It’s an entertaining, suspenseful story that starts out giving off every expectation of being a fairly standard historical romance, but defies expectaIt’s an entertaining, suspenseful story that starts out giving off every expectation of being a fairly standard historical romance, but defies expectations just enough to keep you turning pages. There’s a surprising amount of sex, murder, madness, and mayhem lurking behind what at first seems to be an off-the-shelf rural-farmer-seeks-mail-order-bride plot, and it turns out to be as much a meditation on sex and passion (carnal and otherwise), and on how obsessions and fixations can drive people to extremes.
The author excels in creating environments. His powerful descriptions of the Wisconsin winter put you in the middle of a frigid, barren landscape with snow in every direction. And the depiction of turn of the (20th) century St. Louis, or at least of its seedy sides, is evocative and unexpected, startling you into considering the underside of worlds we usually only imagine as sepia photographs of upstanding citizens strolling down busy mercantile streets.
It won’t make my top-ten list, but it was certainly a decent way to spend a weekend....more
I’ve been doing some heavy non-fiction reading lately -- most recently, the kind of historical/political stuff about US misdeeds that usually has me wI’ve been doing some heavy non-fiction reading lately -- most recently, the kind of historical/political stuff about US misdeeds that usually has me wanting to set something on fire. At times like these I find some light fiction helps leaven things out, and among my first go-tos in that column is Lisa Scottoline.
I recently finished one of the novels in her Rosato & Associates series which I gave pretty high marks, more because I enjoyed the plot idea than because of the quality of the writing. Daddy’s Girl, on the other hand, registers at a higher level altogether. The plot is more compelling, the writing is tighter and better crafted, and the whole tone is more serious. Which is not to say the book is flawless, but the flaws are mostly those of the genre -- mainly, some unlikely behavior and some unlikely coincidences. Having said that, the story includes a couple of excellent plot twists, including one I absolutely did not see coming.
My only real complaint is about the main character herself. For at least the first half of the book, Natalie (Nat) is such a doormat -- especially in the presence of her family. (view spoiler)[I spent so much of the book just wishing she’d tell her family to piss off that I was actually a bit disappointed that she more or less reunites with them in the end. (hide spoiler)] But she does seem to grow over the course of the book, and her relationships do improve for the better before it’s all over, so it’s all good, in the end. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Finally, I discovered that to really understand the story, you have to go to James M. Cain’s original novel. It’s only in the book that you can really get inside Mildred’s head and understand what motivates her. I finished the novel feeling even more admiration for Mildred’s character and drive than I previously had, but also more aware of the flaws and weaknesses that contribute to her discordant relationship with her daughter.
Let me pause for a quick overview for anyone not familiar with the plot: Mildred Pierce is a housewife in 1930s Glendale, California, who starts the story right on the precipice of a major change in her life. Before the first chapter is even over, she’s sent her husband Bert packing, into the arms of his “other woman”, finally having had enough of pretending Bert hasn’t been cheating on her while she has been providing the family’s income with her homemade cakes and pies, after a series of business failures on Bert’s part. Now she’s effectively a single mother, with no job history, few skills, two children to provide for, and a house to maintain, all in the middle of the Great Depression. After some initial struggles, Mildred turns a lowly waitressing job into more pie business on the side, which spins off into a restaurant -- and eventually a chain of restaurants -- of her own. Along the way, she also finds love with a man straight from the society pages. Her daughter Veda has always been pretentious and snobbish, and Mildred’s new financial success allows her to provide Veda with all the trappings of the life she’s always dreamed of. Things slowly sour, though, as the money and things Mildred can now provide only make Veda more insufferable, and Mildred’s new love comes to resent her when his fortune collapses just as her star -- and income -- is rising. Without revealing too much, setbacks, misfortunes, bad decisions, and betrayals ensue, and Mildred has to fight her way through it and somehow come out on the other side.
In both cinematic treatments, Mildred is a sympathetic character, and it’s easy to root for her as she discovers her own resiliency and reserves of determination that help her not only survive difficulty but even come out ahead. On that level, she is a character that earns our respect. Her one blind spot is her daughter Veda -- a kid who is so rotten, that, in the films, at least, it is incomprehensible how Mildred continues to indulge her. However, in the novel, it becomes clear that Mildred’s feelings and actions toward Veda come out of her own (far more restrained) sense of superiority. To a certain degree, she doesn’t see anything amiss with Veda desiring something better. Certainly she sees nothing wrong with wanting more for her child than she was able to have for herself, and takes pleasure in being able to provide it. But Mildred has managed to balance her own aspirations for higher social regard with her satisfaction in her own life and her pride in her accomplishments. Veda, on the other hand, possesses no higher qualities to counterbalance her snobbishness and social ambition, and she doesn’t merely aspire for something higher, she demands it -- and has little but contempt for her mother for her lack of status and pretension. For her part, Mildred sometimes acts as if Veda were an extension of herself, and her obsessiveness about Veda is also a way of trying to keep control over her daughter’s life. In the end, though, the absence of the qualities that humanize Mildred make Veda all villain, and the only question is whether Mildred will be able to come to terms with it.
I had never paid attention to the source material of the film Mildred Pierce, so I have to admit I was surprised to discover it was written by the author of two other novels which became film noir classics, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. I was particularly impressed with Cain’s ability to write an appealingly complex female protagonist, and as a male writer in the 1940s, at that -- far better than I would have expected. Whether or not the book is your first introduction to the story, Cain’s novel is a worthy read. In addition to the nuanced human story he tells, the book also provides a valuable look at a particular place and time in history. It’s wonderful to get a sense of, for example, everyday life under Prohibition, or to get a view of now well-known and hugely developed California towns, in a far different era. And above all, the central story endures. ...more
OK, I won’t make any claims about this being Serious Literary Fiction, but I have yet to find another writer that can make a lightweight read as redeeOK, I won’t make any claims about this being Serious Literary Fiction, but I have yet to find another writer that can make a lightweight read as redeeming as Lisa Scottoline. As a fan for several years, I’ve been working my way through the back catalog -- if I’ve counted right, this is the 14th Lisa Scottoline novel I’ve read so far -- and Killer Smile comes out as one of my top faves.
Scottoline pulls off a neat little trick here. Killer Smile is as easy-reading a page turner as any of her other books, but there’s a very respectable degree of substance in there, too. Sure, there’s all the usual peril elements of a Scottoline mystery, but in this case, the central whodunit cannot be unraveled without an extended trip into the history of US WWII internment camps. While this is not the first of Scottoline’s novels to bring in some serious real world history (see, e.g., The Vendetta Defense, where the plot reaches back into Mussolini-era Italy; and Dirty Blonde, which surely was the first time most readers had heard of the Centralia, PA, coal seam fire) it may be the most poignant, with some of the details drawn from the real personal history of Scottoline’s own grandparents.
In addition, all of the familiar elements I’ve come to expect from Scottoline are there: a female-centric narrative, warmly drawn characters, and lots of local Philadelphia references. And although Scottoline’s law-firm-setting novels rarely go heavy on the legal points, the resolution of the plot here even relies on some clever lawyering -- bonus!
But actually, I think the biggest surprise of this book is that it’s provided me with my new favorite quote, delivered by Mrs. Nyquist, in Montana, over huckleberry pie:
If you can’t be brave, be determined. And you’ll end up in the same place.
Picked this one up rather at random off a library shelf, while searching for some beach/summer reading. It's an unusual mystery story, interweaving thPicked this one up rather at random off a library shelf, while searching for some beach/summer reading. It's an unusual mystery story, interweaving the kidnapping of a child in the late 90s in St. Paul, MN, with recollections of the Lindbergh kidnapping in the 1930s. It's at least the 2nd novel written by this author involving the same characters, so I read it out of order and can only judge it on its own merits, and not as part of the series.
Overall it's entertaining, and mostly held my attention, though despite the precipitating crime occurring with in the first couple chapters, it felt slow to get off the ground. It only gets a 2-star "I'ts OK" rating from me, though, because even though the premise is creative, the present-day sections are uneven, overdone in some places -- overdramatized and overwrought -- and underdone in others, where characters and events are underdeveloped and too much is taken for granted. However, I found the sections dealing with the 1930s crime mystery to be much better written and much more interesting -- the primary villain of those sections is deliciously fiendish, and the primary hero appealing and relateable, with all his flaws. I'm sure it would have been a better book without the whole present-day connection, actually.
Still, it was an OK read and a nice change of pace from my standard go-to paperback mysteries, and I'll be interested in reading Thayer's other books at some point as well.
This is just a quick-read novella preview/prequel to The 9th Girl. I can see how someone who paid for it not knowing what they were in for could be frThis is just a quick-read novella preview/prequel to The 9th Girl. I can see how someone who paid for it not knowing what they were in for could be frustrated. But I had no complaints about its length, since I knew what I was getting into, and I got it from the library. I thought it was a good, quick read, and all the key Tami Hoag elements are there - a familiar detective pair, unflinching crime details, brisk pacing, decent characterization.
My complaints come up having started The 9th Girl right after, and finding some word for word repetitions in character and place descriptions in the next book. Now that's just lazy. I'm OK with the teaser-for-the-next-book thing, but don't insult my intelligence. ...more
It was OK... far from Grisham's best. Starts with an intriguing set-up that never fully delivers on its promise, and leaves far too many questions hanIt was OK... far from Grisham's best. Starts with an intriguing set-up that never fully delivers on its promise, and leaves far too many questions hanging out there in the air. Also, Grisham's stock-in-trade is hard-to-believe twists and turns, but in a good novel, you look past that. In this one, too often the characters' actions strain credulity past the breaking point.
Grisham pretty much always gets points from me for being entertaining -- you pretty much either have to bore me to tears or irritate me so much I want to throw the book across the room before I'll rate something a 1, but this one doesn't get higher than a 2....more
I discovered Lisa Scottoline more or less by accident about two years ago as I was browsing the local library's paperback shelf -- Scottoline's a SoutI discovered Lisa Scottoline more or less by accident about two years ago as I was browsing the local library's paperback shelf -- Scottoline's a South Philly girl, so no surprise her books were in heavy supply. Since then I've been working my way slowly through her catalog, as there's so much I like about her books -- the local setting, the attention she gives to her characters' backstory, the woman-centric feel of it all, as well as the fast-paced plots that keep you turning pages to the end, other tasks be damned.
Courting Trouble is a decent entry in the catalog. The mystery plot is less substantial than in some of Scottoline's other books, but the character development is solid, and it's easy to identify with and care about the characters we meet, even if everything is over rather too quickly. In this case, a relatively new lawyer in the Rosato & Associate's firm -- one we met only in passing in Scottoline's immediately preceding novel, The Vendetta Defense -- is fighting to solve the mystery of her own murder, or rather, of the woman who was mistaken for her, before the killer tries again and succeeds. Several familiar characters from the Rosato firm are there to support her, and we get a tumble of events all taking place in the tumult of the city on July 4th weekend. It all gets wrapped up swiftly and neatly, with little complexity and no loose ends, but Scottoline still manages to surprise with the killer's identity in the end. As always an entertaining read, keeping you moving through the chapters and looking forward to the next one....more
This Scottline tale has us following another Rosato and Associates lawyer, Judy Carrier as she takes on the case of an elderly man charged with the muThis Scottline tale has us following another Rosato and Associates lawyer, Judy Carrier as she takes on the case of an elderly man charged with the murder of another elderly man. The accused, known to all as Pigeon Tony, in recognition of his skill at raising and racing pigeons, is a neighbor and family friend of Mary DiNunzio, another Rosato & Associates lawyer, familiar to readers of other Scottoline mysteries.
The backstory to the crime stretches far back in time, reaching to Fascist Italy under Mussolini, and its twists and turns carry through, decades forward, into the tight knit South Philly Italian immigrant neighborhood. Through Pigeon Tony's story, the reader gets an intimate look at a particular moment in history, as well as a broader sense of the dynamics common to immigrant communities, as old country social rules and tensions persist alongside the assimilation into a new life in a new country. I have said elsewhere that Scottoline is at her best when taking her time with the characters in her books, exploring their wants and desires and motivations and foibles. The added dimension of historical context in The Vendetta Defense gives her even more to work with, and she takes full advantage.
The challenge of Pigeon Tony's case is that he freely admits to causing the victim's death, but insists it is not murder. The victim's family is bent on getting justice by any means necessary, endangering not only the accused, but also his family, neighbors, and, of course, his lawyers -- giving the novel more than its fair share of high-tension scenes, including car chases, shootouts, and ambushes. But by far the most compelling part of the story is the backstory, told from Pigeon Tony's own perspective, but, in a creative narrative device, through flashbacks and dreamlike sequences inserted through the chapters, culminating in testimony at Tony's trial. By the time the tale is over, the reader's insight into the crime is complete.
Bottom line: one of my favorite Scottoline stories so far.