Righteous – Joe Ide
I was a big fan of Ide’s debut novel, IQ, which I read earlier this year. I was very pleased to read an interview with Ide in which he confirmed he would continue writing about the lead character, Isaiah Quintabe, aka IQ, the Sherlock Holmes of south central Los Angeles. I did not know he had already published his second book in the series until I saw this on the shelf at the library.[1] I snatched this right up as soon as I saw it.

As with most series, Righteous refines familiar territory. IQ and his reformed criminal sidekick Dodson investigate the disappearance of, hang on, the younger sister of the ex-girlfriend of IQ’s murdered older brother.[2] The missing sister is in deep gambling debt; running with an idiot, good-for-nothing boyfriend; and has crossed not only the most vicious loan shark in Vegas but also the Chinese Triad crime syndicate. IQ and Dodson face a supreme test of their wits trying to solve the case while dealing with pressures from two sides.

This storyline is layered with IQ’s continuing search for the killers of his brother. Ide brings these two storylines together at the end for a somewhat messy if satisfying end.

For most of the book, I was not enjoying it as much as I enjoyed IQ. However, there was a moment about three-quarters of the way through, where I saw what Ide was trying to do. Rather than move the broader story forward, instead this book was very much about still establishing a base for how to build on IQ and Dodson in the future. Both have to make sacrifices to choose to work together and create a permanent professional relationship. It was that “Alright, ok, I get it now…” moment that salvaged the book for me.

In each of his first two IQ books, Ide has flipped back-and-forth between two storylines that compliment each other but are also distinct. I’m eager for him to drop that technique in his next book and focus on one, tight, central story.

Star of the North – D.B. John
Setting a novel in North Korea presents an author with many freedoms and restrictions. On one hand, it’s the most isolated country in the world, and our rather limited impression is of a very strange nation. For an author, that means you have a tremendous opportunity to create settings and characters, as we have no idea what the country is really like. However, I think it also makes writing difficult, because it can be easy to drift so far from reality that the story seems more like science fiction or fantasy than whatever genre you were planning on writing within.

D.B. John has an advantage over most of his readers: as a Brit – he was born in Wales – he has visited North Korea. Although his access was incredibly managed while in the country, he has actually seen the streets of Pyongyang. Also, he helped Hyeonseo Lee write her accounting of her escape from North Korea, The Girl With Seven Names.

Here he writes a story of espionage and international intrigue. And does so successfully. His story is centered on three characters.

Jenna Williams is a brilliant professor at Georgetown, daughter of an African-American former serviceman and a Korean mother, who is haunted by the presumed death of her twin sister, who disappeared from a beach in South Korea while studying there. Dr. Williams is recruited by the CIA and eventually brought into negotiations with a North Korean delegation where she meets our second major character, Cho, a high ranking member of the North Korean delegation.

Cho has risen to the highest levels of the North Korean ruling body, but has deep misgivings that something bad is about to happen to him. He becomes a hero to the nation after his forceful speeches during meetings with the Americans. But upon his return home, his life quickly falls apart as suspicions are cast upon his family’s background.

Finally there is Mrs. Moon, an elderly woman living in a North Korean penal community who struggles to make a living selling food and other commodities on the black market. She becomes a voice of resistance and protector of those the state wants to crush.

Eventually the three characters are brought together. Williams, who always believed that her sister was still alive, learns of a North Korean program that kidnapped South Koreans and Japanese from beaches using submarines. When she and Cho meet in New York, she confronts him with questions about her sister. Upon his eventual fall from grace, he smuggles information to her about the abduction program, a program to sneak spies into the US, and the truth behind the North Korean missile program.

Cho and Moon connect in North Korea’s most notorious prison camp, where they learn that Moon is Cho’s biological mother. After months of extreme torture, during which Cho refuses to confess his “crimes,” it is Moon who nurses him back to health and gives him the will to live.

The book comes to a very interesting and satisfying finish – including an alternate explanation as to how and why Kim Jong-Il died in 2011 – while also leaving some of the big questions it offers unanswered. This is a first-rate novel of espionage and modern politics. It is both a ruthless accounting of the evils of the North Korean state and a story filled with heart and the belief that the human will is impossible to crush if people can cling to hope.

  1. And his third book is due out in a week.  ↩
  2. That’s a mouthful.  ↩