Monthly Archives: October 2013

Review: The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders

16045108Title: The Invention of Murder: How The Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime

Author: Judith Flanders

Rating: 3.5 stars 

Jealous of her father’s second family, a young girl brutally stabs her toddler half sibling. A rake seduces an overly trusting woman and then kills her to profit in an insurance scam. A woman poisons her way through three husbands and a half dozen children before suspicion finally starts to fall her way.

These may sound like modern crimes, but they all took place in the nineteenth century. Many of our modern (Western) attitudes and culture, perhaps more than we would like to admit, have their roots in the Victorian age. And our obsession with crime, according to the expansive new book by social historian Judith Flanders, is no exception.

Today’s audiences have Law & Order, Dateline, 48 Hours, Bones, Castle, Criminal Minds, Investigation Discovery, Sandra Brown, In Cold Blood, Patricia Cornwell, Sherlock, and dozens and dozens of other outlets to experience true crime and true-crime inspired fiction. The Victorians? Broadsides, songs, poetry, public hangings, souvenirs, penny dreadfuls, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Sherlock Holmes (the more things change…). Things may initially seem more violent in the Victorian era’s obsession with crime and, later, detection. But really, are crowds lining up to buy pieces of hangman’s rope that far removed from the thousands watching minute-by-minute trial coverage of Jodi Arrias, or Casey Anthony?

What The Invention of Murder does well is present an exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, survey of individual crimes and how they were reported, dramatized, and investigated. What it does less well is provide context or analysis. Flanders profiles the rise of crime throughout the nineteenth century, and the influence of journalism on the emerging fields of detective work and scientific analysis. But it feels as if their are links missing; how is told, but not why. It’s clear that attitudes had shifted drastically from the early nineteenth century, when crimes would be ripped wholesale into melodrama for the stage, to the late nineteenth century, when Jack the Ripper and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde finally brought home the darkness inherent in the human mind. But quite why those attitudes shifted I don’t think I could tell you, despite over 460 pages of reading about it.

The crimes detailed in The Invention of Murder are fascinating, make no mistake. And, rather unexpectedly, it turned into a good source for literary criticism when Flanders turned to talking about serialized novels, Dickens, Collins, Thomas Hardy, and others. But unless you are particularly interested in crime, or a serious student of the Victorian era, this book will probably be more frustrating than it is worth.


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Review: The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

2890090Title: The Republic of Thieves (Gentleman Bastards #3)

Author: Scott Lynch

Rating: 3 stars

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

I’m developing a bad habit of reading second and third books of series before book one. I don’t always look as closely at series titles as I should; sometimes this habit works out, sometimes it is incredibly frustrating.

When it came to The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch, I was fully aware that it was the third of the series when I requested it. I’ve heard great things about the Gentleman Bastards series, and I fully intended to read the first two books before I wrote this review. Things don’t always go as planned, however, and I haven’t managed to get to them yet.

You don’t necessarily need prior knowledge of the series to understand The Republic of Thieves. It took me awhile to get my footing, but once I had an adequate picture of the backstory the novel took off. But I’m still kicking myself, because I think that the things that annoyed me about Republic (and there were a few) would have gone down easier if I was more comfortable with the series.

The plot is complex and dense. On the run from their shady past, thieves Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen start out in mortal danger. Locke has been poisoned, and the only avenue of escape is a sinister Bondsmage called Patience. The pair agree to become pawns in an election game in Karthain as Patience’s representatives, where they are pitted against Locke’s lost love Sabetha. In a parallel, complimentary story, young Locke pines over Sabetha while he and his gang are sent to the city of Espara to act in a play called The Republic of Thieves, which faces one obstacle after another.

There is, quite frankly, a lot going on here. Either one of the plots would have been a novel in and of itself, and while they complemented each other thematically I sometimes found myself longing for a breath (in addition to the two plots, there was also a fairly complete play; Lynch is astoundingly ambitious). Lynch juggles one complicated situation after another, and everything is resolved admirably, which I really respect. The novel was definitely impressive, but not always fun.

So now, to those reasons why this is a 3 star book and not 4 stars.

First, the cursing and general wittiness. I’m quite a fan of witty rejoinders, and I have no problem with cursing in most instances, but in combination in this book they were excessive. Every single character was on all the time, with a pithy remark or a smart turn of phrase. And the types of cursing seemed very modern to my ears. I don’t expect fantasy novels to exclusively use Middle English or things of that nature by any means, but it just rubbed me wrong.

Second, sequelbait. I was having trouble seeing any stakes in a random political game in a city the characters weren’t from and would soon leave, and then I got to the part of the novel that set up the next direction of the series. Which meant that most of the 565 pages (!) of the book, however enjoyable they may have been, were mainly prelude to a story that hasn’t happened yet.

My third reservation comes with a trigger warning and a spoiler warning, though I will try to be as generic as possible. At a certain point, to keep the play subplot rolling forward, Lynch includes a brief attempted rape that leads to a murder. The murder cover-up is incredibly overcomplicated, and the rape and who it involved felt cheap and manipulative. Not to mention the fact that within two days all of the horny teen conspirators, including the victim, are back to having sex with each other. Yeah…no. I just didn’t buy anything related to that development.

So, The Republic of Thieves was not perfect. It was often dense and difficult, and some of the plot choices did not pay off. But I’m fascinated by the worldbuilding, impressed with the construction of the narrative, and still eager to read the rest of the series. In general, I liked these characters and look forward to spending more time with them.

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Celebrating Short Stories

As I mentioned earlier, Alice Munro received the Nobel Prize for Literature this past Thursday. My favorite thing to come out of this award is the renewed attention being showed to short stories. It’s a form I practice every day. Some people dismiss short stories, which I don’t understand. What better to read in today’s frantic, busy world–you can read short stories on your phone, on your lunch break, on the bus, pretty much anywhere.

I’ve seen lots of bloggers talking about their favorite short story collections this week, and I wanted to share my own. For this blog I’ll be sticking to single author collections, though I love many multi-author compilations as well!

Sherwood Anderson- Winesburg, Ohio

Favorite story: “Paper Pills”

Dan Chaon- Among The Missing

Favorite story: “Prosthesis”

Dan Chaon- Stay Awake

Favorite Story: “To Psychic Underworld:,” “The Farm, The Gold, The Lily-White Hands”

Jhumpa Lahiri- Interpreter of Maladies

Favorite story: “Sexy”

Jhumpa Lahiri- Unaccustomed Earth

Favorite Story: “Nobody’s Business”

The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov

Favorite story: “Music”

Flannery O’Connor- A Good Man Is Hard to Find

Favorite story: “A Stroke of Good Fortune”

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya- There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself

Favorite story: “Like Penelope,” “Hallelujah, Family!”

Karen Russell- St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves

Favorite story: “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” “Haunting Olivia”

What are your favorites? Tell me in the comments!


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Review: The Last Winter of Dani Lancing by P.D. Viner

17262454Title: The Last Winter of Dani Lancing

Author: P.D. Viner

Rating: 1 star

I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

This is one of those books that I was really excited to read. A dynamite cover (though it’s changed since I requested it from NetGalley, perhaps a sign of things to come). Good title. Cover copy that promised a riveting psychological thriller. But perhaps this is a sign that I should stop anticipating books so fiercely, because not only did The Last Winter of Dani Lancing fail to live up to the promise it showed, it ended up the worst reading experience I’ve had all year. And with some of the duds I’ve come across recently, that’s really saying something.

Twenty years ago, college student Dani Lancing was raped and murdered. The crime was never solved, and two decades later her parents have split up, her old boyfriend Tom is a police detective working on cases of sexual violence and murder against women, and new advances in DNA testing offer a slim chance of resolution in Dani’s case. When her mother Patty learns of this, things pretty much go to hell in a handbasket very, very fast.

The best thing I can say about The Last Winter of Dani Lancing is that it would make a fantastic Lifetime movie. The story started out fairly interesting, if cliche, but the leaps of logic and plot twists that brought it to it’s end were so increasingly improbable and ridiculous that I thought at times P.D. Viner was a high-school-aged fanfiction writer. If you’re committed to reading this novel, you may want to skip the rest of this review as there are spoilers I could find no way around in trying to convey how batshit crazy this plot got.

There were three main problems with the writing to take into account before even getting to the plot. First, the novel is told in present tense. This isn’t an automatic dealbreaker for me, but I really don’t like it. It also makes no concessions to chronology, jumping around Dani’s childhood, the murder, the aftermath, and the present day with incredible frequency. Again, not a dealbreaker, but not fun. Finally, the close-third POV jumps between characters without any pattern whatsoever, sometimes even within the same paragraph. Most of the POV characters are the main three and the villain, but some are so ancillary to the action that it completely threw me out of the story.

None of these writing problems, though signs of a weak novelist, bothered me much on their own. For quite awhile I was planning to give this book 3 stars. But then there were the characters, and then they started doing things.

First, we have Jim, who actually doesn’t do much of anything, except lie around the house being haunted by his daughter. That’s right, Dani Lancing is a ghost, and she’s been hanging out with dear old dad for twenty years. He takes her on walks to the park, luxuriates in the memories of her idyllic childhood, and doesn’t really do anything else for twenty years, until his ex-wife calls him to break her out of a hospital. (Dani, meanwhile, kind of just hangs there, with complete ghost amnesia, adding nothing to the plot.)

Next there’s Patty, Dani’s mom, an ex-journalist with Parkinson’s whose been living on bitterness for two decades and collapses a lot at helpfully plot-appropriate moments. Despite (because of?) a bad relationship with her daughter, she’s obsessed with revenge, and when she thinks she has pinned the man who killed her, she (I repeat, a 60 year old woman with a disease that makes her frail and prone to passing out a lot) kidnaps and murders him. This turned out to be probably the most realistic situation in the entire book.

Then, there is Tom. Oh, Tom. How I hated this little shit.

Once upon a time Dani Lancing gave him a kiss. She was thinking of someone else, they in fact never dated, and she never wanted anything to do with him romantically. And yet she is the great love of his life, he has spent twenty years thinking of no one else, and has been given the moniker The Sad Man because rapes and murders of poor, innocent girls make him cry. This was enough to make me turn away in disgust, but oh, it got so much worse.

Not only did Tom fancy that he was going to marry Dani Lancing (whenever she just came to her senses, whenever he  could convince her that he was her protector and savior), he basically assumed ownership of her. And that meant anyone who she was in a relationship with, or anyone who besmirched her good name, was fodder for  extreme physical violence and that he could use his status as a police officer to frame them for felonies. Nice guy, right? Really the kind of hero you root for, you know, cause he cries a lot.

The truth behind Dani’s death is that she was a drug addict (she becomes a full on smack addict in the course of like, three weeks) who was passed around as a sex object between some gang members and overdosed. Tom finds this out, and goes through extreme measures to cover it up, because his poor, precious Dani was so pure and lovely that it’s better to have twenty years thinking there’s a psycosexual killer on the loose than to have anyone say anything bad about her. This is all revealed by a mustache-twirlingly cardboard villain who’s after Tom for revenge (and who could blame him? Tom sucked). Dani’s ghost ascends to heaven in peace, the villain is knocked into a coma, everyone forgives Tom (cause he did it for his ONE TRUE LOVE, guys), and things pretty much end up hunky dory. Jim and Patty even end up reuniting because there’s nothing like kidnap and murder (with a horrifying bonus suicide thrown in) to make you want to dance on hillsides and renew your vows.

This novel was so bad. I felt incredibly sorry for Dani, who wasn’t so much a character as a blank canvas for everyone to project their expectations on. The plot was tortured; the characters flat, cliche, and universally unlikable. And if this is held up as an example of an intense psychological thriller, well, perhaps I’m done with the genre for awhile.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Book Turn-Offs


It’s that time again, Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Today’s topic is Top Ten Book Turn-Offs. These are the things that I see most often that I really, really hate.

1. Present Tense- present tense can be well done in novels in very, very rare exceptions. Most of the time, it’s not good enough to carry an entire novel. And it’s a huge industry trend right now, driving me absolutely bonkers.

2. Hidden short story collections- I’ve said it a billion times, slapping “A Novel” on a book does not actually make it a novel. And the “novel in stories”? Don’t get me started. If you’ve written a collection of short stories, just come out and say it.

3. New Adult- what even is this? Is it supposed to make older people not be embarrassed to be caught reading something tagged YA? It feels like such a false, desperate marketing ploy.

4. Plot Moppets- The dimpled, angelic, perfect child who dispenses wisdom beyond his or her years, often in cutesy, lisping dialect, or gets into picaresque, plot-advancing scrapes.

5. Fat hate- I’m always stunned when I come across fat hate thrown casually in otherwise okay books. It’s almost like in our society it’s the last acceptable denigration (can’t make racist jokes, can’t make gay jokes…hey, there’s always fat people to make fun of or express disgust for!)

And on the flip side:

6. The overweight/disabled/gay/persecuted minority token side character who stands up bravely in the face of all adversity and inspires the much more conventional protagonist to better behavior.

7. Head Hopping. I’m not averse to multiple POVS, but if you’re going to use them have some sort of structure in place, don’t just hop back and forth from one to another with impunity. It gives a reader whiplash.

8. “As you know, Bob…”- exposition in dialogue. There are many good ways to give readers necessary information, almost always more interesting than infodumps in awkward, clunky dialogue.

9. Pretentious/overly privileged characters- This is a tough one to explain, because sometimes pretentious or privileged characters are needed to convey a certain feeling or sense of place, and the reader isn’t necessarily supposed to like them. Where it really starts to bother me, I think, is when it’s clear that the author believes they are describing an authentic, down-to-earth, average person and instead they read as overly priveleged.

10. Automatic series. Especially when reading fantasy/sci-fi and YA, sometimes I just long for a standalone, but it feels like everything comes in threes. A lot of times, material is stretched to three books when one or two would have served just fine.


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