Rapture in Death by J.D. Robb (In Death #4)

268610They died with smiles on their faces. Three apparent suicides: a brilliant engineer, an infamous lawyer, and a controversial politician. Three strangers with nothing in common–and no obvious reasons for killing themselves. Police lieutenant Eve Dallas found the deaths suspicious. And her instincts paid off when autopsies revealed small burns on the brains of the victims. Was it a genetic abnormality or a high-tech method of murder?

Review:

As always I have the jacket copy above but I had to take out part not for space, but for spoilers.  The last couple of lines point directly to something that takes Eve a couple hundred pages to figure out, gah.  It dented my enjoyment of this otherwise fine entry in the In Death series.

Rapture in DeathYou can see in the elements chart that plot is a big part of the appeal but I’m going to leave out a discussion here.  Four books in we have a feel for life and crime in 2058 New York, so if you’re already a fan of the series you’ll be fine. I do want to mention, though, that mind control becomes a kind of thing.  I didn’t think it would squick me out but I had a hard time reading through a couple of scenes because of it.

The best part of this series, I’m finding out, is the character development. Partner Peabody is blossoming into herself, best friend Mavis is nothing but herself, and Eve is figuring out who she is and what past events mean for her future.  Pretty much all of the major characters from past books make an appearance and it doesn’t feel crowded or forced.  Add in some levity…

For the next few days, Eve beat her head against the wall of every dead end. When she needed a change of pace to clear her mind, she beat Peabody’s head against the wall.

…and, despite the mind control squick, I’m excited to read the rest of the series. Yes, all 40+ books of it. 🙂

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New Review Feature: Doorways Into Books

In the Dark2 copyI’m excited to announce that I’m adding a new feature to my reviews! It’s designed to help you decide if a particular book will be perfect for you.

Here’s how: Nancy Pearl, a librarian and author, says that there are four doorways that lead a reader into loving a book.  Knowing your favorite doorways is a more reliable way to choose your next read than matching genre or subject alone.

I heard her talk about this several years ago and it has stuck in my head ever since.  Pearl goes in depth in this article, but here’s a quick rundown of the four doorways:

1. Story – aka plot.  “I had to see what happens next,” “I couldn’t put it down.”

2. Character – “The characters felt like real people,” “I was sad to finish – it felt like losing a friend.”

3. Setting – “I felt like I was there,” “I learned so much about that time and place,” “the setting was almost its own character.”

4. Language – “I didn’t follow the plot and that was okay – the writing was so beautiful I kept going,” “I found myself slowing down so I could enjoy the words.”

Personally story is my favorite doorway – nothing will suck me in like a riproaring plot.  After that I like character and setting almost equally, with language coming in a distant fourth.  I appreciate good writing, of course, but language alone won’t make me want to continue on.  Everyone is different, and figuring out your favorites is a fun way to deepen your reading and choose what to enjoy next.

So what does this look like in practice on the blog?

I’ve made pie charts showing the proportion of each element.  It’s subjective, of course, and we can quibble about percentages, but I think most people would agree on which doorways are most prominent.  Let’s look at examples for books I’ve read recently:Rapture in DeathRapture in Death, part of J.D. Robb’s In Death series, is a police procedural set in the future.  The mystery insures it’s heavy with plot, and the recurring cast of characters is a large element, as well.  The setting of 2058 New York adds makes for great worldbuilding.  On the other hand, while the writing is good the language doesn’t set it apart, making it the smallest chunk of the graph.A Line Made By Walking

On the other end of the spectrum, A Line Made by Walking is pure literary fiction.  The language is stunning and the main attraction.  Character and setting are doing their thing but there is very little plot.  Therefore, if you’re a fan of plot like I am this may not be the best fit.

Here’s one more:warday.jpg

Warday is an epistolary novel about life in America after a nuclear war.  Plot and setting drive the narrative as two reporters travel across the country to discover what remains.  The descriptions of bombed out cities and dust storms are vivid, and while the characters are well developed they’re not central to the book’s appeal.

I’ll be adding these graphs to many of my reviews going forward.  We all have different likes and dislikes, so I’m hoping it will help you decide on a book when our tastes don’t quite match up.

So which element – plot, character, setting, or language – draws you into a book the most?  Is there one that you could do without?

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara

35068432“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark.”

For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.

Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called “the Golden State Killer.” Michelle pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind.

Review:

My Serial Killer Summer™ (ha) continues!  There is no way I would skip this book, especially with the alleged killer being found, not to mention the hype!

McNamara deserves that praise for her writing – it’s engaging, chilling and fascinating.  She spent years hunting down the Golden State Killer and details that search while describing many of the murders and rapes he committed.  I’ve seen people on BookTube who had a hard time getting through the creepiest parts – understandably, the crimes are heinous.  While I shivered a few times I never felt compelled to put the book down… not sure what that says about me.

What McNamara does better than so many ~cough male cough~ writers is that she respects and honors the victims.  We hear their stories, how their life was changed – they are their own people and I greatly appreciate having their perspective.

On top of the tragedy of the crimes is the tragedy of the author’s unexpected death in 2016, before she finished the book.  As a result some chapters were cobbled together from her notes and research.  These sections are rough compared to McNamara’s amazing prose, but I’m not sure what else they could have done.  It did make for a jarring experience, though, and lessened my… enjoyment?… of the entire book.

I listened on audiobook and got on well with the narrator, ending up at 1.8x speed.  A pdf with maps and timelines is included with the audio files.  I wasn’t sure I’d use it but it’s handy near the end as the detectives go hunting for patterns in the crimes.

I’m so sad that McNamara wasn’t able to finish her book and see the Golden State Killer brought to justice.  Despite the choppiness it’s a great read and an easy recommendation for any true crime fan.

The Love Song of Sawyer Bell by Avon Gale (Tour Dates #1)

34824809Victoria “Vix” Vincent has only two weeks to find a replacement fiddle player for her band’s summer tour. When classically trained violinist Sawyer Bell shows up for an audition, Vix is thrilled. Their friendship soon blossoms into romance, even though Vix tries to remember that Sawyer’s presence is only temporary.

Sawyer’s parents think she’s spending the summer months touring Europe with a chamber ensemble. But Sawyer is in dire need of a break from the competitiveness of Juilliard, and desperately wants to rediscover her love of music. Going on tour with her secret high school crush is just an added bonus. Especially when Vix kisses her one night after a show, and they discover that the stage isn’t the only place they have chemistry.

But the tour won’t last forever, and as the summer winds down, Sawyer has to make a tough decision about her future—and what it means to follow her heart.

Review:

If you like romance be sure to check out Cats and Paperbacks, where Natasha writes reviews highlighting lgbtqia+ books.  She posted a list of her favorite books with lesbian main characters and I jumped on this one – rock band! Touring! Queer romance meets stardom!

In my ‘must read NAO’ haste, however, I missed that while the book covers a diverse rock band, they are not rock stars.  The group crams into a van, drives all night between gigs, and at times plays to half-empty houses.  There is nothing wrong with this – in fact, it makes for lovely romance – but it pushes the book out of Kazen catnip territory.

Moving on, the book!  Sawyer is a Julliard violinist but she loathes going back to school.  Instead of touring with a prestigious chamber orchestra she tries out with a rock band and gets the part.  Over the course of touring she sparks fly between her and the lead singer Victoria, they fall in love, and things happen.

The Love Song of Sawyer Bell is one of those books that’s very good at what it does while simultaneously not being quite my thing.  If you’re looking for a realistic contemporary f/f romance you won’t go wrong.

Friday Night Bites by Chloe Neill (Chicagoland Vampires #2)

6319978Joe Public isn’t exactly thrilled to be living side-by-side with the undead, but at least they haven’t stormed the castle yet.

But all that will change once they learn about the Raves—mass feeding parties where vampires round up humans like cattle and drink themselves silly. Most civilized vampires frown on this behavior, putting mere mortals at ease with their policy of asking a person’s consent before taking a big gulp of the red stuff.

So now my “master,” the centuries old, yet gorgeously well-preserved Ethan Sullivan, wants me to reconnect with my own upper class family and act as liaison between humans and vampires—and keep the more unsavory aspects of our existence out of the media. But someone doesn’t want people and vamps to play nicey-nice—someone with an ancient grudge.

Review:

A strong followup to Some Girls Bite. For every bit I like, though, something else bothers me.  Shall we?

Yea – the villain is developing over several books, making for a more nuanced Big Bad.
Meh – as a result there’s no huge Big Bad fight.

Yea – good guy relationships are becoming more nuanced and minor characters are getting fleshed out.
Meh – every guy is still hot and drooling over Merit.

Yea – some hanging but forgotten threads are pulled back in and put to use.
Meh – the book ends on a cliffhanger.

All in all I’m glad I’m started the Chicagoland Vampire series and look forward to Merit’s further adventures.

The Seduction Hypothesis by Delphine Dryden (Science of Temptation #2)

17825418Wildlife biologist Lindsey thought attending a fan convention with her new boyfriend Ben was a great idea—until their relationship fizzled. Lindsey still lusts after her ex—but if he wants her, he’s going to have to prove it.

Ben will do anything to win Lindsey back, and when he sees her in her skimpy black vinyl convention get-up, he realizes what she’s been craving all along. And he is inspired to finally give in to his own dark desire to take complete sexual control…

Lindsey is surprised by her reaction to Ben’s kinky new seduction techniques, and suddenly sees him in a different light. After several erotic encounters she’s falling for Ben all over again. And wondering if the intimate connection will last once they head home…

Review:

I didn’t like this one anywhere near as much as the previous but I’m a little conflicted.  First, this tweet was rolling around in my head:

Ben is a baby Dom and has no clue what he’s doing.  He’s super possessive and an alpha-hole to any guy that enters Lindsey’s orbit.  Ivan, the hero from the previous book, is more in line with the tweet – respectful and a normal, nice guy outside of the bedroom.  Another Dom side character sticks up for Lindsey in a gentlemanly way.  I liked these guys better than the hero.

Both characters know very little about the practical side of BDSM and jump in after a dollop of research and a trip to the sex toy store.  This bothered me, not in a ‘you’re doing it wrong’ way but in a ‘eeep someone may get hurt’ way.  After finishing I checked out the reviews on Goodreads and someone* made a good point – a lot of couples get into the lifestyle this way.  They see something they like and jump in with both feet, whether they’re ready for it or not.  By the end of the book Lindsey and Ben are planning to go to a club and get their learning on but it was too late for me.  During the sex scenes I was more worried than anything else. (‘Why are you using rough rope? Do you know what you’re doing?!’)

Not bad, necessarily, but definitely not my thing.  Here’s hoping the third book is better.


*I’m not sure if her reviews are private so I’m going to avoid linking without permission

Doctor Butabuta by Arimi Yazaki (Butabuta #23)

39681913Time for another review courtesy of my neighborhood used book store!  Inhae at Inside That Japanese Book got me interested in the Butabuta series (her review here) so when I saw this volume I just had to pick it up.

The main character in all the books is Butabuta Yamazaki, whose first name literally translates as “Pigpig”.  That’s him on the cover – a stuffed animal that is, well, alive.  He’s about the size of a volleyball and has the voice of a middle aged man, and almost everyone he meets is first overcome with shock.  How does he move?  Is he really drinking that coffee?  Am I the only one that sees he’s a stuffed animal?

Yazaki started writing about Butabuta in 1998 and has continued at a steady clip, with 27 books in the series as I write this.  Others include Butabuta Cafe, Butabuta Library, and Butabuta on a Summer’s Day.  The Japanese level is less taxing than more literary novels, making them easy reads.  (For those more interested in the Japanese side of things check out Inhae’s review above.)

So, what kind of doctor can a stuffed pig be, anyway?  It turns out he’s an endoscopic and laparoscopic surgeon specialized in gastroenterology. Basically he uses remote controls to move robots and cameras to operate on stomach cancer or diagnose ulcers.  Yazaki put a lot of thought into the limitations of a small (if strong) doctor and forged an interesting path for him.

The book is four linked short stories as well as a “short-short”.  Each shows us a different facet of Butabuta’s practice as we watch him interact with operative patients in the hospital, coworkers, and elderly home-bound patients in the countryside.

I like Butabuta as a character.  He has a sense of mystery about him – why is he alive?  Why don’t we meet anyone else like him?  He’s pretty much perfect personality and work-wise but it doesn’t get grating or weird, as it’s balanced out with the whole, “but he’s a stuffed pig” thing.

The scenes can be touching and charming.  He knows the right thing to say to reassure patients, and when he pats their hand the softness of the fabric on his hoof comforts them.  He goes to a batting cage with a coworker, holding a bat twice his size and jumping high in the air to swing at the ball.  He volunteers in a rural area on the weekend where he makes balloon animals for children and adults alike.

Each story can be read on its own which is good in a way, but leads to more repetition than I would like.  Every person is shocked when they first meet Butabuta and wonder the same things.  He’s described as being the size of a volleyball without fail.  Maybe as I read more books these will be endearing details but it annoyed me a little bit here.

It doesn’t look like any of these books have been translated into English but if you’re JLPT N2 level or better or in Japanese I think you’ll enjoy the adventures of a certain Butabuta-san.  I’ll be continuing the series for sure, with Butabuta’s Bookstore already in  my possession and ready to go. Huzzah for finding a new series to love!

Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin

35180951In her debut collection, Alice Bolin turns a critical eye to literature and pop culture, the way media consumption reflects American society, and her own place within it. From essays on Joan Didion and James Baldwin to Twin Peaks, Britney Spears, and Serial, Bolin illuminates our widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead and alive) are used as props to bolster a man’s story.

From chronicling life in Los Angeles to dissecting the “Dead Girl Show” to analyzing literary witches and werewolves, this collection challenges the narratives we create and tell ourselves, delving into the hazards of toxic masculinity and those of white womanhood. Beginning with the problem of dead women in fiction, it expands to the larger problems of living women—both the persistent injustices they suffer and the oppression that white women help perpetrate.

Review:

I have mixed feelings about Dead Girls – it starts amazing but sadly I had trouble getting all the way to the end.

I do want to be clear – the first part, about the titular women American culture obsesses over, is incredible.  Bolin talks about “Dead Girl Shows” that use the memory of women-who-were to tell stories about the men who killed them or seek to revenge their deaths.  Instead of looking at the impulse some men have to prey on young women the narrative of these shows concentrates on the killer’s psychology and methods, making the practice seem inevitable and beyond the man’s control.  I highlighted many, many passages from this section and will be revisiting the essays so I can chew over them more.

That’s only part one of four, though.  The second section takes a step away and examines women who are living but have been used to sell a story in a related way.  I like Lonely Heart, about the contradictions and tragedy in Britney Spears’ fame, but otherwise my interest started to wane.

If the book were a tire that’s where the slow leak started, with a more steady whooosh becoming apparent over the last two parts.  Bolin gets deep into her experience of being lonely after moving to the West coast and I couldn’t get on board.  It’s an amalgamation of things I have a hard time caring about or connecting with (LA, Joan Didion, accounts of roommates and boyfriends) with books that we are assumed to know but oftentimes I did not.  If you love so-called “Hello to All That/Goodbye to All That” essays, worship Didion, and don’t mind a jumble of thought, you’ll do better here than I.

It’s hard for me to rate Dead Girls because it went from a compulsively readable, fascinating ride to a flat tire I had trouble rolling over the finish line.  I thought it would be a great fit for my Serial Killer Summer but sadly only the first quarter or so fit the bill.

Thanks to William Morrow and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI by Robert K. Ressler and Tom Shachtman

25561483FBI veteran and ex-Army CID colonel Robert Ressler learned how to identify the unknown monsters who walk among us–and put them behind bars. Now the man who coined the phrase “serial killer” shows how he is able to track down some of today’s most brutal murderers.

From the victims they choose, to the way they kill, to the often grotesque souvenirs they take with them–Ressler unlocks the identities of these vicious killers. With his discovery that serial killers share certain violent behaviors, Ressler’s gone behind prison walls to hear the bizarre first-hand stories countless convicted murderers. Join Ressler as he takes you on the hunt for toady’s most dangerous psychopaths. It is a terrifying journey you will not forget.

Review:

Here’s what I wanted when I read Incendiary – a look into the mind of a repeat criminal. Ressler is a pioneer in the field of profiling and uses cases, both famous and not, to explore the minds of serial killers.  I learned a lot – organized vs. disorganized killers, what may push someone to their first murder, and what drives them to repeat the crime again and again.

While informative and interesting several things put me off, though.  First, the victims are minimized, often reduced to clues to analyze the mind of the killer.  The criminals’ thought process, and the men who work to understand it, are prioritized above all else.  The upcoming book Dead Girls address this point really well – watch this space for a review on release day.

Also, Ressler is full of himself and it grates.  What’s the line… ‘may the lord grant me the confidence of a straight white man’?  That’s Ressler.  He quotes letters of commendation while he humble brags about every little thing.  He tells stories about bending the rules for the sake of the investigation and always comes out squeaky clean.  It’s goddamn annoying but also maybe expected from a G-man of his era. (Note: expected does not equal excused.)

I listened on audio and have no complaints about the narrator or production. While nowhere near perfect, Whoever Fights Monsters provides a foundation to build my Serial Killer Summer on.

…yeah, I’m making it a thing. Heaven help me.

When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri

31684565Katie Daniels is a perfection-seeking 28-year-old lawyer living the New York dream. She’s engaged to charming art curator Paul Michael, has successfully made her way up the ladder at a multinational law firm, and has a hold on apartments in Soho and the West Village. Suffice it to say, she has come a long way from her Kentucky upbringing.

But the rug is swept from under Katie when she is suddenly dumped by her fiance, Paul Michael, leaving her devastated and completely lost. On a whim, she agrees to have a drink with Cassidy Price-a self-assured, sexually promiscuous woman she meets at work. The two form a newfound friendship, which soon brings into question everything Katie thought she knew about sex—and love.

Review:

While reading I kept thinking, “this is the perfect category romance, filled with LGBTQIA+ folks that make it even more awesome.”  So much to love.

Cassidy is in the mold of a Harlequin Presents hero, a high-powered New York lawyer that works hard and plays harder.  She wears exquisitely tailored suits by day and plows through a large swath through the NY lesbian scene by night. Katie, on the other hand, has become unmoored from her social network after her engagement is broken off by her cheating fiancee Paul.  She pulls herself together to do the lawyer thing and ends up in a boardroom negotiating with Cassidy, another firm’s counsel.  Their immediate connection makes Katie wonder if she’s ever truly known herself, while Cassidy wonders why she can’t toss Katie aside like her other lovers.

So we have an alpha heroine, another heroine that wants more from life, glamorous work in a stunning city, topped off with a meet-cute.  Straight-talking best friend? Check. Romantic weekend getaway? Check. Two people falling in love, both because and in spite of their best efforts? Check and check.

It reads fast, is perfectly plotted, and kept me invested in the love story throughout.  The characters are well-rounded and have fully-realized motivations, and there’s no Big Misunderstanding that makes me want to smack a heroine on the upside of the head.  Katie and Cassidy’s love is earned, and it is delicious.

The writing is good, too:

Katie had never been a fantasizer of any kind.  She was more of a planner, a doer. She was a pleaser of others – not one for exploring self-pleasure or whatever….

But Cassidy was hot. And the only other women Katie ever thought of as hot were the ones she wanted to be. Not do. Be.

She could almost see the other photos in a family album somewhere, of the two of them bullet-belted, toting rifles, flashing huge grins over some enormous dead animal. They were the kind of guys Cassidy would cross the street to avoid because her intolerance of them was palpable, yes, but also in fear they’d attack her for sport, too, if she came too close.

I love When Katie Met Cassidy and hope Perri keeps writing books in this vein – brava.

Thanks to G.P. Putnam’s Sons and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.