Bluebird, Bluebird

40605488Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: JD Jackson

Source: my own Audible collection

Length: 9:25:00

Publisher: Hachette Audio

Year: 2017

Darren Mathews is a black Texas Ranger who is on suspension. While he is called home to Lark, TX, he begins digging around in the deaths of two people – a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman, found in the same bayou two days apart. Darren starts investigating, even though he is suspended, in an attempt to head off the racial tensions building in the tiny town.

This is the first book of Locke’s I’ve read. Her prose is rich and evokes a great deal of authenticity regarding race relations in tiny, backwoods Southern towns. I had to keep reminding myself that this novel was set in modern times, not 50 years or more ago. The details of the crimes were complex and believable within the scope of the story. I really found her writing to be relevant for many issues society still, sadly, deals with today. She showed how racism is deeply ingrained in both the white and black communities, which is so sad on every level.

That said, I didn’t actually like this book much. I had a hard time connecting with any of the characters. I didn’t like how Darren would use his badge to manipulate people to get what he wanted from them. I didn’t find most of the people terribly sympathetic, even the victims or the victims’ loved ones. I was mostly bored with the crime plot and it dragged too much for me. I like plenty of detail and don’t mind slow pacing but this was too slow. I can easily see why this book got so many 4 and 5 star reviews, because it really was well written and deals with important issues. It just wasn’t for me.

Advertisements

A Murder by Any Name

51orh40ubylA Murder by Any Name by Suzanne M. Wolfe

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Publisher/HNS

Length: 336 pp

Publisher: Crooked Lane Books

Year: 2018

In this series debut, Nicholas Holt, the younger son of a fictional nobleman, is a soldier as well as a spy for William Cecil. He is home in London to report on his mission from the Continent when he is instead assigned to investigate the brutal murder of Queen Elizabeth’s youngest, most innocent lady in waiting, right in the heart of the court. The murder is disturbing, not only because it strikes at a young and innocent girl, but because the body was posed in the chapel in a gruesome imitation of prayer. When a second lady in waiting is murdered shortly after the first, the stakes get even higher for Nick, whose loyalty as a member of a recusant family might be in question if he cannot discover the identity of the  murderer. The political overtones imply that someone is striking now at Elizabeth herself, implying that her reign is illegitimate and that Catholics should be ruling England. Nick relies on the help of his friends – Spanish Jewish doctors Eli and his beautiful twin sister Rivkah, his childhood friend John, and his faithful and well trained wolfhound Hector – to hone in on a cold-blooded killer who won’t stop until forced to by the Queen’s executioner.

A Murder by Any Name was a fast-paced and entertaining read. It held my attention throughout, even though I totally figured out who the killer was quite early on. I’ve read too many mysteries to be surprised by very much, and this plot was really pretty standard. However, the historical details and character development were really well done and more than made up for any lack of surprise for me. Wolfe’s attention to detail was such that I could practically smell the stench of the Thames – or Elizabeth’s breath from her black and rotting teeth! Gnarly. The atmosphere she created was rich and full of emotion, enhanced by the physical details surrounding the characters. The brittle cold, icy water, foggy riverbanks, echoing chambers or chapels, all contributed encompassing the feelings of fear and paranoia that pervaded society at the time. So often, the Jewish communities were the scapegoats for anything that went wrong, as Eli and Rivkah had painful reason to know. Skillfully, Wolfe crafted a protagonist who was sympathetic as well as empathetic while retaining historical accuracy, a tremendous balancing act in itself. Nick Holt was a product of his time, but he was not hardened or indifferent to the suffering of those beneath him on the social scale. I thought Wolfe did a fantastic job of weaving feminism into her story while still being accurate to the social mores of the time. I thought that was excellent. Nick was a wonderful, sensitive, believable character, and I wish there were more period pieces with men like him in them as opposed to sexist men who are written like barbarians simply because the author seems to think that is how it was back in the day, or maybe because an author is himself a sexist. Instead, A Murder by Any Name is the best of what happens when you get a woman to write a well-researched historical fiction. I am looking forward to reading more books in this series, and I can happily recommend this one.

 

A Missed Murder

51htbmniokl-_sx315_bo1204203200_A Missed Murder by Michael Jecks

I read it as a: galley

Length: 224 pp

Publisher: Severn House

Year: 2018

Jack Blackjack, which is either a really cool name or a really lame one, is an assassin in the employ of the historic figure John Blount. Blount somehow managed to convince Jack to be an assassin for him, even though Jack is squeamish around blood and is an indifferent assassin at best. He really takes the job only because he would get paid a lot of money and he’s jonesing for better food, nicer clothes, and a big house (not that I blame him for that), and because he is rightfully concerned that Blount will kill him for turning him down. Jack is also a complete fuck-up. He was ordered to kill a guy, then that order was countermanded, but Jack manages to kill him anyway, completely by accident. All that happened even though he had really hired the father of his lover to do the actual killing for him. See above re: squeamish about blood. Now Jack is trying to get out of his self-inflicted mess alive. The plot thickens as he scrambles to do a job, avoid a job, and not become his own next victim.

It sounds pretty fun, right? You would be wrong. This was the first book by Michael Jecks I have read and I have to say, I think it will be the last. It’s disappointing, too, because the blurb honestly sounded like it would be so good. I thought Jack was not merely an unlikable character but a revolting one. I am so incredibly sick of male narrators who are braggarts and arrogant and view women as objects. Within just the first few pages, there were a shit ton of comments made by the narrator about women and their vacant eyes and how that was a turn-on. Seriously, what the fuck? Additionally, there were tons of incredibly juvenile euphemisms for sex – hide the sausage, pounding the mattress, mattress galloping,  that might appeal to immature audiences, but not, I think, to most adults. There were men in the 16th century would have appreciated a woman with some wits about her, who wasn’t just some vapid cow. So this attitude – by the narrator? By the author? – didn’t really capture the sense of the social mores. Women at the time were, indeed, not equal to men, and were sometimes viewed as objects. Hey, kinda like today! But there are plenty of examples, both from the contemporary literature and real life, of men who valued a strong, intelligent woman. Also, it’s kind of hard to overlook the fact that there was a woman on the throne at the time this book was set, even if she wasn’t the most popular, and was followed by another woman who was one of THE most popular and longest-reigning monarchs in British history. So even allowing for 16th century social mores, the rampant sexism is hard to stomach. It’s used often enough that I don’t know if it is supposed to reflect the protagonist’s mindset or if it is the viewpoint of the author himself. The ubiquitous sexism also detracts from an already tepid plot that is lacking any meaningful historical detail. I know Jecks has a ton of books in another series, so it seems he’s pretty popular. Maybe this is an aberration and his other books are better, but I was thoroughly put off by this one and now have no interest in reading his other ones. A Missed Murder should have been titled A Missed Opportunity

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

29010395I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sanchez

I read it as an: hardback

Source: library

Length: 340 pp

Publisher: Knopf

Year: 2017

Julia is a fairly typical 15 year old – she wants to hang out with her friends, have fun, and get good enough grades to get out of her neighborhood and go away to college when she is old enough. She struggles with depression, though she initially doesn’t realize it, because her parents are oppressive and don’t want her to achieve anything more than to get through high school without getting pregnant, then get married and get a job as a secretary, which is the best job they can think of. To be fair, her dad works in a factory and her mom cleans houses, so working as a secretary would be a big step up to them. However, Julia is highly intelligent and a talented writer; she wants to go to college and be a writer when she grows up, a job neither of her parents understands or supports. The death of her older sister, Olga, which happens before the start of the book, naturally throws her into a deeper depression than she already had been in.

Olga had been the perfect Mexican daughter, according to Julia’s mother. Olga was happy to stay at home forever, never dated, was happy to help her mother clean and cook traditional food. Julia wanted nothing to do with any of these things. After Olga died, Julia discovered that Olga may have had a secret life and makes it her mission to learn what it was. The weight of the secrets she learns becomes too much to bear and it has a terrible impact on Julia’s mental health.

I read this in one sitting and it made me ugly cry. It was so fucking good! There are so many issues wrapped up in this novel. Julia’s parents are undocumented immigrants and, over the course of the story, we learn about their harrowing trip across the border from their home town on Los Ojos in Mexico, the horrible things that happened to them. They were unable to return to Mexico when their parents died because they wouldn’t have been able to return to their home in Chicago or to their children. They work the worst jobs with the worst shifts because their employers know they have them over a barrel. Julia’s dad and his factory coworkers live in constant fear of raids by immigration; it’s pure dumb luck the raids have never happened during any of his shifts. Julia’s mother cleans houses in the rich areas of Chicago and deals with all kinds of abuse from the homeowners, from bored rich housewives hovering and criticizing everything she does to gross old men leering at her.

Julia suffers from depression and anxiety, but she doesn’t know it. She just thinks that she is weird and that nothing she does is good enough to please her mother. She’s a victim of her culture, to a large extent, and of her mother. Depression is not something that her mother understands and she thinks Julia just needs to be happy with her family and go to church more. Oppressing Julia’s need for a creative outlet and showing no interest in things she loves – literature, writing, travel – makes her feel as though she is unseen and unwanted, and understandably so.

Another issue in the book is how homosexuality is dealt with in the Hispanic community. I am not Hispanic, but I know that, traditionally, being gay is not very well tolerated. Readers see that in one of Julia’s friends, a gay boy who is frequently beaten by hi father for being gay.

Being from AZ, I know maybe a tad more about Mexican culture than some, but really I don’t know tons. Reading this book helped me learn more than I expected and for that, I am grateful. I want to learn more.

Overall, this book was sad and enlightening and shines a light on a huge number of issues. I loved it so hard.

The Hollow of Fear

36342330The Hollow of Fear by Sherry Thomas

I read it as an: ARC

Source: publicist

Length: 336 pp

Publisher: Berkley

Year: 2018

The Hollow of Fear is the third in Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series and honestly, they just keep getting better and better. In this installment, Charlotte Holmes helps her dear friend Lord Ingram when his wife’s body is discovered in the ice house on the grounds of his country estate, Stern Hollow. Charlotte provides assistance and moral support to Ingram, who is the prime suspect in Lady Ingram’s murder. In order to be able to assist and move freely among the police investigators, Charlotte dresses up as Sherlock’s fictional brother Sherrington, which is hilarious since Sherlock himself is fictional as well. Livia, meanwhile, though concerned about Ingram, is also pining for the mysterious man she met in the second novel, while trying not to be obvious about it. Readers will be rooting  for her to get some kind of happiness, which has been so long withheld due to circumstance and her parents’ unkind personalities. Throughout the twists and turns, Charlotte has to keep her sisters safe, keep her identity as Sherlock secret, and keep Ingram out of the hangman’s noose.

There is so much to unpack in this novel. The plot is wonderfully complex and it kept me guessing until the surprising end. We learn that, as so often in real life, people are not always as they first appear. Some turn out to be nicer than we think, and in this case, learning that was a delightful surprise. Others are harboring dark secrets and it hurts to find out who it is. It was also a treat to learn more about Ingram’s other two brothers: Wycliffe, the eldest and the duke, and Remington, the youngest and free-spirited of the group. Although they really didn’t make an actual appearance on the page to speak of, it still gave a more well-rounded background for Ingram and Bancroft that was appreciated. Readers of the series are already intimately familiar with Ingram, of course, and Bancroft, a quasi-Mycroft figure.

But it is beyond the plot where the novel’s true strengths lie. Charlotte still desires Ingram, and propositions him on occasion, to his consternation, since he operates within the scope of society. However, she only wants him on her terms and is willing to wait if necessary. Unlike the original Sherlock, Charlotte isn’t asexual, but she refuses to allow society to dictate how she lives her life, and she isn’t driven purely by mindless desire, which would be terribly boring. The fact that she is almost certainly on the spectrum also makes for some interesting interactions because she reacts to emotions very differently. Also unlike the original, Charlotte uses food and eating as her addiction rather than cocaine, which sparks great discussion about body positivity and body image. I love her commentary about “maximum tolerable chins.”

My favorite element of this particular story is that it has lots to say about gender identity. Thomas takes Sherlock and gender-flips him into Lady Sherlock, which is fun enough on its own. But here, Lady Sherlock goes and dresses as a man so she can help Ingram. While she was dressed as Sherrington Holmes, the handful of people who know Charlotte is actually Sherlock – Ingram, Livia, and Inspector Treadles – maintained her cover, addressing her as a man and treating her as such. They said things to her and allowed her to do things as Sherrington that never would have been allowed had she presented as Charlotte, even it was just Ingram, who is indulgent of her and lets her do pretty much what she wants. I found the interplay of gender identity and gender fluidity to be fascinating.

Oh, and that last line! I simply can’t wait for the next book!

An American Marriage

38389692An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Sean Crisden and Eisa Davis

Source: my own collection

Length: 08:59:00

Publisher: HighBridge

Year: 2018

Roy Hamilton and Celestial Davenport are a young, married, black couple living in Atlanta. They’re up and coming, just starting out – he’s a hotshot executive, having graduated from a prestigious college with a full scholarship, and she’s making a name for herself as an artist. Their plans for the future come to a grinding halt when they visit Roy’s parents in Louisiana one weekend, and Roy is arrested, and later convicted, for a rape he did not commit. He is sentenced to 12 years in prison, and is released after 5 when his conviction is overturned. He returns to Atlanta, ready to start his marriage back up again, but 5 years apart is a long time, and Roy isn’t the only one changed by his time in prison.

Sometimes, you read a book that highlights a social issue and it enrages you and makes you want to set the world on fire, like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Other books, like An American Marriage, bring those social issues home, give them a human face, and put them into the context that shows the impact they have on whole families, not just one person. This book is a deep character study, using first person perspectives from Roy, Celestial, and their mutual friend Andre. During the years of Roy’s incarceration, it shifts to an epistolary narrative, which works really well and shows the ways in which his and Celestial’s marriage is beginning to crumble. It is a discussion on what marriage is, what is worth fighting for, how much of yourself are you willing to give up, and to what extent duty and obligation stretch. How does one person save another, and is it her job to do so? There were so many parts of this book that made me just…sad. Nothing made me ugly cry, though I can see how it might have if I had been in a different mood. But the whole thing just filled me with a deep sadness. Our system is so terribly broken. Although Roy is fictional, his story is not. There are so many young men whose lives are destroyed because they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they were victims of a system that is deeply flawed and stacked against them. Roy was the one to spend time in prison, but it was not just him to suffer. His family suffered and changed in irrevocable ways and no one came through the experience unscathed. To think only the person in prison is the one affected is very wrong. It shouldn’t need to be said at all, but in case it does, this book helps to bring that point home and show the human side of the broader social issues.

I think this story could have gone very differently. I am glad it ended as well as it did, though it was still heartbreaking. It could easily have gone a whole lot worse and I’m glad it didn’t. I was really worried it would go sideways and be bad, especially at the start of the epilogue. The resolution was imperfect and the best they could do and was, ultimately, very human and real.

A Conspiracy in Belgravia

33835806A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas

I read it as a: paperback

Source: library

Length: 317 pp

Publisher: Berkley

Year: 2017

 

In the second installment of the Lady Sherlock series, Charlotte Holmes has established her reputation as a consulting detective, albeit under the alias of Sherlock, her bedridden fictional brother. Here, she finds herself investigating the case of Lady Ingram’s first love, the man she would have preferred to marry rather than Charlotte’s friend Lord Ingram. The two former lovers have an agreement to meet but this year he misses the appointment, causing Lady Ingram to seek out help in finding him. At the same time, Charlotte’s sister Livia meets a handsome stranger and is being wooed by him, though he may not be who he seems. Through it all, Charlotte learns that her illegitimate half brother may be involved, and she also has to decide what to do with an intriguing marriage proposal to boot.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in this series, and I liked this one even better. Charlotte is growing as a person and it is interesting to see how it affects her logic. She kind of reminds me a lot of Cristina Yang in some ways – all cold logic and lack of emotions but hiding a caring person once she gets to know you. The way Thomas is handling original characters is really good. I still love Mrs Watson, and how shadowy Moriarty is in his (or her!) off-page debut in this novel. I really love the conclusion to this novel’s case, which is, I would like to believe, how Thomas will handle The Woman/Irene Adler. Maybe? I can see this particular character taking on that role, at any rate. I’ll be so interested to see how that plays out in later books. And that last line – loved it! I hadn’t actually seen that one coming. I love when that happens.

I really can’t talk in detail about the plot without giving spoilers, but this entire series so far is a genuine delight and I can’t wait to read the 3rd one!

A Study in Scarlet Women

35009017A Study in  Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Kate Reading

Source: my own collection

Length: 11:00:00

Publisher: Blackstone Audio

Year: 2016

A Study in Scarlet Women is, in essence, a gender-flipped Sherlock Holmes story. Right there, I wanted to read it. The premise of this novel is that Charlotte Holmes is a brilliant woman and has no interest whatsoever in marriage. She’s told her father so and they made a deal – if she makes a genuine effort to find a suitor and let him make her fall in love with him and she still doesn’t want to get married, when she is 25, he will pay for the education she needs to set up shop as the headmistress of a girls’ boarding school. Charlotte holds up her end of the bargain; her father does not. So she takes matters into her own hands and has an affair with a married man, thus ruining her reputation and rendering her unfit for marriage. Yay, idiotic Victorian morality! She has no intention, either, of being imprisoned at their family’s country estate forever, so she runs away to London where she intends to support herself as a typist. Eventually she meets Mrs Watson, who hires her as her companion. Mrs Watson convinces Charlotte to take on clients as an investigator, pretending to be the sister of the bedridden man, Sherlock Holmes. The ruse works and Charlotte is able to support herself quite well by solving mysteries. She is called in on one case that strikes close to home when suspicion falls on her sister, Livia, who had publicly accused the mother of Charlotte’s lover of ruining her sister’s life, and hours later, the woman was dead. When two other people die mysteriously, Charlotte and an Inspector Treadles work together to solve the mystery and figure out how the victims were connected.

I enjoyed seeing a gender-flipped Sherlock. Charlotte is a woman who knows what she wants and makes plans to get it. She has good body image and isn’t worried about being stick thin. These are all good things about this novel. There are a lot of strong and independent women, even being set in Victorian London. I think that the mystery itself took too long to set up and get to, though, and once we got to it, was unnecessarily convoluted. It was hard to keep everyone straight and the ending was really complicated. I read a ton of mysteries and am really good at keeping track of who’s who and it still confused the hell out of me. I felt that the book’s strength was in the character development, which was excellent for nearly every character we meet. Though I didn’t feel the mystery part of the plot was terribly well done, the rest made up for it and I am still looking forward to reading the rest of the books in this series.

Old Man’s War

51tnlj8xnbl-_sx342_Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: William Dufris

Source: my own collection

Length: 9 h 58 m

Publisher: Macmillan Audio

Year: 2007

In the future, the Colonial Defence Forces don’t want young people with no experience to join up. They are too green, too excitable, too likely to do something stupid. Instead, the CDF takes recruits when they turn 75. They give them a shiny new, genetically enhanced body, teach them how to be soldiers that would be the envy of the most badass Marines or SeALs, or astronauts ever. And then they send them off to the front, where they will do battle with all the aliens in the galaxy who surround all the human colonies, and who want to kill humans, often for food. Neat!

This first entry in Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series is some of the finest sci-fi I’ve read in years. It was full of action, excitement, adventure, and a shit ton of sarcasm. Scalzi is one of the funniest writers around at the moment, and his humor colors nearly every page, from boot camp to even the goriest of battles. Who knew it could be hilarious to read a scene where an entire unit dies but one man, who gets his jaw ripped off and kicks himself in the uvula in the process? I wouldn’t have thought that, but indeed I laughed out loud. It’s either excellent writing, or there’s just something wrong with me. Jury’s still out on that one, I reckon.

The narrator for this was also excellent. I am used to Wil Wheaton narrating Scalzi’s books, but this was read by William Dufris. It was a good choice because he sounds older, or made himself sound older at any rate, than Wil is. He was able to do some terrific crotchety old fart voices, and had a bunch of different voices and accents and overall just really played up the already terrifically fun story.

I have universally loved all of Scalzi’s novels so far, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the Old Man’s War series.

Artemis the Loyal

61tdlmrcvll-_sx334_bo1204203200_Artemis the Loyal by Joan Holub

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 288 pp

Publisher: Aladdin

Year: 2011

In Artemis the Loyal, Artemis is on a mission to convince Principal Zeus, King of the Gods and Ruler of the Heavens, that it is not fair that the Olympic Games are for boys only. She is an excellent athlete and wants to compete, as do many other girls. Artemis goes on a mission to convince Zeus to change his mind and allow girls to have their own girls-only Olympics. Simultaneously, he twin Apollo is determined to take on the Python of Parnassus in a battle of wits. Artemis is concerned because the python can read minds and she knows Apollo can’t tell a lie, so she thinks he will lose. She tries to discourage him from entering the contest and inadvertently causes a rift between them, which is heightened when Apollo utterly scorns her attempts to get Zeus to sign off on a girl Olympics. Artemis has to learn when to lean in and when to let others learn lessons on their own in this latest installment of Holub’s GoddessGirl series.

This was a fun and quick read with my daughter at night for a bedtime read. It was a little more progressive and feminist than the other books in the series thus far in that it had a lot of focus on gender equality. I also liked the theme of figuring out when it is ok to be pushy and try to help and when you need to back off and let others figure things out for themselves. That is something a lot of people need to learn.

I still think the books in general are too focused on what other people think and on hetero-normative crushes, but it wasn’t AS big a focus in this one as in others and it provided a couple times to have a good chat with my daughter about a few things.