Americanah, by Chimamamda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah is a tale of two countries, Nigeria and the USA. The protagonist, Ifemelu invites the reader to sit with her at a braiding salon in Newark, New Jersey as she prepares to return to Nigeria after ten years in the USA. She chats candidly with the stylists and other customers—mostly Africans and West Indians. They poke fun at the American accent, argue that public education in Africa is better than in the USA, and bemoan the institution of racism.

At home, Ifemelu is an Igbo, a Nigerian, and an African. It’s only when she visits America that she becomes “Black.” Four hundred years of race-related baggage instantly burdens her. She reveals the subtle racial slights and prejudicial mindsets that she never experienced at home. They shape her interactions with whites and African-Americans. In the US, she could be herself only with a foreign student—national origins didn’t matter as long as they hail from somewhere else—Africa, Asia, Europe, or South America.

Ifemelu speaks her mind, earning rebukes and slaps. Her safest soapbox is her anonymous blog on “race, from the Non-American Black” point of view. As a homage to blogging, the novel appears as a series of blog posts. Between her opinion pieces and narrations, she reveals the secrets of her successful and eventually profitable blog.

With seemingly unconnected essays and short stories, the novel follows a loose plot line. Like a hidden electrical wire connecting a string of lights, the blog bulbs glow, but they derive their power from the story cord hiding in the background.

It’s a love story, but it is not necessarily a romance. Passion and tragedy abound. Denied an American visa, Obinze, Ifemelu’s college crush travels instead, to England where he ekes out an existence with the aid of a “rented identity.” He hopes that a sham marriage will allow him to stay. Meanwhile, Ifemelu’s partial scholarship barely covers her tuition. She desperately struggles to pay rent and feed herself in an America where she cannot legally earn money. Isolated and stressed, both Obinze and Ifemelu explore desperate alleyways to survival. Ifemelu’s shame and desolation lead to depression. The reader wonders if Obinze and Ifemelu have jaded too much to find happiness with each other.

The novel compares Nigeria and America, but focuses on Africa’s most populous and wealthy nation. Nigeria’s wealth, controlled by the few, temps the poor and middle class to cash in. Money becomes a religion to those who read books like Praying Your Way to Prosperity. Both the church-going and secular aspirants to wealth use flattery and other enticements to ingratiate themselves with the wealthy and powerful.

Americanah introduces Nigerians and American to each other as Nigeria’s star rises. Readers in both nations benefit from Adichie’s articulate if blunt description of how the values and mindsets in each country affect the understanding and appreciation required for fellowship and cooperation.

Murder as a Fine Art, by David Morrell

David Morrell blends horror, history and mystery, in his tale of narco-political terrorism, with a twist. The author opens with a narration by “The Artist,” the antagonist, who in 1854 savagely murders members of a London household near Ratcliffe Highway. This reenactment of of the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway killings presses the communal panic button. Armed and terrified vigilantes rove the night, groping through the London fog, soot and sewage stench—spurred on by news of the Ratcliffe Highway killings. They attack and slay anyone unfortunate enough to look suspicious, especially foreigners.

There’s a method to “the Artist’s” madness. What better way to destroy the British Empire than to turn the population against itself? “The Artist” resents the Empire’s immense revenue from the cultivation and distribution of opium. Domestically, almost every English house, pub and doctor’s office stocks laudanum—opium, dissolved in alcohol. Used as a pain medicine, a few too many drops can be lethal.The novel explores the dark reach of British East India Company, and its role in the Opium War that forces China to trade tea for opium, despite the Emperor’s protests.

“The Artist” cultivates a personal grudge against Thomas De Quincey, the author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater. “The Artist” uses as a guide to blood-letting De Quincey’s essay, On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts, the meticulous description of the particularly savage 1811 Ratcliffe Highway killings. After the Ratcliffe Highway massacre reenactment of 1854, De Quincey becomes a suspect and a detective. In the company of his daughter Emily, he assists and resists the authorities as they stumble to unravel this knotted skein of terror.

An anthology of English literature may include a brief segment of The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, representing Thomas De Quincey’s contribution to western civilization. For some, like David Morrell, who profess an unbounded ardor for De Quincey’s writings, these few pages breed a lively fascination. In Murder as a Fine Art, Morrell shares De Quincey’s interest in the Ratcliffe Highway killings of 1811. Morrell describes De Quincey’s analysis of contemporary newspaper reports as the foundation for his essay, On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts. The details are so specific, the essay seems to be a first-hand account by the murderer. Morrell and “the Artist” both study De Quincey’s complete works in preparation for Morrell’s literary and “the Artist’s” homicidal exploits.

David Morell recreates London of the nineteenth century with art, science and fashion. De Quincey recalls in the pages of Morrell’s novel, his deceased friends, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, well-known opium-eaters. De Quincey believes that the massive doses of laudanum he imbibes promote creativity by linking his conscious and his subconscious. He discovers the subconscious 70 years before Freud writes of it.

Emily De Quincey, Thomas’ outspoken and “liberated” daughter, proves to be an artful dodger. She protects her father and in her spare moments explains the benefits of the Bloomer dress over the then fashionable hooped dresses and skirts. Her substantial narrations and ploy stand as some of the most interesting chapters of the book. With multiple narrators, the role of protagonist shifts throughout the novel. Along the way, Morrell works both sides of the debate between art imitates life vs. life imitates art.

The Kindle version of Murder as a Fine Art includes discussion with the author, historical background and more details on the life and works of Thomas De Quincey. The author discourages drug use as the key to unlocking creativity.

The Accidental Alchemist, by Gigi Pandian

Gigi Pandian’s murder-mystery offers comfort on rainy days with teahouses, a warm kitchen and a fun read. She sets her scene in Portland, Oregon, a.k.a. Portlandia, the epicenter of the alternative fringe—a perfect place to hide in plain sight.

So thought Zoe Faust, a 300 year old who doesn’t look a day over twenty-eight and a stylishly white haired, plant alchemist. Alchemy, the forerunner of chemistry, practiced by notables such as Isaac Newton, should not be confused with magic or wizardry. Although Zoe has discovered the elixir of life—maybe it’s her vegan smoothies—she has grown “rusty” in her ability to transform base metals into gold.

Her principal houseguest, Dorian, a gargoyle, bears a striking resemblance to the stone creatures that decorate the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. Homesick for France, he enjoys his morning espresso and his copy of Le Monde. He desperately needs Zoe’s transformative talents and pays his rent as her gourmet vegan chef.

A surly teen, Brixton finds temporary shelter in Zoe’s “haunted house,” the scene of a recent murder. He’s frustrated in his efforts to expose Dorian to his incredulous friends.

Portland is a place where people can leave their former lives and secrets behind. Zoe and Dorian certainly have something to hide, as do most of the other characters. One or more of them kills to protect his, her or their secrets. Together, Zoe, Dorian and Brixton attempt to unravel a series of interlocking calamities, literally dropped on Zoe’s doorstep.  Zoe senses evil alchemy at work and realizes that she can’t trust all of her neighbors.

Gigi Pandian offers light diversion as she explores “underground” Portland, including the “Shanghai Tunnels” once used by kidnappers who enslaved unwilling mariners. The author engages the reader’s senses with a spectrum of fragrances, tones and shades. She backs up her descriptions with a treasury of recipes that let her readers taste Zoe’s adventure.

The Accidental Alchemist introduces a series of mystery novels and offers light reading for those who wish to transform their world into a figurative “Portland.”