Review: A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders

27892561_1561114333925336_3763349824787709952_nI was in the mood for some light reading, and thought a cozy mystery might hit the spot. Browsing the aisles of my favorite bookstore, A Murder of Magpies jumped out at me. The cover art pops – robin’s egg blue background with bright orange birds (magpies, I assume) perched above a typewriter. It certainly looked like a light-hearted mystery, and the back cover made claims of wittiness and humor. Perfect.

I was feeling a bit under the weather when I started reading. Thus, I can’t entirely blame the book for my mind continually wandering. Then again…

The main character is Sam, an editor working on a fashion-industry tell-all. When the author of this tell-all disappears, Sam is soon drawn into a convoluted case that could be missing person, murder, money laundering, or stalker, in essence. Quite predictably, the main character begins some minor investigations of her own. Her mother, a high-powered lawyer, helps her out; including a little mother-daughter breaking and entering. How many lawyers do you know getting down with light B&E on the weekends? With their daughters?* Of course, there is also an actual member of the police force on the case, or cases, or whatever is going on… He’s on the job, and in more ways than one. Without preamble the lead Inspector becomes romantically involved with Sam. Although this type of liaison is common enough in the mystery genre, their relationship comes out of nowhere. One minute they have a few polite interactions, then the next they are sleeping together, and within one or two hook-ups the main character is already having commitment issues and they sort of have “the talk” to define their relationship. It’s weird.

Okay, so here is where my review gets a little messy; as messy as the plot. There are all these sub-plots that have no bearing on the main mystery. In addition to the sudden romance, there are story lines with Sam’s neighbors, with coworkers and industry acquaintances, and a plot line between Sam and her biggest author who wrote a chic-lit book of questionable quality. There is little reason for these sub-plots to cross paths, or in some cases, for them to exist at all. For example, at one point Sam goes to visit her chic-lit author. During the visit, she shares some of the details of the mystery with the author and her husband. Their sole response is to suggest to Sam that she should not trust someone from one of the other sub-plots – an elderly agoraphobic neighbor whom the author and husband have never met, and have no reasonable cause to mistrust. Presumably, Judith Flanders threw in the chic-lit author for the primary purpose of introducing a red herring into the story. However, she chose as her red herring, arguably, the most unlikely character for the job – someone with no connection to the main mystery. Furthermore, it turns out that the agoraphobic neighbor was at one time a well-known architect. And one of the plot lines from the main mystery is related to money laundering through bad real estate deals. It would have been cleaner to hint that the agoraphobic neighbor may have been involved with shady real estate practices back in his architectural career. The chic-lit author sub-plot could have been omitted altogether.

I don’t want to spoil the ending. It can do that for itself, after all. I will say that once the actual crime is revealed, the motivation for it remains elusive. Further, it doesn’t really tie into what I thought was the main plot of the book.

It is all utterly, confusingly, random.

While we’re on the topic of random… After finishing the book, I realized I had no idea what the title had to do with the story. It made me question if I was, in fact, under the weather, or if I had come down with a full blown cold that was addling my brain. So I jumped online for some answers, because I typically find the Internet is chalk-full of ’em. I was pleased to see that other reviewers also took issue with the great mystery of the title that has no connection to the book upon which it is affixed. Thanks, Internet!

This book about an editor could use some editing; as if it was published one or two drafts shy of final copy. It wasn’t terrible. It also wasn’t funny. I would call this book mildly amusing. If you’re at home, under the weather, looking for a book that doesn’t require you to think too hard, you might enjoy it.

* Mom, in case you’re reading this post, please don’t get any bright ideas. I may be the Ethel to your Lucy, but I draw the line at burgling. Probably.

Review: A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders

Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

IMG_20180125_104144I feel as though I am on a first date with this book. Externally, I am doing my very best to keep it cool, whilst my inner dialogue shouts, “I think I’m in love!!!”. Which may explain why it was so difficult to write this review. I read the book two weeks ago, but have been unable to produce a decent write-up. Oh, well. Here goes nothing.

It is worth noting that Ms. Eleanor Oliphant would not wish us, complete strangers to her, to presume a first-name basis. Begging her pardon, and keeping in mind that she is, after all, a fictional character, let’s call her Eleanor.

Eleanor is proper, opinionated, and entirely unable to read social cues. She is prone to blurt out whatever comes to her mind, and frequently finds fault in others. Her coworkers make fun of her when they think she is not listening. She speaks with her mother, regularly on Wednesday evenings. Her mother (incidentally, one of the most deliciously hateful characters I’ve encountered in a book) seems even less fond of her than her coworkers. Not surprisingly, Eleanor lives alone. She is filled with heartbreaking loneliness. She questions her own existence:

“It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination. There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar”.

Then, two things happen. First, she goes to a concert and sees onstage, leading the band, her soul mate. Never mind that he’s unaware of her existence, Eleanor is infatuated:

“His eyes were light brown. They were light brown in the way that a rose is red, or that the sky is blue. They defined what it meant to be light brown”.

Secondly, she meets Raymond, the IT guy for her office. Though Raymond falls short of Eleanor’s standards of attire, hygiene, and social graces, they become friends:

“He had his hands in the pockets of his low-slung denim trousers, and was wearing a strange oversized woolen hat that I hadn’t seen before. It looked like the kind of hat that a German goblin might wear in an illustration from a nineteenth-century fairy tale, possibly one about a baker who was unkind to children and got his comeuppance via an elfin horde. I rather liked it”.

Through her friendship with Raymond, and a series of other new relationships and experiences, Eleanor’s life slowly begins to transform.

It is difficult to fault Eleanor, despite the fact that she is deeply scarred by a childhood tragedy that she either can’t or won’t recall, her personality can be a bit off-putting, she may be an alcoholic (at least on the weekends), and she is most certainly delusional. She is also outrageously funny, intelligent, strong, and touching. She may not be completely fine, but she is certainly doing her best. In this way, the book is a kind of root-for-the-underdog, late-blooming coming-of-age story, that will captivate you from start to finish.

This is a debut novel for Gail Honeyman. I hope she’s started writing another book, because, (though I’m trying desperately to keep it cool), I’m in love.

Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Review: Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw

IMG_20180119_125026The most complimentary thing I can say about this book is, I finished it. I’m not sure why I picked it up in the first place. Certainly the provocative, high-gloss cover was a selling point. I like the underwear the cover model is wearing? The title? I don’t know. My indifference to this book prevents me from providing reasonable answers to my own questions.

The novel is written in a series of short paragraphs which weave in and out of at least half a dozen different story lines all pertaining to the main character – a prostitute and heroin addict living in New York. The opening paragraph is instantly intriguing:

“I met a man, when I was a whore in Dubai, who shook my hand and then passed it to his other palm and held it there. At the time it was mildly confusing. Now I know what he was doing. He was trying to see if I was wide-open, if he could fill my mind with anything.”

Possibly, this is the best written paragraph in the entire book. Maybe there were others, equally well-crafted, and I was too disenchanted to notice.

It was difficult to settle into the characters, because the book keeps jumping around from story line to story line in short bursts. Doubtless, the fractured framework was intentional. The main character’s personality, like the flow of the narrative, is rather splintered. There will be some readers who are deeply satisfied, and find hidden depths in this literary structure. I would argue that such depths are very well hidden, indeed. Usually, I’m down with a story that ticks back and forth between narrative elements. In the case of this book, however, everything felt supremely underdeveloped. It was as if the author apathetically threw out each paragraph with nary a care for the arc of the story, nor character depth. It read as such:

Paragraph: Prostitute has gross sex with client and pretends to like it.

Paragraph: Prostitute has gross sex with another client, and pretends to like it.

Paragraph: Prostitute meets equally broken army vet in bar and begins to date him, but not really date him.

Paragraph: Prostitute partakes, often in large doses, of drugs; usually heroin, sometimes coke.

Paragraph: Prostitute flashes back to memories of a bomb-making Sheikh she dated in Dubai. She loved the Sheikh; it’s not clear why.

Mini Paragraph: Prostitute gets her nails painted.

Mini Paragraph: Prostitute agrees to be physically harmed for money, and pretends to like it.

Mini Paragraph: Prostitute buys some groceries.

I’ll stop before revealing the ending, lest I give away the entire book. I’m sure, by this point, you’re itching to know how it ends.

If you turn to the copyright page, it lists the “Subjects” the book should be filed under – “Prostitutes – Fiction. | Terrorists – Fiction. |GSAFD: Suspense fiction.”. That is a scintillating combination of subjects. Then again, I don’t know that I’d call this book suspenseful. I think it’s mostly dull with a few salacious details thrown in. The suspense part comes in the last five pages of the book – the first time the plot picks up at any noticeable pace. By then, unfortunately, it was too late for me to care.

To be fair, I do think there are people who will really enjoy Ultraluminous. It was compelling, in its own way. There was a clear narrative tone; a bit of a dark, ambivalent ambience that carries through from start to finish. It seemed as though the author knew where she wanted the story to end, but struggled a bit with the getting there. You may find it entertaining. It wasn’t my cup of tea, or rather, coffee.

Happy reading?

Review: Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw

Review | Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles by Taisia Kitaiskaia

20180105_094927~2I fell instantly in love with this book. In the introductory note from the author, Taisia Kitaiskaia claims to have “communed” with the spirit of Baba Yaga, a mercurial witch from Russian folklore. On each page that follows a question is posed in the form of an advice column query, and the answer reads like the poetic evocation of an old world medium.

According to lore, Baba Yaga is unpredictable; both kind and mean. The answers throughout the book are true to her character. She is, in turns: impatient, dismissive, funny, gentle, and compassionate. At nearly all times, she is profoundly insightful. I chuckled when Baba Yaga pronounced, “You cannot choose the fly that mucks up yr stew, but you can choose to throw the pot out the window”. And I read certain passages over again before moving on, as though Baba Yaga were speaking her truth directly to me:

“There is a field in the middle of my wood where no one goes. It is the heart of my loneliness. I go there to dance & be quiet. & I love the intensity of its silence. If I were human I would wish to take another there. You must know every contour of yr emptiness before you can know whom you wish to invite in.”

This book is like the field in the middle of Baba Yaga’s wood, with Taisia Kitaiskaia inviting us in for a peek.

In addition to loving the content, I also appreciated the overall design. The cover is a bright and inviting red, the pages are glossy, the text is a typewritten font, and beautiful folkish illustrations are interspersed throughout the book. It is altogether charming.

Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles was my first read of 2017. It felt like a good omen for the new year. I think you will feel the same.

Happy reading!

Review | Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles by Taisia Kitaiskaia