Monday, September 22, 2014

Basic Eight

Most people know Daniel Handler as Lemony Snicket but his non-Lemony books are pretty great.  I would suggest Watch Your Mouth to just about anybody (less than 50).  Adverbs?  Great.  Basic Eight (2012) has been on my shelves for a while and I finally got around to reading it this year.  It's a dark YA novel about a young woman who is in prison for murder.  She's responding to all this press and a book that's been written about her and she's trying to set the record straight.

It's quite funny and really spot on - Handler writes teenagers, and women, very well.

I may be wrong, but I suspect that The Basic Eight (1999) is one of the first YA novels to come in with a twist.  Seems like every other book has a twist these days.  I just finished Meg Wolitzer's YA novel, and guess what it's got:  a twist.  Unscientifically, I'd say your top YA novels are going to have either: Vampires, Dystopia, or a wicked Twist.  (Idea for YA novel:  A dystopian world populated with vampires with a twist at the end.  Guaranteed blockbuster.)

Handler breaks up the story in interesting ways, like, he ends chapters as if they're part of a school lesson, with vocabulary lists and questions.  But the questions are like, "4. You have undoubtedly seen photographs of Flannery Culp in newspapers and magazines.  Is she fat? Be honest."  Also there are faux excerpts from TMZ-ish media about Flannery which are quite funny.

Handler can write a wicked sex scene (see Watch your Mouth) and he also manages to write about sex with teenagers that is neither creepy nor milquetoast, somehow (see Why We Broke Up).

Somehow Adam and I were talking about something: theater, I think. The line between audience and actor. I felt something warm on my neck, thrilling me. I kept talking about whether Halloween was a form of theater, if parties were a form of theater, if Adam kissing me meant I should get up and leave but it felt so nice, kissing me over and over on the same spot on my neck. It burned delicious like being branded, but as he ran his hand down my dress it turned out I wasn't such a cow at all. That's what turned me on, as much as him kissing me: feeling my own body, thin and gorgeous against him like a celebrity. Thin, even.  

Thursday, September 18, 2014


Garnethill is the first in a series by Scottish writer Denise Mina - and I think her first book.  It's about this woman, Maureen, who wakes up and finds her therapist/boyfriend dead in her living room.  Then she ends up solving the case because the police think she did it.

The interesting thing is that Maureen was formerly quite mentally ill/disturbed.  She was abused as a child and she was institutionalized for a while.  She's mostly totally in control of her faculties now, but she still sees a therapist (or did, until he died) regularly.  She feels this sort of tenuous relationship to her own sanity, particularly when this murder happens.  The way people react to her varies depending on their relationship and whether they knew her during her psychotic period.  I really liked the bits with her family, who are mostly terrible people -there aren't many of those moments and a lot of mystery hangs over that, which I assume is explored in the other books in the series.

Too bad for poor Maureen that there are more books in the series, I guess more people get murdered around her?

It's a quite good first novel and first mystery - it won the John Creasey Memorial Award for Best First Crime Novel award in 1998 when it came out.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Dead Yellow Women

I picked up this Dashiell Hammett book called Dead Yellow Women, despite it's terrible title because it had a map of San Francisco on the back and I was feeling a bit homesick.  Also I was hoping the title was ironic or something?  It's not, it's just straight up racist.  I hate reading racist stuff, particularly from writers I like.  It's like watching an old movie you liked as a kid and realizing it's full of casual racism.  Like, Oh great, that Asian kid from Goonies is just a terrible, terrible stereotype and now I hate myself because I didn't notice it before.

I wouldn't recommend it - it's a convoluted mystery that mostly takes place in San Francisco's Chinatown and is really, really dated.

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.