The most annoying protag ever

Olmec Obituary (Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth, #1)Olmec Obituary by L.J.M. Owen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Review copy supplied by publisher in exchange for a fair review.

When I was first contacted about possibly reviewing this book, I was excited by the prospect of the central character. Not only is she an archaeologist and expert in paeleogenetics, but she is a librarian too! As a librarian myself, this book was high on my TBR pile. What a shame it didn’t live up to my expectations.
Dr Elizabeth Pimms is called back from a dream dig in Egypt to attend the funeral of her beloved father in Canberra, her home town. She leaves her boyfriend, Luke, behind and ends up having to stay in Australia to help support her quirky family so they can afford to pay for her brother Matty’s surgery. She completes a post graduate library qualification and starts work at the National Library to work on old maps. Along the way, she makes friends with Nathan (my favourite character in the book) and an enemy of a woman named Mai – who takes an instant dislike to her.
Elizabeth is asked by an old archaeology classmate to do some work on identifying and classifying some bones from a dig in Mexico – from an Olmec cemetery.
Throw in underlying guilt and blame from the car crash that killed their mother (and left Matty unable to walk) years earlier, a boiling conflict with a bratty sister and a family home that sounds like a cross between Hogwarts and the Brady Bunch and you would think I would find this an enjoyable read.
I did not. I really wanted to like Elizabeth, but I found her incredibly annoying. She is quick to pass judgement, remarkably naive and pretty conceited. Her family treats her like a princess, and not in a good way. I found myself yelling at this book several times as I read it – saying “Just take CONTROL of your life, you wimp!” For someone so accomplished, her character is infuriatingly skittish and lacks confidence. It drove me crazy. Her friends, Nathan, and philologist Henry are far more appealing and just as quirky, but somehow they both have their lives sorted out. I just got so impatient with Lizzie. She is only 26 years old in the book, so she is still quite young, but everyone around her, including her younger brother, just seems to have a better handle on life.
The reason for my frustration might stem from the fact that Owen really locks in some librarian/academic woman stereotypes with Lizzie. She lives at home with her parents, she has 4 cats, she is a librarian, she’s a bit of a loner, she likes correcting everyone. L.J.M. even makes her a literary snob. When Elizabeth works on the customer service desk in the Library, a teenage girl asks for a copy of the latest vampire novel (we are led to believe it is Twilight or something similar). Elizabeth actually asks herself:

“…was it right to be complicit in people reading nonsense when better books were so readily available?”

How dare she? How dare L.J.M. Owen diss “popular” fiction like that? I mean, I don’t like Twilight myself, but if someone wants to read it, more power to them! Especially a teenage girl! Things like this constantly frustrated me about this character. By far the worst thing, though, is Elizabeth and her phrenic library. I assumed this was a device used by Elizabeth to aid her eidetic memory, but there was not explanation of what it was or how it worked until the very end of the novel. There was not even a reference at the end of the book (with all the recipes and other paraphenalia) with a working definition! For someone who is a librarian, the author dropped the ball here.
Leaving Elizabeth aside, there are other things I find appealing about this book. Firstly, the flashbacks to the Olmec period are great – loved the painting of the story behind the bones. Secondly, the mystery of the bones and why some evidence doesn’t add up (the mystery) is also great- I really enjoyed the progress of that part of the story. Nathan, Elizabeth’s colleague at the Library, is a sweetheart – a bit of a fantasy librarian in many ways. He’s funny, smart, sensitive, loves cats and I think is a little bit in love with Elizabeth – though nothing happens between them except friendship in this novel.
I am now reading Mayan Mendacity to see if Elizabeth can win me over. The rest of her family, and the support cast have – now she has to step up and show me she is more than the stereotype, that she can break away from it. I really want her and Nathan to become flatmates. Fingers crossed…review to follow soon.

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This book is Murder

Murder in MississippiMurder in Mississippi by John Safran

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

John Safran is the king of self-deprecation. It serves him well in this true-crime tale of US race relations and homophobia. 9 months after interviewing Richard Barrett, a white supremacist, for his ABC series, Race Relations, Barrett is found dead in his burning house, wearing nothing but his underwear. The man arrested for the crime, Vincent McGee, a black Mississippian, does not deny killing him. When Safran reads about this case in the newspaper, he feels inextricably drawn back to the city of Pearl, Miss. to investigate what happened and why.
The reception John receives is not a welcoming one. Race Relations did not paint Barrett, or the white supremacist movement in a good light and they are pissed. But, as he digs further into the muck that is the underbelly of Pearl, Safran discovers that Barrett was not necessarily anyone’s favourite guy either. As John Safran is drawn further and further into the web of lies, half-truths and shady dealings the reader is very aware the situations he finds himself in are dangerous, risky. For Safran, it seems the riskier the venture, the better he likes it. He is, after all, a documentary maker at heart.
Throughout the book John Safran’s humour and quirky take on humanity are evident, and he is not above taking the piss out of himself and his “Jewishness” too. More than once I found myself laughing out loud picturing this pasty blond Aussie in the middle of a race relations nightmare – because he wanted me to. I even found myself becoming scared for him when Vincent started making demands of Safran that he wouldn’t even ask a relative to do for him – like propose marriage (as a proxy) to Vincent’s girlfriend.
Whilst the story was all too real, Safran often makes it feel like we are watching a movie – waiting for the next twist in the tale. It certainly kept me going right to the end, and I am sure it will do for you too.
For ages 16 and up.

The Devil is in the detail

Tell the Truth, Shame the DevilTell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, this amazing tour de force, was a joy to read. Not only because it was written by the revered Melina Marchetta, but also because it is a well-paced, intriguing mystery/suspense novel. Honestly, is there nothing this author cannot do?
Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil begins with a phone call, as many great mysteries do, communicating to Bish Ortley that a bomb has exploded on his daughter’s tour bus in Calais. Bish, currently suspended from the Met, races through the Channel Tunnel not knowing what he will find at the other end. We know early on that the relationship between father and daughter is strained.

“a postcard from Bee: You said to send you a line from Normandy. That was it. No Dear Dad or Miss you heaps. As someone used to spending his days dealing with the scum of the earth, Bish Ortley found no species crueller than the adolescent female.”

As the tale progresses, we get a better picture of Bish as a flawed and struggling man – one who still carries enormous guilt over the death of his son – and a man who has to learn to like himself again.
Bish gets drawn into the investigation of the bombing courtesy of a former school friend, Elliot, who now works for the shadowy “Home Office”. Bish is sent running all over the countryside at Elliot’s beck and call as two students from the tour- Violette and Eddie- go missing. Violette’s mother, Noor, is in prison for a bombing years before and Bish put her there. Now it is a race against time to find Violette and Eddie to determine if they had anything to do with the bus disaster, and also to protect them in case they didn’t and were in fact the intended victims of a revenge plot. Bish’s relationship with daughter Bee becomes inextricably linked to his search for Violette and Eddie – a quest for redemption.
Twists and turns abound. Marchetta certainly knows how to push a story along, and while Bish, his mother Saffron, and Noor are the central adult characters I found the teenagers in the novel were the characters who really drove the plot. Everything that happens in the book depends on what the kids do or don’t do. What they say or don’t say. This is the genius of this story. No matter what, all the young people are where the plot pivots into new directions. And these kids are smart, resourceful and more self-aware than most of the adults, which is really refreshing too. I don’t want to say too much more because half the joy of this book is the careful and meticulous unfolding of the narrative and I have an anti-spoiler policy. I will say that this is a fantastic new direction for Marchetta, which will open her writing up for a whole new audience, as well as amply satisfying her existing fans. I’m actually kinda jealous.
For ages 15 and up