Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Diviners. Not that divine.

Libba Bray
2012 Little, Brown Books 

Reviewed by Carol
Recommended for: I don't.
Read 2013 
One and a half stars

"Ms. Bray, I have an idea for your next book."
"Well, the researcher who worked on The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York left some notes lying in the library, and someone I know swiped 'em."
"Perfect setting! What should we make it about?"
"Hmm, not sure. Let's come back to it."
"Okay. Target audience?"
"Well, you have some cred in Young Adult, and the field is on fire. If we make it about a 17 year-old and her friends, we can draw in the pre-teens and the twenty-somethings, no problem."
"Excellent. We'll need a romance. Women love romance."
"I guess we can do that two-guys-competing for the same woman situation that was so popular in The Hunger Games. If we make it into a series, we can draw out the romantic tension over a couple of books."
"Sounds perfect. Do you have a plot yet?"
"Well, that Harry Potter book was a huge hit and made a ton of dough. Superheros and the like are the rage. What if we say the group of friends has special powers?"
"I don't know, that sounds like a lot of work. Just how special do they have to be?"
"We can just make it mysterious and say they are learning about it, so it doesn't have to be anything really thought out. I can put one of the interns on it for the second book."
"Cool. And the antagonist?"
"Stick with that H.P. thing and say there's this really, really evil guy trying to come back to life, and they are trying to stop him from bringing about the end of the world. That'll probably draw in horror fans too."
"Perfect. Draft it out and let me know when you are done."

Try as I might--summer afternoon, comfy deck chair, an open-ended day just made for endless reading--I was unable to enjoy The Diviners. Libba Bray did a tremendous amount of research on the roaring 20s in New York. The trouble is, she wanted to share all of it. This is a elaborate setting badly in need of characters and plot. Someone took their cardboard cut-outs from the "Young Adult Paper Doll Book" and inserted into the pretty-flapper-Great Gatsby-land. There's the Ingenue who thinks she's experienced. The square but supportive friend. The emotionally reserved uncle (includes one bonus secret past). The charming, rakish thief. Young quiet intellectual male hiding secret affection. The earnest detective. The possibly-scary elderly ladies living next door. The religious black woman. [SPOILER: The little boy speaking mysterious truths. The runaway wife. The gay piano player (aren't they all). The revival-tent preacher. END SPOILER]. About the only one of interest is the Poet-cum-Numbers runner.

Plot is straight out of "innocent-investigates-murder" only it took until page 80 to get the first murder. Up until then we're treated to extensive description of our heroine drinking, partying and sassing. Gee, I wonder if her experiences will help her grow up? By the time we find a dead body, I had been up and down out of my chair about eight times, looking for other things to entertain me. [SPOILER: When Ingenue investigates haunted mansion with her best friend--while serial killer is on the loose--is anyone shocked? When Unc Will is hauled away in chains, is anyone surprised? I can just tell someone is going to be kidnapped and used in an awful ritual before special powers save the day. END SPOILER] When I got to the second young man romancing our heroine (oh, it's not a spoiler--this is a modern young adult book), I was ready to stab myself.

I tend to read for three things: plot, character and language. Usually at least one can sustain me through a book, but that just didn't happen today. Characters here lack subtlety, dimensionality and interest. Plot was so routine that absolutely nothing about it surprised me. Language that is mostly defined by 20s vernacular and only devoted to creating the setting. There's not even a wider philosophical ideas here to create the illusion of a thoughtful approach. Belief creates reality, yada yada, except when it doesn't. Bray breaks narrative character in a couple sections to lecture the reader on 1920s racism. How educational!

Redeeming factors: ability to create a sense of place in time in America. Mostly. Mostly the movie perception of it, actually, of flappers and haircuts and kids on the corner selling newspapers and sneaking alcohol everywhere. Okay, so it mostly succeeds at writing Great Gatsby scenes.

One and a half stars--it completely missed me, even though it should have been a three star at least, given the sassy female, the fantastical elements, the description of period New York--all ingredients that usually appeal to me.

Cross posted at

The Forbes 25 Reviewers - #10 Kemper

Today's guest is Kemper.  Kemper posts at Shelf Inflicted and Kemper's Book Blog.

How did you discover Goodreads? 
Back in 2007 my wife told me about this new website that let your rate and catalog your books. She also told me that the users can write their own reviews and make friends, too. I think my exact response was "Why would would I want to do any of that crap? I just want to keep track of my books."

What have been your most memorable Goodreads experiences? 
Meeting Dan at Bouchercon, Stephanie meeting my niece and doing a caricature of her, the epic troll battles, the Matt Scudder reading trend and the on-going Amazonpocalypse freak-out.

Name one reviewer not in the Forbes 25 that people should be aware of:
Amanda. She's too busy educating America's youth to post as much as the other Goodreads junkies, but there's nobody who can rant as well while making me laugh.

What was your initial reaction to Amazon buying Goodreads? 
Denial. Followed by anger, bargaining, depression and now acceptance.

How many books do you own? 
Somewhere between 10 and 10,000. I can't narrow it down any more than that.

Who is your favorite author? 
At the moment, Lawrence Block.

What is your favorite book of all time?
 If I'm limited to one, probably Lonesome Dove.

What are your thoughts on ebooks? 
There's a lot I like about the idea. Easy access to books and no storage problems. I've tried reading on them a little, and it doesn't bother me. While I'll probably get one eventually, I also think a battered paperback will always be my preferred word delivery system.

What are your thoughts on self-publishing? 
Love the concept but haven't really tried many authors doing it.

Any literary aspirations? 
More than my talent supports.

Magnificent Corpses: Searching Through Europe for St. Peter's Head, St. Claire's Heart, St. Stephen's Hand, and Other Saintly Relics
Anneli Rufus

Reviewed by Sesana
Four out of five stars

Publisher Summary: 

Holy relics -- the bodily remains of saints and other sacred figures -- were for centuries the most revered objects in the Western world, at center-stage in Europe's great churches and cathedrals. Today some relics have been shunted to side chapels and dark crypts, yet many continue to draw prayerful pilgrims, as they have for centuries, seeking solace, inspiration, and signs of miracles. In Magnificent Corpses, Anneli Rufus recounts her visits to 18 of Europe's most significant relics. With an engaging mix of history and personal narrative, Rufus tells their secret stories and, along the way, revisits with a fresh eye the compelling accounts of the saints whose physical bodies the relics represent.

My Review:

Don't read this expecting a glowing hagiography of the saints depicted here. Rufus is not a Catholic, and makes no attempt to be particularly reverent. But neither is she disrespectful, in my opinion. But consider the source: her lack of belief was a selling point for me, somebody interested in the subject who was happy to see a book that dispensed with breathless accounts of poorly attested to miracles. And I, for one, would have a tough time with a book that glossed over how closely the bodies of supposedly incorruptible saints resemble Egyptian mummies, or didn't mention some of the troubling similarities between a lot of female saints.

What Rufus does deliver is a series of trimmed down biographies of the saints, and what happened to their bodies after death, and her impressions of what it's like to visit the relics today. Which means that in one section, she might be talking about the graffiti in the street outside, and in another what a bored child says in the middle of a visit. It certainly isn't to everyone's tastes, but I liked that it gave a more complete sense of her experience than simply describing the gilded angels would have done.

This is one of those books that's ideal for a coffee table. The sections are short, easily and quickly read, and it can be put down and picked up at will. I read it more or less straight through (with a few small detours) because I was hooked. Alas, there are no pictures. Anyone with enough morbid fascination to want to see what Rufus saw will either have to go to Europe themselves or try to google pictures. And let's face it, the number of people interested in this book who won't have that morbid fascination will be very small indeed. And so I am off to google.

Also reviewed at Goodreads.