Mrs. McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie.

Mrs. McGinty's Dead

February 2015
Recommended for fans of Christie, Poirot
 ★    ★    ★   1/2

Alas, Mrs. McGinty; we hardly knew you.

Really. I mean that. She was a widow, a woman who cleaned houses and took in lodgers to make ends meet; had a niece whom she saw at holidays, and was perhaps a bit of a nosy parker; nothing extraordinary to fill the obituary. When Inspector Spence visits the retired Poirot, he shares his troubling concern that the man he arrested for murdering Mrs. McGinty, and who is now facing the death penalty, is not truly guilty. Yes, yes; the circumstantial evidence was damning, but Jamess Bentley’ milquetoast personality seems so wrong for the deed. Could dear Poirot perhaps put his little grey cells to work? But the clues won’t be found in McGinty’s past; as Hercule Poirot points out “For, you see, Mon cher Spence, if Mrs. McGinty is just an ordinary charwoman–it is the murderer who must be extraordinary.” 

It is true; the murderer is a bit extraordinary. The plotting has an interesting premise, albeit perhaps hard to understand in the modern age. A second murder (because there always is one, isn’t there?) was unsurprising. Overall, the book reminded me more than a bit of A Murder is Announced (review), so perhaps take a break between if you are on a Christie binge, or perhaps visit one of her more exotic locales in between.

For once, Christie leads with Hercule instead of consulting him later, providing an enjoyable stroll down nostalgia lane. Poirot laments the loss of Hastings as a sounding board and audience, but since Poirot’s investigative strategy is to stir up the village, he ends up ‘confiding’ in a number of people. We are treated to Christie’s standard cast of the post-war English village: a penniless but connected couple with a shabby family manse, a overly dramatic woman who enjoys her own tales of woe, the dutiful but repressed daughter, a bold young woman emblematic of the new age, an insecure, unsmart woman attempting to climb the social ladder, a postmistress with a penchant for gossip. All standard in many Christies, along with the semi-invalid elderly woman and her playwright son, echoes of Marple’s nephew Raymond.

Mrs. Sweetiman imparted all this information with relish. She prided herself on being well informed. Mrs. Weatherby whose desire for knitting needles had perhaps been prompted by a desire to know what was going on, paid for her purchase.

Tone seems on the playful side, which self-referential remarks on writing, appreciation and performance. When Mrs. Oliver and her apples make an appearance, it becomes quite clear that Christie is taking an authorial aside to muse on readers who obstinately prefer troublesome characters and playwrights who take license with an author’s characters. “‘How do I know?’ said Mrs. Oliver crossly. ‘How do I know why I ever thought of the revolting man? I must have been mad!… Why all the idiotic mannerisms he’s got? These things just happen. You try something–and people seem to like it–and then you go on–and before you know where you are, you’ve got someone like that maddening Sven Hjerson tied to you for life.”

Poor Dame Christie. She seems to have had at least a gastronomic sort of revenge on Poirot at least, by boarding him at the worst guest-house possible: “I thought I would open a bottle of those raspberries I put up last summer. They seem to have a bit of mould on top but they say nowadays that that doesn’t matter… –practically penicillin.” If it is any post-humus consolation, in my old age, I prefer Miss Marple to the conceited Poirot, but I enjoy them both. Mrs. McGinty’s Dead is one worth adding to the library.


 

 

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The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner. Or, the future is now.

The Sheep Look Up

February 2015
Recommended for disbelievers in the need for the EPA
 ★   

I think I might DNF this one.

Honestly, I feel like I’m reading the newspaper and the Sierra Club’s journal on a particularly bad day. Knowing that this was written forty years ago makes it even worse; you mean we knew these problems were coming and still didn’t fix them? We start with gas masks in L.A. (hello, China),
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pesticide resistant bugs eating modified crops (hello, Monsanto and Round-Up),
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water unsafe for swimming or drinking (hello, red algae blooms and oil spills)
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walled enclaves and armed guards (hello, rich gated communities everywhere)

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testing for lead and arsenic poisoning (sigh, still)

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and I just had enough. In this case, the one star rating is truly a reflection of the “I didn’t like it” school of rating, not authorial skill.

Maybe I’ll try it again when I’m feeling super–happy-sunshiney-rainbows.

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Cerulean Sins by Laurell K. Hamilton. Oh, it’s a sin.

Cerulean Sins

February 2015
Recommended for fans of Laurell, supernatural erotic
 ★   

In my defense, I’ve been trying to make bookshelf space, weeding out books I bought (and read) years ago. But it’s hard to part with them–after all, then-me must have liked them for some reason, right? Currently, most of the Anita Blake series is in a box in the basement, but I brought this one up because I couldn’t remember when the series finally went bad for me. I’m betting this one was the proverbial straw.

On the positive side, it kept me awake, partly because I was curious if the story started in the first four pages–a hit man looking to raise a zombie–would ever be completed, and partly because trying to figure out if I was remembering this plot or the plot of another one in the series was like a mental itch I couldn’t scratch.

Speaking of itching, Laurell Hamilton is a tease, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Anita Blake’s ability to raise zombies and her dominating personality made her an interesting character, one of the first female leads of the UF genre. The hook of a human among the supernaturals, working murders with the police was a captivating one, as evidenced by endless entries in the genre since. However, by book (pick any number after 5), it was mostly about Anita and her sexual inhibitions/adventures.

Cerulean Sins goes far down that path of exploring Anita’s sexuality in its many forms, with a driving plot in vampire politics and a minor consult or two with the police about various grisly murder scenes. Read if you feel in the mood for some supernatural erotica, but don’t expect any actual investigation or character development beyond sexuality. This is about who Anita will take blood/sexual energy/sex from and why, and her guilt about it. Actually, it becomes kind of boring, the erotic equivalent of watching the same car chase or shoot out again and again.

I never realized what a classic Speshul Snowflake Anita was–skills that make an assassin pause, strangely strong necromancy, powers of a vampire servant, an excellent shot, leader of a ware-jaguar pack, enforcer for a werewolf pack–she really does everything in the supernatural world. With the bonus special superpowers of being able to arouse lust in five seconds flat through her magical ardeur powers.

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My only excuse is that I hadn’t found on-line book clubs yet and was seriously in need of something new to read.

This one goes to the used bookstore, even if they don’t want it.

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Pacific Fire by Greg Van Eekhout

Pacific Fire

February 2015
Recommended for fans of capers, Locke, UF
 ★    ★    ★    ★   

Water mages. Bounty hunters. Kraken magic. Pirates. Fans of fast paced, fantastical-element thrillers should love Pacific Fire. Clever world-building, a wry dose of humor, and occasional winks at genre conventions all made for an entertaining read.

While connected to events in California Bones, Pacific Fire takes place ten years after the evens in Bones. Sam, magical child of the former ruler of the L.A. Basin, and Daniel, an osteomancer, have been on the run ever since, never in one place for more than a few weeks. It’s a lonely existence, and Sam is desperate for a friend. Or girlfriend. The chief of the L.A. Department of Water and Power tracks them both down to their Salton Sea hideout with a warning. Daniel’s former guardian Otis has a new plan to dominate the magical factions fighting over Los Angeles, and wants Sam to act as the power source. Daniel determines to bring the fight to Otis, but events sideline him, leaving Sam in charge. Sam heads to a safehouse run by some Emmas, clones of one of the more brilliant L.A. osteomancers. From there it is a race to disable Otis’ plans.

Characters were interesting. At least, I felt they were interesting, but I may have been misled by my involvement with the prior book. Told from a third person limited point of view, the book blurb definitely misleads when it quotes Sam’s thoughts in first person. I was actually glad for the change in voice, but be forewarned.  The Emmas were particularly stand-out characters, perhaps because Van Eekhout had to take pains to distinguish them. I might have exclaimed, “go, girl” when Em said:

I didn’t partner up with you because I have a crush on you. I didn’t partner up with you because I was swayed by your charismatic leadership qualities. I’m not interested in being your sidekick while you see redemption, or closure, or trot ahead on a quest to fulfill your destiny. Not everything is about you, Sam.

It’s a ‘huzzah’ moment of self-awareness, guaranteed to hit most female readers in the feels. I’m a person that’s reasonably willing to follow the yellow brick road of a well-made story, so it was only at the finish that I realized she was the sidekick, even if she had her own motivations for going.  Likewise, on reflection, I realized Sam’s voice didn’t make any sense. One of the quotes I highlighted–because I loved it–actually shouldn’t have been thought, because Sam didn’t attend school in any normal sense of the word. I realized VanEekout was taking some shortcuts with Sam’s voice, and that it sounded far more contemporary–and inappropriate–for the child of a thief, and someone who has been on the run for ten years:

There was something about Em that made him think of high school hallways and solving mysteries. Also, he liked her nose.

Daniel hasn’t evolved too far from California Bones, except for an increase in paranoia. He still allows guilt to eat at him, but his friendships keep him from getting too far off track. The dialogue between him and his best friend Moth is always entertaining:

Daniel took another long sip. ‘You know that thing about true friends, how they’re the ones who can tell you anything?’
‘Yeah,’ said Moth, a little puffed up.
‘I hate that thing.'”

The emotional center of the book wobbled midway through and then lost control entirely at the finish. Like The Rook, the story needs to walk the knife’s edge of risk and humor; it needs to take itself seriously enough that the reader worries about the outcome, but not so seriously that we can enjoy a self-aware wink on the way. When the stakes get truly high, with a series of devastating outcomes, the story loses its balance. Not terribly, and potentially saveable in the the third book. I will also add a general note of disapproval for the only technically resolved ending.

Fans of The Rook (review) and Lies of Locke Lamora will likely enjoy this series by VanEekhout. I’m still looking forward to the third book, but I think I’ll wait on adding this to the library. Many thanks to NetGalley and Macmillan-Tor/Forge for the review copy.

 

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Chickens to the Rescue by John Himmelman

Chickens to the Rescue

February 2015
Recommended for fans of chickens, picture books
 ★    ★    ★    ★    ★

The Greenstalks seem to be having a rash of trouble this week. First, a watch down the well

Chickensrescuewell

then a lack of dinner

Chickensrescuedinner

followed by a missing book report,

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Ernie the duck going joyriding,

chickensrescuedriving

Milky the cow stuck in the tree,

Chickensrescuecow

lost sheep,

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and a spilled breakfast.

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Thankfully, the chickens are there to save the day!

 

Minimal text, silly humor, clever illustrations reminiscent of Waldo and Steven Kellogg made this one a delight.

Plus, chickens!

 

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City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett. Or, Stairs rising

City of Stairs

February 2015
Recommended for fans of fantasy, Song for Arbonne, Full Fathom Five, Godstalk
 ★    ★    ★    ★    ★  

Read this.

I almost didn’t, wary of the disappointment an over- hyped book can bring. But once I started, it was very hard to put down (sorry, fellow jurors, for ignoring your social overtures during our breaks). Picked as a monthly read, I started right before being called for federal jury trial. At first, I was glad of the opportunity to get in some reading time–nothing better than sitting around reading as the gears of bureaucracy grind away–but imagine my dismay when I was picked. Suddenly my reading time dissipated like smoke. Still, a lunch hour here, a judge’s meeting there, and I was able to make serious progress, until I got far enough in the book (and the trial) that I sacrificed sleep for resolution.

A very quick synopsis, but don’t let it fool you. The complexity of the story is built well and is by no means a dizzying array of foreign place names and concepts:

The city of Bulikov has been conquered by the Saypur people, its powerful divinities killed or missing, and the history of its religion erased. Much like Greek and Indian gods, the Divinities of Bulikov were very present in their followers’ lives. Now, however, it has become taboo to worship, to even speak of the gods or to acknowledge the daily miracles they created for their followers. Shara is a covert operative who has come to Bulikov intending to discover why scholar Efrem Pangyui, who was researching various miracles and mysteries of the gods, has been murdered. In disguise as a new ambassador, she brings her faithful protector Sigrud with her. Shara’s Aunt Vinya is the Minister of Foreign Affairs and gives Shara one week to solve the murder before she needs to leave Bulikov for the next mission. As Shara investigates, not only does she have to confront the possibility that Restorationists in Bulikov are trying to overthrow the Saypur, she has to confront her own past.

Characterization is wonderful. The characters are complex, conflicted, with multiple motivations and loyalties. Even a brief interrogation of an elderly female maid had nuance. Questions are gradually built about Sigrud, at first a seemingly typical silent bodyguard character, until the reader is as curious about his history as Shara’s. It is also delightful to find an author who uses language well enough to imbue physical description with hints of the spirit. The first time we meet Ambassador Shara Thivani, the assistant sent to meet her notes:

Pitry finds there is something off about her eyes… The giant’s gaze was incredibly, lifelessly still, but this woman’s eyes are the precise opposite: huge and soft and dark, like deep wells with many fish swimming in them.

The woman smiles. The smile is neither pleasant nor unpleasant: it is a smile like fine silver plate, used for one occasion and polished and put away once finished.

The setting is primarily focused on the city of Bulikov and receives equally lavish description:

The house of Votrov is one of the most modern homes in all of Bulikov, but you could never tell by looking at it: it is a massive, bulky, squat affair of dark gray stone and fragile buttresses… To Shara, who grew up seeing the slender, simplistic wood structures of the Saypur, it is a primitive, savage thing, not resembling a domicile as much as a malformed, aquatic polyp.

Like life, such a serious tale of conquered and conqueror is leavened with humor. Much is cynical, based on Shara’s sardonic nature and a friend’s irreverent one:

“‘She gives him a taut, bitter grin. ‘And you’re still so smugly, blithely ignorant.’
‘Is it ignorance if you don’t care to know it?’
‘Yes. That is almost the definition of ignorance, actually.'”

What builds depth for me is Shara’s curiosity about the divinities and their cultural effects, as well my growing realization that no one here has the moral high ground. The Saypuri were the slaves of the Continentals until they rose up, and a hero killed one of the Continental gods. Now, the Saypuri keep the Continentals on a tight leash, hoping to prevent the return of their oppressors:

While no Saypuri can go a day without thinking of how their ancestors lived in abysmal slavery, neither can they go an hour without wondering why. Why were they denied a god? What was the Continent blessed with protectors, with power, with tools and privileges that were never extended to Saypur? How could such a tremendous inequality be allowed? And while Saypuris may seem to the world to be a small, curious people of education and wealth, anyone who spends any time in Saypur soon comes to understand that in their hearts lives a cold rage that lends them a cruelty one would never expect. They call us godless, Saypuris occasionally say to one another, as if we had a choice.

Something about this reminds me of Guy Gavriel Kay in its finely balanced blend between personal and political, the past and present and love and family, all woven through with the miraculous and colored with lyrical language.

I’ll be adding it to my library and looking for more from Bennett.

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Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Lucifer's Hammer

January 2015
Recommended for fans of the apocalypse, asteroids, end-of-society
 ★    ★    ★  

Good grief, reading hasn’t been such a chore since Professional Nursing Practice Foundations and Concepts. And in the fiction world, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. So perhaps you should take my review with a grain of salt, since plenty of people love Strange (unsurprisingly, no one admits to loving Practice Foundations). Niven and Pournelle start with a great idea, a since tried-and-true staple of the disaster genre–Earth facing an impending meteor pass. My first encounter with this phenomenon was Night of the Comet, a fabulous, campy film released in 1984 about two sisters who survive the Earth passing through the tail of a comet. My second-to-last encounter was The Last Policeman Trilogy by Ben H. Winters, a marvelous exploration of ethics and choice in the face of certain doom.  (Technically, of course, Hammer was my last encounter with the genre).  Hammer and Policeman represent two different approaches to disaster, one macro, one micro, and just guess which one I liked better. Of course, Hammer was released in 1977, and Policeman in 2012, so there is that little issue of societal norms shifting, but I didn’t let that stop me… honest.

Hammer takes a more societal approach, walking the reader through various characters’ lives, usually–but not always–related to the discovery of the Hammer-Brown comet. There’s the rich, eccentric discoverer of the comet, a documentary film maker, a senator, his daughter, a preacher, a secretary, a power plant executive, a stalker, the leader of a burglary ring, a mail carrier, various astronauts-in-training (of all of these, there are two black men, two white women and one Russian woman represented, and just guess who the secretary and the burglar represent)… I discovered there was a good reason for a list of characters at the beginning of the book. I needed it to know who I was supposed to pay attention to, because so many people were introduced for only four pages. Oh, and how can I forget the perspective of the comet that closed out so many of the chapters? When it is clear the asteroid will come closer than expected, money is wrangled to get a team of astronauts up into space to take samples, pictures and measurements, and I was surprised to find this was one of the most interesting sections for me.

For over a third of the book–and that’s a rather thick third, mind you–we’re treated to Waiting for Godot, Asteroid Edition. I ended up literally reading about ten pages a day–and finishing another series, a NetGalley book, a mystery, a UF re-read, and Quammen’s epic on zoonotic diseases in the meantime. Once the asteroid impacts, we get disaster scenes from even more characters, some of whom don’t live through it. Certainly, the various scenarios seemed well-reasoned both in the science sense (impact earthquakes, tsunamis, cloud cover) and the political sense (protecting the defense system, attacking other countries).  The story starts to develop momentum as people are escaping the L.A. Basin and seeking safety in the midst of panic. It’s one of the most action-oriented sections, somewhat compromised by allowing one of the major narrators to go into an existential funk and his storyline to be taken over by a new character.

And that, I discovered, was the most significant problem with the story. Although using the perspective of many allows for the reader to understand the largeness of the scope of disaster, it makes emotional connection with any one character almost impossible. In Policeman, narration is provided first person,  and although many of the projected responses to impact are exactly the same in both books, experiencing it through one man’s journey is far more profound and moving.

The last third of the story is the survival aspect, and lives of many of the characters start to intersect. The experiential timeline is compressed, and within a relatively short amount of time, a section of the population is reduced to cannibalism. How short? Well, one man’s personal supply of insulin hadn’t gotten low yet. For all Hammer‘s attempts at realism, that seemed a pretty profound psychological hurdle to overcome in a few weeks or months. Still, I was game; I’m a sucker for a good survivalist story.

It satisfied until the last few chapters, which centered on one of those philosophical debates about moving civilization forward or huddling by our fires in caves. I remained unmoved; the last book of The Policeman trilogy achieved a level of profoundness that made this discussion feel like a sixth-graders’ debate (no offense to any sixth-graders who might be reading this). Satisfying ending and all that, but I have the feeling I’ll forget the details in a few weeks.

This was a one-star beginning, four star middle, and two-and-half star end. Given all that, I’d say read this if you enjoyed Stirling’s apocalypse series (Emberverse), or perhaps The Stand, but don’t expect too much in terms of emotional engagement or character development. For those, I’d head over to the more modern interpretation of asteroid strikes in The Last Policeman Trilogy and be prepared for all the feels.

 

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World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters. Or, World of truths.

World of Trouble

January 2015
Recommended for fans of the apocalypse, philosophy, missing-persons cases
 ★    ★    ★    ★    ★   

Almost always, things are exactly as they appear. People are continually looking at the painful or boring parts of life with the half-hidden expectation that there is more going on beneath the surface, some deeper meaning that will eventually be unveiled; we’re waiting for the saving grace, the shocking reveal. But almost always things just are what they are, almost always there’s no glittering ore hidden under the dirt.

I’ve been reading two books about asteroids hitting Earth with opposite reactions. In Lucifer’s Hammer, I’m literally forcing myself to pick up the book and read, hoping I’ll get to the point where the magic will develop and I’ll remain engaged until the end. Then there is The Last Policeman trilogy, which has kept me riveted–to the point where I’ve finished the entire trilogy before reaching page 200 in Hammer. Same rough plot line in both: an impending asteroid is headed toward Earth. The brilliance of The Last Policeman is that the scenario is based on an Everyman hero, a police officer advanced beyond his skill level, who has been choosing to solve mysteries in the last six months of life. Hammer explores the end of the world with a much larger cast, and as such, loses focus on the human tragedy, sacrificing quiet truth for plot points. Both acknowledge that despair will have some likely outcomes: “The most likely scenario, after all, is that this blood is the blood of a stranger, and these knives are totally unrelated to my current investigation. It’s just some terrible act of violence among uncounted terrible acts of violence occurring at an accelerating rate.

World of Trouble, the final book in The Last Policeman trilogy was a powerful, moving read. Plotting stays true to the first two books while advancing both the story about the end of the world and the story of Henry Palace’s development. Or rather, de-volvement. Palace has left the safety and security of the house he was living at and has set off with the hoarder and trader Cortez for Ohio to search for his sister Nico.

This has been an extremely interesting series: engaging, somewhat unsettling, with a background of rising tension–much like The Southern Reach Trilogy. For me, The Last Policeman trilogy is about the meat of what it means to be human and what it means to be a member of society. “And the fact is that what Cortez said actually has the ring of truth. Not that kind of girl. But neither was Peter Zell that kind of guy. Nobody is the kind of person they used to be.” Winters is a genius with character–much like Tana French–and while I generally start out liking Peter, I end up liking him less and less, because I want him to be so much more than he is. I want him to be the hero. I want him to solve people’s problems, I want him to live with integrity in the face of society’s breakdown, and I want him to take care of the damn dog instead of letting it run around matted and limping. And though he continues to disappoint, I still have compassion for him because he is so very human. And so very familiar: “I was right, all along, in my pedantic obnoxious small-minded insistence that the truth was true.

There’s humor here, so there are a few moments of levity in the midst of the missing persons search and the impending impact. A side remark about the DSM-IV for “astromania’ made me snicker, and one particular image struck me with its brilliance: “It’s like the man has re-created his natural habitat below the world, a scumbag terrarium.” But mostly I keep reading for the truths Winter leads me to and Palace’s evolving understanding of humanity:

It’s not just a person’s present that dies when they die, when they are murdered or drowned or a giant rock falls on their head. It’s the past, too, all the memories that belonged only to them, the things they thought and never said. And all those possible futures, all the ways that life might have turned out. Past and future and present all burn up together like a bundle of sticks.

Highly recommended.

 

 

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In the Night Garden by Catherynne Valente

In the Night Garden

September 2011
Recommended for fans of fairytales, weavings stories, characters
 ★    ★    ★    ★    1/2

Book as arabesque.

Short story leads to short story, each providing background and impetus for the next, characters answering questions to what led them to that intersection. It’s a beautiful technique that comes back around to many of the original story characters.

The trouble for me is that the short story makes it easy to put down and go do something else, as it’s often a natural break in the plot and action, so it took me far too long to finish. More clues or story in the background setting of the young wild girl in the king’s garden could have helped give context to why she is there and keep me motivated; perhaps the second book will bring the story telling back around to the “real” narrative of the young girl and the prince.

I find the language and ideas poetic and beautiful. Some might find the prose “purplish” but I would say that fans of de Lint and Beagle will love it. Valente deserves the James Tiptree Jr. award with such interesting female characters and her ability to turn conventions sideways. The story of the princess in the tower became particularly fascinating. It’s a very full, imaginative book that usually does not go too far into moralizing; characters are created uniquely and quickly in the short stories, and subsequent ones even bring insight into villains and evil kings and sorceresses.

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Rhode Island Red by Charlotte Carter

Rhode Island Red

January 2015
Recommended for fans of jazz, NYC, street artists, character-driven mysteries
 ★    ★    ★    ★  

First published in 1997, Rhode Island Red is the first in a series about Nanette Hayes, twenty eight year-old woman trying to make ends meet in New York. Open Road Media is re-releasing the book in e-version, and I have to applaud their decision. Of course, I’m a natural sucker for the stories of New York, as well as stories that are underrepresented, so perhaps I’m not the best person to judge.

Nanette graduated from Wellesley with a degree in French and a minor in music, and is now trying to earn enough money for rent. It wasn’t a problem until her boyfriend Walter Michael Moore decided to move out, taking “four fifths of the rent and groceries.” Playing the sax on the street earns some tip money, but also provides a way for her to cope: “Good thing I had on those dark glasses. All those melancholy, lost, private things going through my head. Things I wouldn’t want anybody to read in my eyes.” Another sax player begs her for an opportunity to crash at her place that night and despite her misgivings, she allows him the use of an extra futon. She wakes up shivering with cold only to discover her guest is dead–and when she checks the body, she discovers he was an undercover officer. The discovery sets off an interesting chain of events that leads her to track down Sig’s blind girlfriend, also a busker, while attempting to avoid the violent Detective Leman.

The plot is interesting, if somewhat confusing by the end. Nanette is very much an amateur sleuth and her minor investigative attempts seem littered with assumptions.  When the story sidesteps into a romance, I found myself sighing, but remained interested enough for the outcome to keep reading. Still, lessons are learned, which is really what I require if I’m going to follow a character any length of time: “In my dumbass attempts to do right, I’d managed to cut a pretty wide swath through the endless possibilities of wrong.” 

Characterization is excellent, and full of the same kind of surprises found in real life. Hayes comes across well, as someone I would have known in the late twenties, post-college and waking up to the gulf between her dreams and reality. She reminisces about her past in a way that is well-integrated with the story but gives a sense of who she is. She’s a confident, kind person who thinks she’s street-wise, an easy character to root for. Side characters are also well done, with vivid little sketches that bring them alive: “The map of the colored man in America was written on his face. Yes, the black past was there, but there was something else… Aha. So that was what I’d glimpsed in his face: he was mean.

Woven through the mystery is Nanette’s love for jazz and music,  from Coltrane to Davis to Monk: “There’s Parker and Rollins and Coltrane… well, the list goes on endlessly. I think it’s a good thing to have an open ended pantheon. When it comes to the piano, though, it’s Monk whom I have accepted as my personal savior.”

All that said, one of the best things about this mystery is the way it weaves Nanette’s life into the story. She touches on her preference for her bald head, interracial relationships, the experience of a black American dealing with the police–and the experience of a black policeman dealing with racism–reactions of people downtown listening to her street music, her upbringing, and struggles with the landlord in an organic, human way that says, “here is my experience.” For white Americans that want to believe that they “don’t see color,” it provides insight into the layers of difference.

I enjoyed it and will certainly check out the next. Although I strongly recommend it with some background jazz and just enough light to read by.

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