And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

I can’t believe I’ve lived almost three decades and this is only my first run-in with Agatha Christie!  I feel so ashamed!  October seemed like the perfect time to remedy this tragedy and so I picked up And Then There Were None off the TBR shelf.  Such a fun theme read for the Halloween season!

The basic premise involves 10 seemingly random people brought together on Indian Island (a small island off the coast of England).  One by one, the guests begin to die and eventually surmise that the killing must be an inside job due to there being no one else on the island!  The remaining victims are in a race against time to discover the true killer if they are to survive to see the mainland again!  Brilliant.

I don’t know what else can possibly be said about Agatha Christie.  She met all my expectations and more.  Her tale was expertly crafted and I suspected every single character of being the murderer at some point.  And I can guarantee that once the full story is revealed everyone will be pleasantly surprised at how things went down.  Readers will also encounter some fantastically written characters, especially the strong female lead character of Vera – loved her!

And there is so much suspense!  I know a lot of readers might think this book rather tame as compared to modern day slasher flicks, but I honestly preferred reading certain parts of this novel in the daytime rather than the dark of night!  And I love slasher flicks, but well done suspense is timeless.

So if you need a very quick, delightfully spooky Halloween read – please consider And Then There Were None!  I almost want to go back and read it again now knowing the details uncovered at the end of the story.  I can’t wait to read another Christie novel to see how well her other novels stand up to this winner.

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My first Agatha Christie!  Perhaps I should add more to my Classics Club List?

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

I’m fascinated by Louisiana and the New Orleans area – always have been.  There’s just something so uniquely Southern about this part of the country, an almost haunted feeling of past meshing with present that intrigues me so much.  So when I know a story is set there, I absolutely cannot resist.  The Cutting Season, Locke’s second novel, captures the tension of antebellum plantations and modern day perfectly, only enhancing my obsession with the spirit of Louisiana.

Caren Gray has come home again, back to Belle Vie, the plantation where her family spent generations as slaves cutting cane and where she grew up while her mother played cook to the current day owners, the Clancy family.  But now Caren is manager of the property and trying to come to terms with her family’s history and how to reconcile an ugly past with a promising future.  To complicate matters, a migrant field worker is found murdered on Belle Vie’s property and now a killer is on the loose.  Before long, Caren realizes that this present tragedy is all too similar to a past crime against her ancestors.  Can Caren find the killer before someone else gets hurt or an innocent party is thrown in jail?

Attica Locke can write, plain and simple.  I loved settling down in her prose for hour after hour of time more than well spent.  The Cutting Season really transcends any sort of typical murder mystery to become this haunting historical mystery novel full of atmosphere and a strong sense of place.  There’s so much more to care about within these nearly 400 pages besides the whodunnit.  Caren’s relationship with her mother and her own daughter is nuanced and complex.  The bridges and gaps between who we were, who we are, and who we will be are deeply studied and brilliantly realized.  I believe Locke has written a novel worthy of any college classroom that simultaneously satisfies picky plot-driven readers.  I can’t wait to pick up a copy of her first novel – how did I ever miss it to begin with?

I will say that the first third of the novel travels a bit slowly.  Locke spends a hundred or so pages painting a detailed picture of Belle Vie, her characters, and the murky past that will come into play so heavily during the much more quickly paced latter half.  But hang in there and you won’t be disappointed.  And the killer is far from easily spotted.  I suspected multiple shady and not-so-shady characters throughout the pages!  The resolution was so tightly plotted and realistic – these events could so easily happen in real life that it almost felt like really well done narrative nonfiction.  I literally googled the historical facts surrounding the murder case before remembering everything was fiction!

All-in-all, a great read and a perfect selection for October – just the right amount of spookiness and atmosphere for Halloween.  Attica Locke is an author you don’t want to miss out on, I promise!

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Thanks so much to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for providing the review copy in exchange for my honest review.  Check out the other tour dates here!

Black Water Rising, Attica Locke’s first novel, was shortlisted for the prestigious Orange Prize in the UK in 2010. It was nominated for an Edgar Award, an NAACP Image Award, as well as a Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a Strand Magazine Critics Award.Black Water Rising was also a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award.

Attica Locke has spent many years working as a screenwriter, penning movie and television scripts for Paramount, Warner Bros., Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, HBO, and Dreamworks. She was a fellow at the Sundance Institute’s Feature Filmmakers Lab and is a graduate of Northwestern University.

A native of Houston, Texas, Attica now lives in Los Angeles, California, with her husband and daughter. She is a member of the board of directors for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. Most recently, she wrote the introduction for the UK publication of Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying. Her second book, The Cutting Season, will be published by HarperCollins / and Dennis Lehane in September 2012.

And When She Was Good by Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman is a hugely famous author that, prior to this book, I had never heard of.  How does this happen?  She was even born in Atlanta, but grew up in Maryland.  That makes us practically cousins!  Turns out, she was a newspaper reporter before she turned author and I think that really shows in her writing style.  Did I mention she’s won nearly every award available to the mystery/crime/thriller novel genre?

And When She Was Good is a standalone novel featuring a suburban madam named Helen/Heloise.  Helen escapes her abusive father only to land in the hands of other not-so-nice men when she’s only a teenager.  To make ends meet, she becomes the darling escort to pimp, Val, where she becomes quite the professional prostitute.  Things get a bit shaky for Helen when she secretly helps the cops put Val behind bars for murder.  Thrust out into the world with very little money and no education, Helen transforms into Heloise and begins her own successful escort service in an upscale suburban neighborhood.  On top of an already risky business, Val acts as her silent partner from jail unaware that Heloise has given birth to their son.  Just when Heloise is getting comfy and a bit complacent, a neighboring suburban madam is found murdered.  Is Heloise next?

Lippman chooses the age-old dual narrative to tell Helen/Heloise’s story.  As we follow Heloise through her present day struggles and a sense of impending doom, every other chapter revisits her very unfortunate past as the sweet, smart Helen and focuses on how such a good girl could end up so far away from decency.  Normally, I’m not much for this narrative device, but Lippman’s obvious talent and ability help the two plots flow almost seamlessly throughout the novel.  And while I did tend to favor the Helen narrative, it never overshadowed the modern day story line.

What I loved most about And When She Was Good was being on the inside of the prostitution business.  So intriguing and page turning in and of itself.  The seedy underbelly of society is always so fascinating and I felt like Lippman had really done her research.  The details were superb and felt so true to life.  And despite such a typically shameful professional, Heloise and her girls aren’t the stereotypical prostitutes you come to expect.  They are hardworking women trying to support themselves with jobs that they are very good at.  Heloise runs her business strictly, professionally, and as safely as possible.  You come to respect her business savvy immensely.

A couple of things didn’t work so well for me.  First, I’m not sure what genre this novel fits into.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one for pigeon-holding anything into a neat and tidy box.  But I felt that this novel is being marketed as a mystery which is very misleading to me.  I guess there is a small mystery, but honestly, I knew who was behind everything from the get-go and I can’t imagine any other reader not figuring everything out early on either.  I’ve also seen the crime thriller catchphrase tossed around as well.  But again, I never felt on the edge of my seat.  To me,  And When She Was Good felt like a fictional memoir that highlighted the escort profession – the positives and the potential negatives.  And obviously, this blip is no fault of Lippman’s.

Lippman’s prose also threw me for a loop a couple times.  Sometimes she transitioned between characters or story sequences in one sentence rather abruptly.  I’d feel a bit lost and have to reread things over and over to figure out what had happened.  This issue could be entirely personal to my own  reading comprehension flaws, but it happened more than once throughout the book.  Just could have used some additional editing in my opinion, but nothing so bad that my reading experience was ruined.

I definitely recommend And When She Was Good to fans of Lippman and anyone else wanting to give her a try.  The plot is fascinating, the pacing page-turning, and the subject illuminating.  Great female characters that will challenge your preconceived notions and leave you with a strong sense of satisfaction when the last word is read.

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About the Author:  Laura Lippman grew up in Baltimore and returned to her hometown in 1989 to work as a journalist. After writing seven books while still a full-time reporter, she left the Baltimore Sun to focus on fiction. The author of two New York Times bestsellers, What the Dead Knowand Another Thing to Fall, she has won numerous awards for her work, including the Edgar, Quill, Anthony, Nero Wolfe, Agatha, Gumshoe, Barry, and Macavity.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours and William Morrow for providing me with a free copy in exchange for my honest review! Don’t forget to check out the other blog stops here!

July’s Meetup: The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

Sunday afternoon was another pleasant day spent with the Litwits.  Our July selection was a debut mystery novel by Graham Moore and really the epitome of fun, summer read.  The turnout to the discussion was great and members definitely had opinions.  So what did the Litwits think?

First, The Sherlockian is a dual narrative tale of Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation, Sherlock Holmes.  The present day story line follows, Harold, the newest member of the most elite Sherlockian society.  The Sherlockians have gathered at the request of one of the group’s scholar’s who claims to have finally found Doyle’s long, lost diary.  Before he can unveil this much sought after treasure, Harold and friends find his dead body locked away in his hotel room.  Harold sets off to uncover the mystery of the murder and the diary.

The second narrative follows Arthur Conan Doyle himself as he deals with the aftermath of killing off England’s beloved Sherlock Holmes, a murder mystery of his own, and the eventual return of Sherlock Holmes when Doyle is finally convinced to raise his nemesis from the grave.  Doyle is assisted by his lovable best pal, Bram Stoker, as a sort of Watson to his Holmes.

Most of the ladies thoroughly enjoyed their time spent with The Sherlockian as sort of a fun mystery summertime read that didn’t require too much brain activity.  Without a doubt, the Doyle narrative was the hands down favorite and far more interesting than the present day tale.  We also really enjoyed getting to know Doyle a bit better as well as his friendship with Stoker (which is all true facts).  Throw in the additional discussion of Oscar Wilde and the book-loving Litwits were pleased.  I think everyone also really enjoyed their time spent in Victorian England and felt that Moore does a superb job of fleshing out the England of yesteryear.

As mentioned earlier, the present day narrative left us a bit wanting.  Harold comes off as a kind of bumbling protagonist and hokey detective.  Everyone agreed that no one in the modern timeline was memorable – we didn’t care about any of the characters.  Complaints were also shared about the outcomes of the mysteries and the whodunits.  The ‘killers’ kind of came out of left field and lots of plot holes were left unplugged.  A couple of members expressed their ire over wonky historical facts, as well.

Overall, the Litwits are towing the middle road here.  This novel is not great literature, but a decent debut mystery novel.  We definitely left with the yearning to read some Holmes, some Stoker, and even a little Christie.  We enjoyed Doyle’s perspective and loved learning about his mystery writing rules.  Bram Stoker stole our hearts and we vowed to get to know him better.  We thought the Sherlockians were a little cooky which led us to discuss such modern day phenomena as Comic Con and Dragon Con.  And really, a great, lively discussion was had and everyone went home happy (at least, I think so!).

Next month is Gone with the Wind!  Some Litwits are excited, some not so much.  Can’t wait to see what everyone thinks and I’m super surprised at how many have never read this book!