Book Review: Bibliophile Mystery #2 – If Books Could Kill

Book Title: If Books Could Kill
Author: Kate Carlisle
Year of Publication: 2010
Series: Bibliophile Mystery
#: 2
DNF? Yes
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.9
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 1

ifbookscouldkill

Note: This is the first Negative Review I’m writing for this blog. ‘Negative Review’ is a label I will be reserving for DNF (Did Not Finish) books, and other books that receive a Goodreads rating of 1 or 2 from me. For such books, I also plan on maintaining a Sin Count, because just as some books deserve to be held up as examples and recommended to everybody, so are there books that the reading public deserves to be warned away from. 

Plot Description: Brooklyn Wainwright is a professional book restorer who tends to get mixed up in mysteries involving books. Derek Stone is the charming and handsome detective who tries to solve those mysteries. In If Books Could Kill, Brooklyn is given a very rare book that could potentially anger the British Royal Family and asked to authenticate it. Shortly after she receives the book, the guy who gave it to her – Kyle, an ex of hers – ends up dead. She wonders whether the book is responsible for Kyle’s death.

So I didn’t finish this book. Which might be perceived as strange, because it has a great opening paragraph:

If my life were a book, I would have masking tape holding my hinges together. My pages would be loose, my edges tattered and my boards exposed, the front flyleaf torn and the leather mottled and moth-eaten. I’d have to take myself apart and put myself back together, as any good book restoration expert would do.

I haven’t gotten very far in the book, which must be why I don’t know what happened to Brooklyn – can I call her BW? – to make her feel this way about herself. She’s a successful young woman, one of the topmost experts in her field, and she’s recently come into a lot of money. While it’s true that she’s grieving, has her mentor’s death affected her so badly that her ‘pages are loose, edges tattered and boards exposed &c. &c.’?

Ridiculous rhetorical questions aside, let’s move onto the story. Not having read the previous book in this series, I have to take other GR reviewers at their word on the fact that the cast of the previous book have simply been imported into this one. On purportedly lazy pretexts. Since I don’t have this on my own authority, I’m going to give this potential Sin a pass.

“Aye, you do, love. And for that, the [Indian Pale Ale’s] on the house.” 

She nodded judiciously. “Of course it’s jet lag if you say so.” Her eyes narrowed as she studied me. “But my woman’s intuition thinks ’tis a man you’re mulling over.”

Her eyes twinkled gaily. “Aye, I knew it.” She tapped the side of her head. “Can’t another woman tell when one of her ilk is suffering, then? And isn’t it always about a man. Damn their skins!”

“Haud yer wheesht!” she yelled over her shoulder, then smiled sweetly at me. “Enjoy your luncheon and take good care.” She turned and marched to the bar, where she bared her teeth at the burly bartender as she collected a tray of drinks.
I wasn’t an expert in the Scottish dialect, but I believed she’d just suggested to her boss that he shove a sock in his piehole.

Do the Scottish actually talk like that? I don’t know. Can’t comment.

The first character we meet is Helen Chin, one of BW’s friends.

Helen Chin grinned as she glided confidently through the bar, her glossy black hair cut in a short, sassy bob. She’d always been demure and soft-spoken, a brilliant, petite Asian woman with lustrous long hair and a shy smile. The haircut and the confidence were major changes since the last time I saw her.

Having to tell your readers that a character is doing something ‘confidently’ gives, in my opinion, the opposite impression. (Sins: 1)

I took a closer look at her, checking out the new hairstyle, her pretty red jacket, black pants and shiny black shoes. “You look amazing, and you’ve lost weight. Are you moonlighting as a supermodel?”

Commenting on someone’s weight gain or loss is not as much of a compliment as people would have you believe. (2)

[Yes, I know I’m being nitpicky, but these things didn’t actually bother me until I began to sense a pattern.]

Helen was right. I’d never liked Martin Warrington, and I wasn’t the only one. When she’d announced her engagement in Lyon, I hadn’t understood how such a smart woman could marry such an annoying man. Then I figured, with my own stellar record of bad choices and broken engagements, I was hardly one to criticize. 
At the time, I was more sorry for myself than for her, because I knew we wouldn’t be able to be friends once she married Martin. He didn’t like me any more than I liked him, probably because I’d tried to talk Helen out of marrying him and he’d caught wind of it.

Neither of these ladies are endearing themselves to me. Helen goes ahead and marries an ass, and BW feels bad for selfish reasons. Okay.

“Martin didn’t like me attending the book fairs.” She shook her head in irritation. “He said I flirted too much.”

Why would anyone put up with this? (3)

[Martin’s] smile disappeared as he confronted Helen. “I told you I’d meet you on the conference level.”
“And I told you I’d try to make it but probably wouldn’t be able to,” Helen said defiantly. (emphasis mine)
“We have to talk now.” He pushed up the sleeves of his linen jacket.
“I’m off to meet a client,” she said as she glanced at her wristwatch. “I can try to see you at two thirty.”

If you still need to be ‘defiant’ towards your soon-to-be-ex husband, that just implies that I was right with my comment earlier about the fake confidence. (4)
BW then has a run in with another figure from the industry – a Perry McDougal – who’s rude and pompous and has no issues with cutting ahead of a queue. He also doesn’t seem to have any problem with calling random women “silly wench” and “crazed bitch” when they call him out on his rudeness. Now, I know people like this exist out here in the real world. Yes, they can be terribly sexist, arrogant and entitled. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that a woman like BW, who is probably capable of recognizing said sexist entitlement, fails to call him out on it. (5) Indeed, I’m not even sure she does recognize the sexism, because she explains his behaviour as being a function of his narcissism and self importance. (6) And she’s constantly apologetic about her rather weak attempts at standing up for herself. (7)
Protagonist frightens herself with idea of turning into crazy-old-spinster trope. (8)
Protagonist tells herself standing up for herself isn’t such a bad thing. (8-0.5=7.5)

Without warning I was grabbed from behind, lifted off the ground and twirled around.
I screamed and swore loudly at my assailant. Then I realized who it was and swore even more.
“Despite that mouth of yours, you’re more beautiful than ever,” he said.
“Kyle McVee, you idiot!” I cried, and hugged him hard.
“Ah, you’ve missed me,” he crowed as he held me snugly in his arms.
“No, I didn’t miss you,” I said, burying my face in the crook of his delicious-smelling neck. “You’re a cad and a rat fink, remember? The Bad Boy Bookseller of Belgravia. I curse your name every morning.”
“I love you, too, my sweet,” he said with a laugh. “Besides, I’ve mellowed.”

Overkill much? (8.5) And whoa. Why would you be on friendly terms with someone with such little regard for personal space? (9.5)
Guy seems to think being foul mouthed should detract from a woman’s beauty. (10.5)

“Oh, stop it.” I stood back and looked at the man who’d broken my heart three-or was it four?-years ago. My breath almost caught as I stared.

This breath-catching business comes up a lot – usually every time BW looks at a good looking guy. It’s an annoying stereotype. Can I offer you an inhaler, Brooklyn darling? (11.5)

I straightened my shirt and jacket and tried to find some trace of decorum, but it was useless. My cheeks heated up at his blatant perusal. I tried to remind myself that if I’d been so darling, why had he felt so compelled to cheat on me more than once during the six months we dated while I lived in London? A simple question.
I knew the answer: He couldn’t help himself.

Female protagonist who feels extremely self conscious and gets flustered every time a good looking guy checks her out. I know this is supposed to convey the power in the guy’s stare, but honestly, she seems to respond to every attractive guy the same way (case in point: Derek Stone later in the novel). (12.5)
(Rich) boys will be (rich) boys stereotype. That’s just plain lazy, BW. (13.5)
Protagonist blames self for feeling hurt by the cheating ways of the cheater. (14.5)
Charming Cheater (CC) condescendingly encourages protagonist to consume more alcohol when she’s clearly not in the mood. (15.5) Protagonist consumes alcohol even though she’s not in the mood because it’s what she thinks she’s supposed to do. (16.5)
CC is condescendingly impressed when BW proves to be good at her job, even though he purportedly came to her because of her expertise. (17.5) CC reveals that BW wasn’t his first choice for the job, thus making his condescending approval from a moment ago self explanatory. (18.5)
Usage of crude terms that rob the female party of her agency to describe a consensual sexual relationship (“scottish bad boy diddling the english rose”). (19.5)
Giant plot hole if the reason people are getting killed is because either the British royal family or Robert Burns fans don’t want bad PR. (20.5)
Rampant fatphobia. (21.5)

Okay, I’m going to stop now. There’s no point, really.

Derek Stone seems to suffer from Christian Grey Syndrome, and BW is a veritable Anastasia Steele – except Ana wasn’t prone to fainting fits. I have an uncontrollable urge to slap Brooklyn Wainwright, and I’ve been swearing non stop at the book for a couple of hours now. The protagonist and her female friends are childish, immature and downright pathetic. They show an alarming proclivity for bitchiness, shrill screaming, and fainting. I’m glad I didn’t invent a drinking game based on every time one of these idiots faints. None of the ridiculously hot men in the book cry, or otherwise show emotion or vulnerability. Derek keeps assuming that every time Brooklyn gets hurt or is otherwise in danger, it’s somehow her fault. (And this happens a lot.) Now where have I heard that before?

Oh that’s right. Twilight.

A terrible book, and if this one’s anything to go by, the preceding book in the series is bound to be awful as well.

Sin Count: 21.5 (and counting)

Next: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

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Book Review: Vampire Academy #1 – Vampire Academy

Book Title: Vampire Academy
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2007
Series: Vampire Academy
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.15
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

Vampire Academy #1 - Vampire Academy
Vampire Academy #1 – Vampire Academy

Vampires are all the rage. Wait, that’s still true, right? I mean, I know the Twilight frenzy has pretty much died down (I’d say thank goodness, but it’s been supplanted by Fifty Shades, which makes me want to go crawling back and beg Bella Swan’s forgiveness). But the loyal fanbase that vampires acquired almost a decade ago is still going strong. The Vampire Diaries is one of the most watched shows on CW, after all.

Okay, I might be a little biased about TVD, seeing as it’s one of my all time favourite shows. And really, my obsession with vampires far pre dates the Twilight phase. I mean, I was captivated by Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It made me think all sorts of dirty thoughts. (And yeah, I read it when I was like, ten or something.)

On the rare occasions that I dare to mention VA to anyone, I get the inevitable smirk of condescension that has been Twilight’s legacy to the literate world. But VA, in my opinion, is one of the best examples of YA fiction one could offer to the young, developing minds of those who are still battling high school, blissfully unaware that college is going to be ten times as awful.

The book centres around protagonists and best friends Rose and Lissa, who have run away from their school and are attempting to blend in as regular humans. The somewhat mysterious reasons for this are gradually revealed in the course of the story – Rose believed her best friend was in danger, and her fears were eventually proved not unfounded.

The story depicts them as somewhat-out-there-yet-typical high school teenagers, but their friendship is something you don’t usually find in high school. Maybe not even in college. They’re devoted to each other, and Rose’s devotion is especially endearing considering that even at seventeen, she knows with absolute certainty that she’ll take a bullet for her best friend. As a dhampir, Rose is training to be a guardian for Moroi, and she literally cannot conceive of a universe in which she isn’t assigned to guard Lissa when they both graduate. Returning to St. Vlad’s tests their friendship somewhat, what with the rumours about Lissa feeding on Rose while they were away (true), the rumours about Rose sleeping with random guys and letting them drink her blood (false on all counts), the bullying they face from some of their classmates, hints of a more sinister threat lurking in the shadows, and Lissa’s deepening depression, which Rose eventually figures is a side effect of her wielding Spirit. As a result, the girls are seen frequently bickering with each other, but through it all, Rose’s belief in their friendship never wavers. Nor does it ever occur to her to care about Lissa less, even when the latter is subtly ostracising her from their social circles.

Unlike in Twilight, where the closest Bella has to best friends is Jacob (jealous suitor), and Jessica (bitchy and jealous for no apparent reason), Rose and Lissa don’t fight over the same guy, don’t hate each other for their respective physical features, and prove that girls often have extremely healthy friendships built on strong foundations of trust.

The second central plot driving force in the story is Rose’s relationship with her mentor, the dhampir guardian Dimitri. He’s older than her and is her teacher, both of which ought to have made her off limits as far as he’s concerned. I’m not entirely on board with this relationship, but unlike, say, Ezra Fitz in Pretty Little Liars, Dimitri views his increasing fondness for her very seriously, and – at least in the first and second books – tries to ensure that they never cross any limits. This is not to say that limits do not get crossed. They do, and they do so in a steamy manner that is at the same time logical and never oblivious to the complications that lie there in.

A major theme of this series is teenage and young female sexuality. Rose isn’t someone who holds herself back from random make outs. Cute guys are a major weakness for her, and yet she never truly lets her guard down at any time – as befits a good guardian. It is worth noting that for all of her love of partying, Rose never goes as far as sex, and I don’t even think that’s a conscious choice for her. It’s fully within the rights of a girl her age to go ahead and do it if she wants to, but I get the feeling that Rose is sub consciously waiting for a more meaningful relationship to come along before she lets herself hit that particular milestone.

Which is partly why, despite her extreme hotheadedness and almost insane willingness to get into random fights, she often comes across as far wiser and mature than a great many of her peers, including the calm, sweet, pacifist Lissa. It is also, I suspect, one of the reasons why Dimitri fell for her in the first place.

Mental health is another very important theme that Mead takes up in her series, primarily through Spirit users like Lissa or her former teacher, Sonya Karp – and Adrian Ivashkov later on in the series. In the course of this series and its sequel, Spirit’s backlash takes the form of depression (Lissa), bipolar disorder (Adrian), and anxiety and paranoia (Sonya), and this seems to depend on the spirit users themselves. After Lissa ends up cutting herself really badly, she is put on anti depressants which cut off her access to Spirit and thus the depression.

Mental health isn’t an issue usually tackled by YA, and especially not the YA Fantasy genre. It takes a great deal of research to get the details right (or personal experience, which I hope is not the case, because I wouldn’t wish that on anyone). I strongly believe that one of the reasons why I love this series so much is its unflinching engagement with this subject, and the tactful, sensitive, yet realistic portrayal that has been achieved.

Literary Analysis

Mead’s world building is excellent. Instead of going for either the cape flapping, maiden abducting, sleeping in coffins monster, or the sparkly, sexy, best boyfriend version (not that Cullen or most of his ilk can be considered good boyfriends from any angle), she created a world where versions of both co-exist. In addition, the notion of dhampirs – hybrids born of interbreeding between the vampire and human races is one that I haven’t come across anywhere else. I don’t particularly recall vampires being presented as a natural race either – they’re always humans who were turned by another vampire, who in turn was turned by another… well, you get the picture.

In fact, in mixing the supernatural with more realistic aspects of biology, or combining the ideas of royalty – and supernatural royalty at that – with that of elected governance, or even the juxtaposition of a standard high school experience against a darker backdrop of threats – both from Moroi as well as Strigoi, Mead has managed to find a middle ground between the reading tastes of the undiscerning fantasy aficionado and people who prefer realistic fiction. It’s brilliant.

The narrative style is from the first person perspective – that of Rose Hathaway – but the spirit bond she shares with Lissa allows for the unusual experience of witnessing some of the scenes from Lissa’s POV without taking away from the fact that the entire story is narrated by Rose, and Rose alone.

Something that does bug me, however, is the imperfect writing style. Grammatical and syntatical mistakes are, while extremely rare and hard to spot in this case, like nails on chalkboard to a grammar nazi like me. I find it interesting, however, that I never noticed this while I was reading VA – it was only in the course of the Bloodlines series that this began to bug me. Once I knew what to look for, I began to spot a few in VA as well, but I’m not really going to complain, because in comparison to Twilight or Fifty Shades, this stuff is Pulitzer worthy.

All things considered, Vampire Academy delivers an interesting plotline, deals with black and white and the shades of grey that growing up introduces into your life, with an undercurrent of feminist principles that run through it all, without once shoving said ideology in your face. The writing scripts its moral messages so subtly that the reader comes away having subconsciously condemned certain behaviours, perhaps even without realizing that they might have reacted differently, had the message been delivered another way.

It’s a definite must read, in my opinion, and TBH, it’s hard to keep yourself from picking up the sequel once you’re done.

And on that note, don’t miss the next post:

Upcoming: Vampire Academy #2 – Frostbite