Book 8 of 2019: Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

In 1929 London, Private Investigator Maisie Dobbs unearths a series of suspicious deaths connected to a home for disfigured veterans. Using her knowledge of psychology and quiet determination, Maisie must unravel the mystery and finally leave her own trauma from The Great War behind.

Maisie Dobbs is an intriguing and complex read that will stick with me for a long time. Anyone with even a passing interest in World War One will find Winspear’s descriptions of the scars it created fascinating. Maisie herself is a well-rounded and intriguing protagonist. Her journey from a junior maid to university student to a battlefield nurse could be a novel in its own right, but Winspear manages to 126 pages, somehow without feeling rushed. Maisie is brave, intelligent, and resourceful but still very much a woman of her time. Her goal isn’t to break through the boundaries set for her sex and class. She only wants to help people.

As a historical novel, Maisie Dobbs is nearly flawless. I found the mystery element slightly disappointing. Soldiers dying under mysterious circumstances, leaving everything to the leader of their cloistered retreat, and buried under only their first names could have been milked for incredible suspense. That line was dropped in the middle of the book in favor of describing Maisie’s past and wartime love affair for over a third of the book. The skillful prose and complex characters make the interruption forgivable, but they would have been better showcased in their own novel or paced intermittently between the 1929 storyline. Thoughtful historical fiction is lovely, but I picked the book up for a murder mystery.

Winspear has penned an impressive fifteen novels of Maisie Dobbs adventures. I can easily see myself picking one up when I am in a less bloodthirsty, and more historical, mood.

Book 7 of 2019: Lavender Los Angeles from Roots of Equality

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Roots of Equality Authors: Tom De Simone, Teresa Wang, Melissa Lopez, Diem Tran, Andy Sacher, Kersu Dalal, and Justin Emerick

Published in 2011, Lavender Los Angeles provides a brief overview of Queer history in Los Angeles, from the pre-colonial era to the passage of Proposition 8 in 2008, including photographs and illustrations.

The history of Queer people in Los Angeles is rich and storied. Lavender Los Angeles provides an excellent starting point for those, like me, intimidated by more massive tomes. At 127 pages, the authors don’t have time for much-nuanced analysis of the events. Instead, they focus on the events themselves, the notable people, and how they fit into the overall narrative. Lavender Los Angeles is a history book for the people who hated history class.

Despite the page limit, Lavender Los Angeles makes a concentrated effort to include women, people of color, and trans people at all stages of the narrative. From the two-spirit healers of the Indigenous community in the colonial era to Margaret Chung, the first known Chinese Woman Doctor who boasted romantic affairs with Sophie Tucker and Elsa Gridlow in the 1920s, to Angela Douglas, founder of TAO (Transvestite/Transsexual Activist Organization) in 1970. In a field predominantly focused on white, cis men, I appreciate the intersectionality of Lavender Los Angeles.

However, that intersectionality would have been better served with color illustrations. Black and white pictures create a sense of distance to the events. Distance is fine when discussing the lavender marriages and police raids of yesteryear but Proposition Eight, banning same-sex marriage in California, passed a little over a decade ago. Monochrome photographs separate the reader from the immediacy of these issues.

Roots of Equality also managed to avoid the pessimism I usually find in Queer History. While never sugar-coating events, they focus instead on the victories and the sheer joy that the LGBT+ community achieved in Los Angeles. Lavender Los Angeles, despite the closeted connotations of the title, made me proud of my community and eager to participate more fully with my city.

Book 6 of 2019: An Act of Villainy by Ashley Weaver

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I am continuing my crime fiction spree with An Act of Villainy by Ashley Weaver. Amateur sleuth Amory Ames and her formerly philandering husband, Milo, are called to investigate a series of threatening letters sent to Flora Bell, a rising theatrical star and mistress of their married friend, Gerald Holloway. When Flora is killed on opening night, everyone in the cast is a suspect. Amory must find the real killer to save the Holloways’ marriage.

An Act of Villainy is the fifth book in the Amory Ames series. I have read none of them. I followed the plot without any problem. Weaver is skilled at establishing background without being bogged down. We know that Amory and Milo had difficult times in their marriage but have since rekindled their affections, through solving murders. We don’t need to know anything else to enjoy this engaging mystery.

Weaver’s greatest strength is her character work.  She manages to elicit sympathy for a betrayed wife, her cheating husband, and his mistress all at the same time. The stereotypical villains have soft emotions, beloved families, and sordid pasts. Amory is an intelligent detective with lots of empathy and little patience for patriarchy. She inserts herself into a murder investigation, in 1933, with little to no pushback through sheer quiet determination. She doesn’t sneak through alleys or infiltrate criminal organizations. She sits down and drinks tea. Somehow this solves murders.

Unfortunately, this particular murder left a bad taste in my mouth. The mystery is technically serviceable, though the culprit felt shoehorned in. Like Amory, I suspected nearly everyone else before the actual killer, because there was no stated evidence against them until the last few chapters. There was no smoking gun, merely a collection of details glazed over as description. Of course, we learn about dozens of suspicious deaths surrounding the murderer, after they confess. Amory solves the case thanks to an offhand remark from her mother, rather than actual detective work. The solution was a surprise, not because of its originality, but because there were more likely options.

The rest of the story was good enough to overshadow the lackluster solution. For me, the actual crime is the least important element of detective fiction. I want to follow the clues and solve the case, yes, but most importantly I want to care about the characters involved. I care about Amory Ames, so I’m looking forward to reading her other adventures.

Book 5 of 2019: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

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As the first lady private detective in Botswana, Precious Ramotswe solves problems in her clients’ lives, exposing con men, tracking missing husbands and independent daughters, and battling the powerful to rescue the innocent.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency was just as engaging the second time around. Mma Ramotswe is practical, independent, and hilarious. Botswana is portrayed as a modern country, avoiding the poverty fetishism that so often appears in books about Africa. You can tell that McCall Smith, a former professor at The University of Botswana, truly loves the country.

My one complaint is with the narrative arc. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency wants to be both a novel and short story collection at the same time. Some of the chapters work as stand-alone pieces, while others must be read together. Chapter 12 is a two-page description of Mma Ramotswe’s house. It’s charming and gives the reader a better understanding of the character, but it’s not a story by itself.

Still, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is an engaging read. The mysteries are uncomplicated but not obvious. There are no grizzly murders, criminal geniuses, or convoluted ciphers. Mma Ramotswe helps ordinary people with everyday problems until she discovers the case of a young boy abducted by a witch doctor. Even then, she approaches it with the ultimate pragmatism, lamenting only the superstition that would drive her countrymen to commit such crimes.

Alexander Mcall Smith is a talented and prolific author. I look forward to continuing the series.

Book 4 of 2019: Chronicles of Old Los Angeles by James Roman

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A history/ tour guide for LA, chronicling the city’s foundation, it’s violent beginnings, and the inception of Hollywood all the way to the present day. Far from comprehensive, Chronicles of Old Los Angeles delivers twenty four concise chapters on the sordid history of La La Land.

I really enjoyed this book. Roman doesn’t get bogged down with every detail of LA history. He skips to the shimmer and scandal in true Los Angeles fashion. Chronicles is an excellent introduction to Los Angeles History.

Some highlights:

  • California’s first attorney general, Edward J.C Kewen attempted to shoot the opposing lawyer during a criminal trial, ended up shooting a spectator and causing the jury to flee.
  • Henry Huntington birthed LA’s enormous sprawl by buy cheap real estate, installing a station on his Pacific Electric Railway and profiting off the communities that grew around the stations.
  • The Warner Brothers missed the premiere of The Jazz Singer, the first talkie which would cement their place in history, to attend a funeral. Sam Warner, chief proponent of talkies, had over worked himself in the weeks before the premiere and died the night before.
  • West Hollywood spent decades as an unincorporated area, separate from Los Angeles and Beverly Hill, mostly to skirt the law. Operating under the authority of LA County meant that gangsters like Bugsy Siegal and Mickey Cohan could run their speakeasies and gambling operations without the city police breathing down their neck. It also meant that the LGBT+ community could live their lives in relative safety at a time when homosexuality itself was a crime. Weho was the site of the first known gay rights group in the US, The Mattachine Society. They later elected Valerie Terrigno as the first mayor of West Hollywood and the first openly lesbian mayor in the US.

Los Angeles is a fascinating city. Chronicles of Old Los Angeles is a great starting point for those who want to learn more.

Book 3 of 2019: The Pout Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen

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I read this book with a small child. It concerns a blue fish, the titular Pout Pout fish. Through out the story, Pout Pout is admonished to smile and be happy, while he insists that he is “A Pout Pout fish, with a pout pout face,” destined to “spread the dreary wearies all over the place.”

SPOILERS:

After pouting all over the ocean, he meets a beautiful fish who “instead of saying “hey” … plants a kiss on his pout and then she swims away.” Pleased, Pout Pout Fish declares he’s been wrong all along, that he is in fact a “kiss kiss fish,” and proceeds to smooch the entire ocean.

Yikes.

There’s a lot to unpack here.

First, this book was published in 2013 so somebody should have caught these issues. I kept waiting for someone to ask the Pout Pout fish what was wrong or tell him that he’s still liked, despite his melancholy. No such luck. One fish literally says that pouting is a “unattractive trait”! That’s right, kids! Fake a smile or no one will ever love you! Maybe he’s a pout pout fish because his “friends” keep insulting him for the way his face looks!

Second, where’s the consent? Don’t smooch without asking, children, no matter sad they look. It was such an easy fix. Beautiful fish could have easily said “maybe you’re a kiss kiss fish.” Pout Pout agrees to experiment and decides she’s right. Boom! Now your kid’s book is about how you can improve your spirits through friendship and affection, rather than the origin of an aquatic serial harasser.

Third, I don’t like the message that physical and romantically coded affection will save anyone from depression. Pout Pout fish literally has a pout pout face. It’s the face he was born with. Can he change the connotation and be a kiss kiss fish with help from those who care about him? Sure, but it takes a hell of a lot more than non-consensual smooches to get over than hurtle.

The Pout Pout Fish does have its charms. The illustrations are bright and engaging. The prose is lively and bright, with fun, tight rhymes. It’d be great if children weren’t tiny sponges who can soak up all sorts of wrong messages if you couch them in clever words and charming images. I can’t recommend The Pout Pout Fish, but I’ll probably pick it up again, considering the kid is obsessed with it.

Book One of 2019: Pet Sematary by Stephen King

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A young doctor, Louis Creed, moves with his family to rural Maine where he discovers an ancient burial ground with the ability to resurrect the dead.

Sometimes dead is better.

Stephen King is one of my favorite authors. His work has terrified me since I was a child with television and movies like IT and The Shinning, though King disavowed the Kubrick film. In the forward in the 2018 audiobook, which I consumed in my car, King considered Pet Sematary to be his scariest book. For me, that honor goes to Misery but a tale of resurrected children going after their parents with scalpels is nothing to read before bed. I listened to the audiobook, read by Michael C. Hall (Dexter) which upped the creep factor by about a thousand.

However, if you’re just reading Pet Sematary for creepy cats an children or iconic lines delivered in the thickest Maine accent then you’re missing out on King’s real genius. Pet Sematary isn’t about a problematic Indian burial ground (I get it was written in the 80s but yikes) that resurrects pets and people as homicidal zombies with knowledge of their victims’ deepest fears and secrets.

[Spoilers} Pet Sematary is about death and the terrible price people pay when they try to ignore it.  Louis’s wife, Rachel, developed an extreme phobia of death after witnessing her older sister’s long illness and eventual passing at the tender age of eight. She refuses to attend funerals and becomes enraged when her daughter is introduced to the concept of mortality via the pet semetary. Her son’s violent death in a hit and run forces her to confront death again in horrible immediacy. Her husband’s refusal to accept death results in Rachel’s demise at the hands of her resurrected son, possibly his own. King posits that the burial ground itself caused the deaths it undid, but the entire plot could have been avoided if the characters just accepted the inevitable deaths of their loved ones. Or if the Creed family had installed a perimeter fence around their highway adjacent properties.

Either way, Pet Semetary is an exciting and spooky tale, definitely worth a read and re-read. I will definitely see the film adaptation in April.

And now, The Ramones