The Return of a Literary Sleuth: DEATH WITHOUT TENURE

This novel is the seventh in a mystery series focused on an English professor turned amateur sleuth, written by Joanne Dobson, herself a noted English professor and literary scholar. The series began with Quieter Than Sleep, Dr. Dobson’s debut novel featuring her heroine, Professor Karen Pelletier, a woman from the wrong side of the tracks who had fought hard to work her way to a position in a prestigious private university. Karen is a likable, down-to-earth, motherly figure that the reader can easily get behind in this first-person “cozy” (meaning a mystery novel featuring an amateur detective that shies away from graphic violence).

I had found the Karen Pelletier series quite by accident, picking up the first in the series at a used book sale because it promised to be ‘a mystery of Emily Dickinson’; I quickly fell in love with the series, its heroine, the grumpy policeman love interest, the charming characters and even the sometimes stuffy fictional Enfield College. Each ensuing novel seemed only to get better, though the sixth definitely left something to be desired – but I’ll get to that in another post.

Dobson returned to form with her seventh in the series. Our beloved Prof. Pelletier is up for tenure at Enfield College while being left to face the stress of the matter alone, with her daughter backpacking through Asia and her love interest, the oddly charming grump Lietenant Piotrowski, away serving with the National Guard in the Middle East. This sets the tone for what is missing from this novel to a grand degree – the likable friends, students and colleagues that had filled the series with their happy presence from the first in the series are scant, a big change from the usual format of the novel.

Also missing, to my great disappointment, is the academic aspect that had speckled the Karen Pelletier novels from the very beginning. From Emily Dickinson to Edgar Allan Poe, to a fictional roman à clef that mirrored the real-life Peyton Place, Dr. Dobson’s novels have always had an accompanying literary mystery that went hand-in-hand with the modern murder the crafty English professor heroine was trying to solve. Not so with the latest entry in the series, which focuses solely on the murder at hand.

That being said, Dr. Dobson’s mystery is still a step above many others in the “cozy” genre, touching on class, gender and religious divisions among her students, the Enfield staff and even her own family while spinning a tale of secrecy and murder. While I’d love to see more of Karen’s “old friends” in the next in the series, even if Dr. Dobson continues on course with her current style, it will be worth the read.

Title: Death Without Tenure
Author: Joanne Dobson
Length: 240 pages
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Publication Date: January 1, 2010

CHECK PLUS: Return to format
CHECK MINUS: Lack of favorite characters; no literary mystery
OVERALL RATING: B

Where Spirits Tread in LOST ECHOES

lost

There is an ageless quality to the beginning of Joe R. Lansdale’s novel, Lost Echoes. The opening to the main narrative – which arrives only after a newspaper clipping and a brief retrospective thought from the novel’s lead character – has a quiet sense of timelessness that could lead a reader to believe that this story could be taking place at any time in the latter half of the 20th century. An ill child awakens from a fevered sleep and wanders through a quiet house in the dark, reveling in his innocence by watching drive-in cartoons through his living room windows, parents all the while unaware. The sweetness of this picturesque scene is soon stripped away, when this single incident leads to a new talent that will haunt this child, young Harry, for much of his life.

The idea is fairly simple: the story of a young man, who, as a result of this childhood illness, sees and hears what is not there. Or, rather, what once was there, but has long since lapsed into the forgotten memories of countless villains and their hapless victims. Where Lost Echoes differs from a bevy of other paranormal thrillers is that the focus is not on the hero learning to use his gift to save the day, but rather learning to cope and bear the weight of knowing, seeing and feeling what others have left behind.

The novel is broken into three basic components, all centered around the story’s major player, Harry: a battle against the self, a battle against alcoholism and a twisted little mystery that draws both together. These major components of the story arc are oddly segregated, with the mystery crime-drama aspect relegated to the last and least important position. While the mystery of an accidental suicide that could be a murder, wrapped in the perfumed cloud of a returned childhood crush, is intriguing, it plays only  a supporting role to the real drama of the traffic hero Harry’s battle with his alcoholism and the terrifying visions – the title lost echoes – that come to him carried on waves of seemingly harmless sound.

This is in itself an intriguing idea, bring realism to the idea of a human being plagued by haunting visions of the past. Visionaries, psychics and mediums are a dime a dozen in fiction of a paranormal bend, but rarely do they possess such depth and reality. Lansdale presents Harry as sympathetic figure, plagued by visions he does not want and cannot stop. He is no sage mystic, using his supposed sight when and if he feels it necessary; he is just a tired, overwrought kid, attacked daily by a barrage of horrible images, vestiges of the inhumanity man wreaks upon himself and others. The evil med do, the author seems to subtly remind, can never truly die away, and while most can forget it with the passing of time, there are some, like Harry, who can never ignore it. He must deal with everything the rest of us leave behind; all of our fears, our horrors and our hates, invading the life and mind of the young man.

Unable to escape his gift – or, rather, curse, as Harry himself seems to see it – he draws himself into an obsessive compulsive cocoon of padded walls, planned ‘sage routes’ and avoidance. Anything he cannot control, Harry drowns in a flood of liquor, numbing his senses and halting the flow of the echoes that torment him. It is only after meeting a fellow barroom regular – an older man, perhaps representing the only future Harry will have if he continues on his self-destructive ‘safe’ path – and an unscheduled deviation from his normal routine that Harry begins to believe that there must be a better way. Enter Tad, a middle-aged martial arts master gone to seed, who drinks a nightly tribute to his own sad memories, a startling contrast to young Harry, who instead uses the alcohol to blot out and numb away everyone else’s lingering echoes. Together, the two embark on a quest to regain their control – find their centers – over their own lives.

Lansdale creates the world through Harry’s eyes – or, better, his ears; readers find the idyllic quiet of what seems to be modern day small town perfection shattered by the silent reverberating screams left only for Harry to see. Hidden here, and perhaps everywhere, are the dirty little secrets and softly spoken lies that are the underbelly of even the happiest of settings.

Title: Lost Echoes
Author: Joe R. Lansdale
Length: 341 Pages
Publisher: Vintage Books
Publication Date: February 2007

CHECK PLUS: Clever plot, interesting characters
CHECK MINUS: At times tedious
RATING: B

SUGAR BABY: Sweet Modern Romance from Crystal Green

Title: Sugarbaby
Author: Crystal Green
Length: 265 Pages
Publisher: InterMix
Publication Date: May 2015

“It’s Aidan Falls, baby. We might as well be another planet.”

aidan

Small towns are a microcosm unto themselves, singular little universes seemingly cut off from the rest of the world and abiding by a set of rules of their very own. In her new entry in the series, Crystal Green once again invites us in to Aidan Falls, Texas, and gives us a glimpse of a world where reputations rarely fade and football is king.

In all honesty, this is not the sort of book I often read. I was familiar with Crystal Green’s work – or, rather, as I better know her, Chris Marie Green, author of the Vampire Babylon and Ghost for Hire series – but this style of novel is not the usual of her work that I would be drawn to. Sugarbaby, though, was different – a different reading choice for me, and a something a little different for the genre.

The novel’s hero is Jadyn, a refreshingly frank young woman who has no problem admitting her flaws and mistakes. The novel opens to the heroine feeling the repercussions from a drunken mistake and getting the cold shoulder from her ex’s fan club, football fanatics who worship at the quarterback’s feet – the same quarterback that Jadyn cheated on.

“We all paid for the past in some way, except, with me, I’d made my own sins that’d dogged me for months, and, I’d wished I could right them.”

This in itself comes as a surprise in a genre where the heroine is usually some untouchable goddess with a Bella Swan-like immaculate reputation. The story only gets more intriguing from there.

If you’ve ever read any fan fiction, you might have encountered the trope where one soon-to-be star-crossed lover sends an inadvertent text or makes a phone call to a wrong number, bringing their new love interest into their life. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for that particular trope and when the wrong number text that Jadyn sends lands in the inbox of a sexy billionaire, I was admittedly hooked.

It’s not all roses and champagne, it’s real life with some fun fictional perks (a la the sexy billionaire) as Jadyn deals with the fallout from her own missteps, the loss of family, and the overall trials and tribulations of being a young woman in a small Texas town.

Trouble, said my smart side. That’s what you’re gonna get with him.

Jadyn, or Jade, is extremely likable as a narrator and the reader can easily understand the thoughts behind the actions she takes, all the while learning about the past that made her who she is. Her hero doesn’t trot in on a white horse to right all of her worries; rather, he slides in with a cadre of problems of his own traveling along with him, and the novel deals as much with the two of them righting their wrongs as with them finding each other.

All in all, it’s definitely worth a read. I do think I’ll be paying many visits to Aidan Falls in the future.

*In the spirit of full disclosure, I am reviewing this having received a digital ARC of the novel.*

CHECK PLUS:  Cute story, if a little bit predictable (though that’s really a hallmark of the genre)
CHECK MINUS:  First person perspective (personally not a favorite)
OVERALL RATING: B

Ferocious Fun in Andy Deane’s THE STICKS

Title: The Sticks
Author: Andy Deane
Length: 210 Pages
Publisher: Delerium Books
Publication Date: April 2009

 

sticks

There are certain things you expect to find on sale when you go to see a band play. Albums, obviously. T-shirts, of course. Bags, buttons, patches? Sure, why not! But books? Not so much. Finding a stack of horror novels on a band’s merch table may seem a little strange, but that is exactly how I came across The Sticks, a novel written by Bella Morte frontman Andy Deane.

The novel reads like a horror movie put to the page: a man is kicked out of a party where everyone seems to be taking themselves too seriously, and abandoned by his girlfriend to boot. When the girl in question seems to vanish, he and a fellow spurned partygoer set off to find her and get a lot more than they bargained for in theprocess as they nearly run down werewolf on a country road. Told from the protagonist’s perspective, thenovel is written in the first person, and the colorful language and thought process of Brian, the lead character, make the narrative both memorable and believable. The narrator is likable and carries a somewhat everyman feel, forced to deal with the hassles of weird neighbors, his missing girlfriend’s snobbish friends and even a car that proves far less than reliable. Brian is an ordinary guy – and a horror movie fan – caught up in some extraordinary circumstances, forced to fight for his life against an evil that no one else could possibly believe. Full of film references, the novel will be a delight for any horror fan to read.

Key to the novel’s success as a werewolf story is the fantastic description of the actual transformation. We’ve all seen a man change to a bloodthirsty werecreature in film and television, but it has rarely been put to page with such masterful description. Cracking bones, twisting flesh, a grizzled muzzle forcing its way forward: it just doesn’t get much better than this! The author doesn’t shortchange on the gore or bodycount either. This is a horror novel and that fact is never forgotten. The werewolf in question is a vicious, ravenous beast and it leaves a bloody trail of broken, bitten bodies in its wake. The novel is completely unapologetic in its use of gore and violence – just the sort of attitude needed for a great horror story.

Apart from being a little heavy on the use of similes, there is not much to complain about. The solid storyline would prove great fodder for a film, particularly so as lacking of decent werewolf films Hollywood has been since… well… just about forever. Deane’s writing career is just getting started, with only a few novels under his belt; if the others are as good as this one, we may be looking at a new force to be reckoned with in horror fiction.

CHECK PLUS: Fun story, likable characters, great horror elements
CHECK MINUS: A little overboard on the use of simile
OVERALL RATING: A-