Mediocre Mysteries

I recently read the first books in a couple mystery series, and they didn’t impress me. It’s possible that the later books improve, but I won’t be continuing the series.

Still Life by Louise Penny

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In this mystery, murder comes to a small town in Quebec and wise Inspector Gamache comes down to investigate. Paintings are a major clue and plot device as a surprising number of the characters are artists. The setting is preciously picturesque, and the portrayal of gay characters seems a bit stereotyped. The villain, when finally revealed, is almost cartoonishly evil. I was constantly annoyed by the too-stupid-to-live new girl on the team, who never listened, learned or improved. It’s also possible that dour, plodding voice of the audiobook reader soured me on this one.

In the Last Analysis by Amanda Cross

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The detective in this book is an English professor whose close friend is a phychoanalyst who has had a patient murdered on his couch. The characters talk about psychoanalysis in a way that seemed very stigmatizing to me. I was intrigued by this series because I like the idea of an academic as a detective. But the thing that bugged me the most about this book is that all the characters talk the same way–like they were all English professors, full of pontificating allusions and SAT vocab words. And the solution to the mystery is convoluted in a way that seemed silly and unrealistic to me.

Modern Romance

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

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I picked this book up because I liked Aziz Ansari in Parks and Recreation, and enjoy his stand-up. This is different from most books by comedians, though. It’s not just a bunch of humorous essays and personal stories. Actual research went into this. Ansari (with the help of NYU sociologist Eric Klingenberg) conducted focus groups on four continents to put this book together.

The result is a combination of sociology and self-help. The book is as fun to read as a nonfiction book can be, with jokes from Ansari and a fascinating topic. A generous number of pages focus on text message etiquette and the psychological games we play with our phones. One of the main concerns of the book is the paradox of excessive choice, the way that having too many options paralyzes us from making decisions and commitments. I tended to agree with Ansari’s advice and evaluations of the current dating scene.

My main takeaway from the book was that I’m really, really, REALLY glad I got off the dating market a long time ago, and dear God I hope I never have to re-enter it. And Aziz Ansari is pretty amusing. The audiobook has him doing funny voices and unscripted asides, so it may be preferable to the book, although it has graphs and charts and funny pictures. But you’ll have to listen to Ansari calling you lazy for picking the audiobook.

Dublin Murder Squad mysteries 1-4

I’ve read the first four books of this series now. They’re good meaty mysteries set in contemporary Ireland. Each book has a first person narrator, a member of Dublin’s police department trying to solve a case that he or she has a particular connection to, that hits home for that person because of his or her past. As the series progresses, each new book is narrated by a character who had been introduced in the previous book. I appreciate that the endings aren’t overly neat and tidy. I listened to the books on audio and the readers all had nice accents.

One issue that several of the books address is development and economic collapse, and their effect on many different stakeholders. French tackles this issue in a nuanced way that doesn’t necessarily make anyone “good” or “bad.” Some examples: the archeological site in In the Woods that will be paved over for a road. The manor house in The Likeness that the owner wants to make a commune for his friends but the community wants to make a resort to revitalize the village. The urban despair of Faithful Place. The dishonest developers and shoddy houses in the unfinished subdivision and the unemployed father in Broken Harbor.

In the Woods by Tana French

51VBtIu7KELRob and his partner Cassie investigate a murder of a young girl near an archeological site. The location is near the place where Rob himself disappeared for several days when he was a child. He has no memory of the incident, but his friends never returned. Cassie emerges as the real hero of this book. She takes care of Rob through his breakdown and solves the case.

The Likeness by Tana French

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So far this is my favorite book of the series. Cassie, Rob’s partner from In the Woods, narrates. The premise is kind of farfetched: a body is found, and Cassie just happens to be a dead ringer for the victim. So the department decides to pull an undercover operation, and pretend that the victim survived, sending Cassie in to gather information. She enmeshes herself in the victim’s tightknit friends and roommates, and kind of falls in love with the dead woman’s life.

Faithful Place by Tana French

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Frank Mackey, head of undercover, returns to his home neighborhood for the first time in years when a suitcase belonging to his old girlfriend is found in an abandoned house. He follows its clues and discovers her body. He has to question his own family and encounter again the alcoholism and domestic violence that he escaped years ago. Frank makes a good narrator because he has a great sense of humor that he uses to charm information out of reluctant witnesses.

Broken Harbor by Tana French

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Scorcher Kennedy, a hotshot detective with a great solve rate returns to the beach town where his mother killed herself to solve a triple homicide: two children and their father are dead; the mother barely survived. One major topic is mental illness and the stigma surrounding it. I particularly appreciated passages that showed the flaws in the doctrine of “positive thinking.” I was struck with the way the story portrayed the vulnerability of affluence, of people who focus on appearances.

The Lacuna

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

The-LacunaThe Lacuna covers about 30 years of American and Mexican history through the life of Harrison Sheperd, a half-Mexican, half-American boy raised in Mexico who becomes an author. This is his life story, told through his journals, covering his time as a cook in the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, the Bonus Army riots, Leon Trotsky’s exile in Mexico, the war effort in Ashville, NC, and finally the McCarthy trials. Sometimes Shepherd’s life seems like a way to string together these interesting moments in history, but for the most part he and the other non-historical characters are compelling enough to drive the narrative on their own. Kingsolver wears her politics on her sleeve, as always. She presents Trotsky’s death as a tragedy, and suggests communism might have worked out if he’d been in charge of the USSR instead of Stalin. Everyone now agrees that the McCarthy trials were ridiculously unjust, so they are perhaps an easy target for liberal outrage. But the protagonist’s reflective voice softens any agenda the author may have had and provides an ample spoonful of sugar to accompany the political message, which I agreed with for the most part anyway. It’s a long book, but engrossing. Kingsolver read the audiobook herself and did an impressive job with the various accents, Spanish and Appalachian.

Yes Please

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

2D274905957270-YesPlease.blocks_desktop_mediumAmy Poehler is responsible for my favorite sitcom of all time, Parks and Recreation, which sadly came to an end last month. Most of the book consists of stories about Poehler’s time doing improv in Chicago, backstage at SNL, and clean gossip about costars. It’s wry and fun to read, and occasionally thought-provoking. Her essay on apologies, and how she waited too long to give one for an offensive SNL sketch, was easy to relate to. I also liked the one about how she kept her cool when nominated for awards by planning elaborate pranks with co-nominees. She articulates her really smart and well-adjusted way of dealing with the ups and downs of showbiz (but really any career as well): “You have to care about your work but not the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look.” I closed the book feeling a little wiser.

Poehler’s feminist cred is well-established, from her character Leslie Knope to her organization Smart Girls at the Party, and I was glad to see her fly that flag in her book. My favorite essay in the book might be “Every Mom Needs a Wife,” which is Poehler’s response to the mommy wars, and to the microaggression “I don’t know how you do it.” Her point is basically twofold: 1) To each her own, and 2) we all need help and support. Amen.

One of the delightful things about this book is that it is so excellent in both print and audio format that I’m not sure which to recommend. The book has nice thick, smooth pages with lots of vintage pictures of young Amy, collages from her improv days, pics of present-day Poehler in clownish dress-ups, as well as report cards, margin notes, full-page color quotes and other text features. The audio has Amy’s excellent comic delivery, audio clips from Parks and Recreation, as well as guest appearances from Seth Meyers, Parks and Recreation creator Mike Schur, and her parents. Both text and audio are excellent examples of their genres, so choose your preferred content delivery method.

I hate to compare a bunch of smart, funny ladies when I think they’re all awesome, but of Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, and Amy Poehler, Poehler has written the best memoir, and that’s really saying something. I can’t wait to see what she does next, on screen and off.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

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Neil Gaiman is always wonderful, and this latest book of his is no exception. It’s strange and twisted, with some truly terrifying moments and a sad, but fitting, ending. Fairy tale There is a frame for the story, a middle-aged man returning to his hometown and remembering a remarkable incident from his childhood. So it’s mostly told from the point of view of a child, full of all the terror of a kid confronted with evil who can’t figure out what’s happening or why. The story begins when the protagonist meets a neighbor girl who takes him to another world, and he accidentally brings something sinister back with him. He has only his own childish stubbornness to fight it with as it tries to take over his family. Luckily, the neighbor girl and her mother and grandmother are able to help him.

Neil Gaiman has a gorgeous speaking voice and narrated the audiobook I listened to. You can tell how much he enjoys the act of storytelling. During happy moments in the book, he sounds genuinely happy, and during dramatic or scary moments, his voice does everything a voice can to heighten the tension. He’s such a great reader that I might not ever read another book of his in print.

The Color Purple

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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This powerful book begins with a harrowing rape scene, describes an utterly downtrodden life, and then brings us through the slow process of rebirth, reawakening, and empowerment. The domestic violence makes it hard to read at times, but by the end I was very glad I’d stuck it out. It’s gratifying to see Celie’s life gradually getting better as she watches those around her grow, and especially as she’s inspired by her friend and lover Shug Avery. It’s a very compassionate novel: even the characters that seemed horrible are reformed and forgiven by the end. There are some didactic moments, some explicit religious/spiritual teachings that I found inelegant but sensible.

It’s a voice-driven novel with obvious inspiration from Zora Neale Hurston: Celie’s dialect is full of ‘incorrect’ language, but the overwhelming impression is one of forthright honesty. I listened to an audiobook recorded by the author, and it was marvelous. Walker made the dialect seem more natural and intelligible than it might have in my head. This is definitely one of those books that is even better when read aloud.