Book Review, Cleo Coyle, Coffee, Contemporary, Fiction, Murder Mystery, Mystery

Thoughts: On What Grounds by Cleo Coyle

303639On What Grounds by Cleo Coyle
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting and believable

On What Grounds is the first novel in the popular Coffeehouse Mystery series by Cleo Coyle. In it, we meet Clare Cosi, former manager of one of the most historic coffeehouses in New York City, “The Village Blend.”  Cosi had moved away from New York City with her husband and young daughter, in order to find a quieter, calmer life in the New Jersey suburbs. But after divorcing her husband and seeing her daughter off to college, Cosi is convinced by the owner of The Village Blend to come back and take over management of the store, with added benefits – such as building up equity toward becoming the eventual owner.  All seems to be going well for Cosi at this middle point of her life, but everything changes when she gets to New York City and, upon reentering The Village Blend for the first time, finds her assistant manager at the bottom of the Blend’s basement stairs, unconscious and surrounded by suspicious evidence of foul play.

Characterization:
3 – Characters very well-developed.

This first book in the series introduces us to an interesting and eclectic set of characters, some of whom are likely to return in future books. Clare Cosi, being the main character, is the most developed of the cast.  She is relatively well-rounded and developed, with interesting flashbacks and histories (and romantic inclinations) provided, particularly for a mystery novel (which I find tend to be lacking in character development).  In addition, her mother-in-law and owner of The Village Blend, “Madame,” is great fun, though not a prominent figure.  Cosi’s ex-husband, Matt, has memorable traits, and we also learn about the victim – Annabelle – through interviews with her teachers, dance colleagues, roommate, etc., all of whom add some depth and complexity to the story by virtue of their being there (none are wonderfully developed, but they do add the necessary “ah, who had the better motive, indeed?” moments).  Finally, the detective assigned to Annabelle’s case, Lt. Quinn, brings with him some flirtatiousness, rivaling Matt, somewhat, for Cosi’s attention – their love triangle is entertaining.  What I appreciate most is that Cosi makes even the minor characters have character, but I am left hoping that future books continue to develop the main characters who manage to stick around for any length of time.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

What I most enjoyed about On What Grounds was probably Coyle’s language and style.  It is perfectly fitting for a Contemporary Adult mystery novel, but it is also tightly crafted, fluid, well-constructed, and simply interesting overall.  Coyle infuses various elements, too, which are not typical of the genre (discussed below), and she manages to incorporate these elements, which are really of equal importance to the plot, seamlessly into the narrative.  This mystery is a page-turner not just because of its classic “whodunit?” pacing, but because the balance of all of the competing themes and elements is spot-on.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

It seems clear to me that Cleo Coyle has some background in literature, even if simply as a voracious reader.  There are certain styles she uses, references she makes, and quotes that are dropped which fit in too neatly with the given situations to have been cribbed or looked-up simply for effect.  Although I am not typically a reader of mysteries/murder mysteries, any which go to lengths to reach beyond their “genre boundary” (yes, that’s partially me exposing my bias, but it’s also true that genre writers often write within their conventions because they quite thoroughly understand their audience’s expectations) and add unique perspective, especially literary, to their works get a nod of recognition and gratitude from me.  It is not just this added element, though, but also the inclusion of such passionate exploration and explanation of coffee, coffeehouses, related products and processes, recipes, etc. which make this book so much fun to read, especially for a coffee addict like me.  If you love a good mystery with a diversity of characters, a relatively well-designed plot, and some added features, and if you happen to be a coffee-lover, well, this book (and series) is probably for you.

Suggested Reading For:
Age Level: HS+
Interest: Mystery, Coffee, Fiction, Contemporary.

Notable Quotes:

“Though coffee may seem a small thing, it is a ritual that reflects the daily standards we set for ourselves throughout our lives” (31).

“Darkness can’t hide. Not forever. Not even in the vastness of space” (174).

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Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Crime Novel, Fiction, Murder Mystery, Mystery, Stephen King, Supernatural

Review: Joyland by Stephen King

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Joyland by Stephen King

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 43


Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

Stephen King’s Joyland is the latest in his massive repertoire of what I will hereafter describe as “really cool reading stuff.”  In this supernatural mystery crime thriller (yep, it is all of that), young Devin Jones, fresh out of his first year of college, heads down the eastern U.S. coastline to take a summer job at an old-fashioned amusement park called, you guessed it, Joyland.  While trying to get over “that” girl, the devastatingly beautiful tease who became his first love and who broke his heart for the first time, Devin soon finds himself involved in the very peculiar life of a dying boy, his bombshell mother, and a decades old murder that all of them must somehow solve together, or else.  What starts off as a curiosity – a folk legend and a hobby- for Devin and his Joyland friends, soon turns into a terrifying nightmare which will change Devin’s life forever.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

One of the areas where I tend to find King lacking is in his character development.  His stories and their connection with the reader are always at the forefront, so his characters seem to be there only as means to an end.  What King wants for his reader is self-immersion – the stories should be happening to you.  He does manage to accomplish this, better than most, but, still, characters are one of my favorite (and, in my opinion, one of the most important) aspects of any good novel, so I do look for their strengths, weaknesses, growth, etc.  Joyland is a short novel, without much room for growth, but King does allow his main character, Devin, to experience certain major life events and to learn from them. Most of the minor characters (which includes everyone except Devin) are relatively flat throughout, except for Annie.  Her story, along with that of her sick son, Mike, are the very touching secondary support that the primary story needs to make this book just complicated enough – just emotional enough- to touch the reader on a deeper level. Devin’s growth coincides with his relationship with these two, and Annie’s growth, too, happens only because Devin comes into their life.  The other friends, park workers, and even the primary antagonist are sidelined for the majority of the story but, in the end, it really doesn’t matter.

Prose/Style:
4 – Excellent prose/style, enhancing the story.

Stephen King obviously knows how to write a story – his prolific body of work, permanent best-seller status, and massive personal wealth (not to mention all those page-to-screen adaptations) can attest to this.  Typically, though, something about King’s writing will irk me.  I sometimes find it a little bit too pedantic, or a little bit too graphic, or a little bit trying-to-hard-to-be-shocking.  This time, though, King seems to be deeply in love with his story, and his writing reflects that.  The book is a page-turner, not because it is an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller or horror novel, like so many of his others.  Yes, you do want to find out what happens next, but it is because you are engrossed with Devin’s life.  Sure, you realize there are things happening beneath the surface – secrets that are bound to be revealed, soon. But, also, you just want to be a part of Devin’s life.  You are happy for him when he finds enjoyment in perhaps the most un-enjoyable job imaginable.  You are thrilled when his relationship with Annie starts to progress, and when you learn more about Mike.  King’s dialogue is believable, Devin’s awkwardness is believable, and the descriptions of people, places, etc. are interesting enough to engage the reader and drive the plot forward.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Joyland is not as scary, nor as suspenseful, nor as gory, nor as crude as I expected it to be.  I mean, this is King, after all.  Where is the horror?  Where are the blatantly graphic sexual episodes?  I realize that I always anticipate something from King, and yet he always manages to surprise me.  This has happened with every King book I’ve read, from Christine to Gunslinger, from Carrie to “The Body.”  Although King sometimes uses the fantastical, the terrifying, and the unbelievable to get his point across, his stories are, at heart, very much about human nature and the human experience. Joyland is no exception; in fact, it might just be King at the peak of his storytelling ability.  This book left me with a sense of nostalgia that I haven’t felt since seeing the Spielberg film Super 8 just a few years ago.  It reminds one of “the good old days” – where innocence and experience begin to meet, where love has crushed us, but the future still shines bright; where mystery entices us and, despite our better judgment, we dive for it only to find ourselves in over our heads.  The book was, really, a delight.  It is sad, but hopeful; fantastic, but real; and current, but elegiac.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Crime Thriller, Mystery, Supernatural, Coming-of-Age.

Notable Quotes:

“Age looked at youth, and youth’s applause first weakened, then died.”

“The mind defends itself as long as it can.”

“Even when what you’re holding onto is full of thorns, it’s hard to let go.”

“Some people hide their real faces. Sometimes you can tell when they’re wearing masks, but not always.”

“The last good time always comes, and when you see the darkness creeping toward you, you hold on to what was bright and good. You hold on for dear life.”


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2011 Challenges, Arthur Conan Doyle, Book Review, Fiction, Murder Mystery, Mystery

Review: A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 6
Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Well, well, well.  I suppose I should have known that enjoying this first book in the Sherlock Holmes series would be elementary, my dear – indubitably!  Seriously, though, I am taken aback by how much I enjoyed this book.  I am not typically a murder-mystery reader or lover, and I took up the Sherlock Holmes collection out of a sense of obligation to the mass popularity it has gained and out of a sense of nostalgia for the old black & white television episodes I watched with my Dad, as a kid; and, of course, to the very amazing (in my opinion) recent film starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law (which I loved, loved).  So, okay, what I am saying is – even though I am not a lover of the genre in general (my only experiences with it are some Agatha Christie and E.A. Poe), Doyle certainly made a believer and cautious-fan out of me.  A Study in Scarlet introduces us to Holmes and Dr. Watson, as well as some of the bumbling London investigators, whom Holmes has a somewhat patronizing contempt for.  A murder takes place, an odd one, and Holmes is called-in to investigate.  Just when certain police detectives believed they had cracked the case, the suspect is found dead!  In what I assume to be typical Holmes fashion, the unsuspected killer is lured to 221B Baker Street, where he is apprehended, and then the reader is afforded his complete back story, including an incredibly detailed and interesting regional history, which brings us twenty years earlier, to the southwestern United States deserts.  The reader learns that so much more is involved than imagined, and what little clues were discovered actually amounted to just about nothing.  Did I have anything figured out?  Nope.  Did I believe Holmes’s deductive reasoning, as he explained how he “analyzes backwards?”  Sure – because there is no other choice.  I’m more of a Dr. Watson – intrigued, capable, sometimes helpful but, more than anything, simply along for the ride.

 

Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

Doyle does a very nice job of giving the reader a clear understanding of these characters’ personalities and, to some extent, their histories and motivations.  Far more is learned about Dr. Watson than Holmes, though, which is partially frustrating but also extremely clever, because Holmes and his talents are such fascinating mysteries in their own right – it helps to propel the overall mystery of the story.   What is most impressive, though, is the amount of time and attention paid to the “villain” and villains (the supposed and the actual).  Doyle writes an intriguing history for this man – evoking a great sense of empathy from the reader, and a fantastic understanding of time and place.  We learn, just in time, who is this man, and to what lengths he has gone to avenge himself of an unspeakable crime, committed by a deeply sinister group of people (a group who I will not expose in order to prevent any type of religious debate from breaking out in response).  The minor characters, too – the incompetent detectives and their noble counterparts (Holmes’s gang of merry-men – street urchins) are given enough page time to be recognizable as characters long-familiar, though we are meeting them for the first time.  All-in-all, the first meeting is done so well that this reader cannot help but want to spend more time with the characters, to see how they will develop and what type of predicaments they may find themselves in later.

 

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

For a book published in 1887, I cannot believe how well-paced and easy to read it is, overall.  It does not have simple language or easy prose, by any means, but the narrative voice is so witty and engaging that the pages just turn and turn.  Dr. Watson’s narration via journal form is great and, though it is epistolary in form, it is written as if the reader is witnessing the events in real-time, which allows for a greater depth of involvement and connection to the characters and plot. I also enjoyed the break between “present” narration and the flashback, provided for the benefit of the murderer – that it was separated into two parts to accomplish this was well-planned and received (it kept the main plot from being convoluted or over-powered by the sub-plot).  It was also interesting to get that history and back-story after the crimes had taken place – it was almost as if we were thinking like Holmes – back-tracking from “resolution” to causes, as he claims to do, whenever he is confronted with a mystery.

Additional Elements:
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

The attention paid to modern science and medicine, plus historical criminal studies and psychology, really helps to progress the story and to allow the reader a real sense of Holmes’s genius and tenacity.  Holmes is certainly innately gifted, but A Study in Scarlet does give the reader glimpses of how much time and effort Holmes puts into thinking about clues in each case, and about the vast amount of reading and research he has done, in general, to allow himself to become the greatest crime-solver in history.  All of this did not come from nothing – Holmes is talented, yes, but he is not superhuman, though he enjoys being thought of as such! (See quotes 1 & 2 below).  Also, as mentioned above, the sub-plot and back-story of the criminal in America is just brilliant.  The attention to detail that is paid to the Mormons, the establishing of Salt Lake City, and the very real dangers that dissenters to the religion were faced with was wholly unexpected and almost breath-taking.  I was caught completely off-guard by this sub-plot and, while reading it, I could not believe how much new information I was getting – it took the idea of “mystery novel” to an elevated level.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  Adult

Interest: Mystery, Murder-Mystery, Mormonism, Vengeance, History

Notable Quotes:

“I’m not going to tell you much more of the case, Doctor. You know a conjurer gets no credit when once he has explained his trick, and if I show you too much of my method of working, you will come to the conclusion that I am a very ordinary individual after all.”

“They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains,” he remarked with a smile. “It’s a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.”

“There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”

“There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before.”

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.”

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