Monday, January 31

The Lost Quilter - Jennifer Chiaverini

Hiring newcomer Gretchen was an even better decision than the Elm Creek Quilters initially realised, for she comes with a husband adept at woodwork and repairs. When Joe tries to repair a long-abandoned desk, he uncovers a small stack of letters addressed to Sylvia's great-great-aunt, Gerda Bergstrom. The first, sent in 1868, is a response to her repeated queries for information about a servant named Joanna - the name of the author is familiar to Sylvia from her earlier reading of Gerda's diaries, it sheds no light on what happened to Joanna, a recaptured runaway slave. The remaining letters, written almost thirty years later, are enquiries about a Douglass Frederick, a name unknown to Sylvia but clearly connected with the events of 1859.
Despite Joanna's best efforts, Josiah Chester - her owner and the father of her newborn son - recaptured her. Determined she not run away again, she has only a night or two at Greenfields Plantation, Virginia, the only home she's ever known, before being sent further south to live with his brother in South Carolina, where another escape attempt would be impossible.
Set primarily in the years leading to, during and shortly after the American Civil War, The Lost Quilter is a spell-binding, horrifying, triumphant novel of trust, betrayal, cruelty, kindness, humanity, prejudice and survival. Chiaverini manages to capture the casual disregard that results from believing other human beings are inherently unequal, describing barbarism that is more striking in its contrast to the illusion of Southern gentility. I found one scene, where Joanna attempts to escape during her return to Virginia, particularly effect - the change in attitude when a woman realises she's aided not a freed woman but a slave is fascinating and horrifying. And of course, quilts and quilting bind the narratives of the past and the present together.
One of the aspects I found most interesting is the justifications for slavery,

Negroes don't feel love or sadness the way [white people] do. They may give the appearance of true feeling, but they understand these sensations only in a brute, rudimentary way, such as a dog or horse might.

What culturally-mediated prejudices do we similarly harbour and justify?
This is a companion piece to The Runaway Quilt, where we first learned of Joanna and of the Bergstrom connection with the Underground Railway. - Alex

The Elm Creek Quilt series:
1. The Quilter's Apprentice
2. Round Robin
3. The Cross-Country Quilters
The Runaway Quilt
5. The Quilter's Legacy
The Master Quilter
7. The Sugar Camp Quilt
8. The Christmas Quilt
9. Circle of Quilters
10. The Quilter's Homecoming
11. The New Year's Quilt
12. The Winding Ways Quilt
13. The Quilter's Kitchen

14. The Lost Quilter
15. A Quilter's Holiday
16. The Aloha Quilt

Wednesday, January 26

'Scuse Me While I Kill This Guy - Leslie Langtry

Gin Bombay loves her work, and (mostly) loves her family - both are unusual, and they're inextricably intertwined, for though Gin is a single mother who's somehow been roped into leading the local Girl Scout troop, she's also a member of long and proud line of assassins who "invented the garrote, the ice pick, and arsenic."
The family usually meet every five years, but even though the last meeting was just over a year ago, Gin receives a summons in the mail. This can mean only one thing – someone’s in trouble. In her family, that also means someone’s going to die.
While assuaging her angst with a slice of Death by Chocolate cheesecake, a handsome Australian approaches her, intrigued by her assassin-related reading material. His name is Diego Jones, he’s gorgeous, and he seems interested in her. The only problem is that when she tells him her cover identity – bodyguard – he reveals that he’s one, too. Well, that and the fact that all Bombay kids are inducted into the family business after their fifth birthday – and Gin’s daughter Romi, who would have been nine at the next reunion had this unscheduled one not been called, now qualifies.
It will come as no surprise that Gin’s latest project happens to be the man that love interest Diego’s guarding. This is combined with her being tapped to discover which of her generation (among her brother, her best friend/cousin, and a wider circle of cousins) is betraying the family to law enforcement, creates tension and intrigue. Theoretically.
I really liked the premise of ‘Scuse Me While I Kill This Guy – assassins are interesting in the abstract, and the concept of relatively-ethical wrong-doers skirting the boundaries of conventional behaviour is a rich area to explore. However, I had several issues with the novel.
The first was that Gin is scatty and disturbingly casual about her work – she leaves the envelope with information about the hit sitting on a table for a day, shares confidential information, and is lead by her convictions rather than her intellect. She’s also bossed around by another mother, which seems unlikely in a career killer.
I could have overlooked these issues, though, had it not been for two other aspects. First, there were a number of gaps in the world building (nobody has ever known about this centuries-old assassination family? There are enough jobs to keep at least twenty-five professionals in America and Europe not only employed but able to live well? No government body has noticed or been concerned about a radar-blocked island in the middle of the ocean? Everyone’s successfully inducted in to the family around age five, every partner’s comfortable with full disclosure, and no family member has an issue with dissenters being killed?)
Second I found the writing style laboured – there are ‘witty’ little asides (“Every time there was a reunion, any one of us could be marked for termination. And I don’t mean with a pink slip.”), clumsy phrasing (“A stab of guilt hit my stomach…”), entirely too much coincidence, a neat and tidy ending in the last chapter, with a gift-wrapping of an epilogue, and an irritating family custom of naming family members for places. So in addition to Virginia “Gin” Bombay we also meet Dak[ota], Liv[erpool], Roma, Flo[rida], Cali[fornia], Missi[ssipi], Lon[don], Phil[adelphia], Coney [Island], Rich[mond]ie, Clinton, Savannah, Asia and Dehli, among others.
'Scuse Me While I Kill This Guy is relatively formulaic chick lit. It gestures toward urban, but is fairly frothy despite its potentially gritty setting. Good for a beach novel, when the sun makes deeper thinking not worth the effort, it’s not bad for what it is. Although I finished, and didn’t hate, 'Scuse Me…, I’m not going to be breaking land speed records to see what else Langtry’s written. - Alex

Friday, January 21

Sweet and Deadly - Charlaine Harris

Catherine Linton became curious about the flies around the house her parents had rented out; her discovery of a bloated body was a shock, though not as great as the local sheriff's identification of the woman as Leona Gaites, who worked as a nurse for Catherine’s father for over thirty years, until his death in a car accident, alongside Catherine’s mother, six months earlier. Catherine had never liked Leona, but her curiosity was piqued. A reporter for the local paper, Catherine decided to dig a little deeper – in to the town where she grew up, and the people she had known all her life. One of them was a killer, and Catherine suspected Leona was not their only victim.
Sweet and Deadly is a recent re-release from 1981, and it shows, in two ways. Unlike many dated novels reviewed here (eg Dead Beat, Ice Station Zebra), the first is less by technology or fashion than community attitudes, to women and (more strikingly) blacks. Though this aspect did provide somewhat confronting food for thought, on each occasion I was rather forcefully jerked out of the narrative.
The second reminder that some thirty years have passed since Sweet and Deadly was written is the writing. Despite some concerns I’ve raised about recent novels in her long-running series, Harris is without question a more adept and able writer now than in her youth. The writing is clunky (eg “She itemised his heavy shoulders and thick chest, surprising on a man of his height”), the characterisation cursory even for our protagonist, the romantic secondary plot rapid and not particularly believable, and motive for what ends up being four murders seems like something of a stretch, though admittedly inventive and not one I’d previously encountered. It seems a little unlikely to me that Catherine could have put the pieces together as easily as Harris portrays, and her decision to confront the killer rather than involve the police doesn’t feel consistent with her character, but she’s not my creation.
I can’t say I’m sorry I read Sweet and Deadly (a title that bears no relation to the plot), but I didn't get the novel I hoped for. I suspect readers who know Harris primarily through the steamy television series based on her Sookie novels will be particularly disappointed, as there's not a single amorous scene here. All in all I
think this is probably not a bad reminder of my decision to read my own books this year, with less recourse to the library. - Alex

Tuesday, January 11

Blues in the Night - Rochelle Krich

Molly Blume is a freelance reporter in LA - her beat is crime, not Hollywood, and she moonlights with some success as a true crime writer. When reading the daily dispatches, her eye, and then her imagination, is caught by one fact in an otherwise unremarkable report - a woman in a nightgown was the victim of an hit-and-run. Intrigued by the nightgown - at two in the morning, on Laurel Canyon? - Molly decides to investigate a little further.
Between the trauma and surgery, Lenore Saunders doesn't remember the accident. Drugged on antidepressants to begin with, when Molly visits she's disoriented and confuses her with someone named Nina; Lenore is preoccupied by Robbie, who's angry with her even though she's sorry. Interest further piqued, Molly digs deeper, but before she gets anywhere Lenore is found dead in the hospital, apparently by her own hand. Molly, however, suspects foul play.
The first in what is evidently a series, Blues in the Night is well crafted - with only one appearance of Lenore in the flesh, she is primarily portrayed through the lenses of those who knew her, and Molly's psychological autopsy. Molly discovers Lenore's tragic past, the cause of her estrangement form the husband she loved, and an increasingly sinister picture emerges. But which Lenore is the right one - injured, damaged innocent, or conniving, predatory schemer?
This aspect of Blues in the Night is particularly compelling, in part because of its controversial subject - Lenore was charged with the murder of her infant son, and found not guilty because of post-natal psychosis, but the prosecutor believes she was faking, and suspects her therapists came to the same conclusion after he testified on Lenore's behalf. It's also fascinating to see the changing images of Lenore, as Molly works through new evidence, weighing the validity of disparate sources and slivers of information.
I was less impressed with Molly, however. I think this was in part because of the somewhat ponderous interweaving of her Judaism into the text. This surprised me, because I am very interested in Judaism, particularly the more Orthodox variety practiced by Molly, and some of my favourite authors have increased my interest and my knowledge of the topic through a similar marrying of characters of faith with mystery novels - Kellerman is a perfect example of this done seamlessly, so the faith and the character and the direction of the plot are inseparable. In Blues in the Night, however, many of the details seem forced, particularly the translations:
Bubbie G calls Edie a a bren (a dynamo) and Mindy, five-eight,a hoicheh (tall) and a kleiegeh (clever). Liora is a neshomeleh, a sweetheart. Judah is a lamden, an erudite person. Noah is a brillyant, a diamond, and Joey a mazik, a rascal... I'm a kochleffl, a busybody, as if you didn't know, but I'm also a lebedikeh, a lovely one. Ron is a choleryeh ( accent on the second syllable), which is the Yiddish for 'cholera."
In typing this I realise that part of my irritation is that it feels clunky and added on, but part is also that Krich is using these terms as characterisation for Molly's family - Ron is Molly's ex-husband and Bubbie G is her grandmother, while everyone else is a sibling, and the whole is a paragraph of tell don't show.
There's a surfeit of metaphor and analogy - "every time I thought I had it figured out, it fell apart in my head like a meringue" - and a paucity of detail in Molly's significant history. We know why she and her husband divorced, and we know her best friend was killed when Molly was a teen, causing her to lose her faith, but we know nothing about that time except her reaction, nor why she decided to embrace religion once more.
Renewing a romantic relationship with an ex-turned-rabbi, Molly is late for a dinner date, loses track of time, picks a fight, lies, and won't leave it alone. Instead of having any sympathy I found it all disrespectful (of Zack as a man, not a rabbi), and irritatingly inexplicable. This wasn't helped by the way the scene ended:
Romance is like a soufflé - delicate, light, magical. I'd poked a hole in it, and once collapsed, no amount of air would revive it.

Chapter forty-one opens with Molly reflecting on the difficulty of dealing with real life in comparison with writing crime fiction:
you can go back before the book's in print and change things you don't like, things that don't work. You made a character to old, too nasty, or too nice?Change it. You don't like the dialogue on page 127, or the facts of a case, or a clue you planted, or the way characters behave or interact or dress? Change it. You can change it all. It's just words on a computer screen or paper.
But I wasn't writing crime fiction, I was writing about real events and real people whose actions and words were inconsistent. And I couldn't go back and change anything. Not words I'd heard from those who had no reason to lie, but words in court transcripts. I was writing true crime and was stuck with characters who wouldn't ring true. My editor wouldn't buy them. I didn't buy them either.
Molly then points out the inconsistencies between various characters' actions and their personalities, but for me this section served only to underscore that this is a novel, wholly created. And while this section is pivotal to Molly uncovering the truth about Lenore, it's the self-conscious metafictional aspect that stayed with me. While I enjoy this when well done (I thoroughly enjoyed the film Stranger Than Fiction, and was absorbed by my first encounter with metafiction, Calvino's renown If on a Winter's Night a Traveler), this was just coy and clumsy.
Surprisingly, this is not to say I didn't enjoy Blues in the Night - multiply published prior to this 2002 release, the novel feels simultaneously like the work of a developing writer (the rough edges, clunky patches, exposition and telling) and an established one (primarily the complicated and rewarding mystery). I'm interested in where Molly (and Zach) is going, and interested to see if the cultural and religious elements are more deftly incorporated in the rest of the series, of which Blues in the Night is the first. - Alex