About Victoria

Born in Detroit. Lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania, D.C., and Princeton, New Jersey. Degrees in Journalism (U. of Michigan) and Public Health (U. of Pittsburgh). Alumna of U. of Michigan and U. of Pittsburgh. Favorite authors: Neal Stephenson, Frederick Forsyth, Alan Furst, Charles Dickens--they all know how to tell a good story! Best book read so far in 2012: Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies. Favorite TV: The Wire; Treme.

Disappointed Expectations

You may have noticed that the book reviews on this website tend toward the positive. I decided a few months ago to post reviews here of only those books I could recommend. I’m choosy about what I read in the first place, but if a book doesn’t meet expectations, OK. What’s the point of giving a tepid review to a book that probably won’t ever come to the notice of most readers? Let those authors have their shot. Tastes differ.

Two books I’ve read lately are exceptions. Both are receiving a healthy dose of publicity—one because the author is popular and the other, a debut, because the publisher has put big bucks behind it. So these books may actually may attract your attention. Here’s what troubled me about them.

The Hollows

Mark Edwards is a popular British thriller writer. He set this story at a family camp in Maine—remote, wooded. A grisly double murder occurred there twenty years earlier, and the local teenager thought to have committed the crime disappears and isn’t seen again. When British journalist Tom and his teenage daughter arrive for a getaway, they learn right away about the killings and that many of the camp’s visitors are murder-porn tourists. Creepy events ensue. Is the place haunted, has the killer been living in the woods all this time, why are people warning them to leave? Of course, they don’t take any of this good advice (or there wouldn’t be a story), but Tom’s second-guessing and the predictable plot become tiresome.

Falling

TJ Newman’s debut thriller is an exciting read, so much so (especially for us formerly-frequent flyers) that it may distract you from the plot’s implausibility. But after you close the book, the head-scratching will begin. Newman is a former flight attendant and captures the technical aspects of commercial flight very persuasively and her flight attendant characters are nicely three-dimensional. In a nutshell, a transcontinental passenger airline is hijacked and the pilot is told he must crash the plane when it reaches New York. If he refuses, his kidnapped wife and children will be killed. But aside from the behavioral clichés in the story, the bad guys’ plot is way way more complicated than it needed to be. Ultimately, it makes no sense. (I won’t say why in case you decide to give it a go.) There’s a lot of feel-good stuff near the end that doesn’t hold up either. This book has already been optioned for film and has Hollywood fakery written all over it.

Karin Slaughter: No Sugarcoating

Last week a library consortium sponsored an interview with best-selling crime author Karin Slaughter to discuss her new standalone thriller, False Witness. She told the interviewer that it is a hard book to talk about without revealing spoilers, and since I’ve read and reviewed it for CrimeFictionLover.com, I can attest to the difficulty.

The book centers on two sisters, Leigh and Callie, who in their mid-teens experience a horrible event that has changed their lives in many ways. The book was a way to for Slaughter to explore her abiding interest in the impact trauma has on people. The bond between the sisters is at the book’s emotional core. Sister relationships, she says, are so fraught. “A sister is the person you can love the most and hate the most at the same time.”

The interviewer noted that many readers consider her books very “dark,” and she said “if my name was Ken Slaughter, they wouldn’t say that.” She puts violent situations in context but does not shy away from portraying them as they are. No sugarcoating. When she was a child, her grandmother would often have a black eye or split lip or even a broken bone. Her uncles would always make light of it, saying how clumsy she was, but as Karin grew older, she realized her grandfather was an abuser. The family’s refusal to face or even discuss the violence “only hurt my grandmother” and enabled the beatings to continue.

Tough issues, indeed, but despite them, Slaughter works considerable humor into her stories. In this one, Callie works in a veterinary clinic and gives the animals humorous (and very apt) nicknames. Her boss, Dr. Jerry, entertains her with intriguing animal stories. “This book was my opportunity to put in all the obscure animal facts I’ve collected,” Slaughter said. “You can’t have all the dark stuff without balance.”

As adults, Leigh is a lawyer in a high-priced Atlanta firm, and Callie a drug abuser, intermittently sober. To research Callie, Slaughter talked with current and former drug abusers and wanted to describe their outlook without defaulting into clichés. She wanted to separate Callie’s base personality from the addiction and does so in part through Callie’s love of animals. In my opinion, Callie comes across as the novel’s most engaging and believable character.

She read Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Anne Porter’s novel about the 1918 influenza epidemic, which contains so many parallels to our covid experience. The new book includes a pointed epigram from Porter too. Slaughter produces a book a year, generally, and has published 21 novels with more than 35 million copies sold worldwide. Several of her books are optioned for television, and the one closest to airing is Pieces of Her, which will be an eight-part Netflix series starring Toni Collette, premiering in late 2021 or 2022 (covid delays).

Summer of Soul

You may have seen previews for the music documentary Summer of Soul (Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) and think it looks worth seeing. Well, you’re right! There’s a lot packed in there, reclaimed from footage recorded during a series of outdoor concerts held in 1969 in Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park, now called Marcus Garvey Park (trailer).

Officially titled the Harlem Cultural Festival, the concerts took place the same summer as Woodstock. But while that event has a movie, soundtrack albums, and innumerable cultural references, the Summer of Soul was at risk of being forgotten altogether. For years, the filmmakers who captured the music and sound tried vainly to acquire funding for a finished film.

Finally, they sold the rights to producers David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent. They approached Questlove, co-founder of the hip-hop band The Roots, house band for Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.” He was amazed at the footage of the Festival. Not only was it mesmerizing, he couldn’t believe he’d never heard of these concerts.

What’s to like? The music is terrific. Each week, the concert featured a different type of music—blues, soul, pop—and the performers ranged from gospel choirs and Mahalia Jackson to Motown’s Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and David Ruffin, to the Fifth Dimension, to the Staple Singers to Sly and the Family Stone and on and on. The concerts were organized and mc’d by singer Tony Lawrence, whom you may know as “The Continental Dreamboat” (pictured) and you can justify the price of admission just to see his outfits. 

While the music makes this a must-see, for those who lived through that era, the cultural touchstones are breathtaking. Especially interesting are the reminiscences of people—performers and audience-members—who were there and talk about what the festival meant to them.

The documentary cannot avoid the era’s significant social context, which so strongly reminded of how I felt at the time and my hopes for my country. Yes, it made me feel a little old.

Spectacular! And coming soon, the Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 99%; audiences 98%.

Revisited: The Water Knife

By Paolo Bacigalupi, narrated by Almarie Guerra – Recent news about the drought in the American Southwest reminds me to revisit this excellent 2015 thriller that pits governments against each other and new technology (interesting in itself) benefits some people more than others (go figure). Set in the not-too-distant future, Bacigalupi’s story uses real-life issues as a springboard, adds in toxic intergovernmental rivalries and a healthy dose of greed. It’s an exciting and thought-provoking tale.

In Bacigalupi’s Southwest, Nevada (specifically Las Vegas), Arizona, and California are battling over a dwindling water supply caused by climate change, population pressure, and brazen political brokering. The situation has escalated, with states declaring their sovereignty, closing their borders, and enforcing interstate transit rules with armed militias that shoot to kill. Zoners (Arizonans) have few ways to make a living, and those with weapons prey on the desperate poor. To have water is to be rich or, as the saying goes, “water flows toward money.” The wealthy have bought their way into “arcologies”—high-rise buildings with complex plant and aquatic ecosystems for recycling and recirculating virtually every drop.

In Las Vegas, the Cypress arcologies were built by Catherine Case, nicknamed the Queen of the Colorado River, and head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Las Vegas is to some extent thriving, because of her cunning and cutthroat tactics. But Phoenix is dying.

Angel Velasquez, one of the book’s three protagonists, is an ex-prison inmate—smart, ruthless, a “water knife” who works for Case, cutting other people’s water supplies. Lucy Monroe is a Phoenix-based Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and social media star (#PhoenixDowntheTubes) who just might have a lead on some serious water rights, and Maria Villarosa is a highly disposable Texas refugee barely surviving in Phoenix and at the constant mercy of a brutal gang headed by “the Vet,” who throws enemies to his pack of hyenas.

Angel must visit Phoenix to investigate the mutilation death of one of Catherine Case’s undercover operatives, and the plot really starts to flow. He finds Phoenix swimming with Calis—Californians also working undercover to assure that state’s gluttonous water requirements are met, regardless what happens to everyone upriver. Before long, all the players are after the same thing—original water rights documents that would supersede everything on the books—and no one is sure who has them.

While the story is a critique of a policy environment in which local interests are allowed to supersede regional and federal goals, it never reads like a political tract. And, while quite a bit is imparted about the issue of water rights and reclamation strategies, it isn’t a legal or scientific tome, either. It’s a thriller about a compelling trio of people with different motivations, different places in the water aristocracy, and different strategies for coping. The drought, dust, and poverty that envelop Angel, Lucy, and Maria and their cities affect everyone who lives there. “Somehow they hadn’t been able to see something that was plain as day, coming straight at them.”

A lot of powerful straight journalism has been written recently about water rights, droughts, agricultural demand, and intergovernmental bickering about rights. This important novel makes the stakes eminently—and memorably—clear.

Almarie Guerra does a solid narration, putting just the right Latino topspin on the Mexican voices.

Order here from Amazon, or from your local indie bookstore.

As of July 2021, Lake Mead, the nation’s largest water reservoir by volume, is at 37% of capacity.

The Thursday Murder Club

What better review for today, right? I highly recommend the audio-version of Richard Osman’s award-nominated debut cozy crime novel, narrated by Leslie Manville. Osman, who’s had a career in television production, has a second book with many of the same characters already available for pre-order.

Four septuagenarians living in the Coopers Chase Retirement Village, located in the Kentish Weald, meet every Thursday to discuss cold murder cases. Their combination of still being sharp as a tack and varied life experience makes for lively, insightful discussions. Elizabeth, the group’s leader, is the veteran of some possibly clandestine career that took her to countries around the world, Joyce was a nurse, Ibrahim a psychiatrist, and Red Ron a notorious union organizer and gadfly.

Their differences in temperament add to the group’s chemistry. While Ibrahim would like to analyze every factor down to its nub, Ron’s instinct is to barge in and clobber somebody. Elizabeth keeps various thoughts to herself, but Joyce writes a diary, and lucky thing too, because in it, she tells us what the group is thinking and, possibly, why. Joyce’s diary is Osman’s clever way to handle backstory and summary without tedious authorial intrusions.

In an early scene, local DC Donna De Freitas visits the group to five her usual spiel on “Practical Tips for Home Security.” She’s barely begun before Elizabeth cuts her off. “Dear, I think we’re all hoping this won’t be a talk about window locks.” Ibrahim adds, “And no ID cards, please; we know about ID cards. ‘Are you really from the gas board, or are you a burglar?’ We’ve got it, I promise.” “And no need to tell us we mustn’t give our PIN to Nigerians over the phone.”

De Freitas regroups and asks what they do want to talk about, and an enjoyable hour-long free-for-all starts. They recognize that the young De Freitas, for all her amiability, is rather underutilized in the local police department. What she’d like to be working on is a nice juicy murder.

Fate conspires to accommodate her. Tony Curran, a man with a gangster past, and the greedy developer, Ian Ventham, intend to build a second phase of Coopers Chase, on more of the former convent land Ventham purchased from the Church, including plans to dig up the nuns’ cemetery. When Tony is stabbed to death in his kitchen, the Thursday Murder Club wants in on the action. Their new friend Donna De Freitas may be the key, if they can only manage to get her on the murder team and convince her to let them help.

Ventham’s helper Bogdan, has hardly started excavating the graves when he discovers a set of human bones, not in a coffin, but on top of one. This looks like trouble, so he reburies them. Now the Club has two mysteries to solve: who killed Tony Curran, and who is the extra body? Though the local police barely tolerate this amateur assistance, in truth, the oldsters run rings around them. Joyce especially has a way of sounding like a batty old lady, chatting about cakes and tea, while maneuvering the detectives into spilling some useful tidbit.

Although the overall mood is lighthearted, there are moments of sadness, as loss is ever-present in a place like Coopers Chase. That doesn’t stop these four memorable characters from living their lives to the fullest. If you’re in a summertime mood for something light and delightful, this book could be it. If you choose the audio version, Leslie Manville’s narration is tops.

Order here from Amazon.

“Shunning” Books by Women? What FB Users Said

reading

Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post based in part on findings of research done by Nielsen Book Research. As you may know, the Nielsen organization is “a leading global data and analytics company that provides a holistic and objective understanding of the media industry.” This particular research was for a new book by MA Sieghart, titled The Authority Gap (reviewed here), which explores the social conditioning and unconscious bias that belittles and undermines women. Half the population is a lot of people to not take seriously.

The author investigated the many guises in which bias occurs, but of most interest to me were her findings on how authors are treated. Much past research has dealt with women authors’ difficulties, which culminate in reduced readership. Using the Nielsen research and other sources, Sieghart found considerable evidence that these difficulties continue and that men “shun” books by women. I actually think this may be less prevalent in the crime and mystery genre, but the research was dealt with best-selling authors, all genres.

I’m gratified that my post it received abundant Facebook likes from both men and women. But in the comments, sharp differences emerged. In general, women cited specific experiences they’d had; many men denied the problem and questioned the data.

Several women (teachers) said prejudices against women authors begin at an early age, and others said they identify themselves with initials, not their names, as a result. One woman said, “A while back, a large writers’ group I belong to researched this from several angles, and concluded that in most genres, male authors significantly outsold female. Possibly the roughest moment was a friend’s husband admitting to his writer wife that he too avoided books by women because he assumed they wouldn’t interest him.” That “he assumed” is what author Sieghart is trying to get at.

Some men said they don’t pay any attention to the author’s gender. I hope that’s true. But if all that interests them are stories about former Navy SEALS with advanced martial arts skills who like to blow things up, following their preferences will naturally lead to one type of author. One said he didn’t know any women who write the action thrillers he prefers (a woman author responded by suggesting one of her books). Sieghart’s point is that readers who read books by only one gender (however that happens) miss out on understanding a lot of what goes on in the world.

Apparently, several men didn’t bother to read my post, much less The Guardian article it was based on, both of which described the research. One skeptical man asked, “Is this based on any factual research?” Similarly, men wrote, “I don’t take much stock in people’s surveys or stats,” and “I think these surveys/polls are utter nonsense.” The Nielsen research wasn’t a poll; it was an analysis of actual buying patterns.

Mysteriously, one man said he didn’t see that the problem is about gender. “Most crime fiction is written by women, so are you suggesting men don’t read crime? They certainly do.” No, the post did not suggest anything like that at all.

The ad feminem argument also surfaced: “One issue is that society conditions men to expect female authors to spend most of the time excoriating men. So why bother?”

And, this clincher: “Who cares? Move on. Write because you love writing.” Not because you want to be read or because it’s important to you that your books bring in the income that will let you eat, put a roof over your head, and buy shoes for the kids.

Heartening, by contrast, was some men’s unqualified support for women authors, like: “There are way too many high quality female authors to ignore. Especially in the mystery genre.” And “I love English mysteries, and many of the best writers are women.”

Singing in the Theater

A new class under way at Washington DC’s Theatre J is on what to listen for in the songs of musical theater. It’s being taught by Felicia Curry, who in August will appear in Nina Simone: Four Women for The Berkshire Theatre Group (Stockbridge, Massachusetts). Curry is a Helen Hayes Award winner (and nine-time nominee). Each week she’s guiding my zoommates and me through the deconstruction of a single song—reading the lyrics and hearing the music both without vocals and with.

A number of years ago, I saw the Tony-award winning Yasmina Reza play Art at Papermill Playhouse. Bear in mind that Art ran for 600 performances on Broadway and for eight years in London. So, a significant work, but maybe a stretch for Papermill’s bill, which at that time, anyway, tended toward lighter fare. At intermission, I overheard the woman sitting behind me say, “I like it when they sing.” While my first reaction was a bit of an eye-roll, I thought, “Wait a minute. I like it when they sing too.” We all do.

So how are we to think about the choices that make musical theater such a delight? There are choices about the lyrics, of course, the mood they establish and the literal (and figurative) meaning of the words. Are the songs integrated with the story’s action or just pasted in? You may wonder like I do how a song written for one musical can be lifted out and plopped into another story altogether. Then, the music. Is it in sync with the words—not rhythmically, but in tone? Add to that the choices the singer/actor makes, with the director’s oversight. Is the performer owning the meaning or just getting the tune right?

For our first class, Curry picked a truly meaty song—Stephen Sondheim’s “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods (lyrics here). You may recall the hit Barbra Streisand had with this. Streisand really belted it out in a couple of places, but to me, the song is so full of actual and potential regret, it suggests a more wistful touch.

A couple of my favorite lines were “Wishes come true not free.” If you get your wish, there’s a cost. And “How can you say to a child who’s in flight, ‘don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight?’” As parents, haven’t most of us felt the almost irresistible desire to hold on? It was a brilliant song to put in a play about fairy tales, because reading fairy tales aloud to children is (was?) such a universal of childhood. And they carry some pretty grim (Grimm) messages. The context is ideal.

Oddly, the song stumbled into its placement in the show’s Finale. Initially, it was a section of a long song near the end of Act I, which ultimately was cut, but the “Children Will Listen” portion was salvaged and molded into its familiar form. Theatre J continues to offer interesting and intimate classes for theater lovers. Hope to see you there!

The Truffle Hunters

Some quirky films came out this past year, despite the pandemic, and we’ve enjoyed watching them at home or, finally—nirvana!—in an actual movie house.

The Truffle Hunters offers a little slice of life about people who live totally different lives than you do (guaranteed). In the beautifully scenic Piedmont area of Italy, the documentary-makers, Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, found a group of aging men who take their dogs into the woods every day searching for truffles (trailer). Apparently, even though truffles are rare, it’s a living, especially if you know the good spots.

People who spend so much time alone are liable to get a little quirky, and, yes, they are. Their dogs are their children, spouses, best friends. One of the best moments is when the filmmakers attached a camera to a dog’s head, and you get to see the world in caninevision. The bouncing along, the snuffling leaves, the distractions left and right. Best of all is when the dog stops to chase his tail and the trees overhead whip around dizzingly. The whole audience laughed.

Roger Ebert’s review was too snarky by half for such an inoffensive movie. Nevertheless, the film left me a little worried. Most of these men can’t do this for many more years, even though the active outdoor life has helped get them into their 80s and even 90s. So where will future truffles come from? It will be sad if the truffle poachers who are trying to move in (they’ve even poisoned some dogs) inherit this livelihood. And, the middlemen who buy as cheaply as possible and sell for exorbitant profits currently keep it a marginalized business.

If you need a big shot of adrenaline, this is not your film. After all the disruptions of the last year, it’s calming to spend some time in the woods—no ticks!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 97%; audiences 77%–probably because of that adrenaline factor.

Kiss the Detective

This is the first book I’ve read by Élmer Mendoza, who’s thought of as “the godfather of narco-lit,” translated from the Spanish by Mark Fried, and the third book in this series. Mendoza has a distinctive writing style, and I’m guessing it’s “love it or hate it.” Definitely, it takes a little getting used to, but well worth it to experience his compelling story and memorable, entertaining characters.

Mendoza, omits quotation marks, “he said” and “she said” some of the time, as well as paragraph changes when the speaker changes at other times.

After a few pages I got the hang of this, and for the most part, I could track the conversations pretty easily (artful writing and excellent translation!). Where I couldn’t—say, when two gangsters of fairly equal power are talking—knowing for sure which one is speaking actually matters less than I thought it might. It’s as if Mendoza submerges you in a river of dialog that sweeps you along through his intriguing plot.

Operating in Culiacán, Sinaloa, police homicide detective Edgar Mendieta is well acquainted with Samantha Valdés, head of the Pacific Cartel. The story opens with an operation against Valdés that offers enough firepower and double-dealing to conjure Don Winslow’s The Border. No time to wait for an ambulance, her crew drives her to the nearest hospital, where she’s in intensive care.

As the cartel members keep their own watch, nervous Mexican army troops and federal police surround the hospital, waiting until she’s well enough to travel, when they’ll transport her to a military hospital in the capital. Word is, they’re coming down on her hard. Still, perhaps the greatest immediate risk she faces is the professional assassin hired to finish her off. And Mendieta too.

The Pacific Cartel fiasco technically belongs to the police department’s narcotics unit. Mendieta has his hands full, anyway, with two unrelated murders: a snappily dressed young fortune-teller whose body was found with fifteen bullets in it; and a small-time crook killed clutching a woman’s purse he’d just snatched.

Mendieta can’t resist some hospital visits to see how Valdés is faring and whether her people know anything about his two cases. In exchange for this information, he agrees to help smuggle her out of the hospital. There’s no going back from this decision. His standing in the police is jeopardized, not to mention his safety.

A call from Mendieta’s ex-wife in Los Angeles further raises the stakes. Their son Jason has apparently been kidnapped by an unknown party, no ransom demanded. Now not only are the Mexican authorities out to get him, he has to negotiate with the FBI as well. The spectre of betrayal lurks everywhere, as Mendieta is pushed into a tighter and tighter corner.

While Mexico’s President Obrador may have declared the war on drugs to be over, Mendieta sees the bodies that keep piling up. Yet, despite threats to his career, his family, and himself he keeps going, finding himself a new girlfriend, sharing beers with friends, holding his head up, a (mostly) honorable man in a dishonorable world. Whose side are you on, Edgar? At times the sides are hard to tell apart.

The book helpfully provides a list of the many characters, which I made good use of. If you give Mendoza’s unusual approach to telling a story a chance, you may find his lively, honest writing refreshing, and Fried’s translation reads beautifully.

Managing the Message, 16th Century Style

You think world leaders are using considerable creativity (at times through outrageous lying) to shape public opinion? Imagine the problems of emperors and kings before the 24/7 news cycle, before the Internet, before broadcast, before . . . before . . . before.

No, there weren’t websites and news analysts, and tell-all best-sellers. But that didn’t matter—hardly anyone could read anyway. That’s one reason Shakespeare was such a hit. He told it like it was in a form any rowdy theater-goer could relate to.

Last week, I took a zoom class with art expert and teacher Gene Wisniewski on how Elizabeth I used her portraits to get her political messages across. Today, we’d call them propaganda. She used the portraits to solidify her role as the head of state and the Church of England (after the rather tumultuous succession after Henry VIII) and as a leader on the world stage. Admittedly, she wasn’t in the breaking news business. It takes a while to produce a portrait, especially one where the subject is so elaborately garbed in gems and pearls.

A good example is the portrait above. Gene says to look at it left-to-right, like a cartoon panel. There in the left background is the Spanish Armada, sailing in splendor. Then there’s Elizabeth, dominating the middle, then the Armada on the right, blackened and sinking in defeat. Even subjects unable to read can get the message. Oh, and the hand on the globe. Not just anywhere, either, the Americas. There’s a message.

Gene took us through a succession of the paintings of the queen and what they were meant to convey. Below is was one of my favorites. Do you think Elizabeth wanted her subjects to know she had her eyes and ears on them?