Mediocre Motor City

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After the title page of Patricia Abbott’s Shot in Detroit, the novel’s synopsis describes the story as  “A riveting novel of psychological suspense….” Hmm. Riveting. As in completely engrossing? Not so much. Suspense? Not the gotta stay up all night to find out what happens next kind. Perhaps a better description would be a novel with an interesting premise, somewhat intriguing characters and a few psychological turns.

Violet Hart is a freelance photographer with low self-esteem, nearing her 40th birthday, and looking for a way to pump up her sagging professional résumé. Her most recent photo exhibit (Detroit apartment buildings in various states of implosion) fails and is cancelled. Ted, the art show curator, stops by Vi’s place to give her the bad news, but only after a quickie in Vi’s bedroom replete with a large and heavy mirror hung on the ceiling. Chekov aficionados take note!

Vi finds a new topic for artistic photographic exploration when her lover Bill, an African-American mortician, asks Vi to take a photo of a deceased young man whose overseas family wants a keepsake because they cannot attend the funeral. In shooting the photo, Vi is impressed with Bill’s expertise and artistry in dressing and prepping his deceased customers. Voila, the idea blooms for a new exhibit featuring African-American males from Bill’s funeral home.

(SPOILER ALERT) The rest of the story plays out around the waxing and waning of Vi and Bill’s affair, Vi’s artistic musings about photographing dead people, and her short and strange friendship with aspiring performance artist Derek whom she meets on Belle Isle. Derek’s murder is the only mystery in the story, which happens half-way through the book (Vi is briefly considered a suspect and the killer is caught). This sub-plot seems tacked on, (an editor’s after-thought?) in order to give the novel more “suspense.”

But the most glaring and hard to accept odd turn of events in the book occurs when Bill, reclining in bed post-coitus, is instantly killed when that pendulous mirror on the ceiling heeds gravity. Vi, upon rushing into the bedroom and discovering his lifeless body, picks up her camera, PUTS MAKEUP ON HIM, and then photographs him. I threw the book across the room. Later Vi explains her behavior with the time-worn I was in shock, even though during the scene there is nothing to indicate this is the case.

Vi is a flawed and yes I’ll say it, unlikeable, character. One of her most annoying habits is her constant questions to herself about what she’s doing or thinking or saying. Her relentless insecurity calls to mind a woman who is in her late teens or maybe early twenties, not someone on the cusp of 40. Perhaps this is supposed to be a character study about a woman who is a loser on many levels, and if so, the author succeeds. Vi suffers for her art, but more than anything she never seems to get anywhere (although her dead men photos exhibit is a hit, which seems fitting since it’s creepy and her exploitation of them is something she questions over and over). Abbott leaves the reader wondering if a truly unlikeable character can be considered a protagonist and if so, she opens up a new field of inquiry for fiction writers.

On a scale of one to ten, I rate this book a four.

 

Angst With a Twist

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A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum is first up for review in the Best Original Paperback category of Mystery Writers of America’s 2017 Edgar Awards. The story, told in flashback by narrator Mitch Malone, takes place in the small town of Brilliant, Ohio, during the 1960’s. Mitch recounts the tragic history and short life of his friend, Travis Baron. The two young teens live in starkly different circumstances from each other: Mitch is from a loving, comfortable home with a mother who checks all the maternal boxes of the apron-wearing set. Travis’s mother Amanda, on the other hand, was killed in a boating accident when Travis was a baby, spotted jumping from the cruiser, naked, with her lover just prior to a barge plowing into the boat. Neither of their bodies was ever found. Travis’s father, “Big Frank,” is a long-haul trucker who regularly beats his son, barely feeds or clothes him, and is drunk and promiscuous when he is at home.

It is left unclear if Amanda is actually dead. Travis enlists Mitch’s help in his “project” to find out what happened to his mother. We hope, along with Travis, that Amanda is still alive; we suspect, also along with Travis, that she was killed and that Big Frank somehow was responsible. Many of the townspeople (including the cop that investigated the original accident) think Big Frank either killed Amanda or arranged it (he was delivering a truckload to Arkansas at the time). The story unspools during the span of the two friends’ high school careers. They doggedly pursue various leads and do eventually discover the murderer. Along the way we are treated to humorous teenage banter, some heart-wrenching cruelty (eg., Big Frank doesn’t tell Travis his maternal grandparents are alive and well in North Carolina. When Travis finally tracks them down, he also finds out Big Frank has intervened by stealing all of Travis’s birthday money and Christmas gifts from them over the years), and the power of friendship to sustain a life.

Overall, Yocum’s books is an enjoyable read. Mitch and Travis are both well-developed, believable characters who are easy to root for. Big Frank is a tad two-dimensional in his cruelty; there is nothing redeemable about his character. I kept hoping we’d find out a compelling reason for his meanness, but no. The sense of place and time is a particular strength in this book, capturing the positives and negatives of small-town life. The plot is engaging, although I thought the story-arc sequence (four years of high school?) dragged at times and could have been collapsed.

(SPOILER ALERT) My major complaint about this book is the framing device used. In the prologue, Mitch lets us know he’s going to tell the story of the best friend he ever had, and implies that Travis died, killed at the end of their senior year in an ironic accident: Travis’s car plunges into the same body of water in which his mother supposedly drowned. Mitch piles on the irony, stating that Travis’s body, like Amanda’s, was never found. We carry this knowledge into the story, feeling sad that this interesting character we’re rooting for will die a tragic death at the end, even though he succeeds in his quest. Then we find out at the very end that this is not true! Travis is alive and well and living under an assumed name so Big Frank can’t find him. As a reader, this ending is not satisfying but annoying and manipulative. The story didn’t need this twist in order to be compelling and interesting. I’m left wondering if Yocum’s editor supplied this idea or if Yocum wrote it that way and his editor let it slide. Either way, the story would be better served without cheating the reader.

On a scale of one to ten, this book rates a six.

Book Lovers’ Spring Training

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Those of us in the freezing Midwest anxiously await when baseball players report for spring training because it signals a thaw, and intimates hot summer days quaffing cold beer and cheering when a player cranks one out of the ballpark. Likewise, when Mystery Writers of America announces the 2017 nominees for the annual Edgar Allan Poe Awards, it signals a spring of sorts: a fresh batch of books for the lover of mystery novels, multiple categories from which to choose, and enough titles to be relished all summer while quaffing a cold beer and cheering when a writer hits the proverbial home run.

This year I will read and review 11 books in two categories:

Best Novel:

  1. The Ex by Alafair Burke
  2. Where it Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman
  3. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
  4. What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin
  5. Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Best Original Paperback:

  1. Shot in Detroit by Patricia Abbott
  2. Come Twilight by Tyler Dilts
  3. The 7th Canon by Robert Dugoni
  4. Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty
  5. A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum
  6. Heart of Stone by James W. Ziskin

Each novel will receive a ranking on a scale of one to ten after its review, and I will predict each winner in the above-named categories. MWA announces the winners on April 27th. My writing buddy, Karen Burgess, is already several books ahead of me with her Literary Lunchbox blog reviews of the Edgars. In her annual attempt at the same feat, Karen is more ambitious than I am (and a devotee of Evelyn Wood speed reading, I suspect), reading and reviewing an additional category, Best First Novel, for a total of 17 books. Sometimes we agree in our estimations, sometimes we arrive at completely opposite opinions regarding the same book. Either way, we both love reading and writing, and enjoy a great friendship as a result. We hope our friendly competition provides you with entertaining reviews and new writers to investigate.

Internal Debate

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If you like psychological novels, Rebecca Scherm’s Unbecoming fills the bill nicely. The final nominee in The Best First Novel category for the Edgar Awards (Mystery Writers of America) delivers on what the other nominees fail to offer, a believable flawed character. (There is one more book in the category that I’m taking an X on: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. Thirty pages in I found the book so turgid I couldn’t continue.)

Garland, Tennessee is the setting for young Grace’s adolescence and her step into young adulthood. She is best friends with Riley Graham, a boy she loves more than herself. She is besotted and glued to him–and he brings her a bonus she doesn’t initially understand: he comes from a loving home. His parents treat Grace as their own daughter, a longing she doesn’t recognize as unfulfilled until Mrs. Graham fills it. Grace becomes a permanent fixture in their home, even garnering a bedroom prepared for her by Mrs. G.

As Grace, Riley and Alls (Riley’s best friend) near high school graduation, Grace makes the difficult choice to go out of state to college to pursue her art degree, while the two boys stay in Garland. She and Riley secretly marry before she leaves (“They’d married because marriage had seemed final, as though it would protect her, protect them.”) But after only a couple of months in New York, Grace returns to Garland at Thanksgiving and doesn’t return to college. She’s unable to be apart from Riley. (“He had a life without her, but she had never made one without him.”)

The three friends (with the addition of Greg, another friend) rent their own place and try to make a go of it, but money is tight and jobs scarce. While touring a local estate turned museum, Grace steals a small antique and is emboldened to up the ante in order to make some money–the boys join in. When they try for a larger haul, including a valuable painting, the boys are caught but Grace escapes with the painting and flees to France. The boys go to prison for three years.

During her time in France, Grace takes on  an alias and works in a studio refurbishing damaged art and jewelry, waiting in fear that Riley will find her. What transpires is the heart of Grace’s “unbecoming.” She fights herself (“…smacking her own hand back when it wanted, so often, what was not hers.”) and her growing awareness that Riley isn’t the only man out there (“This was what happened when your heart wanted two things it could not have together: You lost them both. Everyone knew that.”). Grace struggles with the strictures society places on women, and in pairing with Alls, eventually becomes who she really is (“You need one person who knows you,” she said. “Just one person you can’t fool, even when you fool yourself.”)

Rebecca Scherm provides us with a novel with depth, characters we think we know until they do something surprising, and a story about the subtle struggles women deal with when their behavior is considered “unbecoming.” Grace takes a different road, “unbecomes” the good girl and shows what women are capable of, even though it’s not “pretty.” On a scale of  one to ten, I rate this book an eight and is my choice for winner of the Best First Novel Category.

Unluckiest Reader Alive

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Ever get one of those small slips of paper, say, from your library after checking out a book, or with your credit card receipt after purchasing a book, with the words, “If you like this, then you’ll like…”? I crumple them up and toss them before I can even see the offensive suggestions listed. The next nominee for an Edgar Award (Mystery Writers of America) in Best First Novel Category reminded me of those paper slips, the book jacket comparing Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll to Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Don’t be fooled–they are nothing alike.

TifAni FaNelli (really?) is a sex columnist for a women’s fashion magazine in New York, late twenties, engaged and soon to be married to the fabulous blueblood, Luke Harrison. She has everything going for her, including a bitchy, sniping attitude toward everyone (including Luke), which she tries but rarely manages to stifle. She hates everyone and everything, including herself (the psychological projection isn’t hard to figure out, and Knoll hits us over the head with it, again and again). Within the first seven pages Tif overshares that she likes to do weird things in bed: “…me (?), electric shocks to my pussy with a ball gag in my mouth to stifle my screams.”

Ordinarily, at this point (did I mention seven pages in?), I would’ve sworn and thrown the book across the room. Alas, since I’m reviewing it, I slogged on. The book didn’t get much better after page seven. Tif doles out her back story, which includes being gang-raped as a  drunk fourteen-year-old. We learn lots about how hard she wants to fit in at the upper crust high school she attends–and we get lots lots more about her moronic behavior and juvenile personality which develops into her present day character of bitch with a capital B.

SPOILER ALERT. If you want to read the book, stop reading this review here.

Tif, now AKA Ani (as a way of redefining herself as well as hiding who she is), doesn’t want to marry Luke but can’t bring herself to walk away from the glamorous life he’ll bestow upon her once the vows are spoken. She will also become Ani Harrison, which we don’t yet understand is important for the hiding bit. She experiences all kinds of angst about the wedding and her weight (she’s a size 2 and thinks she’s fat, wants to be a size 0).

We get more flashbacks about her high school life after the gangbang. Tif also reveals her ambivalence about being interviewed for a mysterious documentary about “The Five”: The boys (and some other girls) who raped her are killed/disabled in a Columbine-type shooting at her high school, carried out by Tif’s friend Arthur. Tif comes under suspicion as possibly being involved, and although she’s exonerated, many people (including the paralzyed Dean, one of the rapists who survives the school shooting), don’t believe her. Thus her real motivation for wanting to marry Luke…to change her name.

Somehow, Ani manages to buck up, confront Dean and get an apology from him, walk away from marriage to the fabulous Luke, and confirm her original identity at the end of the story with these words: “I’m TifAni FaNelli.” Oooohh, that’s deep.

This book has no redeeming qualities. Jessica Knoll gives us an Ani in the beginning of the story who is impossible to like or even feel some shred of compassion for, because the story is told in a mash-up way. If we knew about Ani’s difficult past IN THE BEGINNING, we could understand and root for her to struggle with self-hatred, PTSD, and general unhappiness in her adult life. Instead, we feel no connection to her or her story.

On a scale of one to ten, this book rates a one (and that’s being generous).

Past Crimes Redux?

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What Will You Read Next?

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It’s that time of year when Mystery Writers of America nominates a slew of novels for the Edgar Awards, and announces the winners at their annual banquet in New York on April 28th. My writing pal, Karen Burgess, and I each review and rate novels in some of the categories, making our best guess at what will win. Karen and I will take on the Best First Novel category, while Karen will also plow through the Best Novel category–overachiever that she is. The nominees in Best First Novel Category are:

  1. Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton
  2. Where All Llight Tends to Go by David Joy
  3. Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
  4. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
  5. Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

First up is Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton. Clearly set as the first in a series for main character Van Shaw, Hamilton doesn’t disappoint in hooking the reader at the opening with a terse message from Shaw’s grandfather Donovan, AKA Dono. “Come home, if you can.” Shaw hasn’t seen Dono in ten years, since escaping from Seattle after high school to serve as an Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan. Van takes a ten-day leave to return home, where he discovers Dono shot, bleeding, but still alive. Of course the police suspect Shaw is the shooter and interrogate him. But after they let Shaw go, he enlists the help of Dono’s friends to find the shooter as Dono lingers in a coma.

We soon find out that Dono raised Shaw from age ten, schooling him in the fine art of theft and living on the wrong side of the law. Shaw is a quick study and participates in Dono’s heists during his teen years. We don’t learn why he left Seattle after a falling out with Dono, though, and the story turns on this particular plot point. There are many twists and turns as Shaw re-ignites past friendships, male and female. The hook-up with Lucy strained credulity–they pick up where they left off ten years earlier? In bed? Would that my life were that exciting. Shaw eventually puts together all the pieces and lets the reader in on the turning point reason for his leaving at eighteen, which of course directly gets at who shot (and killed) Dono (he never recovers from the coma).

Hamilton’s first effort is readable and at times interesting, though I found the Seattle setting negligible and the sense of place weak. The characters are pretty stock and two-dimensional, and I cared not one whit about whether or not Shaw discovered who shot Dono. I confess I have little interest in this type of book, one that I think is aimed at male readers (strong, tough hero, a little bit bad but not because it’s his fault, he was raised that way; who women instantly bed with because, well, just because.) I suspect it’s James Bond all over again, except this time it’s in Seattle.

On a scale of one to ten, I rate this book a three.

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