Friday, July 11, 2014

Still Midnight

In the never-ending search for my next favorite United Kingdom Lady Mystery Writer I heard about one Denise Mina who's written quite a lot of books - jackpot! I thought... but, after reading two of her stories I'm not sure she's The One for me, but probably good in a pinch.

Still Midnight is about a couple of bumbling criminals who accidentally kidnap the wrong person and make a fine mess of things.  It takes place in Glasgow (Mina is Scottish) and the kidnapped family are originally Ugandan.  There are some interesting themes re: immigration and profiling and people of color that she tackles.

Ugh, I borrowed this from the library and my loan expired and thus I lost all my notes.  I hate that.  The main detective, as I remember, is a woman who gets passed over all the time.  She's a little rough around the edges (for good reason) and has to play it real cool every time she uncovers something so her co-workers don't steal all the credit.  I like how she writes dialogue - I could really hear their Scottish accents in my head.  Hilarious ending was a nice surprise.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Broken, Karen Slaughter

Karen Slaughter is an American mystery writer that's getting a lot of good buzz on her latest, Coptown.  I didn't read Coptown but got a copy of Broken (2010) from the library.  Broken is apparently part of her Will Trent series but Detective Will Trent doesn't solve this mystery so much as these other two ladies.

We got off to a rough start with this 2nd paragraph:
The wind picked up and she clenched her fists in the pockets of her light jacket. It wasn't so much raining as misting down a cold wetness, like walking around inside a dog's nose.  The icy chill coming off Lake Grant made it worse. Every time the breeze picked up, she felt as if tiny, dull razors were slicing through her skin.  This was supposed to be south Georgia, not the freaking South Pole.
I thought I was in for the metaphorical ride of my life, but, mercifully, they quieted down a bit.  So, this lady, Sara, is visiting her hometown where her parents live and she and her husband used to live before he was killed.  She was the town medical examiner and he was the Sheriff.  But he got killed.  Sara believed that it was the fault of one of his detectives, Lena.  When a local girl is murdered, Sara consults and tries to steer clear of Lena.  Parts are told from Lena's POV and you find out she not the monster Sara thinks she is, but she's not exactly a snow-white princess either.

Will Trent is a likeable character and I wouldn't mind reading more of her series about him.  He's dyslexic and for some reason very ashamed about it and doesn't like to tell anyone.  He sends things to his partner to read because he has a really hard time.  Although, I suppose after I thought about it a while, it seemed like it could be a hard thing to manage with coworkers.

Oh, after reading Amazon, I find that this is kind of a cross-over book between a couple of series Slaughter has written.  I mostly enjoyed this book but it was one of those situations where it turns out the murder is someone you barely meet  and then you find out they've masterminded some kind of crazy plot involving medical experiments and God knows whatall. I find that very annoying.

Please let me know if you've read any K. Slaughter that you really love!

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

To the Power of Three

At the beginning of the year, I read some amazing books that kind of blew my mind, and also I thought I was on a roll and going to read nothing but solid gold all year.  Well, that stopped, and I've been chasing greatness for a while now.  I read a bunch of mysteries, searching for a Tana French replacement (she has a new book coming out in September (Arg! Can't wait!)  Laura Lippman's getting a lot of good press lately, so I borrowed her To the Power of Three (2012) from the library.

It begins with a young woman taking a gun to school and quickly follows with three friends getting shot in a bathroom at the school.  One in the foot, one in the chest - dead, and the other in the face - critical condition.  For some reason I couldn't keep the girls straight - I could never remember which one was dead and which one was on life support.  Their names were Kat and Perri.  (Katy Perry? I was irrationally stuck on that.  Which reminds me...  when I was in 7th grade, we were supposed to write a story on a team and my team and I wrote this epic mystery about a rich family, in our minds a kind of VC Andrews thing, and we spent DAYS thinking about what their names should be.  Finally we came up with Levi and Calvin, and then on the day we read our stories out loud to the class, my nemesis made fun of us because we picked names from 2 brands of jeans.  Ugh, I hate that stupid bitch!)

Anyway, there are some weird inconsistencies with the story shot-in-the-foot tells and the police don't believe her version of events, so, even though it seems pretty obvious that coma-girl did the shooting, you know there's more to the story.

The major problem for me was there were just too many characters in this book.   I mean, I could barely keep the three girls straight, which is on me, but then there were all the girls' parents, their classmates, their damn guidance counselor, their fucking uncles and grandparents, their goddamn neighbors, ex-boyfriends who are now in college but back in town for the summer, a whole cast of unpopular girls, the drama teacher!  etc.  My god.  Everyone knows that a good mystery needs a fair number of characters, perhaps limited, Agatha Christie-style, on an island or a train or something, so you have plenty of people to red-herring your readers with, but an entire high school full of people is too much.  And, when you have a huge number of people in your mystery, and in the end it turns out your murderer is someone who was mentioned once in the second half of a paragraph on page 38, it's goddamn infuriating is what it is.

What Lippman does capture, very well, is the language and intensity of high schoolers, not to mention ones that are experiencing a school shooting:
Others were ignoring the guidelines for a Level II emergency, holding their cell phones low by their hips, text-messaging with the ferocity of young Helen Kellers who had just discovered an accessible language.
She also brutally demonstrates the pettiness that teenage girls especially can carry around.  In their world, small slights get conflated into issues of life and death.  What am I talking about?  I'm still mad at that stupid girl for making fun of me in 7th grade and one other insult I could tell you about in excruciating detail if you could bare to listen to a grown woman describe a decades old slight.  The detective ponders:
He was a murder police, well into his third decade, and he thought there was nothing new under the sun, no motivation unknown to him, no scenario he had yet to document.  And he was right. The story Josie told, haltingly yet determinedly, had the usual elements. Jealousy, covetousness, anger of slights so tiny that it was hard to believe they had resonated for even a moment, much less years.  

Ouch.  Nails it, doesn't it?  I think she approaches the kind of animosity women can irrationally hold for one another that Margaret Atwood explores in novels like Cat's Eye.  So, ultimately, I didn't love this book because honestly I couldn't keep everyone straight, but she does get at some important issues that obviously struck close to home for this reader.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Pills and Starships

I heard an interview with Lydia Millet, author of Pills and Starships, on NPR that sort of sparked my interest.  It's a dystopian YA novel, told over the course of 7 days.   The "tipping point" has passed and the environment is in ruins and the whole planet is dying.  Nat and her brother Sam are supposedly the last generation, because no one is having babies anymore, at least in the "First".  Nat's parents have a "contract" which means they have decided to die, and gone on a 7 day vacation where their death is managed by the "Service".  Nat's parents are in their 80s and 90s, but have the health of people in their 40s because people live longer due to vaccines and whoknowswhat.   I found that bit the most improbable - I don't know any parents who would willingly die and leave their 17 and 14-year-old children to fend for themselves in a horror landscape.  Also, say this couple doesn't have a kid until they're in the 60s/70s, in an increasingly unlivable environment where they suddenly decide, hey, let's have 2 kids?   Doesn't make sense.

This book was really disappointing to me because I'm always on the lookout for my next fave dystopian novel, YA or otherwise.  Aside from the unbelievable premise with the parents, the author simply didn't trust her readers enough to let the details unfold elegantly.  Millet spelled everything out as she went, defining her futuristic vocabulary instead of just letting her audience figure it out, laying out the schedule for the 7 days instead of letting it happen.  It felt like coddling to be held by the hand like that, and I really don't think it matters whether your reader is an adult or a teenager.

As you might guess from the title, there's a lot of focus on medicine, vaccines and "mood stabilizers".  Everyone takes pills to avoid depression and to achieve whatever type of mood they desire.  Nat's parents are on a heavy regimen of pills to keep them calm and tranquil as they approach their death.  It reads as a critic of the Prozac Nation, kids on ADHD medication and whatnot... More than once I found myself wondering if Millet's one of those anti-vaccine crazies.

I haven't read Millet's other work - they seem to be pretty well-received.  Let me know if you've read her stuff and enjoyed it, I would like to hear.

Monday, June 30, 2014

On YA, Dickens, and Schadenfreude

There have been a few articles that have shaken up the book world lately - first was this silly article in Slate by Ruth Graham titled Against YA that sent most of the writers I follow on Twitter into a veritable firestorm, not to mention the gals in my book club. We read about one YA book a year, and our next selection is Eleanor & Park  - one of the examples she uses to support her claim that YA books aren't serious literature. Graham goes so far to say "I’m surrounded by YA-loving adults, both in real life and online. Today’s YA, we are constantly reminded, is worldly and adult-worthy. That has kept me bashful about expressing my own fuddy-duddy opinion: Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children."  Listen: I don't feel embarrassed about ANYTHING I read when I'm reading a fucking book, and neither should you.

So, everyone knows that Graham's article is little more than click-bait, but she does express a common opinion, which is that YA literature isn't serious and that reading YA isn't exactly something to be proud of.  When 1 in 4 Americans don't read a book in a year (and the other 75% average at only 5 books a year) I don't give two shits what people are reading as long as they're reading something.

So, to what does Graham think adult readers should turn their attention?  Why, Dickens and Edith Wharton, of course!  Ignoring the irony that Dickens is perhaps the first YA writer (who else read Great Expectations in the 6th grade?) it's pretty hilarious that the example of high literature that she pulls out are two dusty old Victorians.  Which brings me to article #2, which was published in Vanity Fair July 2014: It's Tartt--But is it Art? whereby the runaway success of The Goldfinch is examined.  While it did win the damn Pulitzer Prize there are plenty of purveyors of high Art (with a capital A) who would like to remind us that it wasn't actually that great.  To tell the truth, I myself like to say that The Goldfinch was merely good, but that's kind of beside the point.  James Wood, book critic for The New Yorker, told Vanity Fair, "I think that the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter."   Oh SNAP!  Additionally, plenty of critics are lining up to say that Tartt, who is frequently compared to Dickens (this is where it all comes together) is not really that much like Dickens after all.  Not only is an honest-to-God, "adult", Pulitzer Prize winning novel getting dissed for being too "YA" by The New Yorker but her very Dickensian-ness, generally acknowledged (not by me, but that's beside the point) as the very Bastion Of High Art and Literature is being called into question.

Actually, I think the Vanity Fair article is fantastic - I love a good old fashioned scrap about the very nature of art and literature as much as anyone.  It's true I do find the abject loyalty of Tartt fans a bit curious, which is why I say that books like The Secret History and The Goldfinch are merely good because her fans, and, yes, the Pulitzer committee, seem to go absolutely ape-shit for her work.  That's where Evgenia Peretz nails it in It's Tartt--But is it Art?  when she writes about the "writer's best friends, Schadenfreude and his twin brother, Envy" and the critical reaction to Tartt's work.  Despite the fiscal and literary success of The Goldfinch, it's still fun to sit around and make snide remarks about it because I suppose when we do, what we're really saying is that we have the highest, more pure and excellent taste in literature - higher than Pulitzer-Prize-winning Tartt, higher than Dickens himself.

You know how there are connoisseurs - who eat fine food -  and then there are gourmands - who like fine food AND county fair food? I like to read like a gourmand and I honestly think everyone should.  If I were such a snob that I couldn't read anything but old classics like Dickens and Wharton how would I ever have discovered my great love for mysteries, or apocalypse fiction, or YA?   I'm certainly not going to make fun of someone, or, God forbid, tell them they should be freaking ashamed for reading something - not even my sister-in-law, who exclusively reads Amish romances.  Which are probably full of steamy side hugs.  But I haven't read one yet so I'm not going to judge (that much).

Do you know why people don't read?  I've asked friends who confess not to read - it's generally because it's hard for them - it's hard to concentrate, or they find it boring, or they actually find it painful.  That's a person that never learned to love reading, or maybe has eye problems, or even a learning disability, or maybe got ridiculed all through school, and definitely hasn't found their genre yet.  And I'm certainly not going to poke fun at them when they do.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Compound

The Compound was recommended to me by my sister.  She and I are really close and value each other's opinion, but, it's fairly often that she loves something (book/movie) that I don't love, and vice versa.  But, we keep reading each other's recommendations and watching each other's movies because it's just too terrible to admit that our tastes are pretty different.  And, everyone once in a while, we hit it right on the mark.

Anyway, she totally loved The Compound but I thought it was pretty stupid.  It's a YA book about a young boy, who, at the very beginning, is whisked to an underground bunker with his family, minus his twin brother and his grandma, because there's been a nuclear event or something in the world.  Right from the get-go, it's pretty obvious that there's been no explosion and his dad's off his nut, but it takes this kid five or six years to figure it out.

I did enjoy the descriptions of their underground bunker, or compound - it's huge, with like, hydroponic areas and a gym and big bedrooms for everyone with mood light and mood scents and a huge library and dvd collection and there's even a place for cows and chickens, but they all die right away.

Eventually the kid is effing around on a computer, finds a wifi signal, and for some reason the first thing he does is IM his supposedly dead twin brother, but he answers the chat and immediately they're like, OMG, DAD'S CRAZY AND HE LOCKED US IN A SECRET BUNKER FOR SOME REASON!!  And then the kid goes to tell his family, and with each family member, he's like, DON'T TELL DAD WE KNOW, but the minute his dad walks in, he's like, WTF, DAD?!?!

But, that's not even the stupidest part.  The absolute stupidest part is that his mother is pregnant, and she and everyone call the baby a "supplement".  And, it turns out there's a whole room full of supplements that the kid has somehow managed to completely avoid in 5 years.  And, supposedly they will eat the supplements if they run out of food.

Well, I'm sorry, Sis!  But, I look forward to your next recommendation!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Burning (spoilers!)

I am always following the scent of a good mystery written by a lady from the UK. I can't remember where I saw The Burning by Jane Casey advertised, but, there it was on my Kindle.  It's about this lady who is killed - Rebecca - she's burned to death, actually.  And there's a serial killer who is out there burning ladies to death!  Arg!  The police are working with Rebecca's friend, Louise, to figure out what happened, and it's not quite clear whether Louise is in danger because maybe Louise's boyfriend is actually the killer or something?

Anyway, it wasn't really that great.  I'll go ahead an spoiler! now, because it turns out that smart, capable Louise actually killed her friend for some reason but mostly because she was a sociopath.  I find it very boring when a mystery is solved by: OMG, they're a damn sociopath!  Because, like, sure, anything's possible if we're talking about sociopaths.  It feels like cheating.

One thing I did find interesting was the phrase, I'm not sure how commonly used it is: Poets Day.
"Hmm? Oh, them. Not on a Friday, my dear.  Poets Day, innit? Shame it doesn't apply to the police."  Piss off Early, Tomorrow's Saturday.  I smiled ruefully, thinking of my abandoned plans for the evening...
I'm not ready to write off Casey - The Burning is one of her first books and reviews seem to indicate that the series (Maeve Kerrigan) gets better with time.   Please let me know if you've read and enjoyed her work and which ones you recommend!