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Thursday, September 29, 2016

NEW NOVEL! Charlaine Harris: "All the Little Liars" (AURORA TEAGARDEN MYSTERIES)

Author:  Charlaine Harris
Series:  AURORA TEAGARDEN MYSTERIES
Plot Type:  Mystery
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality2; Humor—2   
Publisher and Titles:  Minotaur Books
Series novels in reading order:
   1     Real Murders (1990)
   2     A Bone to Pick (1992)
   3     Three Bedrooms, One Corpse (1994)
   4     The Julius House (1994)
   5     Dead Over Heels (1996)
   6     A Fool and His Honey (1999)
   7     Last Scene Alive (2002)
   8     Poppy Done to Death (2003)
   9     All the Little Liars (hardcover, audio, e-book10/4/2016; paperback10/3/2017)

After a brief introduction, this post begins with a review of the ninth novel in the series: All the Little Liars. Following that review are the titles and publisher's blurbs for the first eight novels (in reading order). 

                    INTRODUCTION                    
     Although the AURORA TEAGARDEN (AT) series has absolutely no paranormal elements, I am reviewing it on my Fang-tastic Fiction blog because I have enjoyed reading all of the novels in the series and because it was written by Charlaine Harris, one of the all-time great story-tellers (in my humble opinion). It's been quite awhile since we last looked in on Aurora (aka Roe), but you'll be happy to learn that her life as a librarian and amateur sleuth in small-town Lawrenceton, Georgia, continues to be just as dramatic and dangerous as ever. New readers will enjoy the novel as a standalone, but it's even better if you have read the previous eight books so that you have full knowledge about the strange events and quirky characters from Roe's past adventures.

     And now―because I just can't stop myself―here are a few words about the Hallmark Channel's AT movies. At the beginning, I was really looking forward to seeing Roe's stories on screen, but just a few minutes into the first show, my high hopes plummeted into deep despair. If you've read the books, you'll recognize the bare bones of Harris's stories in each of the movies, but Hallmark's shows lack the style and substance of a true mystery. Instead, they are just a series of sappy, saccharine-sweet scenes that have the substantiality of marshmallows. Hallmark has essentially taken Aurora―one of Harris's trademark feisty, intelligent heroines―and turned her into a ditzy airhead who stumbles over clues as she blunders along on a half-baked "investigation." Hallmark's treatment of Roe's mother, Aida, is even worse―transforming her into a shrill, one-dimensional mannequin. Now, I'll admit that even in the novels, Aida isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, but she is not the dithering dingbat that Hallmark portrays. I guess that you could say that the TV writers "Hallmarked" the women to fit their stereotypical rules: be cute rather than smart; keep your banter as silly as possible; shriek a lot; and never out-think your man.    

     I was hoping that the addition of Yannick Bisson (in the third and fourth movies, playing Roe's first husband, Martin Bartell), would add some substance, but he barely gets to say a word. If you want to see Bisson's true talents, take a look at the CBC's Murdoch Mysteries (retitled The Artful Detective on the Ovation Channel) in which he plays the lead character, Detective William Murdoch, in a period drama set in early 20th Century Toronto.

     Here are the titles and dates of the AT Hallmark movies to date:
          > A Bone to Pick (April 2015)
          > Real Murders (July 2015)
          > Three Bedrooms, One Corpse (June 2016)
          > The Julius House (October 2016)

Click HERE to go to the AURORA TEAGARDEN series page on Harris's web site for the publishing history of the books in the series.

                    NOVEL 9:  All the Little Liars                     
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     Aurora Teagarden is basking in the news of her pregnancy when disaster strikes her small Georgia town: four kids vanish from the school soccer field in an afternoon. Aurora’s 15-year-old brother Phillip is one of them. Also gone are two of his friends, and an 11-year-old girl who was just hoping to get a ride home from soccer practice. And then there’s an even worse discovery―at the kids’ last known destination, a dead body. 

     While the local police and sheriff’s department comb the county for the missing kids and interview everyone even remotely involved, Aurora and her new husband, true crime writer Robin Crusoe, begin their own investigation. Could the death and kidnappings have anything to do with a group of bullies at the middle school? Is Phillip’s disappearance related to Aurora’s father’s gambling debts? Or is Phillip himself, new to town and an unknown quantity, responsible for taking the other children? But regardless of the reason, as the days go by, the most important questions remain. Are the kids still alive? Who could be concealing them? Where could they be? 

MY REVIEW: 
     As the story opens, two life-changing events have just occurred: Roe and Robin Crusoe get married, and Roe gets confirmation that she is pregnant. Then, tragedy strikes when Roe's half-brother, Phillip, vanishes along with several of his friends. Harris provides all of the necessary background information that you need to understand why Phillip is living with Roe and Robin, so new readers of the series should immediately feel comfortable with the characters. 

     The plot focuses on Roe and Robin as they work together to figure out who took the teenagers, where they are being held, and how to rescue them. And because this is, in fact, a crime-based mystery, the two sleuths encounter murder, suicide, and various types of mayhem along the way.

     Although it's been years since I last read the AURORA books, I seem to remember that Roe always did most of her own investigating. That changes in this book because Robin is her true partner, both in life and in sleuthing. Unlike the earlier books, Roe doesn't go off on her own―so no TSTL moments―and their camaraderie is a joy to behold. If this were a paranormal romance, I'd call Robin her soul mate.

     Two problematic social issues simmer on the back-burner throughout this story: overindulgent helicopter parents and schoolyard bullying, both of which are at the heart of this mystery. Harris weaves this theme into the story line in a manner that will make you think hard about the horrific on-line trolling and cyberbullying that have caused pain, heartbreak, and personal tragedy for so many people.

     Harris is a skilled mystery writer, but this time I was able to predict the killer's identity and the probable chain of events long before they were revealed on the page. That didn't completely spoil the book for me, though, because I find Roe to be a charismatic character who holds my interest (in the books, not the movies). And I truly enjoyed watching her interactions with her new husband, Robin.

     Another change is that Roe doesn't clash (at least, not too much) with the local police, and that takes some of the spice out of the story. I always enjoyed the sardonic back-and-forth sniping that Roe had with the local cops, particularly her former boyfriend and his sarcastic wife (who have now moved out of state and never appear in this book). 

     All in all, I enjoyed the book, but i wish that the outcome had been less transparent. Roe's interior monologues about her anticipation and fears about her impending motherhood and her scenes with her wayward father added a great deal of emotion to the story, as―of course―did her worries about poor Phillip's fate. The ending leaves Roe's pregnancy just nearing the end of the first trimester, so perhaps Harris will be writing another AT mystery that Roe and Robin can solve as they jump into parenthood.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of All the Little Liars is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are entirely my own.

                    NOVEL 1: Real Murders                         

PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
Though a small town at heart, Lawrenceton, Georgia, has its dark side-and crime buffs. One of whom is librarian Aurora "Roe" Teagarden, a member of the Real Murders Club, which meets once a month to analyze famous cases. It's a harmless pastime―until the night she finds a member killed in a manner that eerily resembles the crime the club was about to discuss. And as other brutal "copycat" killings follow, Roe will have to uncover the person behind the terrifying game, one that casts all the members of Real Murders, herself included, as prime suspects-or potential victims.

                    NOVEL 2: A Bone to Pick                         
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
Death comes calling on a small-town librarian whose life is passing her by. 

Aurora "Roe" Teagarden's fortunes change when a deceased acquaintance names her as heir to a rather substantial estate, including money, jewelry, and a house complete with a skull hidden in a window seat. Roe concludes that the elderly women has purposely left her a murder to solve. So she must identify the victim and figure out which one of her new, ordinary-seeming neighbors is a murderer—without putting herself in deadly danger.

                    NOVEL 3: Thee Bedrooms, One Corpse                    
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
Deciding if she wants to go into real estate becomes a life-or-death choice for Aurora "Roe" Teagarden. A naked corpse is discovered at her first house showing. And when a second body is found in another house for sale, it becomes obvious that there is a very cool killer at large in Lawrenceton, one who knows a great deal about real estate-and maybe too much about Roe.

                    NOVEL 4: The Julius House                         
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
Love at first sight turns into newlywed bliss for former librarian Aurora Teagarden—until violence cuts the honeymoon short.

Wealthy businessman Martin Bartell gives Roe exactly what she wants for their wedding: Julius House. But both the house and Martin come with murky pasts. And when Roe is attacked by an ax-wielding maniac, she realizes that the secrets inside her four walls—and her brand-new marriage—could destroy her. 

                    NOVEL 5: Dead Over Heels                         
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
When death comes from out of the blue, part-time librarian "Roe" lands smack in the middle of a baffling murder case.

Roe never liked Detective Sergeant Jack Burns, but she never wanted to see him dead―especially not dropped from a plane right into her own backyard. Luckily, even Lawrenceton, Georgia's, finest know that Roe couldn't possibly be in two places at once, so her name is crossed off the suspect list.

But then other strange things happen around Roe, ranging from peculiar (her irascible cat turns up wearing a pink ribbon) to violent (her assistant at the library is attacked) to potentially deadly (her former lover is stabbed). Clearly there is a personal message in this madness that Roe must decipher―before it is too late. 

                    NOVEL 6: A Fool and His Honey                         
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
Aurora’s been around long enough to know that when a day starts out with your handyman going crazy in your front yard, it probably won’t get any better. Sure enough, her husband Martin’s niece Regina shows up with a baby whom no one knew she was expecting. Then she disappears, leaving behind the child—and a murdered husband. To find her, Roe and Martin retrace her steps from sunny Georgia back to snowy Ohio, where they will uncover dark family secrets—at their own peril. 

                    NOVEL 7: Last Scene Alive                         
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
Roe is still in mourning over her husband's death when a movie company arrives in Lawrenceton. They've come to make a film based on a book written by her one-time boyfriend Robin Crusoe, a book that detailed their shared investigation of a series of murders that occurred years before.

But when the lead actress—who is playing Roe—is killed, Robin and Roe join forces once again to thwart a killer, without knowing that Roe herself is the next target.

                    NOVEL 8: Poppy Done to Death                         
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
Not just any woman in Lawrenceton, Georgia, gets to be a member of the Uppity Women Book Club. But Roe's stepsister-in-law Poppy has climbed her way up the waiting list of the group—only to die on the day she's supposed to be inducted.

Sordid stories of infidelity in Poppy's marriage lead to a rash of suspects, and Roe begins to question her own heart. But her passion for the truth will drive her on—into the path of the cold-blooded killer.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Tim Burton and Ransom Riggs: "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children"


In preparation for the new Tim Burton movie, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (opening 9/30/16), you might wish to read my reviews of Ransom Riggs' original novel, the sequel, and the graphic novel. 

Click HERE to read a review of the movie that was published in Variety on September 25, 2016. Click HERE to go to the movie's web page where you can scroll down a bit to view four different video trailers.

Here are the links to my reviews of the first two books and the graphic novel. I am currently in the process of reading the third book in the series and will post a review ASAP.
Click HERE to go to my review of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Click HERE to go to my review of Hollow City, the sequel to the original book.
Click HERE to read my review of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children: The Graphic Novel

If Riggs' novels appeal to you, you might also enjoy these books, both of which contain elements that reminded me of the Miss Peregrine stories:
Click HERE to read my review of Harrison Squared, by Daryl Gregory.
Click HERE to read my review of The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac, by Sharma Shields.

Monday, September 26, 2016

UPDATE! Amanda Stevens: GRAVEYARD QUEEN SERIES

UPDATE!

I have just updated an ongoing post for Amanda Stevens by adding a review of The Sinner, the fifth novel in her GRAVEYARD QUEEN SERIES

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review.

Friday, September 23, 2016

UPDATE! Ilona Andrews: KATE DANIELS SERIES

UPDATE!

I have just updated an ongoing post for Ilona Andrews by adding a review of Magic Binds, the ninth novel in their KATE DANIELS SERIES

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Colson Whitehead: "The Underground Railroad"

Author:  Colson Whitehead
Series:  The Underground Railroad
Plot Type:  Historical Fiction with Magical Realism
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality3; Humor—2   
Publisher and Titles:  Doubleday (2016)

                    PUBLISHER'S BLURB                     

    From prize-winning, bestselling author Colson Whitehead, a magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South:

     Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

     In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

      Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

                    MY REVIEW                     
    The story begins in a flashback as Cora's African grandmother, Ajarry, is captured, enslaved, and brought to America to be sold to the highest bidder for $226 and then branded with her new owner's mark. After being sold again and again over the next few years, Ajarry is purchased by James Randall of Georgia, her final owner. On the Randall plantation, she bore five children from three husbands, but only one of her children survived past childhood. Here, Ajarry reflects on her life: "Since the night she was kidnapped she had been appraised and reappraised, each day waking upon the pan of a new scale. Know your value and you know your place in the order. To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible." But Ajarry's surviving child, Mabel, has a different view of life, so after Ajarry's death, she leaves Cora to fend for herself and runs off alone, heading north. 

     Colson uses matter-of-fact language to portray the harrowing details of plantation life in which slaves had to contend not only with the cruelty of masters and overseers, but with bullying, beatings, and rape by their fellow slaves—all determined by a person's place in the pecking order. His descriptions of Cora's daily life are not written in a melodramatic manner. Rather, he just tells it like it is, with no dramatic, emotional words or phrases to milk our emotions—a methodology that makes the violence even more gut-wrenching because it is so "normal." For example, after everyone in the slave quarter learns that "Cora's womanhood had come into flower, Edward, Pot, and two hands from the southern half [of the plantation] dragged her behind the smokehouse. If anyone heard or saw, they did not intervene. The...women sewed her up." And that was that: no recriminations, no punishment—just another bad day in Cora's life. In a later chapter, she refers to this experience as the day that those men "seasoned" her.


     The bulk of the book is written from Cora's perspective (in the third-person voice) as she decides whether to stay with the Randalls or to accept the invitation of Caesar, another slave, to run away to freedom. When her master dies unexpectedly and the plantation is taken over by his sociopathic brother (who has his eye on Cora), she goes off with Caesar on an odyssey that takes her from one dangerous situation to another. Early on, a group of white men ambush Caesar and Cora, and she slams a rock into the head of the twelve-year-old boy who tries to capture her, sending him into a fatal coma. From that point on, all of the posters offering a reward for her capture label her not only as a runaway, but as a murderer—a sentence that promises torture and death.


     Colson structures his novel as an episodic tale that focuses—one by one—on a series of places (Cora's stops on the Underground Railroad) and people (their back stories and motivations), beginning with Ajarry and Georgia and ending with Mabel and the North. Cora's first Underground Railroad experience introduces a note of magical realism into the narration. Each station has its own architectural tone, depending on the whims and eccentricities of its station master. The first agent, Lumbly, decorates his barn with "some souvenirs from my travels:": a collection of iron manacles, cuffs, chains, muzzles, collars, and shackles used by slavers to keep their property from escaping. Deep under Lumbly's barn is the train tunnel: "The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end...walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating pattern...Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden cross-ties." When Cora asks how far the tunnel extends and who built it, Lumbly is evasive: "Far enough for you." and "Who builds anything in this country?" The runaways are given the choice of two different trains, each going to a different place. When Cora asks where the trains are going, Lumbly replies, "Away from here, that's all I can tell you." So, they must make a choice between two unknowns. But, for Cora and Caesar, the unknown is always better than the known.


     From Lumbly, Cora gets two important pieces of information that will come back to haunt her throughout her travels. First, he explains that Cora and Caesar will be moving from one state to another: "Every state is different...Each one a state of possibility, with its own customs and way of doing things. Moving through them, you'll see the breadth of the country before you reach your final stop." Then, just as they climb into the dilapidated boxcar that serves as the passenger car, he tells Cora, "If you want to see what this nation is all about,...Look outside as you speed through, and you'll find the true face of America." As their ride begins, Cora follows Lumbly's instructions and peers through the slats to see what America is really like. "There was only darkness, mile after mile." 

     Colson's use of magical realism manifests as slight deviations from historical fact. For example, Cora makes her first stop in South Carolina, which views itself as progressive in its treatment of slaves, providing government ownership for all of them along with health-care benefits and employment opportunities. The health-care program includes several projects with goals that are kept secret from the "patients": a syphilis study, a birth-control program (not pills, but permanent sterilization), and a blood research project that seeks to breed specific physical and psychological characteristics into the African population. All are medical anachronisms, but each will eventually come to fruition many decades later in real time in just as dark a manner as Colson lays them out in Cora's world. As Colson folds these projects into Cora's world in his oh-so-realistic manner, they seem perfectly reasonable to slaves who are used to having no health care at all, but we know how horribly they turn out. We even get veiled references to the Nazi's manipulation of German youth to spy on their own families and Shirley Jackson's fictional stone-throwing mob. When Cora travels across Tennessee in chains, her captor uses
 the Cherokee Trail of Tears because, ironically, it's the best road through the wilderness. In creating this world, Colson has stirred up a rich stew of evil that bubbles and boils all the way through the story. 

     And Cora—always watching out for the blackness that she knows is there—knows the truth as well. All of the wonders of South Carolina are miraculous to her at first, but soon she peers behind the scenes and recognizes the darkness that lurks behind all of those "good intentions." With a slave hunter on her heels, she's off to North Carolina, a state that views all Negroes as evil and works hard to kill them all. There, she is captured by the major villain of the book: Ridgeway, a fugitive slave hunter who failed to catch Cora's mother and is now determined to hunt her daughter down to make up for his embarrassing failure. 

   Ridgeway's psychopathic diligence conjures up comparisons with Les Misérables' Javert and The Fugitive's Gerard, but his diabolical inhumanity comes straight from the novels of Cormac McCarthy (particularly Blood Meridian): Ridgeway refuses to use gender designations for slaves, dehumanizing them by calling each one "it." He always calculates the dollar difference between the expense of returning the runaway slave vs. the amount of the reward, and if the expense is higher than the reward, he simply kills the slave and goes on to the next job. To top it off, Ridgeway's assistant wears a fly-covered necklace of cut-off slave ears. The novel is set in the mid-19th century, an era when Manifest Destiny was on the lips of politicians and businessmen. At one point, Ridgeway decides to explain Manifest Destiny to his uppity captive: "It means taking what is yours, your property, whatever you deem it to be. And everyone else taking their assigned places to allow you to take it. Whether it's red men or Africans, giving up themselves, giving of themselves, so that we can have what's rightfully ours....American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the new, to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed." (Isn't it scary that his words echo many of the tweets and sound bites in the current election campaign?)

     Between captures, escapes, near-captures, and more escapes, Cora spends the next months on the run until she finally finds a seemingly idyllic place—but she r
emains on the lookout for the blackness that is always lurking on the edges of every happy moment she has ever known. 

     This is a powerful and haunting story with a strong heroine who breaks our hearts as we root for her and worry about her all the way through. Contrary to much of the sound-bite publicity about The Underground Railroad, this is a complex, multi-layered novel—not just a simple tale about a metaphorical underground railroad. Cora is such a courageous and poignant character that she will live in my memory for a long, long time. Colson is a masterful writer, and my copy of the book is filled with underlinings of phrases and characterizations—too many to even begin to quote in this review. I highly recommend this book, not only for its subject matter, but for Colson's masterful use of language—every sentence crafted with exquisite care and every character fully developed through his or her own words and actions. This is a magnificent fictional portrayal of one unique woman's horrific experience as a slave seeking freedom, and it is a no-holds-barred account of the inhumanity that prevailed in this country just a century and a half ago—and from which this country still has not recovered. 

     One of the best reviews of Underground Railroad that I have read is by Juan Gabriel Vásquez in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Do yourself a favor and click HERE to read that review. 


     If you enjoy this book, you may want to read another recent novel with a very different take on fugitive slave hunting: Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters. Click HERE to read my review of that novel.


                    ABOUT THE AUTHOR                    

     Colson Whitehead is the New York Times bestselling author of The Noble Hustle, Zone One, Sag Harbor, The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, and one collection of essays, The Colossus of New York. A Pulitzer Prize finalist and a recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, he lives in New York City. Click HERE to read an interview with Colson about Underground Railroad.

     In researching this novel, Colson read many slave narratives, some of which were recorded and transcribed by employees of the Work Progress Administration (WPA) from the early 1930s through the beginning of World War II. The WPA sent people out to find surviving former slaves and to record their memories. Just clink on the pink-links below to go to these web sites: 


Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 (selected WPA Slave Narratives)

From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection, 1822-1909: A number of slaves wrote essays about their experiences, and these were published in pamphlet form.  

Voices from the Days of Slavery: Audio interviews with print transcripts. Some of the audio is difficult to hear, but if you open two screens, you can listen to the audio on one and follow along on the print transcript on the other.

     Here is an excerpt from one of the slave narratives in which Harriet Smith of Hempstead, Texas explains that during slavery, when white ministers preached about obeying "God, the Master," that many slaves believed that God must be their actual Master—the man who owned them—because he was the master that they had to obey. It wasn't until after the Civil War that freed slaves began to understand the true concept of God. In this interview, John Henry Faulk is the white, male interviewer. Click HERE to access the first section of the four-part interview.
John Henry Faulk: Well would the white preacher tell you to behave yourselves and be [Harriet Smith interrupts]
Harriet Smith: Oh yes, they [John Henry Faulk interrupts]
John Henry Faulk: Be good to your master and mistress?
Harriet Smith: Oh yes. That's what they preach. We, sure, didn't know there was any such thing as God and, and, and God, you know. We thought that was a, a different man, but he was our master. Uh, our white folks, you know, preachers would refer to the white folks, master, and so on that way. Preach that way. Didn't know no better. All of them, all of them would go up there to church. Then after we come to be free, you know, they begin to, preach us, you know. They, we begin to know, you know, there was a God and so on.