Thursday, April 20, 2017

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Product Details"Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet." That is how Everything I Never Told You begins. Lydia is the 16-year-old daughter of James and Marilyn Lee. Of their three children, Lydia is the favorite, a fact that her older brother Nath and younger sister Hannah are reminded of constantly. For her part Lydia would gladly share the spotlight with her siblings. Being the favored child means carrying all her parents hopes and dreams on her shoulders: her mother Marilyn's burning desire to become a doctor and her father's wish to fit in.

In a mere 292 pages, Celeste Ng manages to tackle multiple issues including race, gender, family dynamics, loneliness, loss, and especially thwarted ambition and unfulfilled dreams. Somehow it all works. And the writing, oh the writing! It is exquisite and haunting. Marilyn and James want the best for their children. The things they say and do to Lydia are said and done with the best of intentions but eventually all their hopes and dream begun to crush Lydia and the reader feels it. Ng perfectly conveys the suffocating love Lydia is desperate to escape, her siblings' yearning to be noticed, and everyone's desperation. Long after the details of the story have faded from memory I'll still remember the writing and the way it felt.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Bring on the Blessings by Beverly Jenkins

Ever come across an author and know that even though you have yet to read a single word he or she has written, that author is destined to become one of your favorites, or least one that you will read again and again? That was what happened when I first heard about Beverly Jenkins. I am mildly embarrassed to admit that up until last year (2016) I had never heard of this African-American woman who writes African-American historical and contemporary romances. The more I learned about her books, the more I thought not only do I need to read these books, I need to own them!

I am a member of a book club called Mocha Girls Read. Every month our club founder announces the theme for the month. Members submit book suggestions based on theme and then we vote and choose a book from the list of suggestions. In February the theme was Beverly Jenkins. (Usually the theme is a genre like mystery, or an area of the world like South America. Having one person be the theme is unusual.) The Beverly Jenkins book that won the most votes was Bring on the Blessings. For various reasons I didn't get around to reading it until late March. (Luckily my book club welcomes you if you didn't read the book.) Now that I've read my first Beverly Jenkins I can say I was right - this will be an author I return to again and again.

Bring on the Blessings starts with multiple threads and eventually weaves them together. First there is Bernadine Brown. She catches her husband cheating, divorces him, and leaves the courthouse with a bank account somewhere north of $200 million. At first she is content to travel and enjoy her money but knows she knows she was meant to do something more with her life. The second thread follows the plight of Henry Adams, a small town in rural Kansas founded by freed slaves after the Civil War. The town is so broke it put itself up for sale on eBay.

Interspersed between Bernadine's millions and Henry Adams' money problems are five children from across the country who are either homeless or in foster care. Bernadine reads about the town and about a woman who started an intergenerational community that brought foster children and elderly people together. With that Bernadine finds her purpose and starts her own intergenerational community in Henry Adams. The residents in Henry Adams are skeptical at first but few can resist being swept up in her hopeful vision for the future of the town and the children.

When you're in a book club there are a lot of hits and misses in terms of what you end up reading. Bring on the Blessings was definitely on the hit side of the ledger for me. It wasn't a perfect book by any means. For one thing it is not terribly realistic. Almost every problem is solved with Bernadine pulling out her checkbook and everything happens way too quickly. New houses are immediately constructed without any delays or setbacks. Foster children and the foster parents needed to take care of them are quickly found and they all agree to move to middle of nowhere Kansas. Nevertheless, I am glad my book club picked Bring on the Blessings. It was heartwarming and sweet in a Hallmark movie sort of way. I love Hallmark movies so this largely worked for me.

What I am really interested in are Ms. Jenkins historical romances. From what I understand she mostly writes African-American romances set in the 19th century. This is something I haven't seen too often and am eagerly looking forward to.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Lock & Mori by Heather W. Petty

Product Details Heather W. Petty's Lock & Mori is the sixth and final book in my Sherlock Holmes related reading tour. It is a contemporary, young adult novel set in London featuring a teenage version of the consulting detective. There is a Watson but he barely makes an appearance. Instead, the crime solving duo at the center of this story is comprised of a female James "Mori" Moriarty and a male Sherlock Holmes whom Mori nicknames "Lock". Although Lock gets top billing in the title, this is Mori's story.

Lock initiates their partnership by suggesting that he and Mori play a game. He takes her to a crime scene where the two observe from a distance as the police go about their investigation of a dead body and the area surrounding it. Lock challenges Mori to see which of them can solve the murder first. The only rule is that they must share information. At first Mori rejects his proposal with half-hearted protests about how murder shouldn't be a game. But when she spots of a photo of her own mother with the murder victim, Mori cannot help but investigate. And since Lock and Mori are in high school (or whatever the British equivalent of high school is) and are opposite genders, of course there is a romance added into the mix.

I had mixed feelings about this one. On the positive side, I read on Goodreads where the author mentioned that in Doyle's original stories no one but Sherlock ever meets Moriarty. That got her thinking about what if the two knew each other long ago and something happened that turned them into enemies. With that in mind, Lock & Mori could be seen as a prequel telling the story of how Lock and Mori became friends and then enemies. That is an interesting take on the Sherlock Holmes story that I haven't read before.

In the minus column, the identity of the killer is made clear pretty early on, which is rarely a good thing in a murder mystery. Once that mystery solved, the remaining questions to be answered were why and how the murderer would be stopped. That it would be Mori stopping the murderer was never really a question. That brings me to my next issue, is that this really isn't Lock's story. Which could be okay, but if there isn't a Sherlock solving a crime then it isn't a very Sherlock story. And Mori as a lead character was... frustrating. Despite her intellect she makes bad decision after bad decision. I had to constantly remind myself that Mori was only a teenager and that her bad decisions were exactly the kind of idiotic things a teenager might do (but not a teenage Sherlock because that just isn't how Sherlock works).

Mori and Lock were also too much alike. They were both very smart and observant. They were both moody. Neither seemed to have very many friends. They were both all about solving the puzzle. In real life two people who share similar interests and traits may make for an ideal partnership. On paper they make for a rather bland duo. I like that they were both smart but they needed to be smart in different ways. They needed to balance and complement each other rather than merely mirroring each other.

Despite my issues with the book I do want to know what happens next. We already know their relationship can't last. The only question is what will blow it up and how.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro

Product DetailsA Study in Charlotte is a contemporary young adult mystery featuring a teenaged Holmes and Watson. They go by the names Charlotte and James (sometimes Jamie though he doesn't particularly like the nickname). The central conceit of A Study in Charlotte is that Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, and James Moriarty were all real people whose respective descendants, with a few exceptions, don't get along. This is not particularly surprising in the case of the Moriarty family, but even Holmeses and the Watsons keep their distances from one another.

Charlotte and James are direct descendants of Sherlock and John. Charlotte mirrors her ancestor in her brilliance and habits while James has a bit of an anger management problem. Though both were both born to English parents for reasons the two teenagers now attend boarding school in Connecticut, where all the action takes place. That action begins with an obnoxious boy who turns up dead under suspicious circumstances. Given that James punched the obnoxious boy the day before after the boy made some very rude remarks about Charlotte, the two detectives quickly become the primary suspects.

A Study in Charlotte was entertaining but by no means a favorite. Much of the story revolves around various love related issues - unrequited love, first love, angry love. It's cute but not at all what I expected (or wanted) from a Sherlock Holmes story. There were also some serious issues (sexual assault, drug addiction) that were glossed over and could have been handled better.

This is the first in a series. Despite a few reservations I am intrigued enough to see where the story heads next.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

Product Details My Sherlock Homes themed reading series continues with A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas. It is the first in a new series dubbed The Lady Sherlock series. In this first book readers get an origin story as to how Charlotte Holmes, youngest of Lord and Lady Holmes's four daughters, becomes the famous and much sought after detective, Sherlock.

The Holmes daughters are Henrietta, Bernadine, Olivia (who goes by Livia), and Charlotte.  Like Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, Lady Holmes is most concerned about securing beneficial marriages for her daughters. So far she is one for four, Henrietta having successfully found herself a husband. Unfortunately for Lady Holmes her success rate is unlikely to improve. Bernadine has an unspecified disability that suggests she is unable to care for herself and Lady Holmes's two youngest daughters are both disinclined to marry. Charlotte outright rejects marriage because it is clear to her that marriage in nineteenth century English society is an inherently unequal and unfair institution in which the woman almost always loses. She does not entirely reject men or romance. There is at least one man who captures her attention, but more than anything Charlotte wants freedom.

When her father refuses to support her education - Charlotte had hoped to become a headmistress at a girls' school which would have given her some degree of freedom, financial and otherwise - Charlotte decides to make herself unfit for marriage by engaging in a dalliance with a married man. Charlotte's plan works a little too well and she finds herself not only ruined for marriage but also publicly disgraced. Livia comes to her sister's defense, accusing the mother of Charlotte's lover of ruining Charlotte's reputation. When the elderly woman dies shortly thereafter Livia becomes a suspect, at least in the court of public opinion. Charlotte realizes the best way to help her sister is to help the police find the real murderer. Of course the detectives of Scotland Yard would be skeptical of the opinions of a woman and so Charlotte adopts the persona of a man - Sherlock Holmes. Mr. Holmes writes lots of helpful letters to the police. Unfortunately he is too ill to ever meet anyone in person...

I love a book that entertains me and makes me think on multiple levels. A Study in Scarlet Women definitely did that. One of the many things that I found interesting were the gender and sexual politics. Most of couplings are unhappy, forced, or otherwise result in some sort of misfortune: an unplanned pregnancy, social and financial ruin, hopelessly mismatched husband and wives. Not surprisingly it is usually the women, though not always, who suffer the brunt of these couplings. I'm not sure which is a more damming commentary on the institution of marriage and gender inequality: that the way Charlotte escapes the institution is by not being a virgin or that another character thinks the best way he can help Charlotte after her disgrace is by offering to make her his mistress and thereby save her from financial ruin. Makes you think, doesn't it?

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first introduced Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet in 1887. In that story Sherlock Holmes and John Watson set out to figure out how a man was killed when there is no visible wounds on the corpse, who that man was, and what he was doing in London. It comes out that the man, and a second who is later killed, were from Utah. There was woman whom they thought should marry one of them. The woman, however, was in love with a third man. The woman's father supported her choice in husbands. (Or maybe supported is too generous. Let's just say the father had reasons for not wanting his daughter to marry either of the first two men.) So the two men killed the father in order to get to the daughter. The daughter eventually dies too. Holmes figures out that the death of the two men in London is tied to their pasts in Utah. This is a long way of saying that I loved how Sherry Thomas incorporated elements of Doyle's original story - namely the marriage plot point and the issue of consent - and re-imagined it in her equally compelling novel.

I really loved this! Of the four Sherlock Holmes inspired, re-imagined or otherwise related novels I've read in the last month, this is my favorite. It managed to be both modern and yet fitting for its Victorian time period. I'm so glad this is going to be a series. Sherry Thomas - I'm ready for book two in the Lady Sherlock series, and while you're at, books three, four, five, and so on.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse


A few weeks ago I was reorganizing my unread pile and discovered I had several books inspired by or otherwise related to the character of Sherlock Holmes. So I decided to make February a (mostly) Sherlock themed month. The third one in my queue was Mycroft Holmes by NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse. In this Sherlock related book, the detective on the case is Sherlock’s older brother, Mycroft Holmes. 
 
Product DetailsMycroft’s friend, Cyrus Douglas and Mycroft’s fiancĂ©e, Georgiana Sutton both happen to be from Trinidad, though from different sides of the island. Both Douglas and Sutton hear rumors about mysterious deaths of children in their home country. Locals fear the killer is supernatural. Neither Douglas nor Georgiana believe the supernatural excuse, and for that matter, neither does Mycroft. Nevertheless, Georgiana immediately bolts for home, insisting that she must go alone and find out what's going on. Before Mycroft can stop her Georgiana is gone. Mycroft decides to follow her, convincing Douglas to go with him. Almost as soon as the two men set foot on the ship that is to carry them to Trinidad, Douglas and Mycroft are attacked. Someone doesn’t want them poking their noses around in Trinidad.

I read this book for character more than plot. I wanted to know more about Mycroft. Let me pause here and admit that I am no expert on the character of Sherlock Holmes. Although I have read about half of the original tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, my frame reference comes primarily from the BBC series Sherlock. When I think of Mycroft, I think of Sherlock’s smarter, older brother with the non-specified but very important government job. Here, Sherlock isn’t yet brilliant and Mycroft isn’t yet very important. Mycroft is, however, much happier and well-adjusted than his younger brother. I mean, he’s engaged for goodness sake. Can you imagine Sherlock ever marrying? I think not.

My favorite part of Mycroft Holmes was Cyrus Douglas – a strong, smart Black man in 19th century England. He’s not Watson; he’s better. He is not as in awe of Mycroft as Watson is of Sherlock. Douglas has a life, a history, and a viable business apart from Mycroft. The two seem like equals in a way that Sherlock and Watson often don’t. In terms of plot, overall this was a pretty good mystery. If Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse right another Holmes and Douglas mystery I'd read it.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Good Behavior by Blake Crouch

Good Behavior It's not that I've been reading bad books. The books I have been reading have been awesome, but Blake Crouch's Good Behavior is the first book I've read in a while that I really didn't want to put down. Seriously I read this book anytime I had a spare moment. I read standing on street corners while waiting for the walk signal to change in my favor, at an author signing while waiting to take a picture with the author, on the bus - you get the idea. Good Behavior had me from page one. But let me rewind a bit...

The cable channel TNT has been knocking it out of the park lately with all kinds of interesting new programming. One of their new shows is, or was, Good Behavior. It began airing in November 2016. I know it is now February 2017 but understand that in addition to the pile of books sitting in the corner of my apartment waiting to be read, there is also a slew of TV shows and movies saved on my DVR waiting to be watched. I am always behind. Anyway, the television series was fantastic. If a fantastic TV series is based on a book, of course I'm going to get the book. Hence, how I came to be reading at street corners while walking home from the library.

The TV show stars Michelle Dockery as Letty and let me tell you Letty is no Lady Mary (that's a Downton Abbey reference for those who didn't know). Letty is a thief, drug addict, ex-con who listens to self-help tapes as she tries to get her life back on track. That's not easy given that stealing is the only thing that gives her the high crystal meth did. Actually I would go further and say it isn't just the stealing she gets off on, it is being a different person. Letty's true talent is how she can transform into someone else before your eyes. Instead of a recovering drug addict recently out of jail, she's a ghost writer for famous authors or a high school teacher. All it takes is a wig and an accent change and she is a completely new person. Too bad she can't keep it up and change for real.

In the first episode Letty is stealing from hotel guests. One guest comes back early forcing her to hide in the closet. While hiding she overhears a conversation between a husband and the man he has hired to kill his wife. Letty may be a criminal but she still has a conscience. She can't simply let a woman be murdered. So she intervenes. From here the show and the book go in different directions and both are captivating. The show focuses on Letty's struggles and various relationships in her life (one in particular). The book, which contains the novellas The Pain of Others, Sunset Key, and Grab, is all about Letty. In each story she continually gets into and out of trouble, always of her own making. Letty is a fantastic and memorable character. She is smart and quick on her feet. She is a survivor even though she keeps doing things that pose very real threats to her survival. It was hard not to like her.

I'm not sure when the three novellas were originally published. The edition I read was clearly repackaged and republished to coincide with the show. In addition to the novellas, it includes short essays from the author on the evolution of the stories from print to the screen. The essays were great, adding insight into how and why the story changed. I would definitely recommend this (and the show too).