Women-led historical mysteries, done two ways

I’ve been on a bit of a mystery kick, lately (instead of blog-posting, clearly), and read a couple set in different periods but with strong female leads. I got them both for free through Bookbub deals, and I liked neither of them but for very different reasons.

The Rookery

By Emily Organ

RookeryThis is actually the second in a Victorian-era series featuring intrepid reporter Penny Green, but other than the awkward progression of her relationship with a Scotland Yard Inspector, I don’t think I missed much by jumping ahead. And by that, I mean I didn’t actually care enough to miss anything.

Through sheer happenstance, Penny is on the scene of a murder in the London slum neighborhood called The Rookery. She discovers that this is one of a string of murders that have been happening in the last few weeks, and when it appears that the police are not taking it seriously, she naturally decides to investigate herself, with the enthusiastic support of her newspaper, which wants the scoop. It really isn’t a bad premise at all, if only Penny wasn’t such a ninny.

Penny Green is outrageously bad at her job, and I was consistently appalled that the inspector gave her any credence whatsoever. However, not only does the inspector take her advice to an extraordinary and dangerous degree (considering how much she jumps to conclusions and then changes her own mind during the investigation), he provides her inside information which should rightfully get him fired.

Anyway, she is convinced that the wrong man is being suspected, has second (and third, and fourth, etc.) thoughts, but then is quickly distracted by a run-in with a Fagin-type figure: “I’ve given it a lot of thought since I met him and I’m certain he must be responsible for the murders. He’s an objectionable man.” That’s the kind of judicious reporting and police-work that I like to see!

When an eye-witness is discovered, she entreats the Inspector: “If the description of him is even remotely similar to that of Ed [Fagin-type figure] then he must be arrested.” To my fury, the Inspector doesn’t shut her down at once. In better-written mysteries, she would be a side character that serves as a comedic foil interfering with the actual investigation.

One O’Clock Jump

By Lise McClendon

One_Oclock_JumpOne O’Clock Jump is basically the polar opposite. It is the first in a series featuring Dorie Lennox, a private investigator in Depression-era Missouri. She is tough, smart, and deeply sympathetic, and she just can’t catch a break, which is what really did it in for me. In the first chapter, Dorie is tailing a woman for a job and follows her up a bridge, which the woman then jumps off. There’s no heroic rescue, just watching the body float away in the current, which is more realistic, I guess, but also solidly sets the tone for the rest of the book.

The woman, of course, is not who she seemed, and neither is the supposed boyfriend who hired the tail, and wants the investigation to continue, even though he had claimed it was just about infidelity. Dorie’s boss, the owner of the investigative agency, is slowly dying from a combination of exposure to mustard gas in the first world war and a broken heart over his deceased fiancée. Her closest confidante (though she isn’t particularly close to anyone) is a homeless man who sleeps near her boarding house. She has a sort of half-hearted love interest in a shifty reporter with suspect intentions.

It’s all very well-written but unrelenting in the grimness, so I’m in the difficult position of admiring the book but not exactly enjoying it. If there could have been just the tiniest bit of levity, I think I could have really liked this series, but I just can’t with this mood right now.

Night Drop

(Pinx Video Mysteries Book 1)

By Marshall Thornton

Night_DropI have been hesitating over this review for a while because Thornton writes predominately gay mystery/romances, which is definitely a niche market and not for every reader. The Pinx Video Mystery series is written for a wider audience, though, and is just so good that I have to recommend it. The first book of the series, Night Drop, begins on the night that officers that beat Rodney King were acquitted and riots broke out across LA.

The riots are only tangentially related to the plot, and the characters themselves are only vaguely curious. At first, this complacency was off-putting, but I remembered having the same sense of distance myself. As much as they seem so recent to me, the 90s were a very different time, with the racism and brutality of police and greater society only starting to become clear to wider population.

On the one hand, I wish this book had given it a little more respect, especially considering how often we are now reliving this on a daily basis, but on the other hand, Thornton really does a masterful job of capturing the (white, middle class) cultural feeling of the 90s. It is very strange to read a well-done period-piece mystery set during your lifetime.

Our protagonist Noah Valentine (other than his name, he is the quintessential everyman) has isolated himself after the death of his partner, spending his day working in the titular Pinx Video store, which he owns, and holing up in his tiny apartment in the evenings, only socializing with his neighbors, a delightful, somewhat older gay couple that are trying to take him under their wing.

The riots only vaguely break through his apathy, and only to the extent that they affect him. He reluctantly closes his video store for the day, and learns on the following day that the camera shop down the street had gotten burned down. He had a casual acquaintance-ship with the owner, and half-assedly tries to find out what happened out of a hazy sense of social duty and curiosity.

As they run across clues that don’t seem to add up, Valentine, his neighbors, and his neighbors’ friends become more drawn into the mystery, as well as the official police investigation. Of course, the official police investigation includes a handsome officer who may or may not have more than official interest in Valentine, but all three books in the series stay in solid PG territory.

Thematically, the book has an odd but very readable overlap of noir and cozy mystery genres. It is packed with amusingly odd characters, all of whom tend to shrug off the crimes around them in a sort of noir-ish existential malaise. I very much hope that this is an ongoing series, but book 3, which came out at the end of last year, had a somewhat more final sense of conclusion than the others.

P.S. – It wasn’t until I was telling Rebecca that all the books have titles relating to video rentals, that I realized that a video rental store might be the most 90s setting possible.

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us

By Hanif Abdurraqib

They_Cant_Kill_UsHanif Abdurraqib is very smart and funny on twitter and instagram, but I was unprepared for just how deep his collection of essays would go. When Rebecca asked what it was about, I said “essays discussing different musicians and albums,” which is such the tip of the iceberg as to be completely misleading.

Abdurraqib is first and foremost a poet, and it shows in these essays. Every word is carefully chosen, which leads to very dense and evocative prose, and slow but engrossing reading. Just about every essay starts with a musician or album (ranging from Carly Rae Jepsen to Future*), and uses that music as an access point to discuss something about humanity or society that the music is trying to address.

As a black boy growing up in Ohio and super into the punk scene, and then an esteemed music critic trying to sell all his friends on Jepsen, Abdurraqib is well experienced in finding his own place in scenes that are not often created with people like him in mind. He talks about the tension that often exists between the artist, the art, and the audience, any of which can be alternately be welcoming or alienating. The funny thing is that Abdurraqib talks about music in such a way that I got all excited to actually listen to it, but then it inevitably wasn’t as interesting or complex as his analysis. So, while I didn’t get introduced to any new favorite musicians, I’m definitely keeping tabs on Abdurraqib’s future writing.

*It took me a good five minutes of flipping through the book to select two, since I kept being like, oh, I should mention The Weeknd; no, My Chemical Romance; no wait, Migos; or Fleetwood Mac, etc. etc. Abdurraqib has an awe-inspiring range of interests!

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

By Xiaolu Guo

chinese-english_dictionaryThis novel is described as “a novel of language and love that tells one young Chinese woman’s story of her journey to the West—and her attempts to understand the language, and the man, she adores.” I was expecting a love story, quite honestly, though one with a unique approach. It is, uh…not that.

The hook, for me, was that the book is written in Zhuang’s voice, and over the length of the book, the text itself becomes more mature as her English improves. According to the inside blurb, Guo used her own journals from when she first came to London as a reference, and the developing language is really interesting to follow.

The thing is, the relationship stuff is…rough. I spent the vast majority of the book stressed over this young woman in a foreign country with very little support, convinced that any minute, things were going to go dangerously wrong. I wasn’t completely wrong, either, but traumatic events are written in the same sort of wondering tone as everything else she experiences in the West, which lessened the stress a little, I guess.

Less of a story about love, Guo is talking about how our cultural expectations, and even our individual wants and needs, can interfere with relationships, even when people love each other. Our society often addresses sexual incompatibility in romantic relationships (so many letters to advice columns!), but Guo delves into something that is mostly overlooked: emotional intimacy incompatibility. Some people like a higher amount of connective-ness in their relationship than others, and if you are very mismatched, like the couple in this novel, it will be frustrating and exhausting for both sides.

Amnesty for unfinished books

I think we all try to finish the books we start, more out of principle than anything else.*  However, we always have books that just defeat us (you can see the ones that haunt us in our bios). Here, on New Year’s Eve, we say goodbye to those books from 2018:

Confessions of the Fox

By Jody Rosenberg

Confessions_of_the_FoxThis was on all sorts of Best of lists and the description sounded amazing; this was the quote from the New York Times review: “A mind-bending romp through a gender-fluid, eighteenth century London . . . a joyous mash-up of literary genres shot through with queer theory and awash in sex, crime, and revolution.” I like all of these things! This should be awesome! But even after multiple tries, I never made it past the third chapter. It was written in some of Olde Englishe dialect that my brain just wouldn’t parse at all. I feel like if I could have gotten over the hump and into the story I would have liked it, but I guess I’ll never know.

—Kinsey

Fear: Trump in the White House

By Bob Woodward

FearOf course, everyone was reading this book. In DC, naturally, but I think there was a mad scramble for it nation-wide. I don’t really buy books anymore, and the library waitlist was over 900 people, so I figured I’d probably get around to reading it in a couple years once the next big exposé came out. However, at Thanksgiving my dad said that I could borrow his copy, as long as I return it at Christmas. A month! Plenty of time, right?

Whew! The first 50 pages summarize the campaigns, leading up to the election, and just brought back how horrifyingly shocking November 8 was to me. Once we got past that, though, I was actually finding the behind-the-scenes details pretty interesting, similar to Game Change. However, it was still a slow read, and I had just reached Lindsey Graham convincing Trump to hire General Mattis as Secretary of Defense, when the news broke that Mattis was resigning. That was pretty much the last straw for me, and I decided that I just couldn’t handle trying to make sense of everything while it continues to change so frequently. I’m going back to my escapist fiction until at least 2020.

—Anna

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

By Sherman Alexie

lonerangerWith a title like that, how could I not want to read it? Also, the book is a 20th anniversary edition that was being highlighted at my local library as a recommendation from one of the librarians, and it’s about modern life on an Indian reservation. It’s a collection of 24 short stories, most of them only about 10-pages long.

I’m now on my third renewal of the library check-out because I’ve just stalled after the first two and a half stories. There’s no particular reason for me to not like them, I just find myself asking why I’m trying to read these when I’m not getting anything from them and I could be reading something else instead. But I keep on renewing the check-out because the introduction was excellent! It was also written by the author, but 20 years after the rest of the book, which might be why it’s more centered and entertaining. So, I recommend the introduction, and maybe while you’re at it, try out the rest of the stories, but for the new year I’m going to let myself give up on this book and just return it to the library.

—Rebecca

*Though as I get older, I’m more inclined toward the idea that life is too short to waste time on a book you aren’t enjoying.

The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

By Stuart Turton

Evelyn_HardcastleThis is like Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey: the novel. The book is covered in blurbs raving about how original and fascinating it is, but I’m not sure that I ever got a full grasp of what was happening. Every so often, I’d get a spark of understanding, which was pretty cool, but then it would inevitably lead to even more confusion.

The novel opens with the narrator running through the woods, calling a woman’s name, with no memory of who or where he is. So, the reader starts as lost as the narrator, and it is a slow start as he puts together the pieces of the country house party he is attending. That’s basically as much as I can say without beginning to spoil things, but it isn’t really enough to get anyone interested in reading it. The basic publisher’s description realized this, too, so does provide some additional context.

The young society lady, for whom the party is in honor, dies at the end of the ball, and a mysterious cloaked figure tells our narrator that he must solve her murder. He has eight days to solve it, or rather eight cycles of the same day – the day of Evelyn Hardcastle’s death. The added twist is that each day, he will wake up in the body of one of the houseguests and he must run the detection through that person’s perspective. Which is really cool, and the author does a great job of showing how each different host affects the narrator (though it does lead to a chapter of some very uncomfortable fat shaming that made me like the book a little less).

It gets even more complicated, of course, with a slew of other houseguests and other strange characters in addition to the narrator and the eight guests he inhabits. Schemes, dangers, and suspicions abound, and I could never have predicted the final conclusion. (Like I said above, I’m not super sure that I understood everything, but I for sure did not anticipate it!)

Jane Steele

By Lyndsay Faye

Adobe Photoshop PDFHave you ever thought Jane Eyre would be improved if the heroine had simply murdered all the villains who cross her? Well, have I got a book for you! The very first sentence sets the tone: “Of all my many murders, committed for love and for better reasons, the first was the most important.”

The whole thing is much improved, actually, and I say that as someone who enjoyed the original. Thornfield (Rochester)*, in particular, is a breath of fresh air, as a soldier returning from East India after having “gone native” in the English army’s estimation, rather than a surly recluse. I always had to suspend disbelief that anyone would fall in love with Jane Eyre’s Rochester; Jane Steele’s Thornfield, of the other hand, has the perfect mix of charm and cynicism.

Like Abdul-Jabbar’s Mycroft Holmes, Lyndsay Faye takes a quintessentially British story and livens it up with a focus on other cultures that were always there historically but tend to be whitewashed out. Thornfield’s ward is the half-Sikh daughter of a fellow soldier, he has staffed his estate entirely with Sikhs, and the Sikh culture is woven throughout. An additional small but significant point that allows this revision to avoid seeming gimmicky is that Jane Eyre (the novel) actually exists in this world, and Jane Steele (the character) is a fan.

A few years ago, I read Jane Slayre, which does some of this – turning Jane into a murderer of vampires, which definitely added interest, but other than the vampires, it stayed pretty close to the original plot and even original prose. Faye, on the other hand, has revitalized the entire plot. Jane Steele retains a very similar feeling to the original, but skillfully updates the plot and characters for more modern sensibilities. (Reading this Jane returning violence against her with extreme prejudice is a real salve to the soul in the midst of the continually unfolding news of sexual exploitation and abuse by powerful men.)

When discussing the book at work, a coworker commented that she never really liked Jane Eyre because it was just so unrelentingly sad, with such terrible things happening to Jane, and I realized that the addition of the murders contrarily brightens everything up. It has quite a bit of sly humor, which kept me amused well after reading it.

*I only later realized that Thornfield is the name of Rochester’s house in Jane Eyre, so a clever little turnaround there.