Scribbling Scrivener Reads: Murder Swings the Tide by Linda Shirley Robertson

This month’s book review comes courtesy of a murder mystery set on fictional Seward Island off the South Carolina coast. In Murder Swings the Tide by Linda Shirley Robertson we meet interior designer Maggie Stewart who goes to Seaward for a much needed vacation and to re-evaluate her life. Within her first day, though, she discovers a dead body of a young art student. She clashes with the local sheriff believing he isn’t taking the cases serious despite this being the first murder on the island in quite a while. Deciding to launch her own investigation she enlists the help of several residents. Along the way she enters the first stages of developing a romance with one of the lifelong residents.

Murder Swings the Tide is extremely problematic. Everything from the main character to supporting characters to the plot to the prose to the pacing of the novel, it’s less than 200 pages, doesn’t work for me.

First, let’s start with Maggie Stewart. She’s incredibly irritating, egotistical, condescending, and judgmental. It was very difficult for me to buy her as someone smart enough to solve a murder better than the sheriff. For some reason she believes he’s not taking it seriously and is constantly asking him where he’s at with the investigation. She bugs him with her half-baked theories, all based on conjecture and no real evidence. It’s as if she’s watched watch too much “Law & Oder” and fancies herself some kind of expert.

In the beginning of the book she wasn’t too terrible. But as the murder investigation goes along, the more grating she becomes. For some reason she believes “employing” some of the dumber locals to help her makes sense. Never mind one of them is one of the most unreliable characters I’ve ever read. She’s incredibly judgmental upon meeting many of the locals, viewing them as stupid yokels. She shows her insecurity when meeting a lifelong friend of a guy she’s interested in. Immediately she writes the woman off as a bitch, she is overbearing and abrasive, and concludes the two are having an affair. As written there was nothing to suggest to the reader this is true. Not sure how she came to this conclusion no matter how many times he explains to Maggie the woman was his dead sister’s best friend.

The supporting characters are caricatures. Despite the author living in the south, she still writes many of the supporting characters as negative stereotypes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the cast of characters we meet in the local bar (or saloon as it was referred to earlier in the book). Pretty much they are dumb white trash types who need Maggie to save them and show them they can do better in their lives. Even Maggie’s potential love interest is just a caricature; stereotypical rich guy from a well-established family who is firmly anti-development. He’s boring though I do appreciate he’s a nice guy.

The plot is ridiculous, again because of how much of a pain Maggie is. It’s completely possible for a non-law enforcement person to be a competent investigator. Plenty of mystery series feature such characters such as Miss Marple and Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey. The plot doesn’t work because the motive for the murder is thin and the person who committed it suddenly goes into psycho mode. There’s no evidence to support it, other than the scene where the killer pulls the “This is how I did it and if it weren’t for you meddling, I would have gotten away with it!” There’s an unnecessary subplot only vaguely related to the murder in that a couple of people involved she thought were suspects.

The prose of Murder Swings the Tide is incredibly stilted. Too many short sentences. Ordered oddly. As if Robertson was in the draft stages of the story. This doesn’t make for smooth or interesting reading. Descriptions are generic. The dialogue is often silly and makes little sense. When she tries to write in dialect for the locals, she makes them sound stupid and uneducated.

The pacing of the book is all over the place. It starts off at a reasonable clip, but then the last third of the book just plows through things as if Robertson was told by the editor to hurry up and just end it. Unlike a lot of mysteries where there’s tension, this book doesn’t have it. I never felt Maggie’s life was in danger other than in her mind.

Overall Murder Swings the Tide was one of those books I should have stopped reading. It’s a mess and doesn’t work as a murder mystery. One a scale of 1 to 5 pencils, I give it 1 pencil because there’s a puppy named Possum in it.

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: Clover by Dori Sanders

Clover by Dori Sanders is set in 1980s rural South Carolina. Told from the point of view of ten-year-old Clover, a bright girl who has already seen a lot of tragedy in her young life, the story is about her and her new stepmother dealing with the unexpected death of her father. Further complicating matters is Clover is black and her stepmother, Sara Kate, is white. The two barely know each other as her father is killed in a car crash the day of his wedding.

I really enjoyed the book especially as Sanders really captured the voice of Clover; something I think is difficult to successful pull off. Clover comes across as smart and wise, but not in a matter that ever comes across as precocious or false.

One of two big themes of the book are relationships, primarily Clover’s complicated relationship with the grown-ups in her life in addition to the relationships the grown-ups have with each other. Her relationship with her father, principal at her elementary school and which is told through flashbacks starts off strained. Initially Clover had been raised by her grandfather after her mother died. Now that her father is close by, he wishes to take over the caretaker duties. Because of this, she almost nearly refers to her father by his first name, something Gaten never corrects. Gaten is a good person and a good father, mature enough to recognize he has to earn the title of “Dad”.

A pattern develops with Clover in having a difficult time trusting her caregivers when Sara Kate becomes her stepmother. Like Gaten, Sara Kate doesn’t press Clover to accept her as a parent, mainly because she’s going through her own grief. She gives her new stepdaughter space to process her grief as well though an incident happens which causes Sara Kate to wonder if Clover is holding in her grief in an unhealthy way. As the reader sees with Gaten, Sara Kate eventually earns Clover’s love and trust, which rankles Clover’s Aunt Everleen.

Another major theme is race. Sanders is honest in how Clover’s family reacts to Sara Kate. In a way she’s a little bit subtle because as a reader it wasn’t apparent for several pages Clover was black. It’s only when Sara Kate is introduced that the reader is made aware. Gaten’s family, primarily the women, and an ex-girlfriend have the biggest issue with Sara Kate. Aunt Everleen and others believe it was a mistake Gaten married a white woman believing Sara Kate must have some defect if a white man wouldn’t love her. Because of the color of her skin, no one is willing to reach out to her and get to know her or even offer words of comfort and support. It doesn’t matter Sara Kate is nice (a bit too passive in my opinion) and makes an effort to be part of her new family. Prejudices run rampant until near the end of the book. The attitude of Clover’s family affects how she sees and treats Sara Kate initially. When Clover and Sara Kate start to get to know each, Clover starts defending Sara Kate in front of her Aunt Everleen. She’s rebuked, made to feel as if she’s betraying her family and ultimately, her race.

I enjoyed the characters though it personally frustrates me as a reader to see how if people just communicated a lot of problems wouldn’t exist. I appreciate how Sanders allows the characters to take their time in grieving Gaten, but to realize everyone has a common goal: to care for Clover, a girl surrounded by love. I appreciate the awkwardness Clover and Sara Kate have toward each other. It’s realistic and dealt with sensitivity.

I also enjoyed how Sanders uses the setting of small town South Carolina. Probably because I live in South Carolina, very near to many of the towns mentioned, that it was incredibly ease for me to immerse myself in the world. I know what the weather feels like and I’ve seen peach stands in the area (South Carolina actually produces more peaches than Georgia).

My only grip with Clover is the ending. It felt too abrupt and I would have liked to see the story continue on as the changes in the characters were just starting to happen. But perhaps that’s the point of the novel. It’s ultimately about watching these characters come to the beginning of understanding.

Overall, I give Clover four pencils out of five. It’s a quick read and while sad and deals with heavy issues, it’s not a downer.

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers was first published in 1940. The story takes place in an unnamed Depression-era Southern town and revolves around the lives of John Singer, Mick Kelly, Biff Brannon, Jake Blount, and Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, a diverse group of all trying to survive life. We follow each character’s hopes and dreams, ups and downs, in heartbreakingly written narrative. The center of the group is the deaf-mute John Singer. Each of the other main characters gravitates toward him, frequently visiting him to unload their burdens and dreams.

John Singer, a man who starts the novel off living with his equally mute, though not deaf, roommate and best friend Spiros Antonapoulos. But circumstances cause the pair to be separated when Spiros is sent away to an insane asylum. It’s after this event that each of the other characters gravitate toward Singer, using him as an outpost to express thoughts and desires they can’t tell anyone else.

Overall, I loved this book. The characters were extremely fascinating and well-developed with the exception of one. The secondary characters are often just as well-developed as the main characters. The prose is lovely and McCullers does a fantastic job utilizing the setting to mirror each character’s journey. The book’s themes carry over to today showing a modern reader just how far we have or haven’t come as a society.

To me the two strongest, most interesting characters are Singer and Dr. Copeland. Singer starts the novel happily going through life doing his job in a jewelry store while his roommate, Spiros, who is also mute but not deaf, works in a candy store. They do everything together and it’s Spiros which gives Singer strength and is the one person he can communicate with. He believes Spiros understands him though the reader at times wonders if Spiros truly has full mental capacity.

When Spiros is committed, this sinks Singer into a depression and causes him to move into the boarding house owned by Mick Kelly’s family. It is here that we start to see the other characters gravitate toward him believing him to be a great listener (he is as he learned to read lips). Others speak to him, treat him as some kind of wise person, but he rarely speaks back. His only form of communication, besides the sign language he used with Spiros, is pencil and paper. Without Spiros, Singer’s emotions become pent up until he can let them out when he visits Spiros. Others trust him with their deepest thoughts and desires yet he trusts no one but Spiros.

My other favorite character is Dr. Copeland, the town’s black doctor whose patients are the black community. Through his work he sees the injustices, prejudices, and lack of opportunity which exists in his community. He tried to fight this by raising his own children to be as educated and socially conscience as him. Yet none of them show the same need for education and desire to fight. Instead they, like everyone else, work just to survive each and every day. They are simply too tired to fight and Dr. Copeland is too old and sick to fight.

Dr. Copeland is a hard man to love. His relationship with his children is strained. Yet despite his gruff manner, many of his patients have named their children after him. But he doesn’t see this as having a positive impact on the community. Dr. Copeland would rather see his patients and their children stand up and fight and work to improve their lives.

Through the doctor the reader is given a front row seat to so many social issues America still struggles with today. We see how difficult it is for the black community in the town to trust any white person as so many of the whites in the town look down upon them. But in Singer Dr. Copeland finds himself trusting a white person for one of the few times in his life believing he is understands the struggle. So he starts visiting Singer to vent his frustrations.

Jake Blount is one of the characters I find myself rather ambivalent about. He wanders into the town, a true vagabond, and spends the first few weeks of his time in town hanging out all day at the New York Café. At first he’s a drunk but eventually stops and begins work at the local amusement park. He fancies himself an intellectual, a communist, and indeed he is well read. His nomadic lifestyle gives the reader a broad glimpse into the Depression.

Like Dr. Copeland he wants to fight an oppressive system. Unlike the doctor, he has the energy to try. He tries a few times to rally his co-workers to protest and to educate them, but those efforts fail. Like the other characters, Singer is his outpost believing very much like Dr. Copeland that this is a man who understands. He has no idea Singer often can’t clearly read Blount’s lips enough to understand what he’s saying.

My two least favorite characters are Brannon and Mick Kelly. Brannon because I felt he was underdeveloped and really didn’t fit into the rest of the narrative. Most of his time in the novel is spent working at the New York Café which is in the same building as his home. He rarely leaves and this is the problem for me. Though his café attracts Singer, Blount, and Mick Kelly, overall he is disconnected from the world at large. Brannon comes across as almost void of emotion even after his wife dies. His point of view didn’t add anything to the story nor gave any insight into the other characters. He also has, by our standards, an odd affection toward Mick. It may very well be a fatherly instinct as he has no children of his own, but even Mick gets a creepy vibe from him.

My other least favorite character is Mick Kelly. She’s the only female main character and is the youngest. The middle child in a large, poor family she starts off the story as a tomboy. Mick is tough yet very motherly in that she is the primary caretaker for her two younger brothers though her mother is alive and well. As the novel progresses she transitions into what would be considered more ladylike mainly inspired by when Singer moves in. She develops this odd crush on him, stalks him, and waits for him to come home each day. It’s not made clear what the attraction because she’s often tongue-tied around him.

Unlike Brannon, she has some fascinating characteristics such as loving classical music even stealing away in the night to listen to music as it flitters into the open from people’s radios. She starts composing her own music and practices after school on a piano located in her school’s gym. But then a horrible accident forces the family into deep poverty and eventually she makes a fateful choice.

On a scale of one to five pencils I’d give The Heart is a Lonely Hunter four pencils. It’s heartbreaking and completely honest in its portrayal of a group of flawed people.