A certain kind of story
I discovered Jodi Picoult’s books back when I was on the cusp of 40, with her book Mercy (I think). I may have read one of the ones before that, but the descriptions on Goodreads don’t spark any memories. But I have read so many books over the years that sometimes I come to an old one thinking it is new, only to vaguely recognize the story as I get further into it, so I’m not sure. Anyway, after that I made a habit of picking up her books until somewhere around My Sister’s Keeper, in 2004, and after that I lost interest and quit reading them.
It wasn’t because she wasn’t a good writer, and in fact I enjoyed the story in My Sister’s Keeper; but her books increasingly reminded me of my least favorite young adult novels—those the library profession calls “problem novels.” Somehow, even though her characters remained fairly compelling, her books began to seem to me like those preachy tomes written for teens that turned out to be about a condition, or a social concern, rather than a person; as Michael Cart says in his history of teen fiction,
“The problem novel stems from the writer’s social conscience. It gave the frisson of reading about darkness from the comfort of a clean, well lit room.”Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism, p. 35
Rather than telling realistic stories about the teens who experienced certain aspects of life, the books focused on such subjects as drug abuse, abortion, unwed motherhood, and so on, using a formula that approached the feeling of an old-fashioned morality play. Problem novels sought to illustrate the perils inherent in poor life choices, and every time I opened a Picoult novel, it was with the unspoken question: What is the problem/flavor of the month in this one? They became repetitive and increasingly uninteresting to me (although a certain segment of readers continued to eagerly devour every word).
There were a few things that enticed me to once more read a Picoult bestseller: One of the characters is a bee-keeper, which profession has always fascinated me; Picoult co-wrote it with someone rather unexpected, about whom I wanted to know more; and the “What Should I Read Next?” crowd on Facebook pretty much raved unequivocally about Mad Honey, Picoult’s latest hit with Jennifer Finney Boylan.
There were parts of this book that I liked very much. The bee-keeping was, as anticipated, as enthralling as always. The back stories and characters of the two moms were compelling, as was the head-rush of a romance between the two teens, Asher and Lily. The authors wrote both their main and subsidiary characters with conviction and believability. But there was a fatal flaw within the story that really bothered me.
The basic outline is this: Olivia McAfee took her six-year-old son Asher and ran from an abusive husband back to the New Hampshire town where she grew up, inheriting her father’s bee-keeping operation. Asher is now in high school, a star of the hockey team, a good student, and a kind son and friend, having grown up in Olivia’s sole custody.
Ava Campanello fled with her daughter, Lily, from her own marital trials and more, and her employment options with the park service landed her in the same town in New Hampshire just in time for Lily’s senior year, hoping for a fresh start for the both of them.
Asher and Lily are almost immediately drawn to one another, and begin an intense relationship that lasts about four months before Lily ends up dead, having fallen down the stairs in her own home, and Asher is the one who finds her and is discovered weeping and clutching her body—but not calling for an ambulance. After a brief investigation, the police come for Asher and he is charged with first-degree murder.
Thus far, the whole plot worked for me, even the crazy timeline about which some complain, which jumped from before to after “the event” in almost every chapter, and also switched narrators/viewpoints—Olivia to Lily. Then we get to the trial. Olivia’s brother, Jordan, is, serendipitously, a rather famous defense attorney, and immediately comes to the rescue, agreeing to represent Asher pro bono. We go through all the details of a murder case—expert witnesses, character witnesses, the prosecution’s efforts to make the defendant look as guilty as possible by characterizing him as a violent, impulsive liar with both motive and opportunity. Then we get to the defense and Jordan completely falls down on the job.
The question that is never, ever asked by anyone—Asher, his lawyer, his mother or, apparently, the police—is the one that would have been central to the defense in any halfway well written murder mystery. Can you guess what it is? In his Dismas Hardy legal thriller series, author John Lescroart characterizes it as the “SODDIT” defense: Some Other Dude Did It. In Mad Honey, Asher adamantly maintains his innocence: When he walked in the (slightly ajar) front door, Lily was lying at the foot of the stairs, her head bleeding. His uncle/lawyer and his mother believe him, despite his mother’s secret fears that genetics have won out and he is violent like his gas-lighter of a father. The prosecution is insisting that he did do it, based almost solely on circumstantial evidence—some DNA, some texts, a scandal in his past that brands him as a liar. But not one person who believed he didn’t do it (including Asher himself!) spoke up to say, If Asher didn’t kill her, then who did?
Jordan should have been all over that—questioning the police and detectives to see whether they had considered any alternate person and scenario, having his investigator look into others who might have been suspicious, checking neighbors and traffic cams to determine whether anyone else visited the house that day, but…crickets. No mention of an alternative theory of who the murderer could be. That’s pretty much when the story lost me, and should have been when Asher, fighting for the rest of his life, or his mother, with her greater adult wisdom, sat up and said Jordan! WTF?
It didn’t totally ruin the rest for me—I still liked the characters (particularly Lily), the story, and the twists, small and large, and might recommend it based on those things. (And you should know that, despite all the surface details cataloged in this review, I have kept all the big secrets of the book.) But that one omission, paired with the way the book ends, made me realize that perhaps my initial conclusion—that Picoult is too focused on the social concerns she wants to highlight to truly immerse herself in the meat of the story—was not off base. I won’t say I’ll never read another from the Picoult oeuvre, but it will take something extraordinary to convince me.
Typically, a third-person narrative offers (at best) a picture of objective reality, or at least a world-view that is easily identified as biased in a particular way. But a first-person narrator has no obligation to offer the facts of a recognizable history—that person is free to substitute his or her own perceptions and interpretations, given without third-party corroboration to demonstrate them as accurate. Personal bias is included in those perceptions, but is not recognized by the narrator, who treats his own view as if it is “the truth,” and the reader must then decide whether to believe it.
In Alice Feeney’s book Rock Paper Scissors, we have three personal narratives—those of Adam and Amelia Wright, a married couple who are (supposedly at least) both attempting to put their floundering marriage right with the help of a weekend “away,” and also that of a third person who comes along later in the story. The narrative jumps back and forth between Adam and Amelia for the first half or so of the book before broadening to include this third person, and we are serially treated to each character’s view of “the facts” about the other person, the relationship, and their individual and shared back history.
This is a nice set-up for what is supposed to be a rather dark tale of suspense. In a good suspense novel, the protagonists become aware of danger only gradually, with a subtle build influenced by the setting and mood, and with conflict present in every scene. The characters must start out in a state of slight uneasiness that builds to confusion, upset, and perhaps terror. And a good suspense book, of course, builds in a series of reveals or surprises up until the final one, keeping the reader uncertain about the outcome. The whole thing is about what may happen, about anticipation.
The tricky balance to this kind of book—and where Rock Paper Scissors lost me—is the reader’s identification with one or more of the narrators. In a suspense novel, the narrators are by definition unreliable, because that’s how the story arrives at its twists. But just because they are unreliable, does it follow that they must also be unlikeable? Adam Wright is a pompous, self-involved screenwriter with little regard for anything outside the boundaries of his ambition. Amelia Wright, apart from her work at the Battersea Dog Shelter, is equally narcissistic, expecting more from Adam than he is willing or able to give and therefore living in a constant state of disappointment with her life and her marriage. The idea that a weekend alone together in picturesque Scotland, in a converted chapel on the shores of a loch, could fix what’s wrong with these two is laughable. But that’s the scene when the story opens, as the two drive Amelia’s ancient car through a blinding snowstorm trying to reach their destination before they run out of gas or the snow strands them miles from civilization.
From the first page, each is cataloging the negligence, insensitivity, and mean little tricks of the other. By the end of the first couple of chapters I already heartily disliked the both of them, and almost put the book down at the point where they reach their destination, because it seemed like things would just continue to disintegrate. Curiosity about the back story that landed them here kept me going, but I should have listened to my first intuition and stopped reading.
It wasn’t just that Adam and Amelia were so dislikeable; the writing, too, and the pacing of the story were subtly off. The situation at their weekend retreat is purposely amped up to the point where I kept saying “Oh, c’mon!” at regular intervals. There were too many hints from both sides that each knew something that would fatefully impact the other, but the portents seemed too extreme and too abrupt to happen during a weekend in the country; also, the revelations didn’t unfold until so late in the book that I honestly think the author forgot she had inserted some of them, because they just never jelled, provoking an anticlimactic feeling about the entire story. And while the big twists were definitely momentous, given to whom they were happening, I just didn’t care.
Also, I thought the epilogue was idiotic.
I always struggle with whether to write a negative review, especially when it is a book that has been enjoyed and acclaimed by many. This one receives a preponderance of four stars on Goodreads, probably due to the fact that the “twists” are powerful. But the writing was clunky and full of clichés, the pacing alternated between maddeningly slow and overly dramatic for about 50 percent of the book, and the characters seemed flat and boring to me. The worst part was the many ominous hints that never panned out.
So the question for you is, when you are reading a psychological novel of suspense, is it more important to you that the writing, characters, and plot be of a certain quality, or that the author is able to pull off one or more true surprises? I obviously came down on the side of the former, but perhaps most people who are reading suspense appreciate the latter enough to be forgiving about the rest? I am personally feeling a bit disgruntled with Alice Feeney at the moment, because I wish I hadn’t invested the time and attention on her story.
And finally, I just want to say that everyone knows how to win or lose at rock-paper-scissors, so the idea of using it as a decider with someone you know so well that you can predict their response is, well, dumb.
Over the top is okay!
The latest installment of Elle Cosimano’s Finlay Donovan series dropped on January 31st, and I started reading it a few days later when I discovered it on my Kindle (I had prepaid for the e-book dump and then forgotten all about it).
Finlay Donovan Jumps the Gun carries on fairly precisely where the last book left off: Finlay and her sidekick, nanny/ accountant Vero, are indebted to Feliks Zhirov (the local Russian mob boss) for saving them from an embarrassing and dangerous situation, and he (of course) wants something in return. There’s a person called “EasyClean” who is operating online as a paid assassin; Feliks wants to know this person’s identity, and believes that Finlay can deliver that to him. Being impatient (as mob bosses often are, don’t you know), he gives her a two-week deadline, which doesn’t make her one-week time limit with her agent for the final manuscript of her latest novel any easier to achieve, especially since the contents of the book are so close to the circumstances of her personal life that she has run head-on into writer’s block trying to resolve them.
Meanwhile, Vero has a deadline of her own—she’s delinquent on a gambling debt with a loan shark out of Atlantic City, and his enforcers are hot on her heels. What’s the solution? Finlay and Vero decide it’s to enroll in a one-week civilian police academy training. After all, they have come to believe that EasyClean may actually be a cop, so where better to figure it all out than from in amongst ’em? And where else could they be sure that pesky flunkies for the mob won’t be able to touch them? Finlay hands over the kids to Steven for a week, and the two move into the police academy dormitory to see what they can see. And, since it’s Finlay Donovan, chaos immediately ensues. Did I mention that Finlay’s crush, Detective Nick, is running the thing? and that both of his slightly suspicious partners and Finlay’s police officer sister are in attendance? And that the supposedly well-guarded barriers to the facility turn out to be as porous as swiss cheese when it comes to characters, suspicious or otherwise, making their way to the window of Finlay’s room?
In short, this is yet another frenetic flourish of Cosimano’s pen in pursuit of the author/single mom/accidental hit woman, and carries the franchise along nicely. I had been under the impression, for some reason, that this series would be a trilogy, but that’s not the case—this one ended on yet another cliff hanger, ensuring there are more books to come. (If all of this description has intrigued you, read the series in order from the beginning or you will be lost.)
I’m a little torn on my rating for this book. I gave the first one five stars, and the second one got four; I’m tending towards four stars on this one as well. Although it had moments that were totally brilliant (the opening scene with toddler Zach comes to mind), it also had some repetitive stuff (the continued misunderstandings about poor Javi); and the restriction of the scene-setting to the police academy means we miss out on some of the fun interactions with unsuspecting civilians that were so important to the first two books. But I did enjoy the thought processes behind figuring out EasyClean, and Cosimano is an expert at writing the hapless, accidental escalation into total mayhem that feels like Lucy Ricardo has landed in the middle of a murder mystery! I will definitely look forward to the next installment in Finlay’s overwrought journey, particularly the resolution of so many relationships: Will she finally put Steven firmly in his place? Will they ever get Vero out of debt and able to show her face again? Will Finlay be able to have a relationship with Nick without revealing all her (mostly inadvertent) criminal activities? Will Georgia find a girlfriend? Will Zach complete potty training? For these and many other crucial details, we once again await you, Elle Cosimano!
A dark one
I just finished Jar of Hearts, by Jennifer Hillier, and it definitely lives up to that quote I used two books back about Hillier imagining the worst and then writing about it. Lest you should be taking the title seriously, based on that information, let me reassure you that there is not a jar filled with literal hearts—they are the cinnamon red-hot variety. But if you are a person, like the main character Georgina (nicknamed Geo), who associates tastes or smells with particular events from life and is thus permanently put off from ever enjoying them again, you will probably not be eating red-hot cinnamon candies any time soon. I will say up front that this book is not for the sensitive or squeamish. It is gritty, explicit, and dark. I have a fairly strong stomach when it comes to reading this kind of story and still found it challenging. So now that I have given you the “trigger warning”…
Jar of Hearts is ultimately about three friends: Angela Wong, the popular girl—cheerleader, guy magnet, gorgeous and charismatic; Geo Shaw, the otherwise engaging one whose light is slightly dimmed by keeping company with her best friend, Angela; and Kaiser Brody, who follows in Geo’s wake like a smitten puppy dog. This is who they were in high school; but when this story begins, Angela is 14 years dead, Geo is the star witness (and accused accessory), and Kaiser is the arresting officer of Calvin James, serial killer, Geo’s former boyfriend and the one being tried for Angela’s murder.
This is a book about friendship, obsession, jealousy, and death—but all the assumptions are out the window from the first page. No one is innocent among the interconnected friends and lovers whose actions doom one another to various fates, and although at least two of them would like events from the past to remain buried forever, the others will actively or passively guarantee that’s not going to happen.
The story’s pacing is designed to keep you looking for answers throughout its five parts, with clearly defined jumps from past to present and back again, and new elements to the story that have you second-guessing absolutely everything you know about everyone involved. It explores the question of nature vs. nurture, and highlights the theory of the deficiency of the underdeveloped teenage brain and the psychology behind ideas about compartmentalization and deflection. It is chilling, involving, and more than a little messed up. In other words, Jennifer Hillier delivers again.
It’s thriller time
I’m not usually an avid reader of thrillers, but after my extremely positive reaction to Jennifer Hillier’s Little Secrets, I wanted to see if she (and I) could repeat the experience, so I checked out Things We Do In the Dark. And although I didn’t love it quite as much (I liked the set-up and characters in Little Secrets better), it turned out to be a similarly riveting read with some fascinating characters, unexpected twists, and a great ending.
Things look bad for Paris Peralta. She’s been married to a wealthy, successful man more than 30 years her senior for just a few short years, and now he’s dead and she’s been accused of his murder. But as horrifying as this is to Paris (especially since she didn’t do it), it’s not the worst eventuality she is anticipating as a result of all the publicity surrounding Jimmy’s death. Paris has a past full of secrets she doesn’t want exposed, and there is one specific person who knows who she was and what she did. Paris thought she was safe from Ruby Reyes, who was serving a life sentence for committing a murder of her own, 25 years ago, but now Ruby is unexpectedly out of prison early and is all too ready to exploit her knowledge about Paris’s past to get what she wants. And she may not be the only person from back then who is a threat to Paris—having your picture on the cover of every magazine in town when you’re trying to maintain a low profile can be hazardous!
The minute I finished this, I went to the online library to put a hold on the e-book for Hillier’s Jar of Hearts. She has a new fan.
Secrets and twists
It’s been a really long time since I was so riveted by a story that I made a conscious decision to stay up at night until I had finished it. I started Jennifer Hillier’s Little Secrets two days ago, and at bedtime tonight I was at 71 percent (Kindle). At 79 percent and 1:30 a.m., when I probably would have turned out the light on a normal reading night, I got back out of bed, made myself a snack (dinner was a long time back at 6:30 p.m.!), sat down in my chair and kept going. Luckily for me, as happens with Kindle books, the publisher had included a bunch of stuff at the end, including book club questions, author notes, and a preview for her next book, so I only had to read to 90 percent instead of 100. But I would cheerfully have gone that extra 10 percent, after the turns this book took in Part Three.
The book opens with that nightmare of all parents holding their child’s hand in a crowded place—for just one second, struggling to juggle packages and her cell phone, Marin let go of four-year-old Sebastian’s hand in Pike’s Peak Market in Seattle at the height of the Christmas rush. For a few seconds more, she felt him pressed up against her side and then, as she pulled her attention away from her phone and looked around, he was just gone. As is the initial expectation with any mom with a lost kid, she thinks the crowd will open and he’ll be standing there, turning in place, looking for her and panicking a little, and she can sweep him up and reassure him. But he’s not.
Six weeks later, the FBI tells Marin and her husband, Derek, that they have followed every lead and have turned up absolutely nothing new since day one, and that although the case will, of course, remain open, they will now turn their focus to the cases of other missing children. Marin’s response is to attempt suicide. Once she recovers some balance, she decides she will hire a private investigator to keep going with the case; Derek feels it’s a vain effort, so she allows him to believe she has let the P.I. go after a month, but instead she keeps Victoria on the job and, while seeking out some tenuous leads, one of Victoria’s employees spots Derek with a young art student with whom he is apparently having an affair.
Roused from her stupor of despair by a surprisingly strong flash of rage, Marin realizes that she has lost her son, but she’s not going to lose her husband, too; this girl is an enemy with a face, and Marin decides she’s going to fix this problem and keep intact what’s left of her family.
Jennifer Hillier’s author blurb on Goodreads says, “Jennifer Hillier imagines the worst about people and then writes about it.” Boy, does she ever! I kept thinking I was one step ahead and had figured something out, only to be shocked into a delighted exclamation as each secret revealed itself and led to five more. Nine times out of ten, I am disappointed by the latest book lauded for psychological suspense, but this one was definitely an exception. I’m hoping now that her other five books are also exceptional, because I’m headed right for the digital library for Kindle reservations (at 2:30 a.m.)!
Mysteries need another name
I have been off the radar for a while because, when I bought the Sydney Rye mysteries, I bought them in an e-book omnibus of eight books, and I have spent the past two weeks reading all of them, which did a big favor to my Goodreads challenge for the year but didn’t do much for this blog!
They are specifically titled the Sydney Rye Mysteries (by Emily Kimelman), but after the first one, I have to disagree with that genre specification. Although in book #1 there is a dead guy whose killer must be discovered, and this puzzle leads to others within that volume, the subsequent books are not what I would characterize as mysteries. There aren’t specific crimes to solve, although there is a high level of criminality throughout; the books are much more like thrillers or suspense.
The events of the first book have awakened in Joy Humbolt, now rechristened Sydney Rye, a passion for justice, and her first step towards that, in book #2, is to go along with Detective Mulberry’s plan for her, which is to work with a Tai Chi and weapons master whose parallel expertise is teaching dogs to be fighting partners; Sydney and her dog Blue train with Merl and his dobermans, and turn into a couple of badasses practically unrecognizable to the friends and family of Joy Humbolt.
Subsequent to this training, Sydney basically looks around for injustices (or they arrive on her doorstep), from white slavery to organ harvesting, and goes after the people responsible, sometimes on her own but mostly aided by various people from her past, including Mulberry, her sometime romantic partner and computer hacker Dan, the aforementioned Merl, several imprisoned and abused women she rescued who decided they wanted to pass on the favor, and various well-met strangers along the way. And while there is a specific issue, bad guy or guys, and challenging task in each book, none of them could be characterized as mysteries. There are occasionally bigwigs behind the little guys who have to be discovered and ferreted out, but if you are wondering how to characterize these books, they have a greater resemblance to the Jack Reacher (Lee Child) franchise, for example, than to any traditional murder mystery series.
If you like that kind of thing, however, with a legendary protagonist and a lot of exciting action with a positive conclusion for the downtrodden, then by all means broach the Sydney Rye books…just don’t think of them as mysteries!
By the way, the eight volumes aren’t the end of this series—numbers nine through 15 currently exist, and who knows (besides Emily Kimelman) if there will be more?
I can definitely be classified as a mystery reader, but most of the series I pursue are contemporary, with a preference for serious subjects and tending towards either character-driven or procedural themes. Every once in a while, however, I branch out to see what other mystery readers are discovering in such subgenres as Cozy, Historical, Noir, or Caper stories. I have occasionally taken a segue into legal mysteries, and I also enjoy a good thriller that may be related to mystery but not quite defined by that genre.
This week I tried out a couple of different subgenres, and I have to say that I am enjoying them enough to plan on continuing reading the series after this initial review is over.
The first book I read was A Curious Beginning, Deanna Raybourn’s series about lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell. It’s a historical, set in the Victorian era, and features an intrepid spinster who has never fit into a mold, and never intends to. Veronica travels the world in pursuit of scientific inquiry, makes her own living by selling rare specimens of butterflies, and occasionally has a discreet romantic dalliance.
As the story opens, she is wrapping up the affairs of the second of her two elderly adoptive aunts to pass on, and anticipates, now that she has surrendered their cottage and has no further ties to England, embarking on her most ambitious trip ever. Her plans are interrupted, however, when ruffians attempt to kidnap her right off the street in daylight, and she is saved by a sincere but somewhat enigmatic German baron, who tries to convince her that she is in danger and offers her a ride to London. She doesn’t really give credence to his warnings, but since that’s where she was headed anyway, she’s happy to take advantage of the free trip. Once there, he places her temporarily in the care of his friend Stoker, a taxidermist with hidden depths, vowing to return and reveal all. Unfortunately, before he can impart to Veronica the specifics of the plot against her, the baron is murdered, and she and Mr. Stoker are left to their own devices to figure out why someone wants Veronica dead and gone.
I was hooked on both this protagonist and her story within about 15 pages. Veronica is a progressive female determined to conduct herself on her own terms, and uses her considerable intellect paired with feminine guile to make her own way. One reviewer on Goodreads styled her as “a cool Nancy Drew for the turn of the century,” and that’s not a bad characterization! The story itself is sufficiently endowed with plenty of action and enough exciting twists to hold a reader’s interest, but the heart of its success is the witty banter carried on between Veronica and her initially unwilling partner, Stoker. The development of both of these characters is what kept me reading and led me to check out book #2 in the series as soon as I was finished with the first.
The second series on which I embarked is the Sydney Rye mysteries, by Emily Kimelman, beginning with Unleashed, although as the first book opens, Sydney is known by her original name, Joy Humbolt.
Joy has had an active 24 hours: First, she dumped her boyfriend, Marcus, a possessive schmuck who was fixated on the idea she was cheating on him (she wasn’t); then she lost her cool at work and took down a pastel-clad woman with bad hair in spectacular fashion for not understanding the difference between a macchiato and a frappuccino, for which she was fired; and finally, she went to the pound in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and adopted Blue, the largest dog on the premises. Two days later, she was the new owner of a dog-walking business on the Upper East Side, purchased from a friend of a friend, and 24 hours after that, she found herself embroiled in a murder mystery after golden retriever Toby (one of her dog-walking charges) led her to a dead body in an alley. This discovery would prove to be the true game-changer of Joy’s week, and possibly of her life.
Although this protagonist’s story is completely different from that of Veronica Speedwell, it is her character, combined with the vivid depiction of her environs and the details of her life that immediately grabbed my attention. Joy is, like Veronica, a bit edgy, a bit feisty, and with a similar tendency to refuse to tolerate bullshit. The way the amateur sleuth story details Joy’s discovery that she was meant to be a detective and to right wrongs is engaging, and the characters who surround her to either promote or foil her task are equally personable.
Although I can be a creature of habit in my reading tastes, I’m really glad that I stepped away from my usual preferences to try out these two original and absorbing series.
I love that word, and it’s not one that you often get the chance to use. But it perfectly describes the book Holding Smoke, by Elle Cosimano, which I reread this week after a six-year hiatus and discovered that I liked it every bit as well the second time as I did on first perusal (another good word).
I originally picked up the book back in 2016 because of its setting—juvenile hall. While I was in library school, I took a class that required racking up service hours as part of the grade, and a dozen of us started book-talking groups (like a book club, but each person reads their own choice of book) in seven of the living units there. My friend Lisa and I ran a group in one of the four maximum security units (which more closely resembled the set-up of this book), and we loved doing it so much that we ended up continuing for two years, long after both the class and library school were over.
Cosimano, whose father was a warden, really has the setting, the interpersonal relations and interactions, and the rhythms of the place down in this book. I felt like I was right back at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Detention Facility in Unit W, but with a new group of troubled kids.
The title of this blog post doesn’t entirely fit the vibe of the book, since part of the story qualifies as magical realism. The main character, John Conlan, nicknamed Smoke, is serving time in a long-term facility in Denver, Colorado, for two murders, and although one was self defense and the other was committed by someone else, no one believed any part of his account when it went up against the damning circumstantial evidence. During the course of the event, John died for a period of six minutes and then was brought back, and during that six minutes had an out-of-body experience that he discovers he is now able to replicate. So while the other inmates are locked up inside the concrete walls of the “Y,” John is able to pass through them and wander out in the world in spirit form, tied to his body by a sort of cable that seems to be fraying the more trips he takes.
He uses this ability to good purpose by checking in on the families or business partners or girlfriends of other inmates and reporting back on their status—are they okay? are they cheating me? are they cheating ON me? No one can figure out how Smoke is communicating with his outside sources to garner this information, but they’re willing to pay in favors for his services.
He doesn’t use this ability in his own interests until, in the course of observing a drug dealer’s transactions at a bar, he meets a waitress he calls Pink, who can see and hear him in his spirit form, and with her help he begins to explore the truth around who could have manipulated the situation to put him in prison. But someone has a vested interest in keeping him there and keeping him quiet, and suddenly his existence is perilous, as is everyone’s who helps him…
The scene-setting, the characters, the pacing of this story are all visceral and gripping, and I also appreciated the philosophical elements Cosimano brings to the characters. I had no trouble with the suspension of disbelief over Smoke’s abilities, and the author makes the whole thing palpable by setting up and exploring the rules of how those abilities work. There are quite a few twists, and an exciting ending I didn’t see coming. This is a good example of gritty fiction crossed with the paranormal that will appeal to a wide range of teen readers. Although I have enjoyed Cosimano’s other books (particularly the Finlay Donovan series), I think I would call Holding Smoke her best so far.
There are certainly authors to whom I have remained intensely loyal who have written one book I absolutely loved but have also written others that I didn’t. And because I read the book worth loving first, I kept them on my roster of excellent authors despite the downfalls and shortcomings of other works. So this week I decided that just because I had read two books by an author neither of which had particularly wowed me or stuck with me didn’t mean I should dismiss the author out of hand; that perhaps she was worth one more go.
The author to whom I refer is Diane Chamberlain. I first read her book The Dream Daughter, about which many people expressed doubts since time travel was not something they felt was appropriate to her oft-labeled “hometowns and heartstrings” style of writing. Since I love a good time travel book, however, this was prime motivation for me to read it, and I did enjoy it, although not as much in retrospect as my initial reaction might indicate. So I went on to choose another of her books, hoping to get the “traditional” Diane Chamberlain experience, and was vastly disappointed; I didn’t connect with (or even like) any of the characters, felt the narrative was lackadaisical and the plot deficient in sense, and decided, based on Cypress Point, that I wouldn’t read anything more written by her.
But, as sometimes happens, I had placed another of her titles for Kindle on hold at the library a while back, and it popped up as “available” just when I had finished something else and was at loose ends for the next, so I read it. I’m so glad I did, and can say that it may change my attitude about at least some of the rest of her inventory.
The book is Big Lies in a Small Town, and I must confess, first of all, that I was predisposed to like it, despite my previous experience, because this one was about art. As regular readers of this blog can attest, I have special collections on Goodreads of “books about art” and “books about reading,” and am always looking for another to add to those lists. I found one in this book, and also found it compelling for more reasons than just its theme.
First of all, this book also steps outside that “hometowns and heartstrings” narrative and into the realm of historical fiction, although I’m not sure how much of it is real and how much made up. The point is, it all could have happened, and its setting in a true-to-life context, especially including the financial situations and the state of race relations in a small southern town in the 1940s, made it particularly evocative.
The book has two main protagonists, one in 1940, the other in 2018, connected by a Work Progress Administration (WPA) mural painted after the Great Depression by one artist and restored almost 80 years later by another. Anna Dale is the artist from New Jersey who enters a WPA mural contest; she loses out to someone else for the mural she wished to paint in New Jersey, but is instead awarded a smaller project for the post office in Edenton, North Carolina. She takes a trip to scope out both the community and the placement of the mural, planning to stay only a few days to try to capture the flavor of the town and its people upon which she will base the mural but, being somewhat at loose ends in her life with no employment or attachments to prevent her, allows herself to be persuaded by the town’s “movers and shakers” to stay in town to execute the entire project. She soon realizes she is a fish out of water, a Yankee not used to dealing with the prejudices and ubiquitous racial undertones of a small Southern community. And to complicate matters, the town has its own artist who tried for the same assignment and lost out to Anna, so there are some people in town who are already predisposed to dislike her. Anna is determined to achieve her goal, but vastly underestimates the obstacles she faces.
Nearly 80 years later, in 2018, Morgan Christopher, who is in prison for three years for a crime she didn’t commit, is given an opportunity to curtail that sentence if she agrees to certain conditions: Jesse Jameson Williams, a prominent artist from Edenton, North Carolina, has died, and in his will he specifies that Morgan is to be offered the job of restoring a mural that will hang in the gallery containing his paintings and those of his protegés. Morgan is an artist but has no experience with the complex skills required for restoration, but she is desperate to leave prison, so she accepts and is paroled contingent upon her completing this project. In the process of working on the mural, she discovers disturbing design elements that pique her interest about the unknown fate of Anna Dale.
This story was masterfully plotted to keep the reader turning the pages. The perspective switches back and forth between past and present with a cliffhanger at the end of each chapter to make it irresistible, and Chamberlain is wonderfully cagey about how and when she reveals the plot points that connect all the players. I read it in two days, and when I say days I mean until 2:30 a.m. when I could no longer keep my eyes open. In addition to complex plots for both time periods, the narrative contains interesting technical information about the restoration process as well as fascinating personal details about life in the South after the Depression. It addresses such issues as mental illness, injustice, poverty, and racism, but incorporates those themes into its riveting and emotionally engaging story line without being preachy or didactic.
Can you tell that I liked the book?
Reading this made me immensely curious about the WPA mural program; here is a look at some of the artists who were defining American art “after the fall,” that is, after the Great Depression’s socioeconomic devastation, and here is an interesting contemporary speculation on whether anything similar to this project could ever again happen in the United States. Below is one mural, by artist Ben Shahn, entitled “The Meaning of Social Security.” It’s on a wall of the Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building, in Washington, D.C.
A little “if-then” referral: If you read this and find that you enjoyed learning about the technical processes of restoration, another book you might enjoy is The Art Forger, by B. A. Shapiro, which also includes many fascinating technical details, although it is much less respectful of the original artist! My review is here.