Random Reads 2/18/21

Are You in the House Alone? by Richard Peck
Are You in the House Alone? came out in 1976 and though I totally could’ve read it when I was a teen—and thus still a member of its target audience—I never did.

Gail Osburne is a sixteen-year-old high school junior and native New Yorker who’s not at home in the quaint Connecticut village her family relocated to several years back. I knew that the plot involved Gail receiving menacing anonymous notes and phone calls, and I was expecting these events to get started quickly and the suspense to remain high throughout. But that doesn’t happen.

Instead, the story is told retroactively, so we know Gail survives. Also, obvious culprit is obvious. (I hope the reveal wasn’t intended to be a surprise, but perhaps readers were less savvy about such things in 1976.) Initially, much more of the focus is on Gail’s relationships with her parents, boyfriend, and best friend, and in particular how the latter two are in the slow process of dissolution. Eventually she receives some threatening notes and creepy phone calls, gets scared, is let down by people in positions of authority, and comes face-to-face with said obvious culprit. That happens halfway through this slim novel. The rest of the book is about Gail’s recovery from her ordeal.

I thought Are You in the House Alone? was going to be fun, suspenseful fluff, but it turned out to be fairly serious and occasionally (intentionally) infuriating. I really appreciated how Peck was able to weave in a couple of threads that seemed very random at first and make them integral to the denouement, too. Ultimately, I didn’t love the book, but I kind of… respect it, if that makes sense. It didn’t go the cheap route.

automaticThe Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez
Mack Megaton is a hulking robot who was created to destroy. He developed self-determination, however, and went against his programming. Now, he’s a probationary citizen of Empire City, where mutagens and pollution have created a very diverse population. While some “biologicals” are still “norms,” others have been physically transformed (like rat-like Detective Alfredo Sanchez) and others have been changed in not-so-visible ways (like Mack’s friend, Jung, a talking gorilla with refined literary taste). Mack works as a cab driver and is trying to keep a low profile, but when his neighbors are abducted, he can’t help but try to rescue them. This gets him into all sorts of trouble, of course.

Despite its name, The Automatic Detective isn’t really much of a mystery. I suppose it’s more… sci-fi noir. Mack meets various thugs, beats some of them up, gets beat up himself, etc. Slowly, he makes progress on uncovering a huge conspiracy. At times, I felt like Martinez was a little too enamored of the gimmick he created, and places in the middle dragged a bit as a result, but the ending is pretty satisfying and overall the book was enjoyable enough, even though it’s quite far from the sort of thing I usually read.

As a final note: I really liked that Martinez limited himself when it came time to invent universe-specific profanity. Instead of the text being liberally sprinkled with words like “frell” or “frak,” the phrase “Oh, flurb” appears but once (during a moment where the meaning is 100% apparent) and made me laugh out loud.

I don’t know if I’m necessarily eager to read more by Martinez, but I’m glad I read this one.

jeeves2The Inimitable Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
When I read My Man Jeeves back in 2010, I was somewhat disappointed because so much of it was repetitive. While there are some common elements that recur within the eleven stories that comprise The Inimitable Jeeves, it is still so very much superior that I’d now say… forget about that first book. Start here. Go back and read My Man Jeeves for completist purposes, if that’s your inclination, but start here for the best introduction to these characters and Wodehouse’s uniquely charming and amusing writing.

First published in 1923, The Inimitable Jeeves contains a linked set of stories that typically involve affable Bertie Wooster being imposed upon by either his eternally lovesick friend Bingo Little (who is “always waylaying one and decanting his anguished soul”) or his mischief-making younger cousins, Claude and Eustace. One plot thread involves convincing Bingo’s uncle (who provides him with an allowance) to agree to Bingo marrying a waitress. Jeeves comes up with the idea to ply the uncle with romance novels featuring class differences to soften his heart, and it ends up that Bertie is compelled to go visit the old fellow and claim to be the author. In addition to containing the most elegant description of sweat I’ve ever seen—“The good old persp was bedewing my forehead by this time in a pretty lavish manner.”—this situation is referenced a few times in subsequent stories until Bingo succeeds in getting married to a different waitress who really is the author of those romance novels.

So, even though you’ve got episodic happenings, it’s rather a satisfactory conclusion. Bertie is endearing, Jeeves is competent, the writing is excellent, and it made me laugh. (I especially liked when a character was described as resembling “a sheep with a secret sorrow.”) I’m so glad that I didn’t give up on the series after the first book; now I feel as though I finally see what the fuss is all about. I’d also like to give credit to the fabulous narration by Jonathan Cecil. I’m not sure if it’s deliberate, but I hear echoes of Fry and Laurie in his performance, and I heartily approve. I will certainly seek out more unabridged versions read by him.

The Murders of Richard III by Elizabeth Peters
This is the second in the Jacqueline Kirby series of mysteries. I haven’t read the first, and wouldn’t normally begin with the second, but the book promised an English country mansion plus “fanatic devotees of King Richard III” so my usual routine flew right out the window.

Even before university lecturer Thomas Carter likened himself unto Watson, I’d noticed the similarities between how this tale is told and the Sherlock Holmes stories. We are never permitted inside Jacqueline’s head. Instead, we see her how Thomas, hopeful of one day securing her romantic affections, views her. It’s fairly interesting, actually, because Thomas’ opinion of her fluctuates, sometimes peevishly. “You drive me crazy with your arrogance and your sarcasm and your know-it-all airs,” he says at one point. And though he soon after claims “I’m no male chauvinist; I don’t mind you showing off,” the fact is that earlier he was grumbling inwardly about her feigning “girlish ignorance” to reel in mansplainers and then walloping the “unwitting victim” with a cartload of knowledge. It’s true that Jacqueline isn’t especially likeable sometimes, but for remorselessly trouncing the sexist louts she encounters throughout the book, I must commend her!

The mystery itself is somewhat bland, unfortunately. The leader of a Ricardian society has received a letter purportedly written by Elizabeth of York, which would exonerate Richard of the deaths of her brothers, the “princes in the tower.” He calls a meeting of the society, with each attendee costumed as one of the historical personages involved, and summons the press, planning to unveil his find with much fanfare. But someone begins playing practical jokes on the Ricardians reminiscent of the fates of the people they are pretending to be. The book isn’t a long one, and soon the pranks start coming right on the heels of one another. Because of the swift pace—and some shallow characterization—the solution is rather anti-climactic.

Still, while I’m not sure I’ll seek out any more Jacqueline Kirby mysteries, this was overall a decent read.

A Perfect Match by Jill McGown
The series of books featuring Detective Inspector Lloyd (whose first name is a secret for now) and Detective Sergeant Judy Hill begins with a short yet enjoyable mystery in which a wealthy young widow is found dead in a small English town on property she’d just inherited from her recently deceased husband. Unlike some mysteries of which I am fond, there’s no preamble where readers get to know the victim or the circumstances of their life. Instead, immediately there’s a policeman discovering the body and then Lloyd turns up to question the victim’s next of kin. This same lack of character development hampers the romantic tension between Lloyd and Hill, leaving me with no idea what motivated Hill to finally decide to act on her feelings for him, betraying her marriage vows in the process.

The mystery itself is interesting enough, however, involving long-married Helen and Donald Mitchell who have ties to both the victim, Julia—her late husband was Donald’s older brother and Helen thinks they were having an affair—and chief suspect, Chris, originally a friend of Donald’s who has fallen in love with Helen. I can’t claim to have mustered anything more than a mild curiosity as to what the outcome would be, but neither did I guess the specifics, so that was good. I liked the interrogation scenes, too.

McGown’s writing had some fun moments. I loved the super-evocative imagery of Lloyd telling Hill that her new perm makes her look like Kevin Keegan. I also really appreciated a recurring bit where each chapter ends with the point of view of wildlife. When Chris is eventually brought in by the police, his arrest is depicted from a bird’s perspective, for example. There are also ducks, a moth, a fly, a cat… I don’t know if this device recurs in later books in the series, but I look forward to finding out.

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight
This is the second mystery/thriller I’ve read in which a single mom who is a lawyer with a cold and unfeeling mother of her own attempts to work out the mystery of what happened to a family member (the other being Girl in the Dark by Marion Pauw). Is that some kind of trend these days?

Kate Baron has a demanding job at a swanky firm, but she’s trying her best to be a good mom to her fifteen-year-old bookworm daughter, Amelia. She’s shocked to get a call from Grace Hall, the prestigious private school Amelia attends, saying that her daughter has been accused of cheating, and by the time she makes her way to the school, Amelia has evidently jumped to her death from the school roof. The police are only too happy to classify her death as a suicide, but when Kate gets a text that says “Amelia didn’t jump,” she starts trying to put together the pieces of what happened.

Reconstructing Amelia has quite a few problems. Despite her better judgment (and a promise to her best friend), Amelia joins a clique of bitchy girls at school who end up publicly humiliating her and trying to get her expelled when she falls in love with someone deemed off-limits. It’s hard to muster sympathy for what she ends up going through when one remembers the cruel prank she was willing to pull on someone else as part of the initiation process (largely kept off-camera to keep us from disliking her too much, I guess). We’re repeatedly told about the great relationship Amelia and her mom share, but never shown it. The subplot about Amelia’s dad is the literary equivalent of wilted lettuce. And the fact that the new detective who gets assigned to the case allows Kate to question suspects is absolutely ludicrous.

And yet, I couldn’t hate the book, largely because of Amelia’s friend, Sylvia. For much of the book she comes across as shallow and self-absorbed, but when Amelia really needs her, she’s there. She gives Amelia this tour of “great moments at Grace Hall” to cheer up her impressive pal, right before breaking down about her own legitimate pain. I never would’ve thought at the outset that I would have such immense sympathy for Sylvia, but I do. I find myself hoping that she’ll be okay.

shutterislandShutter Island by Dennis Lehane
It sure is nice going into a book unspoiled, particularly one as twisty as Shutter Island. I was quite happy with the book as it began, with U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule taking the ferry to Shutter Island to track down a patient missing from Ashcliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. It’s late summer 1954, and these guys are manly but accessible, and surprisingly funny. Consider this relatiely early exchange that cracked me up:

Pretentious Doctor: *makes remarks on the lives of violence the marshals must lead*
Chuck: Wasn’t raised to run, Doc.
Pretentious Doctor: Ah, yes. Raised. And who did raise you?
Teddy: Bears.

For a while, all seems straightforward. Then Teddy confides to Chuck that he’s actually come there looking for a patient named Andrew Laediss, who was responsible for setting the fire that killed Teddy’s wife two years before. Gradually, one starts to doubt everything (and there was a point where all of the uncertainty got to be a little much for me) but the ultimate conclusion is a very satisfactory one.

Why Did You Lie? by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Set in Iceland, Why Did You Lie? starts out with three different storylines taking place a few days apart. The first involves a photographer on a helicopter journey to take pictures of a lighthouse on a rock in the middle of the ocean, the second is about a policewoman whose journalist husband has recently attempted suicide, and the third is about a family who returns from a house swap with an American couple to find some of their stuff missing and weird footage on the security camera. Of course, as the book progresses, these storylines converge, and it’s pretty neat when the police activity the helicopter flew over in chapter one turns out to be almost the culmination of the policewoman’s plot thread.

For some reason, I can’t help wondering how Ruth Rendell might’ve written this book. I think Rendell would’ve done a lot more with characterization, for one thing. There’s certainly some here, especially for the anxious husband who struggles to make his wife admit something really has gone wrong with their houseguests, but the primary concern seems to be getting on with the suspenseful action. Quickly, each plot features some kind of creepy lurker and then ominous notes (variations on the “why did you lie?” theme) figure in to all three, as well. Nina, the policewoman, digs around and talks to people and works out that everything connects to a supposed suicide from thirty years ago.

The result is certainly an entertaining book, but not one I could really love. One major issue I had is being able to predict something very significant. The number of characters who could’ve been angry enough about the 30-year-old lies in question to terrorize people in the present is very small. And once the existence of a certain person is oh-so-casually mentioned two-thirds through the book, I thought, “Oh, well, it’s them, then.” And then a little later, I figured out which of the characters it must be and I was right. This made for an anticlimactic ending that was clearly meant to be a shocking one. Also, I would’ve liked to have cared more that one character ends the novel poised to move on with life but, in reality, still in jeopardy.

I still would read more by this author, though.

My Man Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse: B-

Book description:
My Man Jeeves, first published in 1919, introduced the world to affable, indolent Bertie Wooster and his precise, capable valet, Jeeves. Some of the finest examples of humorous writing found in English literature are woven around the relationship between these two men of very different classes and temperaments. Where Bertie is impetuous and feeble, Jeeves is cool-headed and poised. This collection, the first book of Jeeves and Wooster stories, includes “Leave it to Jeeves,” “Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest,” “Jeeves and the Hard-Boiled Egg,” “Absent Treatment,” “Helping Freddie,” “Rallying Round Old George,” “Doing Clarence a Bit of Good,” and “The Aunt and the Sluggard.”

It grieves me to award a relatively low grade to My Man Jeeves, because I truly did want to like it, but the trouble is, if I may be allowed to borrow Bertie’s manner of speech for a moment, that the stories it contains are “dashed repetitive, don’t you know?” In fact, you too can write a story just like the ones in this book! Make a selection at each parenthetical prompt and you’re halfway there!

A friend of (Reggie Pepper/Bertie Wooster) is having trouble with a (rich aunt or uncle/woman) and is despondent because said person has threatened to (cut off his allowance/break off their engagement). (Reggie/Jeeves) comes up with a kooky idea to achieve the friend’s desired result and hijinks ensue.

The outcomes of the stories are all different, of course, and usually at least somewhat amusing. The story that varies the most from the formula above is “Doing Clarence a Bit of Good,” in which Reggie is summoned to the home of his former sweetheart, who has manipulated him thither with tales of an excellent golf course nearby but who really wants him to steal an ugly painting by her husband’s father. I probably should’ve seen the end result coming, but didn’t.

The relationship between Jeeves and Wooster is also enjoyable, with Wooster being terribly impressed by the “devilish brainy” Jeeves and occasionally rewarding him for his achievements by casting off ties, hats, or mustaches that have offended Jeeves’s delicate sensibilities. I’m a little sad that Jeeves’s intellect is used primarily for schemes of deception, though, and hope that won’t always be the case. There are a couple of occasions where he quietly works a solution of his own while Bertie is away, and I found those better examples of his cleverness than simply advising someone to pretend to have written a book on birds in order to appeal to a rich uncle with an ornithological bent.

There’s actually one story featuring Bertie and Jeeves that is even older than those collected here. “Extricating Young Gussie,” first published in 1915 and included in The Man with Two Left Feet in 1917, finds Bertie tasked with preventing the marriage of his cousin to a chorus girl. I had thought it was safe to save this ’til later, since Jeeves’s part is extremely small, but Bertie mentioned it a couple of times here so I’ll probably go ahead and tackle that one next.

Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham: A

From the back cover:
Lionized by literary society, Edward Driffield is married to his second wife, a woman of iron will, indisputable rectitude and great charm. Her request to Alroy Kear, lightweight novelist, to write a biography of her husband seems both flattering and agreeable. But on delving into Driffield’s past Kear revives the spectre of his first wife, Rosie, delectable companion of less respectable days and the unlikely muse of his greatest work.

In this novel Maugham has created the unauthorized biography, the book that cannot be written for fear of offending Driffield’s unsuspecting public. And in Rosie he has given us his greatest heroine, luscious, inconstant and commonplace, yet lingering most persistently in the mind.

Prior to reading Cakes and Ale, my exposure to W. Somerset Maugham was sorely limited. I first heard of him during my teen years in the context of “the guy who wrote the book that became the movie that starred Bill Murray in his first serious role.” (I was a bit of an SNL fanatic in those days.) After reading Cakes and Ale, I wonder what took me so long.

Cakes and Ale will possibly sound disorganized when described, but flows logically when read. The narrator, William Ashenden, is a middle-aged author who’s approached by a more commercially successful peer, Alroy Kear, to help with a biography Kear is writing. The subject is Edward Driffield, a novelist with whom Ashenden was acquainted when he (Driffield) was married to a vibrant but unfaithful former barmaid named Rosie, but who spent his later years with a respectable second wife who struggled for years to make him fit the mold of a venerated elder statesman of literature.

Despite Kear’s assertions that he wants to know everything that Ashenden has to tell about Driffield’s former marriage, Ashenden realizes that, with the second Mrs. Driffield backing the biography project, there’s no way any of it would be usable anyhow. The fact is, Driffield wrote better books when he was married to Rosie and though she was wildly unfaithful, it wasn’t done from malice. Rather than tell Kear what he wants to know, Ashenden instead reminisces privately about his awkward first meeting with the Driffields as a boy of fifteen—during which period he obediently adopted the class prejudice of the aunt and uncle with whom he lived—and the later resumption of their friendship when he is a 20-year-old medical student living in London.

Maugham’s writing style is especially appealing to me, managing to be clever, witty, insightful, and concise all at the same time. There aren’t words enough to express how much I adore the passages about young Ashenden. He’s so self-conscious and awkward, and I love how Maugham depicts Ashenden’s struggle between the warnings he’s received about working-class people versus what he is actually seeing for himself. It’s a nostalgic sort of portrait, fond and sympathetic, of a boy who gradually sheds the things he’s been led to believe and learns to think for himself. This isn’t the only portrait to be found, of course. Both Rosie and Kear are quite extensively developed, and the reaction of other characters to them also allows for some wry commentary on communities both rural and literary. Oddly enough, the least developed character is probably Driffield himself, about whom the biography is being written!

The only complaint I have about Cakes and Ale is that it’s too short! That’s not to say that the story is incomplete, for it isn’t, but I enjoyed the book so much I could have gone on reading it for thrice as long! Happily, Maugham wrote quite a few other things, one of which is waiting for me at the library and another of which is on its way from Amazon at this very moment.

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines: A

From the back cover:
A Lesson Before Dying is set in a small Cajun community in the late 1940s. Jefferson, a young black man, is an unwitting party to a liquor store shootout in which three men are killed; the only survivor, he is convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Grant Wiggins, who left his hometown for the university, has returned to the plantation school to teach. As he struggles with his decision whether to stay or escape to another state, his aunt and Jefferson’s godmother persuade him to visit Jefferson in his cell and impart his learning and his pride to Jefferson before his death. In the end, the two men forge a bond as they both come to understand the simple heroism of resisting—and defying—the unexpected.

Ernest J. Gaines brings to this novel the same rich sense of place, the same deep understanding of the human psyche, and the same compassion for a people and their struggle that have informed his previous, highly praised works of fiction.

I had a pretty major misconception about A Lesson Before Dying. I’d expected something akin to a training montage, where Grant imparts academic knowledge upon Jefferson and produces in the end a carbon copy of himself. It’s to the book’s credit that it completely avoids this sort of approach.

Grant Wiggins wants more from life, longing to move away from the plantation community he despises but can’t seem to leave and to take along with him his married girlfriend, Vivian. He feels that events are conspiring to keep him there—like family obligations and the unwillingness of Vivian’s husband to grant her a divorce unless he can see his kids on a weekly basis—even while the community has pinned their hopes on him to such a degree that he feels driven to escape their expectations. He’s not always a likable character, but he is an interesting one. I ended up sympathizing a lot with Vivian, because he’s a fundamentally good guy who is still self-absorbed and impulsive, and does stupid guy things like get in a bar brawl and then ask her “Are you still mad?” every two minutes.

Jefferson is an incredibly compelling character. At his trial, his defense attorney—in an attempt to spare his life by establishing his complete lack of sense—compares him to a hog. When Grant first visits him at the jail, all Jefferson will do is reiterate that he is a hog, and for the longest time it doesn’t seem that progress is being made. Grant tells him that the community needs someone to stand up in defiance, someone to be their hero. They thought it would be someone like university-educated Grant who would fill that role, but Jefferson could be that person now, for the benefit of everyone else. His transormation is gradual and believeable, and the diary he writes as his execution date approaches is the highlight of the book.

I listened to this in unabridged audio, read by Jay Long. He sometimes sounds stiff reading Grant’s narration (but then again, Grant’s a pretty uptight guy), but does fabulously for everyone else, employing a variety of regional speech patterns and dialects. The one thing that bugs me about Gaines’ writing style is the tendency to repeat things with identical verbiage, be they actions or lines of dialogue. I swear the phrases “can you stand?” and “get him outta here” must be repeated about four times each (in rapid succession) in the aftermath of the bar fight.

Like the other work by Gaines that I have read, A Lesson Before Dying is sad and thoughtful. I really like how the merits and dignity of the humble and hardworking people on the plantation are gradually made evident to Grant, who has always considered himself superior to those around him. Too, I find interesting the struggles for status within the black community, particularly the resentment by mulattos and educated blacks towards the white man who lumps them together with those they consider beneath them.

I’ll be continuing to read more by Gaines. I’m thinking A Gathering of Old Men will be next.

The Pact by Jodi Picoult: C-

From the back cover:
The Hartes and the Golds have been neighbors for 18 years and are very close. So when Chris and Emily’s friendship reaches the next level, nobody is surprised. Then one night, the hospital calls. Seventeen-year-old Emily is dead—shot in the head by a gun Chris took from his father’s cabinet. One bullet remains in the chamber, and Chris tells of his suicide pact with Emily. But the police have questions, and soon Chris is on trial for murder.

Picoult’s works are usually about sensational topics like faith healers and school shootings, and nearly all culminate in a trial of some kind. I’d only read one Picoult previously, and liked it well enough to try another, but now I see what critics mean when they complain about the repetitiveness of her books.

Besides the fact that a violent crime has been committed in each, both books employed the same tactic of alternating back and forth between the past and the present, saving the final reveal of what really happened until the end, in the middle of all the trial proceedings. The teen leads were childhood friends in both books. The teen boys had the same defense attorney. This book was actually written first, so I suppose it’s not technically the repetitive one, but if you copy something down the line, then the original is going to be subject to some retroactive criticism on that account.

All of the characters felt very shallow to me, and many of their actions rather implausible. For example, Chris intended to stop his girlfriend from committing suicide. So, what did he do? He brought a gun and bullets to a meeting with her, as he had pledged he would, because otherwise she’d realize he intended to stop her. Uh, so you were gonna let her load the gun and then stop her? ‘Cos I think she’d be realizing it either way, and in one version, she’s not, like, armed. Another example is the married couples, who go for months and months barely speaking after the incident, and then are suddenly, inexplicably, going at it like bunnies. You’d think there’d be some working out of issues first or something!

Also, waaaaay too much detail on the sex scenes. I know where the various bits go, thank you very much. Picoult obviously felt it was important to reiterate that for her readers, I guess. Also, I did not need that part where Chris and Emily fondly reminisce about the time they watched some dogs doing the deed. I’m going to do my best to forget I ever read some of those words.

Pretty much the only thing that kept me interested was the hook I mentioned above—dangling the final revelation in front of readers like a carrot, lending them the necessary fortitude to make it past all the dreck in order to satisfy their curiosity. The trial was pretty interesting, too, even though the outcome was highly unlikely. Beyond that, however, I can think of nothing that I actually liked.

I’m done with Picoult now.

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult: B+

From the back cover:
New York Times best-selling author Jodi Picoult—known for tackling today’s hot-button issues—delivers the riveting tale of one small town’s entanglement with high school violence.

New superior court judge Alex Cormier is assigned to preside over the case of the alleged Sterling High School shooter. Lawyer Jordan McAffee represents Peter—the boy who, on the day of the shooting, was found in the corner of the gymnasium holding a gun to his head with a shaky hand. Detective Patrick DuCharme has one star witness, but her story keeps changing. And then there’s the biggest problem of all—the star witness happens to be Judge Cormier’s daughter.

Picoult, acclaimed for her penetrating exploration of the gray areas in modern society, asks difficult questions in Nineteen Minutes, which may be her most powerful and important novel yet.

Nineteen Minutes had its flaws, but ultimately, though I didn’t find it as emotionally affecting as was probably intended, it was an interesting read.

The structure of the story bounces around in time, establishing what life was like for Peter growing up (as well as filling in background for other characters) and waiting until the last possible moment (on the concluding day of his trial) to finally divulge what happened in the crucial moment when Josie Cormier and her boyfriend encountered him on the morning of his shooting spree. Probably this was supposed to be a big twist, but I had been suspecting something like that for a while. I’ve read some reviews where the ending is particularly criticized. I’m not sure whether they’re talking about this part (which I thought was okay) or the more cheesy final pages.

Peter is the best-defined character in the novel: Picoult does a good job at making him sympathetic and chilling simultaneously. She also shows that some of the victims weren’t little cherubs, though it was overkill after a point. I was annoyed when the trial proceedings were interrupted just to show, yet again, how much of an abusive jerk Josie’s boyfriend was. We got it already!

The other major characters didn’t benefit from as thorough characterization as Peter received, and I was sometimes at a loss to fully understand how certain developments had occurred. Part of the problem might be the time jumping—skipping a few months to encounter Josie and her mom having a better relationship without actually showing how they worked to achieve it, for example.

All in all, I did enjoy the book. Maybe it was a little sensational, but the approach to showing why a student might be driven to do something like that was thoughtful enough that I didn’t feel the only intent was to capitalize on interest in similar real-life tragedies. I’d read more by this author.

Live at Five by David Haynes: B-

From the inside flap:
Brandon Wilson anchors a television newscast that is regularly trounced by reruns of “The Facts of Life.” When a new producer, hell-bent on raising channel 13’s ratings, decides that his middle-class African-American anchor with a penthouse isn’t “black” enough, he has a brainstorm: Brandon is to redefine himself by doing a series from a new home in the inner city. There Brandon meets Nita, who manages an apartment building in addition to juggling three kids, night school, and a job.

Brandon sees his move as a Faustian bargain that allows him to tell the stories of “real folks.” But when the station demands something more sensational, Brandon and Nita find their loyalties caught up in a media circus that only Nita can find a way to tame.

Part of why I read Live at Five was that I am curious about the black experience, and it did make me think about things I hadn’t considered before. But it also made some points that I thought were oversimplified. Like Brandon, who’d expected to encounter thieves and criminals all over, being surprised to find instead so many decent, hard-working folks living in the inner city. Is that really shocking?

Brandon himself was a bland character. I found all of the TV station stuff to be pretty dull, honestly. Nita was much more interesting, with all of her responsibilities and insecurities. I also really liked building resident Mrs. Carter, a nosy, feisty old lady who reminded me a lot of someone at work.

A physical relationship developed between the two leads, but not a romance. Apparently, being really noticed and understood by a high-class guy made Nita realize that she was worth more than she’d been giving herself credit for (earlier she’d considered running off with a slightly shady character for want of better offers), though the whole time she’s thinking how Brandon’s different from other guys, he was cheating on his girlfriend and so was as much a dog as any of them. Still, I was glad it didn’t take the predictable route where they’d end up together.

All in all, it wasn’t bad. Except the editing. That was pretty bad. For the record, Milkweed Editions, since you seemed to have trouble deciding, the apostrophe in y’all goes after the Y. Might want to make a note of it.

The Pursuit of Alice Thrift by Elinor Lipman: A-

From the back cover:
You can’t help but feel sorry for Alice Thrift, who has recently tumbled from the top of her Harvard Medical School class to the probationary wing of her student internship. It doesn’t help that her social skills cause her mother to suggest she might be slightly autistic. So when Ray Russo, a social-climbing purveyor of carnival fudge, dedicates himself to winning her adoration, Alice finds him impossible to resist. Now it’s up to her two best friends to help her toward the path of enlightenment.

This is the second book by Elinor Lipman that I’ve read, and it was as entertaining as the first. It was also similar in that it managed to be interesting without some fancy plot gimmick, excelled in “show don’t tell” writing, and featured a rather obnoxious character stirring up the lives of mild-mannered folk.

I particularly liked how Lipman handled the revelation of the character of her first person narrator. Rather than have her proclaim that she is socially inept, for example, she’d have her say something bizarre and point out the flaw through another character’s reaction: “Why do you sound like an anthropologist?”

Lipman also created fully-fleshed out characters. A good example was Ray Russo, the obnoxious character du jour. He’s a thoroughly repugnant guy. Some of the things he said were so odious to me that I had to take a break from the book for a minute. And yet, he also had good points: he defended Alice, he helped her to make friends in her building, and he didn’t expect her to be more gregarious than she was capable of being. I could easily see how Alice, though repulsed on the one hand, had trouble completely writing him off as a creep.

The development of Ray and Alice’s relationship is well done, though I was impatient to know what ultimately happened, and consequently found the gradual pace of Alice’s realizations to be frustrating. Also, though I appreciate the realism of all the awkwardness, sometimes it was just too uncomfortable to be a fun read.

I plan to read more by Lipman, but I have noticed that several other of her books also feature a somewhat meek protagonist encountering and being impacted by a more flamboyant new acquaintance. I worry that this repeated theme is going to become annoying.

Austenland by Shannon Hale: C

From the back cover:
Jane Hayes is a seemingly normal young New Yorker, but she has a secret. Her obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, is ruining her life. No real man can compare. When a wealthy relative bequeaths her a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-crazed women, Jane’s fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly becomes more real than she ever could have imagined.

Decked out in empire-waist gowns, stripped of her modern appliances, Jane throws herself into mastering Regency etiquette and flirts with gardeners and gentlemen—or maybe even, she suspects, with the actors who are playing them. It’s all a game, Jane knows. And yet the longer she stays, the more her insecurities seem to vanish. Is she about to kick the Austen obsession for good, or could all her dreams actually culminate in a Mr. Darcy of her own?

With humor, charm, and perfect sympathy, award-winning author Shannon Hale delivers a novel that will delight every reader who has ever dreamed of escaping into Austenland.

I hesitate to unequivocally declare this book awful, because it certainly had a few lines that made me giggle (“Argh,” Jane arghed.) but it’s pretty durn crappy. I’d not read any Hale before, and I worry this experience will tinge my perceptions of some YA fantasy I have by her.

Jane, the protagonist, is incredibly annoying. She’s 33 and yet behaves quite like Mia from The Princess Diaries, if that gives you any indication. She is forever swearing about how from now on things will be different in some new way, and of course she paints, and of course the real actors fall in love with her ‘cos she’s not at all like the typical sorts of ladies who frequent the resort, etc.

Most of the supporting cast are bleh. Miss Charming, one of Jane’s fellow visitors to the resort, is revolting, made even more odious by the audiobook format. I did quite like Mr. Nobly, however. He’s Austenland’s Darcy equivalent, and is the only one of the characters to be at all interesting, even though we hardly learn anything at all about the actor behind the role.

The ending is ridiculous, complete with people running after Jane in the airport and everything. I therefore predict that this will be optioned as a film.

My Latest Grievance by Elinor Lipman: A

From the back cover:
Born and raised in a college dorm and chafing under the care of “the most annoyingly evenhanded parental team in the history of civilization,” Frederica Hatch is starting to feel that her life is stiflingly snug. But then, into this cozy but claustrophobic world, comes Laura Lee French, a wannabe Rockette and the new dorm mother at the lackluster women’s college where Frederica’s parents teach and agitate.

Further disturbing the peace is the fact that Miss French—in the distant past—had been married to Frederica’s earnest and unglamorous father. Fearing scandal and campus glee, the three Hatches and Laura Lee attempt to keep their secret.

I really enjoyed My Latest Grievance. The narrative is first person, but Lipman still does an excellent job revealing the protagonist’s personality more by showing than telling. Frederica is a sardonically funny, capable, curious (bordering on nosy), and at times obnoxious teenager who has had a very unconventional upbringing and who occasionally finds herself yearning for conventional things, to her parents’ disappointment.

The plot is actually a bit excruciating, since it involves Laura Lee (an annoying, selfish, deluded, melodramatic, amoral, exceedingly indiscreet, and incredibly immature grown woman) arriving and launching a very public affair with the president of the small women’s college at which Frederica and her parents reside, resulting in all sorts of unpleasant ramifications. She does face censure for her mind-boggling lack of sense, though the Hatch family is far more tolerant of her than I would be.

The writing is wry and concise, and the story wraps up with a very satisfying conclusion. I’d definitely read more by this author.