Sunday, June 9, 2013

Claire DeWitt--mystery wrapped in a mystery

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead
Sara Gran
Reviewed by Carol
5 stars

I was a little afraid to re-read this book, because the first time through was so absolutely stunning, it was as if it was written for me. My first review did not do justice to its wonderful combination of mystery, introspection, and setting, so I'm setting out to rectify it.

Claire DeWitt is a detective, willing to use all means necessary to solve the case for herself, because she knows sometimes the client doesn't want it solved:
"The client already knows the solution to his mystery. But he doesn't want to know. He doesn't hire a detective to solve his mystery. He hires a detective to prove that his mystery can't be solved."

Leon is a client who has requested her help finding his uncle Vic, a lawyer who disappeared during Hurricaine Katrina. He feels a little guilty: "'You know what it says in the Bible,' Leon said with resignation. 'Look out for thine uncle as you would thineself. Or whatever.'"

Claire tends to lie a little if it suits seeking solutions to a mystery, and isn't entirely honest about her history to Leon. "'How old are you?' 'Forty-two,' I said. I was thirty-five. But no one trusts a woman under forty. I'd started being forty when I was twenty-nine."

Claire's search brings her into contact with gangs of feral, forgotten children and with her own tumultous history as a detective, when she apprenticed in New Orleans. Claire frequently references a book by a famous detective (albeit fictional) whose thoughts on detecting are philosophical bon mots on mystery, truth, and humanity, as well as her history with Constance, her mentor. The time shifts flow smoothly and don't feel the intrusive into the story; in fact, they blended very well, sometimes foreshadowing the next development in the mystery. Claire's own mystery was worked in nicely, leaving a feel for her character but with a sense there is a lot more to discover.

As in many detective mysteries, setting plays a crucial role. One of the many small mysteries of the book is how Claire and the people of New Orleans never refer to Katrina by name, the way the rest of the country does. They call it a 'flood' and speak of it in terms of days ("'By Monday the phones were down and...' The rest of his sentence was obvious and he didn't say it out loud") or by location: being at the Superdome, Houston, back home. Claire notes the problem with locating people, phone numbers, addresses in post-Katrina New Orleans, and at least a couple of the locals involved in Claire's mystery are suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder. Finding Vic means visiting some of the ravaged areas, and Gran's imagery is striking in its objectivity: 
"Signs with letter missing told the story: lots of OTELS and HOT BO LED CRA FISH and AWN SH PS. In the intermediate zone I started to see the marks spray-painted on houses: circles with X's through them, numbers and letters in the hollows of the X."

For those that are sensitive to it, there is proliferate drug use, but it is handled well. Without being judgmental, it is apparently an activity Claire engages in to self-medicate as well as bridge gaps between herself and other people. Interestingly, I thought Gran managed a nice balance between acknowledging the reasons for doing it at the same time showing the non-glamourous side.

I can't say enough about Gran's ability with language--my Kindle copy has highlights every few pages. The factual tone and dispassionate descriptions lend themselves to the creation of emotionally blunted characters, and yet somehow Gran manages to convey humanity, tragedy and humor. Claire's sarcasm came through loud and clear, but also her love and affection for those she admires. 

Gran has a lovely sense of balance, injecting small bon mots of sarcasm, absurdity and humor to leaven the emotional weight of the mystery and of the post-flood setting. Claire is very good at mocking herself as well as those that ignore the mysteries around them:
--"He looked like he was waiting to see a doctor about an unusual lump."

--"I concentrated on the goats. They were good company. They overlooked most of my personality defects and failures, my withdrawal of food from the fatties, and my inability to speak goat."

--"You don't know that," Mick said, weakly trying to fake liberal outrage.

--"Houses are like people, only less annoying."

--"I heard Mick roll his eyes over the phone."

Yet despite the humor, both Claire and Gran are very careful and compassionate with the hollow-eyed thin adolescents of New Orleans. I loved that finesse, the unwillingness to sacrifice a character or story to the villain prototype. The inclusion of the social-economic commentary elevates it beyond mere mystery to a meditation on humanity, all without sermonizing or being particularly heavy-handed. 

I highly recommend it.

An Ambiguous Utopia

The Dispossessed
Ursula K. Le Guin
Originally published 1974

Reviewed by Sesana
Four out of five stars

 Publisher Summary:
Centuries ago, the moon Anarres was settled by utopian anarchists who left the Earthlike planet Urras in search of a better world, a new beginning. Now a brilliant physicist, Shevek, determines to reunite the two civilizations that have been separated by hatred since long before he was born.

My Review:

The Dispossessed is Le Guin's view of an anarchist utopia. And yet, it isn't exceptionally creepy or too horribly far-fetched. That's because her utopia isn't a completely perfect society where everyone is equally happy. It's just better.

We see both Anarres (the anarchist society) and Urras (the not really veiled at all analog of America) through the eyes of Shevek, a particularly thoughtful scientist. He's a good narrator, because he is thoughtful and likeable, though flawed and usually naive. Sure, the plot is the weakest part of the book, but this seems to have been intended as the author's idea of how an anarchist society left to its own devices would fare after a century, and not as a plot-heavy work of SF. And because it is an unusually thoughtful novel of ideas, it did work for me. And, of course, beautifully written. Not many authors would take the time to add in a convincing love story, like the one between Shevek and his wife.

For me, and probably for a lot of other readers, what stuck with me about Anarres is not the perfection of the idea. That can come off as slightly creepy at the hands of some authors, when characters start to act like automatons. Le Guin resists that urge, and certainly put a lot of thought into how her society could be corrupted and dragged down by basic human nature. And yet, it's still better than the alternative. It's that thoughtfulness that makes this novel of ideas far, far less preachy than it could have been, and probably should have been.

The Forbes 25 Reviewers - #17 UniquelyMoi *Dhestiny* BlithelyBookish

Today's guest is UniquelyMoi *Dhestiny* BlithelyBookish.  She also posts at Blithely Bookish.

How did you discover Goodreads?
Fate? Destiny? Divine intervention? I honestly can’t remember, but it’s been one of the most awesome experiences of my life. I’ve met many amazing people – readers who share my love of books, authors whose words have gotten me through some difficult times, and friends who have touched my life and blessed me in more ways than I can express.

What have been your most memorable Goodreads experiences?
Oh, there are so many memorable experiences! As I said, I’ve made some wonderful friends, friends I’d have never otherwise had the chance to meet, had it not been for Goodreads. But, one of the single most exciting and unexpected things to happen was finding myself on the pages of Forbes Magazine. I mean, seriously? How many people can say they’ve had that experience!?!

Name one reviewer not in the Forbes 25 that people should be aware of.
I can’t. There are simply too many to narrow it down to one, or even one dozen, and there are many others who I feel were more deserving of the mention than myself. The thing is, everyone expresses themselves differently, so reviewers I find amazing, others might find lacking. And the genre being reviewed will determine who I look to. My favorite historical romance reviewers are not my favorite paranormal romance reviewers. The ones I go to for reviews on contemporary romance novels are not the ones whose reviews I’d look for on a romantic suspense novel… I hope this makes sense. So while I’d love to answer your question and name just one, I can’t.

What was your initial reaction to Amazon buying Goodreads?
My first reaction? I groaned (seriously, I groaned) and thought, Nothing good can come of this… That said, I’m keeping an open mind and hoping for the best. One thing is for certain, the Goodreads I joined back in 2008 is not the Goodreads of today. Times are changing and so it’s inevitable that things will change, too, and not always for the best. I don’t know if we, the general membership of Goodreads, have been given all the details of the Amazon deal, so it’s hard to shape an informed opinion. Again, I’m hoping for the best, but only time will tell.

How many books do you own?
I own literally hundreds of paperbacks. At least 300, probably closer to 400. However, I’ve only read about 25% of them. Ebooks? Thousands. Seriously. On Amazon alone my Kindle Library boasts 2,916 books, most being freebies or gifts from friends, family, authors and publishers. Frankly, I think the price charged for ebooks is outrageous and I only purchase ebooks from favorite authors, or books in a series I MUST read. And speaking of ebooks, did you know that according to Amazon, when you buy a book from them, you haven’t actually bought it, you’ve only leased it. And to make matters worse, according to them, they can remove from your account any book they wish, without issuing a refund of the money you paid for said book? I’d like to see them try to get inside my house and “remove” any print book I purchased from them. Five words; The Right to Bear Arms.
Just sayin’…

Who is your favorite author?
I have to pick one? Surely you jest! Well, I can break it down by genre: Romantic Suspense would be Pamela Clare. Paranormal Romance; J.R.Ward. Contemporary Romance; Kristen Ashley, Jill Shalvis, Shannon Stacey, and Bella Andre. Erotica; Cherise Sinclair and Sophie Oak. Historical Romance is the hardest to choose from because as a whole it’s so diverse that I simply cannot name a single author for the entire genre or its sub-genres. That would be like asking me to compare cotton to kumquats! Or something akin to that. But here goes: Pamela Clare (yes, again), Eloisa James, Lisa Kleypas, Sarah MacLean, Loretta Chase, Anna Campbell, Courtney Milan, Victoria Vane, Lorraine Heath… wait! Don’t cut me off! I’m not done yet…

What is your favorite book of all time?
Oh, again with the difficult questions… you must be a sadist! Okay, I’d say my favorite book of all time is the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Yes, I know that’s three books, but really, it’s one story, so whatever.

What are your thoughts on ebooks?
Love them! With, of course, the exception of the outrageous prices and that totally lame “lease” rule. Not cool!

What are your thoughts on self-publishing?
It’s been a blessing and a curse.

THE BLESSING: Some of my favorite authors are self published, and I’m thrilled for them because they pocket a whole lot more $$ for their work than do the authors represented by the big name publishers. And, self published authors tend to price their books more reasonably, which makes me, as a consumer, very happy.

THE CURSE: Self publishing makes it easy for ‘anyone’ to write a book, and ‘anyone’ does. Sadly, many of those books are poorly edited, or the stories not thought out at all. These would be authors are giving self publishing a bad name. If they’d slow down and not be in such a rush to publish, but instead took the time to have someone read their work before putting it out there for the general reading population, they’d have a better chance at success. Plus, I know many people who will no longer read self published works because they're tired of having to wade through the muck to get to the good stuff.

Any literary aspirations?
No. Well, yes. Okay, honestly? I don’t know. I’ve got two stories I’m working on. For me, writing started out as a therapy, of sorts. As a way to safely express my own thoughts, feelings, and experiences through my characters, and giving them the resolutions to life issues I haven't yet attained for myself. It really did start out as a ‘just for me’ thing, but I shared a bit of my stories with a few people and they seem to think I should continue on and consider publishing them. So we'll see. I wish I had the faith in myself that they have in me.