwright who, in 2002, became the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in drama (for Topdog/Underdog ) opens with killer sass and bravado that call to mind Ella Fitzgerald riffin' on "Mack the Knife." Parks swings as she sets the stage for her story about a quirky black Texas family and its pursuit of a cache of jewels believed to be buried with the corpse of Willa Mae Beede -- mother, sister, and lover (after a fashion) of the novel's main protagonists. Readers are prepped for a Toni Morrison-like saga of myth, meaning, and metaphor when we discover that Willa Mae (dead of a self-inflicted abortion), has been laid to rest in a backyard plot soon destined to become a parking lot. Unfortunately, the dazzling solo riffs (each chapter is titled with the name of the character speaking) never coalesce into a sustained narrative. From the slick, predatory maker of customized coffins to the Ku Klux Klan-ish sheriffs to the snooty distant relative who looks down on the Beede family as trash, far too many of Parks' creations come off as set pieces rather than fully fleshed characters. Especially dispiriting is the author's depiction of a brutish pig-farming, gun-toting black lesbian. Makes one wonder what kind of cataclysmic Well of Loneliness-type trauma Parks might have suffered during her sojourn at a Seven Sisters college in the 1980s. -- Evelyn C. White
The Samurai's Daughter
By Sujata Massey
In this sixth installment of an Agatha- and Macavity-Award-winning series, Tokyo antiques dealer Rei Shimura keeps herself busy between murders and commissions by researching her father's family history -- which includes an intriguing letter in the handwriting of the last ruling emperor of Japan. Meanwhile, her on-again, off-again lawyer boyfriend is chasing after plaintiffs to participate in a class action against Japanese megabusinesses, seeking reparations for war crimes against comfort women and slave laborers. Rei's thin-skinned response to her father's take on these parallel projects fuels much of the book's emotional interest. The lawsuit obligingly gives rise to murder, which is where Rei's sleuthing skills come in. The mystery plot develops slowly, though, and its hurried resolution is marred by a few too many convenient coincidences. In the end, the mystery is primarily a device for showcasing Massey's charming ways with scene and character. Fans of the series will keep coming back for more of these trademark expositions of Japanese culture and customs, as played out by a pan-Pacific cast of characters. The conflict with her father this time around is a touching metaphor for the cultural-identity confusion that pervades Rei's life. -- Susan Lee
The Mushroom Man
By Sophie Powell
This tale about the disappearance of much-loved, six-year-old Lily swerves dangerously between harrowing anxiety and sticky-sweet cuteness. The book's light, humorous tone telegraphs a happy ending, contrasting oddly with the child's unfunny disappearance (a plot turn which could cause readers who happen to be the parents of six-year-olds to shut the book in fear). But somehow Powell pulls off this tricky balancing act, and if the ending can be foretold, the road to it remains unpredictable. Lily's mother has been reluctant all along about this visit to her long-estranged sister, and is ready to leave as soon as she and Lily arrive. But Lily refuses to go home. When she runs off to meet the figure she calls the Mushroom Man, this little girl leaves the family in an uproar. Is the Mushroom Man merely the invention of an imaginative child, or is he a real kidnapper lurking in the woods? While the adults dither indecisively, Lily's triplet cousins -- who at eleven are way too sophisticated for fairy tales -- conclude that the only way to save Lily is to loudly and publicly declare that they do, in fact, believe in fairies. In the end everyone finds some kind of redemption. A pat but charming and strangely satisfying tale. -- Melanie Curry
1. The Descent of Man, by Steve Jones (Houghton Mifflin, $25). Dads have it, sons have it: This lowdown on the "prince of chromosomes" by a British science writer is fact-packed and funny -- if you aren't going bald.
2. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead, $24.95). This first-ever English-language novel about modern Afghanistan is a textured tale of friendship and the power fathers wield over their sons. (Hosseini, a Bay Area doctor, will be at Cody's on June 16.)
3. Mother Shock, by Andrea J. Buchanan (Seal, $14.95). There comes a point, we learn in this funny and fearless first-year memoir/manual of motherhood, when drool and dirty diapers seem like the least of a gal's problems.
4. My Heart Will Cross This Ocean, by Kadiatou Diallou and Craig Wolff (Ballantine/One World, $24.95). The touching story of a young Guinean woman, her husband's second wife, whose son was killed in an NYPD snafu and who strove to clear his name.
5. Keeping Faith, by John Schaeffer and Frank Schaeffer (Carroll & Graf, $25). When a prep-school grad opted to join the Few, the Proud, and the Brave, it startled his ambitious dad. The result is this illuminating memoir, told back and forth in both men's voices.
6. A Mouthful of Air, by Amy Koppelman (MacAdam/Cage, $23). Julie has everything: loving husband, cute baby, comfy middle-class life. Yet on the heels of a suicide attempt, "everything" doesn't look so good, as we learn in this poignant The Bell Jar for moms.
7. The Englishman's Daughter, by Ben Macintyre (Delta, $13.95). In this true-life account, we learn how one of four British WWI soldiers trapped between enemy lines in France fathered a child -- a passionate encounter that led to tragedy.
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