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.

Random Reads 3/29/17

All hail the debut of a new recurring column of sorts, collecting reasonably short reviews of disparate books.

banquetA Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George
While A Banquet of Consequences is not the best Lynley and Havers mystery I have read, it’s still great heaping loads better than the last one (Just One Evil Act). In fact, in my review of the latter, I wrote “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.” And that’s pretty much what we did get this time around.

When Claire Abbott, respected feminist author, is found dead in a hotel room while on a book tour, her death is first ruled a heart attack. After her persistent friend and editor insists on a second opinion, a more thorough toxicology screening reveals the presence of poison. Having met the author and her truly odious personal assistant (and chief suspect), Caroline Goldacre, Havers begs Lynley to pull strings for her so that she can investigate, which doesn’t go over very well with Superintendent Ardery. Happily, Havers does do a competent job, though this doesn’t go very far in improving Ardery’s opinion of her.

Mystery-wise, there were elements that I guessed, but I did still enjoy the element of ambiguity that remained at the end. Too, I liked that in the next volume, the Italian detective from Just One Evil Act (probably the best thing about that dreadful book) is going to be visiting England. He was quite sweet on Havers, as I recall! My one real complaint is that Lynley had hardly anything to do, except intercede on Havers’ behalf, contemplate his relationship with Dairdre, and look after an admittedly adorable dog.

Still, it’s good to have my faith in this series somewhat restored!

endofeverythingThe End of Everything by Megan Abbott
Lizzie Hood and Evie Verver are thirteen years old and have been BFFs and next-door neighbors for as long as they can remember. Lately, though, Lizzie has begun to realize that Evie is no longer the open book she once was. (“I know her so well that I know when I no longer know everything.”) When Evie goes missing, Lizzie does all that she can to help bring her home, while being forced to acknowledge that maybe there had always been a darkness hidden within her dearest friend that she had never noticed.

In addition to the mystery of what’s happened to Evie, this book deals a lot with Lizzie’s burgeoning sexual feelings. Though she has some contact with boys near her age, she’s really smitten with Evie’s gregarious father. She longs to be close to him, to provide clues that give him hope, to take his mind off what’s happening. She exults in her ability to affect him. In the process, she somewhat usurps the place that his eldest daughter, Dusty, has filled. What I actually liked best about the book is that Abbott leaves it up to the reader to decide—is Mr. Verver’s relationship with these girls crossing a line? Perhaps his intentions are utterly pure (and, indeed, it seems like he might be crushed to hear someone thought otherwise), but there are some things he does and says that just seem so inappropriate.

Ultimately, I liked this book quite a lot (though I feel I should warn others that some parts are disturbing). Abbott offers several intriguing parallels between relationships to consider, and I think it’s a story I will ruminate over for a long time to come.

ex_burkeThe Ex by Alafair Burke
Twenty years ago, Olivia Randall sabotaged her relationship with her fiancé, Jack Harris. Now he’s the chief suspect in a triple homicide and Olivia, a defense attorney, is hired by his teenage daughter to represent him. Initially, Olivia has absolute faith in Jack’s innocence (and feels like she owes him because of how she treated him) but mounting evidence eventually makes her doubt whether she ever really knew him at all.

In synopsis form, The Ex sounds pretty interesting, but the reality is something different. Olivia herself is not particularly likeable. Setting aside how she treated Jack in the past, in the present she drinks too much and is having a casual relationship with a married man. I think we’re supposed to come away believing that this whole experience enables her to grow past some parental issues inhibiting her ability to find real love, but it’s glossed over in just about the most cursory way imaginable. And because the narration is in the first person, other characters who might have been interesting—namely a couple of other employees of the defense firm helping with the case—are exceedingly undeveloped.

The mystery plot itself is average. The final twist wasn’t something I predicted from the outset, but once a certain piece of evidence was revealed, it turned out to be very similar to another mystery I’d just read so it was a bit of a slow slog to the inevitable conclusion. The writing is also repetitive, with the significance of various clues being reiterated over and over. One genuinely unique aspect of the book is that because Olivia is a defense attorney and not law enforcement, she wasn’t overly concerned with actually solving the case, so much as finding plausible alternate suspects to establish reasonable doubt. Perhaps that is why some things the culprit did were left unexplained and some evidence unaccounted for, though it could have just been sloppy writing.

I don’t think I shall be reading anything else by this author.

girldarkGirl in the Dark by Marion Pauw
Set in The Netherlands, Girl in the Dark is told in alternating first-person chapters between Ray, a man with autism who has spent eight years in jail for the murders of his neighbor and her daughter, and Iris, a lawyer and single mother who discovers by chance that Ray is the elder brother she never knew she had. She is convinced of his innocence, despite evidence that he is capable of destructive rage, and begins investigating the case and pursuing an appeal, while trying to get her icy mother to talk about her past.

Although the book is advertised as a thriller, most of the time I was more infuriated than thrilled. Leaving aside the question of Ray’s guilt or innocence, the way he was/is treated by others—including Rosita, the opportunistic neighbor who used and then rejected him, as well as one of the employees of the institution he’s been transferred to, who seemingly frames Ray for smuggling drugs into the facility (there’s no resolution to this minor plot point)—generates a great deal of empathy. In particular, there is an especially cruel scene near the end of the book that made me literally exclaim, “Jesus Christ!” Although he occasionally exhibits frustrated fury, Ray is also shown to be sweet and thoughtful, at one time a skilled baker (thriving in an environment that prioritized both routine and precision) and obsessed with the welfare of his tropical fish (currently in his mother’s care).

I didn’t come away with as vivid a sense of Iris as I did Ray. The scenes involving her job and clients were, in a way, mental palate cleansers from the stress of Ray’s situation, largely bland and unmemorable. When she finally gets her hands on Ray’s case files, her end of the story improves, but there are aspects of the final resolution that are kind of ridiculous. That said, I thought the ultimate ending was satisfying and I doubt I’ll forget the book any time soon.

kiss_and_tellMr. Kiss and Tell by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
Mr. Kiss and Tell came out in January 2015. I had pre-ordered it the previous May, but when it arrived I just couldn’t get into it, despite a few attempts. A couple of months later, iZombie debuted. It had all the hallmarks of a Rob Thomas show and, lo, I love it. So much so, in fact, that I started to feel like I’d be okay without further adventures in Veronica’s world. Mr. Kiss and Tell spent the next two years occupying various spots in my living room. Then, finally, I read it. And I remembered how deeply I love these characters and now I am totally sad that there aren’t any more books beyond this one. Yet.

I was somewhat disappointed that the first Veronica book, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line, did not follow up on the movie storyline about police corruption in Neptune. Happily, that plotline gets some attention in this book. Weevil is acquitted of the charges against him, but his reputation and business has taken a hit, so he agrees to a civil suit against the county. Keith works to find others who’ll testify about evidence-planting, and meanwhile a candidate enters the race against Lamb, who’d been running for reelection unopposed. There’s some closure on this by the end of the book, but still plenty of room for more going forward.

Veronica, meanwhile, is hired by the Neptune Grand to investigate a rape that took place in their hotel. The case has quite a few twists and turns, although it surprised me some by not twisting as much as I expected. (So is that, therefore, a twist?) By far, however, the best parts of the book are the conversations between the characters. Veronica and Logan, Veronica and Keith, Veronica and Weevil… I could vividly imagine each being performed by the cast, which is almost as good as not having to imagine. I especially liked that things still aren’t 100% perfect in Veronica’s world, and Logan is only home for a few months before the accidental death of one of his friends means that his shipmates are a man down. Veronica struggles to understand why he feels so strongly that he must return early, leading to my favorite scene, in which Logan reveals what his life was like in the years she was gone, and how he ended up in Officer Candidate School. It’s a bit implausible that they hadn’t had this conversation before, but it’s riveting nonetheless.

In fact, my only quibble is a bit of timeline fluffery near the beginning. On the whole, this was immensely satisfying and I will continue to hope for more books in the future. After all, never giving up hope has worked out for Veronica Mars fans in the past!

stylesThe Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
This was a reread for me, but one I hadn’t yet reviewed, since I read it shortly before creating this blog. (I did review Christie’s second and third books before getting sidetracked. This time I shall persevere and read them all!)

A soldier named Hastings, invalided home from the front, runs into John Cavendish, an acquaintance who invites him to recuperate at Styles Court, where Hastings had often visited as a boy. It is Hastings who narrates the story of what happens there. In brief, instead of John inheriting Styles Court upon the death of his father, the property was bequeathed to his stepmother, Emily, upon whom he is presently dependent for funds. When Emily is poisoned, suspicion initially turns to her strange (and substantially younger) new husband, Alfred Inglethorp, and then ultimately onto John himself. The cast of suspects is rounded out by siblings, spouses, friends, and servants. Hastings suggests bringing his old friend Hercule Poirot in to investigate.

I did remember “whodunit,” along with the explanation for one perplexing aspect of the case, but otherwise, most of this felt new to me. In fact, I think I enjoyed it even more than the first time. Oh, I still find Hastings annoying, but Christie’s depiction of Poirot’s appearance and mannerisms struck me as especially vivid this time around, and I was left with a more distinct impression of him than I’d held previously. (I had somehow acquired a mental picture of Poirot that had him looking like Alfred Hitchcock!) Although some of the clues are a bit convoluted and/or improbable, the overall solution is satisfying and makes sense. What’s more, my enthusiasm for tackling the rest of Christie’s oeuvre has been rekindled!

outpostThe Outpost by Mike Resnick
In an effort to broaden my horizons and read more science fiction, I went looking for books that might appeal to fans of Firefly. In the course of that search, I came across The Outpost. The notion of a bunch of space-faring outlaw types gathering at a bar on the edge of the galaxy, swapping stories, then banding together to fight off some aliens sounded appealing. Don’t be fooled like I was.

While it is indeed true that a bunch of space-facing outlaw types do gather to swap their stories, these recitations are actually highly embellished tall tales, and they seem to go on for an interminable amount of time. Finally, during a brief middle section of the book, the bar’s patrons go off and fight some aliens, and getting a glimpse of reality, including several pointless and unheroic deaths, was the best part of the novel. All too soon, they’re back at the Outpost, telling their war adventures with varying degrees of embellishment. It’s at this point that several very boring arguments on the ethics of “improving” history ensue.

It’s true that sometimes, I did smile or laugh at something, but on the whole this book just riled me up. None of the characters has any depth whatsoever, and several are positively odious. Many of the stories told by the guys involve busty and lusty women, and it’s fine if the characters themselves are sexist (to be fair, one of the female characters does call them out on this eventually), but most of the female characters created by Resnick are also vampy vixens whose stories are sex-oriented and whose bodily proportions are repeatedly emphasized.

I listened to the unabridged audio version read by Bob Dunsworth, and I cannot recommend it. He frequently misreads and mispronounces words, so that at one point someone is wearing “flowering” robes instead of “flowing” ones, “defenestrating” loses a syllable, “etiquette” gets a “kw” sound, et cetera. Making it through the book was a tremendous slog, and more than once I cursed my completist nature.

theseviciousmasksThese Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas
I can’t for the life of me remember how I heard about this book. I immediately put in a materials request with my library, but when it arrived I didn’t remember it at all. It does have hallmarks of something that would appeal to me, though: a setting of England in 1882, superpowers, romance, one of the authors mentioning Buffy in the dedication… It boded well.

I found it a bit disappointing at first, however, despite an independent and snarky heroine (Evelyn Wyndham, and is that a Buffy/Angel reference?) and dialogue that made me snicker right from the start. It just seemed so like “Pride and Prejudice with superpowers” that I began to wonder who was meant to be who. (“That charming fellow Mr. Kent, set up as a romantic rival to surly and brooding Sebastian Braddock, must be the Wickham surrogate!”) Too, the constant bickering between Evelyn and Sebastian, as they work together to rescue her sister the healer from a scientist who wants to experiment on her, did grate after a while.

However, in the end the book surprised me. Not just by deviating from the Pride and Prejudice mold or by imbuing people with unsuspected powers, but by taking the plot in a direction that absolutely made sense and which I absolutely did not see coming. A sequel (These Ruthless Deeds) has just been released and verily, I shall read it.