A jigger of tranquility is all Em Johnson wants, but now that her beloved Tiki Goddess Bar has been chosen as the location for Trouble in Paradise, TV’s hot new reality show, life is anything but tranquil. When a member of the camera crew is found dead in her kitchen-stabbed to death with Chef Kimo’s sashimi knife-the scene on the sleepy North Shore of Kauai goes from eccentrically crazy to downright dangerous. Suspects lurk behind every paper drink umbrella.
This book brought back all the strengths from the first book with the added delight of everyone at the Tiki Goddess Bar being featured on a reality tv show. As a (not-so-secret) lover of reality tv for the over-the-top ridiculousness and a lover of cozies for their delightful tongue-in-cheek puns and ability to not take themselves too seriously, the marriage of the two in this book was sheer delight.
A couple of scenes in particular struck me as the type of mad-cap tom-foolery seen in older 1920s romps, only with the added twist of reality tv cameras following the moves. I honestly would love to see a “The Office” style take on this series…a fake reality tv show version of the Tiki Godess Bar. That’d be a hoot! Anyway, one scene I really enjoyed involves the Hula Maidens in hula costume sneaking around on a golf course. Delightful.
I also like that the plot, although a bit predictable, weaves in a few different elements of various characters’ lives and stories. Em’s life moves forward, as does her uncle’s. Nothing is stagnant, just because murder is happening. I also thought grief and concern for loved ones’ safety were depicted well and realistically without slowing the plot down or removing the joy from the narrative.
All-in-all, a fun entry in the series that left me eager for the next one….and hoping the reality show will be back!
4 out of 5 stars
Book Review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (Audiobook narrated by Rebecca Lowman, Cassandra Campbell, Mark Deakins, and Robertson Dean)
Libby Day testified that her brother murdered her mother and sisters as part of a Satanic cult ritual when she was just 7 years old. Twenty-five years later, running out of money, she agrees to help a group known as The Kill Club investigate the murder. Their members disagree on how actually killed her mother and sisters, and with her connections they think she can help them crack the case. Libby is sure her brother Ben did it, but money is money, and it sure beats a regular job.
This is my third Gillian Flynn novel, and I must admit it was the one I liked least. I was actually suspicious it was a first novel, as it had that feel–a lot of what works in her other novels is present but it’s less well-executed. However, it actually was published after Sharp Objects (review), so who knows what happened here. Regardless, while I found the mystery intriguing and I definitely listened to the audiobook every chance I got, the plot is not as tightly told nor is the central mystery as believable as it is in her other works.
What worked the best for me was Libby, a childhood survivor of a gruesome murder, as some sort of modern day noiresque private investigator. A woman PI with a personal connection to the murders was just delicious to read. I’d love to see more of that in literature. I also liked seeing a thriller that included a queer person (her aunt is a lesbian) without that being used as a way of othering someone strange or being attached to a perpetrator. Her aunt is a bystander in every sense of the word. She is never a suspect, she provides Libby with a home environment after the murders, and her sexual orientation is just a part of who she is, not a plot point. I also liked the changing perspectives among Libby present, Libby past, her mother, and her brother. I thought it added to the mystery since seeing these other perspectives did not immediately reveal precisely what was going on. I also thought it made it harder to judge her mother than it might be if the reader hadn’t had her perspective.
However, this was the first time that I was both sure who the perpetrator was quite early in a Flynn novel and also that I was disappointed by who the murderer is. I thought there was nothing creative or exciting about it, and honestly it kind of bugged me a little bit. There is also one trope that shows up here that bothered me. It could be a bit spoilery (not too bad) so skip the next paragraph if you’re concerned about that.
Libby at the end of the book ends up in a scenario that is very similar to the first murders that she survived. It’s basically a trauma survivor finding that all their fears were right by improbably having almost the same scenario happen a second time. I think it was supposed to be scary, but it just irritated me.
I also must say that I felt the whole Satanic scare thing was very dated. Yes, I get it that was a huge thing in the 80s and this is a story about murders that happened 25 years ago but something about it just made the whole book feel dated to me. I couldn’t get into it partly because I was certain that the book would ultimately reveal Satanism had nothing to do with it, since that’s just the way that plot point always goes. I suppose you could sum up most of my issues with this book as the plot was too predictable to be much fun.
Overall, if you’re a big Gillian Flynn fan and just want to experience some thrills, this book will provide some of them with the dash of strong female characters you’ve come to expect. However, do expect to be a bit disappointed by a more predictable plot and twist that isn’t all that twisty.
3 out of 5 stars
Book Review: Fables, Vol. 1: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham et al. (Series, #1) (Graphic Novel)
All the characters from the fairy tales we know actually lived in that folklore world but were forced out into exile in modern-day New York thanks to an enemy known only as The Adversary. Snow White, right-hand to the ruler of Fabletown, seeks to keep everyone in line. But that gets more difficult when her own sister, Rose Red, is murdered. A reformed Big Bad Wolf, now their sheriff, promises to help her track down his killer.
Being a long-time fan of The 10th Kingdom, a story about the characters of folklore existing in a parallel universe to our own that some modern-day Americans accidentally visit, I was intrigued by this idea of a similar story in reverse. Instead of being engaging and a fun escape, though, my experience with it is best summed-up as meh. It’s a cool idea that is saddled to a ho-hum plot and flat characters, thereby rendering it a mediocre read.
The basic idea is some unseen Adversary has driven the fairy tale folk out of their land and into exile in our own. In our land, they’ve all agreed to give everyone a clean slate to start over. So far so good. From here though things go from interesting and semi-unique to basically a noir plot we’ve all read before wrapped up in 2-dimensional fairy tale characters. Big Bad Wolf is the hard-boiled detective. Snow White is his lady assistant. A noir version of a fairy tale could have been good, but instead the flattest elements of both genres are mashed together, rather than the best of each. What you end up with is a wolf without his fangs or a hard-boiled detective without his cigarettes and womanizing ways. The grit is just removed leaving an overly-sanitized world.
I do enjoy a mystery plot but I also expect them to keep me guessing. I knew the solution long before the end, and I’m guessing most other readers would too.
The art is mostly good, although the depiction of the talking pig gave me goosebumps in a bad way. He doesn’t really fit in to the feel of the rest of the art. However, the art is colorful and easy to follow, and made reading the story go quickly.
Overall, if a reader loves fairy tales and graphic novels and likes the idea of seeing fairy tale characters in modern-day New York, they will probably enjoy this book. Readers looking for an in-depth exploration of a fairy tale character or to see them more well-rounded in a non-fairy tale setting will be disappointed. Similarly, readers looking for a tough mystery to solve will want to look elsewhere.
3 out of 5 stars
Source: I remember I bought it at a comic book store, but I don’t remember which one.
On Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary, Nick comes home from working at the bar he co-owns with his sister to find his wife gone. The door is wide open, furniture is overturned, and the police say there is evidence that blood was cleaned up from the floor of the kitchen. Eyes slowly start to turn toward Nick as the cause of her disappearance, while Nick slowly starts to wonder just how well he really knows his wife.
I’d been wanting to read this since it first came out, but when the previews for the movie came out, I knew I also wanted to see the movie, and I just had to read the book first. Because one should always read the book first. A friend head me talking about it and offered to loan me her copy, and I flew through the book in just a couple of days. Even though I had guessed whodunit before I even started to read it, I was still swept up in a heart-racing read.
There have been many reviews of Gone Girl, so I am going to try to focus my review in on why I personally loved it, and also address a couple of the controversies about the book. Any spoilers will be marked and covered toward the end of the review. Please note that this review is entirely about the book and does not address the movie at all.
The tone of the book sucked me in from the beginning. How the book alternates between Nick’s current life and Amy’s diary of the early years of their relationship clearly showed that the relationship started out strong and fell apart, and I wanted to see how something so romantic could have gone so awry. Amy’s diary entries simultaneously sound feminine and realistic. She swears to the same extent that my friends and I do, and I loved seeing that in romantic, feminine diary entries. Nick’s portions, in contrast, perfectly demonstrated the measured response to a disappearance that could easily happen if a relationship was on the rocks a bit at the time. Nick’s reactions felt very realistic to me, and I appreciated it.
Even though I predicted the whodunit, I still found the end of the book to be thrilling, as exactly how it happened was not something I was able to predict.
If you don’t want any spoilers and just want to know why you should read the book, let me just say that anyone who has been in a long-term relationship will find the complex relationship between Nick and Amy frightening and chilling and will be left giving their partner side-eye periodically throughout the book. If you like the idea of a book that makes you freaked out at the thought of how truly awry a relationship can go, then you will enjoy this thriller.
On to the spoilers.
This book has been accused of misogyny for three reasons. Nick’s internal dialogue, the character of Amy, and the fact that Amy falsely accuses an ex-boyfriend of rape. I did not find this book to be misogynistic at all, and I will now address each of these points.
Nick clearly struggles with how he relates to women due to the fact that his dad is a misogynistic bastard. It is realistic for a good person to struggle with bad internal dialogue due to hearing such dialogue from a parent. This is a very real thing that happens, and that people go to therapy for. The very fact that Nick fights against this internal dialogue shows that he knows that it’s wrong and is trying to win out over it. Just because one character has misogynistic internal dialogue does not make an entire book misogynistic nor does it make that character misogynistic. It just makes the book realistic. In fact, I find the fact that Nick ultimately defeats his internal misogynistic dialogue by realizing that it’s ok to hate women who are actually horrible but not all women to be really progressive. Some women are horrible people. Nick learns to turn his internal “women are bitches” dialogue into “Amy is a bitch,” and I think that’s awesome. Now, this point is related to the next point, the character of Amy.
There is at least one strain of feminism that thinks that it’s anti-woman to ever portray any women as bad or evil. There is also the strain of feminism that just says men and women are equal and should be treated equally. I am a member of the latter portion. It is equally harmful to never want to admit to women’s capability for evil as it is to say all women are bad or all women are childlike or etc… There are bad women in the world. There are evil women in the world. Women are not automatically nurturing, women are not automatically good at mothering, women are not automatically goddesses. Women are capable of the entire spectrum of evil to good, just like men are. It is unrealistic to act like women are incapable of evil, when we in fact are. This is why I find the portrayal of Amy as a narcissistic sociopath to be awesome. Because there are women just like her out there in the world. I was continually reminded of one I have known personally while I was reading the depiction of Amy. The patriarchy hurts men and women, and one way that it does so is with the assumption that women are incapable of evil. Nick and Amy’s other victims are unable to get people to believe them about Amy because Amy is able to externally project the virginal good girl image that the patriarchy expects of her. They don’t expect her to be evil. She appears to be a card-carrying, patriarchy-approved cool girl, therefore she is not evil and Nick and the others are delusional. It’s an eloquent depiction of how the patriarchy can hurt men, and I think that a lot of people are misinterpreting that a misogynistic slant.
Finally, the false rape accusation. Yes, it is extremely unlikely to happen. (An analysis in 2010 of 10 years of rape allegations found that 5.9% were able to proven to be false and 35.3% were proven to be true. The remaining 58.8% fell into a gray area of not being proven either way. Source) However, this means that false allegations of rape do indeed happen. 5.9% is not zero, and this isn’t even taking into account the gray cases that couldn’t be proven either way. Just because we have a problem with rape in this country and with rape culture does not mean that every accusation of rape is actually true. Just as not all men are rapists, not all women are truth-tellers. And let’s not forget that men can be raped, and women can be falsely accused of rape as well. Amy’s false rape accusation also fits well within her character development. As a teenager, she falsely accused a friend of stalking her. Then she accuses this man she dated in her 20s of raping her. Then she frames her husband for her murder. It’s a clear downward spiral, and the false rape accusation, complete with faking restraint marks on her arm, is a realistic warm-up to her insane attempt at framing her husband for her own murder. It fits within the character. It is not a malicious, useless, throwaway plot point. It fits who Amy is, and real life statistics support that it could indeed happen.
All of these aspects of Amy and Nick and Amy’s relationship are part of what made me love the book. I am tired in thrillers of so often seeing only men as the sociopathic evil. I have known women to be sociopaths in real life and in the news, and I like seeing that represented in a thriller. I also appreciate the fact that Nick is by no stretch of the imagination an innocent golden boy. He has some nasty internal thoughts, and he was cheating on Amy. And yet I was still able to feel sympathy for the cheating bastard because he gets so twisted up in Amy’s web. It takes some really talented writing to get me to sympathize with a cheater at all, so well done, Gillian Flynn.
Finally, some people really don’t like the end of the book. They wanted Amy to get caught or someone to die or something. I thought the ending of the book was the most chilling of all. Nick is unable to find out a way to escape Amy, so he rationalizes out their relationship to himself (she makes me try harder to be a better person or face her wrath), and ultimately chooses to stay in the incredibly abusive relationship for the sake of their child when he finds out she was pregnant. It is realistic that Nick is concerned that if he divorces her he won’t be able to prove anything, she may falsely accuse him of things, and he won’t end up able to see his child. This is something people on both ends of divorced worry about, and Nick has proof that Amy is unafraid to fake major crimes just to get even with him. It is so much more chilling to think of Nick being trapped in this toxic relationship, justifying it to himself along the way, in an attempt to protect their child. Bone. Chilling. Because it could, can, and does happen.
Overall, the book is an excellent depiction of how the patriarchy hurts men as well as women, depicts a chilling female sociopath, and manages to be thrilling even if you are able to predict the twist.
Recommended to thriller fans looking for something different but don’t be surprised if you end up giving your significant other funny looks or asking them reassurance seeking questions for a few days.
5 out of 5 stars
Jack Strayhorn is a private eye and a member of Alcoholic’s Anonymous. Only, he’s not an alcoholic, he’s one of the vampires who meet in a secret vampire group that exists under the umbrella of AA to learn how to control their urges and feed on humans without killing them. He’s just returned to LA, his death site that he hasn’t been back to since he had to run in 1948 after becoming a vampire. When his current missing person case shows up dead next to a Fae politician, Jack gets dragged into a mixed-up underworld of Faes, werewolves, drugs, and a group of vampires determined to rule the world.
This is one of the twelve indie books I accepted to be reviewed on my blog in 2014 (complete list). I was immediately intrigued by the summary, due to its delightful urban fantasy/paranormal take on AA. The book delivers exactly what it promises, spiced with a noir writing style.
Jack Strayhorn is the perfect paranormal version of the noir-style hardboiled detective. He’s got a biting, snarky wit, a handsome presence, a sharp mind, and is a bit distant and mysterious. It’s just in this case he’s distant and mysterious because he’s a vampire. Making the private eye a vampire makes his character unique in noir, and, similarly, making the vampire a private eye with his focus primarily on crime solving and not paranormal politics gives the urban fantasy vampire a unique twist. Jack is presented as a complex character, one who we could not possibly get to know fully in just the first entry in the series. It’s easy to see how he will manage to carry the proposed 12 entries in the series.
Supporting Jack is a wide range of characters who accurately portray the diversity in a large town like LA, as well as the diversity one expects in a paranormal world. The characters are multiple races and classes. Whereas some urban fantasy books slowly reveal the presence of more and more paranormal races throughout the series, this book starts out with quite a few, and that is a nice change of pace. Most urban fantasy readers expect there to be more than just vampires, and the book meets the urban fantasy reader where they’re at. Even though the book has a large cast, the secondary characters never blend together. They are easily remembered, and the diversity probably helps with that.
I like the idea of vampires having an AA-like group, but I’m still not sure how I feel about this group existing as some secret under the umbrella of AA itself. The book even goes so far as to say the the founder of AA was a vampire himself, and used the human illness of alcoholism as a cover for the vampire group. I like and appreciate vampirism as a disease that some people just mysteriously have at birth as an analogy for alcoholism, but I feel that having it present in the same group as the real life AA groups dampens the realness of actual AA, weakening the analogy instead of strengthening it. I’ve seen books before have paranormal people get together in AA-style groups (zombies anonymous springs to mind), and in real life AA has spinoffs such as Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous. Prior to reading the book I thought maybe something might be added by having the vampires be a secret organization under AA, but after reading the book, I don’t think it did. I think the analogy would have been stronger if vampires spotted the similarities of their genetic vampirism with alcoholism and formed a “vampires anonymous” group, inspired by AA. Something about vampires creating AA themselves as a cover hits a bit of a sour note and weakens the analogy.
The plot is complex, with just enough twists and surprises. There were parts of the ending that I was unable to predict. The plot contained within the book was wrapped up sufficiently, and the overarching plot intending to cover the whole series was well-established and filled me with the desire to keep reading. Unfortunately, the second book isn’t out yet, so I will just have to wait!
Overall, this is a delightful mix of urban fantasy and noir and is a strong first entry for a new series. Some readers might dislike the paranormal take on Alcoholic’s Anonymous found within the book, but it is secondary to the mystery/noir plot and easy to gloss over if necessary. Recommended to urban fantasy readers looking to venture into noir or vice versa, as well as anyone who enjoys both urban fantasy and noir.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review
Book Review: A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres (Audiobook narrated by Robin Miles)
On November 18, 1978, 918 people, mostly Americans, died on a commune named Jonestown and on a nearby airstrip in Guyana. The world came to know this event as that time that crazy cult committed mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid. However, that belief is full of inaccuracies. Scheeres traces the origins of Jonestown, starting with its leader, Jim Jones, and his Christian church in Indiana, tracing its development into the People’s Temple in California, and then into Jonestown in Guyana. Multiple members’ life stories are traced as well, including information from their family members who, perplexed, watched their families give everything over to Jones.
I have a fascination with cults and groupthink. In spite of not being born until the 1980s, I definitely was always vaguely aware of this cult that committed suicide in the 70s, always commentated on with great disdain. I had previously read Julia Scheeres’ memoir, Jesus Land, which I found to be beautifully and thoughtfully written (review). When I saw that she had written an investigative work of nonfiction, making the truth about Jonestown more accessible, I knew I had to read it.
Scheeres possesses a great talent at presenting people and events as they are with understanding for common humanity but also disdain for atrocious acts. Scheeres excels at never turning a person into a monster, but rather exposing monstrous acts and asking how things became so messed up that something like that could happen. Scheeres clearly did painstaking research for this book, reading through the FBI’s extensive archives on the People’s Temple and Jim Jones, interviewing survivors, and interviewing family members of the deceased, not to mention reading members’ journals. The facts are presented in an engaging, storytelling, slightly non-linear way, which works excellently at drawing the reader in. The book starts on the boat to Guyana, then flashes back to the origins of Jim Jones. The members of People’s Temple are carefully presented as the well-rounded people they truly were with hopes and dreams and who made some mistakes. They are not ever presented as just a bunch of crazies. Even Jones is allowed a time as a preacher passionate for social justice before he turned into the control freak, whose paranoid delusions were exacerbated by drug addiction. Scheeres takes an event that it is far too easy to put the stamp of crazy on, and humanizes it, drawing out the gray areas. And this is all done while telling an engaging, well-written, factual story.
There are an incredible number of facts in this book, and the reader learns them while hardly even realizing it, since this work of nonfiction is so readable. Among the things I never knew, I found out that the People’s Temple originally was a Christian church that was heavily socialist and then slowly turned into its own religion as Jones pulled away from the Bible, eventually declaring himself god. When Jones was in California, he was heavily involved in politics, sponsoring people such as Harvey Milk for office, and breaking voting laws by sending his church en masse to vote in districts they didn’t live in. Jones enacted weekly corporate punishment of individual members in front of all the other members. He was bisexual, having sex with both male and female members of the People’s Temple. He became obsessed with the idea of suicide to make a statement and routinely badgered the higher members of the People’s Temple into accepting suicide if he ordered it. He even tricked them multiple times into thinking that he had given them poisoned drinks, just to see who would obey and drink it. The members came to Jonestown in Guyana expecting a utopia, since Jones had lied to them, and instead got a struggling farm on the brink of disaster, being run by a man increasingly paranoid and delusional and ever more addicted to drugs. Once members were in Jonestown, they were not allowed to leave. And many wanted to. Last, but most important, the mass suicide was not a mass suicide. It was a murder-suicide. Some of the members committed suicide willingly, but others, including over 300 children, were force-fed or injected with the poison. Those who drank it drank it mixed with Flavor-Aid, a generic knock-off brand of Kool-Aid. It astounds me how much the facts of these events from as recent as 1978 are now misremembered in the collective consciousness, especially considering the fact that documentation such as the Jonestown death tape are available for free in the public archive.
Overall, this book takes a misremembered event in recent history and exposes the facts in an incredibly readable work of nonfiction. Scheeres presents the people who died in Jonestown with empathy and understanding, seeking to tell their whole life story, rather than one moment. A fascinating look at a horrible event, and a moving reminder to never give too much power or faith to one person, and how very easy it is for groupthink to take over. Highly recommended.
5 out of 5 stars
Em Johnson, manager of the Tiki Goddess Bar on Kauai, never intended to get involved in one murder investigation, let alone two. But when the hunky fire dancing detective Roland Sharpe asks for her help looking into some suspicious deaths in a high-profile, competitive halau (hula group), she just can’t say no. Before she knows it, she’s entering the geriatric Hula Maidens halau into the biggest hula competition on the island to help her get in where she can snoop.
I’ve dipped my toe in a few cozy series, but this is the first one that’s managed to call me back for a second helping. They’re all entertaining in their own way, but this series is also unique and engaging enough to keep me coming back for more, and thankfully those unique elements stayed strong in the second entry.
Em is a good cozy mystery heroine. She’s smart and willing to help but isn’t running amok destroying the police department’s days. She only helps when asked and even then, she’s a bit reluctant to disrupt her life. On the other hand, when she does help, she’s good at it. She lends insight that it makes sense only she would have, such as being able to infiltrate the halau competition. This lets both her and the inevitably hunky police detective she’s helping seem smart and efficient. She also has that every woman quality that lets the reader insert herself into the story.
The setting is perfect escapism. A Hawaiian seaside tiki bar that feels like Hawaii’s answer to Cheers. If Cheers had a set of geriatric hula dancers who started “rehearsing” aka drinking before noon. Not to mention an aging hippie who thinks he’s engaged to a dolphin. The setting represents both the beauty of Hawaii and the diversity of Hawaiians and Hawaiian culture. I certainly learned a few words of Hawaiian along the way in addition to thinking fondly of how nice it would be to live in a place with such tropical beauty.
The plot was multifaceted and engaging. Every character really has their own life and they manage to intertwine just the right amount. The murders (and attempted murders) happened at the right frequency and managed to be a surprise at least part of the time. The murder weapons are creative and well-thought-out. The plot is not predictable but it’s also not entirely off the wall. I felt surprised but also to a certain level knew that I could have figured it out if I’d thought a bit more. That’s the perfect amount of mystery in my book.
This would have been five stars, but there is one part of the book that I thought was in very poor taste at best. This is not a plot spoiler, as it is not necessary to the mystery at all. At one point, Little Estelle (the eldest of the Hula Maidens), climbs into a man’s car and basically throws herself at him. If the genders were reversed, this would definitely be read as a creepy old man assaulting a pleasant young woman. But since it’s an old woman it’s written for laughs. I get it that Little Estelle is presented as a horny, senile old woman, but there’s a way to write that that doesn’t verge into sexual assault territory. I just don’t find that sort of thing funny, and even though I get it that the intention was oh that silly old woman, it didn’t sit well to me. If this was my first Landis book, I probably would have stopped reading. I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t, because the rest of the book is 1,000 times more humorous and creative than those few pages. But I am disappointed that Landis chose to write Little Estelle that way. Others might find it more humorous than I did. I just don’t see such things as a laughing matter.
Most cozy books come with an arts and crafts do at home type project. This series includes drink recipes. I’m pleased to say that this book has even more drink recipes at the end than the first one, although I have yet to try mixing any myself. They are creative and fun-looking, though, and let the reader feel a bit like the Tiki Goddess could really exist.
Overall, this is an engaging, humorous cozy mystery. Readers of the first book will enjoy their return to the world of the Tiki Goddess. I am anticipating the next entry in the series, although I do hope that Landis will improve the characterization of Little Estelle.
4 out of 5 stars