The Last Good Girl, by Allison Leotta**

thelastgoodgirl This title appeared to be a sure fire winner, a thriller that would also spotlight domestic violence and even more so, campus rape. I was pleased when Net Galley and Touchstone Publishers green-lighted my request for a DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for this review. And without the social issues, which are a mixed bag but still partially useful, this would be a 1.5 star review, because as a mystery, as a thriller, as any kind of fiction, it doesn’t stand up.

A few months back I unfavorably reviewed a title that I said appeared to be a story that was invented purely to make use of some research; the author appeared to have done a lot of digging and was determined to stretch her story to include the information she’d dug up. But this one is even worse, because it really appears to be stretched around a large number of name brands. In fact, I can save you some time and money just by giving you the majority of the story now, though of course I can’t tell you how it ends, because that would be a spoiler. So, here are the key points, bulleted for easy digestion:

  • Pottery Barn
  • Urban Outfitters
  • Nordstrom
  • Calvin Klein
  • Domino’s Pizza
  • Wall Street Journal
  • Louis Vuitton
  • Tory Burch Shoes
  • Ford
  • Sephora
  • Zagat
  • Bank of America
  • iphone
  • Jim Beam
  • US News and World Report
  • Dodge Viper
  • Netflix
  • Jell-O
  • Krispy Kremes

Even without the endless product placement, many of the above-mentioned names being plugged numerous times, it’s a hard story to appreciate. In place of using plot and character development to tell a story, we are given two premises that are hard to embrace. The first is that our victim, Emily Shapiro, put all her deepest, most heartfelt feelings and experiences into a vlog that serves as a class assignment. All of it. Of course she did! And so the author has relieved herself of the main burden here and instead is dumping all of her Emily information into a single lengthy narrative that alternates with the third person story she has shaped around her merchandise promotions.

The initial premise is that a federal prosecutor, the one and only in fact, is somehow able to assist her old flame with a local case. “We could investigate it as a federal hate crime”, Anna tells Jack.

Sure we could.

The social message that there is too much campus rape that college administrators try to sweep aside to protect the reputation of their university’s brand, is somewhat undermined by other messages that struck me as reactionary. Anna sees condoms for sale in vending machines and “…she wasn’t sure about the wisdom of packaging sex as an option as casual as a snack.”

Maybe we should just go back to the age of the chastity belt. That will take care of that darn AIDS virus and the other STDs, too!

Finally, though it’s a relatively small part of the story, an unwanted pregnancy is treated as an automatic gonna-have-a-baby. I could (and have) seen stories in which the pregnant woman decides she doesn’t like the idea of abortion, and that’s fine. Roe v. Wade and the right to choose it confers isn’t about every pregnant woman terminating a pregnancy; it’s about a choice. What grates on my nerves is the suggestion that no such choice even exists.

If you can find a credible story here to hang your hat on, more power to you. The vocabulary is certainly accessible, if a trifle trite in a number of places. But for me, the joy of getting to read the story free has been displaced by the realization that I’ve been snookered into reading a host of obnoxious advertising because I have agreed to produce a review.

It’s for sale now. If you want it, you can have it.

 

Second Daughter: the Story of a Slave Girl, by Mildred Pitts Walter**

seconddaughterstoryofaslavegirlSecond Daughter is historical fiction based on the true story of an enslaved woman that went to court and won her freedom in New England around the time of the American Revolution. I received this DRC free from Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media in exchange for an honest review. And it’s just as well, because if I had paid any money at all for this brief but troubled book, I would be deeply unhappy.

First, let’s examine the positive aspects that allowed the second star to happen. Walter has nailed setting, and when Aissa, the girl that serves as our narrator, describes the kitchen of her master’s house, we are there and can see it all. Here she does an excellent job. Other settings are also well told.

Second, the length, just 119 pages, is accessible for young adult readers, many of whom find it difficult, in these technologically advanced times, to focus all the way through a full length novel.

Unfortunately, the problems outweigh the virtues. I have two issues that plant this story on my literary wall of shame. The first is technical, the second philosophical.

Technically I see this as a decent if unmemorable read, and were I to judge this strictly on the writer’s skill, I would call this a three star novel. Overlong passages of narrative, often unbroken by action or dialogue and in lengthy paragraphs, are likely to hit the average adolescent’s snooze button early on. The choice to tell everything in past tense as opposed to the more widely used literary present deadens the pace further. When we finally do get a passage of dialogue, it is so stiff and stilted that not even the most engaging teacher, when reading this out loud to her class, could possibly breathe life into it. One character is depicted as speaking with a Sambo-like dialect, all “dis” and “dat”. If one is going to use a dialect, make it respectful and readable.  This verges on mimicry, and any Black students in the room that haven’t tuned out or gone to sleep yet are going to be pissed, and rightly so.

I can see that Walters meant well in writing from the point of view of a Black slave girl and in depicting a victory gained by Black people on their own behalf, as opposed to the usual torture, death, and despair that represented those kidnapped and forced into slavery. But this is also where I have to step back and ask what the ultimate effect of this book will be on students that read it.

For the average or below average middle school student, reading all the way through even a fairly brief novel such as this one will likely be the only book they make it through during the term in which slavery is covered in the social studies, humanities, or language arts/social studies block. Part of the power of good literature—which this isn’t, and in some ways that may be for the better—is that it drives home a central message. I can envision students that pay attention to this book, perhaps because the teacher is particularly engaging and has driven home its importance, and then walking away from the term’s work convinced that all any slave in any part of the USA ever had to do to get out of his or her predicament was to find a good attorney, take the matter to court, and bang, that’s it, we’re free. Let’s party.

This novel addresses a relatively brief period in the northern states, where slavery had been legal but had not been as widespread as in the Southern states. King Cotton had not become the dominant economic mover it would become by 1850, when its grip on all of US governmental institutions would be absolute. By then, northerners made their money indirectly from the cotton industry in everything from shipping, boat building, rope making, and banking to growing crops for consumption by Southerners and in some cases, for their slaves.

If one is going to teach about slavery, far better to do so as part of an American Civil War unit. It’s a tender, sensitive, painful thing for children of color, but it’s not okay to deceive them, however unintentionally, with the misimpression that all slaves had options that they didn’t.  Better to use portions of Alex Haley’s Roots; teach about the vast but much-ignored free Black middle class in the north that was the primary moving force behind the Underground Railroad; or to show the movie “Glory” in class to emphasize the positive, powerful things that African-American people did during this revolutionary time, than to emphasize something as obscure, limited, and potentially misleading as what Walter provides here.

I am trying to think of instances in which this book might be part of a broader, more extensive curriculum such as the home-schooling of a voracious young reader, yet even then I find myself back at the technical aspect, which results in a book that is dull, dull, dull. Literature should engage a student and cause him or her to reach for more, rather than make students wonder if it will ever end.

In general I have resolved to read fewer YA titles than when I was teaching and treat myself to more advanced work during my retirement. I made an exception for this title because the focus appeared to be right in my wheelhouse, addressing US slavery and the civil rights of Black folk in America. I regret doing so now, but it doesn’t have to happen to you too.

Save yourself while there’s time. Read something else. And for heaven’s sake, don’t foist this book on kids.

Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era, by David Herbert Donald**

lincolnreconsideredI received this DRC free in exchange for an honest review. Thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media for letting me read it; Donald won the Pulitzer for his Lincoln biography, and I was sure this series of essays written for the purpose of dismantling myths surrounding the most revered president ever to occupy the White House would be hidden treasure rediscovered. What a crushing disappointment.

In the introduction, Herbert mentions that his section on abolitionists has drawn a great deal of criticism. Unfortunately, he appears not to have used such criticism as an opportunity to reevaluate the framework that limits his thinking in that section. More on that later;  I realized that since this is a collection of essays on various aspects of Lincoln, primarily as president, I needed to set aside the sharp distaste that overwhelmed me initially in reading this selection and see what I thought of the other entries.

I found Donald’s essay regarding Mary Todd Lincoln interesting. Another, which addressed the folklore surrounding Lincoln, part of which involved every possible religious denomination attempting to claim him as one of their own when in reality, he just wasn’t all that religious, was interesting; I could have done without the Rastus-style written dialect provided to the African-American source he quoted.

In fact, it is Donald’s writing—and lack of it—regarding African-Americans that put my hackles up. I realized part way into it that this problem is going to be a common one for any Caucasian American scholar whose main body of work around the Civil War was written before the Civil Rights movement. For a long time, the American intelligentsia was tremendously segregated, and those at almost entirely white institutions of learning would never have deigned to call upon professors at traditionally Black universities or utilize the publications of Black historians. (It’s also before the first wave of feminism of the 60’s and 70’s, and so no woman is considered a credible resource; but that is a secondary consideration to the grave matter of Donald’s easy dismissal of Black historians, due to the topic at hand.)

Anyone that has delved deeply into the study of abolition and the Underground Railroad has to know that the majority of abolitionists in the North were free Black people. They didn’t turn up in Caucasian newspapers, but they were certainly quoted in the Black press. In most cases they did not attend meetings hosted by Caucasians unless specifically invited, as happened sometimes in Quaker-sponsored gatherings. But if WEB DuBois could find this information, then David Pulitzer Donald could have found it, too. His supercilious, offhand treatment of Black people when they are mentioned at all tells us why he chose not to go there.

Had Donald done all the work, rather than choosing those that suited his personal biases, he would have known how extensive the line of support was for John Brown. But he would have had to access publications that featured the writing of Black journalists, because according to DuBois and other sources, Brown did not discuss his plan with any other Caucasian abolitionists except his sons. In short, African-Americans and the information they left behind could have better informed Donald’s essays, but in dismissing them, he came up with incorrect conclusions.

Any essay that touched on what should happen to Black slaves in the south, or that could have included what was being said and done by Black citizens in the north, shared this deficit of information and necessarily misinformed Donald’s conclusions.

The final essay, “A. Lincoln, Politician”, gave me an accurate and interesting tidbit: Lincoln had an understanding with Stanton, one that made its way into private correspondence and was thus documented, that when he came up with an idea that for reasons beyond his own knowledge was absolutely impossible to implement, Stanton was to denounce it, and then Lincoln would passively accept that his cranky Secretary of War had made the call. This makes a great deal of sense; in a way, Stanton was Lincoln’s version of Spiro Agnew—but without the corruption and financial scandal. Every president needs someone close by in their administration to play the role of bad cop in smothering popular but ill-advised initiatives, and for Lincoln, Stanton was that man.

Before reading this collection of essays, I was so impressed with Donald’s achievements that I had gone to my wish list and added his biography of Lincoln in the hope I might receive a copy—even a used one—for Mother’s Day. As soon as I reached the essays dealing with race in this collection, I went back to that list and removed the biography.

I’ve read enough by this guy.

Dang Near Dead, by Nancy G. West**

Note to the reader:  A small drought sometimes occurs between publication times; the spring galleys are out now, and I am happily reading them. The review below was written during the brief time (less than 4 months during 2013) during which I was reading and reviewing DRCs, but had not yet begun my blog. Below is an unfavorable review for a badly written book, but here’s the stand-up thing about the publisher: because my review was so specific in areas I saw needing remediation, Henery Publishers auto-approved me to read their galleys after I wrote it. You’ve got to admit, that’s great.  In a few days, I will have current reviews ready for you to read, but in the meantime…

dangneardeadDear god. What was I thinking?

I had a case of the blues, and I noted my reading material was all on the dark side: Nixon, Goebbels, the Battle of Antietam…maybe I needed something to lighten things up a bit, something fun, something a little bit fluffy. I spotted this title on Net Galley, and I knew it was a risk that it would be too cutesy-pie for my taste. But upon reflection, I had enjoyed cozy mysteries by Sophie Littlefield (A Bad Day for Sorry) and Sarah Shankman (Digging Up Momma; The King is Dead), and I noted that West had won a Lefty award for humorous writing. Why not give it a try?

Why not indeed.

How can one writer manage to stuff every stereotype–many of them sexist–into one really dumb book? I don’t say these things lightly. I write here and there myself, and I try to remember that writers have feelings too. But honestly…references to needing time (on a trip to a Texas ranch) “to primp before the barbecue” and another character noting that since the clown keeps his makeup in the cooler to keep it from separating, that maybe they should keep theirs in there too…really?  Maybe it was intended to be humorous, but it fell wide of the mark. Actually, the clown was the only redeeming character in the book.

The protagonist, Aggie, has a thing for the sheriff; has this been done to death already or has it not? When spotted in a compromising situation, she distracts him by kissing him, then pushing him away. Does yes mean no, or does no mean yes?

Every overused plot device will at some point be used successfully by someone else. The previously mentioned Littlefield has done the leading-the-sheriff-on routine and done it well at times. But to use a device that is essentially old and tired, a writer needs to be so exemplary–and now I am thinking of James Lee Burke–that we completely forget that the schtick has been used before, because we are so deeply engaged by the characters and the situation in which they find themselves.

I have never thrown an e-reader. It is a good way to break an expensive device. I didn’t do it this time either…but I came close.

Recommended exclusively for the brain dead, just in time for Halloween.

The God’s Eye View, by Barry Eisler**

thegodseyeviewComing out of the gates, this novel seemed really strong. The premise is that Evelyn Gallagher, a CIA employee, sees an abuse of power, and it’s a chase to the end to see whether the NSA director, a man who knows no moral limits, will have her terminated before she can notify someone that can stop him. I received this DRC free from Net Galley and Thomas and Mercer in exchange for an honest review. It is now available for purchase.

At about the thirty percent mark, the tension that the story needs to hold the reader’s attention is derailed by trite plot elements. We’ve seen all of this before. Take an old school spy story, throw Edward Snowden’s name around a lot, add some high tech elements that show how the US government compromises everyone’s privacy, and it’s a story out of a can. It is old material dressed up to look new, and if you haven’t read many spy novels, it might work for you.

The most obviously overworked device is the pairing of Manus and Delgado. Think of them as good cop and bad cop, or since they aren’t actually police, we can call them the good-bad-guy and the bad-bad-guy. For the first, there is a sympathetic back story and elements that suggest he might be redeemable. For the latter, over the top, nasty personal habits partner with sociopathic behaviors and thoughts to make him utter scum. Though a trifle deflated when I spotted it, I still wanted to enjoy the story, and was hoping to see some things that would permit me to call this a 3.5 star story, maybe round it up to 4 stars.

Not so much.

Evelyn, also called Evie, tricks men into doing stupid things by showing her cleavage and by acting helpless.

And the prose. “She knows too much.”

Seriously?

And try this one: “I’m your best friend right now…or your worst nightmare.”

At this point, I could not finish the book quickly enough. Get it over with so I can review it and move on.

We move on through vivid rape scenes and gratuitous violence, and the hackneyed prose factory rages on. I moaned when I came to the mention of a “disgruntled former employee” and of course, what kind of war hero isn’t described as “decorated”? Isn’t that sort of the definition of a….?

Never mind.

I never, never, never review a book without reading every word of the last ten percent, even if I have done some skimming first. Sometimes the ending is strong enough that what looked like bad writing turns out to be a clever device that is included for a hidden purpose. Sometimes several disparate threads get pulled together so cleanly and deftly that in justice, I am required to add stars back onto the rating. And so I finished this novel, but none of those things happened.

Author Barry Eisler is a former CIA employee (disgruntled?) who is on a mission to demonstrate how long the reach of government has become. He provides a lot of internet sources to back the technology in his fiction. But when all is said and done, I would probably be happier reading nonfiction by Eisler…or maybe fiction by someone else.

The Windchime Legacy, by A.W. Mykel*

thewindchimelegacyI was invited to read and review this title by my friends at Brash Books and Net Galley; it was one of half a dozen that I could check out. I appreciate the invitation, and the other books in that batch have been read by me already and happily reviewed. This one is different; it has not stood the test of time.

So in other words: no, no, no, and no.

Usually I say it is essential to stick with a book till at least the 20 percent mark in order to get a sense of where it’s going and whether it might redeem itself, but I can’t do that here. By chapter three I am ready to throw things.

When this book was originally published, there was a significant portion of the book-buying USA who would have laughed at the notion that it’s not okay to refer to a woman (in our case, a waitress) as having “a nice set of tits”, or calling her “a piece of ass”. Those same people would have told me not to be so touchy about the “N” word (applied for no special reason to the African-American cook in the restaurant.) Probably I would have heard people say that we should just face the fact that some people talk that way, and that the text therefore reflects reality.

I stuck with it long enough to determine that the demeaning nature of the dialogue was not merely placed to determine the nasty nature of a single protagonist, but both the computer scientist and his adversary and potential recruiter say and think these things.

And for me, that was enough.

Stick a fork in me; I’m done!