Monday, July 2, 2012

Monday Review, 7/2/2012

Three books this week:

Christopher Fowler - The Memory of Blood

Trigger warning: death of an infant

The most recent of Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit novels. Bryant and May, antique detectives, are at it again. A suspicious death of an infant leads the PCU into a web of theatrical murders that seems, somehow, to be linked to the Punch and Judy story. Are the murders being done by animated puppets, as Bryant seems to suspect? Or is there a logical answer, as May tends to be inclined to believe? Does Bryant actually believe the odd theories he espouses? That's a much bigger mystery.

So, in his author's note, Fowler states that the books are designed to be read completely individually - that you should not need to have read any of the other books in order for this one to make sense. This is, I think, largely true. He does include a helpful cheat sheet at the beginning of this one, in the form of an internal British Government memo about how the unit might be unraveled. This is helpful, since it allows the reader to place all of the major players in the unit, even if they haven't read any of the earlier works.

The books are fairly straightforward police procedural novels, with members of the unit tracking down criminals through a process of interviews and footwork. There are two twists. First, the PCU handles crimes which are odd, or officially sensitive, and often both. Thus, their hands are sometimes tied by the government, and sometimes the crimes are difficult to unravel because of the trappings. Second, Bryant seems inclined* to believe the oddest elements of the crime to be true (ie, maybe Punch climbed off his hook and killed the infant) while May is much more solid and down to earth. It's a Mulder and Scully relationship, except that Scully is generally right.

*Bryant would argue that he is merely willing to entertain the possibility of oddness in order to get to the mundane core of the crime. However, it's fairly clear that Bryant actually loves the weird stuff, and wishes the mundane aspects would just go away.

Solidly entertaining and twisty enough to satisfy. Fowler flirts with some of the bad stuff I've mentioned about the genre before - notably the revealing the killer to the audience thing - but pulls it off in the end, so kudos. I will say that it looks like the next novel is clearly set up by this one, and so you may want to read this one before that one. But I could easily be wrong.

Pamela Ribon - You Take it From Here

This arrived in my mailbox about a month ago, from Rare Bird Lit ( which is a publishing PR firm based in LA and New York City. I'm pretty sure I signed up for something - I've received three books from them over the past month - but this one came in first, so.

This is outside of the stuff I usually choose for myself, which is, of course, entirely the point of having people and PR firms send me books, right? This book is - I'm going to type the dread words - chick lit. And there's nothing wrong with that. I'm going to say, right up front here, it's well written, the characters are entertaining, and it made me sniffle, just a little.

Ok. Details. Danielle Meyers runs an odd little business in Los Angeles - she tells people how to better organize their houses and their lives so that everything is more efficient and happy. It's a very 21st century kind of business. Smidge Cooperton is Meyers' best friend, from Ogden, Louisiana, where they both grew up. Smidge and Danielle have been taking annual vacations for years. This year, Smidge takes Danielle out into the middle of nowhere to reveal that her (Smidge's) lung cancer has returned, that she doesn't plan to treat it this time, and that she wants Danielle to ensure that Smidge's husband doesn't go crazy and that Smidge's daughter grows up pretty good. The bulk of the book is Smidge trying to mold Danielle into a Smidge shaped object, without telling husband or daughter what's going on.

What I liked:
The characters were snappy. Smidge is a bully, but her bullying is softened by the whole dying of cancer thing - I don't think she would be as palatable under other circumstances. Danielle is a little bewildered, and inclined to allow herself to be bullied, which would be annoying under other circumstances, but understandable here. The book doesn't end exactly as I thought it might, but the ending is satisfying. The writing is good, Ribon has a quirky sense of language and uses it to good advantage. There's a touch of the Bloggess there, almost.

What I didn't like:
The book is framed as a letter to Jenny Cooperton, Smidge's daughter, at some point after the events of the novel. For the most part, this is ignorable - the book is written in first person present, which works for this style of novel - but sometimes it broke my suspension of disbelief. Danielle remembers the events with shocking clarity, given the length of time between the events and the letter (unless she wrote the letter as the events unfolded, which is not indicated at all), and she seems to expect that Jenny will remember details as well. Ok, Mom/best friend dying of cancer - that I can believe you would remember. Details about what you were wearing over the course of the several months around the critical event - I'm not buying it. The frame didn't work. Also, I'm not sure why it mattered that the town in question was Ogden, Louisiana. It could easily have been Ogden, Alabama, or Ogden, Texas, or Ogden, New Mexico, and had the same effect - generic Southern town. That bugged me, a little.

A good summer read, pack some tissues if Steel Magnolias made you bawl. My copy is promised to someone else, but I'll make sure to do some sort of giveaway for later free and ARC books - possibly just a "say you want the book, and I'll send it to you" - we shall see.

Carol Carr - India Black

A lovely first novel about India Black, Victorian madam of the Lotus House, a mid-range whore house in London. A high ranking member of the British government keels over with one of India's whores. As India attempts to rid herself of the body, she ends up involved in some dicey espionage vis a vis the Russians, who want some of the documents in said high ranking official's possession.

A good spy story (not, as the subtitle suggests, a mystery at all), with some memorable characters (who will almost certainly be reoccurring) and a delightful taste of Victorian London, with all of it's Dickensian sordidness and byzantine politics. For a novel set in a whore house, there was almost no sex at all, two brief and very tasteful descriptions. India opens the novel by explaining that if the reader wanted to read about sex, there are other books available. The back matter specifically states that India and French have to struggle with their attraction to each other - bollocks. Maybe in book two. Other than that, a rollicking good read, highly recommended.