Spoiler-free book review: The Alienist

Title: The Alienist
Author: Caleb Carr
Genre(s): crime fiction, historical fiction, mystery, suspense, psychological thriller

It’s been a while since I’ve written and posted a book review. I’ve actually read many books prior to this review for The Alienist, so it wasn’t like I had a dry spell before this, but it’s a lot easier said than done to sit down and come up with coherent thoughts. However, I thoroughly enjoyed The Alienist enough to feel compelled about discussing it.

This book came out in the same year I was born (1994), though like most, I didn’t find out about it until the TV show that was produced much more recently in 2018. I wanted to read the original novel before seeing the adaptation, so no, I didn’t watch the show prior to reading The Alienist. I can’t yet comment on the similarities and differences between the two.

The Alienist is historical crime fiction set in 1890s New York, a city teeming with corrupt police, poor immigrants, and roiling activity of its seedy underbelly. Dr. Lazslo Kriezler, a psychologist (called an alienist at the time) teams up with John Moore, his newspaper reporter friend, Sara Howard, a woman working as a secretary in the police department, and Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, two Jewish detectives, to investigate a series of grisly murders. The killer targets exclusively boy prostitutes who dress up like women and subjects them to horrific mutilations. Forced to investigate in secret, the team is pressed for time to crack the clues behind the killer’s behavior, motives, and context (as Dr. Kriezler puts it) before he strikes again.

From page one, The Alienist had me at the edge of the seat, and I came down with a bad case of can’t-put-it-downitis. The sinister, grisly nature of the case, along with the team putting their heads together to piece the puzzle, kept me turning the pages. What’s the killer going to do next? What’s the team going to do next? Most importantly, why is the killer doing what he’s doing? Carr raises and answers these questions throughout, keeping me itching to find out until the very end.

Dr. Kriezler’s “theory of context” provides the framework and approach to the investigation. In figuring out the killer’s behavior and motives, Dr. Kriezler places emphasis on what happened during childhood, those formative years that leave a lifelong influence on any given individual. It’s this approach that he encourages everyone else in the team to adapt. And, in a way, Carr is encouraging the readers to think like this as well. For much of the narrative, the killer looms at large as a sinister force beyond description and prediction. But bit by bit, the pieces come together to form an actual human being with feelings and wounds of his own.

In addition to this amazing buildup of the antagonist, The Alienist is just as effective in presenting fleshed-out, likeable protagonists in the investigation team. As someone who enjoys reading and writing team dynamics, I really enjoyed this aspect of the book. Everyone in the team has his or own unique set of skills, expertise, and perspective. Dr. Kriezler has his psychological theories that are considered unusual and even reprehensible among his peers. As a reporter, John Moore can seamlessly move between high society and the seedy underbelly of New York. Sara Howard, being the only woman on the team, often provides valuable insight that would’ve otherwise escaped the notice of her male colleagues. The Isaacson brothers, ostracized from a predominantly Irish Catholic police force, are bold in pursuing the frontiers of forensic science, employing methods that, at the time, don’t hold credible weight and acceptance. No one feels like a useless accessory or a one-dimensional caricature. The occasional scenes of banter and comedy among the team members balance out the otherwise sinister, grisly nature of the case they’re undertaking. Also, there’s something poignant and beautiful about all these characters, marginalized or pushed to the fringes in some way, coming together to pursue this mystery and find justice for young victims the rest of society cared less about. If I had to choose a favorite character, it would be Sara Howard. She’s unapologetically bold, independent, and sharp, with a talent for the detecting business and an indomitable sense of justice, yet also kind and sensitive. What’s not to love about a detective in the making toting a gun in the folds of her dress? I file Sara under “strong female characters I want to read and write about.”

Admittedly I’m no American history aficionado, so I can’t comment on accuracy of the real-life characters and locations. In my opinion, however, Carr does a good job immersing the reader in the sights, sounds, and smells of New York. It felt like a trip back in time, and given the danger the investigation team often finds itself in, I found myself both relieved to see the case close and wanting more of the team’s adventures. As someone who doesn’t often read mysteries (as I consider myself not intelligent enough to grasp them), I still really enjoyed this book. I highly recommend.

5/5

Redwall, Orthodox Christianity, and The Lord of the Rings: an appreciation + analysis post on the books that changed my life

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There’s always a special place in my heart for those stories, written by a sailor in Liverpool, of warrior mice and berserker badger lords. Reading the Redwall series as a middle school kid transported me to a world where the heroes and villains were talking animals, and the heroes regularly embarked on grand adventures and triumphed over evil. This was the first time that I was blown away by the power of words, the power to completely suck you in and make you care for characters and a world entirely thought up in someone else’s head. In a time when I, the weirdo and the nerd, had trouble fitting in with my peers, reading Redwall was my solace and escape. Later, I thought, “I want to write stories like this.” I credit the start of my journey into writing my own fiction entirely to Redwall, and many times I wish I had the chance to tell Brian Jacques how much his books meant to me as a reader and a writer.

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Spoiler-free book review of The Sympathizer

Title: The Sympathizer
Author: Viet Thanh Nguyen
Genre: Literary, political, drama, satire

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Thoughts from a second generation Vietnamese-American:

Viet Thanh Nguyen being the first Vietnamese person to win the Pulitzer Prize caused quite a stir in my local community. I could not pass up giving this book a read. O’Brien comes to mind when most people think of Vietnam War literature, and harrowing stories of American veterans abound, yet I find it so refreshing to finally have a Vietnamese voice present to the English-speaking audience. Refugees do tell their stories, but usually not in English to be heard by the rest of the world. In this regard I think The Sympathizer’s most strongest element is Nguyen’s use of language. The novel is sprinkled with bright glimmers of insight on Asian-American politics and sociology. Through his duplicitous, well-educated, unnamed biracial narrator, Nguyen spares no side with his biting satire. American society, the southern Vietnamese resistance, and even his own side the northern Communists are all probed and critiqued by this spy, whose unique position as an outsider lends him the freedom to do so. His criticism is sharpest when he gets involved in the American film industry as a cultural consultant, earnestly attempting but failing to deliver proper Vietnamese representation in media as his opinions and efforts are undermined and largely ignored by the American filmmaker. This issue is very prevalent today, which is likely why it resonates the most with me as both a consumer and a Vietnamese person. The novel is framed as a confession the spy is writing to his communist superiors, and this writing style took some getting used to. The lack of quotation marks made it hard to distinguish between dialogue and internal monologue, which the narrator often digresses into in compelling but long paragraphs. The pacing might have suffered somewhat from this and made the novel seem longer than it should be, but it’s not enough of a detriment to make me stop reading. The writing style Nguyen chose is appropriate, given the context and narrator’s situation, even if I as the reader had to plod through some of it. The narrator is not without his flaws; throughout the novel there are instances of the male gaze that I as a woman find unlikable, but I think that contributes to the complexity of the character. Like with real people, there would be things you like and don’t like about a person. What I did like about the narrator is, like I’ve said before, his insight into Vietnamese and American culture, his position as someone with mixed heritage, and an enduring love for his mother, blood brothers, and country: emotional anchors he latches onto as he is constantly deceiving people who trust him and shifting political allegiances. Born into a family of immigrants and raised by Vietnam War refugees, I did not expect to be enthralled with the perspective of a communist spy, yet Nguyen surprised me. From the start Nguyen challenged himself by writing from a point of view most would not expect to adopt. The author, a refugee himself, chose to write from the eyes of “the enemy,” which I’d imagine is not an easy thing to do. I didn’t expect to find a communist spy relatable and even likable at times. I find myself sympathizing with the sympathizer.

5/5

Spoiler-free book review of Jade City

Title: Jade City
Author: Fonda Lee
Genre: Asian urban fantasy

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In this Asian-flavored urban fantasy, in the island of Kekon, jade is much more than a stone you might see on someone’s Buddhist pendant. In Jade City, it can be a weapon and a reckoning force requiring proper training. It’s brimming with life and energy, highly valued and desired, empowering and sometimes corrupting those who are privileged (or strong enough) to wield it. Fonda Lee spins out a gripping start to what promises to be an epic saga. Tension sparks and stretches taut throughout the narrative, not just between rival jade-wielding clans grappling for supremacy over the city Janloon, but among a family struggling to stay strong and work together before and after a dreaded open war.

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Spoiler-free book review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Title: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Author: Anthony Marra
Genre(s): Literary, fiction, Chechnya, war, family, friendship, tragedy

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I came into this cold. One, I’m Vietnamese, and two, I’m living on the other side of the world. So I was uncomfortably unfamiliar with the history, culture, and current events of Chechnya. It’s a region in Russia rife with conflict, often forgotten and overlooked, and I was afraid I’d come into this story quite lost. Marra, however, knew how to bring me up to speed through the thoughts and actions of his characters.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena takes place between the 90s and early 2000s, presenting a staggering amount of characters and timelines, but chiefly concerns, among others, a Chechen girl named Havaa whose father was kidnapped by the Feds. Her father’s friend Akhmed, in charge of her care and protection, approaches a Russian surgeon named Sonja for sanctuary. Fate brings these three people together as Havaa is somehow connected to Natasha, Sonja’s missing sister, and Akhmed might get to the bottom of why Havaa’s father disappeared.

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Spoiler-free book review: The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor

Title: The Complete Stories
Author: Flannery O’Connor
Genre(s): Historical, southern, religious (Christian/Catholic), short fiction

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This is my first exposure to works by Flannery O’Connor. Even without knowing beforehand she’s a devout Catholic, a look at one or two of her stories is enough to tell you what she wants to say. She gets the religious message across in honest and painful ways, often in unlikable yet relatable characters.

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