Book Review: “Eleventh Grave in Moonlight” by Darynda Jones

Disclaimer: I picked this week’s book in a rush and didn’t realize until I started reading it that it is the eleventh in an ongoing series. This won’t effect my overall impression of the book. However, it may mean that I have missed some nuances that could inform my reading of it, and therefore this review.

There’s several elements of Eleventh Grave in Moonlight by Darynda Jones that don’t work very well on their own. The writing style, while a few steps above cheap paperback sci-fi/fantasy writing, is still only just adequate. (It is full of the dreaded one-word paragraphs typical of escapist fiction that annoy me so much.) The humor is downright corny, garnering the occasional chuckle but nothing more. There are multiple plots that in some cases don’t even connect to each other and sometimes meander too much on their own.

Yet somehow, this book works when all of these elements are combined together. Jones’ lighthearted style makes for a breezy, quick read. The reader begins to really care for the main character Charley Jones as she’s trying to sort out her family troubles and work on multiple cases as a private investigator. And it doesn’t hurt the story as Charley is only partially human but mostly a god (actually, thirteen gods that have combined together—or were eaten by the most dominant war god, it’s left up in the air) who also works as the current grim reaper.

The book begins with a quick chapter detailing Charley’s life so far as she talks to a skeptical psychiatrist (in other words, we get a recap of the book series so far). The psychiatrist finally believes Charley when she realizes that she’s actually been dead for a year and Charley is there to help her cross over to the afterlife. We then get to see Charley at work, taking a case from a man, Shawn Foster, who was adopted—or rather, abducted—by the same “foster parents” that did the same to Charley’s husband, Reyes (who is also a supernatural being, a demon who is the brother of Jehovah).

Throughout the book we learn more about the Fosters and their religious fanaticism, a stalker harassing her secretary’s daughter, a malevolent god running amok on Earth that Charley has to ultimately chase, and what exactly has been keeping her secretary’s husband, a police officer, away so often from home. Again, these plots don’t exactly connect cleanly throughout the book but they’re entertaining on their own. I actually found myself holding my breath as the stalker plot reached it’s conclusion, and I started getting angry at the Fosters’ as the details of their fanaticism started to reveal themselves. Jones’ writing allows the characters to feel real, garnering empathy from the reader.

Eleventh Grave in Moonlight left more questions than answers, leading to the next book. The enjoyment of this one piqued my curiosity for what happens in the next one but I can’t say I’m entirely hooked on the series. I enjoyed it as I read it but I didn’t fall in love with it. But if you’re looking for escapism with supernatural beings and humorous crime stories, this series is worth a shot.

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This Week’s Book Review (Finally): “Pull Me Under” by Kelly Luce.

In Kelly Luce’s Pull Me Under, Rio Silvestri’s husband Sal is obsessed with puzzles. Originally this looks like a quirk thrown in for one of the secondary characters, but as the book goes on we realize that it represents the puzzle of Rio’s life that she’s struggling to put together. There are not only pieces that she kept hidden from Sal but also herself, and even when she does see them they never quite fit together correctly.

Rio was born in Japan as Chizuro Akitani to an American mother and a Japanese father. She felt a deep connection to her mother who didn’t conform to Japanese rules of society and an estrangement to her father, a celebrity violinist. At age twelve Chizuro killed a fellow classmate who bullied her constantly. She was sent to a detention center with little connection to the outside world. Her mother had already committed suicide by the time of the killing, and her father only visited her once which didn’t go well.

When Chizuro reached twenty she was released and in an effort to escape her former life she changed her name to Rio and moved to America. There she married Sal Silvestri and together they raised a daughter, Lily. Rio told Sal that she was estranged from her father but never told him about killing her classmate, instead making up a fictitious teenage life in Japan.

One day, when Chizuro was in her thirties, she received a package from Japan with a letter informing her that her father died. Despite her feelings for her father the contents of the package she decides to take a trip to Japan to go to her father’s funeral. Despite her feelings for her father, the mysterious contents of the package compels her to go, as well as some force—perhaps a desire for closure—draws her towards her old home. She reflects on this as her plane is about to land: “I’m attached to a tether. The tether is firm and gentle and it’s drawing me toward Japan. It’s a new sensation, and not uncomfortable. It feels like the plane is not propelled but pulled, an entire island nation reeling me in.”

The book does contain such language and imagery like the puzzles which feel a bit too much at times, as if the reader can’t figure out what’s going on or what the meaning is behind certain moments in Rio’s life. It’s as if Rio feels like she needs to explain every detail of her thought process with random occasional symbolism. But the story is compelling enough that it keeps the reader going, especially when Rio decides to take a spiritual pilgrimage with her former teacher, Miss Danny. To describe what happens when Rio reunites with Danny and they go on the pilgrimage together would give away too much important plot information. But from that point on Rio’s life begins to spiral out of control, and many puzzle pieces start to fall into place—including ones she didn’t realize were missing.

The book’s narrative may explain more than it has to, and the story ties everything together a bit too neatly, if unpleasantly for Rio, but it’s still well worth the read. People who grew up failing to meet the expectations of their culture and parents may also feel a connection here, as Rio plays out the fantasy that those of us bullied in school entertained. The problem for her is that she has to face the consequences of that decision well into her adult life.

Postponing this week’s book review.

As I said in a recent post, I was planning on postponing my book review this week, but I didn’t realize how little reading I actually got done over the weekend. I was at times too busy, too tired or too distracted by how pissed off I was about something that happened at work on Friday (which I won’t go into) that I wasn’t able to get much reading done. Even when I tried sitting down with the book I plan on reviewing next I couldn’t focus enough on it to pay attention to what was happening, even if I wasn’t trying to take notes.

(As you can see, I didn’t even get around to writing any sort of blog post this weekend, that’s how distracted I was. I should have probably written something, even if it was crap, but never mind.)

So, I’m going to dedicate the next day or so after work to reading the book and writing the review. I already resolved to try working on my creative writing more on the weekends anyway (although guess how that went with this last one), so I can’t make myself feel bad. Reading a book and writing a review about it must count for some intellectual development for myself and some enjoyment for others, so it can’t be all bad, right?

Monday Book Review: “Normal” by Warren Ellis.

Does Normal by Warren Ellis end abruptly, wrapping up the mystery too quickly or is it just the right length to make it’s point about the way the world is headed? For that matter, is it a mystery with sociopolitical commentary as it’s backdrop, or is it a comment on the future of the surveillance state with a mystery as part of its plot? The book’s very nature is in question (which may be intentional), however it doesn’t leave the reader unsatisfied.

In a world faced with total doom (although the book never specifies what this doom is, or if it’s just an effect of mass paranoia) futurists risk their sanity from their work. They get too depressed and go insane—something referred to in the book as the “abyss gaze.” As a result these futurists are sent by their employers to a facility known as Normal Head in Oregon.

The book follows Adam Dearden, a futurist who recently snapped, as he enters Normal Head. Immediately upon entering he witnesses another futurist who fashioned a shank out of a toothbrush and is demanding from the orderlies access to the Internet (“I only wanted to see some pictures of cats.”) He quickly begins meeting other patients of the facility, such as the overly-aggressive, confrontational Lela (who is possibly there because of cannibalism) and Clough, who preaches about the evils of money and is obsessed with the cartoon Danger Mouse. Adam tries to adjust to life in Normal Head despite his occasional breakdowns and blackouts.

Before too long Adam has a meeting with Normal Head’s doctor, Dr. Murgu (it’s never specified what kind of doctor she is, but she appears to be a type of psychologist). He has a hard time communicating with her at first, described by a passage that also serves as a clear example of Ellis’ writing style in the book:

He just nodded. This is how the cycle went. Emotional incontinence, and then hyperfocused on the environment but drained of words. No sensory input/output. Human-shaped camera. Two facets of terminal panic, he supposed.

I won’t give away too many spoilers but I will say that “Human-shaped camera” is a nice piece of foreshadowing.

Suddenly one of the patients disappears from his room, only to be replaced by a huge mass of insects crawling over his bed and throughout is room. Adam decides he needs to investigate this mystery with the help of all of the patients.

There’s more to the book but it’s hard to not give away too many spoilers, considering it’s less than 150 pages long. But the solution to the problem that everybody at Normal Head faces deals with constant surveillance by drones, which in turn is the project that Adam was working on when he stared into the abyss for too long. Finally he solves the mystery and with the help of the other patients, saves the day.

Yet he still attempts suicide as the other patients and orderlies are transgressing against the villains of the story—villains that go unseen in the main narrative, nor are they ever actually named, which only drives home the point about the surveillance state watching you behind the curtain. The suicide attempt lands Adam back in Dr. Murgu’s office, in which he explains that he helped create the world in which they were living, and he doesn’t want to get better and go back to live in the outside world which he sees as hopeless. Dr. Murgu responds with “Adam. You don’t live in the world anymore. You live in Normal. The only people watching are us now. This is a safe place.”

Dr. Murgu may have not been part of the villains’ plot, nor was she aware of the double-meaning of her statement. However, it clearly displays the book’s tendency to beat the reader over the head with its message. This combines with cartoon-ish characters and sometimes pretentious prose. Yet it’s done so cleverly that the book avoids dipping into the realm of cliché. The aforementioned potentially dangerous elements in the narrative, which combined with its conciseness, give it a tension that heightens the book’s impact.

Book review: “Land of Love and Ruins” by Oddný Eir. (Delayed due to power outage)

I did write the following review yesterday but before I finished we lost power because of the blizzard. So I did write this when I promised I would but couldn’t publish it because I couldn’t connect to the Internet at home.

The narration in Land of Love and Ruins by Oddný Eir (translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton) travels through time both forwards and backwards as well as through space (primarily through Iceland) both effortlessly and in broad strokes. Yet it isn’t lacking in detail by a long shot. Take for example a passage in which the main character and her boyfriend Birdy decide while during a trip in London to visit some book shops: “Today we visited bookshops. First went to say hello to a porcupine, sharpening its snout in doubts.” The paragraph continues without any mention again to the porcupine, as if that one seemingly innocuous detail was simply part of the bookshop experience.

This makes sense, as this autobiographical novel doesn’t so much have a plot as it threads together glimpses throughout the narrator’s life in dramatic arch, focusing mostly around the early years in her relationship with Birdy, an ornithologist. All of the sections of the book are written as diary entries written on holidays (which may even be from Eir’s own diary—we find out about two thirds into the book that the main character’s name is indeed Oddný). The first entry takes place on the Feast of St. Lucy, the patron saint of the blind and includes an observation that love is blind before the two lovers meet.

The book centers around Oddný’s relationship with Birdy but doesn’t focus on it. (For one long stretch of the story Birdy has gone to live in a cave by himself to find himself. While it’s mentioned from time to time, life goes on for everybody else.) Oddný also explores her relationship with her archeologist brother, Owlie as well as with her female ancestors and their history in Iceland. Oddný’s relationship with the land takes a major role in the book with her frequent traveling, both by herself and with others. She offers her thoughts on conservation of Iceland’s resources and how this ties in with national identity, and how this could be lost with economical development.

At one point Oddný accompanies Owlie, an archeologist, on a dig and they discover ruins of an ancient dwelling which may be Celtic in nature. All of Oddný’s thoughts on land and heritage tie together in this one site. Again, the thoughts on the ruins themselves are fleeting and mixed with all of her other observations as she goes throughout her daily life. But given the awe and excitement she expresses and the fact that the ruins touch on many of the major themes, it feels as the book’s centerpiece—even to the point that diagrams of the site appear at the beginning and end of the novel.

Land of Love and Ruins can be a challenging read at first, considering the lack of a discernible plot on the surface. Eir’s philosophical observations make the reader feel that there’s much more under the surface—there may be at times, but it also is a representation of how our thoughts and observations on the world are just that—fleeting, just like our connection with the land and the heritage that we tie to it.

This week’s book review will be published tomorrow.

I have to put off my book review until tomorrow. I did finish the book on time this week but reviews tend to take me a little longer to write than “normal” blog posts. I might end up getting home early tomorrow because we’re expecting a blizzard, so I’ll have that extra time to work on it then, anyway. It seems like winter just wants to hang on a little bit longer.

I know it seems like too mundane a thing to report, but as personal acquaintances have commented on yesterday’s post—yes, I got around to cleaning my bathroom. There’s one less chore that I have to do around here.

Anyway—yeah, there’s a book review coming tomorrow. Here’s hoping that I don’t have to spend too much time shoveling.

Monday Book Review: “The Refugees” by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Pulitzer-prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees is a collection of short stories from the past two decades centered around Vietnamese Americans—although it does not necessarily center around people seeking refuge from the country. For example, the story The Other Man is told from the perspective of a young man fleeing the country in the seventies to stay with a gay couple in San Francisco, one of whom he eventually sleeps with—something that his conservative family (who sends him a letter claiming to now side with the Communists and shows disdain about the “sinfulness” of America) would disapprove of. Characters aren’t just refugees from the country or the Communists but of an older way of life.

The process can be reversed as well. An American veteran of the Vietnam war, who flew across the country dropping bombs, returns to the country years later to visit his daughter who now lives there. She, the liberal who holds a grudge against him, seeks refuge from her old life and he, the conservative, can’t understand her. Or the son of a refugee from Vietnam seeks refuge in the form of his ex-wife, even though he doesn’t realize it—it takes the father’s urging for them to reconnect.

Even these descriptions of the above mentioned stories are brief summaries of just portions of the stories. Nguyen weaves intricate plots around each other with so much detail that after each read it felt more like a novel than a short story. As I mentioned at the beginning of this review Nguyen has one the Pulitzer Prize—as well as a slew of other awards—for his 2016 novel, The Sympathizer, so it’s unnecessary to point out of the quality of his writing aside from the storytelling. But so much is packed in each tale his ability to write so eloquently becomes that much more amazing.

Considering that this collection of short stories follows closely on the heels of success of last year’s book, it could be easy to dismiss this one as a “cash grab” by the publisher. However, such a dismissal would ignore the quality of the work in The Refugees, and after reading it I guess I fell for the marketing as I can’t wait to read The Sympathizer. I’m just sorry that I somehow missed it the first time.