Dog Songs by Mary Oliver, John Burgoyne: A combination of one of my favorite topics and least favorite form

Dog SongsDog Songs

by Mary Oliver, John Burgoyne (Illustrator)

Paperback, 121 pg.
Penguin Press, 2013
Read: December 6 – 11, 2018

Be prepared. A dog is adorable and noble.
A dog is a true and noble friend. A dog
is also a hedonist.

I don’t know if I’ve posted about poetry here before. Probably not. Despite many attempts (when I was younger) — including a few classes, I’m just not a poetry guy. I can appreciate the occasional poem — and there are a few poets I can really get into, but on the whole? Not my thing.

But part of the 2018 While You Were Reading Challenge, was to read a collection of poetry — and I came close to grabbing an Ogden Nash book off my shelves, but my wife had been given a collection a year or so ago of poems about dogs. And it’s been at least a month since I posted something about dogs, so it’s about time.

So yeah, there are 35 poems about dogs — most of them (all of them?) seem to be based on Oliver’s own dogs — a couple of dogs get a handful of poems about them. Those, obviously, you get a pretty good idea about. Otherwise, it’s just one-shots about some great-sounding dogs.

Oliver does a great job conveying a strong impression about a dog in just a few lines — or even a few words. “He was a mixture of gravity and waggity” is one of the best lines I’ve read in 2018. I do think she goes over the top in terms of the wisdom or deep knowledge, etc. of dogs. But when she focuses on behavior, or personalities of specific animals, I find her pretty entertaining — and even moving.

I’m not saying that I’m going out to grab every Oliver collection in print or anything, but I liked most of these poems — several of them I liked a lot.

There’s also one essay in this slim volume. Skip it. Oliver is a poet, not an essayist.

Does this book need Burgoyne’s illustrations? Nope. But they’re nice to look at, so I’m not complaining. I’d be more than happy to hang some of these around the house.

—–

3 Stars

✔ Read a collection of poetry.

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Murder in the Dark by Betsy Reavley: This look at murder’s aftermath feels as authentic as a True Crime book

Murder in the DarkMurder in the Dark

by Betsy Reavley

eARC, 245 pg.
Bloodhound Books, 2018

Read: December 10, 2018


One fateful day, Tilly, a veterinary student in Cambridge goes to the bookshop she works at to open for the day. Inside, she finds the owner of the shop, her boss, hanging and clearly dead. She calls the police, who (unlike Tilly) realize that this was not suicide and begin their investigation right away.

While the investigation goes on, we spend a lot more time with Tilly and her coworkers as well as the family of Dennis Wade than you do in most Crime Fiction. Tilly is haunted (practically literally) by what she found. Her other coworkers are focused on trying to act appropriately in this situation, or worried about their jobs. Wade’s widow, her sister, and the Wade’s son all react in very different ways. His poor widow’s life is shattered, her pain and lost-ness is palpable — just great work on Beavley’s part, although watching what Tilly goes through may be more devastating.

Meanwhile, DCI Barrett, DI Palmer and their team start their procedure — knowing full well they need to close the case early for the good of the city, the Wade family — and because no one wants to spend Christmas (which is just around the corner) finding out why a body was left hanging. When other bodies start to be discovered, the pressure builds (internally and externally) and yet the procedure has to continue. Even when the procedure involves things like thoroughly vetting Wade’s son (with a criminal record) and spending a good deal of time pursuing other dead ends.

Beavley’s work showing the way the police have to tick off every box, have to turn over stone — even when they are virtually certain that no answers will be found by doing so — just to move on to another stone. There’s no maverick cop saving the day here. No detective relying on instinct. Just dedicated professionals doing their jobs the way they’re supposed to do them to get the result they need. It’s really kind of striking that in the ocean of “police procedurals” out there, just how few actually rely on the procedure.

When the answers come — they come from going through all the steps and no one is more surprised than the detectives who uncover it. It feels as authentic as you could want. The depravity uncovered by these detectives is the kind that makes you glad this is fiction, so you can pretend that such things only happen in books. And you will keep turning the pages until you get to the bottom of everything.

You get a much better sense of Tilly, a couple of coworkers, and the Wade family than you do the detectives investigating the case — which isn’t to say they’re strangers to the reader. But by and large, these are primarily people doing a job – with the emphases on the job, not the person.

I’d have appreciated more time with the family and friends of some of the later victims — just to see Reavley get to show off a little. We get a little taste with the second victim’s family — just not as much. But their reactions are so different from Wade’s family and friends, it’d be great to get more time seeing that.

One tangent — I’m counting on readers to comment on this — there’s a golf club mentioned a couple of times in the book, “The Gog Magog Golf Club” to be specific. Now, when I read that name I think of the figures and places mentioned in Ezekiel and Revelation. Neither of which is suggestive of a stroll along the greenways or putting around. Is this the kind of names used in England? In the US, courses are named after hills, valleys — that kind of thing. Not names steeped in apocalyptic visions. It’s a minor point, but it really threw me.

This is (I believe) the second book to feature DCI Barrett and DI Palmer and their team — I’m curious about how they work together both before this case (also book related) and in the future. But this works well as a stand-alone, too. You don’t have to sign up for the long haul to get anything from this. A solid mystery, one of the best procedurals I’ve read in ages, and a depiction of the aftermath of violent crime that you won’t easily forget. A Murder in the Dark will stick with you.

—–

3 Stars


My thanks to Bloodhound Books for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including the book) they provided. The opinions expressed are all mine, however.

Mr. Pizza by J. F. Pandolfi: A Winsome Tale of a Rookie Teacher

(WordPress is doing that thing again where it messes up the html in my post header. I think I’ve fixed it, but if the beginning of the post looks ugly, sorry, I’m doing my best)

Mr. Pizza
Mr. Pizza

by J. F. Pandolfi


ePUB, 298 pg.
L&A Publications, 2018

Read: December 4 – 5, 2018

On the verge of graduating from college, Tony Piza (long “I”, and yes, he’s heard all the jokes), decides he’s not ready to head to law school and would like to take a year off. Inspired by a suggestion from his roommate, he applies to teach at a Roman Catholic school near his home. He figures that it’ll be pretty easy — spout some facts and figures from the text-book, assign some homework, do a little grading, catch up on his reading. All while living rent-free with his parents and sister. Despite never having taken an education class, nor showing any previous interest in education, and some iffy interview questions, he’s hired.

Early on, he performs his duties just as he planned — and it’s as successful as you imagine. But before long, he starts to see his students as individuals, not some faceless mass. It’s just a few steps from there to caring about their education and trying to do something about it. Tony also makes some friends with fellow teachers — two other lay teachers (including the other male staff member), and one nun. They start to rub off on him — and even inspire him.

But that doesn’t mean he turns into Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr or George Feeny, he’s more like a version of Gabe Kotter or Charlie Moore. Unconventional, off-kilter, and comical — yet challenging. Both his lectures and his assignments bring out the strengths and weaknesses his students (and their parents) were unaware they possessed. They also get Tony in trouble with parents, school administrators and school board members.

Essentially, the novel is a bildungsroman, watching Tony’s development from someone who sees teaching as a vacation from his real life to someone truly invested in it. I don’t want to say that it’s a smooth transition or that he flips the switch and becomes the World’s Greatest 6th Grade Teacher ™. That would make for a very dull novel.

Pandolfi writes in a very smooth, assured style. There’s not a lot of artistic flourishes — that’s not a critique, just an observation. It is charming, frequently amusing, and pretty earnest. I was a little afraid after reading the description that this would be a satire that tried too hard, one of those books where you can see the writer trying to be funny (which almost never works) — but I’m pleased to say that it wasn’t. Tony seemed to try too hard, but not Pandolfi — a character doing that is annoying, but it’s a character trait; a writer doing that is frequently a a deal breaker.

Tony’s antics and judgement are a mixed bag, as I mentioned. Early on, some of his jokes/behavior didn’t seem like fun, they seemed capricious and even mean — but so did M*A*S*H‘s Hawkeye and Duke Forrest (the book and movie versions, anyway). From the get-go the 1973 setting and sensibility put me in that frame of mind, so that’s where my mind went. And sure, part of the book is to show his growth from that, but it’s pretty off-putting. Similarly, I had trouble swallowing how tone-deaf he was when it came to jokes about Roman Catholics (even after being warned), yet he was reflexively sensitive to other people/problems (frequently in a way that seemed at least somewhat anachronistic).

Ultimately, I was able to get past that — and it’s possible that without me putting something about that in my notes, I’d have forgotten to mention it. Because of his growth, by that last third or so of the book, you see almost no signs of this (except when his past comes back to haunt him). So, I guess I’m saying, if you’re put off by some of his early behavior, give him a chance.

His sister, Patty, has Down’s Syndrome. I really appreciated the way that Pandolfi treated her. She’s simply a character — there’s no After-School Special moment with her, she’s not an object of pity — she’s simply Tony’s little sister. There are funny moments with her, some sweet moments with her — just like there are with Tony’s mother and father.

Tony’s students, fittingly, come close to stealing the novel from Tony. As is the case with the Bad News Bears, the Sweathogs, Fillmore High’s IHP class, etc., you have to want to see the kids do well to care about their teacher. They’re a diverse group, each having some distinctive characteristics and/or problems. They come to believe in their “Mr. Pizza” long before the staff, or even Tony — and stay his biggest supporters through the ups and downs that ensue. If you don’t like at least most of the students, there’s something wrong with you and you should seek professional help. Or just re-read the book, because you probably missed something.

The rest of the cast of characters are well-drawn and believable. There are a few that I’m glad we didn’t get much time with (Tony’s extended family, for example). His friends, fellow teachers and principal are strong characters, a couple of them are better developed. But that’s simply due to time spent with them. Pandolfi has a gift for good characters, which is half the battle in a novel.

Mr. Pizza is a charming tale of a young man maturing at a turning point in his life. There’s some good laughs, some uncomfortable moments, and some earnest emotional beats. The book is a pleasure to read and it — and it’s protagonist — will win you over and get you rooting for them both.

Disclaimer: I received this book from RABT Book Tours in exchange for this post and my participation in the book tour.

—–

3.5 Stars

✔ Read a book with your favorite food in the title.

RABT Book Tours & PR

The Frame-Up by Meghan Scott Molin: Likeable Characters, Strong Mystery, & Geeky Fun Combine for a Winning Debut

The Frame-UpThe Frame-Up

by Meghan Scott Molin
Series: The Golden Arrow Mysteries, #1

eARC, 304 pg.
47North, 2018
Read: November 28 – 29, 2018

There are some posts I’m not sure how to start. Introductions are probably the hardest part for me (I say this today, tomorrow I’ll be struggling with a conclusion). I thought about starting this post this way:

    If you liked . . .

  • the Dahlia Moss books, but want something less sit-com and more dramedy
  • the Kirby Baxter books, but wish that Molly was the star?
  • Seanan McGuire’s Antimony Price, but wish you didn’t have to put up with the cryptozoology?
    and/or
  • the Castle pilot episode
  • …then this is the book for you!

But that just seemed frivolous. So I abandoned it.

A chance encounter in a slow-moving coffee shop line and an overheard offhand remark leads to LAPD Narcotics Detective Matteo Kildaire consulting comic book writer Michael-Grace (call her “MG”) Martin about an unusual crime. A couple of drug dealers had been tied together and left for the police, a photo printed in the newspaper (or at least an online version of it) reminded MG of one of her favorite comic book panels when she saw it — a panel from a comic in the Eighties. It turns out that there are additional reasons to tie the crime scene to that particular comic, and the detective could use some help. He’s clueless about this kind of thing and is desperate to get any kind of line on the vigilante responsible.

Matteo is concerned for various and sundry reasons that MG and her coworkers at Genius Comics might be a target for trouble (and/or responsible for it). MG is intrigued by the entire thing (and the fact that an incredibly hunky detective is talking to her about it doesn’t hurt, even if he is the Muggle-ist Muggle around) — actual crimes being committed around town by someone very inspired by the comics that shaped her early geekness?

Now, Matteo doesn’t want word to get out about a. MG consulting for him; b. the close eye Genius Comics employees are being watched with; c. really anything about the vigilante. So he poses as someone MG’s dating, without really consulting her on it. Spending time with her in social settings allows him to investigate her coworkers and friends — although he really seems interested in getting to know her better.

MG’s dealing with several things in her own life — she’s up for a big promotion at work; her side project of designing costumes (for cosplay, and her friend Lawrence’s drag queen act) is dangerously close to turning into something more than a hobby; and somehow she has to work in a fake relationship (without tipping off the true nature of things to her roommate or Lawrence).

The chemistry between the two main characters is fantastic — Matteo comes across as a very nice guy, the kind of person you’d like to think every detective is — driven, honest, kind. MG’s the kind of person I’d like to hang out with — creative, funny, geeky (although her LOTR views means we won’t be best friends). When you put the two of them together they work really well — on a detective/consultant basis, or as a couple. It’s obvious from at least Chapter 2 that the sparks are there, so I don’t feel too bad talking about this — but they do keep it pretty professional. Mostly. Whether they’re being professional, or they’re in one of their more personal moments, these two are a great pair.

Now while the pair are getting to know each other, the crimes associated with the comics continue to pile up, get more serious and start to involve significant damage and danger to human life. Other than Matteo, the police and the FBI aren’t that convinced that MG can really help them. And at least one of her friends becomes a person of interest in the investigation. These two things spur MG to do some independent investigating in addition to her consulting. Which goes about as well as you might think for a comic book writer/would-be fashion designer starring in a comedic novel.

And it is funny. MG is a great narrator — honest about herself and her foibles; snarky about the foibles (and strengths) of those around her; clever, witty and her narration is chock-full of geek-culture references. Molin tends to over-explain some of MG’s references. You don’t need to tell me that “Winter is coming,” is a Jon Snow line. You can just say it and everyone will know you’re talking about Game of Thrones (or Death and Boobies, as MG prefers). I don’t remember noticing that later on, I either got used to it or Molin course-corrected. Either way, it’s not a major problem.

The story is strong, the culture around Genius Comics is interesting (and rings true), the secondary and tertiary characters are fun — it’s a very satisfying debut novel. I do think that MG’s roommate and coworkers could’ve been developed a bit more. At least we could’ve spent more time with them, not much, just a little (except the roommate, we could’ve had more time with him — but that seemed intentional). But that’s about my strongest criticism, come to think of it. There are some scenes that are just fantastic — Matteo watching the original Star Wars trilogy with MG and her coworkers for the first time is magic. There’s a moment in the last chapter that’s a little better, too (but I won’t spoil anything). Molin can tell a good story and capture small elements well.

I started this by joking around about the kind of people that’ll like this book — but seriously, there’s something about this that’ll appeal to most. Just thinking of friends/family/workplace proximity associates who read novels — I can’t think of one who wouldn’t find something in this to enjoy. My mother would like the interplay between the characters (particularly between MG and Lawrence) and the story, even if she didn’t get most of the fandom references; my buddy Paul would like MG’s spirit, the mystery, and Matteo; Nicole would dig the mystery, MG, and the fandoms (even if she doesn’t share them, she’ll get it), MG’s design work, too; I’ve got another friend who’d like the mystery but would roll his eyes at some of the relationship stuff; Rosie would get a kick out of it all, especially MG’s voice — and so on. Okay, to be honest, I can think of one reader I know who wouldn’t like it — between the subject matter, the voice, the crime story — it’d be beneath her (unless Molin gets interviewed by NPR, then she’d be a big fan). My point is — there’s at least a little something here for everyone to get into, if you don’t let any of the particulars of the setting or character get in the way.

Sure, I liked Dahlia Moss/Kirby Baxter/Antimony Price/Castle without any of the conditions that I started things off with — so this was definitely in my wheelhouse. But more importantly, it was a fun story well told, with charming characters that you want to spend time with. If I’m reading Molin’s tweets correctly, we’re looking at at least a trilogy with these people — I’m all in for that, I’m very interested to see where she takes the story and the characters. I fully expect that I’m not going to be alone in my appreciation for The Frame Up.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from 47North via Little Bird Publicity and NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to all for this great read.

—–

4 Stars

The Summer Holidays Survival Guide by Jon Rance: Heart-warming and Funny Bone-Tickling

The Summer Holidays Survival GuideThe Summer Holidays Survival Guide

by Jon Rance

Kindle Edition, 262 pg.
2018

Read: November 14 – 15, 2018

‘Oh, Dad, how little you know,’ said Liv, her head returning to her phone.

How little I know. I have a feeling this one cold, hard sentence, uttered from my twelve-year-old daughter’s lips, might sum up my life.

Ben Robinson is an art teacher, in his mid-40s, and is trying to figure out how he’ll survive the upcoming summer holidays — 6 weeks with his three kids, and a marriage who’s spark is gone out (possibly for good). Oh yeah, and an aging father with dementia moving in with them, rather than a nursing home. Meanwhile, he’s trying to prepare for a half-marathon, which is about a whole marathon more than he’s ready for.

We get a day by day (or close to it) account of how this goes for Ben. The short version is: not very well. Particularly in the beginning. Ben meddles in his fifteen year old son’s love life (with some really bad sex tips — all of which I’m considering passing on to my kids), cannot understand his twelve-year-old daughter’s social media life (and nascent pubescence), and derails his eight year old son’s summer plans without trying. Things go downhill from there, really.

His dad is having trouble remembering that he doesn’t live in the same home, or that his wife has been dead for a few years — this is a source of strain for both Ben and his father — and the relationship becomes strained. Ben is having trouble seeing his father this way, and his father is having trouble being this way. Both are trying their best, but this

Speaking of a strained relationship, the number of things wrong with his marriage keeps growing, and every thing that Ben tries to do to fix it just makes things worse. He and his wife aren’t communicating well — one of those problems that keeps feeding itself and growing worse.

Throw in an accidental participation in an anti-Brexit demonstration, a road rage incident leading to social media notoriety for one member of the family, teen romance problems, summer-altering injuries, and well — clearly, someone needs to write a survival guide.

As Ben and his family try to get through their struggles intact — and maybe even better than that — there’s plenty of fodder for humor. There’s a lot of heartwarming material, some real laughs and more than a few chuckles. There’s some really effective writing and characterization.

However, there’s also Rance’s need to go for the big laugh. And here, he basically turns Ben into Basil Fawlty — with all the wild schemes, failing schemes, shouting, misunderstandings and slapstick involved. I don’t think any of these scenes or moments worked for me. When he’s going for subtle laughs, or those that grow from character, I really enjoyed it. When the subject matter is serious (or at least non-comedic), Rance is really strong. It’s when he’s obviously trying that he falters.

‘Marriage,’ said Dad. ‘There’s always ups and downs. You just keep riding it, son. It’s like a rollercoaster. You can’t get off, so you just hold on, and do your best to enjoy it.’

‘I’m holding on for dear life, but life is harder than it was, Dad. The world has changed. The rollercoasters are bigger and scarier now. The drops are bigger, the hills higher.’

‘Oh tosh. The world might change, but people don’t. Love is still love, clear and simple. Don’t blame the world for your problems, son. Hold on tighter. Love stronger.’

That’s one of the more earnest moments — and there are plenty of them in the latter part of the novel, all set up well in the early part — and it shows the heart of the book — and there’s plenty of heart. Rance won me over, and got me to put more of his books on my list because of these kind of moments, and the genuine laughs I got from the smaller moments, I’ve got more of his stuff on the TBR.

It’s a nice, pleasant book that’ll tickle your funny bone and warm your heart.

—–

3 Stars

Pub Day Repost: Blood Feud by Mike Lupica: Sunny Randall’s Back in this Promising Reintroduction

Blood FuedRobert B. Parker’s Blood Feud

by Mike Lupica
Series: Sunny Randall, #7
eARC, 352 pg.
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018
Read: October 5 – 9, 2018

I have a complicated relationship with Sunny Randall. Readers of this site have been frequently exposed to my love for Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Jesse Stone novels, both by Parker and the continuations by Ace Atkins and Reed Farrel Coleman (let’s overlook Michael Brandman’s contributions for the moment). I enjoyed his stand-alone works, and I thought the first couple of Virgil Cole & Everett Hitch books were fun (I haven’t tried the Robert Knott continuations). Which leaves us with Sunny.

Sunny Randall, the story goes, was written to be adapted into a film series for Parker’s chum, Helen Hunt (incidentally, I’ve never been able to envision Helen Hunt in a single Sunny scene, but that’s just me). She’s a private investigator; a former cop; part-time painter (art, not house); emotionally entangled with her ex-husband, but can’t live with him; lives in Boston; and enjoys good food. But she’s totally not a female Spenser — she doesn’t like baseball, see? I’ve read all the books — some multiple times — and while I enjoyed them, I’ve never clicked with Sunny the way I have with others. Including every other Parker protagonist. Most of her novels are mashups and remixes of various Spenser novels, entertaining to see things in a different light — but that’s about it. Frankly, the most I ever liked Sunny was in the three Jesse Stone novels late in Parker’s run (but both characters are better off without each other).

So when it was announced that Mike Lupica would be taking up the reins of this series I was intrigued but not incredibly enthused. I only know Lupica from having bought a few of his books for my sons when they were younger. I didn’t get around to reading any of them, so he’s really a new author for me. And sure, I was a little worried about a YA/MG author taking the reins of a “grown-up” series. But not much — if you can write a novel, you can write a novel, it’s just adjusting your voice and language to be appropriate for the audience.

Enough blather — let’s talk about Blood Feud. Since we saw her last, Sunny has had to move, Richie (her ex-) has gotten another divorce (giving them the chance to date or whatever you want to call it) and has replaced her late dog, Rosie, with another Rosie. Other than that, things are basically where they were after the end of Spare Change 11 years ago (for us, anyway, I’m not sure how long for her, but less time has passed you can bet).

By the way — does anyone other than Robert B. Parker, Spenser and Sunny really do this? Your dog dies, so you go and get another one of the same breed and call him/her the same name? Is this really a thing?

Then one night — Richie is shot. It’s not fatal, but was done in such a way that no one doubts for a moment that it could have been had the assailant wanted it to be. For those who don’t know (or don’t remember), Richie is the son of an Irish mob boss, although he has nothing to do with the family business. He’s given a message for his father — his shooter is coming for him, but wants him to suffer first. This kicks off a race for the shooter — Sunny, the Burke family and the police (led by Sgt. Frank Belson) are vying to be the one to find the shooter.

Before long, the violence spreads to other people the Burkes employ — both property and persons are targeted by this stranger. It’s clear that whoever is doing this has a grudge going back years. So Sunny dives into the Burke family history as much as she can, so she can get an answer before her ex-father-in-law is killed. Not just the family history — but the family’s present, too. As much as the roots of the violence are in the past, Sunny’s convinced what the Burkes are up to now is just as important to the shooter.

Richie’s father, Desmond, isn’t happy about Sunny sticking her nose into things. Not just because of the crimes she might uncover — but he really wants to leave the past in the past. But as long as someone might come take another shot at Richie, Sunny won’t stop. This brings her into contact with several criminal figures in Boston (like Parker-verse constants Tony Marcus and Vinnie Morris) as well as some we’ve only met in Sunny books.

There are a couple of new characters in these pages, but most of them we’ve met before — Lupica is re-establishing this universe and doesn’t have time to bring in many outsiders, but really just reminds us who the players are. Other than the new Rosie, I can’t point at a character and say “that’s different.” He’s done a pretty good job of stepping into Parker’s shoes. Not the pre-Catskill Eagle Parker like Atkins, but the Parker of Sunny Randall books, which is what it should feel like (( wouldn’t have objected to a Coleman-esque true to the character, just told in a different way). I think some of the jokes were overused (her Sox-apathy, for one), but it wasn’t too bad. Lupica did make some interesting choices, particularly toward the end, which should set up some interesting situations for future installments.

The mystery was decent enough, and fit both the situations and the characters — I spent a lot of the novel far ahead of Sunny (but it’s easier on this side of the page). I enjoyed the book — it’s not the best thing I’ve read this year, but it’s a good entry novel for Lupica in this series, a good reintroduction for the characters/world, and an entertaining read in general. If you’re new to this series, this would be as good a place to hop on as it was for Lupica.

I want better for Parker’s creation (but I think I’d have said that for most of Parker’s run with the series), and Lupica’s set things up in a way that we could get that in the near-future. He’s demonstrated that he has a good handle on the character he inherited, the question is, what can he do with her from here? I was ambivalent about this series coming back, but I can honestly say that I’m eager to see what happens to it next.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Putnam Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

3.5 Stars

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: A Charming, Dark, and (somehow) Fun Serial Killer Tale

My Sister, the Serial KillerMy Sister, the Serial Killer

by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Hardcover, 223 pg.
Doubleday Books, 2018

Read: November 23, 2018

Ayoola summons me with these words — Korede, I killed him.

I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

That’s one of the best pair of opening sentences I can recall. How do you not get hooked right there? You get so much in those two sentences, you know that Ayoola has killed multiple times, at least three (otherwise, Korede would’ve said something like “What, again?”); the fact that she says “him,” instead of “someone” or a name suggests that Korede will know who she’s talking about without explanation; and you hear a put upon sibling fed up with their sister’s antics.

And yeah, that’s the book in essence — Ayoola has killed her third boyfriend (in self-defense, she swears . . . again), and calls on her big sister to come help clean up. Korede’s a clean freak — she’s not quite OCD, but close. When life gets stressful, she cleans, and with her little sister, she’s got plenty of stress in her life.

Korede is beginning to think that Ayoola might not just be the innocent girl who has been able narrowly escape assault. Three kills, she’s read online, qualifies you to be a serial killer. And what’s worse — the doctor that Korede has unrequited feelings for has caught her sister’s eye, too (and vice versa) — and that can’t be good for him. I had about a dozen ideas how this was going to end — and I was wrong on every point. Which is good, because Braithwaite’s ideas were far better than mine would’ve been. She zagged when most would’ve zigged and nailed the resolution to this book.

This is enough to make an entertaining and suspense filled book. But then you throw in the characters that Braithwaite has created and things take on a different twist.

Korede’s a nurse — a demanding, dedicated, compassionate one. Ayoola is a vapid knockout who knows that it doesn’t matter what she knows, does, or thinks — she’s convinced that all she has to do is continue to look good and make men feel good about themselves and she’s set. This seems shallow, but neither Ayoola or Korede can prove that she’s wrong.

The dynamic of the long-suffering, responsible, plain(er) sibling doing the right thing and looking out for the spontaneous, outgoing, super attractive one isn’t new. Adding a mother who takes the responsible one for granted and dotes on the other, doesn’t change things, either. But somehow, Braithwaite is able to depict these three in a way that seems wholly familiar (so you can make assumptions about a lot of the relationship) and yet it feels so fresh she might have invented the archetypes.

If Jennifer Weiner lived in and wrote about Lagos, Nigeria and included murders in a tale of sibling rivalry and learning to accept yourself — you’d get something a lot like this book. There’s an intangible, ineffable quality to Braithwaite’s writing that I cannot capture better than that — but it’s better than my illustration sounds. The story goes to some really dark places, and there’s really no reason to find the characters or story so charming — but that’s all down to Braithwaite’s fantastic authorial voice. Yes, it’s about murder, the importance of family, self-sacrifice and what’s more important in this life — skill, intelligence and dedication, or beauty and sex appeal; but you might as well be reading about Bridget Jones counting cigarettes and worrying about Daniel Cleaver and Mark Darcy.

One other thing — this is just a wonderfully designed book. The size — smaller than your typical hardcover — is distinctive, the typeface used in chapter headings and page numbers are peculiar enough to stand out. The whole thing just feels like a different kind of book. Does this make an impact on your enjoyment of the novel? Probably not, but I appreciated the experience and look.

I can’t think of enough ways to praise Braithwaite — there’s an intangible quality to this book that just won me over pretty much on page one. You will not believe that this is her first novel — and you will hope it’s not her last. The sibling rivalry story was well-told and engaging, the hospital stories were enough to be the core of a very different novel by themselves, the serial killer story was unpredictable. The characters are the kind that you’ll remember for a long time. Stop reading me and go find a copy of this book.

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4 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge