Thursday, December 31, 2009

An Open Letter to Jonathan Kellerman

Dear Jonathan,

Greetings!  You probably don't remember me, since we've never met, but I am one of your most loyal readers.  I love your Alex Delaware novels more than my luggage.  I stuck with you through everything you did to him-the fire, Robin leaving, you killing off his new lover, your occasional dalliances with other characters.  Actually, I really like your Petra O'Connor books and your new brotherly duo of Moe Reed and Aaron Fox, but every time you write a book about them you aren't writing a book about Alex.  The thing that makes him great is the fact that he can use his not inconsiderable psychiatric knowledge to really get into the minds of his killers.

So why, oh why, my dear Mr. Kellerman, didn't you have him DO anything in your latest Delaware novel, Evidence?  He's a psychiatrist after all, he needs a warped brain to work on.  Why would Milo Sturgis, your gruff detective, even have called him in on this murder?  Two people killed in the act of having sex-I guess you were trying to make the connection that they were posed, which they were, but not because of some deranged serial killer's ritual, as it turns out.  And really, we are supposed to believe that some furious family member of a murdered girl knew enough about the tribal customs of a small island near Indonesia to devise a revenge strategy based on burning down a house to trap someone's soul in limbo?  I'm sorry, and it hurts me to say this, but this obscure rationale is not enough to justify the amount of time that Alex spent just following Milo around listening in this book.  I love Milo, but it's Alex that I pay to read.

Given the new characters that you have created, who are rich and nuanced and who actually, oh, I don't know, DO something in their stories, maybe it's time for Dr. Delaware to retire.  As much as I would mourn the loss of my favorite literary psychiatric detective, it would be preferable to watching him devolve into a glorified sidekick for Milo Sturgis.  I beg you, Jonathan...if you can't think of more compelling storylines that involve Alex using his insight and intelligence to track down truly devious and manipulative criminals, then allow him and Robin to retire peacefully to some bucolic place and let the new generation of characters take center stage.

Your Loyal Reader,
Heather

100+ Books List

Here it is, to keep me honest-the list of 100+ books I've read so far in 2010.  It's a work in progress.  Any suggestions?  Things you think I should pick up in my effort to read 100+ books?  (And no, your suggestions for War and Peace, Battlefield Earth, and the Complete Works of William Shakespeare will not be accepted!)

1.  Fledgling-Octavia Butler
2.  Last Night at the Lobster-Stewart O'Nan
3.  The Monster in the Box-Ruth Rendell
4.  The Likeness-Tana French
5.  The Night Tourist- Katherine Marsh
6.  I'll Take You There-Joyce Carol Oates
7.  The White-Deborah Larsen
8.  Chasing Darkness-Robert Crais
9.  The Lost Symbol-Dan Brown
10.  The Serpent's Tale-Ariana Franklin
11.  Night Work-Steve Hamilton
12.  Testimony-Anita Shreve
13. The Lost Symbol-Dan Brown
14.  The Tarnished Eye-Judith Guest
15.  Pretty in Plaid-Jen Lancaster
16.  The Hunger Games-Suzanne Collins

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Who Were the Witches?

For someone as avowed in my atheism as I am, I have a hard-to-explain attraction to all things magic.  Perhaps it is something left over from my childhood, when Madeleine L'Engel and Terry Brooks were two of my favorite authors.  I've spent many hours immersed in the fantastical worlds of Tolkien and Donaldson and Gaiman-I love to get swept up in a world where the normal rules don't apply and a whole new mythology determines the actions of magical creatures.  Call it my inner geek-and I love her to the point of spending days playing RPGs like Final Fantasy.

It is a rare author that can combine the elements of the fantastic that I love with the "real world".  Michael Crichton did it in Timeline, and Neil Gaiman does it frequently in novels like Neverwhere and American Gods.  We can now add Katherine Howe to the list in her novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.  The book centers around  Connie Goodwin, a Phd. candidate at Harvard in American Colonial history.  Her mother, Grace, a New Age aura reader living in Arizona, asks Connie to clean out her grandmother's house and prepare it for sale.  Connie, who never even knew that the house existed, travels the 60 miles or so to Marblehead, Massachusetts and begins the arduous process of clearing out decades of dirt and detritus.  She arrives to find a small house, hidden away behind a tangle of vines and an overgrown garden.  She discovers, hidden in a family bible, a key with the name Deliverance Dane rolled up in the shaft.  So begins her journey into the history of her family, and into a world where witches and vernacular magic really exist.

The story is framed in the history of the Salem witch trials, a shameful period in early American History if ever there was one.  The author, through Connie, explains the various theories people have about the whys and wherefores of the panic, long seen to be the product of perceived threats by women in the community against the strict Puritan teachings and leadership of the time.  As Connie delves deeper into the history, and mystery, of her great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother's missing book of "recipes", she discovers a new theory-what if the magic was real?

The book is well-paced, with a satisfying balance of exposition and action.  The descriptions of New England, both the geography and the social history, are well done and evocative.  The author herself is a descendant of two of the accused women-one who survived the trials and one who did not.  As a result, she takes a pretty dim view of the tourist attraction nature of modern-day Salem.  Her disdain is initially shared by her character, but as the book progresses reason and wonder battle in Connie's mind, and one can imagine that Katherine Howe herself wishes that the magic were real.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Drag Queens and Hookers and Goldfish, Oh My!

Ever wondered how drag queens get ready for a night on the town?  Or how sadomasochistic male escorts manage their professional lives?  Then do I have a book for you- I'm Not Myself These Days, by Josh-Kilmer Purcell.  This memoir (or at least, I assume it's a memoir, though it was reviewed by the infamous James Frey) tell the story of Josh's early days in New York as a hungover ad agency art designer by day and a drunken, 7'2" tall drag queen named Aqua by night.

Josh, a young man from Wisconsin, comes to New York after graduating from college, ostensibly to start a career in advertising, but really to hit the drag circuit.  Soon he is doing several shows a week in clubs all over town, and in the process becoming a raging alcoholic.  It is at one of these shows that he meets Jack, a handsome young man from California, who turns out to be a make escort specializing in bondage and humiliation.  Let the love story begin!

I know, it doesn't sound like the setting for a love story, but in fact it is.  The story of Josh and Jack is almost cliche in it's ordinariness...if you discount the setting.  They go to dinner, they spend days at the beach, they order in breakfast and read each other the paper-in between sex parties and drag shows.  By the time it starts to go so horribly wrong, you feel almost like their crazy lifestyle might not actually be a bad choice.  I suppose after a while even the craziest of circumstances comes to seem normal.  Eventually the drinking and drug use engaged in by both of them tears them apart.  While that may seem inevitable, the sadness that you feel for them as individuals and as a couple does not.

This is my favorite kind of memoir.  It is told in a very engaging, easy to follow narrative style that just tells the story like it is.  No sentimentality, no pages and pages of deep psychological discussion of why the author chose that particular shade of corset to wear with this fish boobs (yes, he put goldfish in his boobs)-just good ol' storytelling.  Plus Josh is that kind of sarcasti-gay that I adore, and he lays into himself more than anyone else.  At its core, this is the story of a fresh-from-the-closet gay man hanging all his hopes and dreams on New York City, and getting a slap-in-the-face dose of reality instead.  Josh may have felt to big for his small town in Wisconsin, but his brush with the dark side of sex and drugs ensures that the wide-eyed naivete that he arrived with is gone for good.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

100+ Book Challenge

I told you I have a problem.  I'll be the first to admit it-I'm an addict.  I need books like a fat kid needs cake.  As a result, when I saw the post on fellow blogger J Kaye's site, I just had to add my name to the pledge.  So, despite being in grad school again and despite coaching two afternoons a week and despite having rehearsal on Mondays and despite having youth group that takes up the better part of my Sunday, I am going to read 100+ books in 2010.  Really...seriously...I'm going to do it.  And no, I will not be reading the complete works of Dr. Seuss.  I'm gonna read novels-long ones even.  And autobiographies of interesting people (like the one I am reading now...wait-it won't count!).  And learned tomes about history and politics.  And at least 12 will be my book club's monthly selections.  I can do it-after all I've been training my whole life.  Anyone with me?  Just follow the handy link above.  Good Luck, and Happy Reading!

More Sexism for Christmas-Just What I Always Wanted!

You know, there's a reason that I don't read much chick lit in any of it's forms.  Even when it purports to be breaking stereotypes and questioning the status quo, most of the time it really just dresses both up in newish clothes.  Such was the case with my book club's selection for December, On Strike for Christmas by Shelia Roberts.

The story follows the members of the Stitch 'n Bitch Knitting Club in their crusade to get their husbands to help out and appreciate all of their hard work at the holidays.  The crusade is accidentally started by Joy (and yes, they all have annoyingly cutesy holiday names-the name of the town is Holly, for crying' out loud!), when she tells her scrooge of a husband (affectionately referred to as Bob Humbug) that since all he does is complain about the hubbub at the holidays, he can be in charge of their Christmas this year.  This idea infects the other women, and soon the whole town is choosing sides in this battle of the sexes.

Battle of the sexes, really, Shelia Roberts?  Are we still trotting out that old plot device?  Most of the "conflicts" in the book could have been solved by a polite request or a quiet conversations.  Your husband gets overwhelmed by your large family and needs to get away before you do-DRIVE SEPARATELY!  Your husband invites people over without letting you know ahead of time-TELL HIM HE'S DOING THE COOKING!  Or suggest he go to the nearest pizza joint for pizza and wings.  What is it about our society that insists that men are helpless and can't do anything nurturing without a woman there to guide them?  Really, not one husband in this books has ever wrapped a gift/cooked a meal/decorated a tree/hosted a party?  Maybe it's the Pollyana in me, but I really refuse to believe that we are still raising our boys to be so helpless.

Of course, the other subtext of this story is that the women really love doing it all, they just want their husbands to pay more attention to them.  I seem to remember reading an article from the 50s with a whole list of suggestions about how to do just that-are you really telling me we haven't moved past that yet?  Since all of the women appeared to be intelligent, well-spoken women, perhaps they could have just, I don't know, said how they were feeling in a way that didn't reduce their husbands to caricatures of Fred Flintstone variety.  I realize as a woman I'm supposed to be on their side in this little debate, but really, if you insist on having everything a certain way a la Bree Van De Kamp then you better be ready to do it your dammee.

I should say for fairness sake that several of my book club members really liked this book, and thought that it echoed some of the things in their own marriage.  And these were younger women-not women in their 50s and 60s.  Maybe it's the fact of my not being married to a man, or the fact that my own father never fell into those stereotypes to begin with (he wraps all the presents and makes Christmas dinner with the help of my mom, not the other way around), but this book and it's sexist message of women as long-suffering nurturers and men as bumbling idiots was not the Christmas gift I was hoping for.

Monday, December 21, 2009

What Are You Reading on Monday?





I found this on another book blog I recently discovered, J Kaye's Book Blog.  I think it's a cool idea, and I plan to post there on Mondays.  If you want to post what you are reading on Mondays, please just click the link in my Other Sites Bookish list for J Kaye's blog.  Happy reading!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Story by Nevada About a Girl From Mississippi Going to Florida

I have to admit I am merely a lukewarm fan of Nevada Barr.  Her stories of Ranger Anna Pigeon and the national parks where she works seem to have all of the components that I love in popcorn mysteries, but for some reason I often have a hard time getting into her books.  In her novel, Flashback, she finally gives me something that sucks me in from the beginning-a dose of historical fiction with my mystery.

Ranger Anna Pigeon has served in some of the most beautiful places in the United States as a park ranger for the National Parks Service.  This time she has been sent to a temporary posting at Dry Tortugas National Park, a series of small keys 60 miles east of Key West.  She is there to stand in for the regular superintendent of the park, who has mysteriously had some sort of breakdown.  Turns out, Anna's great-great Aunt Raffia was once a resident of the fort that comprises most of the public parts of the park.  It is through reading her letters that we learn about the fort's most infamous prisoners-Dr. Samuel Mudd and Sam Arnold, two of the men convicted of conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.  Anna's story and Raffia's story weave together into rather creepy tale of betrayal, divided loyalties, and murder.

The present day mystery involves some very 20th century interests-Cuba, smuggling, and drugs.  The historical mystery reads like a gothic romance-a young girl, Anna's great-great Aunt Tilly, is drawn into the efforts of Dr.Mudd to prove his innocence, and her guardian, Raffia, has to try to protect her sister's virginity and her reputation while protecting herself from an abusive husband. Interesting as the Lincoln back-story is, Barr offers only the flimsiest of connections between it and the present day mystery that Anna is  trying to solve.  That said, both stories, past and present, are well-paced and engaging.  If nothing else, the story made me want to visit the Florida Keys, especially the national park.  The descriptions of hot sun, warm water, and cool ocean breezes sounds especially tempting when I'm reading watching the snow fall during a cold Chicago December.  If you are already an Anna Pigeon fan, I'm sure you'll thoroughly enjoy this book as well.  Of course, if you're an Anna Pigeon fan you probably already did-this is not her latest book.  I still have three more of Barr's books on my shelf...I guess the fact that they are not buring a hole through my shelf tells you more than anything how average I find this series to be.

(P.S.-for some reason my comments are not working.  I'm trying to get someone at blogspot to help me, but so far no luck.  If we're Facebook friends feel free to comment there.  Sorry!)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tale of Two Brothers

Recurring characters by beloved authors are like a favorite sweater that we put on when we want something comforting and cozy.  Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis, the main characters of many of Jonathan Kellerman's novels, are old friends of mine.  Sensitive Alex and gruff Milo make a perfect pair as they travel around Los Angeles solving violent crimes.  So when I picked up the latest Jonathan Kellerman book, True Detectives, I was prepared to spend a few wonderful hours with a couple of old friends.

What I got instead was a couple of new friends-Moses Reed and Aaron Fox, half-brothers and long-time rivals.  Aaron, the biracial son of a black cop and white mother, becomes a smooth private investigator after a brief stint on the police force.  Moses, known as Moe, is the white son of Aaron's mother and her dead cop husband's best friend.  The brothers were introduced in Kellerman's 2008 book Bones, Moses as a young protege of gay police captain Milo Sturgis and Aaron as a PI helping them get information.  In this story, the brothers are drawn into the same case again.  Aaron is working for a Russian "entrepreneur" who is trying to help one of his employees find his daughter Caitlyn, who's disappeared suspiciously.  Moses gets assigned the girl's missing persons case, and despite the fact that it is going nowhere he doesn't feel like he can let it go.  The brothers inevitably collide during the investigation, and their natural resentment of and rivalry with each other threatens to derail both of them.  In the end, they are able to find a way to work together and bring a killer to justice.

I will admit to an initial disappointment when I started reading and realized that Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis were not the central characters of this book.  But I was soon intrigued by the brothers' backstory and by the mystery itself.  Kellerman's other gig is clinical psychiatrist, and you can tell-his characters have sophisticated relationships and motivations that make them feel very real.  As always the mystery part of the story was well laid out and interesting, but it is really the interplay between these two brothers that makes the novel.  Alex and Milo do make several appearances in the book, but really that felt like appeasement to me.  Kellerman's publishers probably suggested he throw his loyal readers a bone.  It didn't take away from the story, but it didn't exactly feel natural either.  Bottom line-Moe and Aaron don't need Kellerman's other characters to carry a story, they are plenty interesting on their own.