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Series Review: Sookie Stackhouse / Southern Vampire Mysteries Series by Charlaine Harris

March 7, 2014 6 comments

Introduction:
I post series reviews after completing reading an entire series of books.  It gives me a chance to reflect on and analyze the series as a whole.  These series reviews are designed to also be useful for people who: A) have read the series too and would like to read other thoughts on it or discuss it with others OR B) have not read the series yet but would like a full idea of what the series is like, including possible spoilers, prior to reading it themselves or buying it for another.  Please be aware that series reviews necessarily contain some spoilers.

Man in cloak floating in the airSummary:
Sookie Stackhouse is a waitress in the rural town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, and she has a secret.  She’s a telepath, and it’s ostracized her from most of the people in her town.  But when vampires come out of the coffin, Sookie discovers that she can’t read their minds.  Mind reading made her dating life non-existent, for obvious reasons, but with vampires, Sookie can feel somewhat normal.  She soon starts to get pulled into their supernatural world, which contains more than they’re letting on to the mainstream public.

Review:
I first want to make it very clear that this series review is talking exclusively about the books and not the tv show inspired by them, True Blood.  There will be no spoilers for the show and no comparisons between the books and the show.  The show diverged very quickly from the books, so I think it’s fair to keep discussion of the two separate.  Moving right along!

coverclubdeadThis series takes the mystery series whodunit in the vein of Agatha Christie and drenches it in the supernatural and the American south, utilizing it to tell the overarching story of one woman choosing who she wants to be.  Perhaps because of the presence of some handsome leading men and the occasional sex scene, some mistake the series for a romance one.  But this series is truly not a romance.  Sookie’s romantic life (and sex life) is really secondary to the mysteries she solves and her slow discovery of who she is and who she wants to be.

The whodunit plots are generally murder mysteries.  The violence is moderate.  If you can handle a vampire biting someone or knowing someone is being beheaded without actually getting the gore described to you, you can handle the violence in this series.  The whodunit plots start out engaging but gradually become more repetitive and ho-hum, almost as if the author was running out of ideas for situations to place Sookie in.  Similarly, Sookie gets kidnapped and has to get saved by her supernatural friends kind of a lot.

coverdeadasadoornailThe setting of a supernatural American south is well imagined and evoked.  Both small town, rural lives and larger southern cities like Dallas and New Orleans are touched upon.  The American north is visited once, however, Sookie has a strong aversion to northern women that sours the representation of the north in the book.

The characters can sometimes feel like overwrought caricatures.  While some characters are given depth, most are not.  This is odd, since Sookie can read minds.  one would assume that she, as the first person narrator, would have a very three-dimensional view of those around her.  And yet she doesn’t.  Sookie likes to say that she’s for equality and seeing the good in everyone but she actually judges people very harshly.  For instance, she thinks it’s a shame that women who are not virgins wear white wedding dresses.

Sookie’s character does develop, albeit minimally, over the course of the books.  Characters should grow and change, coveralltogetherdeadparticularly over the course of 13 books, but unfortunately Sookie’s character changes to become less and less likable.  This is extra frustrating when the book is told from her perspective.  Instead of becoming more powerful and strong (emotionally, mentally) over the course of the series, Sookie becomes less and less able to handle the things going on around her.  She also continues to act shocked and appalled at the wars and violence she doesn’t just see, but participates in, in spite of it now being a normal part of her life.  Perhaps if she was just repeatedly a victim this mentality would make sense, but Sookie enacts violence on those around her and then acts disgusted at what the vampires/werewolves/etc… do, which comes off as hypocritical.  Either own your own actions and validate their necessity or stop doing them.  Don’t do certain violent actions then deny your involvement while simultaneously judging others for doing precisely what you just did.  The fact that Sookie slowly becomes this hypocritical person makes her less and less likable.  Similarly, she starts out the books with a firm belief in social justice and equality for supes but over the course of the series clearly comes to believe that humans are better than supes.  I don’t blame her for wanting a quiet life or for wanting to stay human or wanting to have babies but she could have Blonde woman in blue standing between two pale men in black capes.done all of those things without coming to view supes as inferior.  It is frustrating for the reader to have a main character in an almost cozy style mystery series gradually change into someone it is difficult to empathize with.

There is a consistent presence of GLBTQ characters, albeit mostly in secondary roles, throughout the series.  Homophobia is depicted in an extremely negative light since only the bad guys ever exhibit it.  Unfortunately, there is an instance of bi erasure in the book.  One of the characters is identified as gay but everyone also acknowledges that he periodically sleeps with women.  Even the character himself calls himself gay, so this isn’t just a case of the author writing a realistic amount of the realities of bi erasure into the book.

The sex in the book is not well-written.  It is just awkward, cringe-inducing, and laughable most of the time.  But the sex scenes aren’t very often, and they do fit in with the rest of the book.  Just don’t go to this series looking to get really turned Cartoon drawing of a blonde woman in a green dress upside down with burning paper near her.on.

This sounds like a lot of criticism for the series but some of these things, such as the campy, two-dimensional characters, are part of what makes the series enjoyable.  It’s kitschy, not to be taken too seriously.  It’s a series to come to and read precisely to laugh and roll your eyes.  To be utterly bemused at the sheer number of supernatural creatures and the ridiculousness of how they organize themselves.  To sigh in frustration at Sookie as she gets kidnapped yet again or is oblivious yet again to who the murderer is.  It’s a series that’s candy for those who enjoy camp and not too much violence with a touch of the supernatural in their mysteries.

3.5 out of 5 stars

A blonde woman stands among flowers and tomatoes with the sun either setting or rising behind her.Source: Amazon, PaperBackSwap, and Audible

Books in Series:
Dead Until Dark, review
Living Dead in Dallas, review
Club Dead, review
Dead To The World, review
Dead as a Doornail, review
Definitely Dead, review
All Together Dead, review
From Dead to Worse, review
Dead And Gone, review
Dead in the Family, review
Dead Reckoning, review
Deadlocked, review
Dead Ever After, review

Book Review: Two To Mango by Jill Marie Landis (Series, #2)

March 26, 2013 Leave a comment

Spilled tropical drink in front of a mango and a tiki head on a blue background.Summary:
Em Johnson, manager of the Tiki Goddess Bar on Kauai, never intended to get involved in one murder investigation, let alone two.  But when the hunky fire dancing detective Roland Sharpe asks for her help looking into some suspicious deaths in a high-profile, competitive halau (hula group), she just can’t say no.  Before she knows it, she’s entering the geriatric Hula Maidens halau into the biggest hula competition on the island to help her get in where she can snoop.

Review:
I’ve dipped my toe in a few cozy series, but this is the first one that’s managed to call me back for a second helping.  They’re all entertaining in their own way, but this series is also unique and engaging enough to keep me coming back for more, and thankfully those unique elements stayed strong in the second entry.

Em is a good cozy mystery heroine.  She’s smart and willing to help but isn’t running amok destroying the police department’s days.  She only helps when asked and even then, she’s a bit reluctant to disrupt her life.  On the other hand, when she does help, she’s good at it.  She lends insight that it makes sense only she would have, such as being able to infiltrate the halau competition.  This lets both her and the inevitably hunky police detective she’s helping seem smart and efficient.  She also has that every woman quality that lets the reader insert herself into the story.

The setting is perfect escapism.  A Hawaiian seaside tiki bar that feels like Hawaii’s answer to Cheers.  If Cheers had a set of geriatric hula dancers who started “rehearsing” aka drinking before noon.  Not to mention an aging hippie who thinks he’s engaged to a dolphin.  The setting represents both the beauty of Hawaii and the diversity of Hawaiians and Hawaiian culture.  I certainly learned a few words of Hawaiian along the way in addition to thinking fondly of how nice it would be to live in a place with such tropical beauty.

The plot was multifaceted and engaging.  Every character really has their own life and they manage to intertwine just the right amount.  The murders (and attempted murders) happened at the right frequency and managed to be a surprise at least part of the time.  The murder weapons are creative and well-thought-out.  The plot is not predictable but it’s also not entirely off the wall.  I felt surprised but also to a certain level knew that I could have figured it out if I’d thought a bit more.  That’s the perfect amount of mystery in my book.

This would have been five stars, but there is one part of the book that I thought was in very poor taste at best.  This is not a plot spoiler, as it is not necessary to the mystery at all.  At one point, Little Estelle (the eldest of the Hula Maidens), climbs into a man’s car and basically throws herself at him.  If the genders were reversed, this would definitely be read as a creepy old man assaulting a pleasant young woman.  But since it’s an old woman it’s written for laughs.  I get it that Little Estelle is presented as a horny, senile old woman, but there’s a way to write that that doesn’t verge into sexual assault territory.  I just don’t find that sort of thing funny, and even though I get it that the intention was oh that silly old woman, it didn’t sit well to me.  If this was my first Landis book, I probably would have stopped reading.  I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t, because the rest of the book is 1,000 times more humorous and creative than those few pages.  But I am disappointed that Landis chose to write Little Estelle that way.  Others might find it more humorous than I did.  I just don’t see such things as a laughing matter.

Most cozy books come with an arts and crafts do at home type project.  This series includes drink recipes.  I’m pleased to say that this book has even more drink recipes at the end than the first one, although I have yet to try mixing any myself.  They are creative and fun-looking, though, and let the reader feel a bit like the Tiki Goddess could really exist.

Overall, this is an engaging, humorous cozy mystery.  Readers of the first book will enjoy their return to the world of the Tiki Goddess.  I am anticipating the next entry in the series, although I do hope that Landis will improve the characterization of Little Estelle.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Previous Books in Series:
Mai Tai One On, review

Book Review: The Long Quiche Goodbye by Avery Aames (Series, #1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

February 16, 2013 Leave a comment

Artistic drawing of a cheese shop.Summary:
Charlotte Bessette is ecstatic that her slightly eccentric French grandfather and grandmother have handed over the running of their small town cheese shop to her and her cousin, Matt.  She and Matt have redecorated the place for the 21st century and have added a wine annex.  Everyone is excited for the grand re-opening but when their landlord turns up dead on their doorstep stabbed with one of their cheese knives and Charlotte’s grandmother standing over him, both the shop and the family are at risk.

Review:
Cozies are, by their very nature, absolutely ridiculous and difficult to explain. I generally default to an explanation like, “It’s murder! With arts and crafts and cooking! But not too much blood and no sex! And the titles are puns!” At this point the person I’m talking to generally looks at me like I’m nuts and wanders off.  But even though the cozy genre is ridiculous and tough to explain, there are things that work for it and things that don’t.  This book is definitely a cozy but it combines the cozy elements oddly, making it fall short of awesome into the decidedly meh category.

Most cozies have a moderately ridiculous plot involving a dead body being found and a woman ultimately amateur investigating the crime.  The crime in this one was odd.  A landlord who nobody likes is stabbed directly in front of the cheese shop on grand reopening night. Oh, and he’s stabbed with a cheese knife.  Sometimes I think authors just don’t research and realize how hard it actually is to stab someone in the chest.  A cheese knife wouldn’t cut it. (See what I did there?)  So that had me rolling my eyes from the start.  The ultimate whodunit was also a bit bizarre and had me scratching my head.  It made some sense but it also sort of felt a bit like the author just chose whoever would be the most surprising as the killer, instead of really thinking through the logic and motivation.  It’s also a bit problematic to have the murder victim be some sleaze everybody in town hates.  This felt like a choice to give the mystery more easy suspects rather than, again, based on thinking through logic, motivation, and real crimes.

Then there’s the issue of the main character, Charlotte, who ultimately investigates.  She doesn’t really have the get up and go gumption necessary for someone to start investigating something on her own.  She’s….kind of snooty and prissy.  A good cozy main character should be into her arts and crafts but also possess a lot of independent spirit and gumption.  Charlotte is surrounded by people like that–her grandmother, her shop employee–but she herself isn’t like that at all.  Yes, her grandmother is accused of a crime she didn’t commit and that’s a big impetus to do something, but it just feels out of character for Charlotte to do investigation.  Similarly, Charlotte’s romantic interest felt forced and fake, which was awkward.  In a genre where we get no sex scenes, the romance should be very well done, which it was there, but it wasn’t truly engaging.

The quirky characters in the town, besides Charlotte and her love interest, were interesting and just the right blend of quirks and reality to suit a cozy.  Similarly, I was glad to see some cheese-heavy recipes in the back.  I also thought the pun title was great and played in well to the mystery without giving too much away.

Personally, I think there are better, more engaging and funny cozy series out there to invest my time in.  However, if you are a huge cozy fan and don’t mind the oddly snooty, timid main character and a slightly silly mystery plot, then you should give it a go.  The cheese angle is certainly unique.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: The Caline Conspiracy by M. H. Mead

February 11, 2013 Leave a comment

Woman and fluffy dog against black and green backgroundSummary:
In near future Michigan, a geneticist is murdered by his pet caline–a new pet created by gene splicing to have all the best characteristics of dogs and cats combined and guaranteed to be docile.  His widow doesn’t believe that their beloved pet could possibly have done the killing so she hires private investigator Aidra Scott to prove her innocence.  But as Aidra digs deeper into the mystery she finds far more intrigue than the possibility of a framed pet.  This intrigue could rock a nation already debating geneticism.

Review:
I was intrigued primarily by the idea of calines.  As an animal lover I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the idea of a caline.  While the calines are pulled off well, they are not the focus of the book.  This is definitely a near future scifi mystery, and it’s well-done.

The plot is a typical murder mystery with a twist.  The pet is possibly framed, and the pet was created in a lab by geneticists.  While I had my suspicions about whodunit early on, I must admit I wasn’t entirely right, plus there was an added twist at the end that I didn’t see coming.  The plot will definitely keep you reading, even if you’ve read a lot of mysteries.

That said, there was at least one dead-end in the plot that I found frustrating.  Aidra goes to visit the fringe group that protests genetic manipulation and gets tossed out on her ass, but we never really find out why the group was so hostile or much else about that angle into the whole thing really.  Between that and the twist at the end, I was left wondering if a follow-up novel is intended, although all signs indicate the authors don’t intend to write one.  If they don’t, I must say I found that the plot left me hanging a bit.

The main character is a single mother of a young teenage boy.  This is different from what we see in a lot of mystery, and I enjoyed the new perspective.  The cast was also quite diverse, which is appropriate for the setting.  The characters were fairly well-rounded for a mystery novel.  One thing that did bug me is that some Britishisms slipped into the American text.  Long-time readers know that this is an issue that really bugs this particular reviewer.  The authors (M. H. Mead is a pen-name for a pair of writers) try to explain this away by mentioning that Aidra is originally from the UK.  While that explains some of her own Britishisms, it doesn’t explain why they sneak into the narration.

Overall, this is a fun scifi mystery.  It consists of an interesting germ of an idea with a few plot twists to keep the reader guessing.  It could use a few more tweaks, but fans of the mystery genre will enjoy it.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy provided by authors in exchange for my honest review.

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Book Review: Deadly Row to Hoe by Cricket McRae (Series, #6)

November 29, 2012 Leave a comment

Summary:
Sophie Mae and her best friend decided to join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) as soon as the opportunity popped up in their small town.  One day when they’re volunteering at the farm, a dead body is found in the compost heap.  Sophie Mae is determined not to get involved this time, after all, she’s got enough on her plate with her soap making business and trying to make a baby with her husband, Detective Barr.  But Barr’s boss asks her to help identify the body by talking to the folks in the community , and she just can’t say no.

Review:
Cozy mysteries consist of a mystery (that’s not too explicit or bloody) paired with an unlikely investigator, some sort of crafting, a good dose of humor, and a punny title.  In other words, they were basically made for me.  (Some even come with recipes!)  So when this one popped up on NetGalley, I snatched it up, and I’m so glad I did!  McRae successfully pulls together everything that makes a cozy great.

The plot is excellent.  The murder mystery isn’t too gory, but is also realistic.  The body is found in a compost heap, yes, but it’s just a dead body.  There aren’t slashed off heads hanging out in tea kettles or something.  Everyone is appropriately disturbed by the finding.  There’s no ho-hum just another day element at play.  Although I admit I had figured out whodunit before the end, the why and when were still a mystery.  Plus I never felt that Sophie Mae was being stupid and just missing something.  Why it was taking her a bit to see whodunit made total sense.  I also really appreciate that GLBTQ people are included in the plot without a big deal being made out of it.  They are just another character, which is just how I like my diversity in genre literature.

The characters are fairly three-dimensional for a cozy.  Everyone had something I liked and didn’t like about their personality, even the heroine, which is key to characters seeming realistic.  There were also a wide variety of people present from Sophie Mae’s best friend’s daughter to an elderly friend of the family.  This range is something that is often missing in literature, and I liked seeing it here.

What I really come to cozies for, though, I admit, is the integration of crafting.  In this case the theme is participating in a CSA, so parts of the book are devoted to how a CSA works from acquiring your weekly allotment to figuring out how to use it to cooking with it.  I really appreciated the quips about having so much of a certain produce that they’re coming out your ears.  I also really enjoyed the scenes that discussed taking real time out to cook dinner and what that feels like, such as talking about how garlic smells when you first throw it into a hot pan.  I know not all readers enjoy this, but honestly that’s part of the point of a cozy.  Taking the time to linger on crafts and talents that take time to cultivate but are well worth it, and McRae incorporated this element very smoothly into the book.  I do wish some recipes or CSA tips had been included, but it’s possible I just didn’t see them since I had an advanced copy.

Overall this book has a dash of everything enjoyable about a cozy mystery.  Recommended to cozy fans, particularly those in or considering a CSA.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Previous Books in Series:
Lye in Wait
Heaven Preserve Us
Spin a Wicked Web
Something Borrowed, Something Bleu
Wined and Died

Book Review: Lemon Reef by Robin Silverman

July 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Silhouette of a person diving.Summary:
Jenna is a high-powered, newly appointed commissioner in San Francisco where she lives with her wife and their dog.  Life is good, and Jenna tries not to think too much about her rough childhood and teen years growing up in Florida.  But a phone call comes in.  Her first love, Del, has died diving at lemon reef at the young age of 30.  The mutual friend invites Jenna to the funeral, but when she arrives in Florida, she discovers that there’s more to it than that.  Del’s mother, Pascale, wants her help in getting custody of Del’s daughter, Khila, instead of her father, Talon, who Pascale insists must have murdered Del.

Review:
This book was a bit of an emotional roller-coaster to read, which of course is a sign of a good book.

The plot structure is incredibly complex and engaging without ever being confusing.  There is the mystery of Del’s death, but also (for the reader) the mystery of why and how Del and Jenna’s romance ended tragically, as it is evident it did.  In addition there is the powerful emotions of a first love and first romance for a pair of teens who must grow up too fast thanks to the rough circumstances they find themselves in.  Silverman handles the past reminisces intermingled with the current mystery and discoveries quite eloquently.  I found myself admiring her talent in plot structuring throughout.

There are no easy answers in this book, and no one is easily demonized, including Talon.  Every single character has flaws and good qualities.  Del stands up for her siblings but won’t stand up for her love of Jenna.  Jenna loves people but can sometimes get too caught up in her own world and her own needs.  Pascale was an alcoholic when Del was in highschool but successfully quits in order to be able to spend time with her granddaughter.  Del’s sister Nicole breaks a lot of laws (including breaking and entering and prostitution), but she is fiercely loyal and stands up for those she loves.  The complexity of the characters and the situation is part of what makes it such an emotional read.  There’s no one to easily blame for the problems these women find themselves in.  I think this complexity points to Silverman’s experience both as a counselor and a lawyer.  She clearly understands human psychology and how problems are not always black and white but can be very gray.

The writing is lovely and fills in the framing of the plot and the characters.  There are lines that just totally grab you.

Because minds do blow and hearts do break. Those are not just sayings. And wolves and roaches are not the only creatures that chew off their legs to get out of traps—human beings do that, too. (location 3058)

I also really enjoyed that while Jenna’s coming out story (told in flash-backs and reminiscing) is rather typical, Del’s is much more complex.  She is bi but is uncomfortable with the fact that she likes women too.  She doesn’t want people to know, doesn’t say a thing about it to her sisters, denies it even.  But we find out later that there were other ways in which it was clear she did identify as bi and part of the community.  I won’t say how, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise.  But I found this complexity interesting.  It shows how for Jenna she had to push and come out because there was no other option. Del could sometimes pass but not always and clearly it was a struggle for her throughout her whole life.  This shows an understanding of what it is to be bi that I honestly was not expecting, as it is hard to find that in novels.

There were, unfortunately, a couple of things that didn’t quite live up to the rest of the book.  There were a few passages that weren’t as well-written or well-edited that detracted from the overall beauty of the book.  For instance, there is a scene in which a character points a flashlight at a floor but the narrator calls it the ground.  Things like that that are periodically clunky.  I’m sure this will improve with time, though, as this is Silverman’s first work of fiction.

I also was disappointed that we didn’t get to see very much at all in regards to how this whole drama of the first love’s mysterious death impacted Jenna’s relationship with her wife.  I was hoping this would be at least touched upon in the last chapter, but instead we just see Madison show up with Jenna for the funeral.  Since I had come to care for Jenna, I wanted to know how such a dramatic, emotional event would affect her new life and marriage with Madison.  It seems obvious to me that such an incident would at least lead to a few discussions and maybe difficult moments between a married couple.  I wanted to see that and not seeing it made Madison and Jenna’s marriage to her feel more like a prop than an actual element of Jenna’s life.

Overall, though, this is a unique work of GLBTQ lit.  Its themes of reconciling with your past, coming out, being queer, and first love are all beautifully told within a plot that keeps the reader invested and interested.  I highly recommend it to GLBTQ readers, but also to anyone with an interest in stories addressing the complexity of human relationships and the long-reaching impact of first loves.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: David Goodis Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s by David Goodis

May 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Black Library of America cover showing covers of 5 original books.Summary:
The Library of America collects together great pieces of American literature into themed books.  This can be anything from an author, to writing on aviation, to the Harlem Renaissance, to transcendentalism.  This collection is David Goodis’s best works, all of which happen to be noir.  Obviously the most well-known noir author is Raymond Chandler, but one of Goodis’s works was made into a Bogie and Bacall movie, so he’s not too far behind.  The books in order of year published included in this collection are:

Dark Passage–A man framed for his wife’s murder escapes San Quentin and investigates the case with the aid of a beautiful woman in San Francisco.

Nightfall–A WWII veteran on his way to Chicago for a job finds himself inextricably linked to a robbery and murder and goes on the lam.

The Moon in the Gutter–A dockworker becomes obsessed with figuring out who raped his sister, leading to her ultimate suicide.

The Burglar–A man in his 30s who fell into the world of thieving during the Great Depression tries to get out but his tutor’s daughter keeps sucking him back in.

Street of No Return–A hobo finds himself implicated in a cop murder in the middle of race riots between whites and Puerto Ricans.

Review:
I am a huge fan of noir.  I even took a noir class in undergrad, so when this showed up on Netgalley, I knew I wanted to read it, particularly since I recognizedDark Passage as a film I had watched last year.  Surprisingly, we didn’t read any Goodis in that class, so it was fun to try out someone who’s not Chandler.  I think Chandler found more of a niche than Goodis what with the fact his main character is the same in every novel.  Goodis explores a bit more.  His books all have a noir feel, but they don’t follow the exact same formula.  For instance, instead of a hardboiled private dick, you might get a hardboiled thief or artist or hobo.  Plus the books tend to be a bit more tragic than most noir I have read.

Goodis’s writing at the sentence level has the tongue-in-cheek wit that I so enjoy.

“Madge is a fine girl.”
“Maybe one of these days she’ll get run over by an automobile.”
“It’s something to pray for.” (location 801)

He also is fabulous at setting a scene so richly that it seems as if it is our world but simultaneously is Wonderland.

She had seated herself in a deep sofa that looked like it was fashioned from pistachio ice cream and would melt away any minute. (location 5039)

The mystery aspects of his storylines are unpredictable, don’t always wrap up neatly, and yet make sense once they are revealed to you.  Unfortunately, these strengths are offset by his weak romance writing.  Every single romantic interest in all of the books are a small-framed, lean woman with light brown hair.  The author has a type, we can definitely see that.  Beyond that, though, the love is always instant.  They see each other across the room and fall for each other.  And both people acknowledge this and say it’s something that can’t be helped and they are at its beck and call.  This would be less of a bother except that the main characters often make important decisions based on this new “love.”  For instance, one of the characters gives up his career for this woman he barely knows.  Who does that?! It’s therefore difficult to be sympathetic to the characters when you are thrown out of believability.  That’s unfortunate because the scene setting and mystery plots are so strong.

The best work of the bunch is The Moon in the Gutter where the impetus for a lot of the action is not the romantic interest, but the love between siblings.  Additionally, it looks at issues of class, being stuck where you are, having who you can love and build a life with dictated to you by that classism innate in society.  The grittiness is extreme.  We’re talking about a dockworker dealing with his sister’s rape and subsequent suicide.  Yet Goodis acknowledges the good there too for the blue collar dock workers and their families.  Their lives are passionate and intense in a way that sitting around sipping wine and discussing the symphony just isn’t.

Overall, Goodis exhibits a lot of the qualities of good noir writing.  His style is dark and gritty, often with a femme fatale.  His stories offer more variety than those of other noir writers, but still fall solidly within and as a great example of the genre.  I recommend this collection to those who know they are a fan of noir, and the book The Moon in the Gutter to those who aren’t and would like to dip their toe in.

4 out of 5 stars

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Source: Netgalley

Book Review: The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura

April 2, 2012 2 comments

Red silhouette of man running against black background.Summary:
The narrator makes his living as a pickpocket in Tokyo.  When the man who taught him the art, not to mention his only true friend, finds himself on the wrong side of the Yakuza, he sees the likely impending end to his own life.  But can he run or are his heart strings tied to the city?

Review:
Nakamura is a best-selling writer in Japan, and this is his first novel to be translated to English.  I’m a fan of the crime/noir novels coming out of Japan, and this one certainly didn’t let me down.

The narrator is everything you want from a criminal lead–sympathetic, dangerous, talented, handsome but not exceedingly so, trapped, creative.  It is so seamlessly easy to jump into his head and move through his life.

The story is far more complex than pick-pocketing.  We get a peek at the seedy underbelly of Tokyo, but also at the narrator’s poor, rural upbringing.  We encounter everyone from the downtrodden son of a prostitute to the (apparently) leader of the Yakuza.  It’s glamorous, dirty, and unpredictable.

The ending may turn some readers off.  It is an ambiguous one, which I know some people don’t like.  I love that kind of ending though, because it leaves me to ponder how I think things turned out. How I hope they turned out.  And I didn’t feel at all cheated by it either.  It’s well-supported, but stops just short of telling us everything.

Something did hold me back from completely loving the book though.  I think it would have been better if we had met the narrator a bit earlier in his career to follow his downward trajectory more completely.  It all felt a bit too sudden to me.  I wanted to know the narrator and his relationship to his teacher better.

Overall this is a great piece of translated crime fiction that gives the reader a peak at the crime underworld of Tokyo.  I recommend it to fans of both unique crime fiction and works in translation.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely (Series, #1) (The Real Help Reading Project)

January 28, 2012 4 comments

Black woman standing in front of house with hand on hip.Summary:
Blanche’s employers failed to pay her on time, and now she has some bad checks.  She had no idea that bouncing a few checks would land her with a 30 day jail sentence, though, so when she gets the chance, Blanche goes on the lam.  She decides to take a temporary job she had originally decided against as a way to hide out.  She’s going to be the help for a family on a week-long vacation in the countryside.  Naturally, things can never be simple, and Blanche starts to suspect one of the family members is a murderer.

Review:
It’s hard to believe Amy and I are on our penultimate book for the project, not to mention the final fiction book on the list.  And what a book!  If I had to pick one of the fiction books we read to hand to fans of The Help to get a much more real representation of black women in domestic service, this is definitely the book I would hand them.

Somehow this tiny mystery novel (called a Kriminalroman in German, which I think sounds much better) manages to cover pretty much every aspect of black female domestic workers’ lives that we’ve discussed throughout the project.  Blanche faces: police and criminal justice prejudice, stinginess on the part of wealthy employers, rape at the hands of a white male employer, classism, employers’ racist attempts to control her body, non-traditional family structure, and much much more.  Yet facing all of those odds, Blanche remains determined and strong.  She is not someone who needs OR wants a white woman (or man) to come along and rescue her.  I think Blanche’s personality is best summed-up here:

She always returned to domestic work. For all the chatelaine fantasies of some of the women for whom she worked, she was really her own boss, and her clients knew it. She was the expert. She ordered her employers’ lives, not the other way around. She told them when they had to be out of the way, when she would work, and when she wouldn’t. (page 86)

That’s one of the wonderful things about this book.  It turns the whole white woman saving the help thing from The Help on its head.  Blanche is the one who saves the white family in this book, and then she refuses to accept help from them in return, beyond clearing up her ridiculously unfair legal troubles.  Instead of taking a cushy job with them, she leaves, because she is her own woman.

Now, all of that said, I was personally a bit distracted from the race and class issues in this book due to the presence of the character Mumsfield.  Mumsfield is the cousin of the sinister family members, and he has Down’s Syndrome.  I don’t think all of my readers know this, but my niece has Down’s, so I certainly am a bit sensitive to the portrayal of it in literature.  Knowing and loving a person with Down’s removes a lot of the misperceptions of it that exist in the world.  At first, I was concerned that Neely had fallen for these things.  Mumsfield at first seems too trusting, too caring, a real simpleton.  But by the end of the book, Blanche realizes that she hadn’t really listened to what Mumsfield was actually saying earlier in the week.  If she had, she would have realized that while Mumsfield is kind and giving, he’s not stupid.  Knowing Mumsfield also helps Blanche see that her experiences as a black woman in America have made her racist against white people, when not all of them are bad.  Thus, I am pleased to report that Mumsfield is actually an accurate and positive portrayal of people with Down’s.

Now, I will say, personally I’m not generally into the typical mystery novel.  I like to get my genre reading from urban fantasy, pnr, and cozies.  I am well aware, though, that a lot of people love this kind of book, and it is definitely well-done.  It has all of the well-loved aspects of the genre, plus manages to address race, class, and even Down’s Syndrome.  It is absolutely a worthwhile read.

Source: Public Library

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Discussion Questions:

  • How do you feel about Blanche’s initial jail sentence and her decision to go on the lam?
  • Blanche sees Mumsfield as an exception to the rule when it comes to white people, aka it’s unusual for them to be kind.  Do you think this is an unfair assessment?
  • Blanche assesses her caring for Mumsfield as a symptom of “Darkies Disease” aka when the help start acting like the idealized Mammies.  What do you think of this assessment?

Book Review: Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Ayikwei Parkes (Ghanaian Lit Week)

November 18, 2011 8 comments

Image of forest with blue bird feather imposed over it.Summary:
When the girlfriend of the minister for roads and highways spots a disgusting red lump of flesh in a hut in the village Sonokrom, what normally would have been ignored and left to the villagers suddenly becomes a matter of national importance.  Inspector Donkor wants a promotion, and he believes that one of the only forensics specialists in Ghana–Kayo–can get it for him.

What Kayo finds in the village is a people still steeped in the culture of the countryside, in touch with Onyame and the ancestors, drinkers of palm wine mixed with aphrodisiacs.  Although he arrives with the mind of a scientist, soon his perceptions begin to change.

Review:
Kinna is one of the international bloggers I discovered through Amy, and she is awesome!  She lives and works in Ghana and is interested in spreading literacy and love of reading in her own country, as well as interest in African lit everywhere.  So when she announced that she was hosting a week in hour of Ghanaian lit, I knew I wanted to participate.  Using the wonderful resource of tags in LibraryThing, I hunted down a book that LibraryThing was “mostly sure” I would like and ordered it from my library.  Yet again, the book blogging world has brought me to a book I never would have read otherwise, but am glad I did.

This book reminds me a lot of The Summoner, only with the distinct bonus that it is a crime mystery set in Africa written by an African instead of a westerner who has visited.  This means our detective hero is distinctly Ghanaian.  Like all detectives, he drinks, but his drink of choice is palm wine enhanced by the village medicine man.  Just typing out that sentence gave me the shivers of delight I got when I was reading the scenes of drinking and eating in the hut, which is the village pub managed by a woman and her adult daughter.  It felt simultaneously familiar and new, which is one of the thrills of reading literature not written by one of your own countrymen.

Unlike western detective stories though, Parkes does not seem to feel a need to give a scientific explanation for every mysterious event that occurs.  In fact, it is actually easier to believe the magical explanation than to wonder about the scientific explanation.  For that reason I would definitely categorize this as “magical realism.”  It is almost as if Sonokrom is a world unto itself, existing in some sort of parallel universe where magic is just an ordinary part of life.

The characters are all richly drawn and well-rounded.  I had no trouble telling them apart in my mind.  The method of switching perspectives from Kayo to the old man in the village works well.  It allows the reader to see both the scientific and traditional perspectives and make up her own mind.

Some people may be bothered by the ambiguous/open-ended ending, but personally I feel that this is what the story needs.  It leaves the reader to ponder upon the values of both tradition and modernity.  Perhaps that is the point of the whole story.

Now, the book does throw in some Twi words here and there, but those are easily decipherable by context.  The more difficult aspect as a non-African reader is the presence of Pidgin.  Since whole sentences are written in Pidgin they were much more challenging for me.  I must admit this small book took me quite a while to finish, compared to my usual reading rate.  The Pidgin is not impossible, though, particularly if you have read widely among the various American dialects.  An English dialect is an English dialect, after all.

Overall, I recommend this to those who enjoy both mystery and magical realism and don’t mind exploring a new dialect.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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