Panic by Lauren Oliver

bookcover_home_panic

A paperback has become a rare occasion with me, but it felt good to go back to the printed copy and actually feel paper, turn pages, smell the glue of the binding. I like all these things. I also liked Panic.

The novel is about the youth of small town Carp who participate in a game called Panic after graduating high school. The lure is money, the danger is dying. Heather Nill participates to guarantee that her sister Lily doesn’t have to live in a trailer park for the rest of her life. Dodge Mason wants to get back at the brother of the guy who is responsible that his sister Dayna is now in a wheel chair – a direct consequence of entering the joust finale of Panic.

From the beginning the idea reminded me of something Stephen King might have written. It would have been set in Maine instead of New York, of course, but the idea is really that good. And it’s well-written and gripping, too. Given, it is not Stephen King, and that’s okay, only, I wondered reading this book what he could have made of this idea.

Oliver is an able story-teller, she weaves a gripping tale. I liked the idea with the tigers even though the final appearance of one might have been a little predictable. That is also the part with which I had my most issues – the ending. The last chapter was a little too happy ending-like for me, especially since some of the issues – What about Heather’s mom, didn’t she try to cut into the Panic-cake? Has Dodge simply forgiven his friends? Why did Luke had to appear of all people? – weren’t solved. In the end, the money from the game made everything okay, but nobody tried to put a stop to Panic, like it’s supposed to happen. And if Panic is supposed to happen, then Carp hasn’t changed at all and is still the dreary, hopeless place it was in the beginning. Could this town produce a happy ending like Oliver wants us to believe it did?

While the ending leaves things to be discusssed, the story as a whole is very enjoyable. Panic is well-written, the characterization is very good. You suffer with Heather and Dodge. Sometimes I wish that young adult novels weren’t so hopelessly heteronormative, but that’s not exactly a new problem. It would be nice, though, to have at least one main gay character… just saying.

It’s a good read, you should check it out. I’m not sure, but there might be a sequel in the works.

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Wild by Meghan O’Brien

wildThis year sees me doing strange things – readingwise. One is that I’m giving into a passion for the supernatural that I never before acknowledged I had. Shape-shifters, vampires and witches, oh my. Yes, it’s also research for my own future endeavor to write a supernatural story but it’s also natural inclination.

Of course, there’s always the romance to go with it and Meghan O’Brien’s Wild has plenty of that. Here’s what it’s about:

When pathologist Eve Thomas is attacked by a man in Golden Gate Park, a wolf comes to her rescue and runs the attacker off. But both the masked guy and the wolf are more than they seem on first sight. The man who attacked Eve is a serial killer in the making, obsessed with Eve who helped the police catch a serial killer before. The wolf is shape-shifter Selene Rhodes with whom Eve falls in love over the course of the novel.

Life and relationships get complicated when one has to hide a part of one’s person and while love hits both women fast and passionately, complete honesty is a hard concept to learn for gun shy Selene. And dealing with a psychopathic killer isn’t easy either.

O’Brien weaves an interesting story. She’s a good story teller, her style is easy and fluid. Eve and Selene are great characters with deep emotions and some insecurities. I also like the idea of the empathetic link between them. For all those reasons, Wild is a great read and I’m confident readers will also enjoy the steamy sex and there’s plenty of it.

At times I thought it was a little bit much but as it fits very well into the story about these two, well, creatures really it at least made sense.

Something I found more difficult to take are the moments of female domination, I want to call it. In a way, it makes sense, again. A shape-shifter is at least part animal and to feel terretorial and overprotective makes sense for Selene. But why Jac, Eve’s ex-girlfriend has to exhibit these traits even more aggressively to a point where she grabs and pulls and pushes Eve around, I just don’t get. And reading scenes like that are rather off-putting. Maybe I’m too sensitive but if a woman behaves that way toward me, I’m telling her off. The whole character of Jac felt too pushy somehow and I didn’t get why Eve would want to stay friends with her. I didn’t like Jac, at all, something I regret because female homicide cops are one of my favorite lesbian stereotypes.

And with stereotypes come clichés and I felt that O’Brien uses a lot of those. I cherish a good cliché, something to be showy about and also make a little fun of. The use of chlichés in Wild seemed overdone and not at all conscious but just in a way as if to say, this has to be so because it’s always been done this way. And using chlichés in that capacity is lame, because it’s exactly how they shouldn’t be used, why they have such a bad reputation, in fact. They make the plot predictable, the characterization suffers and they become annoying when overused.

I must say that it took me a good long while to read this. That was not due to the story but because I’m still not in my regular reading-mode. I’m incredibly slow these days, but it doesn’t reflect on the story. Wild is a good romance with believable thriller elements, and steamy, animalistic sex. O’Brien wrote a great story about a shape-shifter and her characters were well thought-through. I like it, but I don’t love it.

The Killing Room by Gerri Hill

thekillingroomWhile reading this novel, I did something I don’t usually do – I read reviews about it on Goodreads (you can find me under Cori Kane :)). However, it was still so early in the novel that I couldn’t agree with the negative ones and I guess, I still don’t. There were different things that bothered me from what bothered others, but let’s discuss that after I gave you a synopsis:

Jake McCoy is recuberating from a gun shot wound in her cabin in the mountains when she meets Nicole Westbrook who’s lost. The attraction is so sudden and so overwhelming that they spend a day and a night having fabulous sex in a tent. When they part the next morning, neither expects to see the other again, but when Jake gets back to active police duty her first case of murdered women throws her back in the way of psychologist Nicole. And their mutual attraction is not the only thing they will have to fight to survive.

It’s one of Hill’s thriller-meets-romance novels but it’s not one of her better. I think the beginning – while maybe a little too clichéd with all the fabulous sex they’re having – is very well written. I like how Hill buids the two paths that ultimately lead the two women to the same spot in the woods. Hill is able to build these scenes with a wink, saying: yeah, these two lesbians happen to be at the same spot at the same time, what a coincidence. And, of course, they’re having amazing sex with each other.

It isn’t really the story that has me discontent with this novel. Hill is able to build a conclusive narrative out of an unlikely premise. It was really more some details that put me off. Like the character of Jake McCoy, for example. I didn’t have a problem with the male name, I’ve given a character a male name myself once and was surprised why people had a problem with it. But the novel is in part about the sensitive topic of domestic abuse, mostly husbands/boyfriends beating and raping women, and to have a rather dominant female cop treating the proposed victim, Nicole, with sometimes careless force, sometimes condescending protectiveness – it didn’t sit well with me. I get that as a cop, Jake is competing in a testosterone-driven field but at times she comes over as a player, then a total macho, before Hill turns her back into a sensitive female cop who’s trying to protect the woman she is falling in love with. The characterization is sometimes a little wild. I also didn’t like the premise of these two almost comically attractive cops, like tv cops, who had little going for themselves apart from their looks. It was a little ridiculous at times.

In Nicole’s case, there was also some inconsistency in her character. While she was unhappy with her life and her circle of friends from the first she’s not able to break from it or them until the end of the novel. She just repeats that it’s ridiculous to be tied down in the closeted world of powerful lesbians but she doesn’t do anything to change it. She’s trapped in repetitive arguments either against the way she lives, or the woman she is falling in love with (because ‘she’s not her type’), and it gets boring. One might have expected for her as a psychologist to acknowledge the repetitiveness and break free from it but it doesn’t happen until Hill has set the stage for a defiant dramatic gesture that comes too late in the book.

‘Staging’ is actually a good key word when it comes to the novel, unfortunately it’s all done by Hill. She sets up spaces and conventions, like The Killing Room itself, but they fall flat within the narrative. I’m not sure what happened but it all felt very staged, plotted, unnaturally build, disjointed. If Hill weren’t such a sure-footed story-teller, this book would have been unreadable. But somehow she and the reader muddle through to a somewhat fascinating showdown – only to draw out the ending unnecessarily.

In the end, I felt like the novel was simply too long, that things could have been edited more, that some phrases have been repeated too often (anyone remember ‘we have shit on this case’? yeah). It’s not an abominable read, many have liked it on Goodreads and it actually won a GCLS award in 2007, but to me wasn’t an enjoyable read. Hill can do better than this.

Vanish by Tess Gerritsen

vanishI am back to reading and back to reading crime which maybe wasn’t a good idea. Especially considering how I had to work through Vanish. Here we have another predictably solved tale that could have been great but simply wasn’t. I have written about what I like and don’t like in Gerritsen’s writing and this fifth novel of the Rizzoli & Isles-series has too much of the dislikes and too little of the likes.

As always, the idea is a good one:

Russian girls are smuggled into the U.S. to become slaves to male desires – not an uncommon occurence and certainly a story worth telling. One of these women turns up supposedly dead in Maura’s morgue and the Medical Examiner finds herself in an frightening position of discovering that the woman is not dead. Jane finds out about how alive this woman really is when she is taken hostage by her while being in the throes of childbirth. But what drives the young woman to these desperate measures, what does she want? Her tale is revealed in narrative strings that lead to the one person with too much power and a secret he wants to keep.

Gerritsen knows how to pick exciting stories, her ideas are captivating. Unfortunately, the execution is often lacking. Or, at least, I find it so. And it is just possible that Gerritsen reaches into too many of my dislikes and that nobody else finds fault with how she strings a tale.

As I have already written, I found the solution predictable. That last plot twist that should have been surprising simply wasn’t, sad but not the most disappointing part of the novel. What irked me more, was Gerritsen’s un-focus on one protagonist. As part of the Rizzoli & Isles-series one might have assumed that it would be one or both of these characters (and maybe we shouldn’t just assume this since the book was published BEFORE Rizzoli & Isles became a brandname of a very popular tv show that focuses almost entirely on the protagonists’ chemistry). But Gerritsen pretty much abandons them – and their outstanding chemistry – throughout the tale to lay more focus on Jane’s husband, Gabriel Dean. With Jane in labor and Maura without corpses to work on, Dean takes the focal point – at least for part of the story. Other parts are told from the point of view of Mila, one of the Russian girls. Only at the end, Jane resumes her duties as crime-fighting detective – with a baby strapped to her hip.

I didn’t mind the idea of Jane being a parent as much as I minded the way Gerritsen described the inequality of motherhood vs. fatherhood. It is too much of an accepted convention that motherhood means ‘more’ in the great scheme of parenthood than what a father has to bring to the table. Dean may protect his family, but Jane has to be the one to (breast)feed, cuddle, and diaper-change the baby. And Dean is therefore allowed to criticize if Jane fails to do all these things. Again, Gerritsen loses herself in gender-roles that are very traditional and traditionally set without even realizing it.

And while Maura makes the discovery of a living corpse (which is eery and wonderfully told), she wilts to bystander during the course of the novel. She doesn’t even visit her best friend and her baby, she’s simply there to introduce new characters and direct our attention toward the blistering heat of Boston in summer.

Vanish is the result of taking Rizzoli & Isles out of Rizzoli & Isles. After the initial shocks of plot introduction, the novel loses itself in boring character shifting. There’s no interaction between the two friends. The whole novel seems wobbly and out of joint. At least that is the impression I’ve had. Yes, the story is interesting but it needs a lot of time to establish its force and by the time it does, too much of the plot has been revealed to really shock the audience out of its stupor. And this is sad since the idea is quite great – yet the execution…

XO by Jeffery Deaver

XO[Once again not quite the cover I have. This is the hardcover, the paperback has the author’s name in red and the text above the title reads: Sealed with a kiss/Marked with death. Not important, just an observation.]

It’s been a while since I read Deaver but he’s still one of the few crime authors I read at all. Since the genre does not come naturally to me, I usually am very suspect of everything these authors write and also quick to criticize. For example, I realized that Deaver’s style leaves something to be desired. It has nothing to do with his colloquialisms which are unusual but certainly closer to our spoken language. it’s more like a gravelly dirt road that’s hard to maneuver.

Deaver brings back CBI agent Kathryn Dance in this crime novel. Dance is on vacation in Fresno to record music and watch a concert of her friend Kayleigh Towne who is a rising star in country music. Her vacation is cut short when Kayleigh’s ex and roadie, Bobby Prescott, is killed, presumably by a stalking fan. But the investigators are unable to prove Edwin Sharp guilty and another person dies. Dance calls in the help of forensic specialists Rhyme and Sachs to help find the killer or killers one of which might or might not be Kayleigh’s crazed stalker.

Deaver is known for his intricate plotting – at least that’s what sets him apart for me. He is not satisfied with having a murder, a detective and a perp; in his story crimes overlap, people are used as fall guys, fall guys use fall guys of their own, nothing’s as it seems to be. I started making notes of things and writing a list of suspects in the back of the book – three of whom were law enforcement officers in this case. I like engaging with these novels because it is pretty much impossible to know who the perp will be – it’s also a little annoying because the plot twists seem too far-fetched at times. It’s still fun to play, though, and this novel is no exception.

This novel made it very clear to me that I enjoy the characters of Rhyme and Sachs more than Kathryn Dance. I’m not sure why that is – maybe it has as much to do with the fact that I always see Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie as the protagonists, as with the banter between them and Thom and even the setting of New York over that of California. I relate more to Sachs than Dance, I find Rhyme’s social arrogance amusing. That is not to say that I don’t like Dance at all, I just find her personal struggles less to my liking than Rhyme’s.

With this novel, I had another problem: fans. I’m a fan – of many a thing. I’m not a stalker – I’m far too lazy. And I’m pretty sure the majority of us are. I see the necessity of stalking laws – it’s made clear in this novel that the protagonists don’t deem these laws efficient – but I’m not sure the representation of fans as crazy people who need reality checks is right. I mean, I’m aware of this trope in tv shows, movies and books but it never bothered me as much as here. Maybe because my fan-activity has been more involved these last few months, maybe because Deaver’s representation of fans in general was very negative. There is a lot of self-censorship in fandoms, there is also fan-shaming (it’s so easy to say: I’m a better fan than you are) going on.  But it’s also a community, fans stick together, they know things about each other. The kind of ‘craziness’ so many cultural venues insist exists in abundance rarely happens on fansites. I would argue that the crazed fan – if they exist – is much more of a loner because they would raise red flags even in the most obsessive fandoms. That’s at least my take as an insider – but maybe I just don’t like to be called ‘crazy’ because I happen to be enthusiastic about people and stories.

The novel is accompanied by a country album which is available for downloading on Deaver’s website. I haven’t listened to it yet but it’s certainly interesting to know.

Devil’s Rock by Gerri Hill

Karin Kallmaker is usually referred to as the Queen of Lesbian Romance but Hill is my declared favorite. I think she is constantly better – of course, it is just possible that I have yet to encounter one of her novels that will disappoint me terribly. Devil’s Rock is not that novel. It is a solid if not her best work.

Deputy Andrea Sullivan has left L.A. to forget the horrors of a mission gone awry. In Arizona, her job as deputy usually constitutes of nothing more exciting than drunk drivers and domestic violence until a serial killer makes the canyons around Sedona his dumping ground. The FBI sends Cameron Ross, ex-military special ops, to help Sullivan and her team find the killer. While working the case together the women find themselves attracted to each other but do realize that their jobs may be as much of an unsurmountable obsticle as the man who soon kills one of their own.

I like Hill’s thrillers meet romance. While they are not the best within the genre of crime they certainly make for a good combination with crime fighting star-crossed lovers. The crime does not take center stage, the chemistry between the women does, but it is still important enough that we want to see the bad guy apprehended. Hill adds some very scenic background to the mix and it is simply a joy to read her novels.

Hill also understands a lot about human relationships and does not force her characters into situations. She is sure-footed and let’s her characters set the pace for the romance. Sullivan and Ross both have demons to fight – other than the serial killer – and they face them together. Ross may not be so terribly different from Hill’s other recluse crime fighter Tori Hunter but she brings her own history to the table. I find most of Hill’s characters very down to earth, sympathetic, easy to relate to though entirely different from my life and circumstances

As I have written in another post, lesbian romance is not a very innovative genre. Love in itself is always different but to convey this on paper is a difficult task. Hill understands that love is a meeting between two people and as the people vary so does the story that describes their love. I cherish that in Hill and this is what makes her my favorite among lesbian romance writers.

Body Double by Tess Gerritsen

(I am not sure why the pictures of the covers are not quite accurate. This one is also a little different from the one I have. Well, never mind, as long as the story is the same, I guess.)

When Dr. Maura Isles comes back from a convention in Paris, she encounters a scene out of a nightmare: a woman was found dead in a car infront of her house and she looks just like the medical examiner. The investigation turns up evidence that this woman was her twin sister, and she is not the only relative Maura Isles meets during this exciting story about serial killers and other psychotic behavior.

I really like the way Gerritsen explores the friendship of Maura and Jane. The two women come from the most different places, with very different characters but at the end of the day, they genuinely like each other and nobody is more surprised about this than they are. They are unlikely allies but maybe this is why it works so well. It is cerainly one of the strongest appeals of the series and the one reason it has become a tv show because the friendship/relationship is the heart of the series (seriously, who cares about the murders on this show when Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander are eye-blazing each other?).

It is not the only appeal, though. Gerritsen writes exciting crime, baffling medical thriller. A lot of it is particularly gruesome and maybe the reader can find him- or herself in the devious Dr. O’Donnell who is a little too fascinated by the monsters she analyzes. I always found that my fascination with horror movies was a little macabre even if it also tends to lean toward the aesthetic. And I find the same fascination with Tess Gerritsen’s novels.

In this story, it may be especially strong because of that old question whether evil in human beings is inheritable. Where does it come from? Is it a question of DNA or of socialization? Gerritsen seems to tend more toward socialization and I would agree with her. But I am no expert, I am just a reader with too much time on her hands.

Well, where there is good, there is usually bad as well, and I have already talked about this in my review of The Sinner: heteronormativity rules. Maura finds herself another love interest while still fighting her attraction toward a catholic priest. And I find some disturbingly conservative gender role play at work. The difference between The Sinner and Body Double seems to be that Gerritsen is aware of it here. Mattie Purvis, a woman incarcerated during most of the story, seems to be commentary on classic heteronormative socialization and fights her way from desperate housewife to mother tigress. The subject matter demands the latter role and I would rather have had a woman who fights for her own sake rather than a baby’s but, I guess, some clichées can’t be helped. On the whole, the one thing that annoys me most is Maura’s desperate search for a man. Yes, she is forty years old, yes, she is attractive but does she really have to fall for every single male that struts her way. She’s like a cat in heat and her desperation is not very self-assertive. I can live with a single women, with a kick-ass job being the heroine of a crime series. I guess, this is where the tv show is actually better than the books.

Maybe it is a convention that we try to find a significant other for our heroines, maybe it is even a mirror held up to reality because every single (heterosexual) woman is looking for a man (I wouldn’t know) but I feel that Gerritsen pushes this point too hard. And with points that are being pushed too hard, the question of why is never far from my mind. This is where everybody is welcome to make their own interpretations. As for me, I think, I would welcome a steady love interest for Maura who is like Rizzoli’s agent Dean: a lot out of town. But, I guess, that’s just me.

It’s a good story, though. Much better than it’s predecessor and a reason to continue reading the series.

The Sinner by Tess Gerritsen

(The cover above is not quite the one that I have. The title is white on red and the picture of tv Jane and Maura is at the other side of Gerritsen’s name. Why is this important? It is not. I only now find myself a book-fetishist and it seems important to me. Also, the book “feels” nice, the cover has some kind of roughened surface, very  nice to touch… it’s a fetish, I am not going to apologize for it.)

The Sinner is the third novel with detective Jane Rizzoli but its focus lies heavily on medical examiner Dr. Maura Isles. Together, they are trying to solve the murder of a young nun who, it turns out, had just born a baby. Jane’s involvement in the case takes a personal turn when she finds out that she is pregnant but doesn’t want to inform the father, agent Gabriel Dean with the FBI. Maura’s life also takes an unexpected turn when her ex-husband, Victor Banks, turns up. The case doesn’t get any easier: more bodies turn up and the connection to the attack on the nuns is not what anybody had expected.

I may have mentioned this before but I am not a great fan of crime stories. I read little crime and if I do I read certain authors who I know and trust if you want. Jefferey Deaver is one of them (the Lincoln Rhyme series), Tess Gerritsen is another. Yet I must say that The Sinner rather falls into the category of predictable crime stories that make me mistrust the whole genre. While Gerritsen knows her medical field and writes an exciting story, the identity of the perp is not very surprising. The puzzle is too easily solved, and I am not sure that this is due to my observational skills or just because it is written that way. I think it is the latter.

Still, I like how the friendship between Jane and Maura builds in this novel. And yes, I am a Rizzles shipper and that makes it a little difficult not to hate agent Dean or roll my eyes at the heteronormativity that penetrates the novel at every turn, but I think Gerritsen describes the budding friendship between her protagonists rather well.

While I am glad that there is a book series with two female protagonists – as we all know this is rare, especially in a genre that is overwhelmingly male – at least in this installment I detected a very conservative take on gender roles. I am not sure whether this is due to Gerritsen’s writing or the subject matter. The title and the setting bind the novel to Catholic religion and this seems to set the tone of the novel as well. I have not detected anything like it in Gerritsen’s other novels but maybe I was a little inattentive before and this is indeed part of her way of writing. I can only say that I am not very happy about sentences like this:

“They shook hands, an oddly masculine greeting between two women.”

While I am aware that hand-shaking is more common in the European (or maybe just German) setting, I am pretty sure it cannot be called a male custom. Why would it be, especially since on this occacion it occurs between two professional women. This is one example where I found what I like to call “gendered nonsense” where a behavior is referred to as gendered when there is 1) no need for it and 2) makes no sense at all. I guess, I will find out soon enough whether this is part of Gerritsen’s writing or not since I have her next novel of the same series, The Body Double, among the books I will read next. I hope it’s not because it is not something I can stomach.

On the whole, I found The Sinner disappointing. While well-written and even better researched, it is predictable and on the disturbing side of heteronormativity.

Gerritsen, Tess. The Sinner. Bellantine Books, New York (2004).

 

The Shakespeare Secret by Jennifer Lee Carrell

Published in the United States as “Interred with Their Bones.”

I like to think of myself as a Shakespearean. I am not – at least not in the academic sense of the word. But I am in the very personal because I love his work. Not all of his works equally, though. As many others I did not doubt that the man William Shakespeare was very much like he is portrayed in Shakespeare in Love – a man desperate to write something good, a man driven by his muse, by his talent. An actor and a playwright. A lady’s man, a gent’s man. I did not doubt that he existed or that he was the one who wrote the plays.

That was then, this is now. I came across Carrell’s book a couple of years ago when these things were still all crystal clear to me. I am not usually a fan of crime stories but the synopsis on the book cover intrigued me and I read this book. My look on Shakespeare was never the same afterward.

Carrell tells the story of Kate Stanley who is to direct Hamlet at the new Globe Theatre in London. An old friend, Rosalind Howard, asks for Kate’s help but is soon after murdered in a Shakespearean fashion. She is only the first of several victims while Kate tries to work her way through a maze of clues toward something of unimaginable value: a manuscript of a lost play by William Shakespeare.

Cardenio is the name of the play and it tells the story of one of the minor characters of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. But it is also a saucy piece of gossipy history that a powerful family of Shakespeare’s time did not want to come to light again. But there is another factor to be taken into account: the identity of the writer himself. Who was Shakespeare?

Carrell, herself a Shakespeare scholar of some repute, relates the theories of academics and fans of the bard who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. We learn about the Earl of Oxford, Edward DeVere, who is the most likely candidate for authorship, of Delia Bacon who was convinced that Fransic Bacon was the one who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, and of an alliance of several people – including the actor Shakespeare himself – who came together to create the bard.

Mix all this with murder in the most gruesome Shakespearean fashion and you have a fascinating read, a lecture on Shakespearean academic theories and a search that spans two continents and several landmarks on the Shakespearean map. We may not know who really wrote the plays that bear Shakespeare’s name but it is a hell of a lot of fun to speculate.