Monthly Archives: August 2010

It’s almost here… the Texas Book Festival!

Some people live for concerts. I myself like a nice concert at a small venue. Other people travel according to their culinary interests. Bravo for them. What am I thrilled about? The Texas Book Festival. I dreamed of it for years: the lines of book-holding patrons; the authors milling about; the tents full of books. Last year, I made that dream a reality. My parents (both booklovers) and I loaded up and made the trip to Austin, thrilled to be able to take part in such an awesome bookish event (I believe this book festival is the 2nd largest nationwide). There are lectures, book signings, stalls of books from publishers large and small, and all sorts of cool events for kids.

Last year, I was a newbie and didn’t have a planned schedule except for seeing Margaret Atwood, who was brilliant. I also saw Lance Letscher (whose artwork is at the top of this blog). There is nothing more stimulating to me than being in such an atmosphere. I am not all that into signed books; I’d much rather listen to what authors have to say than have them sign my book. That said, the TBF people have the nuts and bolts of the event down pat. The entire festival is a well-oiled machine, with lectures and panel discussions held in the Capitol itself along with nearby theaters and museums. My one regret last year (other than seeing David Wroblewski, who wasn’t all that impressive) was missing out on Jonathan Safron Foer’s lecture. He was late in the day on Sunday, and I needed to get back home.

The 2010 full author list was just posted today. The schedule will not be posted until a little closer to the actual festival, October 16-17. I am so excited. Some of the big names this year are Abraham Verghese, Scott Westerfield, Karl Marlantes, Jennifer Egan, Justin Cronin, Michael Cunningham, Julia Glass, and Meg Cabot. I would also like to hear Lance Letscher again as I find his art really stirring. DJ Stout is a book designer for the University of Texas Press, and I would love to sit in on his lecture. If I could draw, I would love to design books.

I plan on heading to the library this afternoon to pick up books from several of these authors I have not yet read. I had such a fantastic time last year, and one of my favorite moments was walking from the Capitol toward the street through this wide expanse of green lawn and coming across this:

There really are books everywhere. I don’t know if a friendly soul left this for another to read, or if the book was just patiently waiting for its owner to return. Either way, it was a nice little vignette to end our trip.

Is anyone else out there plan on going this year? If so, let me know for sure. Also, if you can’t go, who would your “definitely do not miss” authors be?

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Ah, my man Jeeves

P.G. Wodehouse. I wanted to read him for years. You know, on Twitter, there are frequent conversations about authors who intimidate us, authors we know we should read but don’t, etcetera, etcetera. I’ll be perfectly honest, I can’t stand Dickens. Nope, not even a little bit. No, not even that novel you love that you think I should just give a second chance. There are no second chances with Dickens. Life is short; Dickens is always long… winded, that is. However, I can also admit when I am wrong: I thought the Jeeves books would be a total joke, which in all fairness to me, they sort of are.

However, to call the genius that is Jeeves a total joke is the equivalent of comparing a 3-year-old’s knock-knock joke to Margaret Cho. (And that chick is fu-nny.) For those not in the know, this is Jeeves:

He’s thoroughly British, full of common sense, and 110% competent. He is valet to Bertie Wooster. Mr. Wooster…not so competent. Bertie is young, wealthy, and a bit of an airhead. He is constantly engaged to some woman or another, and usually, the engagement is either a ruse or the result of some verbal altercation with a beautiful but slightly crazy female. Jeeves is there to save the day, however.

I have now read two Jeeves stories: The Catnappers and How Right You Are, Jeeves. In both, I felt supremely sorry for Jeeves, who was attempting to visit relatives or take a small break from his exhausting boss. Alas, there are no holidays for valets. Instead, Bertie manages to ruin these mini-breaks, and Jeeves once again steps in to save Bertie and his surrounding cast of characters from disaster or at least, social disaster. The other recurring characters are Bertie’s aunts, whom he treats with loving disdain, referring to them as “aged relative” or “battle-ax.” The aunts are often as inane as Bertie but are also endearing and entertaining.

The plots are fast and funny, as is the dialogue. Wodehouse is a peach for knowing his grammar well enough to use it and misuse it well. Bertie will dangle a modifier and then humorously correct it. He is also one for malapropisms, and they are littered throughout the books. I highly recommend these social parodies; Wodehouse’s biting sarcasm equals the humorous social commentary Jane Austen was quite famous for. He just jazzes it up a bit.


Review: Bad Boy by Peter Robinson

A bad boy is unreliable, and sometimes he doesn’t show up at all, or if he does, he’s late and moody; he acts mean to you, and he leaves early. He always seems to have another iron in the fire, somewhere else to be…. it’s exquisite agony … He goes to bed with your best friend, and still you forgive him, still you want him.

Thank heavens I was never into bad boys. Because you’ve got two types: the moody, slightly-depressed version and the really, really bad dangerous ones. In Peter Robinson’s newest book, Bad Boy, out Tuesday, August 24, DCI Banks’s daughter, Tracy aka Francesca, has fallen for the latter. Tracy lives with her best friend from childhood, Erin, in a posh part of Leeds. They drink a lot and do a little drugs. Tracy’s career hasn’t taken off as she planned; she didn’t get the best marks in school, and she feels overshadowed by the success of her brother Brian’s band. In short, she’s feeling pretty damn sorry for herself. One night at a club, intoxicated, Tracy kisses Erin’s boyfriend Jaff. Erin and Jaff have a big blowup later that night, and Erin goes to her parents’ house, taking something from Jaff that doesn’t belong to her, something Jaff desperately needs to have in his possession.

Meanwhile, Banks is in absentia. His last case has left him with horrific images; his latest love affair is over; his career is in tatters. He is in California, following in the footsteps of Sam Spade, the fictional detective in The Maltese Falcon. Back at home, Juliet Doyle, Erin’s mother, walks into the station asking to see DCI Banks. DI Annie Cabbot takes her into Banks’s office and draws the situation out of the woman. Apparently, the Doyle family were neighbors to Banks, and Ms. Doyle has come to him for help: Erin has a gun. In the UK, possession of a handgun is a serious offense, and the police begin crawling all over the Doyle’s home as well as the house Erin and Tracy share. Tracy, sensing trouble, runs to Jaff, and the two take off for her father’s cottage in Gratly. Tracy is excited and feels she is on an adventure; however, once Jaff discovers she is the daughter of a DCI, Tracy’s life is in danger.

This book is not a traditional mystery. There’s no major whodunit. We know whodunit; what we don’t know is how it will all end. In this sense, I felt Bad Boy was a turning point in the series as well as in Alan Banks’ life, forcing everything into focus. In the desert, Banks finds a little of what he’s been searching for:

For so long he seemed to have been struggling in the dark, and in that desert night, when the motel’s blinking red neon was nothing but a dot on the horizon, he found an epiphany of a kind. But it was nothing momentous. No road to Damascus, no lightning strike of revelation or enlightenment, as he had hoped for….The epiphany, when it came, was nothing more than a simple fleeting ripple of happiness that went through him as a light cool breeze might brush one’s skin on a hot day….He remembered thinking he was a long, long way from home, but, oddly enough, he didn’t feel so far away at that moment.

When he goes home to find chaos, it seems that moment is what allows him to hold firm. Literally exhausted, he delves into the darkness of the dales to find Jaff, a cold, narcissistic character if I’ve ever seen one. Paced more like a thriller than anything else, Bad Boy is also grittier than any of the Banks mysteries up to this point. It’s messy.

Tracy, who has always been a minor character, comes to the foreground here, but I wasn’t glad about it. She pissed me off royally. I try not to be judgmental, generally, but I’m pretty judgmental about stupidity. Tracy made one stupid move after another, and a lot of it was pretty unbelievable. However, I’ve also never taken drugs, and I am not sure how much that ups the “stupid factor.” When Tracy initially runs to Jaff, I thought, ok. There are several points after that, though, where major sirens would have sounded in my head.

Another troubling aspect of the book was PC Nerys Powell. She’s a newbie to the series. Part of the arms squad, Powell forms an unlikely allegiance to DI Cabbot, and her actions throughout the novel are questioned because she is a known lesbian. The quick (one-way) bond seemed a bit forced and too convenient for some of the later plot developments as did the reemergence of Dirty Dick Burgess. I can handle one rogue figure. Two? I don’t know.

As always, Peter Robinson wrote an enjoyable book, and though I appreciate his attempt to allow the series to mature, I missed his typical writing style, typified by In a Dry Season. With the ending of this book, I am curious as to where Robinson plans on taking Banks and Cabbot and how much longer Banks will keep pounding the pavement. Are you planning on getting this newest addition? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it pre or post reading!

*Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers and Harper Collins for my first ARC.


My Life as a Book 2010

Ah, life. Ah, books. Put them together, and it’s one hell of a ride. One of my favorite quotes (anonymous) is: Those who say they have only one life to live have never opened a book. How true is that? Pop Culture Nerd, inspired by another book blogger, took that to heart, creating some sentences that must be finished with the title of a book read in the past year. A bookish Mad Libs? Are you kidding me? I’m game.

Lance Letscher: i can jump

In school I was: The Book Thief (Zusak)

Ok, maybe not really, but wouldn’t that be sort-of cool, in a non-criminal kind of way? No?

People might be surprised I’m: The Undomestic Goddess (Kinsella)

Hm. ‘Surprised’ may be the wrong word. Except others tell me my house looks clean. I am just a bit OCD about it. My baseboards are always dirty. Gah!

I will never be: Careless in Red (George)

‘Never’ is a really strong word.

My fantasy job is: Daughter of Fortune (Allende)

Too late for that? What about daughter-in-law of fortune? I jest.

At the end of a long day I need: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Bradley)

A gal’s gotta eat. And this gal craves sweets 24/7.

I hate it when: Wednesday’s Child (Robinson) [is] Interr’d with Their Bones (Carrell)

Yeah, I cheated. Get over it.

Wish I had: A Dedicated Man (Robinson)

Only not too dedicated. I like my alone time. A lot. So, I wish I had a partially dedicated man. On Tuesdays and Thursdays. With a bottle of wine. And chocolate.

My family reunions are: What Came Before He Shot Her (George)

No, really.

At a party you’d find me with: The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky)

What? Alexei’s a bit too dedicated… But that other one, what’s his name? No, not the maybe-murderer. Ivan or Vanya (why can’t I have two first names?). He sounded hot.

I’ve never been to: Persepolis (Satrapi)

It’s a place. Persia. I’ve never been to it. It doesn’t exist anymore. Yadda yadda yadda.

A happy day includes: Three Cocktails (Wickham)

Although to be honest, two would probably work just as well.

Motto I live by: Push (Sapphire)

Read the book.

On my bucket list: The Known World (Jones)

Every little bit of it. Now I just need funding.

In my next life, I want to be: The Brightest Star in the Sky (Keyes)

No, not Paris Hilton though I’m sure you can see her bling from miles away. Brightest star. As in the sun. My momma always told me to aim high…


Review: In a Dry Season by Peter Robinson

As I sat there remembering, time went by …. Then a full moon rose, scattering its bone-white light, in which I fancied I could see clear through the water to the village that used to be there, like an image preserved in water glass. There it was, spread out below me, darkly glittering and shimmering under the barely perceptible rippling of the surface

As I stared, I began to feel that I could reach out and touch it. It was like the wold beyond the mirror in Cocteau’s Orpheus. When you reach out and touch the glass, it turns to water and you can plunge through it into the Underworld.

Peter Robinson’s In a Dry Season revolves around Hobb’s End, a Yorkshire village flooded and turned into a reservoir in the early 1950s. In a particularly hot summer, the reservoir dries up, and a young boy playing in the detritus discovers a body buried under an outbuilding. DCI Alan Banks is on the outs with his boss Jimmy Riddle and is given the case as punishment. Riddle should know better as Banks sinks his teeth into the decades-old case, determined to find the killer if he or she is still alive.

Robinson interweaves the present with Banks’ marriage and career in tatters with a country in similar plight: 1940s Hobb’s End, complete with blackout curtains, RAF dances, rationing, death, and suffering. Gwen Shackleton, the shopkeeper’s daughter, cares for her ailing mother and minds the shop. One day, Gloria comes into the store, and Gwen the quiet, bookish girl compares Gloria’s eyes to Hardy’s novel A Pair of Blue Eyes. When Gloria asks for cigarettes out of the store’s ration, Gwen tells her no.

I was lying, of course. We did have cigarettes, but what small supply we had we kept under the counter for our registered customers. We certainly didn’t go selling them to strange and beautiful land girls with eyes out of Thomas Hardy novels.

Gloria is enigmatic – loved and hated for her beauty. Gwen’s brother walks in, and their fortuitous meeting forever links Gwen and Gloria, through war, through loss, and through love.

I find Robinson to be at his best when he melds two storylines from different time periods, both inside the minds of the victim/victim’s family and friends as well as the detective seeking justice for these people. The scenes of Yorkshire during World War II were really interesting; the quiet desperation amid a hopeful, fearful people was heartbreaking.

Banks is a quiet detective. If you’ve had no exposure to him before, he likes his Laphroaig, but he likes it with a side of opera. He’s flawed but fascinating with a deep sense of right and wrong, whether right and wrong is inside police procedural or not. In a Dry Season is one of his best, and I’m looking forward to reviewing his newest book for LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer group.

If you have never read any Robinson, I urge you to look him up (as well as Ian Rankin). If you’ve read any Robinson, what are your favorites? Have you read this particular novel? Are you looking forward to his latest?


Waiting on Wednesday

Waiting. Most of us are not very good at it. Jill at Breaking the Spine hosts “Waiting On” Wednesday, and I decided to participate. She, too, is waiting on my featured book by Nicole Krauss. Nicole Krauss and her husband each wrote books within a couple of years of each other that did me in: The History of Love by the former and Everything is Illuminated by the latter. Both were new novelists, and although I loved the books themselves, I wasn’t too pleased with the endings. However, Krauss has a captivating style and storytelling voice I cannot and will not resist. I caught this article today discussing her newest book:

In this latest from Krauss (The History of Love), a huge old desk with many drawers becomes the symbol of love and loss for a host of characters from different countries and time periods. There is the New York woman who has written all her novels at the desk, which she was keeping for a Chilean poet who has since disappeared. Then there are the poet’s daughter, who comes back years later to claim the desk; the antiques dealer who tracks down meaningful items from people’s pasts; the brother and sister who live isolated in a Jerusalem home filled with other people’s furniture; the elderly couple in England who live with the desk and a horrible secret; and the dictatorial father who desperately tries to understand his creative son. [from Barnes & Noble]

October 12, 2010, the day the book is released, seems a long time away. From an aesthetic point of view, I absolutely love the cover of this book: the colors and font are gorgeous, and the style evokes the form of the novel. I’m excited to see what this new novel will bring. Watching an author evolve and mature is one of the main reasons I enjoy reading contemporary literature. What about you? Are you strictly a reader of classics? Do you ever dip your toes into the world of contemporary fiction? And what are you waiting on, book-wise?

Happy Wednesday,

Picky Girl


Teaching: An Open Forum

For those of you who don’t know, I quit a decent-paying but utterly soul-draining job a year ago to teach full time at the local university. I had taught night classes for years and finally took the plunge to work as an adjunct instructor. Next week begins the mad dash to the starting lineup that is the fall semester. I’ve been knee-deep, no, nearly waist-deep in educational and quasi-educational tasks this week. Course list? Check. Textbooks? Check. Paper cuts? Check. School supplies? Check. Next week will be worse. My reading time slows to nil right before the semester starts. Actually, let me amend that – my free reading time slows. My academic reading/re-reading/prep reading kicks into full gear.

As an adjunct, I face a number of difficulties: Will my schedule change again? Will any more of my classes get handed to full-time folks? Can I make it between two campuses roughly 35 minutes apart? When will I eat? How will I pay bills if they cut any more classes? Dang, do I really have to pay $56 for a desk copy? And most importantly, where can I find a school bag, not a backpack, that isn’t hideous and with enough pockets for my anal-retentive tendencies? I know, I know. Please don’t virtually slap me.

Well, ok, those are my worries, i.e. concerning me. There are others as well: How can I best interact with these students? Do I use tech? If so, to what extent? Do I create online discussion forums for them? Do I then need to police them? How should I best set the tone of the course? What should I change to reach more students? Should I stand on my head in order to make them notice that hey – I’m up here doing my darndest to get your attention?

Let’s not mince words. I teach freshman and sophomore English classes. Entry-level composition. Students don’t like it. I hope I’ve made it a less painful process for many of them, but that’s only part of my job. I aim to make it applicable, engaging, and enticing as much as possible. There’s still a heck of a lot of stuff to toss at them. Giving each semester an overall arc seems to help; if there is a main focus to the course, it helps me and them. And I do my work – don’t doubt it. My current reading material is Background Readings for Teachers of American Literature by Venetria K. Patton. While I love history, this is not exactly bedtime reading. However, I’ve also got Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates playing in the car. She’s the only person I’ve ever found who can make the Puritans and Pilgrims sound like MTV’s The Real World (the only reality TV show I’ve ever watched). I’ve taught American Literature twice before, but you’d be amazed how quickly the mind forgets. Apparently, my note-taking skills aren’t quite up to par. Notes such as “went from a society based on class to a society based on survival and dependence on one another” are all fine and good but aren’t really what I need. Note to self: enough with the shorthand!

Teaching has changed a lot, and teaching hasn’t changed a lot. An #engchat Twitter conversation yesterday was pretty indicative of that. Some people push teaching composition in modes (argumentation, compare/contrast, cause/effect); others prefer to teach genre and explain modes through that. One particular tweeter/twit/bird (?) kept harping on “community, community” but never really explained what the community was supposed to do. Some require class blogs; others use wikis. There is so much out there, and I feel if I don’t utilize it, I’m cheating my students. Then I tell myself that when I was in school, we didn’t have all that, and I still turned out ok. A good educator is a good educator.

My English teachers in high school were unbelievable, but my all-time favorite was Mrs. Richter. Her class wasn’t simple – far from it. She challenged all of us, but she also treated us as individuals, not just silly 17-year-olds, which we were. I remember I thought one of the coolest things about her was that she played soft music during tests. I hate silence, and that bit of noise was much appreciated. More than that, though, she wasn’t afraid to venture outside her discipline. If she thought a work of art or a piece of music could get the job done, she used it. She is one of the reasons I teach today, and she is the reason I try, always, to test the waters with something new.

My question to you, then, is this: What were your most memorable courses/teachers? What made them/he/she memorable? What approaches in the classroom had an effect on you? Be specific. I want to know. Don’t worry, your answers won’t be graded.


Review: Affinity by Sarah Waters

I first picked up a Sarah Waters novel as an undergraduate. I was buying books at the campus bookstore, and the book caught my eye because Sarah Waters was my great-grandmother’s name. Plus, the cover was beautiful. Reading the back, I was hooked. When I think about it now, I laugh at my naive self – at the time, buying a book for a class I wasn’t taking seemed illicit and dangerous. Yes, I know. I was a dork. No underage binge drinking or kegstands. Instead, I bought books THAT WERE NOT ON MY COURSE LIST.

After seeing The Little Stranger reviews the last couple months, I decided I needed to find more of her work. My library didn’t have any, but I filled out a handy little card with Affinity, and lo and behold, they called me last week to let me know they had acquired the book and were holding it for me. (I love the library).

A splendid example of Gothic literature, Affinity is an exploration of mental illness, spiritualism, confinement, and sexuality. Margaret Prior is “ill.” Her father has died and with him, any hope she may have of freedom. A spinster, she worked with her father, a writer and researcher of Renaissance art. He has promised Margaret a trip to Italy with her close friend (and, it appears, former lover) Helen. After he dies, though, Margaret sees a long, bleak life, caring for her mother. Her father’s friend Mr. Shillitoe intervenes and convinces Margaret and her mother to allow Margaret to visit Millbank, the local prison, as a Lady Visitor. There, she will show the inmates how to be a lady and, more importantly, will learn how much better she has it than the women she visits.

However, the prison seems to be the last place to heal the depressed young woman:

[Millbank’s] scale is vast, and its lines and angles, when realised in walls and towers of yellow brick and shuttered windows, seem only wrong or perverse. It is as if the prison had been designed by a man in the grip of a nightmare or a madness – or had been made expressly to drive its inmates mad. I think it would certainly drive me mad, if I had to work as a warder there. As it was, I walked flinchingly beside the man who led me, and paused once to glance behind me, then to gaze at the wedge of sky that showed above.

The prison is damp and dark, covered with lime and with women whose eyes

were terribly dull. Their faces were pale, and their necks, and their wrists and fingers, very slender. I thought of Mr. Shillitoe saying that a prisoner’s heart was weak, impressionable, and needed a finer mould to shape it. I thought of it, and became aware again of my own heart beating.

Margaret herself is impressionable, though, and as she follows the matrons on her tour, she stops to compose herself and becomes aware of one cell in particular, a cell closed off except for an inspection flap and the prisoner’s sentence hanging above it.

It was only from this, indeed, that I knew the cell was occupied at all, for there seemed to emanate from it a marvellous stillness – a silence, that seemed deeper yet than all the restless Millbank hush surrounding it. Even as I began to wonder over it, however, the silence was broken. It was broken by a sigh, a single sigh – it seemed to me, a perfect sigh, like a sigh in a story; and the sigh being such a complement to my own mood I found it worked upon me, in that setting, rather strangely.

The woman prisoner, sentenced to four years because of fraud and assault is Selina Dawes, a young spiritualist. The novel switches between Margaret’s written diary and Miss Dawes’ own account of her activities as a spiritualist. Miss Dawes, taken in by Mrs. Brink, a lady obsessed with communicating with her mother’s spirit, holds dark circles (or seances) for Mrs. Brink and her friends. One fateful night, however, she sits with a young woman who is beaten during their session. When Mrs. Brink comes upon the scene, she has a heart attack and dies. Selina explains that her spirit guide Peter Quick hurts the young woman, but to no avail. She is imprisoned.

The two women are drawn to one another. As not quite lady but not quite thief, Selina enjoys the companionship, and Margaret feels bolstered. She is at first skeptical of Selina’s gift, but Selina sees things about Margaret she cannot. The two become close, and Selina calls Margaret by a secret name – Aurora. Selina tells her:

I feel your sorrow as darkness….Oh, what an ache it is! I thought at first that it had emptied you, that you were hollow, quite hollow, like an egg with the meat blown out of it. I think you think that, too. But you are not empty. You are full – only shut quite tight, and fastened like a box. What do you have here that you must keep locked up like that?

Selina hits upon it, and it seems to set Margaret burning. For Margaret has much hidden – she loves or loved Helen, now her brother’s wife; she wants to go to Italy and is jealous of her sister’s honeymoon there; she writes constantly, hiding her diary from her mother and the servants. She begins a sort-of symbiotic relationship with Selina. She strengthens, saying:

I knew my trips to her had made me too much like myself, like my old self, my naked Aurora self. Now, when I tried to be Margaret again, I couldn’t. It seemed to me that she had dwindled, like a suit of clothes.

But instead of the relationship sapping Selina of her strength as the dark circles did – Selina, too, seems emboldened by it. Margaret and Selina begin to make plans for an unbelievable escape, and Margaret stands up to her mother. She is tired of being discussed while her back is turned and wonders, when Stephen discusses her illness with her mother:

Why do gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly, when women’s are so easily stifled?

Affinity was captivating for a lot of reasons, particularly for me because the correlation between much of the book and the story “The  Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s one of my favorites – in fact, part of my graduate thesis focused on it – and the similarities were too blatant to ignore. Knowing it is one of Waters’ favorites sealed the deal. If you have read the story, look back at the first description of the prison: it’s spot-on Gilman. The narrator is convincing, even though she is, on closer examination, unreliable. The story is told through a diary, a forbidden means of expression. “Voice” is also a concern in both – who hears the narrator? There were actually points within the novel where I found myself wondering if Selina was part of Margaret’s psyche; she already has an alternate identity – Aurora – that makes her feel more like herself.

The novel, as most of Waters’ books, has an astounding twist, one that left me both haunted and betrayed. Because other than setting the tone masterfully, Waters has the ability to make me feel like her main character. At first, I was skeptical of Selina, but I, too, was drawn in by her and began to believe the spirits visited her. I believed she could escape through the help of her spirit friends, so at the end, (I won’t go into detail) the twist so startled me, I felt rocked, but not in the sense that it was implausible or not in keeping with the rest of the book. The somewhat unreliable narrator (Margaret is given chloral and laudanum through much of the story) felt believable and sympathetic. The one problem I had with the ending was not knowing the truth of Selina’s story. However, the more I thought about it, the more I could see the full effect of Waters’ writing. Much like Margaret, I was left in confusion. Bothersome though it may be, I wasn’t ever to know the truth of Selina’s story. Dark and oppressive, Affinity is an irresistible read – just think about starting it on a bright, sunny day, not a rain, dreary evening like I did…

Other opinions:

Matt

Nymeth

A Work in Progress


Review: What Came Before He Shot Her by Elizabeth George

It should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone here that I am extremely picky about audiobook narrators. I can’t even remember which book it was now, but a couple weeks ago, I turned one on, and within five minutes, I punched the eject button. The woman was an overachiever when it came to character intonations: her “kid” voice was so grating, I couldn’t stand it a second longer. Charles Keating, on the other hand, is superb. Let me just get that out of the way; he is perfection. I’m already on another audiobook narrated by him, and it is fabulous as well.

What Came Before He Shot Her is written by Elizabeth George. Mystery readers may recognize her name, but do not be fooled: This novel is no mystery. Mysteries do not divulge what happens in the title. Mysteries do not (typically) focus on the perpetrator of the crime. Instead, this book is a sociological, psychological exploration of a cast of characters I won’t soon forget.

The book opens with three children of mixed race – Ness, Joel, and Toby – being shuffled off to the stoop of their Auntie Kendra’s house in South Kensington, London. Their Gran is going back to Jamaica with her boyfriend, George, and the children are not part of the picture. Ness is a teenager, angry and bitter; Joel is kind and compassionate and ever-watchful of his brother; Toby has developmental problems and is totally devoted to his older brother. The three have been shuffled around since the murder of their father, who was shot in the street, and the institutionalization of their mother. Kendra comes home to find the boys waiting for her; Ness has already run off looking for drugs. What follows is a tale so wrenching, I felt my chest tighten at several points throughout the book.

While Kendra deals with this sudden alteration to her life, Ness finds a dealer, Blade, and offers herself to him in exchange for a steady supply of drugs. Naive and foolish, Ness doesn’t understand the full extent of Blade’s enterprise or power. When she finds out Blade has other girlfriends, there is an ugly brawl – and Blade is shown up by Kendra’s boyfriend Dix.

Joel is on the straight and narrow. He knows how best to mollify Toby and watches out for him constantly. A gang of boys, on the lookout for the newbie – the one with the weird brother – quickly target Joel and Toby. Neal Wyatt and his gang are out to get them, and no amount of “sorting” will deter Neal’s determination to get to Toby and through Toby, Joel. As the pranks become more and more deadly, Joel knows what he has to do in order to save his small, patched-together family.

Watching, or rather, listening to this story filled me with dread. I knew exactly what would happen. I knew Blade would not live and let live after being shown up. I knew Joel would go to him for help, and I knew Joel was innocent enough to believe the Blade would help. The buildup was excruciating, but the interplay between the characters hooked me. It is horrific on many levels, no less so because of the outside forces trying to do good but failing miserably. These children don’t live in the type of world where poetry and art can lift them above violence. Adults don’t always equal safety, and sometimes your worst enemy is the only symbol of safety.


Review: The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow

Boone Daniels is a surfer, a beach bum, a PI, and probably the most unlikely character to make me sit up and take notice. Working out of a surf shop that doubles as his office, Boone reminds me much of a friend who, in college, called me at 2 a.m. to drive from Texas to California. When I asked him where we would sleep, his answer was “the boards, covered with a blanket in the sand.” I passed. Boone would love this. He’s got a van that doubles as a changing room; instead of one loyal sidekick who drinks a bit too much and says “bloody” an awful lot, Boone is surrounded by The Dawn Patrol: Sunny Day, High Tide, Johnny Banzai, Hang Twelve, and Dave the Love God. This gang surfs together and is always watching the others’ backs. To be honest, my mystery reads trend to British, Irish, and Scottish detectives where the weather often fits the nature of the crime. I’m no California girl. I’ve been to L.A. and didn’t particularly like it. But PCN recommended this book, and after following her the last few months, I take her advice seriously.

The book opens as a wave Winslow describes in surfer lingo as “epic macking crunchy” makes its way toward the California coastline. Surfing careers are made and broken with these waves, and The Dawn Patrol is ready for the action, but even more trouble is looming in the form of attorney Petra, who brings a case to Boone at the most inopportune time. He wants to catch that wave, damn it, but he also needs to eat, as his friend-cum-accountant chides him. He takes the case, and Boone’s assignment is to find Tammy, a stripper who was witness to arson. No biggie, right? Wrong. Petra needs Tammy to testify for the insurance company against a local thug, Dan Silver. There’s just one problem: Tammy doesn’t want to be found. Soon, Boone is chasing after a killer and a missing little girl, still haunted by his time on the force where he messed up big time, and as the story develops, Boone must come face to face with his own past as The Dawn Patrol’s ties thin and each must look out for him or herself.

In the background, the wave builds, and it’s no wading pool:

[This] kind of wave is the subsurface wave, which starts, duh, under the water. If surface waves are your middleweight boxers, dancing and shooting jabs, the subsurface wave is your heavyweight, coming in flatfooted, throwing knockout punches from the (ocean) floor. This wave is the superstar, the genuine badass, the take-your-lunch money, walk-off-with-your-girlfriend, give-me-those-fucking-sneakers, thank you for playing and now what parting gifts do we have for our contestant, Vanna wave…. It’s heavy, my friend; it ain’t your brother.

Normally, I’m turned off by this no-holds-barred, newfangled sort of writing. Charlie Huston’s writing was absolutely unbearable (for me), but Winslow’s good. He’s on top of his game, and the more I read, the more I admired his style. As the action built, the chapters were shorter and shorter, to the point that the last 50 pages had me, literally, breathless. With any good mystery, I want that buildup. I want to have a good idea of what’s going on (which I did), but I loved the way Winslow brought me there. At the end, I was washed up on the shore, tired and breathless, but ready to read more about the adventures of The Dawn Patrol.