A review of Also Known as Syzygy, AKA Investigations Series, Book 3, by Kelli Jae Baeli

READ JANUARY 2014 (First book read wholly in the new year. It’s gonna be a good year for books, I can tell.)

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: “On December 3, 2012, Saturn, Venus & Mercury aligned. On that same night, three women align to see that justice is done.

Ponzi Bonnet thought she had found the perfect husband. A psychologist could certainly understand her damage. But her suspicion of infidelity turns out to be something far worse. Far more sinister. And he had to be stopped.

Kenda Harper, an actress and Ponzi’s best friend, will do anything to help. Even if it means endangering her own life and denying the yearning in her heart.

Anna Dew, an artist and HSP, could not tell her friend Ponzi why she pulled away, but when she learns that her solution only enables bad men to do bad things, she is compelled to make it right.

Three women, finding strength amid their weaknesses, embarking on a journey into darkness, and the labyrinths of selfhood, match wits with the men who would inflict harm on other women, and they won’t give up until justice is done.”

MY REVIEW: How do I love this? Let me count the ways. (I’d apologize to Ms Barrett, but she’s, ya know, been dead for over a century and a half, so I doubt she really cares.) But to answer my very slightly paraphrased question: A lot. A hell of a lot. A fucking hell of a lot.

I read the first two books in Baeli’s AKA Investigations Series almost two years and each was great. Soooo… why’d it take me two years to get around to Book 3? I could offer that lame “So many books, so little time” thing, but the honest answer is, “Hell if I know.” Whatever the reason, though, I’m extremely glad I finally got around to it.

I loved the characters in the earlier books, Armchair Detective and DNA. In Syzygy, we do get a fair amount of Ginger, considerably less of Phoebe, and just a soupçon of Jobeth and Izzy. I have to admit that I really missed the latter two, but, as it turns out, there’s a trade-off: In place of those thoroughly engaging people from books 1 and 2, we get some absolutely terrific new characters. It’s like your old friends are on extended vacation, but some great new folks have just moved in next door. How cool is that?

There are two things I especially like about the new characters, Ponzi, Kenda and Anna: their strength amid adversity and their loyalty to each other. What Ponzi discovers about her husband, Garrison, is jaw-droppingly repugnant. It’s almost enough to make you believe in hell, if only for the comfort that retribution may indeed await such predators.  Ponzi is, of course, devastated by her discovery, but, within hours, she finds the resolve to do whatever she must to stop Garrison’s horrifying behavior. Her best friend, Kenda, agrees, without hesitation, to help her, no matter the danger to herself. They then enlist the aid of Garrison‘s former secretary, Anna, who, it turns out, is also aware of what Garrison’s been doing, to yet another woman, and who left her job because of it.

Okay, I lied — three things. The third, maybe not even a conscious one, is the their need to bring about Garrison’s downfall themselves. Ponzi’s reasons for not taking the evidence against Garrison to the police are perfectly logical: the further humiliation it would cause, and the damage it could do to her very successful business. However, I think it goes deeper. Effecting his ruin herself would be cathartic, and help her begin to heal, representing an empowerment and a reclaiming of what he’s taken from her. Other motivations for Kenda would be to protect Ponzi and to punish Garrison, and Anna feels the need to atone for the fact that that her failure to report what she knew, allowed him to continue victimizing other women. While I might be attributing motives to the intrepid trio that not even the author intended, I don’t see anything wrong with a little reading — or interpreting — between the lines. That’s one of the things that calling a book “thought-provoking” means, right?

As if our gorge hasn’t risen enough at the acts of Garrison, Baeli introduces another villain, Payne, who’s every bit as vile as Ponzi’s husband. The two hook up, which “sounds” contrived, but isn’t, really, when you consider the vast number of men who prey on women. Besides, their connection is a perfectly logical result of the plot. Once the men  get together, though, things begin to spiral out of control for each, due as much to their own sense of entitlement and superiority over women, as to the actions of Ponzi and the others.

In addition to the three friends, and the two lowlifes, other characters lend depth to the novel. The blossoming relationship between Anna and uniformed cop Chloe is a nice secondary plot thread, and the fact that Chloe is teamed with Ginger in an investigation involving Sexual Deviant Number Two seems to bring things full circle as the two despoilers — yeah, I know that word’s a little out of vogue for me, but it just feels right — are completely surrounded by a cordon of powerful women.

Baeli endows her characters with considerable depth. To use the cliché, they’re “well-rounded.“ We come to really know them, and, as a result, we care about them and about what happens to them. One of the highlights of Baeli’s writing is the avoidance of that writer’s bête noire, telling instead of showing, and that’s particularly true of her characterizations. We learn about the characters through their actions and through dialog. There’s no “X was compassionate” or “Y was nervous.” Baeli shows those traits and emotions, a much more difficult task.

I’ve devoted considerably more time to the events of the story than I normally do — more than a reviewer should, perhaps — because those events, and what they deal with, are danned important.

It would be easy for a writer to become so incensed by the prevalence in the real world of the kind of acts depicted fictionally here that her fury detracts from the story, even becomes an obsession. I’m impressed by Baeli’s even-handed treatment of these crimes in her narrative. Oh, the outrage is there, to be sure, but she never allows it to get in the way of a most compelling and enjoyable novel. There’s no moralizing or demagoguery; the events speak eloquently for themselves.

In a review, on another forum, of Book 1 of the AKA Investigations series, I mentioned several specific scenes. That I recall such specifics after almost two years is a credit to the author. There are plenty of standout scenes in Syzygy, too. I love the scene where Ginger first interrogates Payne. The dialog, as she skillfully, and sarcastically, lets him hang himself verbally, is superb, but the best part is that he’s so totally clueless and full of himself that he doesn’t even realize he’s waaayyy out of his depth with Bitch Cop, as he calls her. Another great scene is the final one featuring Ponzi and Kenda, where Baeli (and Kenda) show considerable insight into Ponzi’s fragile emotional state and how best to deal with it.

For those who care about such things, which, in my opinion, just makes you human, yeah, there’s some sex. The scenes are well-written and in no way salacious. There‘s no greater deal-breaker for me than gratuitous sex and pornspeak, and there‘s absolutely none of that here. Baeli also avoids those ghastly euphemisms like “dewy petals.“ Arrrgh! Here, the few sex scenes (loving-making, actually, which isn’t always the same thing) are a natural outgrowth of the narrative; the final one is, in fact, essential for closure. The scenes are, however, undeniably erotic, which is particularly impressive given their briefness. Kudos to Ms Baeli for this.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m a sucker for clever titles: Kim Harrison riffing on Eastwood film titles, Jaye Maimann;s use of song titles in her book titles, the “colorful” titles used in classic mystery writer John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, etc. Oh, and Mary Vermillion’s use of Seminal Murder for a mystery set in a sperm bank. Syzygy’s such a great word — Scrabble players please note — especially considering this is a work of fiction, not an astronomy text, that it would have caught my attention even if I hadn’t read the earlier books. An author’s choice of title provides further evidence of his or her cleverness.

Anyone who’s read more than a couple of my reviews is probably aware of how I feel about gaffes in what Janet Burroway (Writing Fiction) calls the mechanical aspects of writing: grammar, spelling, and punctuation. To her list, I would add usage, things like “taunt” muscles instead of “taut” Fergodsake, if you’re not 100% certain what a word means, get thee to a dictionary! To be honest, sometimes, being faced with such errors causes me to totally “lose it.” To me, failing to learn to use the tools one’s craft shows laziness and disrespect for the reader. There are, however, no issues of that sort where Jae Baeli’s writing is concerned.

It’s rare to these days to find a writer whose style is technically so nearly perfect, but who’s also a damned good storyteller. Some time ago, I wrote of Andi Marquette that I doubted if she were even capable of writing poorly. I would also apply that comment to Baeli. Writing is both an art and a craft, the artful part being made up of, among other things, imagination and inventiveness. No matter how good a story-teller a writer may be, how compelling or original the story, if that writer doesn’t meet basic technical standards, then, to me, the book is ultimately a failure.

But, returning to the book in question, Kelli Jae Baeli proves herself not just a fine storyteller, but one who’s highly skilled at her craft, both artist and artisan. Syzygy is an entertaining and rewarding novel and a reading experience I strongly urge you not to miss.

A review of The Other Side of Silence, by Joan M. Drury

READ DECEMBER 2013

ONLINE SUMMARY: The debut of Tyler Jones begins with the discovery of a corpse in the park.

MY SUMMARY: Tyler Jones, a journalist now working at home, discovers a body while walking her dog in a nearby park. Police identify the victim. Turns out, he has a connection to Tyler: Seems he broke into and trashed her home, where Tyler was sheltering his wife, a victim of his verbal, mental, and physical abuse. The cops on the case consider Tyler a suspect, so, like so many amateur sleuths, she sets out to solve the crime herself. Did the killer know the park was almost on Tyler’s doorstep, and dump the body to implicate her?

MY REVIEW: Dipping again into the well of “good-is-the-enemy-of-great”: As I’ve said before, I don’t totally buy into this adage, except maybe as a self-motivational tool. The phrase “curling up with a good book” has been around a long time, and I think there’s a reason it says good rather than great. So, while some books are really, really good, not all are “great,” and not all even aspire to be, at least not in the “Great Novel” sense. Think maybe I’ll post a page here on my feelings about good books, and why I think labeling a book as “good” isn’t a put-down. But, this is supposed to be a review, right? So…

Joan M. Drury’s The Other Side of Silence is a good book. Definitely. That I had a few issues with it doesn’t keep it from being either a good book or an enjoyable reading  experience. There are a lot of positives here, and it’s too bad there are only three books in Drury’s Tyler Jones series, if the other two are the equal of this one.

Technical problems? Don’t recall any mechanical issues with the book, but then, Sprinsters Ink always featured pretty competent editing. The writing is coherent, the style literate without being literary. (I consider that a plus, FWIW.} The first-person narrative style is, except in a few places, about which, more later, matter-of-fact, casual, not unlike Randye Lordon or Kate Calloway, to name authors who might be more familiar so some of you.

Tyler Jones, the protagonist, is likable enough and admirable for her devotion to women’s issues, especially aiding women who have suffered any sort of abuse. Her housemate, Mary Sharon, is a nice complement to her, and their interaction provides almost all the book’s humor. (To be honest a little more humor would have been nice, not laugh-out-loud humor, just something to counterbalance to the weightier issues in the book.) There are enough other characters to help lend a feeling of depth, but, aside from Tyler’s mom, and the murder victim’s mistress they don’t contribute much to the story.

Unfortunately, likable characters, a cute pooch, and mechanically competent prose aren’t enough to overcome the book’s faults, not for me, at least.

Earlier, I mentioned the narrative style. In most places, it moves things along nicely, but, here and there, things r e  a   l    l     y drag. The biggest cause, I think, is the breaks in the story for Tyler to transcribe, for a book she’s writing, women’s stories of domestic abuse . The stories are heart-rending and anger-producing, to be-sure. However, their inclusion seems an intrusion, here,  bogging things down unnecessarily, and further darkening the mood.

Lest you take exception to the above comment, I consider myself a feminist, have considered myself one for forty years, in fact, after reading Joanna Russ’ incomparable short story “When It Changed” in 1972. That, however, should have absolutely nothing to do with an objective consideration of whether this or any book is good or bad. (Are Orson Scott Card’s books worse now that we know he’s a homophobe and a racist?) I’m willing to bet that every reader of The Other Side of Silence, or any other book under the Sprinsters Ink imprint is, at least to a certain extent, a feminist, or sympathetic to women’s issues. For the observant browser, the back cover even says “Feminist Mystery.” Again, the women’s histories are moving, and deserve our outrage. Here, however, they’re, at best, preaching to the choir, at worst, overkill.

I also have a bit of a problem with the ending. Sure, I completely understand Tyler’s reason for dealing with things as she does, but find it ultimately unsatisfactory. Carlene Miller’s Lexy Hyatt mystery, Reporter on the Run, which ends similarly, also bothered me, but not as much, for whatever reason. Frankly, I have no idea how I’d handle a similar situation, so I guess that makes my criticism of Drury a little hypocritical. So be it.

Two other things, more in the nature of  quibbles: Early on, a great deal is made of the fact that Tyler is (probably) crushing on homicide detective Carla George. but, after a certain point, perhaps midway through the book, it isn’t mentioned. This could have added another plot thread, creating greater depth. Why bring it up only to abandon it?. Also, there’s a brief flashback to a sex scene with Tyler’s former lover which is completely pointless, contributing nothing to the story.

Despite the problems I had with The Other Side of Silence, I still enjoyed it. To repeat, it was a “good” book, and, unfortunately, those don’t grow on tress. At some point, I’m sure I’ll check out the other two Tyler Jones novels.