My reading has been a bit eclectic lately, so this post is a grab bag of brief reviews of a few recent reads: an adult romance novel, a YA fantasy, and an adult nonfiction book.
Cold-Hearted Rake by Lisa Kleypas
Any romance reader worth her salt knows Lisa Kleypas. For the past several years she’s been writing contemporary romances (which I’ve just started getting into), but she started in historicals, and Cold-Hearted Rake marks her very welcome return to them. Like her many other fans, I was highly anticipating this one; unfortunately, I felt a little disappointed by it. Kleypas works with a few common historical romance tropes: the heroine is a young widow whose husband died in an accident, leaving the estate to his cousin; the hero is this cousin who wants nothing to do with the estate, its tenants, or the widow and her three sisters-in-law who occupy it; they fall in love after overcoming their initial mutual dislike. Kleypas is normally very good at using these tropes to create characters whose relationships with each other are complex and believable, but I feel like she fell a bit short here. I never believed that the two leads should have ever truly liked each other, much less loved each other, and the secondary storyline (which is a lead-in for this book’s sequel, Marrying Winterborne) featuring one of the sisters was pretty repellent to me – the hero seems awful and a bad kisser to boot. So not only was I not in love with this book, I don’t really have a desire to pick up the second one. Too bad. Still, it’s a Kleypas book, and even her mediocre ones are often worth checking out. Your mileage may vary.
Riverkeep by Martin Stewart
I think this title will be very hit or miss with readers. It was mostly a miss for me, though the concept is intriguing. Wulliam is 16 years old and about to inherit the job of Riverkeep from his father, which entails making sure the Danek River is free of ice and other debris, keeping the lamps lit so travelers can see at night, and fishing the occasional dead body out. It can be very challenging, lonely, and macabre, so Wull is not thrilled about it. Then one day his father falls out of the boat and is possessed by a creature from the river that can only be removed with something found in the body of a mormorach, a Moby Dick-like beast at the other end of the river. So Wull sets off to kill it, picking up a few acquaintances with their own motives along the way. Stewart’s world-building is strong in parts (the job of the Riverkeep in particular is interesting), but it often relies on lazy ideas: names of people and words for invented animals are very similar to our own names and words, just with a letter or two changed. And the characters and their adventures are really strange, like later Wizard of Oz novels to the eleventh degree, with a generous dose of gross. It felt a little like weirdness for the sake of weirdness, not for the story and its characters. It’s slowly paced and includes a lot of made-up dialect, which can be off-putting for some readers and a draw for others. What I wrote on Goodreads is a good summation for this book: “Extreme weirdness punctuated every so often by sex jokes.” More than a little incongruous and just not for me.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
I am over two decades late to this, but it’s riveting pseudo-nonfiction and I can see why it was such a sensation. The main thrust of the story is the murder of a young man (rumored to be a prostitute) in Savannah, Georgia, and the (closeted gay) man accused of it, who was tried four different times before finally being acquitted. But Berendt also focuses much of his story on everyone else who lived in Savannah in the mid-90s, including most famously the Lady Chablis, a drag queen who became famous after the book was published and played herself in the movie version (she recently passed away just last month). There’s a scene where she crashes a debutante party and carefully and deliberately makes everyone there uncomfortable, including Berendt; with her actions, she completely indicts the area’s racism, homophobia/transphobia, and classism. All aspects of this book – the murder, the trials, the social and racial politics of Savannah, the odd people you’d love to meet (Chablis) and the odd people you’d run from (the man who was rumored to be planning to poison the water supply) – are fascinating. I call this pseudo-nonfiction because in Berendt’s author’s note, he acknowledges that he moved around the order of some events, placing himself in Savannah before the murder, when in fact he didn’t decide to visit the town until it had already happened and was making news. He also admits that he inserted himself into some scenes that were actually just described to him by others, making it seem like he was a part of certain conversations that he wasn’t. So the complete veracity of the dialogue and specific actions are suspect, but the book itself is fascinating, both for true crime lovers and general nonfiction readers.