Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Preaching to the Corpse

The second book in Roberta Isleib's Advice Column Mystery series, Preaching to the Corpse (Berkley Prime Crime, 2007) does everything a second book in a series should do. I always look for four general developments in a series' installments, and if I find them in multiple books, I know I've found an author I like. Rather than summarize the plot (which you can easily look up on Google, just like Rebecca Butterman!), for this review I will outline the general criteria I look for in an ongoing series and then discuss how it relates to Preaching to the Corpse.

A. Development of the main character. In the series, Dr. Rebecca Butterman is the protagonist: a newly-divorced, smart and self-starting psychologist in Guilford, Connecticut. She's in private practice and teaches part-time at Yale, and she moonlights as an advice columnist ("Ask Dr. Aster") for a popular online magazine. Preaching, while it can be enjoyed as a stand-alone, develops Rebecca into a three-dimensional character first introduced in Deadly Advice. She is asked to take over the search committee for an interim pastor at the Shoreline Congregational Church after the mysterious death of its former chair, Lacy Bailes. She juggles her relationship with her sister, Janice, after deciding to track down their estranged father. She's forced to manage her ambivalent feelings for the married Detective Meigs as their relationship takes turns both tender and coy.

Rebecca shows some more vulnerabilities in this book which makes her more "real." She's a person we'd like to know and be neighbors with, to work with or share an office. She also seems to care less and less about writing her advice column. This does have the effect of making at least this reader a little less interested in the advice column, too. The author, Roberta Isleib is a psychologist herself, and she actually dispenses some very useful advice in the narrative passages of the book which careful readers will pick up on (wise ones will employ it!). Butterman is such a vivid character, and it occurred to me while reading that just being a psychologist is enough for Rebecca The series is strong enough to stand without the periodic (albeit less frequent) "Dear Dr. Aster" letters. Whereas in Deadly Advice the column provided motivation and motion for the action, here it feels not exactly ornamental but rather another task on Rebecca's already-full plate.

B. Development of the setting and environment. The small towns of New England, particularly the Connecticut shoreline, come alive in Preaching. It's winter so the roads are icy and snow is falling; the characters nurse colds and ailments; food is warm and appropriate to the season, and so forth. We have church potlucks, Christmas cookies, warmed-up soup and even a tea party. I am particularly drawn to the condominium complex setting: this is a very unique and "cozy" choice for Rebecca's home, and Isleib does a great job of evoking how it must feel to live there and the way that works into her character's life. That this setting is neither quaint nor idyllic but just plain old realistic has turned out to be part of Rebecca's identity and one of the strongest suits of the series.

C. A strong supporting cast with characters old and new. The best series writers have a set of characters that alternately emerge or play more of a background role depending on their role in the plot of the book. Recurring characters are helpful because they make us feel comfortable in the environment, and they tell us much about the protagonist (who they have some sort of relationship with). Preaching's main recurring supporting character is Detective Meigs, who this time is a little more willing (albeit begrudgingly) to suffer Rebecca's amateur sleuthing into the circumstances surrounding Lacy Bailes's death. We also encounter some of the condo residents again, and Rebecca's sister, but they have background role. There are many new characters, too, almost all associated with the Church in some way, but because Isleib ties up this puzzle so well it is doubtful we will (need) to see many of those folks again (but these are small towns, so we may).

D. A widening and deepening complexity. This is probably true of all of the above categories, but I separate it because it is the overall feeling I expect to have when I've finished the novel. I can begin to answer anthropological questions (with greater certainty) like: How do these characters assign meaning to their lives? Why do they make the choices they do? What kinds of food do they eat? How do they interact with people? What sorts of things are important to them, and why? If you can answer questions like those about the characters in a novel, you know the author is keeping up their end of the author-reader contract--and for that matter, so are you!

This very strong second installment is another great read from Isleib. Readers will be particularly pleased with the resolution, I think, as the perp is not someone I expected at all (I really want to say more about this but I can't because I don't want to commit a cardinal sin and drop any hints!!). There are many intriguing plot points about inner-church politics (even one with echoes of New Hampshire's Bishop Gene Robinson controversy). The writing is tight, the plot believable and I recommend this book.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Deadly Advice

With Deadly Advice (Berkley Prime Crime, 2007), Roberta Isleib has introduced one of the best mystery series to appear since Susan Wittig Albert introduced the China Bayles series in the early 1990s. We can only hope that Isleib's series will run as long as Albert's (currently in its 17th installment).

Deadly Advice introduces Dr. Rebecca Butterman, a Guilford, Connecticut psychologist who sees clients in private practice, moonlights at Yale, and writes a pseudonymous relationship advice column, "Ask Dr. Aster." Newly divorced, Butterman has bought a townhouse condominium in an association full of singles and retirees. It is quite a cozy environment with all the requisite characters (the handyman, the nosy neighbor, the widows, single professionals, etc.), until 34-year-old Madeline Stanton--Dr. Butterman's neighbor--turns up dead in her bathtub of an apparent suicide. Butterman, unnerved by the prospect that such a horrible thing could happen on the other side of the wall shared by their respective units, begins to suspect that Madeline's death may not have been a suicide. Madeline's mother, Isabel, thinks the same thing, and persuades Dr. Butterman to do some amateur sleuthing to uncover the real truth. Madeline may not have been the person her family, or neighbors, thought she was...

Isleib works in the Ask Dr. Aster column angle quite skillfully, so that the subject of the columns mirrors the current preoccupations of Dr. Butterman (the singles dating scene, relationships between children and parents, etc.). We also learn more about Dr. Butterman's life through the various interactions she has with her best friends Angie and Annabelle; her neighbors; her sister, Janice; and various clients and colleagues. There is also an intriguing male police detective, Meigs, who we are sure to meet in subsequent books. Readers will also appreciate Isleib's informative, but never preachy, insights into the human psyche. The many unexpected twists and cliffhangers keep the pages turning quickly, and there are enough red herring suspects for a fiendish fish market.

Deadly Advice unequivocally marks the debut of a major series by an extremely talented and inventive author. Butterman is a real character, confident and vulnerable but likeable. We'll want to get to know her more. Isleib's writing is so smooth is goes down like a fine blended Scotch; the last drop isn't quite enough and it leaves us wanting another round.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ding Dong Dead

Ding Dong Dead is the fourth installment of the "Dolls to Die For" series by author Deb Baker. It's also the first one in the series that I've read. Like many readers, I don't necessarily like to start series from the beginning because I'm impatient, since most reviews cover the current title and it is inevitable that I've been hooked in by the particular storyline that is mentioned in the reviews. Of course, if the book is good, I'll delve backward into the earlier titles.

That will certainly be the case with Deb Baker, who has crafted a quickly-paced mystery that is both suspenseful and interesting. The premise is that a group of doll collectors in Phoenix--led by the protagonist, Gretchen Birch and her mother, Caroline--is gifted the use of a large mansion to use for a museum. To raise money for its opening and upkeep, they decide to produce a stage play called "Ding Dong Dead." Meanwhile, Gretchen's newish boyfriend, Matt--a Phoenix police detective--is called to a murder scene at the local cemetery. Gretchen and her mother become involved in the investigation of that murder and their sleuthing takes them deep into the troubled history of the long-deceased original owners of the mansion that has been granted to their club to establish the "World of Dolls Museum."

Don't be fooled by the doll theme--Baker does a great job of making dolls work for the suspenseful mystery puzzle that drives the action and thus the story, rather than the other way around. This is a serious mystery with a large cast and several complex plot points. The natural eeriness of dolls, their inherent personification that makes people pause, is reflected in the character of Matt. Yet do not think this is a Chucky-esque, "demonic dolls" sort of series. It's not.

The body count is 2, but there are many other potential victims with near-escapes, and you won't know who the killer is (or their motives) until almost the very end. There are also subplots on mental health and homelessness that Baker works into the narrative with a gentle nod but no preaching, and it was surprising and nice to find these in a contemporary mystery--and handled with great respect and expertise. I will be interested to see what happens to Gretchen and Matt in the next installment!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Unheard and Trickster in Tweed

The first of two books I want to mention was published last year to some good notices and I took a chance on it because it deals with Africa. I'm a nut for most memoirs or novels of Africa. This one, The Unheard by Josh Swiller (Holt Paperbacks, 2007), is a memoir about Swiller's deafness
and how it impacts his tour as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia, a republic in southern Africa just north of Zimbabwe. I read it last December and it still sticks with me!

Swiller takes what could be a very maudlin story (a deaf guy in Africa... OK, so what?, you might think) and weaves it into a heartfelt and compelling narrative about the challenges of being an outsider in a village in northern Zambia. The intensity of the local politics surprise him--and how he navigates them helps propel the story. You'll also enjoy learning about the inner workings of the Peace Corps. What's great about this story is that Swiller's deafness is by all means not the greatest of his challenges in Africa. The simple rudiments of everyday life in a foreign context are brought into sharp relief in a unique and thought-provoking way. And to top it all off, Josh Swiller happens to be an excellent storyteller... I couldn't put the book down. Although there are times of frustration, and I don't necessarily agree with Swiller's level of involvement in some of the political battles of his village (which are nonetheless the kind of ethical issues that anthropologists face all the time), you'll find this is a terrific read that hopefully will give you something to think about.

A completely different book is Trickster in Tweed: The Quest for Quality in Faculty Life by Thomas Frentz, a distinguished professor of communication at the University of Arkansas (Left Coast Press, 2008). I will start by giving the disclaimer that Frentz was my teacher in a non-major course in autoethnographic writing that I took one semester when I had a brain freeze and thought that signing up for a communications class would be a good idea. As it turns out, Frentz's class--like this book--was full of surprises, hilarious anecdotes, and surprising wisdom.

Frentz's short but erudite book blends stories from his personal and professional lives, suggesting that the two are intimately and inextricably connected and can influence one another often in unexpected and unintended ways. He sees himself as a kind of "Trickster," a mischief-making character who uses humor to destroy the stodgy structures of the academy (and of "real life!") without destroying other people. As he admits, this is not always an easy task, for there are many roles one may assume other than the trickster--the shepherd, the sheep, the wolf. Too often, Frentz had been the wolf, always at the ready in a situation to show a little fang. But the Trickster-outlaw is a more comfortable persona and one that fits him well.

In this book, Frentz also expands the horizons of autoethnography by using his personal quest for Quality as an illustration and formative story for the reader. We are with him through a few stories of a challenging upbringing; through various tenure denials and professional triumphs; through his own cancer diagnosis and the loss of his dear spouse. It's some tough emotional material dealt to us in a palatable, understanding hand. No need to be an academic to read or enjoy this book, though, as it is largely jargon-free and has a narrative arc. It is in a sense a memoir that is often (and often at the same time) heartbreaking and hysterically funny. I think most general readers would enjoy it, especially as he draws on the very-popular work by Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcylce Maintenance.
PARTING WISDOM: "...Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now." - Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet