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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The May Queen Murders: (Sadly) More Drippy than Murder-y

The May Queen Murders, Sarah Jude (HMH)

Wow! What an amazing cover on this book, right?  Absolutely dripping with Gothic horror promise.  Yeah.  Sad, that, because The May Queen Murders does very little to live up to that promise, exploiting bizarre stereotypes and building blind alley scare moments on its way to a seriously B-Movie conclusion.  Or, rather, several B-Movie conclusions.  (Sorry!)  Messy and disappointing.

After a brief and terrific flash of an opening, The May Queen Murders begins in earnest, with the introduction of Ivy, the self-styled plain-Jane narrator of the book, and her “don’t-hate-me-because-I’m-beautiful” cousin Heather.  Not a unique pairing, but I am struggling so hard to understand these people and where they are supposed to be coming from that that’s the least of my concerns.  Watching them go through their days is no help:  lots of “ain’ts” are tossed around, and Ivy is prone to declaring her intent to “bear witness” and quaint things like that.  Why?  I don’t know, and no one seems to care; she is treated like a sensitive child by her family.  Ivy is also trying to keep silent Grandma Mamie’s ancient ways and wisdoms alive, so there’s that.  She is gently mocked by Heather for this dedication, so it’s plain that the community is not of one mind, whatever Ivy may think.

Then there are the encounters between the Glen folk and the town residents, mainly the teens because they all attend school together.  These encounters are uniformly – and also needlessly – confrontational, especially since there is apparently little difference between the two groups of students.  The Glen teens swear like truckers, smoke pot grown in the Glen, snitch alcohol from their elders and, in a scene I found fairly notable, describe early sex acts that I am pretty sure adults would not share so openly, and with nary a blush.  Brava for the sexual freedom/know thyself moment, but again I ask:  Who are these people?

One of the first serious stumbling blocks I hit on the way to my Wall of Disbelief was composed of Ivy describing how outsiders used to come to the Glen to have their chickens butchered and deplucked.  Excuse me?  I know that chickens are today’s new favorite backyard producer of fresh food, but were there really that many “town farmers” needing chicken butchering?  Because a farmer, even a non-weird-sect one, knows how to kill a chicken.  And deplucking?  Were the feathers being put back on?  Maybe this is just an editing mix-up, but it was just part of building that wall that made me go, “huh?”  

Regardless of what first brought the Glen folks together generations ago to eschew mainstream society, today they seem bound together mainly by long skirts, superstition, braids and poor electrical wiring.  Oh, and possibly being eaten by a mysterious scream-y thing in the woods … once-t in a while.  (No biggie.  We like it this way!)  So are they just isolated so they can be killed more easily?  Hmm.  Could be.  The end result just feels tremendously contrived.

Ms. Jude writes with emotion and there were some great descriptive scenes, but her attempt to create a believable Glen community left me feeling cold.  So many things just reminded me of a B-Movie from the 60’s:  Two lovely young girls (1), in a backward community (2), in the woods (3), where unexplained deaths are occurring (4), experiencing sex for the first time (5) (bonus here!), repeatedly going where they should not (6) (7) (8), while repeated scary things occur (9) (10) (11), etc.   At first I was afraid for Ivy, that she would be caught napping on a grave in the forbidden cemetery (Ikr?) or get caught out late washing sheets in the river (that's yes, to electric lights; no, to washing machines), but then I just felt annoyed.  I just wanted it to make sense!  No such luck here.  Sadly, I liked this one better before I opened that fabulously creepy cover.

Buy this book

Publisher|Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound   

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Into the Dim is a time-traveling journey of discovery!

 Into the Dim, Janet B. Taylor (HMH) 

Into the Dim manages to be realistic and fantastical at once, as we follow Hope Walton from present-day Georgia, to Scotland, to 12th-Century England.  After Hope’s mother Sarah is declared dead in an earthquake in India, Hope’s father is moving on with his life and his new girlfriend (!), but Hope is feeling more lost and trapped in her world of crippling phobias and migraines than ever before.  Even her gift – a truly eidetic memory – can paralyze her, if she does not carefully control the flood of information.  When the future -- and more – opens up to her, requiring more of her than she feels she has to give  … how will she meet the challenge?  Who can she trust completely, now that the person she relied on most is gone forever?  Into the Dim is a wild ride that is also a personal journey, and one that is well worth taking.

When Into the Dim begins, Hope Walton is a shattered teen struggling against accepting her mother’s death.  Because she disappeared far away in India and no body has ever been found, Hope is clinging to the solitary thread that her mother may still be alive somehow, even seven months later.  But everyone else is moving on.  Even her stepfather – the only father she has ever known –  is already remarrying, and Hope is facing other unwelcome changes in her previously rather cloistered life:  She is being sent away – that’s how it feels – to her mother’s family home in Scotland, while her father goes on a cruise with new girlfriend Stella.  So who will be there now to help Hope deal with the panic attacks, migraines and myriad phobias of her daily life?  No one, that’s who.

Hope was extremely close to her mother, home-schooled and raised in a fairly isolated manner, with her mother as her guiding light.  It was a loving relationship, and Hope has been a good student, learning to control her fears and tame her wild memory skills, but still she always depended on her mother.  Now that her mother is gone, she is mired in justifiable sadness and a fair bit of self-pity, only after months, finally believing that her mother has actually died.

When she agrees to fly to Scotland, drugged against the panic, she doesn’t do so with any excitement but only to get away from the worse fate of waiting around at home while her father is on his cruise.   Waking up in the ancient family home, Hope begins also to wake up to the possibilities of her own life, connections to things outside her previously narrow world, as she discovers for herself secrets her mother never shared with her about her own past.

I was prepared to see this book as a slow ride with a character “learning to be strong,” oh my!  But I found Hope to be a realistic mix of strength and weakness, and the ride was more of gallop!  The descriptions of panic felt very true, but I also enjoyed those times when she rose up and gave someone a little smackdown.  Good for her!  Going along on this journey with Hope is not so much about her being cured of her problems but really about learning more about herself in a way that makes sense … in a fantasy book about traveling back in time to 12th-Century England and meeting Eleanor of Aquitaine and Thomas Becket!  

Although I found the evil characters a little one-dimensional, I really enjoyed Into the Dim, and I liked it more and more as it went on.  I found myself hurrying to read it and not wanting to stop because it was really an adventure as much as anything else, although there is romance, as well.  The 12th Century episodes also rang very true, and I appreciated that Ms. Taylor gave us a realistic view of the very smells of the time instead of an overly sanitized view.  I couldn’t help myself from seeing Eleanor of Aquitaine as Kate Hepburn (á là “The Lion in Winter”), but that was not really much of a problem.  It was a nice attempt at bringing such a famous personage to life, and I know for a fact that there is slim biographical work available on the amazing Eleanor.

Into the Dim is a wild ride through time with Hope as she looks for answers about herself and her mother, past and present.  If you like adventure, romance and personal challenge, I think you’ll find the ride is worth it.

Buy this book

|Amazon|Barnes & Noble| IndieBound

Friday, October 23, 2015

Little White Lies Brings Engaging Characters, Trending Topic

Little White Lies, Brianna Baker & F. Bowman Hastie III (Soho Teen)

Addendum:  This was one of my earliest posts and I was trying hard to be very positive in everything I wrote at that time.  I still think it's important to be positive (as opposed to pointlessly negative and picky), but there were always a few additional things that bothered me about this post and this book.  In rolling past it again today, I just had to add them in.  

First and foremost, I would emphasize that the best part of this book to me is still that it starts so strongly with Karl and Coretta as key characters and especially their interaction.  I enjoyed that, even when it consisted of avoidance rather than actual contact. BUT 1) the over-the-top villains -- although well-described -- were pretty hard to take seriously.  And 2) when I said "compelling to the end," I was conveniently ignoring the epilogue.  That section was mysteriously pat and didactic and delivered by ... whom?  Not the character I was expecting to hear from, and it felt awkward.  That's it.  I'm done now.

Little White Lies is a trip into the thrills and hazards of the blogosphere with high school honor student Coretta and ghost-blogger Karl, as her blog takes off and he is paid to help her star rise.  But when the comet that is Little White Lies attracts the attention of media moguls, and Coretta struggles to cope with the pressure, the entire fragile framework of this new world begins to fall apart.  Watching Coretta and Karl, as well as their friends and family, respond to this threat is entertaining, but you might just prefer to hang out with Coretta and Karl and chat a while.


As Little White Lies opens, the Real Money Phone (R$$P) is ringing and our ghost-writing, super-blogging, web-jumping, information-dealing, self-proclaimed Dark Lord of the Twittersphere Karl is up and displaying his ego and his cherished phobias all at once as he juggles the opportunity to assist another overwhelmed web creature in bringing his or her message to the world.  Karl is in a position to ask for, and get, plenty of payment for his services, and he is not really challenged by the usual job these days, having farmed out most of his excess blogging/tweeting work to his own minions, but the possibility of working for the blogger he describes as Noprah (sadly, not Oprah) is too fascinating to turn down.  If he could work for this new, up-and-coming princess of the blogosphere, someone who has already caught his attention, well then ….  He is more than intrigued.

From our first view of sweet smart Coretta at the breakfast table, multi-tasking her way through her high school days, I was fascinated, too.  Despite the fact that she is living a dream life – rich, lovely to look at, “black Ken” boyfriend (she said it first!), smart, successful and loving parents -- I found her to be a very sympathetic character.  She takes a dim view of the self-satisfaction and injustice she sees around her and wants to speak out, and she has the smarts to do it.  Her posts are sharp, funny and off-the-cuff, but there is a lot of humility to Coretta, too.  Going on this crazy ride with her is exhilarating, even though it feels increasingly impossible to keep up.  I mean, how could it not be?  I just wanted to hang out with her and see what she would do and say next.

When Karl and Coretta get together, that’s sharp, too.  Their strange mix-of-worlds relationship is well-played, and the voices feel separate but true.  The first phone call between 40-something white/Caucasian Karl and 17-year-old African-American Coretta is really great as the two circle carefully.  Karl speaks the language of white sensitivity and tries some humor, while Coretta remains cautiously straightforward (Okayy? Wait, really?).  Perfect.  Also the great texting passage between Karl and Coretta where Karl is trying to make a point sarcastically and Coretta just doesn’t bite?  Funny!  Sometimes teens can be so busy refusing to crack a smile with adults.  It’s all … #nofoolin from Coretta when they chat at first, and that feels right.

I also liked the relationship between Rachel and Coretta.  Not because I was just so snowed by its adorable “from birth” quality or the fact that they are another oddball touch of diversity in this book.  No.  All that was fine, albeit having a bit of a been-there-done-that quality.  My favorite thing about the girls is that, although some wrinkles do develop in the relationship -- pretty natural when a serious bond meets the wall of irresistible fame – we don’t have to go through yet another breakdown of a central friendship, just to pull it back together at the end.  There is a different quality to this relationship that feels (again!) more true, snotty noses and all.  It’s not perfect, but it doesn’t end on a whim or a misspoken word just to isolate the heroine.  Thank you, Baker and Hastie for saving me one more pointless friend break-up!

Elements I didn’t love about the book were mostly not really bad so much as they were just not as good as the standard set by the rest of the book.  For instance, the parents at first seemed just sweet and lovely, but then their continuing perfection began to wear on me, or maybe it was as the perfect parents piled on, one after the other, that the annoyance started.  Barbies and Clair Huxtable, indeed!  They flick an eyebrow here and there, but except for Coretta’s father making one lone (and humorous) comment questioning Karl’s moral fiber, no real unpleasantness is allowed to be on offer.  None!  Then again, they aren’t entirely perfect; all those attorneys and no one stopped Coretta from signing the contract that let her lose control of her own web identity?  Thanks, Dad!

And the villains were excessively villain-y, but then … who doesn’t love to have a great target to aim at, especially one that is culled from the ranks of actual history.  [Yes, you can google it.]

One thing I did take issue with was Karl’s ridiculous and self-destructive behavior – when he knows he's being filmed.  This felt like it was just a plot device to make him as personally involved as Coretta in the outcome.  Without ringing too many spoiler bells here, let’s just say that this was a very silly episode in many ways.  I kept re-reading parts of it looking for an explanation.  Hmm ... nope ... nope.

Little White Lies is best and most engaging when we are up close and personal with Coretta and Karl, as they are each clearly defined and make for great entertainment.  It suffers very little from the blips of unreality mainly because Coretta and Karl feel so real.  Their oddball pairing and interactions are at the heart of Little White Lies and make this a story a compelling read to the end.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Gretel of Gesternstadt (Yes, that Gretel) in the Brothers Grimm Mysteries, P.J. Brackston

Once Upon a Crime: A Brothers Grimm Mystery            

Once upon a Crime and The Case of the Fickle Mermaid,
Brothers Grimm Mysteries, P.J. Brackston

Ever wonder what happened to Hansel and Gretel after they escaped the witch?  Well, actually me neither.  But if I had known she was going to become this delightfully witty maven of mysteries, I would have paid more attention.

I know there is a veritable glut of fairy tale fiction out there – retold, re-imagined, revamped and "de-sanitized" – but I can never resist giving the next one a look.  So when I saw an ARC on offer I had to jump.  Not only jump, but I also grabbed one at the library while I was waiting for the ARC request to be approved.  [Yeah, like that!]  Turns out the author, one P. J. (Paula) Brackston, also writes a more serious fantasy line of stand-alone novels involving
witches.  These look gorgeous, but I can’t say what they are like on the inside.  I did not even peek.  Nope.  I'm all about self-control.

As for the fairy tale revamp at hand, I grabbed the first (second?) book, Once upon a Crime: A Brothers Grimm Mystery, and I loved it from first glance.  I know we're not supposed to do it, but I started right off judging the book by its mysterious yet simple and humorous cover.  I haven’t read the second (or is it the first? the timing seems confused), but I did read the ARC of the third, The Case of the Fickle Mermaid, and I can’t believe I wouldn’t want to read any others Ms. Brackston decided to write. 

In briefGretel is …  no longer a child (alright, she's 35!), zaftig, a word I think she would approve, and she loves her comforts, working always to keep herself in the newest beauty treatments and best foods that can be shipped into her very provincial 18th-Century Bavarian home town of Gesternstadt.  Hans(el) is … much to Gretel’s dismay – except when he is cooking delicious meals for her – still living with Gretel and spending his time (and her money) on cards and ale.  As much as she despairs of the very “twee-ness” of Gesternstadt, Hans fits it like he fits his holiday lederhosen:  tight!

Gretel is the star of the show – natch! – and her salty attitude keeps it rolling.  From the opening of Once upon a Crime when she despairs of the very quaintness of her village, I knew she had the kind of crankiness I could really bond with.  The writing is definitely quick and lively, too, and there are numerous examples.  One that comes readily to mind is when Gretel and Hansel are faced with three villains.  After noting each of their defining and repulsive characteristics, Gretel begins to think of them as Pustule, Mold and Cat’s Tongue, in turn, and, altogether, as The Brothers Grime.  

The last [man] was short and wide, and seemed to wobble as he walked, as if it was only his filthy clothing that held him together, while he himself was made up of a material altogether unwholesome and decidedly unattractive.  Aged milk curds, perhaps. Or semolina.  With a thick crust of thick furry, green-blue mold. (p130)
“Did Hoffman send you?” Pustule demanded, pushing his sibling out of the way so that he might thrust his unlovely visage at Gretel. This was, she decided, an unfortunate technique for conducting a conversation, for close up his appearance was so distracting, it was difficult to remain engrossed in the subject being discussed. (p132-33)

After the witty language, I think what I like best about these books is that, despite the main character being a most famous fairy tale personage and involving a succession of fantastical creatures – troll, giant, mermaid, etc. – Ms. Brackston does not attempt to push the stories into some tortured form that involves every character you ever heard of in a fairy tale.  Ugh. Enough of that.

What makes it fun is that she allows her very strong-minded Gretel the run of the stage.  We know Gretel and we can identify with her:  She wants her comforts and she likes to keep fashionable, but she’s also getting the job done in the face of a lot of large and small obstacles – a bumbling brother, wigs overboard, random dead bodies – and she also struggles with the fact that the man she wouldn’t mind impressing (ahem!) always seems to see her at her worst.  I mean, who among us hasn’t shown up somewhere important with mismatched shoes or a soggy mer-hund at her heels?  Right?

I think these books can be properly termed “romps.”  They are a little rowdy, involve some solid mystery action, and I have laughed out loud more than a little.  Life with Gretel (yes, that Gretel) is no average fairy tale (thank goodness!), and it’s a great break from the ordinary to tear around Bavaria with her and have some fun.  

An excellent Feet-Up-I-Don't-Want-To-Work-Too-Hard-Amuse-Me evening read.  That's a thing, right?

Buy "Once Upon a Crime"

                          Buy "The Case of the Fickle Mermaid"