July 12, 2012 · 11:53 am
A Bad Day for Mercy: A Crime Novel by Sophie Littlefield (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 272 pages)
A Bad Day for Scandal: A Crime Novel by Sophie Littlefield (Minotaur Books – Reprint Edition, $14.99, 304 pages)
Stella Hardesty rides again! Author Sophie Littlefield certainly has a talent for creating fresh and amusing mystery novels. There’s a bit of down home in her main character, Stella Hardesty. Her would-be boyfriend, Sheriff “Goat” Jones, makes a mighty fine love interest for followers of this series. Stella’s friends and neighbors, mostly the ladies, come to her when husbands or boyfriends need a bit of attitude adjustment.
Usually, this reviewer would not read two books back-to-back that were written by the same author. Well, breaking rules can be a whole bunch of fun. Scandal and Mercy are the latest in the series. They were preceded by Sorry and Pretty. Each book can stand on its own merits; however, there’s much to be gained by starting with the first book for readers who are new to Ms. Littlefield’s writing.
“This here’s the hospital,” Chip said, as they arrived in front of an imposing clot of buildings featuring a big square limestone main structure and any number of added-on bits in a variety of architectural styles, making the whole thing look like a LEGO set designed by a drunk and hostile modernist.”
The presenting challenge might be rescuing her sister’s stepson from creditors who are seeking repayment for gambling debts, or a snotty former classmate of Stella’s who needs assistance with disposing of a dead body. Stella does not shrink from a formidable opponent or smelly situation. These characters are not the ones you’ll find in a British mystery – proper and polished; however, the lessons learned as the mystery is solved are every bit as meaningful and undoubtedly more poignant.
Review copies were provided by the publisher.
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September 8, 2011 · 7:27 am
Good Graces: A Novel by Lesley Kagen (Dutton, $25.95, 337 pages)
“The almighty works in mysterious ways, ma cherie.”
It’s 1960. You’re a young girl living in a quiet suburb of Milwaukee, in a community whose foundation is the Feelin’ Good Cookie Factory (the closer one lives to the odoriferous factory, the poorer one’s family is), with your cunning sister Troo. The problem is that the adults in the community seem to be clueless to the problems in their midst, including juvenile delinquency. Troo’s reporting of the troublemaker known as Greasy Al means that he’s been sent to a juvenile detention facility, which seems like good news until you find out from your police detective step-dad-to-be (he’s engaged to your mother) that the evil kid has escaped. Now it’s up to Troo to come up with a perfect plan for dealing with Greasy Al’s imminent return.
As Troo’s sister, you know that she’s no amateur when it comes to this business. You previously had a problem with a male summer camp counselor, and Troo made him disappear from the face of the earth. So now you’re hoping that Troo’s plan for Greasy Al is not too efficient… And just when you’re dealing with this, you learn from other kids in the neighborhood that one of the respected pillars of the community is making young boys “do bad things,” which immediately changes everything. Now Troo puts Plan A on the back-burner while she develops a new plan to bring law and order to your town.
You and Troo must rely on a couple of other youngsters to help you – one male and one female – and you have to hope that they can keep their lips sealed forever if Troo’s new solution works. You both think you can count on Artie and Mary Lane, especially the latter since: “She’s been tortured by the best in the world – nuns. So detectives asking her a couple of questions wouldn’t bother her at all.”
Good Graces, written in a child’s voice, is simply one of the most enjoyable novels that I’ve read in years (at least three or more). Kagen’s ability to write in an adolescent’s voice is remarkable, and she has fun toying with the artifacts of the time, such as the TV shows Queen for a Day and Howdy Doody. Adult readers who grew up in less prosperous homes will identify with the characters, as will Catholics and lapsed Catholics. The young characters in the tale attend Catholic school and learn that the nuns can indeed inflict pain when it’s needed and otherwise.
At its base, this is a fine and fun morality play in which children save a community and the almost-brainless adults are never the wiser. It’s the sequel to Whistling in the Dark, and I can hardly wait for the third part of Lesley Kagen’s true justice trilogy.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Moving, funny, and full of unexpected delights… Kagen crafts a gorgeous page-turner about love, loss, and loyalty, all told in the sparkling voices of two extraordinary sisters.” Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You.
Good Graces was released on September 1, 2011.
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Tagged as 1960, a novel, adolescents, book review, Catholic school, Catholics, child protagonist, children's voice, Dutton, family novel, fiction, Good Graces, Greasy Al, Howdy Doody, Joseph Arellano, Joseph's Reviews, juvenile delinquents, Kindle Edition, Law and Order, Lesley Kagen, Milwaukee, New York Times bestselling author, Nook Book, nostalgia, nuns, Only the Good Die Young, poverty, Queen for a Day, recommended books, revenge, siblings, sisters, suburbia, television, the 60s, Troo, true justice, TV shows, Wisconsin
September 7, 2010 · 4:44 pm
I’d Know You Anywhere: A Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow)
There are writers who, like certain songwriters, can be admired more than they can be enjoyed. In the field of songwriting, the team of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen – collectively known as Steely Dan – has often been praised for their tunes steeped in irony even if their songs are more clever (more intellectual) than charmingly fun. I kept thinking of Steely Dan and, especially, the song “Reeling in the Years” as I read this latest novel from the prolific writer Laura Lippman.
Lippman’s skills are to be recognized as she persuades a reader to turn over 370 pages of a story that does not amount to a lot. There are two protagonists. There’s the now-38-year-old Eliza Benedict, who was kidnapped and raped and held for 39 days by Walter Bowman, who sits on death row in Virginia awaiting his execution. Bowman is a spree-killer convicted of two murders in two states, but he may have killed as many as eight young girls. Why he didn’t kill Eliza (then known as Elizabeth) when she was 15 is supposed to be a question that puzzles everyone. Except that Bowman was captured after a simple traffic stop. The notion that he might have killed Eliza had he not been taken into custody when he was seems to elude everyone here.
Although Lippman gives her readers a lot of twists and turns and feints, there’s not much drama in this crime drama, and not much thrill in this psychological thriller. It is interesting enough, but just enough.
Eliza never comes to life, especially as she displays no anger against Bowman. When Bowman contacts her just weeks before his scheduled death, she becomes his strangely witting accomplice without much effort. Eliza is a character that’s simply not present in her own life: “Her time with Walter – it existed in some odd space in her brain, which was neither memory or not memory. It was like a story she knew about someone else.”
A character in the book, a hack writer who wrote a “fact crime” book about Bowman, complains that he’s just simply not as interesting a criminal as, say, Ted Bundy. That’s certainly the case as we never come to know what it is that made Bowman a killer, nor how it is that this man with a said-to-be just average IQ is suddenly cunning enough to use his victim Eliza in a last-minute plan to gain his freedom. Something key is missing here as the author admits: “(Her) mother had long believed that Walter had experienced something particularly wounding in his youth.”
Since neither of the two characters ever becomes fully realized, it’s hard to care about whether Eliza will, in the end, forgive Walter and/or help him avoid execution. The reader will, however, wonder why this now happily married woman is willing to risk her contented life for someone who harmed her. Since Eliza does not know herself, she certainly will never come to know or constructively forgive her former captor.
A significant flaw in this crime drama is that the interactions with participants in the criminal justice system feel like flyovers, neither grounded nor concrete. The lawyers seem to be portrayed more as actors (attention being given to how they look and dress) than as advisors.
In the end, this reader admires Lippman’s skills, her persistence and her success. However, reading this novel was a bit like trying to listen to that Steely Dan song “Reeling in the Years” as it plays in another room, down the hall, too far removed to be heard clearly.
This review was written by Joseph Arellano. A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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November 15, 2009 · 1:00 pm
This crime novel is a tale of vengeance sought by Stella Hardesty for her clients, women who have suffered abuse at the hands of their husbands or boyfriends. The setting is present-day rural Missouri. Stella’s clients are locals as well as women from neighboring states. The story might take place nearly anywhere in the U.S. as domestic violence occurs in relationships when a bad attitude and a lack of respect for others combine with low impulse control. Perpetrators and victims come in all sizes, races and backgrounds, regardless of economic circumstances.
Stella and Chrissy Shaw, a young woman who is the victim of physical abuse and the mother of an 18-month-old boy, form an unlikely team that sets out to take care of business when Chrissy’s child is kidnapped. They begin their mission in a business relationship and grow it into a strong and respectful friendship.
Stella is fifty and she prides herself on being alert, observant and willing to wade into a dangerous situation. She works out, practices martial arts and carries weapons of all types. Knowing one’s own strengths and assets can be powerful. In the midst of a tense situation, one of many in this book, Stella says to a perpetrator, “You know what your mistake was, you hesitated. You thought you had me because you’re young. But badass comes in all ages.”
Bad Day is not for the faint of heart. But it is quite funny, offering the humor that comes with justifiable vindictiveness against those who have harmed us. Sophie Littlefield likely had a great time putting together this well written, tongue-in-cheek, story. The author’s photograph is of someone who appears to be far more innocent than the characters in her tale. (Author Littlefield lives near San Francisco.)
A fun read. Well recommended.
Review by Ruta Arellano
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Tagged as A Bad Day for Sorry, book review, books, chick lit, crime novel, domestic violence, feminism, humor, Joseph's Reviews, Missouri, novel, popular fiction, revenge, Ruta Arellano, San Francisco, satire, Sophie Littlefield