Monthly Archives: September 2014

Review: Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls

Mister Death's Blue-Eyed Girls

Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls, Mary Downing Hahn

In 1955, YA author Mary Downing Hahn’s town was rocked by the violent murder of two girls she knew. The murders went unsolved, and the incident haunted her for years afterwards. Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls is her fictional exploration of the event and its aftermath.

When the story opens in 1956, it’s with a party the night before, a joyous end-of-school-year-beginning-of-summer celebration with teenagers sneaking off to do the things teenagers have always been told not to do—drinking, smoking, fooling around. Nora, Ellie, Cheryl, and Bobbi Jo are there with friends, never suspecting the events to come. The next morning, Cheryl and Bobbi Jo are shot on their way to school, and nothing will be the same after. Buddy, Cheryl’s ex-boyfriend, is brought in for questioning and cleared of the crime, but never can escape the stigma or suspicion. Nora, through whom most of the story is narrated, is the only person who believes his innocence, while she struggles to reconcile the pat answers given by her Catholic faith with the horrible events that have altered everything.

At first blush, the novel seems like it should be the set-up for a suspense novel. It opens with the perspective of “Mister Death,” as the killer dubs himself, planning his crime. Readers hoping for more of that suspense will be disappointed, as the focus is on the aftermath. Instead, it is firmly a novel of young adult themes—trying to understand the world when everything has been violently altered. Even as she grieves for her friends who will never grow old and experience life, Nora also tries to figure out what comes next after high school, whether she is damned for her lapsing faith, whether she wants to kiss a boy when the timing seems right, what to do about friendships that are fading with distance and the avoidance of painful shared memories. She feels authentic.

Hahn also explores other characters through diary entries and separate viewpoint chapters, providing a panoramic view. While pop culture and fashion references place the story firmly in the 1950s, the themes resonate in a world still shaken by violent events that leave people wondering “why?” In that sense, it tells an unfortunately timeless story.

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Review: A Lady Awakened

I blame my readers advisory class for a recent trend in my reading habits: I have been devouring historical romances like popcorn this summer. Between better understanding the romance genre and its expectations and having coworkers with solid recommendations, I’ve been enjoying what I’ve encountered so far.

Both my boss and coworker recommended Lisa Kleypas’ Wallflowers and Hathaways series, which I would liken to cotton candy—sweet, light, and fluffy. Per my friend and coworker’s recommendation, though, I recently devoured the romance equivalent of a multi-course meal in Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened.

It’s really really hard to describe the plots and contrivances of a romance novel without getting awkward and defensive because truly they can be silly, but I’m working on it. So here goes: A Lady Awakened is about widow Martha Russell and her bold plan to secure her late husband’s estate, a plan that involves paying neighbor and rake Theo Mirkwood to help her produce an heir within a month, a strictly business matter with pleasure nowhere in the calculations. Ridiculous? Of course. But entertaining as hell—and more than that.

Once again, I find that it all hinges in the character development. Martha and Theo are well-developed characters with glaring weaknesses and redeeming qualities that could be overdone but are instead gradually revealed. Martha is an uptight do-gooder who sees marriage and mating as strictly contractual matters, while Theo is an indolent young man of means who has been banished to the family estate as punishment for debauchery in London. The novel could easily have been a comedic series of awkward sexual encounters with several token turning points, and while it does certainly begin with some highly entertaining bedroom scenes, a large part of the novel ends up taking place on their respective estates as they interact with staff, tenants whom they both want to help live better lives, and in friendships with neighbors (rest assured, the requisite sizzling scenes are present as well, but they don’t occur until much later). Martha and Theo’s relationship actually seems to bloom outside the bedroom, rather than precipitating solely from the events therein.

Some readers may find the slow pace of the tale off-putting, but it allows Grant to make a convincing depiction of two people slowly learning to love—and more importantly, respect—one another. It does end with a ‘happily ever after,’ of course, but a couple twists toward the end lead to somewhat unexpected outcomes. Along the way, there are laugh-out-loud moments (so glad no one was in the break room when I reading this over lunch break… there is no context in which “recalcitrant nipples” is an appropriate phrase for the workplace), hopeful moments, infuriating ones, and even a few suspenseful spells—a full course setting of emotional catharsis for the discerning romance reader.

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