A review of Lucky Stiff by Elizabeth Sims

READ June 2015

ONLINE SUMMARY — There is what you believe, and then there is the truth. For Lillian Byrd, a chance encounter with an old friend means that everything she thought she knew about her shattered childhood is about to be revealed as a lie. One summer day when she was 12 years old, her best friend, Duane, left for summer camp. Later that night, flames ripped through the Polka Dot, a bar owned and run by Lillian’s parents. Three bodies were found in the ashes: those of her mother, her father and Trix Hawley, a bartender and Lillian’s frequent babysitter. Or so she has always thought. But Duane’s story reveals something shocking. After summer camp, his father moved him to Florida, telling Duane that his mother had left, and for a short time Trix Hawley lived with them. Now Duane’s father has disappeared as well. Who was the third body in the ashes of the Polka Dot? Was the fire an accident or arson? Where is Trix now? And where are Duane’s mother and father? Lillian and Duane set out to find the truth about their parents, a truth that has been hidden well by members of both their families. The author of the best–selling mysteries “Holy Hell” and “Damn Straight” has crafted another nerve-tingling thriller rich with characterization, humor and humanity.

MY REVIEW —

Elizabeth Sims’ Lucky Stiff is a departure from the lighter tone of the first two novels in her Lillian Byrd series, Holy Hell and Damn Straight, which doesn’t necessarily make it a better or a worse book. That depends on the taste of the individual reader. One reader commented that Lillian appears to have lost most of her sense of humor. I’ll return to this topic in a bit, after getting a few basic thoughts out of the way.Lucky Stiff is, as anyone familiar with Sims’ work would expect, mechanically well-written, logically plotted, fast-paced – if you pay attention, even in the more laid-back scenes, things are constantly happening – with well-drawn, believable, if somewhat unusual characters. The mystery itself is more than enough to keep you reading, but various other plot threads make this a multi-leveled story, enriching the reading experience.The most interesting of these secondary plot lines is Lillian’s relationship with Blind Lonnie, a street musician in Detroit’s Greek Town. Down on her luck again, our heroine busks alongside the more experienced Lonnie, her mandolin to his guitar, and he becomes her mentor not just in musical improv, but in life’s lessons as well. Lillian learns you must truly “let go” to succeed at musical improvisation just as letting go of her past,by finding the truth about it, frees her to live more fully.

Lillian’s connections to the events of her past are her Uncle Guff and her childhood friend Duane. The latter deserts her in their quest to find out what happened to their respective parents and, forced to continue without him, she finds an inner strength she wasn’t aware of. Things come full circle when Lillian relates all she’s learned to Uncle Guff who is not only aware of most of what she’s unearthed but who reveals perhaps more than she ever wanted to know, giving her a secret she feels compelled to keep.

There’s also Lillian’s rekindled romance with Minerva Le Blanc, who is recovering from the assault in Holy Hell. The “romance” is mostly on Lillian’s part; Minerva seems more interested in sex and the possibility of a lucrative new book and she’s more amused by Lillian’s naiveté than in love with her. If their relationship continues in the next book, to quote Han (and Luke, Anakin, Obi-Wan, Leia and C-3PO) “I have a bad feeling about this.”

To return to the opening topic, Lillian’s (disappearing?) sense of humor, Lucky Stiff is, indeed, darker than the earlier books. Given the principal theme, the death of Lillian’s parents and the disappearance of Duane’s mother, how can it not be? Clearly, humor can coexist alongside murder – Kate Allen’s Alison Kaine series is a prime example, but in Sims’ third novel the relationship between the narrator and the crime victims is too intimate for that sort of humor to work. However, Sims’ novel does have wit aplenty, often generated, as in the earlier two novels, by Lillian’s interaction with her pet rabbit, Todd.

So, while there may not be any guffaws, there’s still humor, and I think Sims gets the amount of it just right. Again, Lucky Stiff is different from the first two books in the series but, bottom line, Lillian is still Lillian, She’s changed as a result of the circumstances she encounters but at some level she’s still the impulsive, error-prone, caring, inquisitive character we loved in Holy Hell. I especially enjoy when an author allows her protagonist to grow from book to book, and that is definitely what happens here. Personally, I would expect the next novel to return to the lighter tone of the first two bucks, but for Lillian to have more depth after the events of this novel.

To sum up, Lucky Stiff is very well-written, interesting on several levels, compelling at times, and moving without being sentimental. It is well worth your time and money.

Advertisements

Okay, so you read a lot, but why do you have to write about it?

No question about it, I love to read. I started at an early age, with Tom Swift, Jr. and the Hardy Boys providing a focus on science-fiction and mystery that continues to this day. Urban fantasy was added to the mix with Kim Harrison’s Dead Witch Walking in the mid 2000s and the discovery of JM Redmann at roughly the same time revealed an affinity for fiction with lesbian protagonists. (See: “About Me ‘n’ the Blog”)

On occasion, I’m asked why I feel it necessary to write about books I’ve read. It’s a fair question, given the fact that I don’t get paid for posting reviews. For a long time, not seriously considering the query, I answered with a shrug. More recently, it’s occurred to me that seriously contemplating the question might be instructive (to me) and informative to anyone reading my reviews.

If this first reason makes me sound unrealistically altruistic—I’m not – it’s still true. I think a writer deserves something back for the pleasurable reading experience s/he has provided. Comments I’ve read from other readers over the years suggest that many, maybe even most, readers believe an author should be (permanently?) indebted to them simply because they’ve read a book. In my opinion, the only thing a writer owes the buyer of a book is thanks. That’s it. Case closed.

Neil Gaiman relates a great story illustrative of that point: For some reason, a reader complained to Gaiman because it was taking too long for George R. R. Martin to finish the next installment of the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Apparently the reader got no satisfactory response from Martin himself and asked Gaiman if his (the reader’s) sense of entitlement was justified. Gaiman’s response: “This may not be palatable…but the simplicity of things…is this: George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.

To reiterate, because I think it’s an important point, a writer owes nothing to a reader beyond his or her appreciation for buying, or at least reading, the book. Conversely, I want to give something back to the writer, and a review is the only way I know to do that; authors with whom I’ve connected online seem genuinely appreciative. (Clearly, this doesn’t apply to negative reviews, which I’ll get to in a bit.)

I definitely think there’s a place for the non-professional reviewer. For one thing, genre fiction isn’t within the purview of many professional reviewers who concentrate on – here’s another term I dislike, to add to “lesfic” and “sci-fi” – “literary fiction.” The implication that genre writing can’t be literary is not just pretentious; it’s also wrong. Moreover, I think the average reader may relate better to a peer and to someone who simply loves reading and talking about books than to someone getting paid to write a review.

I have to admit that a certain hubris may be involved here, too. I think I write pretty well most of the time, and I admit that it’s kind of a kick to see my words at amazon or goodreads or on this blog. I take a certain pleasure in the idea that those words might inspire someone to read a book about which I’ve written favorably. When I get a notice that one of my amazon reviews has been helpful to a customer, that’s a good feeling. It also means, maybe, that I’ve in some small way helped a writer to sell a book.

There’s also a practical reason for my reviews: I’m retired, and from time to time, discretionary cash is an issue, so I buy a lot of books second-hand or get them from the library. As a result, the authors don’t benefit, so, as I said earlier, writing a review as a kind of compensation.

Finally, and most simply, I love the written word, both reading and talking about it.

Of course, none of the above applies to unfavorable reviews. Kelli Jae Baeli, one of the writers with whom I’ve occasionally corresponded, has written an excellent article on writing reviews, “Giving it Away: Spoilers as Both Noun and Accusation.” In it, she counsels against writing negative reviews; it’s probably the only thing Jae’s ever said with which I disagree, at least in part. She suggests that such reviews are about the review writer more than the author, and while I concede the possibility, I think other factors are at work, too. I’ve rated, though obviously not reviewed, over 400 books on goodreads, with only 6 one-star ratings. In three of those six, the negative impressions were the result of sexist or outright misogynistic content, something a writer deserves being called out for, rather than the actual writing.

For what it’s worth, I think those numbers show I have to feel very strongly about a book before I write a negative review. Even when I have occasional issues with a book I review favorably, I take care to point out where those feelings may be subjective. I’ve often stated my respect for authors due to all the effort it takes to finally bring a book to publication, and that’s every bit as true of books with which I’ve had issues as with those I’ve kvelled to read. That said, the “so many books, so little time” conundrum, as well as the fact that not everyone has unlimited funds makes me think unfavorable reviews do have a purpose as long as they aren’t simply a personal attack or spewing invective in which case, yes, Jae, they are all about the reviewer.

I hope this helps you understand a little about me and my relationship with books. I know it helped me.

A review of Don’t Go There, by Kate Genet

Author Kelli Jae Baeli has written (on goodreads) such a fine review of Don’t Go There that I’m going to forgo my usual detailed (too wordy?) analysis and suggest you read what Jae’s written. Instead, I’ll address a few points I feel are important.

First, let’s get the whole “I don’t care for romance novels” disclaimer out of the way. I usually enjoy romance as a side element in other genres such as speculative fiction, urban fantasy, mystery or thriller, but not as the central focus; writers like Gerri Hill, Kim Baldwin and Andi Marquette come to mind. Radclyffe, too, I s’pose. Baxter Clare. From Genet’s standpoint, I understand the decision to turn to writing romance. A writer wants her work to be read, after all. Well, bought and read, which is as it should be. And, obviously, there’s a much greater market for romance with lesbian characters – pleeease don’t say “lesfic”, cos I tend to shoot first and ask questions later – than some other genres. The considerably higher number of online reviews for this as compared to the author’s other novels bears this out

The selfish part of me was sorry to see Kate turn to other forms of fiction than the ones I’ve previously enjoyed. Then, it hit me: it isn’t the genre that makes her writing so special, it’s the great characters and her narrative style that I love. As I once wrote about another writer, Andi Marquette, I think, Kate Genet could write in any damn genre she pleased and it would be just as good. So, ignoring the “don’t like romance novels” thing, I read Don’t Go There and I’m very, very glad I did.

The two principals are as good as any characters Genet has ever written about. Scarcity is immediately engaging, but, despite some comments by others that Teresa is not very likable early on in the story, I sensed an underlying complexity and vulnerability about her that also quickly captured my interest (and heart). One of my major objections to romance qua romance is the static nature of the characters, with the romance itself being the story’s sole raison d’etre. Here, the emphasis is on the characters, and each exhibits considerable growth, changes which wouldn’t have been possible had Scarcity and Teresa not come into each others’ lives.

The other obvious pleasure in reading any book by Kate Genet is her extremely readable, fluid narrative style. Elsewhere, I’ve referred to that style as spare. If that sounds like criticism, it’s anything but. What I mean by spare is that there’s nothing extraneous in her writing. Every word is there because it needs to be there. That doesn’t mean the writing is arid. though; there’s plenty of vivid description of setting, of character, of action and emotion. There’s just no fluff, no filler. Kate knows how to tell a story and finds just the right words to do it effectively.

Some readers have reacted negatively to Scarcity’s relative youth, one even calling the romance “gross.” I didn’t see it that way, at all. Sure, Scarcity’s only seventeen, but the events of her life, her parents’ deaths and the verbal and physical abuse at the hands of her brother, have forced upon her a maturity beyond her years. She seems very self-aware, aware of who she is and of what she wants from life. Also, her ability to sense Teresa’s inner pain and recognize that she has the potential to help Teresa heal suggests emotional development beyond that of the older woman. Yeah, Scarcity acts like a kid, at times, but, then, in real life, so do people two or three times as old.

Certainly, this is a coming-of-age story for Scarcity. In a sense, though, it’s about self-discovery for Teresa, too. Or, rather, about her allowingthe blossoming  of the part of herself she’s been denying. By embracing who she is rather than denying it, Scarcity seems more of a well-adjusted adult than Teresa. Her lack of experience sexually doesn’t keep her from being mature in other ways. Lots of young people are wise beyond their years while many adults, chronologically speaking, have, as Giles said to Wesley in the Buffy epi ”The Prom,” “the emotional maturity of a blueberry scone.”

Okay, so, at the outset, I said I’d try to curb my characteristic verbosity. Ya see how well that turned out, right? It’s just that when I feel strongly about something, as I do about Genet’s writing, I have a hard time stopping the word flow. I want to say everything I can to make you, the reader of my comments, want to read something I found enjoyable and edifying. In short, Don’t Go There is a terrific, well-told. perfectly paced story with great characters, fine writing and a slowly blooming romance that’s realistic rather than starry-eyed. Oh, and with a dog anyone would love.

 

 

 

A review of The Missing Comatose Woman, by Sarah Ettritch

READ JULY 2014

ONLINE SUMMARYPrivate eye Casey Cook lands her first case, and it’s a doozy: find a missing comatose woman. Eager to prove herself, Casey does whatever it takes to get answers, from pretending to be pregnant to fawning over a hairless cat.

As she runs into one dead end after another, Casey wonders whether she should have left her retail job. Determined to show that she can do the PI thing, Casey refuses to give up, chases down every lead, and snags herself a girlfriend along the way.

MY REVIEW — I came across this one while browsing the titles at sapphicabooks.net. The cover screamed “cozy mystery,” which isn’t exactly — or even remotely — my cup of tea. The title and the brief description were enough to pique my interest, though. I immediately asked myself the same question as does our protag, fledgling PI Casey Cook: Why would someone kidnap a comatose woman?

Casey has left her job at Walmart and gotten her PI’s license. Bit of a stretch? Sure, but anything beats Wally World, right? Problem is, she’s yet to get her first case, and, among other things, she’s imagining the way her friends are gonna rag on her for not being able to make a go of things after the time and money she’s invested getting her license. Some friends, huh? Enter the daughter of the snatched sleeper and suddenly Casey has a paying client. Plenty of plot twists, mostly potential clues that lead nowhere, hold your interest, and there’s a nice budding romance between Casey and Emily, a barista at her favorite coffee shop.

Casey is an engaging character, for the most part, and though she’s a newbie in her profession, and is, just maybe, in over her head, she soldiers on, partly out of loyalty to her client and partly to avoid her friends’ I-told-you-so comments.  Also, as she has some serious self-worth issues, she needs to prove to herself that she can succeed at “the PI thing.” She does seem to have a helpful head for details, and a stick-to-itiveness that proves to be an asset. She’s funny without being over-the-top silly, likeable — again, for the most part, about which more later — and I definitely wouldn’t mind reading more about her should the author decide to turn this into a series. She reminds me just a bit of Jae Baeli’s Jobeth O’Brien in her AKA Investigations series, especially in Book One of that saga; Jobe has also left a dead-end job and started her own investigative business.

My favorite character, however, is Emily, who’s been interested in Casey for a while, though the latter’s gaydar seems hopelessly out of whack. Emily’s also smart and funny, and determined to not let Casey get away. Something about her reminds me a little of Michaela in Kate Genet’s Michaela and Trisha novels and  the relationship is similar, too, with the very bright college student Emily akin to Michaela and the rather too self-deprecating Casey like Trisha. Supporting characters are interesting, colorful additions, particularly Casey’s gram.

I appreciated that the nascent romance doesn’t intrude on the mystery element, but serves merely to punctuate it. This contributes to the novel’s successful pacing. I also like that duo want to proceed slowly. I have absolutely nothing against sex, even if graphically presented, in a story, but here, it would have been totally out of character with the personae the author has drawn.

Ettritch’s fast, easy-to-read narrative uses limited third person POV centering around Casey. This works well as it allows us to follow the progress of both her investigation and her growing attraction to Emily without any digressions. The overall writing style is humorous and that suits the cozy mystery story well and also fits the characters’ personalities. There aren’t any truly laugh-out-loud moments à la Kate Allen’s Alison Kaine series, but that’s okay, I think; not everybody can carry off that sort of thing with the skill Allen displayed. The amount and type of humor in The Missing Comatose Woman is just right.

One of my favorite scenes: Casey’s “date” with Leah, on whom she’s been crushing for a long time. Turns out Leah is totally self-centered, oblivious to anything not about herself and interested in sex, pure and simple, while Casey likes to know someone better before slipping between the sheets. (“ ‘You’re so cute,’ Leah said with a giggle. ‘I’m liking this idea more and more. What do you need to know?’ Her last name, for a start— hopefully very early on in their relationship”)

The plotting is consistent and you care enough about the mystery and the characters to keep you reading. Ettritch is particularly good at characterization and realistic dialogue. The passages between Casey and Emily are especially well-written and the dialogue just right. More descriptive detail throughout would have been nice, though there’s still a feeling of realism without it.

My general feeling about The Missing Comatose Woman is positive. A couple of reviewers on goodreads described it as fluff, but I find that a little harsh. A cozy mystery, certainly, but with more substance than “fluff” might suggest. That said, if I may be permitted a quibble ot three:

Most, if not all, US states require as much as three years experience with a licensed investigative firm or government investigative agency before granting a PI’s license. I doubt the rules in Canada are all that different, and this makes Casey’s status as such an extreme neophyte unlikely. Secondly, although I understand that Casey’s self-worth problems are one of the themes at work here, the point seems belabored, especially vis-a-vis Emily. (Why would such a hot, smart woman be interested in a former Walmart associate/ PI wannabe?) It gives Casey an “oh, poor me” feeling that makes her less engaging simply because it’s so frequently mentioned. Finally, while the writing is fluid and grammatically sound, there’s some repetition that I found annoying. For example, during Casey’s disastrous dinner date with Leah, we get “Pizza for dinner twice in a row. Good thing she loved it;” then during her outing with Emily, “Apart from having pizza yet again— thank god she loved the stuff.” There are several similar incidences.

I have a bigger problem with the ending, however. Casey doesn’t actually solve the case; instead, the mystery is explained to her after she’s been (easily) kidnapped, a deus ex machina conclusion which is very unsatisfying.

Despite the objections noted above, The Missing Comatose Woman was a quick, entertaining read with very likable characters. A pleasurable way to pass a couple of ideas hours if you’re looking for something that’s not all angst-y and dripping with gore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A review of Summer Knight (The Dresden Files #4)

Plot Blurb from the internet: “Lost items found. Paranormal Investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates.
No Love Potions, Endless Purses, or Other Entertainment

Ever since his girlfriend left town to deal with her newly acquired taste for blood, Harry Dresden has been down and out in Chicago. He can’t pay his rent. He’s alienating his friends. He can’t even recall the last time he took a shower.

The only professional wizard in the phone book has become a desperate man.

And just when it seems things can’t get any worse, in saunters the Winter Queen of Faerie. She has an offer Harry can’t refuse if he wants to free himself of the supernatural hold his faerie godmother has over him–and hopefully end his run of bad luck. All he has to do is find out who murdered the Summer Queen’s right-hand man, the Summer Knight, and clear the Winter Queen’s name.

It seems simple enough, but Harry knows better than to get caught in the middle of faerie politics. Until he finds out that the fate of the entire world rests on his solving this case. No pressure or anything…

My review: Summer Knight is volume four in Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series, and, yep, same old, same old: Harry’s down and out, is faced with a seemingly endless series of impossible obstacles, defeats bad guys/girls who are far more powerful than he, “snarking” all the way, cleans up his act a little,. plays D&D. (Okay, the last one’s new.)

Of the previous Dresden novel, I wrote “it’s as though, if women didn’t have breasts, there’d be no reason for them to be in the novel at all.” Happily, the blatant sexism seems to be on hiatus, here, but at heart, I think, Harry’s still a male chauvinist, as are most dudes who tout their chivalrous natures.

My basic impression of Summer Knight was “Is it ever gonna be over? Are we there , yet?” It wasn’t really boring, exactly, just felt like it went on for-effing-ever. Hell, it seemed like the scene in and around Walmart was almost a book in itself. The scene at Murphy’s apartment seems unnecessarily long, too. There are other examples. This book could’ve, prob’ly should have come in at under three hundred pages. I mean, I finished reading four, maybe five other books while working my way through this one.

Technically, I don’t have any issues with Butcher’s writing, here. Stylistically? While it’s not life-altering, it’s a competently told tale. That said: Jim Butcher just kvels to write metaphors. Admittedly, simile and metaphor, used judiciously, are among the hallmarks of good writing, but, in Butcher’s hands, so damned much stuff is “like” other stuff that it becomes an affectation. To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s character in The Big Chill, “Ever gone a paragraph without a metaphor?”

And the repetition: “Vast” is a terrific word. It concisely conveys the idea of immensity as few words can. Use it twice in the same freaking paragraph, with the space of two sentences, for gods’ sake, and you strip it of its power. Now, it just means ”big.” Hells bells…

A couple of thoughts: Harry is able to defeat a Queen of the Sidhe, not, admittedly, without help. In Faery, no less. On her home court, so to speak. Really. With that kind of power, why the hell is he worried about the White Council or the Red Court? Also, Aurora is able to immobilize Harry with a look, but, on the stone table, she plants “both feet against my chest…kicked hard and drove me back.” Did she exceed her magical power quotient, or something?

While there were parts I liked, even a few I liked a lot, as a whole, the book was just okay. Not sure I’ll bother with Harry anymore. Kind of a “if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all” feeling to them, now.