Category Archives: violence

It’s a mystery!

Actually, it’s three mysteries. I did quite a bit of reading last weekend, and I decided to do three short reviews as opposed to individual ones. In fact, I may bring this back regularly since I tend to read them often. If you’ve read any good mysteries lately and want to link up, leave your link in comments, and I’ll include it here.

Every now and again I just get on a kick where all I want to read are mysteries, so bear with me. It usually happens toward the end of a semester when my brain feels fried from grading essay after essay. So, in no particular order, here’s the low down:

Death of a Poison Pen by M.C. Beaton – a Hamish Macbeth mystery

I’ve heard quite a bit about M.C. Beaton, both from bloggers and from my mom, who loves Agatha Raisin. Even though cozy mysteries aren’t usually what I like, I thought it might be a nice switch. What a pleasant surprise, then, to find quite a nice combination of hardened detective and charming Lochdubh in this book. This isn’t the first book in the series, but I definitely didn’t feel as though I was left out in any way. Hamish Macbeth is the underdog. His superiors don’t really like his methods, but his methods seem to solve a lot of cases. In this book, Macbeth is seeking out a writer of petty but poisonous letters. Everyone seems to have gotten one, and Macbeth is afraid pretty soon someone will take matters into her own hands. Of course, he’s right, and pretty soon there are swinging corpses showing up and startling the otherwise quiet village. Throw in an outsider looking for an adventure and following Macbeth in an effort to make her friend (and Macbeth’s former girlfriend) jealous, a nosy reporter, and a vindictive headmistress of a local school, and the writing is on the wall: Murder most foul, as Miss Marple would say (not to totally mix my cozy mysteries).

Mr. Dixon Disappears by Ian Sansom – A Mobile Library Mystery

Ah, I had such high hopes for this book. A mobile librarian who is a bit of a deadbeat? A mobile librarian who is a bit of a deadbeat who also runs into crime? Sign me up. Israel Armstrong is that librarian, and the story opens with him setting up a mobile exhibit about a local legend – Dixon and Pickering’s, a department store. As he is setting up, though, the store is robbed, and the owner, Mr. Dixon, disappears (see! that’s where the title come from). The local police don’t trust Armstrong, who is an outsider in this Irish village and has a very funny name for an Englishman. He is arrested, and mayhem ensues. The setup is all very nice, and the humor is great. My biggest problem with this mystery? It couldn’t decide whether or not it was cozy or hardboiled. One instant, Israel is dressing in disguise and trying to decipher the local dialect, the next, he is dropping the C word (very bad) and pissing me off. Eh. I may try another, and I certainly don’t hope to dissuade you. It just didn’t make me an instant fan.

Agatha Raisin and the Case of the Curious Curate by M.C. Beaton

Don’t be fooled. Beaton may be the same author of this series and the Hamish Macbeth series, but they are definitely distinct series. I enjoyed them both, even though the cozy mystery is not usually my cup of tea. Agatha’s husband has left her for the monastery – except he never makes it to the monastery. Her pride is just a bit hurt until the new curate, a devilishly handsome younger man, asks her to dinner. However, shortly after their dinner (and a goodnight kiss), Tristan the curate, is found murdered. Agatha and her handsome mystery writer friend take on the investigation themselves, traveling to and from London with several near misses, red herrings, all while a cold-blooded murderer is on the loose. The murders are actually quite vicious, which I didn’t expect for a cozy mystery, and the ending was satisfying. What more can you ask for?

I do hope you’ve enjoyed these short reviews. As I mentioned before, if you’ve reviewed any of these or possibly other mysteries, let’s link up! Anyone else feel like winter is perfect cozy mystery weather? If so, what’s on your list?


Texas Book Festival – Part Dos

Saturday night, I was exhausted. Like, too tired to read, and I’m never too tired to read. I guess dancing at The Broken Spoke until midnight Friday night and then traipsing across the capitol ALL day on Saturday was a bit much for this gal. I mapped out Sunday’s events, watched some HGTV in the hotel (I don’t have cable, so this was thrilling) and crashed. Sunday found me refreshed and excited to get to my two panels:

Literature on the Lam

Moderated by Skip Hollinsworth of Texas Monthly and filmed by BookTV, I was really excited about this panel. Criminals fascinate me, and I was practically fused to my seat I was so enthralled. Malcolm Beith, Jonathan Eig, Hampton Sides, and James Swanson were all panelists.

Each has a new book out dealing with infamous criminals. James Swanson, who wrote Manhunt about John Wilkes Booth, has a new book out called Blood Crimes, which is about Jefferson Davis. Patricia Cornwell deemed Manhunt to be one of the top two true crime novels along with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Hampton Sides writes about James Earl Ray in Hellhound. Jonathan Eig’s new book Get Capone posits new theories of the life Al Capone. Finally, Malcolm Beith wrote The Last Narco, a book about El Chapo, organized crime leader in Mexico.

The panel started on a light-hearted note as Hollinsworth asked Eig how he switched from writing about baseball players to Al Capone. Eig said he thought long and hard and asked himself: “Who else used baseball bats?” Eig’s sense of humor was welcome on the panel, and I’m curious how much humor comes across in his book. He says Capone was really “a product of Prohibition” who otherwise may have driven a truck or stocked store shelves. He had a chance to rake in money, though, and he took it. The odd thing about Capone, according to Eig, is how willingly he accepted the infamy. He asked “what kind of person welcomes that sort of attention” and ended by saying, “We’ve all got a little bit of larceny in us.”

Sides and Swanson were much more serious, tackling topics of national sensitivity. When asked how easily they could shake off the people of whom they wrote, all the authors said they could not. Sides and Swanson are left with questions as both John Wilkes Booth and James Earl Ray left many unanswered questions.

I particularly felt for Malcolm Beith, as he seemed genuinely disturbed by El Chapo. He answered he would never shake the man off because of the horror of his crimes, at one time killing 300 people in a vat of acid. El Chapo owns 23,000 square miles in Mexico and has enormous amounts of power. Beith, a former Mexican journalist, now resides in America and relates that at least 45 journalists in Mexico have died trying to bring to light the corruption.

Spanning cultural differences and huge time gaps, all the authors were interesting and obviously passionate about their books. I have added Manhunt, Hellhound, The Last Narco, and Get Capone to my reading list.

I can’t embed the video, but the link is here. It’s long-ish but worth the watch.

Swanson, Sides, Hollinsworth, Eig, and Beith at Literature on the Lam

Wickedly Funny Noir

This was a quirky bunch. Harry Hunsicker moderated a panel of authors including Lou Berney, Jonathan Woods, and Mark Haskell Smith. I haven’t read any of these authors, but the panel itself sounded interesting. Each was laidback and humorous and focused mainly on writing itself and not individual books. Hunsicker asked if there is any pressure to be funny, but each responded in the negative, Burney saying he writes characters “who aren’t funny but have a good sense of humor.”

How do you make sex funny? Woods, Berney, and Smith all agreed sex just is sort of funny. In fact, Berney doesn’t like writing sex scenes: “It embarrasses me; it embarrasses my Golden Retriever.” He relayed a couple of humorous scenes from his book. Smith said sex is just plain awkward, and he starts with that. He, though, apparently doesn’t shy away from these scenes, instead writing every gory detail. (My mom went to another panel the day before and said it was the closest thing to porn she’s ever heard. Apparently people with children there walked out as there was no warning and a children’s author was on the panel. Odd)

All agreed, as Burney said, “You have to learn to love killing things.” There is not a lot of humor in crime, but as Smith said, often the people with the best sense of humor are in law enforcement. The gist was, if we can’t laugh at something, we might as well “put a collective gun to our collective head,” Woods said

The audience here definitely felt more like a bunch of amateur writers. You know the type. They are really there for validation of their own work as opposed to really listening to what the authors have to say. Not all amateurs are like this, but many are. I did ask a question, though, to see if any of these guys knew any other funny noir other than Dashiell Hammett who wrote around the same time. They gave me some more current names, but that wasn’t really what I was looking for. It was a fun panel, though, and I will likely pick up Burney’s book Gutshot Straight. Mark Haskell Smith has written several books, Baked, Salty, Delicious, and Moist. Woods has a new collection of short stories Bad Juju and Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem.

Hunsicker, Berney, Woods, and Smith at Wickedly Funny Noir

 

The weekend was fabulous, and I can’t believe I have to wait another year to go back. I will definitely have to find some bookish events in the meantime. I hope you, dear reader, have something fun and bookish to look forward to – any great events happening near you?


Review: Blue-Eyed Devil by Lisa Kleypas

*Trigger warning: this post contains a story line which deals with domestic and sexual abuse.*


On the tail end of yesterday’s post, I had to write this morning about Blue-Eyed Devil. As promised, I went to the library last night and on my friend Sommer’s suggestion picked up the two sequels to Sugar Daddy, a book she passed on to me several years ago. Now, let me just say – my intentions last night were to eat dinner in my pjs, crawl into bed, and sleep blissfully until morning. Lisa Kleypas had other plans, and no, I’m not being dirty.

I stayed up until almost 3 a.m. reading this book. A romance novel? Sure, I guess. But it wasn’t just a romance novel: I CRIED.

There, I said it. The last book that made me well up was The Book Thief, ok. I’m a quality crier. No sappy ending brings tears to my eyes. In fact, sometimes I laugh at that sort of thing, but lying in bed, reading Blue-Eyed Devil, I couldn’t control my tears.

Haven Travis (I know, such a soap opera name) comes from Texas oil money and is from ritzy River Oaks Houston. She comes from a pretty strict background, although her best friend Todd, the son of two artists, is extremely liberal. He’s Buddhist and explains to Haven that Buddhists “spend a lot of time contemplating the nature of reality.” As a child when she asks to attend a Buddhist temple with Todd, her mother tells her she is a Baptist, and “Baptists didn’t spend their time thinking about reality.”

As an adult, though, Haven has got a conscious, which sometimes blinds her to people’s true natures. She is constantly trying to make up for having quite a lot of what most people have so little. The book opens at her brother’s wedding (culmination of Sugar Daddy), her boyfriend Nick by her side. But Daddy Travis, Haven’s impossible-to-impress father can’t stand Nick. In fact, no one seems impressed with him. However, Haven knows Nick came from nothing and loves his character and liberal nature. During the wedding, Haven sees who she thinks is Nick slip into the wine cellar and follows him in. Only it’s not Nick; it’s Hardy Cates, a business competitor of the Travis family. Cates, ahem, weakens Haven’s knees, but she leaves in search of Nick, who has spoken with her father, asking for Haven’s hand in marriage.

After she marries Nick and is cut off from Daddy’s money, she realizes Nick harbors great resentment toward her background. He blames Haven for her family’s money, even though it’s not something Haven thinks about. He wants to have children to manipulate money from Daddy Travis. The marriage becomes increasingly unstable as Nick’s personality deteriorates before Haven’s eyes. Haven must iron his shirts – just so – or she’s a bad wife. If she doesn’t have dinner made when they both get off work, she’s a bad wife. You see where this is going, and it’s not a comfortable place.

Nick becomes progressively more dangerous, and I think my tears started here, in the midst of the first slap:

Screaming. I’d never had someone scream into my face like that before, certainly not a man, and it was a kind of death.

Growing up, I remember my dad as a fairly laidback dad. He worked a lot as a grocery store manager, but it’s not his absences I remember. What has always, always stuck with me are the times when we would be watching television or a movie when my dad would abruptly get up and change the channel or turn the television off. I didn’t understand what was going on, having not even noticed what had happened on screen – a man hitting a woman, and I’m not sure if he ever explained; it may have been my mom who told me, “Your dad doesn’t ever want you or your sister to think that sort of violence is ok.”

Small – but it left an indelible impression on me. I won’t quote the violent scenes or the incident that pushes Haven to leave, but she does leave – after Nick throws her, bodily, onto the front stoop. Her older brother Gage sends someone to collect her in Dallas, and after a trip to the Medical Center, begins to heal. She’s skittish and sad, but slowly the old Haven comes around, except in social situations. One night after having drinks with her brother at a downtown bar, an incoming crowd shoves her, terrifying her with the body contact, into who else but the blue-eyed devil Hardy Cates, and Haven must come to terms with what has happened to her and learn to trust again.

It sounds so cliche, but honestly, if you could see my bleary eyes and mussed hair, having slept in until 9:20 a.m. (so so late for me), you would understand. It’s much less a romance novel than a story of hurt and healing. The only aspect of this novel that bothered me (other than the obvious) was the thought that most domestic violence victims don’t have a family with access to private jets and loads of money and influence to keep an abusive partner away. Of course, it’s fiction, but the book made it seem as though leaving the abuser is simple, when in actuality it’s not. I will say there are moments in the book that subtly address that, but it was just an observation.

I also hope you will not not pick up this book because of the abuse although I would certainly understand. I really enjoyed it and was interested in the narcissistic-personality disorder the book discusses.

And, as to my bout of crying, let’s just not mention that. Has a book ever caught you off guard like that? Especially a book you never thought would have that sort of effect on you? Please say yes.


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.


Faithful Place by Tana French

Finding a new, great author is something I can only describe as akin to the best parts of Christmas morning, the first onset of fall, and the first long evenings of summer (before the humidity and mosquitos, of course). It fills a reader with such anticipation, gratefulness, and awe. I have certainly felt that. Anticipation tinged with sorrow once the new book is read, knowing the next could be years in the making. I read a post the other day (but now cannot remember whose – if it’s yours, message me) that the author didn’t really matter; the book’s the thing. That is true to a certain extent, but there’s so much more to that simple statement. Without the author, the talent, the simple touches that make the characters memorable, the ability to set a scene without describing it… none of it would be there.

A few years ago, when I first picked up In the Woods by Tana French, I knew I had found something special. I’m not a genre snob. A quick glance through my posts reveals a healthy mix of just about anything although my go-to book would be a good mystery. Though as Jenna Schnuer of the blog American Way says, In the Woods is “anchored by crime, therefore earning [its] “mystery” billing… [it] could also live quite comfortably on literary-fiction shelves.”

Tana French is just a damn good writer. I knew that from the first pages of In the Woods when I had to re-read a passage several times because it was so darn good. The Likeness followed, picking up on Cassie from the first book as she goes undercover. Her boss, Frank Mackey, is the central figure in Faithful Place, and although this book wasn’t my favorite of the three, my opinion of French hasn’t changed one bit. The book is gritty and ugly, and as I read, I knew it would only get uglier.

At 19, Frank, sick of his deadbeat drunk dad and loud, violent family, decides to hoof it to England with his girl, Rosie Daly, leaving his nagging Ma, drunk Da and gaggle of brothers and sisters behind. But as he waits in the darkness, he tells us “the night faded to a thin sad gray and round the corner a milk cart clattered over cobblestones towards the dairy, and I was still waiting for Rosie Daly at the top of Faithful Place.”

Twenty-two  years later, Frank believes Rosie ditched him because of his embarrassing family and is now living in Dublin, the head of Undercover, divorced from his ex-wife Olivia, and picking up his daughter Holly for the weekend. When they get home, set to order pizza and watch a movie, Frank gets a call from his sister Jackie – his only link to the family he hasn’t spoken to in 22 years. Jackie tells him that the buildings up at Faithful Place are being gutted, and Rosie’s suitcase was found stuffed up the chimney. The hurt, doubt, and dread flood Frank, and he begrudgingly goes back to Faithful Place, his family, and everything he still resents.

As Frank says about Undercover, “you create illusions for long enough, you start thinking you’re in control. It’s easy to slide into believing you’re the hypnotist here, the mirage master, the smart cookie who knows what’s real and how all the tricks are done. The fact is you’re still just another slack-jawed mark in the audience. No matter how good you are, this world is always going to be better at this game.”

And that sums up the book. All the things Frank thought he left behind in Faithful Place roil up to meet him, and he’s sucked back into this sad place that doesn’t relinquish its occupants happily. Frank hates, truly hates, his father and Faithful Place. He got out early, but it has left an indelible mark on him and has touched every person who remains. The language, the dialect, and the trashiness of Faithful Place bring Francis Mackey back to boyhood, back to a time when the rules were different and squealing was a heck of a lot worse crime than stealing. Tana French doesn’t hide any of it, and she shows Frank’s dirty struggle between the life he knew and the life he knows now. Faithful Place has a healthy dose of reality and shows that there are some people willing to take the life they believe they deserve, while others will bitterly take the hand dealt with brutal consequences. The desperation of these characters is palpable, and I could almost almost understand the motivations to just get the hell out, no matter how.

Three days after the release of this novel, I sit here, feeling like a kid after the hoopla of opening presents and exploring the depths of my stocking, the reality that the day is almost over beginning to strike. I’m ready for next Christmas.


Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

I strike the ground with the soles of my feet and life rises up my legs, spreads up my skeleton, takes possession of me, drives away distress and sweetens my memory. The world trembles. Rhythm is born on the island beneath the sea; it shakes the earth, it cuts through me like a lightning bolt and rises toward the sky…”Dance, dance Zarite, the slave who dances is free…while he is dancing”…I have always danced.

Switching between a slave narrative and an omniscient narrator, Island Beneath the Sea spans 40 years and two countries and also tracks the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue (later Haiti*) that would result in the island’s independence from the British, French, and Spanish and the mass immigration to New Orleans. It follows Toulouse Valmorain, who comes to Saint-Domingue in 1770 from Paris, the pampered son of a sugarcane plantation owner. However, upon his arrival for a quick visit, he finds his father dying and sees the condition of the land, and “the tour was sufficient for him to understand that the slaves were starving and the plantation had been saved from ruin only because the world was consuming sugar with increasing voraciousness.” He works hard to improve the conditions, although he does not see himself as a plantation owner, much less the owner of slaves. Valmorain, instead, sees himself as “a man of letters” and has difficulty punishing slaves or allowing his overseer Prosper Cambray to mete out discipline.

Throughout his early years in Saint-Domingue, he encounters Violette Boisier, a cocotte or courtesan, with whom he keeps company. Violette, even though of mixed blood, is a sign of civility and elegance, so different from the harsh life on the island. She is a smart, independent woman who, with her slave Loula, amasses a small fortune through enterprising businesses. When Toulouse Valmorain decides to marry a Spanish woman, Eugenia de Solar, it is Violette’s advice he seeks as to house and home. Violette outfits the home  and chooses a personal maid for Eugenia, the young Zarite, also known as Tete.

Tete is nine when she is bought from the home of a minister’s widow and leaves her only family, Honore, an old man who cares for her like a grandfather and maman. It is through him that she learns of the loas, or spirits of voodoo. She is taught to serve and cares for Eugenia Valmorain, the weak wife of the master who, as he says, “spends the night tormented by nightmares and the day tormented by reality.” Eugenia was raised in a convent and is not at all prepared for the heat, insects, and cruelty on Saint-Domingue. As Eugenia’s health deteriorates, Valmorain begins raping Tete, and in doing so, ties Tete to himself in more ways than he would like.

Island Beneath the Sea, beautifully translated from Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden, is certainly no love story in the traditional sense, for in this day and age, love is withheld or allowed based on wealth, class, skin color, and religion. But this was a time when blood was measured by percentage, and Allende tells us:

Among the free mulattoes, the affranchis, there were more than sixty classifications set by percentage of white blood, and that determined their social level. In spite of subtleties of color, the mulattoes were united by their shared aspiration to pass for whites and their visceral scorn for Negroes. The slaves, whose number was ten times greater than that of the whites and affranchis combined, counted for nothing, neither in the census of the population nor in the colonists’ consciousness.

In such a place, humanity is always relative; thus, the slave revolt is courageous but bloody while Valmorain’s own discovery of slaves as people is both typical but appalling. Violence is traded for violence; hatred for hatred. During one period, all the slaveholders are being killed by the rebels, and this included domestic slaves because they were treated better than field slaves. In essence, the rebels began imposing their own systems of prejudice upon the slaves. In the historical context, Island Beneath the Sea is truly fascinating while Allende’s cast of characters, including Sancho, Valmorain’s pleasure-seeking brother-in-law; Dr. Parmentier, a noble man with a secret; and Tante Rose, a slave, healer, and mambo, struck me as more real than any I’ve read in quite some time.

From Saint-Domingue to the streets and slave markets of New Orleans, the novel is impressive and much more worthy of what I’ve come to expect from Isabel Allende**. Although not a romance as some others have claimed, the characters are in love with freedom, but the question remains: what can be gained from freedom and what will it cost?

*The novel is very timely, but Allende began researching and writing the novel four years before the 2010 earthquake.

**Her novel, Daughter of Fortune was somewhat disappointing. You can read my review here.


Picky Boy’s Review of Winter’s Bone

Picky Boy in New York City here! Thanks to Picky Girl for asking me to jump in and contribute a post here and there this summer.

There has always been a reverence in my filmlover heart for independent film. When I saw Jim Sheridan’s In America, I experienced my first involuntary standing ovation in a movie theater. I still gush over Junebug (starring Amy Adams) & rave about Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me as though it came out this year.

Before you read on, let it be known…let it resound from the New York City rooftops: I love independent film.

So when I heard whispers of a small film receiving accolades and awards (It won the 2010 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, for goodness sakes!), I knew I had to see the movie. I called a couple friends, hopped on the 1 train to Lincoln Center and bought a ticket for Winter’s Bone.

If you are one of those people who can’t get enough of a monochromatic color scheme or if watching boots traipse through a leafy forest for roughly 20% of a film really does it for you…then by all means, see this film. I, for one, wish I could turn back the clock, take that $13 (ridiculous, I know) and redistribute it for a plate of General Tso’s chicken across the street at Ollie’s…ah, well. Choices.

Winter’s Bone, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, centers around a 17-year-old girl named Ree Dolly (played by newcomer Jennifer Lawrence) on a backwoods odyssey trying to find her meth-cookin’ deadbeat father. If you’re a clinically-depressed individual without the will to live amidst the civilized and you’re looking for a place to summer but the Hamptons seems a bit too trendy or Fire Island just isn’t your style…try the Ozarks. Director Debra Granik paints a picture of possibly the worst place to reside in America. I’m pretty sure the zip code is just some fingernail scratches and a blood smear.

From the opening shot of two children jumping on a trampoline in a yard peppered with old toys and rusty farm equipment to the horrific climax, Winter’s Bone is saturated with an unrelenting bleakness that left me exhausted, not impressed…frustrated, not empathetic.

Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone

For a film steeped in grit and extremely realistic subject matter (Yes, Virginia, there is a real Underground Meth-lab Circuit), it somehow came across as dramatic and borderline ridiculous. Some of the language was laughable and contrived. Though the motley crew of sallow-cheeked haggard people Ree visits during her search are undeniably and horrifyingly accurate;  even they seem to be playing dress up in an ill-fitting Mafia-like subculture. I am not that familiar with meth but if no teeth, a severe cheek implosion and an unexplainable craving for Mountain Dew is a result…I say Thanks, but No Thanks. (What drug makes you crave Sunkist and Haribo Gummie Bears?…because I must be doing a lot of it right now.)

A notable performance in the film is Dale Dickey’s intense portrayal of Merab. She aptly straddles the line of affectionate matron and crazy, Deliverance-esque monster as the wife of the meth circuit ‘boss’, Thump (who looks more like a leather daddy, decked out in leather and chains, than an intimidating Don of Meth).

Side Note: How has PETA not focused their crosshairs on this one yet?! There is a scene where you literally watch someone tear a squirrel apart. Tear it. Apart.

If you’re a positive review chaser, then you’ll probably end up seeing Winter’s Bone. But in my humble Picky Boy opinion, this film evokes a big lateral shake of the head and a slight shoulder shrug. I left the movie theater that night in need of a real pick-me-up, so I picked up some ice cream and popped in The Shining.


Push by Sapphire

Book to movie production is a double-edged sword. For instance, when I first saw Milk, I was appalled that it was the first I had ever heard of Harvey Milk, the man and politician in the 70s in San Francisco who made gay activism what it is today. However, I am so happy that his story was brought to me, even though I hated that Hollywood was the one that informed me. In the last year, it has almost become a joke: Precious, based on the book Push by Sapphire. Each time it won something, I would hear those words. I knew, based on reviews of the movie and the attention it was getting on several feminist websites I encountered that it would not be an easy viewing.  I also knew that, regardless, I would read/watch it. When I went to the library Monday night, I picked it up. I didn’t realize the book was actually published in 1991, which is why I love/hate that Hollywood once again beat me to the punch.

It’s a slim volume, and if you’ve been under a rock the past year, here’s the premise. Clarieece Precious Jones is 16, pregnant with her second child by her father, miserable at school, and desperate for a different life, a life for which she will always have to push. Her mother beats her because the father leaves when he realizes Precious is pregnant (he comes back). The mother has also apparently been molesting Precious. Precious is illiterate, and the book opens when she is suspended for being pregnant a second time, saying, “I ain’ did nothin’!”

The book is written as Precious’ journal and is thus full of misspellings and colloquialisms as well as foul language. ‘Miz Rain,’ her teacher at Each One Teach One (an alternative school) encourages her students to write their stories in journals; Precious takes to her journal, and it becomes therapeutic for her. The book is not easy to read, but I tire of hearing people say they don’t think they could handle it. I mean, I get it. If it were gratuitous, that’d be one thing. But it’s life. This book may be fiction, but the story is rife with truths. Life is and can be ugly.

More than anything, this book impacted me in a major way. I am also listening to the audiobook version of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (review up tomorrow), and both are stories of African-American women and incest. Although totally different, these two stories have really made great companions. Whereas Morrison’s story is, as always, so beautifully descriptive of something so vile, Sapphire’s story is in your face. It knocked me out and drug me down when I finished it at midnight last night. It made me angry; no – it infuriated me.

Precious is fat. The scale stops at 200, and she knows she’s heavier. She smells bad at times; she used to urinate on herself at school because she wouldn’t get up. She has been abused by everyone and everything in her life. Her first child at 12 was born with Down’s syndrome or “down sinder” as she calls it and is named Little Mongo. Her grandmother is absent although she cares for Little Mongo. Her father rapes her repeatedly, and her mother beats her and molests her. All of this rent my heart in two, but as a white woman – a privileged white woman – what absolutely killed me were lines like these:

Why can’t I see myself, feel where I end and begin. I sometimes look in the pink people in suits eyes, the men from bizness, and they look way above me, put me out of their eyes. My fahver don’t see me really. If he did he would know I was like a white girl, a real person, inside.

She ain’ come in here and say, Carl Kenwood Jones – thas wrong! Git off Precious like that! Can’t you see Precious is a beautiful chile like white chile in magazines or on toilet paper wrappers. Precious is a blue-eye skinny chile whose hair is long braids, long long braids.

Passages like these actually nauseated me. Feeling ugly at times is one thing; I feel that way with no makeup or when I haven’t fixed myself up. But to feel like I could only be pretty if I were another race? To feel that maybe if I were lighter skinned or white that I would not have been raped, that my mother would have loved me, that I may be able to read?

How, how we have failed children like these! I know and acknowledge that incest, rape, child abuse, and illiteracy affect white children, Hispanic children, Russian children, yellow and brown, light-skinned and dark-skinned, diabetic, fat, skinny, gay, straight, innocent and not-so-innocent boys and girls. I can understand why there are those out there who didn’t want this book to become popular or who didn’t want the film to be made because it then becomes an African-American issue and not a capital “I” Issue. What I love about this book? That it moved me to want to take action.

Toni Morrison has a gift for beautifully telling horrible stories – stories for which the word ‘horrible’ is not even emphatic enough – but she never moves me to want to leave the realm of the story and do something about it. There was a moment in reading Push when the teacher Blue Rain is working with the students that I thought, I want to do that. It scared me. I know that people like Blue Rain (the non-fiction people) are out there doing this work and breaking their own hearts every day and working for little money, but oh, the rewards. For now, I want to find a literacy program and help support it. I’m not sure how yet to do that effectively, but on this site, in the future, I won’t do giveaways. I will promote whatever literacy program I research and decide would best use your money and my money. You and I, dear reader, are blessed. We have books aplenty, but more than that, we have the ability to open the pages of those books and allow them to take us away or to inform us or to better our minds. There are those out there who don’t have that option for more than just monetary reasons.

I promise you, and I promise myself that I will become an advocate for literacy. I promise to push.


The Girl Who…. Trilogy by Stieg Larsson

Let me be straight with you, lest I color your perception of these books: I am a big ole scaredy cat. The biggest. I love reading mysteries, but most do not make me curl up into the fetal position. The last scary movie I watched was What Lies Beneath with Michele Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford. I saw it at the theater and lay across the theater seats of my then-boyfriend and his best friend, crying. (They were not amused.) I cannot watch Law & Order: SVU even though I love it. Law & Order: Criminal Intent? Forgettaboutit. I can handle murder, violence, and mayhem, but sexual torture? Torture in general? Nope. Can’t do it.

Flash forward to the night I stayed up devouring The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I. Was. Petrified. Sexual torture mixed with a basement full of torture devices and Biblical punishment meted out by a madman? I broke out in a cold sweat. I couldn’t get up and check my alarm system because my bed was the only safe haven anywhere, and the light from my bedside lamp, while reassuring, also ensured I was visible to the evil outside my lair. Suffice it to say, I was not looking forward to the other books.

However, a friend whose opinion I trust told me the next book wasn’t so bad. Last week, I borrowed it and read it cover to cover. If you’ve read this far, you probably know a bit about the books, so I won’t spend too much time summarizing. Lisbeth Salander, the antisocial, enigmatic young woman with a violent streak is back in The Girl Who Played with Fire. She has spent time in many different countries and returns to Sweden to determine the best way to have Nils Bjurman, her guardian, declare her competent (some mystery from her past caused Salander to be institutionalized as a child). No worries; she has something to hold over his head, and of course, she has a plan.

Mikael Blomvqist is back as well, sleeping around as usual, and is occasionally curious about Salander. He and two journalists, Dag and Mia, are working on a scoop about sexual trafficking in Sweden. Very quickly, Dag and Mia are murdered, Blomqvist finds them, and in a strange twist, Salander is being hunted as the killer. The tale that unravels involves the Soviet Union, spies, conspiracy, a killer with a disorder that makes him feel no pain, Salander, and a mysterious figure named Zalachenko. (Yes, really). I won’t give any more away, but I will say that the book ends abruptly with quite a cliffhanger. I borrowed the next book and learned that Larsson originally intended the first three books to be one continuous volume.

The other thing I learned (through reading – couldn’t confirm it anywhere) is that absolutely no one chose to edit these last two books. The first book was fast paced and had a tightly-written mystery, although the ending did seem to drag a bit. The second two books were full of such unbelievable coincidences and strange rabbit holes that the lack of editing was glaring. I still enjoyed the books because I am intrigued by Salander’s character and wanted to know more about her. However, the loose ends and the blatant tying of those ends lacked the initial ingenuity of the trilogy and left me again questioning if there was an editor. Was there some argument that since Larsson died, no one could edit the manuscripts? Was it for posterity’s sake? I’m really asking. If you know the answer, please comment. I think, as a writer, Larsson would have preferred the polished end product editing provides.

Instead, the public is left with The Girl Who… mania and not a whole lot of consistency and a bit too much substance, at times. It also struck me that these three books are almost totally different genres. The first book is two parts mystery, two parts thriller. The second book is suspenseful but reads more like a John Le Carre novel than an out-and-out mystery. The third book is pure John Grisham. Salander sits in a hospital bed for most of it, using her personal computer device to track down information and to determine the identity of Ericka Berger’s stalker. Whaaa? There is a laughable trial where the attorneys parade in witnesses but also speak to people in the courtroom who aren’t testifying. Whaa? Then, when the book is presumably over, Salander stumbles upon the killer from the second book and survives. Whaaa?

There is talk of someone taking Larsson’s extensive plot notes and character sketches for the other seven planned books and completing them. I’ll make my formal request to a writer who is alive and kicking and who writes thoughtful, complex, well-edited novels: Ian Rankin. Or, better yet, Mr. Rankin: pleeeease write more Inspector Rebus novels.

Devolving from an intelligent series to a John Grisham pulp, the last two books of The Girl Who…trilogy are not ideal, and I hoped for a lot more from this promising series.


A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

It’s not often I venture from the tried and true. I’m an American lit girl. I’ll stray for a good mystery, and I’ve always loved British lit, but I’m an American reader through and through. I’m fascinated by novels of race and identity, and the collective consciousness of American writers intrigues me. However, I’m also very open minded as a reader. (Yes, you can be open minded and picky – I promise… I know you were thinking it.) The world of book blogging has made me consciously consider my reading choices, and for that, I am very grateful. I don’t mean that I run out and pick up the book about which everyone is blogging. Far from it. I would much rather find my own rewarding reads. The library makes that a possibility for me. I know some bloggers are making a concerted effort not to spend money on books for very valid and personal reasons. My reason is necessity. This past year, after quitting a lucrative but miserable job to teach as a university adjunct instructor (a choice I don’t regret in the least), life has been difficult financially. So the library enables me to make adventurous choices in my reading.

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam was an adventurous choice for me. Set in Dhaka, East Pakistan (Bangladesh) and in the 1970s, the surroundings were completely foreign to me. I love to travel, but have never visited this region of the world. The novel opens with the words: “Dear Husband, I lost our children today.” No, the children have not died, and no, they are not simply lost in the colorful markets of Bangladesh. Rehana Haque, widow, has been declared unfit to raise her children because she has little money and took her children out of school to see Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor. She grieves, and in grieving, her brother and sister-in-law make a play to raise the children on their own across all of India in Lahore, West Pakistan. This event shakes Rehana deeply and forever alters her life even though she is able to get her children back. As grown children, Sohail and Maya are headstrong, enthusiastic, convicted citizens who want a better life and a better country. When her son decides to join in fighting, he leaves and cannot stop him, “not just so she would have Sohail’s confidence, but because she could not blame anyone but herself for making him so fine, so ready to take charge. This was who she had hoped he would become, even if she had never imagined that her son, or the world, would come to this.” Rehana worries her children will be lost to her once again when internal and external conflicts threaten their existence.

A tale of love, loss, heartbreak, war, and sacrifice, A Golden Age is full of humanity and the lengths to which a mother can and will go in the fight for her children.