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Book Review: Sophie and the Rising Sun by Augusta Trobaugh

Woman with 1940s hair in a red dress.Summary:
Sophie was raised in the rural American south by her elderly widowed mother and two crazy aunts.  She was always reserved and a real lady, especially after having lost the first boy she liked in the Great War.  Now the year is 1941, and her neighbor Miss Anne has taken on a Japanese-American gardener. He’s not white, but he’s not quite black either, and he and Sophie have painting in common.

Review:
I was excited to see an Asian male/white female (amwf, as it’s known online) story pop up on Netgalley.  They can be hard to find, and I thought the dual extra setting of the racist rural south and WWII would make it more interesting.  I still don’t doubt that these positive things are what the author was going for, but it didn’t quite come through for me in the story.

Trobaugh picked an interesting writing structure that I found worked well for the story.  It’s a mix of an elderly Miss Anne relating her part of the story of what she saw occur between Sophie and Mr. Oto and an omniscient third person narration.  This lets the reader see both what the town saw as well as some private moments between Sophie and Mr. Oto that we would not have otherwise seen.  It also helped keep the pace flowing forward.

There were also some truly beautiful sequences in the book, such as this sentence:

Too hot. Feel like Satan sucking the breath right out of this old world. (location 1631)

I am disappointed then that I felt the story itself didn’t live up to the writing.  Trobaugh falls prey to some stereotyping tropes, and I don’t believe she realized she did.  I genuinely believe she meant the story to be progressive, but the two minority characters in the story are two-dimensional and essentially act out the roles assigned to them in American pop culture.

In spite of falling for a white woman, everything else about Mr. Oto is stereotype 101 for Asian-American men.  He is: quiet, reserved, effeminate, painfully polite, and bows all the time.   The bowing really bothered me, because Mr. Oto was born in America to first generation immigrant parents.  I don’t know any first generation Americans who hold on to societal norms from their parents’ country around anyone but their family.  The bowing is used as a plot device to show how Mr. Oto is “different” and makes some of the rural whites uncomfortable.  I kept hoping that maybe Mr. Oto was putting on an act for the white people to keep himself safe and we would see that he was actually a strong man around Sophie in private, but no. He is precisely the emasculating stereotype of an Asian-American male that we first see.

The other minority character is “Big Sally.”  She is, surprise surprise, domestic help.  Anyone who was here for The Real Help Reading Project will be aware of all the stereotypes surrounding black women domestic workers.  The main one being of course that they’re happy to be the help and will gladly help out white women who are kind to them with their problems.  Kind of the all-knowing wise woman who just so happens to scrub your floors.  I was truly saddened to see Sally show up and play this role to a T.  She overcleans around the white women she doesn’t like to make them feel dirty, but she has no problem stepping right in and fixing everything up for Sophie.  There is a scene that made me cringe where she sits down and has a heart-to-heart with Sophie and basically sorts out all of her life problems.  I know that Trobaugh thought she was writing a positive image of a black woman, but the character is pure stereotype.  She exists to help Sophie and Miss Anne.  She ends up being buddy-buddy with Miss Anne and living with her. In the 1940s and 1950s rural south. Yeah. Right.   I’m not saying there can’t be a black woman character who is domestic help.  That was indeed reality for that historical time period.  But why couldn’t there be a scene where Sally and Mr. Oto talk about being othered in the town?  Where they talk about the dangers to Mr. Oto after Pearl Harbor and how they are similar to some of what Sally has faced as a black woman?  That would have been a truly progressive plot element, and I’m sorry the opportunity wasn’t taken.

Overall then, Trobaugh can indeed write.  The book was highly readable and contains some eloquent passages.  In spite of attempting a progressive message, though, the book falls to the easier method of plugging in a couple of stereotyped, two-dimensional characters.  I hope in future works Trobaugh will put more work into developing truly three-dimensional minority characters. This will strengthen her work and make it more than just a piece of chick lit repeating the same old tropes.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: Mai Tai One On by Jill Marie Landis (series, #1)

July 28, 2011 3 comments

Sunglasses and drinks on orange background.Summary:
Newly-divorced Em jumps at the chance to move to Kauai, Hawaii to assist her aging uncle in running his tiki bar.  She hires a young, punk-style waitress who seems to be running from bad choices, and she gets to know the aging hula dance group that performs for free (it’s not like anyone would willingly pay them).  Em is managing to increase business for the tiki bar and is starting to feel refreshed from her new life when the tiki bar’s neighbor shows up dead in their barbeque pit–with a machete slash through his skull.  The gorgeous fire knife spinning detective Roland sees Em, the waitress, and her Uncle Louie as the prime suspects, so clearly Em and the hula group must work together to find the real culprit.

Review:
This was my first foray into the fairly newish cozy mystery genre.  A cozy mystery is one involving something violent, but the violence is never particularly shown in a gruesome way, and the characters handle the situation in a humorous fashion.  It’s kind of like a modern version of Agatha Christie.  They also are really well-known for having puns in the titles.  (Another one that springs to mind is The Long Quiche Goodbye, which features a murder in a….wait for it….cheese shop).

So what about this particular cozy?  Well, the pun in the title is cute but doesn’t really have anything to do with the story.  I can’t quite figure out what, exactly, is supposedly being tied on or tied up or what have you.  No one is killed by ties.  Basically, the title is a bit witty, but confusing.

The humor is excellent.  I found myself laughing out loud multiple times while reading.  In fact, this is the strong point of the book.  Think of the wittiest, snarkiest person you know, then imagine that everyone around you has that same sense of humor.  It’s delightfully funny and relaxing.

The characterization ranges from really well-done to painfully one-dimensional or lacking in vividness.  For instance, all of the Hula Maidens are richly drawn elderly women who still have a lot of spunk and life left in them.  Yet the main character, Em, is so dull that I kept mixing her up with the waitress.  Similarly, some characters are so over-the-top as to be a bit offensive.  For instance, a new addition to the island are Fernando and his boyfriend Wally who are both quite possibly the most flamboyant characters I’ve ever seen in a novel.  Now, given the extremes of the Hula Maidens, that’s fine, but Wally is never given another element to his character.  Whereas it is later revealed that a lot of Fernando’s flamboyance is an act for his career, Wally is such a gay stereotype he even repeatedly faints and is never given any other realm of possibility besides fabulous gay boyfriend.  This is odd because the situation certainly arose to make him more compelling and well-rounded without diverting from the main storyline.  Although I appreciate the inclusion of gay characters in the book that the other characters simply accept, I do wish Landis had been a bit more careful with her characterization of them.

The mystery itself isn’t too mysterious.  Landis’s one attempt at misleading the reader into believing someone else is the murderer is so obvious as to be painful.  I actually cringed on her behalf when reading the passage.  The characters and humor are allowed to be obvious, but the mystery shouldn’t be.

I can give a pass to both of those issues considering that this is a cozy, and from what I’ve heard from friends who are fans, these sort of things are common in them.  The one big problem though is that this book sorely, direly needed better editing.  There were mistakes everywhere, which is baffling considering it comes from a publishing house (who supposedly are better because of the “professional” way they handle things….but that’s an issue for a different post).  There were multiple sentences with verbs in the wrong location or written twice.  Spelling errors and typos were present throughout.  This really distracted me from my enjoyment of the story, because the flow would be interrupted while I double-checked that I read the sentence correctly.  There is simply no excuse for such shoddy editing, although it is obviously the fault of the publishing house and editor, not the author.

These things said, though, looking at the book overall, it is still an enjoyable read.  Ignoring the editing issues, it is an enjoyable cozy, but not an amazing one.  The setting and rambunctious characters of the Hula Maidens hold much promise for future entries in the series.  Hopefully it will go uphill from here.  I recommend it to people who already know they are fans of cozies, but those who are uncertain should probably give it a pass.

3 out of 5 stars

Source:  Amazon

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