Monday, January 18, 2016

The Do-Right ~ Lisa Sandlin

Sandlin, Lisa. 2015. The Do-Right. El Paso: Cinco Puntos Press.
$16.95 USD. USBN 978-1941026199

Lisa Sandlin has hit a home run with her assured debut, The Do-Right, a full-length novel based on her short-story, “Phelan’s First Case.”  Tom Phelan is a brand new PI working in a Texas port city during the Watergate era of the 1970’s who hires a recently released female parolee named Delpha Wade to work as his assistant.  Tom is a Vietnam veteran who a hangs out his shingle as a private detective after losing a finger in an oil rig accident, and does a favor for a probation officer friend by hiring Delpha, recently released from a women’s correctional facility after serving fourteen years for killing one of the two men who raped her.  Both Tom and Delpha are narrators of this tale in which a variety of unusual cases (and characters) cross their doorstep, including a betrayed wife (or is she?), a missing prosthetic leg, an inheritance mystery, and an ultimately satisfying resolution to the violent assault suffered by the teen-aged Delpha.  Sandlin adeptly weaves the history of her protagonists’ lives throughout the story and shows how those histories affect their cases. The author, a Beaumont, Texas native, has an ear for southern dialogue, especially in the uneducated Delpha; but Delpha’s lack of education is not indicative of her intelligence or her street smarts, the latter honed by her years in prison.  Here’s hoping we’ll see more of Tom, Delpha and new cases for Phelan Investigations! (Warning: some fairly graphic intimacy is described in parts of the novel).

Rubbernecker ~ Belinda Bauer

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Bauer, Belinda. 2015. Rubbernecker. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.
$24.00 USD.  USBN 978-0802123961

It’s been quite a while since I read a novel in one sitting, and except for bathroom breaks and snacks, I stayed up until 2:30 in the morning devouring this unusual tale.  Winner of the 2014 Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year Award, Rubbernecker is an intriguing tale of a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome who unwittingly discovers something amiss with the cadaver he’s dissecting for an anatomy class.

Patrick has been obsessed with death since his father was killed in a hit and run accident, not understanding where the person goes, or what happens after death.  Hoping to satisfy his morbid curiosity, he takes an anatomy class at a local medical school and uncovers a murder mystery in the process.

The novel is narrated by four characters: Patrick, his alcoholic mother, a female student in the anatomy class, and most unusually, the consciousness of a man in a coma who witnesses a murder when he briefly awakens.  How all these narratives proceed and converge creates the page-turning experience of Rubbernecker, which has plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader engaged.  Patrick isn’t the most likeable character, but his struggles to live his life on his own terms with his disorder reflect some truly tender and at times, humorous, moments.  The surprise ending seems, at first, rather implausible, but upon further reflection (and this book does stay with you long after you finish) this story ends just right.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Jane Steele ~ Lyndsay Faye

Faye, Lindsay. 2016. Jane Steele. New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons. 
$27.00 USD.  ISBN: 9781472217554.  

It’s been a long time since I read Jane Eyre, so I cannot speak to how closely Lyndsay Faye’s new novel follows the structure of that classic novel, but it is very clear that Jane Steele is an adaptation, with a twist: Jane’s actions in the book point toward psychopathic tendencies – she’s a murderess.  I was intrigued, and a little nervous, about reading this book, because I wasn’t sure how the author would portray the protagonist, based on the description.  However, it soon becomes clear that Jane only murders bad people, typically men who are abusive to people she cares about.  The fact that she cares for so many of the people she encounters in the novel lead me to realize that Jane isn’t really a psychopath at all, but a tool for vengeance in a time when justice, especially for women, was rare.  The story follows her early years, banishment to a cruel boarding school, homelessness, brief employment writing the last words of executed prisoners, to finally working incognito as a governess at the estate Jane was supposed to inherit from her family.  I enjoyed reading this Jane’s story, but the introduction of Jane Steele’s familiarity with the actual Jane Eyre novel seems out of place to the narrative.  It’s a fine adaptation, but reading that Jane Steele is a fan of the novel Jane Eyre brought a discordant feeling to this reader. Other than that one negative, I enjoyed getting to know Jane Steele, who survives a childhood of horrors, but gets her revenge in the end. Other Jane Eyre adaptations I’ve come across recently are Ironskin by Tina Connolly, a historical fantasy, a YA title called simply Jane by April Lindner and last year’s Re Jane by Patricia Park.