December 8, 2013

Amy Tan tackles world of courtesans with tough realism

“The Valley of Amazement” by Amy Tan (HarperCollins, $29.99)

“The Valley of Amazement” by Amy Tan (HarperCollins, $29.99)

Tan portrays the courtesans in a half-light, powerful in youth and beauty but always aware that the street is only one unsuccessful “season” away.

Even when she allows her characters to break free from their circumstances, Tan offers little indulgence for what they’ve been through, no easy, feel-good resolution to wrap up the plot line. Tan is a clear-eyed realist who believes women have to be the heroes of their own lives. But sometimes, she says, we can find new ways of seeing that bring us contentment, peace and, yes, even happiness, when we least expect it.

– Amy Driscoll, Miami Herald

“Crooked Numbers” by Tim O’Mara (Minotaur, $25.99)

Tim O’Mara gives the academic mystery – too long mired in the machinations of university politics – a fresh view by imbuing it with elements of the police procedural. Instead of the usual disagreements and one-upmanship among professors and deans, O’Mara’s intricate plot delivers an exciting look at the inner workings of education and the economic boundaries that separate people.

The difference is O’Mara’s unusual hero – Raymond Donne, a former NYPD detective turned middle-school teacher in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Introduced in last year’s gripping “Sacrifice Fly,” Raymond is a complex character who has found a fresh start as a teacher. For Raymond, the jobs of cop and teacher often intertwine as both are interested in doing the right thing, whether it is on the streets or in the classroom. Both careers can be a powerful influence.

– Oline H. Cogdill, Sun Sentinel

“Shantytown” by Cesar Aira (New Directions, $13.95, paperback)

The Argentine writer Cesar Aira is not a genre writer, though he’s been known to play with genre forms, including science fiction. The final third of “Shantytown” unfolds in the way many detective novels do: with a series of sensational encounters involving concealed identities and assorted television and newspaper reporters.

But with Aira the melodrama quickly falls away. With a few final acts of narrative sleight of hand, the reader is left at once dazzled and unsettled.

– Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times

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