Filed under: Book Reviews, Commercial Fiction, Mystery & Thriller | Tags: "a" is for alibi, book reviews, books, crime fiction, elizabeth george, kinsey millhone, literature, missing joseph, mystery, mystery novels, reading, sue grafton
A few days after reading this Book Bench piece about fiction that sells, I wound up in the Peace Corps office library waiting to see the doctor. In the best tradition of vowing not to take home any new books from the library I’d brought one with me, but I spotted a few Sue Grafton books and, curious about this “other world” of fiction that the author of The Book Bench piece refers to with such a doubtful tone, I picked up “A” is for Alibi and read the first hundred pages that day while wandering around Skopje.
I was surprised by how much I liked the book, and Grafton’s private detective Kinsey Millhone. “A” is for Alibi doesn’t land in the Dennis Lehane camp of crime fiction, but Grafton’s prose is tight and Millhone’s voice is clear and sharp and at times even reminded me of Mattie Ross from Charles Portis’s True Grit. Elements of the plot are far-fetched and the timing often seems too coincidental, as when Millhone is on the phone with a woman she’s going to interview when the woman is shot; or when Millhone goes to the woman’s house to see what happened and gets out just before the police arrive. But still, there’s the voice, which Grafton gets so absolutely right that I was willing to ignore plotting faults that otherwise would have stopped me finishing the novel, let alone looking forward to reading the next, “B” is for Burglar. (And the titles, god, the titles are lame – but again, I liked the first book enough that I can’t get worked up over this. Any shame I might have had to be seen reading Grafton vanished about a chapter into “A” is for Alibi, and I flaunted this book all over the city and in front of volunteers who will probably forever look down on me for my reading choices.)
The other mystery that I just finished, Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph, was a long, hard slog, not comparable to the few days I spent reading Grafton’s novel. This is probably the fourth or fifth book I’ve read by George, and the second time I’ve felt let down by her writing. The mystery in Missing Joseph is peripheral, with George spending most of the novel’s 550 pages following Lynley and Helen, St. James and Deborah, a bunch of townsfolk and a bunch of tween girls around their personal lives. George’s interest here, as in What Came Before He Shot Her, slips from the mystery to the personal, to ways of parenting and the social services system, and it’s a mistake for her to shift her attention in this manner. For one, readers come to George expecting a mystery; for two, George’s skill doesn’t lie so much in character development as it does in plotting. As much as I praised the fullness of her characters in the first few of her mysteries, I can’t praise her now that she devotes so many more pages to them. What George did well before, what she fails to do here, is to show that her characters continue to have personal lives in spite of their work (with the exception of Barbara Havers, who has no personal life apart from caring for her parents and being described for her frumpiness and lack of sex appeal – a topic for another day) but to keep the focus on the work. The mystery in Missing Joseph is lame and cobbled together, and comes so late in the novel that I can’t even describe it to you, other than to say that a vicar dies of poisoning, the poisoning is declared accidental, and that this turns out to be subordinate to the bigger mystery George will toss in towards novel’s end, to be miraculously unraveled by Lynley and St. James while Havers mostly cleans out the refrigerator in her old house and makes a couple of phone calls.
Not that I’m in the habit of placing authors in competition with one another, but this round with George was so lackluster (it took me months to finish Missing Joseph, and only an intense desire to get the book out of my house finally pushed me through) that I’m going to give her a break in favor of more Grafton.
Filed under: Book Reviews, Brief Reviews, Commercial Fiction, Nonfiction | Tags: anne rice, are you there god, books, elizabeth george, forever, history, horror, interview with the vampire, judy blume, literature, missing joseph, mystery, mystery novel, payment in blood, the worst hard time, timothy egan, what came before he shot her, ya fiction
I don’t know how exactly, because I’ve been putting in some more hours at school and with the family and also watching a lot of Gilmore Girls and handwashing my clothes and baking bread and occasionallky going for a walk, but I’ve been reading a lot lately. I would probably die if I tried to write a blog post about every book I’ve read in the past month or so (and you would die of boredom), but I want to give these books some attention because a few I really liked.
Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire was awesome. Back in college I was just as skilled a bullshitter as I am today, and in one of my lower periods (my sophomore year) I took some stupid classes, including Witchcraft & Magic. The entire football team (minus its star, Ray Rice) was taking this course, and I spent most of my time doodling on my legal pad, telling the football players to shut up, and sneaking out for bathroom breaks. I also watched a few vampire films for a paper, and I’m pretty sure I spent most of Interview with the Vampire sitting on my friend’s floor clutching a warm can of beer trying to hide my freakout.
I was expecting the book to scare me just as much. When I read this I was in a rough place because the dogs on the farm next door to me started barking, nonstop, once the sun went down, and my mouse became really, really loud. I couldn’t sleep through the night as it was, between the dogs and the mouse clattering his way around the pots and pans in my sink, trying to jump into my trash can, and had already started to convince myself that all these sounds equaled someone breaking into my mouse to murder me, so reading Interview with the Vampire seemed like it might be a bad idea. It turned out not to be; Anne Rice does the slow build thing really well. Honestly, not that much happens in this book – you know, there’s Lestat, and Claudia, and some crazy vampire parties, and some even crazier Eastern European vampire zombies, and after Claudia kills Lestat and then you know that he’s coming back I could barely breathe, but most of the book is about Louis being kind of angsty and figuring out what it means to be a vampire. The reason this book is so good is that Anne Rice’s vampires feel a lot of human emotions, even when they don’t manage to identify them as such.
Interview underscored how truly terrible Twilight is. What is wrong with Stephanie Meyer that she took vampires – who are so freaky and sexual and unforgiving – and turned them into glittery-skinned baseball playing teens living in Oregon and swooning over dull high school girls? Yeesh.
Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time is a book that deserves a whole post – but I’m lazy. For one thing, it’s one of the best books of historical reportage I’ve ever read, and for another it’s probably of particular interest to the sort of people who visit my site because it helps give another side to The Grapes of Wrath-y story of the Dust Bowl. I never thought too much about how Steinbeck’s story doesn’t tell the story of the people who stayed behind, only those who left to try and make a better life in California. Egan’s book is suffocating and at times overwhelming; it is impossible to imagine or understand how people managed to live, for years, in places where the ground wasn’t even on the ground any longer. Judging by my own vague understanding of the Dust Bowl, its causes and impact on the lives of people living in it, this is one part of the Great Depression that is often forgotten. But, dear god, the scope of the dust storms Egan writes about, some of the photos – it scared the bejeezus out of me, especially because since the whole problem was created by our own stupidity. It’s heartbreaking to read about what the Dust Bowl looked like – all the awesome grasses and herds of buffalo – before the government encouraged people to settle and farm it.
I’ve been reading some Judy Blume lately. I did all her Fudge books over the summer and briefly forgot that she wrote books for older readers, but I’ve reread Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Forever recently, both reaffirming my opionion that Judy Blume is the best writer for teens, ever. She never shies away from telling it like it is or from showing the minor uglinesses of her characters.
I’ve also been doing the Elizabeth George thing again. My mom told me to read her as a pretty light author for all my sad, lonely Peace Corps nights, but I wasn’t real into her first book, Payment in Blood. There must’ve been an Elizabeth George fan among the volunteers a few years ago, because almost all her books are in our office’s library in Skopje, so once the memory of my mild dislike for Inspecter Lynley and Sergeant Havers wore off, I started taking the mysteries home. And they get better and better, and I love that it’s a series and I can see how her characters develop and become more likeable (like, Lynley is constantly pining after his ladyfriend – I think they’re going to get married and then she’ll be murdered, or something, but right now we’re still in the swoony “why won’t she just love me back” phase of things).
I tried reading one book of hers, What Came Before He Shot Her, which was just unreadable, full of repulsive and unbelievable characters and dialogue. I started reading it when I was on my way to Egypt/Jordan/Israel over winter break, sitting at a coffee shop in Skopje while I waited three hours for my bus to Delchevo (a town on the opposite side of the country from me, near Bulgaria – we were flying out of Sofia), reading and reading and wondering when the hell Lynley and Havers were going to show up. Only after 70 pages they hadn’t shown up, and I realized that they were only going to show up at the end, and probably peripherally even then, so I quit and borrowed The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest from my friend and read that on my trip. Good, good choice. Last week I mentioned this book to my mother while we were skyping and her reaction was so wonderful – something like “You didn’t finish that, did you? God, it was awful – I read half and then I couldn’t take it anymore.” I felt tricked by the book. I checked it out expecting a Lynley & Havers mystery and instead got some wacky /insulting story about lower-class Jamaican immigrants, which I guess is one downside to writing a mystery series or whatever. If you branch out at all your readers are as likely to feel disappointed and pissed off at you as they are to enjoy “discovering a new world”. At least when John Grisham writes a novel with “pizza” or “Christmas” in the title I can be pretty sure it’s not a legal thriller.