review: dead beat

Note: Dead Beat is the 7th book in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher.  If you haven’t read the previous books in the series, you may want to look away now.

Dead Beat by Jim Butcher (2005)

There’s a tiny part of me that has been reluctant to post reviews for the books in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. Mostly because I don’t want to spoil plot points for new readers. Trust me, if you haven’t read the series from the beginning, avert your eyes and go and pick up Storm Front. I have been reading this series for a while now and I love it.  In fact, I credit this series with introducing me to all the goodness that urban fantasy has to offer, and I repeatedly recommend it to readers who are skeptical about the sci-fi/fantasy genre as a whole.  Yes, this series has as its protagonist a wizard, but it isn’t just about all that is supernatural and what goes bump in the night.

Harry Dresden – Wizard.  His beat is Chicago, and that’s another thing I like about this series. I happen to love Chicago, and I love all the references to places in the city that I have been to.  This particular novel has several scenes that take place at the Field Museum and the big skeleton of Tyrannosaurus Rex plays an important role in the end of the story. Here’s your basic plot summary that is hopefully free of spoilers.  Harry is summoned by Mavra, the Red Court vampire with whom he had an epic battle a couple of books ago.  Mavra wants to meet Harry at his grave—yes, Harry has his own grave, courtesy of some of his enemies as a reminder that they intend to put him in it post haste.  The inscription on the tombstone reads, “He died doing the right thing.”  Needless to say, it creeps Harry out, but he goes to meet Mavra anyway because she is threatening Karrin Murphy, head of Special Investigations for the Chicago PD and Harry’s friend.  Mavra demands that Harry bring her The Word of Kemmler in exchange for incriminating photos that could land Murphy in jail if turned over to the police.  Being the kind of guy Harry is, he is willing to do what he has to do to save Murphy.  Also typical of Harry, he has no idea what The Word of Kemmler is, but he’s going to find out, and as usual, it’s not going to be anything good.

Although Murphy is being threatened by Mavra, she’s actually absent for nearly the entirety of the novel, so Butcher has to surround Harry with old and new friends and enemies.  Queen Mab makes an appearance, as do Thomas and Bob, Billy and Georgia, and Gentleman Johnnie Marcone.  There’s also Harry’s new dog, Mouse, and even Morgan the Council Warden returns to Chicago.  Indeed, the people in Harry’s life are an important part of Harry’s evolution.  At the beginning of the series, Harry was the typical loner, isolated from the wizard community and not entirely fitting into the “human” world.  Over the course of the series, Harry has lost some people that he cared about, but he has also become part of a family.  Now more than ever before, Harry has a lot to lose, but that also means he has a lot to protect.  It’s not just Harry and his cat, Mister.  It’s Mouse, and Thomas, and Murphy, and Billy and Georgia, and even Bock–a bookstore owner who at one point in the novel tells Harry that he doesn’t want him coming into his store anymore because trouble always follows him.  It’s a horrible moment for Harry, and though he understands Bock’s request, it’s sad too because Harry thinks it’s no less than he deserves. This is all to say that the supporting characters that Butcher brings into the novel are wonderfully drawn and they do exactly what they are supposed to do—show us different parts of Harry’s character, the inner conflicts that he struggles with, and why he keeps going even when all odds are against him. Butcher surrounds Harry with people who care about him, believe in him, and help him to see the good inside of him.  They give him reason to hope and make the struggle worthwhile.

There’s a lot happening in this book, but the part I want to focus on is something that happens near the end.  One of the characteristics of hardboiled detective fiction is that the detective finds himself in a situation where he faces temptation and is forced to cross a line that violates his personal code of ethics in order to save lives.  Harry finds himself in this very situation, and indeed crosses a line.  I have no doubt that it will be a choice that haunts him as the series continues.  It’s a combination of yielding to the temptation of power, doing what must be done to save lives, and having to live with the consequences.  Harry says several times in the novel that he doesn’t think of himself as a hero.  He doesn’t even think of himself as a good person, but now there’s the sense that he has absorbed just a little of the corruption and evil that he fights against. His soul bears a permanent scar that mirrors the physical scar on his hand. In this book, Harry is fundamentally changed on the inside.

With each new installment, Butcher succeeds in making Harry more complex and conflicted.  He forces readers to question the nature of heroism and the personal costs to the individual who would act heroically. Harry does not live in a black and white world, and because of that he cannot be wholly good and succeed in defeating evil.  If you like well-written, suspenseful action stories with strong characters, read the books in this series.  Harry Dresden might just become one of your favorite characters.

 

review: wicked

Spoiler Alert: Wicked is the fifth book in Sara Shepard’s Pretty Little Liars series.  If you haven’t read the first four books and want to avoid spoilers, this is the time to look away.

Wicked by Sara Shepard (2008)

Okay, I admit it.  I was a little skeptical about how this series would keep going after revealing the identity of A in book four and identifying Ali’s murderer.  As it turns out, there’s a new A (or Faux A who Hanna renames Maybe-Not-So-Faux A, so take your pick) and maybe the person who was fingered as Ali’s murderer really isn’t guilty after all.  Just when our four main characters thought they had put A and Ali’s murder behind them and were finding some semblance of normal or what is their new normal, their worlds spin out of control once again (and yes, you can imagine how much that is getting to Spencer in particular).  I have to tell you—Wicked was not disappointing and I’m still addicted to this series, perhaps even more so now.  I actually considered picking up the next book immediately after finishing this one but convinced myself to wait a few days.

The beginning of Wicked finds Hanna, Spencer, Aria and Emily trying to let go and move on with their lives.  As I already said above, the girls just want their lives to go back to what for them passes as normal.  A few months have elapsed since the end of Unbelievable, and the old adage “time heals all wounds” has been to true to a greater or lesser extent for our main characters.  For Aria, things between her and her mother are better, and everyone in the family is adapting to Ella and Byron’s pending divorce as well as Meredith’s pregnancy.  Things are also going better for Emily.  Her family is accepting her sexuality, and she’s moving on from her breakup with Maya.  But things for Hanna aren’t going as well.  What she wants most is to be the ‘queen bee’ of Rosewood Day, but she feels like her hold on that position is tenuous in the aftermath of all that has happened, and now she is living with her father, his fiancée and Kate.  Hanna sees Kate as a rival in her pursuit of popularity. What is going well in her life is her relationship with Lucas, and yes, I’m happy he hasn’t disappeared quite yet.  Finally, there is Spencer.  Oh, things are just not going well at all for Spencer, and of the four characters, she’s the one who seems to be at rock bottom at the start of Wicked.  After admitting that she stole Melissa’s paper, she’s become a pariah in her family as well as at school, the latter of which is perhaps the most devastating because academic success and excellence is the thing that is most important to Spencer.

Because this is fiction, there has to be tension, the girls have to face conflict, and Shepard has to bring each of them to a new crisis point.  Emily, I think, is the only character that remains mostly flat in the story in terms of things getting better or worse.  Aria becomes entangled with her mother’s new boyfriend, Spencer learns that she has been disinherited, and Hanna’s pursuit of uber-popularity is foiled by her own family. Hanna, at least in my opinion, is the character who is in the worst possible position at the end of the novel. Then, of course, there is Faux A, or shall I say New A. New A appears, and though the girls dismiss New A as a copycat at first, they learn that the threat New A poses to them is real.  A return to normalcy just doesn’t appear to be in the cards for these girls.  Not yet anyway. A is ready to inflict new wounds.

One of the reasons that I like these books is that even amid the melodramatic twists and turns, at the heart of each character’s storyline is an exploration of what we want most, why we want what we want, and the relationships in our lives.  In Wicked, I find this to be particularly true with Hanna and Spencer.  What Hanna wants most is to be the most popular girl at Rosewood Day, but she never stops to ask herself why this is what she wants.  Further still, she shows time and time again that she is willing to pay any price to get what she wants, and it’s heartbreaking at times because it costs her what is most important.  That is, it’s heartbreaking because she doesn’t seem to grasp that there are things more important than popularity, or see until it’s too late that her relentless pursuit of popularity is costing her everything.  What Spencer wants most is for her parents to show they are proud of her.  Similar to Hanna, she also wants to win when it comes to school—she wants to be first in her class and win awards.  I know that my response to Spencer’s storyline is partially due to the fact that she’s the one that I identify with most.  Still, the repeated rejection Spencer receives from her family is horrible and yet it explains so much about why she does what she does and why she wants what she wants. Like Hanna, what Spencer wants in terms of school is fleeting, and also like Hanna, she can be blind to things that are more important (for Spencer in this novel, it’s her relationship with Andrew). Hanna and Spencer, throughout the series, have felt the most real to me (and, I admit, at times the most ridiculous) and I find myself more invested in their storylines. 

Should you keep reading this series? In my humble opinion, absolutely.  The books are fun, quick reads, and can be as light or complex as you want them to be. Wicked ends with quite a cliffhanger, and I’m already put “read Killer” on my to-do list.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

review: unbelievable

Spoiler Alert: Unbelievable is the fourth book in Sara Shepard’s Pretty Little Liars series.  If you haven’t read the first three books and don’t want to have parts of the plot spoiled for you, look away now.

Unbelievable by Sara Shepard (2008)

A few days ago, my father asked me what I was reading, and I told him the title of my book was Unbelievable. Indeed, it’s an appropriate title, because this fourth book in Sara Shepard’s Pretty Little Liars series is exactly that—unbelievable.

At the end of the third book, Perfect, Hanna had figured out the identity of A and then was promptly hit by a van, Spencer had pushed her sister down the stairs and after a series of flashbacks to the night of Ali’s death had started to think she might be Ali’s killer, Aria was effectively homeless after Sean revealed to the police that she and Ezra were sleeping together, getting Ezra sent to jail, and Emily had been shipped off to Iowa by her parents who are unable to accept that their daughter is a lesbian.  Crazy times!

When Hanna awakes from her coma, we learn that she can’t remember anything after receiving the dress for Mona’s birthday party.  This means she doesn’t remember her dress ripping and being humiliated by Mona, or Lucas rescuing her and their first kiss, or her realization of A’s identity.  Her plotline throughout the novel is to remember.  Spencer, too, is also on a similar plotline, and at the end of the novel she remembers the rest of what happened on the night Ali died and she realizes she didn’t kill Ali.  Emily and Aria are on different journeys in this book.  Emily is still struggling to figure out where she fits in.  It’s certainly not with her cousins in Iowa, and eventually she ends up back in Rosewood where her family is more accepting.  And yet, her relationship with Maya is disintegrating just as she’s about to get what she wants in terms of her family’s acceptance.  Aria’s story, on the other hand, is put in opposition to Emily’s—while Emily is seeking acceptance, Aria seems to be the one who is unable to accept the changes occurring in her family.  She is certainly not accepting the new status quo with her father and Meredith, who announce they are going to be married after Byron’s divorce is final.

I don’t want to reveal the identity of A or the identity of Ali’s killer because I want it to be a surprise for you if you are reading this series.  What I will say is that this book as well as book three provide a lot of misdirection and red herrings.  I was actually surprised by the identity of A but I was right in my guess about Ali’s killer.  The thing that interests me in particular is the way that Shepard wraps up these two mysteries.  Because I have started watching the television adaptation of this series, I wasn’t expecting that these revelations would be made in book four of the series (currently, there are there fourteen books in this series and I think I read somewhere that there will be fifteen books total).  That being said, I’m glad that Shepard brought these two plots to a conclusion, and a satisfying conclusion at that.  She’s also done this in such a way that readers will still want to read about Hanna, Spencer, Aria and Emily.  The cliffhangers for each character at the end aren’t dramatic, and yet they are cliffhangers and give the sense that there is more in store for these young women.

Another thing I really found interesting in this novel was the prevalence of masks as a motif.  It’s one of the underlying thematic aspects that the novel turns upon. The epigraph to the novel sets us up for this: “No one can wear a mask for very long.”  Although the title of the novel is Unbelievable, it could have also been called Masquerade.  Nearly all of the characters in the novel wear either a literal or figurative mask at some point in the story (and at times, characters wear both).  Aria is taking an art class where one of the projects is for her and her partner to create a mask of each other’s face.  Aria’s partner is Jenna.  They both wear literal masks, but they both also wear figurative masks, and ultimately what lies beneath those masks is revealed.  Elsewhere, Hanna’s friends throw her a Masquerade party to celebrate her recovery.  Everyone wears a literal mask, and Hanna’s reason for choosing a masquerades-style party is that she doesn’t want anyone to see the bruises left from the hit-and-run because they show a less than flawless exterior.  She uses the mask to hide.  Even Spencer is wearing a mask, masquerading as the writer of an essay nominated for the Golden Orchid which she didn’t actually write. She, too, must decide whether she’ll continue to wear this mask or if she’ll reveal what she’s been hiding.  It’s also interesting to think about the characters in this book that don’t wear a mask at all—Lucas in particular comes to mind.  In short, this use of masks as a motif is another brilliant artistic stroke by Shepard that I really appreciated.

If you haven’t started either the show or the books, I definitely recommend starting with the books. If you started with the show but abandoned it somewhere along the way, give the books a try. If you’re just looking for a little light reading or brain candy, give these books a try.  These books are readable and entertaining and thought-provoking. I’m already making plans to get book five in this series, and maybe that’s the best compliment I can give.