A Bevy of Buffy

Because I am a great big geek, one of my personal goals is to read all of the novels inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is the first in what will be a series of posts collecting reviews of these books in a somewhat shorter-than-usual format. In this installment: Afterimage, Bad Bargain, Blooded, Carnival of Souls, One Thing or Your Mother, and Portal Through Time. All are set during the show’s second season.

Afterimage by Pierce Askegren
I’m pretty sure Afterimage is set between “What’s My Line” and “Ted”—the former is a definite, despite the season being referred to as early autumn even though “What’s My Line” takes place after Halloween, but the latter is a guess based on a couple of thoughts Joyce has about needing to get out more, which the author (writing in 2006) might’ve intended as a lead-in to “Ted.”

The book gets off to a slow start and, in fact, not much seems to happen for the first sixty pages. Our heroes encounter some strange folks about town, and it’s pretty obvious to the reader that “Hey, these are characters from the movies being shown at the new drive-in!” but it takes quite a while for the characters to catch up. That said, around page 100 things begin to improve, which is right about where Jonathan appears. I knew he was in this, and was hoping for more of an active role. Sadly, all he does is go to the movies with Xander and then get afflicted by a mysterious sleeping sickness, along with 29 other Sunnydale residents.

Speaking of the drive-in, it occurred to me that this is totally a Sailor Moon plot. Creepy yet charismatic bad guy comes into town and advertises a free drive-in. The local residents swarm the place and then creepy guy feeds on their energy. Our heroine destroys the evil projector with her tiara machete, and the bad guy dissolves. He does not, alas, proclaim “Refresh!”

Still, this was a pretty enjoyable outing, and had some nice touches, like a glimpse at Xander’s bickering parents, a spot-on depiction of petulant Harmony, and Cordelia demonstrating her intelligence and leadership skills. In fact, while Buffy is important, I think Xander comes across more like the protagonist of this one, which is a nice change.

Bad Bargain by Diana G. Gallagher
Bad Bargain is set in season two (between “What’s My Line?” and “Ted” would be my guess) but written in 2006, three years after the end of the series, which allows author Diana G. Gallagher to use her knowledge of later events to color what would otherwise be a fairly dull tale of demonic critters infesting a rummage sale.

In another of her attempts to recapture a normal teen life, Buffy is volunteering at the school rummage sale to benefit the marching band. She’s roped Willow and Xander into participating, too, and this scintillating event has even come to the attention of Spike and Dru, who head to Sunnydale High for a spot of shoplifting. All goes awry when a spell to locate one kid’s missing amulet ends up inviting a host of microscopic Hellmouth beasties, who proceed to infect most of those present. The day is ultimately, of course, saved, though Willow theoretically suffers trauma from being parted from the cute-looking critter who beguiled her into becoming its protector. That part is kind of dumb (and I didn’t think Gallagher captured Drusilla’s mode of speech well, either).

What’s interesting, though, is that Andrew is in this. In fact, he and Jonathan have fairly prominent roles, which I thought was quite fun. In a nice bit of dramatic irony, Jonathan has become possessed by some demonic whip thing and subsequently angsts when he realizes that he nearly killed his best friend. In addition, Gallagher includes a few comments that suggest that these events spurred actions by the characters as seen in the show. For example, Oz muses about painting his van and, after the pests have been sent back where they belong, Princpal Snyder remarks, “Next year’s fund-raiser for the marching band will be something simple, like selling candy.” Hee!

Blooded by Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder
It’s difficult to pinpoint the timeline for this one. Angel’s stint as Angelus is mentioned, as is the death of Jenny Calendar, but he was apparently able to regain his soul in a way that did not involve Willow. (This book was published in August 1998, and I have to wonder if Whedon wasn’t willing to give away the plot details for the season two finale, so Golden and Holder had to be super vague about it.) I do think this is the end of season two—despite what Wikipedia claims—because Oz and Willow’s relationship is still new, her hair is still long, etc.

Anyway, the gang goes to a museum for a field trip and Willow ends up freeing and being possessed by the spirit of an ancient Chinese vampire-sorcerer. She gathers minions, attacks Xander, and causes her friends to fret. Eventually, Xander gets possessed by a Japanese mountain god and there’s a big battle and spells and Giles wears a headband with a kanji on it. In the end the day is saved through teamwork (yes, really).

On the whole, this book is pretty boring. However, there are a few things to recommend it. For every two or three bits of clunky dialogue, there is occasionally one that is at least slightly amusing or which I can easily hear in the actor’s voice. It was also prescient about a few things. Cordelia’s lack of skill as an actress is mentioned, which will come into play on Angel, and she makes the comment, “I’ll never admit it if you tell her I said it, but I’d hate to think about what Sunnydale would be like if we didn’t have a Slayer in town.” This is interesting, because she is the one who allows us to see exactly that in season three’s “The Wish.” There’s also some good stuff here with Willow’s desire for power and strength, and how that made her vulnerable to the vampire-sorcerer dude. Most of the resulting darkness is played as his fault, but it dovetails nicely with her eventual character arc on the show.

In the end, there are far better Buffy tie-in books, but this wasn’t too bad.

Carnival of Souls by Nancy Holder
Carnival of Souls turned out to be a lot better than I was expecting. Wedged snugly between “Ted” and “Surprise,” the story is set around the episode “Bad Eggs,” which is a great place to put it because, hey, if the book’s at least moderately good, it’ll still be on par with that notoriously rather lame episode.

The premise is that a carnival has come to town, and its proprietor is some kind of devil demon thing that uses prisms to hypnotize visitors into giving in to the temptation of the seven deadly sins so that it might feed off of their souls. Our heroes are not immune, so Buffy becomes proud, Cordelia greedy, Xander gluttonous, Willow envious, Giles angry, Angel lustful, and Joyce slothful.

Really, the specifics of the carnival itself are not very interesting. What I most liked were the many scenes of the group all together, doing their investigation thing, and how good a lot of the dialogue was. Some of Xander’s lines are especially easy to hear in the actor’s voice, and I actually laughed at one of Buffy’s mid-slaying puns. Plus, I liked that they gave Jenny Calendar something significant to contribute.

All in all, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly if not for the matter of the kittens.

Early on, Giles acquires a pair of kittens with the intent to use them as payment to Clem in exchange for information, fully cognizant they’ll be used as currency in a demonic poker game. And as if that weren’t bad enough, when Angry!Giles summons a demon that destroys his apartment, no one asks what happened to the kitties, including Buffy and Willow, who were loving on them in a previous scene! Still worse, if you interpret the text in a certain way, you might conclude that Giles sacrificed them as part of the ritual. Ugh! Why?! It was absolutely not necessary to include them and taint this otherwise decent book.

One Thing or Your Mother by Kirsten Beyer
One Thing or Your Mother is the best Buffy tie-in novel that I have ever read. Well done, Kirsten Beyer! I’m sorry that, as this is also the last Buffy tie-in novel to be published, you never got to write another one.

Set between “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “Go Fish,” One Thing or Your Mother finds Buffy contending with several different problems. Aside from the recurring menace of Angelus, there’s the fact that Joyce has been contacted by the school about her daughter’s poor grades (with the end result that Buffy acquires a tutor), the disappearance of a young girl followed by sightings of a child vampire, and the strange behavior exhibited by Principal Snyder that ultimately imperils the whole town. True, none of these elements is particularly exciting, but each is competently executed, and done in a way that has bearing on what’s going to happen next in the series.

Where Beyer really shines is in capturing the characters—not just in dialogue, at which she admittedly excels, but in thought as well. Too many times to count, the thoughts attributed to Buffy and the others in these books have been downright insipid, but not this time. In addition, the scenes with the Scooby Gang together in the library are so spot-on they’re just about episode quality. Granted, this doesn’t match up to the very best of Buffy—a lot of which can be found in season two—but with a little reworking and simplifying, this could’ve made a solid episode better than the worst of Buffy—some of which can also be found in season two. I also thought Beyer did a great job with Spike.

Perhaps once I’ve completed this project I’ll have to come up with the Top Ten Buffy Novels for those who only want to read the cream of the crop. One Thing or Your Mother has definitely secured itself a spot on that list.

Portal Through Time by Alice Henderson
Set between “Bad Eggs” and “Surprise,” Alice Henderson’s Portal Through Time evidently takes place very early in 1998, because Buffy is still sixteen (she turns seventeen on January 19th) and Angel has not yet lost his soul. A vampire called Lucien has done a lot of research into time-traveling magic and recruits some assistants to help him with his plan: go back in time and kill four very famous Slayers so as to disrupt the line and allow the Master (of whom he is a devotee) to rise unimpeded. Angel gets wind of the plan, so Buffy and pals end up traveling to Wales in 60 C.E., to Sumeria in the time of Gilgamesh, to Tennessee during the Battle of Shiloh, and to Paris during the French Revolution.

Sometimes being a reviewer (or at least being one who sets geeky goals) means reading things so that others don’t have to. Such is the case with Portal Through Time. Although there are some things Henderson does well—I like her attempts to recapture the feel of the show by employing quick cuts between scenes to humorous effect, for example—the overall concept of a magical means to travel back in time is just not very well thought out.

For one, if such magic did exist, you can bet that Willow would’ve used it to wipe out Warren before he could do harm to anyone she cared about. And two, even within this book there are complications and possibilities that are not pursued. Near the end, for example, Buffy stakes Angelus and then reuses the incantation to go back in time to the same spot and keep that from happening. So why does everyone seem so secure that once they’ve thwarted the vamps in a given time period the Slayer is now safe? The vamps could just go back and try again!

On top of this, Henderson’s writing is frequently redundant, like when she reiterates several times that if the vampires arrive at their destination during the day they will have to wait until nightfall to take action, and sometimes just plain bad. During an interminable passage in which Buffy is creeping through the woods around the perimeter of Shiloh, she ends up getting shot in the leg and suddenly develops a fondness for deer. Behold:

She forced herself to focus on the grand trees and shadowed valleys, golden fields in which the deer gathered at dusk… She imagined the fields and groves of trees without the thousands of bleeding and broken soldiers, but instead full of foraging deer and black bear.

I should not be snickering when there are thousands of bleeding and broken soldiers in a scene. And maybe you see nothing wrong with that quote, but to me it sounds nothing like Buffy and is just the author clumsily inserting an anti-war message.

Sometimes it can be fun to read a lousy book, but in the end this one is just too long and boring for me to recommend doing even that.

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

thousand-dollarFrom the back cover:
Ten years after graduating from high school in Neptune, California, Veronica Mars is back in the land of sun, sand, crime, and corruption. She’s traded in her law degree for her old private investigating license, struggling to keep Mars Investigations afloat on the scant cash earned by catching cheating spouses until she can score her first big case.

Now it’s spring break, and college students descend on Neptune, transforming the beaches and boardwalks into a frenzied, week-long rave. When a girl disappears from a party, Veronica is called in to investigate. But this is no simple missing person’s case. The house the girl vanished from belongs to a man with serious criminal ties, and soon Veronica is plunged into a dangerous underworld of drugs and organized crime. And when a major break in the investigation has a shocking connection to Veronica’s past, the case hits closer to home than she ever imagined.

Review:
I have been a fan of Veronica Mars from almost the beginning. I tuned in about midway through the first season, after reading about the show on the sadly now-defunct Television Without Pity website, and vividly recall how it quickly became appointment television, and how absolutely riveted I was watching the season finales for the first and second seasons. I mourned the show when it was cancelled, and when a friend forwarded me the link to the Kickstarter campaign for the movie last spring, I was practically delirious with squee. Finally, a few weeks ago, I went to see the movie (after pre-ordering tickets the minute they were available, naturally).

I admit I was a little disappointed the first time through—ninety minutes just wasn’t enough time to flesh out both relationships and the case—but I did like it more upon a second viewing. The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line continues the story from where the movie leaves off, and while I was a little unsure at first, I was soon won over by the characterization and the luxury of more time to spend with these characters, inhabiting their world.

A couple months have passed since the events of the movie. While Keith has been recuperating from his injuries, Veronica has been manning Mars Investigations, not that any challenging cases have come along. When a college girl in Neptune for spring break goes missing, however, a representative from the city’s chamber of commerce comes to the Mars family for help, since Sheriff Lamb’s inactivity on the case is resulting in canceled reservations and the loss of tourist revenue. Veronica’s ensuing investigation feels a lot like an episode from the third season of the show, from her dorm room interrogation of one suspect, to her tried-and-true drunk ditz routine at a party full of suspects. When a second girl with surprising ties to Veronica goes missing, things get even more complicated.

I thought the case was reasonably well executed, and the personal stakes for Veronica were intriguing, as well. Dialogue for all characters was great and easy to imagine in the actors’ voices; I even giggled a few times. I’ve seen some reviewers complaining about the book being written in the third person, saying that it lacks the same feel as the series, but I found plenty of internal contemplation from Veronica that read just like the show’s voiceover narration to me. (I can only imagine this will be even more true in the unabridged audio version, read by Kristen Bell. I bought that, too, and plan to listen to it very soon.) Plus, we’re able to get some insights into her thoughts that she might not even narrate, like this nice quote about Wallace: “There weren’t many people in this world who would let you be vulnerable and still believe you were strong.”

Speaking of Wallace, another complaint I’ve seen regards the lack of Logan in this book—he’s on an aircraft carrier thousands of miles away, so it only makes sense—but I actually welcome it. The movie put their relationship front and center; now it’s time to focus on Veronica’s other relationships. To that end, we get several really nice scenes involving Mac (who’s now a technical analyst for Mars Investigations), Wallace, and Keith. There was just enough Logan to my reckoning.

I did have one complaint of my own for a while—two if you count that nobody caught Gia Goodman being referred to as Gia Goodwin. I wished we saw Veronica embarking on an even bigger case, like actively working to expose the corruption at the Sheriff’s Office or to find out who was responsible for the hit and run that injured her father and killed Deputy Sacks. However, I eventually realized that there actually was a big plot on the go—bringing Keith around to the idea that Veronica is doing what she’s meant to do (as opposed to being safe, well paid, and bored as a New York lawyer) . The ultimate resolution here is extremely satisfying, and I find myself very excited at the notion that the two of them could really function as full-fledged partners on a future case. More Keith is always a good thing!

Currently, only a second book in this series is guaranteed, and it has neither a title nor publication date at present, though Rob Thomas has promised more Logan. I suppose it goes without saying that I really, really hope for more beyond that. Give the diehard fans an inch, and they’ll ask for a mile!

Catching Up with Lynley and Havers

carelessinredCareless in Red
It’s been a while since I talked about an Elizabeth George book on the blog. I did read With No One as Witness, but spent so long digesting my reaction to the surprise ending (which had, admittedly, been spoiled for me by the author’s website) that I forgot many of the other details. And I started the next book, What Came Before He Shot Her, but as it doesn’t revolve around our main characters and is massively depressing, I quickly abandoned it. Skipping ahead to Careless in Red runs counter to my typical completist sensibilities, but I’m glad I did, even if it is rather lame in various respects.

In short, a murder has been committed in a surfing town in Cornwall where many of the residents are sex-obsessed. The culprit is revealed to be exactly who I thought it was (though I didn’t know why) and then everyone proceeds to have a sudden change of heart. The much-put-upon husband casts off his horrid wife. The rebellious son decides to make a sincere attempt at learning his father’s business. The cantankerous grandpa decides to honor his granddaughter’s wish to become a nun. (Seriously, why were they even in this book? Their only contribution to the mystery was that the victim had once made a comment to the girl that she relayed to the police.) At least Lynley is the protagonist in this one and, even though we aren’t treated to any sections from her point of view, Havers has a decent role, as well. I swear she just brightened up the whole book when she appeared. I do so love Havers.

thisbodyofdeathThis Body of Death
Isabelle Ardery, a character from Playing for the Ashes who didn’t even merit a mention in my review of that book, is back, taking on the Acting Detective Superintendent role vacated by Lynley. And boy, is she unsympathetic. She’s an alcoholic for one and makes several bad decisions (often seemingly out of pride or pique) regarding the case at hand (a young woman has been murdered in a local cemetery). She is able, though, to get Lynley to come back to Scotland Yard, and in the end the thoroughly broken pair ends up as lovers. While I do not like her at all, it is at least in character for Lynley to have terrible taste in women (Deborah, anyone?) aside from Lady Helen.

Havers has more to do this time (yay!) but I object to some extreme rationalization at the end regarding her unwillingness to call for backup. Yes, Havers is very stubborn, but I just got the feeling that George knew a reasonable officer would’ve called for backup in the situation Havers found herself in, but in order to get her big, dramatic conclusion to work, she had to get Havers to wait. Also, is George trying to insinuate that Havers is in love with Lynley? Her reaction to Lynley and Ardery’s relationship makes me wonder. I really don’t want this to be true. They should be like Donna and The Doctor.

Overall, though, This Body of Death is an improvement over Careless in Red. The case is more interesting and twisty, with various elements that connect well in ways I did not predict. The only really obvious revelation—and I’m honestly not sure it was supposed to be a surprise to the reader, given the way the book is structured—regards one character’s involvement in a past crime. Not the best Elizabeth George, but not terrible, either.

believingthelieBelieving the Lie
AUGH! I HATE DEBORAH ST. JAMES SO FREAKING MUCH! I mean, I have intensely disliked her for some time, but her idiotic actions in this book, most irritatingly excused by Lynley and Simon, have caused my feelings to progress into outright hatred. When Lynley is tasked with quietly verifying that the accidental drowning of a rich dude’s nephew really was an accident, he enlists Simon and Deborah’s help. Deborah, true to irrational form, becomes obsessed with ferreting out a secret held by one of the peripheral characters and ends up running off on her own to pursue it, which ultimately leads to tragedy. And, of course, it all has to do with having babies, which is Deborah’s primary fixation, even though she’s such a damned moron that I’d feel bad for any kid growing up under her care.

The rest of the book wasn’t so great, either. Though it finishes with much drama, it starts off terribly dull. One subplot I could’ve done without entirely involved a tabloid reporter who was having trouble finding a story salacious enough to suit his editor. He ultimately served almost no purpose whatsoever, except to give Deborah a ride on several occasions. And I was mad at myself for getting a bit misty-eyed over the resolution to another subplot, since it replicates almost exactly one that appeared just two books ago! Lynley seems to be sleepwalking through most of what occurs, and though something spurs him at the end to begin trying to move on from Helen’s death, I’m not exactly sure what that was.

Once again, the best bits were the Havers bits. The volume ends with a cliffhanger that will lead us into the next book, and I’m glad I won’t have to wait years for it. I’m a little worried that Barbara is going to do something to jeopardize her career at Scotland Yard, but if it can lead to happiness in her personal life, or even a glimmer of hope for future happiness, it will probably be worth it.

justoneevilactJust One Evil Act
I wanted so much to love this book, but it persisted in being so thoroughly frustrating and awful that in the end, I very nearly hate it instead.

Angelina Upman, mother of Havers’ sweet nine-year-old neighbor Hadiyyah, returns to her former lover’s life briefly before absconding with her daughter to Italy, where her new man awaits. Azhar (Hadiyyah’s father) does something stupid to try to get Hadiyyah back, Angelina eventually ends up dead, and Barbara does so very, very many thunderingly stupid things throughout that she’s probably tarnished forever now in my eyes, which makes me quite sad indeed. It’s completely in character for her to do what she can for Azhar. I mean, I get that, and I get how he and his daughter are practically the only thing in her life besides her job, but she persists in believing she can bend a tabloid journalist to her will, but it only ever gets her further into the shit. (Meanwhile, readers are treated to innumerable, interminable conversations between the two of them. George also throws in tons of random Italian words throughout; it’s both annoying and pretentious.)

I wanted a book with Havers triumphant. A Havers showing that, despite her problems with professionalism and authority, she really has something amazing to offer. Instead, the best parts of this book were other people, namely Lynley, who makes progress in getting over Helen, and the charming Italian detective, who seems kind of sweet on Barbara.

It literally took me months to finish this. I cannot recommend it. And yet… can I give up a series I have stuck with for so long? Time will tell, I suppose.

Four by Laura Lippman

In the mood for a new mystery series, I decided to check out the Tess Monaghan books by Laura Lippman. They’re compulsively readable, inspiring me to proceed to the next in the series practically immediately, but I found I hadn’t much to say about each. Therefore, a column of brief reviews was clearly called for!

baltimorebluesBaltimore Blues introduces us to 29-year-old Baltimore native Tess Monaghan, underemployed former newspaper reporter and fitness buff, who undertakes a surveillance job for a rowing buddy whose fiancée has been acting weird. There wouldn’t be much of a book if this assignment didn’t turn out to be more than she bargained for, and in due course, a famous local lawyer is dead and the rowing buddy the chief suspect.

Now retained by the buddy’s lawyer, Tess continues to snoop about. She’s just supposed to be finding enough information to achieve reasonable doubt, but is instead driven to solve the mystery. And, ultimately, she does. It was an outcome that I didn’t expect, and the various plot threads and loose ends are wrapped up reasonably tidily, though the suggestion that a second killer is still roaming free was relegated to one blink-and-you-miss-it sort of line.

Tess herself is a little bit generic at this point, but she’s likeable enough. It’s interesting that she’s an investigator who isn’t technically tied to law enforcement, so she’s not obliged to divulge full details about crimes, with the flip side that because she lacks status she probably couldn’t divulge anything anyway without irrefutable proof. Baltimore emerges as a character of its own, too, and I loved that there was a Homicide: Life on the Street shoutout. Actually, there was a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 reference, too. Does Lippman know how to woo me, or what?

charmcityCharm City is the second in the Tess Monaghan series, set about five months after the first book. Tess has both a full-time job and a full-time boyfriend for the first time in two years, but her boss encourages her to accept an offer to investigate how an inflammatory story, originally not on the printing schedule, wound up on the front page of the local newspaper. Eventually, deaths ensue. Meanwhile, some shady guys hospitalize her uncle Spike and stalk Tess and her family members.

The good things about this sophomore outing revolve around Tess and her personal relationships. She comes into sharper focus as a character, first of all, but also makes some serious changes and/or mistakes in her personal life. And yet, this doesn’t read like one of those chick lit mystery series—my mind goes immediately to Meg Cabot’s dreadful Size 12 Is Not Fat—where the protagonist seems too easily distracted by the male characters. Tess just seems… normal.

On the negative side, the subplot (involving the aforementioned shady guys) was a real yawner and there were a couple of instances where twists were really obvious to the reader, making Tess appear incredibly slow on the uptake. And though the final big reveal did surprise me, in retrospect it shouldn’t have, because it was essentially the same gimmick used in the first book! Is a pattern forming? As I head into book three, I will definitely be looking for a certain type of character and setting my suspicious sights on them from the start.

Overall, Charm City was a little disappointing, but certainly not bad. Onward ho!

butchershillIn Butchers Hill, Tess has set up shop as a private investigator in a not-so-great part of town. Her first two clients are looking for children—one wants to make amends to the witnesses of a crime he committed five years ago, while another wants to know that the daughter she put up for adoption is doing alright. Neither client has been completely honest with Tess, however.

This was a really interesting installment of the series. I appreciate that Lippman was able to creative multiple African-American characters who feel like full-fledged, sympathetic individuals (though I do wonder what an African-American reader would make of them). There’s commentary here on race relations in Baltimore, among other things, but it doesn’t feel too heavy-handed. I also like that Tess is not strictly a homicide investigator, though her cases have all involved murder eventually.

Speaking of murder, after Charm City, I was a little worried that it would be easy to predict the perpetrators in subsequent books, but actually, I didn’t see this one coming. And that’s a good thing, though the reason why I didn’t was that it was a rather crackalicious twist. Despite that (and the one aspect of the ending that I predicted), the conclusion to this one is surprisingly affecting. I hope some of these new characters stick around.

inbigtroubleIn Big Trouble takes Tess away from her hometown of Baltimore and into the unfamiliar environment of San Antonio, Texas. When she receives an anonymous letter that Crow, her former boyfriend, is in big trouble in Texas, Tess ends up contracted by his parents to track him down. She finds Crow in fairly short order, but he is greatly changed and is also involved with a crazy young woman whose influential local family is tied to a notorious murder 21 years ago.

This was a bit of a weird one. I can’t say I disliked it, or that I predicted anything about it, but Tess is so off-balance personally for the duration that it sort of feels like the story never really gets… grounded, or something. Unlike the others in the series, I was able to set this one aside for a long time—like, weeks—and didn’t feel any particular urge to get back to it. That said, I did think the San Antonio setting was portrayed well, and Lippman successfully instilled a serious hankering for some authentic Mexican food.

In the end, I’m enjoying the Tess Monaghan series quite a lot! I’m going to take a break here for a bit, but I do intend to return to the series in the near future.

Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

Book description:
It was a senselessly violent crime: on a cold night in a remote Swedish farmhouse an elderly farmer is bludgeoned to death, and his wife is left to die with a noose around her neck. And as if this didn’t present enough problems for the Ystad police Inspector Kurt Wallander, the dying woman’s last word is “foreign,” leaving the police the one tangible clue they have—and in the process, the match that could inflame Sweden’s already smoldering anti-immigrant sentiments.

Unlike the situation with his ex-wife, his estranged daughter, or the beautiful but married young prosecuter who has peaked his interest, in this case, Wallander finds a problem he can handle. He quickly becomes obsessed with solving the crime before the already tense situation explodes, but soon comes to realize that it will require all his reserves of energy and dedication to solve.

Review:
I reckon that most people would think, quite reasonably, that a mystery with a name like Faceless Killers would be riveting. Unfortunately, those people would be wrong.

I’d been aware of the acclaim that some Scandinavian crime fiction has garnered in recent years, and the Wallander series was the one seemed most visible—not saying it’s the best of the lot, but there is that Kenneth Branagh series on the BBC—so I decided to start there, and with the first book in the series.

It’s January 1990 when a seventy-year-old man wakes in the night, sure he’s heard something amiss at his neighbor’s house. He’s right—the couple inside has been brutally murdered, and wife’s dying words (as well as one particular detail about the crime) suggests involvement by one or more of the many foreign refugees flooding into Sweden. Wallander and his team investigate.

I like to think I could’ve pegged this for a first book in a series even if I hadn’t known. There’s just so much to give that away. Wallander has a set of stereotypical “detective issues,” for one, including a drinking problem, an estranged wife and daughter, a crazy parent, and a thoroughly random obsession for opera. (Perhaps the specificity of “opera” isn’t quite a stereotype, but I have definitely encountered several detectives who randomly groove to classical music while on the job.) The vast majority of the policemen in the background are utterly indistinguishable from one another, with the exception of one guy who might not be around in subsequent installments. Wallander’s personal issues miraculously resolve themselves off-camera in a fast-forward that happens towards the end of the book. Occasionally, characters engage in pointless debates/rants about immigration policy. And after much plodding around, the case is ultimately solved thanks to the conveniently (and implausibly) amazing memory of one witness.

It took me ages to get through the first half of the book, but things did pick up a little bit towards the end. Wallander’s transformation into someone more positive doesn’t feel earned, as it mostly happens during that fast-forwarded period, but it does make him a character that I’d have more interest in revisiting. Until the point he got over the wife and made up with the daughter and father, I was pretty sure I would not be coming back, but if he can shed at least some of the clichéd personal baggage, there may be hope.

Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann

From the back cover:
On a hillside near the cozy Irish village of Glennkill, the members of the flock gather around their shepherd, George, whose body lies pinned to the ground with a spade. George has cared for the sheep, reading them a plethora of books every night. The daily exposure to literature has made them far savvier about the workings of the human mind than your average sheep. Led by Miss Maple, the smartest sheep in Glennkill (and possibly the world), they set out to find George’s killer.

The A-team of investigators includes Othello, the “bad boy” black ram; Mopple the Whale, a Merino who eats a lot and remembers everything; and Zora, a pensive black-faced ewe with a weakness for abysses. Joined by other members of the talented flock, they engage in nightlong discussions about the crime and embark on reconnaissance missions into the village, where they encounter some likely suspects. Along the way, the sheep confront their own struggles with guilt, misdeeds, and unrequited love.

Review:
I’m not sure where I first heard about Three Bags Full, but the promise of a mystery with a team of sheepy sleuths on the case guaranteed that I had to read it. Originally published in German as Glennkill, this English edition has been translated by Anthea Bell.

Despite its bucolic setting, things are not very peaceful in the Irish village of Glennkill. One morning, George the shepherd is found dead in his pasture and his sheep, particularly several whose intelligence has been greatly increased due to George’s habit of reading aloud to them, set out to find justice. What ensues are various scenes of the sheep surreptitiously observing humans—“It was the first time Othello had been to a funeral, but the ram behaved beautifully.”—and filtering the information they glean through a sheepy lens. Usually, they get things a bit wrong, but the logic of their reasoning is quite endearing. They still manage to behave like sheep and often, certain of the flock complain about all the thinking and learning and must be cajoled from backsliding into blissful ignorance. Metaphor, much?

This was Swann’s first novel—a sequel, Garou came out in 2010 but no English translation is yet available—so perhaps it’s not surprising that, while the sheep are charming, the mystery itself is not as well-developed. George had apparently discovered a dirty secret of some of the villagers years before, but nothing much actually comes of this. Then, we also learn George was a drug dealer—with a rather clever method of transporting his goods—but nothing much actually comes of this, either. That said, the way in which the sheep encourage the truth to come out—though they’re convinced that what needs to “come out” is some kind of tangible thing lurking in the shepherd’s caravan—is pretty cute to envision, so I can’t complain too much.

Lastly, a couple of compliments! I applaud the English translation by Anthea Bell, which is so well done—and retains so much wit—that one would never guess it wasn’t the original text. Also, I happened to “read” Three Bags Full in unabridged audio format and the narrator, Josephine Bailey, was simply superb. Each sheep had their own easily recognizable voice, and the lambs were nothing short of adorable.

Here’s hoping Garou eventually makes its way to our shores!

Point of Hopes by Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett

pointofhopesFrom the back cover:
It is the time of the annual Midsummer Fair in the royal city of Astreiant, and the time of the conjunction of the spheres approaches, heralding the death of the monarch. Each year a few youngsters run away from home to go on the road with traders, but this year a far larger number of children than usual have gone missing during the Fair. Someone is stealing them away without a trace, and the populace is angry.

Nicolas Rathe, a city guard, must find the children and stop whatever dark plan is being hatched before the city explodes into chaos.

Review:
It took me nearly three years to finish reading Point of Hopes, and two months to write this review after I finally completed it. Those facts should give you a good indication of just how riveting this mystery isn’t.

Nicolas Rathe is a “pointsman” (basically a policeman) in the city of Astreiant. When dozens of children suddenly go missing, Rathe is on the case. He enlists a few friends to help—Philip Eslingen, a foreign mercenary to whom Rathe seems to be attracted, and a necromancer buddy from the local university who was, for some reason, played in my head by Paul Bettany. Primarily, Rathe’s investigation consists of visiting various parts of the city and talking to people to no avail, until finally a bit of evidence turns up on page 279. The three guys collectively put the pieces together, and I really liked the bits where they were working in concert. Too bad they were only together in the final 70 pages!

Thankfully, the setting of Point of Hopes is more intriguing than its central mystery. For one, gender equality is absolutely the norm. Just as many women as men participate in professions seen as traditionally male in our society, and many women are in positions of power. In the fantasy setting of Astreiant, your occupation is determined by the alignment of the stars at your birth, which reads to me as a metaphor for objectively selecting people for a job based solely on their abilities. Equality of sexual preference is also a facet of life in Astreiant—it’s not that same-sex relationships are merely tolerated: they’re commonplace. No one would think of considering them invalid or sinful.

Aside from not being very exciting, the most irritating aspect of Point of Hopes for me was the dire need for better editing. There were many, many, many instances where a comma was used in a spot that needed a semicolon and many pages that suffered from wall o’ text syndrome. I can’t help but feel like it would’ve read faster if it weren’t so dense-looking. Lastly, I wonder at some of the names. I tend to think characters’ names “aloud” in my head, and while this is obviously not a problem for the lead characters, I was stymied by names like “Cijntien.” Plus, it’s weird to have fantasy names like that alongside such normal ones.

Anyway, there is a sequel to this entitled Point of Dreams. I own it, so will likely read it someday, but at the rate I’ve gone with this story thus far, I wouldn’t expect a review until at least 2015!

Additional reviews of Point of Hopes can be found at Triple Take.

A Place of Hiding by Elizabeth George

From the back cover:
A shocking murder calls forensic scientist Simon St. James and his wife, Deborah, to an isolated island in the English Channel. An old friend of Deborah’s, China River, stands accused of killing the island’s wealthiest benefactor, Guy Brouard. There is little evidence pointing to China—and Deborah and Simon are certain that their friend didn’t murder the inveterate womanizer. But if China didn’t kill Brouard, who did?

As family and friends gather for the reading of the will, Deborah and Simon find that seemingly everyone on the history-haunted island has something to hide. And behind all the lies and alibis, a killer is lurking.

Review:
Every once in a while, a strange thing happens to me: I get an incredibly strong craving to read a mystery by Elizabeth George. This isn’t a bad thing, but I’ve only got five left now ’til I’m current, and I wonder what’ll happen then. Anyway, in the case of A Place of Hiding this craving was strong enough to trump the off-putting fact that this novel prominently features Deborah St. James, a character whom I dislike most intensely.

Before I get into the ways in which Deborah caused me to contemplate violence upon her fictional person, I should probably talk about the actual mystery, such as it is. Guy Brouard, wealthy war orphan and inveterate womanizer, has been killed on the island of Guernsey the morning following a party announcing his plans for a war museum. Among the attendees was China River, an American and old friend of Deborah’s, who has now been arrested for the crime. China’s brother, Cherokee, comes to London to enlist the aid of Deborah and her forensic scientist husband, Simon, in proving his sister’s innocence.

Simon’s credentials convince the local force to allow him to poke around, and he, as one might assume, soon discovers additional suspects with various motives. He also entrusts Deborah with an important piece of evidence, and when she fails to do with it what he requested, he gets chewed out about it by the local DCI, which obviously leaves him feeling rightfully irritated with her. Deborah fails to see how this is her fault, and indulges in repeated hissy fits about how Simon views his rational approach to the investigation (and life in general) as superior to her own “passionate, unpredictable” one.

This eventually culminates in Deborah idiotically interrupting a stakeout and, once again, making Simon look unprofessional in front of the local police. Elizabeth George tries so hard to make us sympathize with Deborah that she introduces characteristics in Simon that I had never before noticed, like a patronizing form of sexism. So now, not only do I hate Deborah, she’s making me start to dislike Simon, too! Great.

Some of the secondary characters are fairly odious, too, but honestly I am ready to put them (and this book) behind me. I will say, however, that this is the first Elizabeth George novel to ever make me cry happy tears (the last scene involving Paul Fielder), so it’s obviously not all bad.

Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden

Book description:
When Ellie and her friends go camping, they have no idea they’re leaving their old lives behind forever. Despite a less-than-tragic food shortage and a secret crush or two, everything goes as planned. But a week later, they return home to find their houses empty and their pets starving. Something has gone wrong—horribly wrong. Before long, they realize the country has been invaded, and the entire town has been captured—including their families and all their friends.

Ellie and the other survivors face an impossible decision: they can flee for the mountains or surrender. Or they can fight.

Review:
It’s been several weeks now since I finished Tomorrow, When the War Began. Normally, I write a book’s review as soon as I finish reading it, but I feel like I’m still processing this one to some extent, trying to figure out exactly how I feel about it.

This is due in part to the fact that I have greatly enjoyed the other books by John Marsden that I have read, and so built this series up in my mind as something that was going to be jaw-droppingly amazing. And when it turned out not to be so, even though it’s still quite good in general and genuinely riveting in parts, I was kind of disappointed.

This is the story of seven Australian teenagers (later eight) living in the rural town of Wirrawee who go camping while their parents and most of the people in town are attending a fair. The kids return to find that a mysterious military force has invaded Australia and has imprisoned most of the townspeople at the fairgrounds, including their families. They must decide what, if anything, they’re going to do to help. Ellie Linton has been tasked with chronicling their story.

Large portions of the tale are pretty fascinating. The teens are resourceful and rise to the occasion, especially Ellie’s clown/daredevil childhood friend, Homer, who emerges as the group’s leader, and Fiona, a ladylike rich girl who proves to have unexpected reserves of courage. While Homer is the tactician of the group, Ellie seems to find herself trusted with the most dangerous missions, which require some quick, inventive thinking on her part in difficult situations involving things like exploding lawn mowers, demolition derby bulldozers, and exploding gas tankers.

I even liked the parts of the story where the characters talk about what they’re going to do—are we going to hide out here in our camping spot, or are we going to try to engage the enemy somehow?—and the various supplies they’re going to need from town, whether to keep chickens, etc. Where the story really bogs down, however, is with the introduction of romance.

Ellie has never considered Homer in a romantic way before, but begins to see him in a new light given his metamorphosis. Meanwhile, she’s also intrigued by Lee, the inscrutable Asian musician, and Homer has fallen for Fiona. Ellie dwells a lot on her confusion before ultimately deciding upon Lee, and then telling readers about all the making out they’re doing and how she has learned the things that make him groan, etc. I kept thinking how embarrassing all of this will be for Lee whenever he/anyone reads this official chronicle!

Anyway, it’s not that I am anti-romance or anything, but it’s just that these scenes really slow down the pace of the story. And maybe that is the point. Even if something as dramatic as an invasion has occurred, there will still be a lot of downtime if you’re hiding out in the woods, and a lot of time for more mundane things to be going on.

I guess what it boils down to is that my perception of the book has been hampered by my expectations. I am certainly going to read the rest of the series, and hopefully I will like it better now that I’ve reconciled myself to what it actually is rather than what I thought it was.

Additional reviews of Tomorrow, When the War Began can be found at Triple Take.

Pretty Little Secrets by Sara Shepard

From the back cover:
Rewind to junior year in Rosewood, Pennsylvania, to a winter break no one has ever heard about.

Fat snowflakes fall onto manicured lawns, quilted stockings hang over marble fireplaces, and everyone is at peace, especially Hanna, Emily, Aria, and Spencer. Now that Alison’s murderer is in jail and A is dead, they can finally relax. Little do they know there’s a new A in town…

What happens on holiday break stays on holiday break—right? But guess what. I saw. And now I’m telling.

-A

Review:
This will probably be the last full-length review I write of a Pretty Little Liars novel. Mostly that’s because I’ve run out of ways to say “it isn’t very good, but I still enjoy it,” but also… egads, this one was pretty bad.

Although published earlier this year, Pretty Little Secrets is actually set between books four and five of the series, so I opted to go ahead and read it now. The premise is that this is the winter break between those books and the new A in town is observing the four girls before beginning to seriously harass them. It feels a lot like a media tie-in novel, to be honest, shoehorned in between more pivotal events with decidedly lame plots that are designed not to contradict anything that comes afterwards. (Although, I’ve actually heard that are some discrepancies.)

In “Hanna’s Little Secret,” Hanna is despondent when her boyfriend, Lucas, goes on vacation with a hot chick, so she binge eats a while, then joins a fitness boot camp, where she competes with another girl to win the affections of their instructor. In “Emily’s Little Secret,” Mrs. Fields is upset over the theft of her precious ceramic baby Jesus (yes, really) from a church nativity scene, and enlists Emily to infiltrate the clique of girls presumed to be responsible. In “Aria’s Little Secret,” Aria’s old Icelandic flame shows up randomly and they decide to get married (yes, really). And in “Spencer’s Little Secret,” Spencer and her sister compete for the affections of a tennis player while their parents are having some angst related to the DiLaurentis family. There are small things connecting the stories, mainly the references to a vile-tasting vitamin water called AminoSpa.

I thought the Hanna and Spencer stories were structurally pretty similar, as both involved bitchy sisters/step-sisters as well as the protagonist getting duped by another girl who was actually after the same guy who turned out to be a player who used the same lines on them both. Though it’s really just as dumb as the others, the Emily story is probably the best because it contains a few snickerworthy lines.

All in all, please feel free to skip this collection. You’re not missing much of anything.