Review: To Helvetica and Back

Review: To Helvetica and Back

Apr 18

To Helvetica and Back
by Paige Shelton (2016)

to helveticaThere are twenty-six chapters in Paige Shelton’s To Helvetica and Back. The first twenty-four are pretty darn good; the final two are a crime against the reader and a crime against the genre.

Those first twenty-four have all the makings. Clare is a smart, independent twenty-something woman who runs her grandfather’s shop. She repairs typewriters, restores old books, operates a Gutenberg-style printing press built by her grandfather, and prints custom stationery. She is a protector and restorer of the printed word, the kind of protagonist bibliophiles can’t help liking. Add a teenaged niece who helps in the shop, a snooty cat named Baskerville, a best friend and ex-fiancé who are both cops, and a handsome geologist who makes the best lasagna, and you can cancel your plans for the weekend, because you’ve got some comfy pages to get lost in.

A guy shows up, demands that Clare sell him another customer’s typewriter (an Underwood No. 5, of course), gets angry when she refuses, and sets off a nice string of events including danger to her family, a possibly thwarted new romance, a murder right outside her door, tension with her best friend, and the literal unearthing of long-held secrets. It’s all quite competently put together until the author breaks one of the unforgivable rules of the genre. So egregious is the writer’s transgression that it makes most of the good stuff irrelevant, and erases much of the enjoyment I got from most of the book. Shelton commits a lesser offense in the story’s climax, but I almost didn’t even notice it because her first breaking of the rules is so blatant.

I’ll allow the good stuff in this novel to serve as the background for the next in the series, but it does not make up for a horrible decision in this story.

1 star of 5.  I disliked its ending.

Review: Books Can Be Deceiving

Review: Books Can Be Deceiving

Apr 16

Books Can Be Deceiving
by Jenn McKinlay (2011)

books_can_beA cozy mystery series starring a librarian? Yes please.

Lindsey is the new director of the Briar Creek (Connecticut) Public Library, and although there have been a few bumps (a grouchy employee nicknamed The Lemon, and healing from a broken engagement among them), the transition has mostly been great. She’s begun a Crafternoon knitting/book-discussion group, the children’s librarian is her best friend Beth from library school, the board of directors has been completely supportive of her changes, and there’s this handsome boat captain who makes incredible hot cocoa.

When one of the coastal town’s residents is murdered, Beth is the prime suspect. The chief of police is so sure Beth is the culprit that he doesn’t explore other possibilities, so it’s on Lindsey, who knows her friend is innocent, to find the murderer. Her search takes her to wind-swept islands, a retirement home, and an art school, and as she gathers information about the victim, she puts herself and her best friend in danger. Grave danger? Is there any other kind?

The editing is sometimes sloppy (a trend I’m noticing in this genre, particularly in titles from this publisher) and the dialog is often less than gracefully expository. There is only one restaurant in town, for example, and Lindsey hasn’t been there in at least a month, despite the proprietor being a friend (and a member of the Crafternoon group). When she and Beth sit down to dine there, Lindsey tells Beth she’s ordering the lobster roll and then describes it for her, even though Beth has been a resident for much longer. If there’s only one restaurant in town, if the food is so good, and if both characters are friends of the owner, why would Lindsey have to describe anything on the menu for Beth? It’s a silly incongruence, and it’s not the only one.

The story, while well told, is something of a disappointment. It’s a nicely imagined story, but it suffers from bad decisions about the victim and culprit.

It’s not until more than halfway through that the novel really gets moving, beginning with a charming, funny, and endearing encounter at the retirement home. Lindsey’s interactions with a resident, the contrast between her thoughts and conversation, and an intriguing revelation combine to have an at-last-here-we-go effect. It’s a nice, pleasant narrative up to this chapter, and then a headlong rush to the finish line. Pretty fun reading. I really hope Lindsey is sincere in wishing to visit the home again.

It’s worth a read for its second half, and for likable characters and a really good setting. Although Jenn McKinlay’s prose could use some streamlining, she comes up with some pretty nice, lyrical stuff, sentences worth lingering on and reading aloud. Strengths outweigh flaws, so I’m recommending this for fans of (and newcomers to) the genre.

Three of five stars (I like it!).

Review: The Grind

Review: The Grind

Apr 01

The Grind: Inside Baseball's Endless SeasonThe Grind: Inside Baseball’s Endless Season by Barry Svrluga
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When the Washington Nationals arrive at their hotel in St. Louis for a weekend series against the Cardinals, their luggage is waiting for them in their rooms. In a few hours, they’ll step back onto the chartered buses and into the visitors’ clubhouse at the stadium, where their personal equipment and freshly laundered uniforms will be waiting for them, each player’s belongings in his assigned locker. In order to allow the players to focus on their jobs as baseball players, the team ensures that they don’t have to worry about the logistics of luggage, transportation, dining, or entertainment, and it is Rob MacDonald’s job to make it happen. MacDonald is the Nationals’ Vice President of Clubhouse Operations and Team Travel, and he is one of 1,100 employees, not counting the players themselves, who endure The Grind of the 162-game baseball season.

The 2014 Washington Nationals finished the season with the National League’s best record, but lost their first playoff series to the San Francisco Giants. It had been a long season, but even the most avid fan had only the faintest idea of how truly long it was. In The Grind, Washington Post reporter Barry Svrluga chronicles the season, beginning with spring training in February, and passing through Opening Day in March, the dog days of late summer, the playoffs in October, and the winter off-season, concluding with the the first moments of the next cycle, the team’s preparations for spring training in 2015.

Svrluga devotes a chapter each to nine different perspectives of the season: Ryan Zimmerman, beginning his tenth season in the Majors, is featured in a chapter called “The Veteran.” Tyler Moore, a promising but no-longer-young power hitter is the focus of “The Twenty-Sixth Man” (baseball rosters are limited to twenty-five players). Chelsey Desmond, wife of shortstop Ian Desmond, is profiled with her young children in “The Wife.” And Rob MacDonald’s chapter is called “The Glue.” A chapter each on a starting pitcher, a reliever, a scout, the general manager, and the off-season, when players go home but the team’s management is working as hard as ever, bring the total of fascinating stories to nine, because of course. Because nine is baseball’s perfect number, the number of completion.

“If the major league life brings a grinding rhythm that wears on the hearts and minds and bodies of even star players,” writes Svrluga, “at least it comes with charter flights and checks with all those zeroes. In the minors, the everydayness is the same. The payoff is not.” Fans are accustomed to one very specific view of what goes on during the baseball season, but here are nine, each with a different approach to its rhythms and flows, each compelling, sympathetic, glorious, and heartbreaking. They are all terrific, but especially memorable are the chapters on Moore and MacDonald, two behind-the-scenes glimpses not well-known by the baseball fan.

No sport lends itself to great storytelling quite the way baseball does, and Svrluga nails the story of the season from beginning to end, giving us nine stories that contribute to the saga. I’ve read more baseball books than most people, and this was immediately a favorite before I got through the first chapter. It is an excellent and worthy addition to the top shelf of any fan’s library.

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Review: Charlotte’s Web

Review: Charlotte’s Web

Mar 27

Charlotte's WebCharlotte’s Web by E.B. White
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first read E. B. White‘s Charlotte’s Web three times through in semi-rapid succession when I was in third or fourth grade, after I’d seen the animated movie with its stupid dancing geese and wonderful Paul-Lynde-voiced Templeton. This means that the novel’s images and voices were colored insistently by my first from-TV experience with them, and while it was okay at first, as I got older and realized how bad the cartoon adaptation is, my memory of the novel was lowered enough that, while I never stopped loving it, I was in no hurry to read it again.

Then, in 2006, Julia Roberts starred as the voice of Charlotte in a live-action adaption of the novel, with Beau Bridges wonderfully playing Dr. Dorian, Steve Buscemi as Templteton’s voice, Dakota Fanning as Fern, and a crazy-good group of actors (among them Oprah Winfrey, Thomas Haden Church, Robert Redford, Kathy Bates, and John Cleese) filling the rest of the roles. This new interpretation is no Casablanca, but it’s good enough to shove the memory of the original film out of my mind, and read the novel with (mostly) fresh brain space, so that each incarnation is its own thing: old movie, new movie, novel.

And bless them all for saving the novel, because it is wistful and sad, as we all remember, but it is also lyrical, profound, lonely, sometimes overwrought, and beautiful, and it is never — not for one moment in any sentence — condescending to children. If it is condescending at all, it is to grownups who worry too much about the runaway imaginations of their children, and who seldom take time to hear the crickets’ song, or to witness how other creatures respond to it.

An ancient belief about children’s literature held that it should be an instructive, good-for-you thing that shapes morals and builds character, but White understands who really needs the instruction, and he reminds the grownup who may read this aloud to an audience of little ones that “The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year—the days when summer is changing into fall—the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.”

If you never read Charlotte’s Web when you were a child, it’s too late for you to experience it the way it was meant, but read it now and experience it another way, and make sure you’ve got a tissue or two.

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Review: The Art and Craft of Murder

Review: The Art and Craft of Murder

Mar 25

The Art & Craft of Murder (Whistler's Cove Cozy Mystery Series Book 1)The Art & Craft of Murder by Cozy Cat Parker
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Misty Williams owns a tea café in an artsy coastal town, many of whose residents make their living on sales of their paintings and sculptures. There is only one gallery in town, and it’s owned by a grouchy, demanding woman named Hilary Short, the sort of woman who makes Misty remake her tea three times before she’s satisfied with its temperature. She’s already the least popular person in town; now that she’s increasing the gallery’s percentage on art sales, there are many who wouldn’t mind seeing her die, as some of Misty’s regulars do when she drops dead after a taste of her order. Misty takes it upon herself to figure out where the poison that kills Hilary came from.

The Art and Craft of Murder is a seven-chapter, forty-eight page, direct-to-ebook cozy mystery by someone who calls herself Cozy Cat Parker. Her author page at the publisher’s website doesn’t say anything meaningful or interesting, and the full title of the novella as it’s listed in ebook stores reeks of obnoxious search engine optimization. I don’t want to insinuate that self-published ebooks are usually amateurish, but so rinky-dinky does this operation appear that the summary of this title on Amazon calls the murder victim “Hilary Small.” I was certain this short work would be sloppily edited, with mediocre writing at best and no discernible characters. I was kind of wrong. The editing is sloppy, and the writer frequently uses four words where one will do, as with this sentence:

Because as much as there are those of us who’s blood begins to boil at the very thought of Hilary Short, she also has her fan club too.

There are at least three things wrong with this sentence (“who’s,” “also…too,” and wordiness that sounds like the writing of a high-schooler), but even through this, Parker (whoever he or she is) has a decent voice with a fair sense of the flow of language, and her main character is surprisingly likeable. There’s no room in forty-eight pages for much development of secondary characters, or any of the colorful details that make cozy mysteries especially enjoyable, so things stick tightly to the mystery itself, but there’s a time and a place for a quick mystery you can knock off in one lazy evening, and that’s what I did, and there are worse ways to spend Saturday night. This title is free on Amazon, so I certainly got my money’s worth, and I can see myself spending the ninety-nine cents to three dollars listed for the others in this series, given the right weekend weather.

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Review: A Clue for the Puzzle Lady

Review: A Clue for the Puzzle Lady

Mar 24

A Clue for the Puzzle Lady
by Parnell Hall (2000)

The murdered body of an unknown girl is found in a cemetery in the middle of the night. She holds a slip of paper on which is written what appears to be a crossword puzzle clue, so police chief Dale Harper brings it to Cora Felton, a newcomer to Bakerhaven (Connecticut) who publishes a national newspaper column called The Puzzle Lady. Cora is a fall-down drunk with a nose for a mystery, and soon Dale, Cora, and the Puzzle Lady’s niece Sherry Carter are in pursuit of a killer who seems to be toying with them, who doesn’t stop at just one victim. An aggressive newspaper reporter with something to prove, pushy TV camera crews, a teenaged girl with a theory of her own, a violent ex-boyfriend, and a community not so far impressed with the police chief’s work race toward either uncovering the murderer or getting away with it.

In pleasantly short chapters with shifting third-person points of view, Parnell Hall creates an engaging, difficult-to-put-down story with well-defined characters in a story that’s easy to follow but difficult to predict. I’ve been on a bit of a cozy mystery bender lately, and while the genre tends toward a certain sameness (which I am not a complaining about), here is one that stands out stylistically, taking a noticeably different path to its end. While certain linguistic tics take some getting used to (there are a couple of sentence structures that drove me crazy until midway through), A Clue for the Puzzle Lady is the first novel in the genre that had me wishing I could dive immediately into the rest of the series. Although an appreciation for crossword puzzles isn’t necessary for thorough enjoyment, puzzle devotees will find an extra layer of involvement, a kind of challenge within the whodunit challenge that’s extra-engaging. And a lot fun. Highly recommended for mystery lovers.

4 of 5 stars (I really liked it).