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: The Gospels of Cal’eia – The Book of Dean by Calandra Usher

The Book of Dean is the first book in The Gospels of Cal’eia tetralogy by Calandra Usher. Like the book I reviewed last month, this is also a debut novel although it came out last year. The story centers around Sarah who is on the run from something or someone. She stumbles upon a very odd property in the middle of rural North Carolina which starts her off on a very odd journey. Something is obviously very, very different about Sarah as she can speak and understand horses. One of the four men who live on the property discovers Sarah. When she is about to leave the next morning, an accident forces her to stay until she recovers. Her recovery allows her to and the men to cautiously get to know each other with each side quickly determining none of them are quite human.

The four men, Dean, Fabien, Warren, and Pete, are all very different from each other. Dean is the leader of the group, Fabien is the gourmet cook and joker, Warren is the big teddy bear, and Pete is the serious intellectual. For the most part they accept Sarah right away although they are cagey about seeking medical attention for her after a terrifying accident badly damages her leg. Sarah is okay with this despite the fact she has a difficult time trusting people. She justifies it because she sees auras around people and theirs apparently project they are okay. Sarah also has some other otherworldly capabilities like telepathy, assigning shapes to foods she eats, and has a deep spiritual connection with the world.

The men are able to quickly earn her trust although Pete is the most wary of the four as he realizes something is very different about Sarah and worries about the group being discovered. It bugs him that she was able to find their very large and oddly designed estate in the first place as they intentionally built it in the middle of nowhere. As the leader, Dean trusts Sarah and advises the other men to do the same. Slowly Sarah opens up about herself and questions the men before finally grasping who and what they are. It’s not until the end of the book that who and what Sarah truly is, is revealed thus setting up the next book and presumably is the rest of the series.

Despite this being subtitled The Book of Dean, we really don’t get to know Dean very well. He’s a nice guy, apparently is gorgeous because Sarah keeps telling the reader, and is smart and well-read but then again all of the men hold multiple PhDs in various fields. But that’s it other than an obvious attraction between Sarah and Dean. Despite all this, I didn’t find Dean all that interesting. Out of the group of four men, I found Fabian and Ren the most interesting for very different reasons. Dean was just too perfect and even when there’s a hint of a dark side, something we all have, it’s dropped until the very end when the men’s true identities are clarified.

I also didn’t like Sarah very much. Despite her age being stated as twenty-eight, she comes across as much younger. She’s a caring free-spirit and has this mystical air surrounding her but I found it grating at times to read her ADD-like narrative. Since my spouse has ADD it’s taxing enough having conversations with him that when I read a book I don’t want my lead to narrate that way. Sarah’s story isn’t helped by the first two chapters which are strictly backstory and could have been used later in the story when as it became relevant to the story. There were other chapters that, while had lovely writing and emotion, were distracting from the story itself.

There are little things which are never explained or resolved. For example, the reader is never given the reason when Sarah is still on the run. She initially leaves home around the time she graduates from high school because her mother has passed away but since the book begins when she is twenty-eight, who or what is she still running from? I wonder if this is something that is explained in the next book but more hints or at least letting the reader know, not necessarily the other characters, what is after her. Also, Sarah destroys a valuable object which surprises her and the four men yet again this isn’t explained.

I also felt like there wasn’t any real tension or sense of foreboding throughout the book. I don’t necessarily need a story to be dark and brooding but the whole book and the characters are just too nicey-nicey for me. Even when there are some darker spots, they’re microscopic. The ending, though, I think does hint that perhaps the story will get maybe a tick darker.

Overall, the book didn’t work for me. I wasn’t particular taken with the character of Sarah and felt the mystery surrounding the situation could have been resolved more quickly. I think there was way too much back story that added very little and I think dragged the pacing of the story down. There were also way too many grammatical errors I couldn’t just pass off as a product of how the main character speaks.

I did like some of the otherworldly descriptions and I think Ms. Usher captured the colors and shapes of emotions quite well. I also liked the interaction with the horses and cat because I’m an animal lover and talk to animals. Certainly not in the same way as Sarah, of course, but I appreciate that animals have thoughts, feelings, and unique personalities just like people. Ms. Usher also paints quite a lovely picture and I appreciated reading something different within the fantasy realm.

On a scale of 1 to 5 pencils, I give The Gospels of Cal’eia – The Book of Dean two-and-a-half pencils.

 

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

This month’s selection, The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman, is a graphic novel that’s been out since the early ’90s. I had read part of back in college as part of a Holocaust Literature class and have wanted to read the complete story since. I picked it to read this month because April 15th was Holocaust Remembrance Day and felt it was an appropriate time to read it.

The Complete Maus is part memoir for Spiegelman and part biography of his father, Vladek. The story goes back and forth from Vladek recalling his life to the present as the author struggles with not only getting the story right, but also with his father. The novel is broken up into two parts. The first one starts with Vladek’s life in the ’30s and ends in 1944 as he and his wife, Anja, are sent to Auschwitz. The second part picks up with their arrival in Auschwitz and ends just before Vladek passes away in 1982.

It’s hard for me to pick just one thing I loved most about The Complete Maus. The illustrations are brilliant as Spiegelman portrays the Polish Jews as mice, German Nazis as cats, Polish citizens as pigs, and Americans as dogs. Whenever Vladek or any other of the Polish Jews tries to hide what they are, they are drawn as wearing pig masks to blend in. By telling the story through such a visual medium, it has more impact on the narrative. It also has more of an impact on the reader because it forces the reader to pay attention and think of the characters people even though they are drawn as some kind of animal. I think if Spiegelman had chosen the more traditional road of drawing the characters as human beings, I think the emotional impact of it would be lost. It would feel too typical when clearly Vladek’s story, and everyone who went through the Holocaust, is unique.

Another thing I greatly appreciated was Spiegelman’s willingness to include uncomfortable conversations. There is a lot of unpleasantness between Spiegelman and his father, between himself and his wife, and between himself and his stepmother, Mala. He was willing to share with the reader that his mother committed suicide when the author was twenty-years-old and that his father’s second marriage is not a happy one.

Spiegelman and his father have a very tense relationship because Vladek is a very difficult man to live with and growing up he made his son feel like he wasn’t good enough. He includes in the narrative a scene where he confesses to his wife that there were times growing up he was so angry with Vladek that he wished he had perished in the Holocaust. Then there is the constant arguing Vladek has with Mala. Why those two people got married is beyond me. I think it was a case of it being convenient for both of them so neither would grow old alone.

Yet despite this tense relationship, and Vladek’s tendency to manipulate others around him emotionally, there is respect between father and son. It develops over the time Spiegelman wrote and recorded his numerous conversations with his father so that by the time Vladek is dying, they have reconciled. That reconciliation, while not shown to the reader, is one of those things you know happened through read the story and seeing how their relationship changed. Why else would Spiegelman be willing to portray his father in a sympathetic, flawed light as well as himself? There’s no need for some big dramatic scene because that’s not the point of the graphic novel.

Overall, I loved The Complete Maus. It’s emotional, powerful, and shows the lengths people who are persecuted will go to try and survive. The Holocaust, like all systemic genocides, brought out the absolute worse behavior in people. Not just the Nazis, but the victims as well. Vladek recalls how prisoners lied and harmed each other just for an extra bit of food. Harrowing to read and see people being reduced to such a feral state.

On a scale of one to five pencils, I give The Complete Maus 5 pencils+. Wonderful book and an absolute read for everyone.