28 March, 2011

Review: Eve by Iris Johansen

 The last few Eve Duncan books have been a grind. Eve promises to be the first of a trilogy that answers the big questions. With it's focus firmly placed on Eve it's better than the last few, but it doesn't avoid what's been bothering me about the series. Early on, Johansen had a choice to make. Either the series was about Eve, a woman whose personal tragedy forced her into the world of forensics, or it was about Eve, a woman searching endlessly for her child's killer. (Is it a spoiler to say we don't know who killed Bonnie? I've rather suspected Bonnie isn't dead.) By keeping a foot in both worlds the books have been oddly unsatisfying with too many side characters brought along. Eve begins by introducing yet another important man - Bonnie's father.

It's a natural place to go, but it also highlights what has been wrong with the series. Everyone Eve knows is a borderline psychotic or a killer or both. She can't get her hair cut without an operative asking to bang her and then declaring he'd kill half of Texas to help her find Bonnie's killer. She reacts to declarations of passion the way I do to panhandlers. I swear if Eve went to McDonald's for a bag of fries she'd get two hotel keys and witness a shooting. Eve herself walks the border of TSTL by her suicidal determination yet is oddly passive in her own story. Powerful men move around her and for her, but Eve does little of the heavy lifting. Moral ambiguity is another hallmark of Eve Duncan. There are no lines. People die, people are kidnapped, relationships are under constant threat of interlopers but the only thing that matters to Eve is if the person in question is on her side. She gives lip service to moral convictions, but that is all it is. People are tools to be used in her quest. Her inner voice at 16 is the same as it is at 35. She's a consistent character, Eve.

Eve serves as a reboot to the series as well as the beginning of a closing trilogy. More than ever I am convinced Bonnie is alive. There was a period in the series that flirted with the supernatural which would have placed Bonnie firmly in the dead category, but Eve undermines that conviction and reopens the possibility that Bonnie is a teenager somewhere. I'm not sure I care anymore. A subplot in Eve and the last few books has been Joe Quinn resenting Eve's inability to set aside the search for her daughter and the emotional distance she keeps as a result. I'm sort of with Joe. I don't know that any ending for Bonnie could be satisfying for the reader at this point.  If she is alive, it's a bit deus ex machina.  If Bonnie was the victim of a random slaying, all the world building has been pointless. If Bonnie was killed as part of a larger plot against one of her parents it requires a leap of faith the reader might not have, to think that her parents as they were at the time of her kidnapping would be worth such a plot. Ultimately, there is no satisfaction for the reader in a resolution of Bonnie's death. Which, for me, is another arrow pointing to her survival.

Ugh. Who are we kidding? We all know I'm going to read the next two. Even if it's speed reading and page skipping, after ten years it's impossible to walk away when the end is in sight. At least the covers are gorgeous. This is a perfect way to represent Eve. The profile, the colors - true to character and eye catching. Fantastic cover design for the trilogy. Well, except for Bonnie. On her cover (the third and final book of the series) she looks a bit older than her age of abduction. Hm. What could that mean?

21 March, 2011

Review: Bringing Adam Home by Les Standiford & Joe Matthews

This is going to be one of those reviews where the reviewer offers up personal anecdote you may or may not be interested in. To facilitate your buying experience, yes, Bringing Adam Home is the definitive book on Adam Walsh's murder. You should read it and shelve it next to In Cold Blood (if you go for that sort of thing). It isn't a perfect book. There's a whiff of homophobia, a bit of repetition but it's as close to perfect as a book about police corruption and child murder is likely to be. So go ahead and buy it. (Now, back to me.)

I lived in South Florida for decades. I did when Adam Walsh was kidnapped and I did when my friend's young sister disappeared a few years later. The kindness the Walsh family showed hers from disappearance to tragic discovery has stayed with me always. I have no patience for those who blame them for their son's murder. You cannot imagine now what South Florida was like then. Shopping malls had playgrounds for the children to stay unattended while the parents shopped. Children of all ages walked to and from school alone. My parents authorized an area of more than five miles for me to wander, increasing it yearly. This was normal. Those who blame Adam's mother for stepping away inside a store have no idea what they're talking about.

Unlike Adam, I was fortunate. I was not a trusting child and those who approached me, who promised me things, I ran from. I hid under cars, I cut through yards, the one thing I did not do was approach the police. Our neighborhood officer was a pederast. I have met some truly wonderful police officers in my life, but in South Florida I met only two amid dozens of less pleasant encounters. In my experience the local officers were either criminal themselves or too apathetic to be bothered. I would like to tell you things have changed, but from dozens of stories I will share this one. In Sailboat Bend a group of men have been assaulting and robbing people walking home from their low income jobs. The police have been given solid leads, they have been offered eyewitness identification, once they were even begged to just walk outside. The criminals were behind the station. The detective for the case simply hung up the phone.

I can understand why those reading Bringing Adam Home might react with disbelief to the account of willful obstruction of justice leveled at the Hollywood PD. Even the Walsh family took decades to understand what many of us in South Florida already knew. When the press conference was held naming Adam's killer, I viewed it with some doubt. So did (and does) the local media. It seemed like a way for the department to make the infamous case go away. If this was the killer, why wasn't the case solved years ago? Bringing Adam Home answers that with certainty. There is absolutely no doubt who killed Adam. None. The Walsh case is closed, the killer is dead. If Adam had not died, many other children would not have been saved, many criminals would not have been apprehended. If Adam's case had not been deliberately kept from prosecution, the same would be true. Even knowing that, the reader desperately wishes there could be a miracle ending. The head wasn't Adam's, his death wasn't painful, his family wasn't relentlessly tortured by the killer, by the police, by the public. Something, anything, to relieve the horror. There can't be. All of it is true.

And yet Bringing Adam Home is not a cruel book. It is a relentless one due to the nature of the crime and the crimes that followed. Unlike many True Crime books it doesn't sympathize with the killer or turn murder into a graphic pornography of horror. What happened to Adam is presented factually and concisely, the reader is haunted because there is no way to tell it gently. The focus is on the investigation and it's procedural aspects. What went right (precious little) what went wrong, and who lost track of their own morality. In searching so doggedly for  answers, the Walshes opened themselves up to one last victimization, one last horror inflicted by a man who had taunted them over the unspeakable end of their child. In doing so they once again used their pain to change their country.

Bringing Adam Home is about more than Adam Walsh. It is about how the worst of human nature can be seen not just in our killers, but in any one of us. Protect a friend here, doubt the truth there, offer a bone to a hungry public and soon you've created a wall only the most dogged and determined can break through. In the Walsh case, it took decades and immense resources. Even the killer himself offering proof of his guilt repeatedly couldn't break the Blue Line. Reading this you realize how many other cases have fallen under the same spells. (Jon Benet Ramsey, Trenton Duckett  - the list goes on.) The news cycle and the territory contests, the parent blaming and the street corner experts. The trust in authority and the distrust of the same. The things we just know, just decide, the obvious things.

We should all do better. At the very least, we should do as the Hollywood PD did, stand up and admit our flaws. Apologize for our errors and face those we failed. Remember that the truth is not something ephemeral or emotional,  it is a thing we discover piece by painstaking piece, regardless of the picture we wanted it to form. Adam has stood for so much in America. Wouldn't it be wonderful if he could stand for that? 

15 March, 2011

Review: My One And Only by Kristan Higgins

Kristan Higgins is a best selling author for a reason, she delivers the goods. She also bucks the trend of sexually descriptive romance to show that real intimacy happens with our clothes on. I'd feel comfortable handing this book to a young adult reader or my great grandmother. Since books are more fun when they're shared, I appreciate her choice.

 90% of My One and Only is engaging, realistic, heartwarming and rewarding. 10% of it made me want to toss it out the window. It's not that the 10% was bad (far from it) but it threw me out of a story I was totally engaged in. Our heroine is a hard charging divorce attorney jaded by life and jaded by her clients. What she hasn't done she's seen and what she's seen has made her deeply cynical. Harper's self protective and prides herself on being free of illusions. She also curses like a three year old child.

This might not bother you, in fact it might please many readers, but for me when the hardbitten Red Sox fan lets loose with "Crotch! Crochety crotch!" It's hard for me to take her seriously. Sure, she can conjugate it "Well, crotch! Oh, crotch!" but it doesn't help. Really, who says that? Do you have a friend who pulls her cell phone out of her pocket, looks down and says "Crotch. It's my boss." (Maybe I just need to get out more.) The other thing that threw me came in the last few chapters. Everything gets tied up neatly and cutely and by everything I mean every single little thing. I'm shocked the dog didn't get a surprise litter from a pedigreed princeling. It's a bit much. However! There's the other 90% of the book.

Our heroine has a pretty tidy life with an island home, a firefighter boyfriend and a priest for a best friend. She's doing alright. Sadly, she also has family. In Harper's case there's a little sister who likes to marry guys she's known about five minutes. Her most recent engagement is to Harper's ex-brother-in-law. As Harper would say, "Crotch!" (Ok, I'll let it go) Harper boards a plane and heads out to confront her sister's latest folly which means confronting one of her own. Nick is more than ready to reexamine their past. Since their divorce, he's moved on with his life but he never moved past Harper. They may have married too young, but they weren't wrong to marry.

Harper and Nick are savvy people damaged by life and afraid to invest too much in each other. They are also achingly familiar.  There's an element of "Just communicate!" at play, but it works here because the characters are afraid to talk to each other. Exposing their fears means exposing themselves to pain. Neither is the trusting type. I have to say I'm Team Harper all the way. I'd have divorced Nick too. But I can't blame her for taking him back, either. Older and wiser, he's still the right one for her. Even though he's a Yankees fan. Which reminds me - Kristan Higgins totally won the cover jackpot. Right down to the NY plate on the car and the dog by her side, My One and Only has the perfect cover for the story inside. Bold, charming and appropriate, I love the cover as much as the contents.

10 March, 2011

Review: An Unlikely Countess by Jo Beverley

*Why can't we have eyes anymore? I feel like this cover is saying "Hello! Up here!" to the Art Department. 

Rothgar, it's time to go. I adore you, you are one of the great romantic heros, you make other romantic heros look like pale anemic vampires, but I think we need to take a break. Here's the thing, I loved An Unlikely Countess, I adored An Unlikely Countess, I was ready sleep with An Unlikely Countess under my pillow, and then your wife showed up. She was kind of a total buzz kill.

This book was so good without her. It was Joanna Bourne good. It was Sherry Thomas good. It was Meredith Duran good. Hey, I'll go all the way - it was Jo Beverley good. And then it was easy. The thing is, Cate (can I call the Earl Cate?) was a great romantic lead on his own. His family doesn't understand him, his mother can't really stand him, his older brother is a know it all bore, and Cate likes to rescue girls he finds in alleys. He's adorable. Sure, he's got a bit of an inferiority complex, being suited to caretake a manor and finding himself without one, but that's totally not a problem.

Then there's Prudence! She's a total snob and I love that she can still be one after falling so far down in the world that up would be defined as a change of clothes. That whole thing she's got going with her neighbor? Will tutor for food? Love her! As an older sibling myself, believe me when I say I've got her back. Younger brothers can be the very devil. Look at Cate! By the time the two of them find themselves shacked up as Earl and Countess I'm fascinated. The intricacies of upstairs / downstairs life, the dizzying tightrope of small town life, the nuances of family dynamics. I love that stuff. It was like Downton Abbey with half the cliches.

Then the drama had to escalate. And with the drama, a sudden resolution of all their problems, some of it initiated by a certain overbearing nobleman's charismatic wife. I'm not naming any names, Rothgar, but I think you know her. Really really well if you get where I'm going with this. Really. Well. Indeed. Yes. Her. She shows up and it's like a giant tying of the plot lines. I liked it better when Cate and Prudence were muddling on as best they could, without the big jolt of charisma. And really, if you sponsor all the lame little ducks, aren't you going to start to get a reputation for it? Rothgar, Lord of the Ducklings and Holder of the Socially Unformed. It's a bit of a mouthful.

Ah, why am I blaming you? You weren't even there. Probably, when you heard about it, you didn't even approve. Ok, you're right, you can stay. In fact, you can show up in every book of your time period ever. Because you're awesome. And so were Cate and Prudence, before A Certain Person cast them in her shadow. Can't you talk to her? Well I was just asking. No need to get like that about it. Fine! I'll read the next one. But I'm not promising to change my mind.

08 March, 2011

Review For Two: Heat Wave by Donald Bogle & Blue Smoke by Roger House

I've already raved this week about R. A. Lawson's Jim Crow's Counterculture. I read it as part of a trio of books over the last few weeks. Heat Wave and Blue Smoke take very different paths to the same result, a definitive look at an artist and their time period.

Donald Bogle is well known for his exhaustive research and meticulous detailing. Heat Wave is no exception. Things get off to a slow start as he explains the background behind what begins to seem like every person Ethel Waters ever met or could meet. Once he gets rolling, however, he offers a comprehensive look at this pioneering artist that is refreshingly free of rose colored glasses. Perhaps it's fitting that Waters, certainly not an easy woman, is so well documented in what is not an easy book. Heat Wave is worth the time, and it will reward the reader willing to explore not just Ethel Waters but the world she lived in. Ethel has largely been forgotten, but Bogle respects both her place in history and her absolute talent. Here she is in a clip from a film intended for black audiences only, with a very young Sammy Davis Jr as the President. I chose this clip because it illustrates the difference in the artist when she is not beholden to please a white ticket buyer. Instead of the cotton picker of her 1929 recording of this song, an elegant woman takes the stage before expounding on the power of Harlem life and completely refuting cotton as a profession.

Blue Smoke has a different aim. Rather than a comprehensive exploration of the times and people that made the artist, Roger House uses the art to explore the man. Taking Broonzy's discography to tell the story of his life, House quote his lyrics before expanding on the times in which he wrote them. It makes for an instantly accessible and compelling read. House writes as economically as Broonzy sang.

Unlike Ethel Waters, Bill Broonzy did not find his fortune with his guitar. It certainly led him to many experiences he would not otherwise have had, but it never allowed him to fully leave manual labor behind. as with other artists of the time his interaction with the Lomax family both gained him a wider audience and a minstrel version of himself to perform for the white blues enthusiasts. House details his work bringing other musicians to be interviewed by Alan Lomax, stressing that we have to view those tapes through the lens of Lomax's own bias. Broonzy knew what Lomax was looking for and he delivered it. We can't therefore take those words as a full and accurate representation of Bill Broonzy himself. In the music House finds a fuller picture of the man and through that man the era in which he worked. LSU Press has great pricing on Blue Smoke, both in paperback and ebook.  I think it is definitely worth your time. Since it's only fair, let me follow that look at Ethel Waters with a look at Big Bill Broonzy, a guitarist that should be familiar to everyone. The effects of his popularity in Europe are certainly seen in the work of the European musicians that followed.

06 March, 2011

Review: Jim Crow's Counterculture by R. A. Lawson

As a music fan and a person of Southern descent, my celebrity obsessions might be different than yours. I had the opportunity to review three very different books recently. Heat Wave is a biography of Ethel Waters from Donald Bogle put out by Harper Collins, while Jim Crow's Counterculture and Blue Smoke both come from LSU Press by authors new to me. I'm on my third read of Jim Crow's Counterculture. It's not as instantly accessible as Blue Smoke, but it's far and away my favorite. There's something about Lawson's style that says Pay Attention Now.

When I was young it was an established 'fact' that Blues were most authentic when they were most rustic, that accomplished musicians had been tainted by white cultural influences. This was racist poppycock, of course. Then (as now) black musicians were serving two very different masters. The first was what the white public wished to hear and by extension the white executives wished to record. The second was what the black public wanted to hear. Covering the period from the beginning of Jim Crow to the end of WW2, Lawson illustrates how the male blues musician (who performed a very different type of show than the female) was a vehicle for protest against Jim Crow and the dominant culture. Even so, it was a very constrained avenue. (During WW2 songs of revenge against the Japanese are quite common, but it's a rare song that dared to speak out against the Germans. As much as they were our enemy, they were still white.) Within those confines black artists  recorded their lives, their aspirations, and changed their own possibilities. As Lawson says - 

"Black southerners during Jim Crow were forced to be deferential, yet bluesmen projected powerful braggadocio. Black men were often emasculated or condemned as rapacious beasts, yet the bluesmen openly celebrated their sexuality. Plantation sharecropping, levee building, and logging exploited black workers in the Delta, so the musicians tried to abandon manual labor." 

Through blues music the black southerner could move in white circles, he could amass material goods that were out of his reach through traditional means. While he was certainly not relieved of the strictures of Jim Crow, he could move between social boundaries more freely. The life of a black southern musician, while often itinerant, could offer far more independence than that of a sharecropper or manual laborer. Wearing the clothes of a laborer for his white audience the musician was defining how they saw him, but they were no longer defining who he was. Things could be said in song that could not be said in words. Of course there was not a total freedom of expression. As Ice-T leaned with "Cop Killer" the dominant culture still maintained a strong sense of what was an appropriate thing for the artist to say. Reading Lawson's section on the emergence of the bluesman as an identity made me reflect on modern black music. "Thug Life" isn't a far stretch from the lawless hedonism of the early bluesman's image. The refutation of morality and law as a path of rebellion for the project dwelling youth of today comes as a straight line from the refutation of same by the young southern sharecropper. Jim Crow may be behind us, but it's legacy of limited opportunities, of devalued black lives, of a dominant culture defining what is possible remains. Lawson uses music to illustrate points in his text, indeed Charley Patton's "High Water Everywhere" could be about Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.

"Looka here the water now, Lordy, levee broke, rose most everywhere, That water at Greenville and Lula, Lord, it done rose everywhere, I would go down to Rosedale, but they tell me there’s water there."

Lawson has written a tremendously engaging book. It might not be for everyone, but it is certainly for anyone. I consider Jim Crow's Counterculture an absolute bargain as an e-book. Kindle has it at the standard $9.99 price, hopefully to all regions. A truly rewarding read.

01 March, 2011

Review: The Taming by Aleen Malcolm

All the Agency shenanigans going on right now have killed my interest in reading. I know it will come back, but in the meantime the hours I would have spent reading were spent divesting myself of 99% of my print books. I sorted them into pulp, donate, gift and other. I hadn't looked in these boxes in almost seven years and they comprised my 'keepers' from 1980 to 2004. I learned a lot about myself by looking at these with fresh eyes.

First, I discovered I was one heck of a curator. Then I found when it came to romance my keeper shelf wasn't just the warm and fuzzy reads, it included some serious WTFOMGBBQ book moments. I'd pull a book out and rattle off the plot without hesitation even though it has been twenty years and a lot of chemo since then. I knew the closing lines of several of Edith Layton's books. (I miss Edith) My once perfect memory is no more, but some things scar the soul forever. So it was with Aleen Malcolm.

See that chick there? She's 14. Maybe 13, I don't actually recall. I do remember that she marries this guy who is like, twice her age then follows him around taking all kinds of abuse (physical and otherwise) in a quest for his love. I think I was about the same age when I read this and even then I thought that was some messed up interpersonal dynamics. I think it was also about this time that Luke raped Laura on the American show General Hospital. There was this weird message being sent to American women that some guys are going to rape you just because they love you so darn much. The men and boys in my life seemed to think this was awesome. We've come so far in Romanceland. We may have a way yet to go, but the days of 14 year olds who are 'asking for it' from men twice their age appear to be behind us. Thankfully.

If you have never read romance from this era, you totally should. Not the good, quality uplifting stuff. The meat and potato rape-o-ramas, the racist plantation novels, the OMGWTFBBQ moments. The days when all the beloved rapists were Scottish, unless they were English, but they were never black. Because love meant being at least half European in your ancestry. (Some things haven't changed, have they?) Being a woman meant needing to be broken, needing to be tamed, needing to be shown your place and accepting of your master so you could be worthy of his name. Sort of like wanting to read e-books today.