Monday, July 30, 2012

Book Review: Oranges and Lemons by Liz Bugg

Oranges and Lemons by Liz Bugg is a lesbian mystery that was actually rather good. Not only did it have a  fantastic cover, but it had editing, characters and plot (although it fizzled out towards the end).Set in Canada, it features the staunch but imperfect PI, Calli Barnow, a very butch lesbian who is drawn into working undercover in an advertising agency, in order to solve certain financial irregularities. Oh, and her girlfriend wants to get married.

I haven't actually read many lesbian mysteries, but this one was better than Sleeping Bones by Katherine V. Forrest [review] and almost as good as the Aud Torvingensen books by Nicola Griffith. It's part of a series, which I didn't know when I picked it up, but figured out fairly quickly, as our lead is emotiionally traumatised, and meets people she knows, from previous events. I will say that the cover looked fantastic and had be wanting to read the book from the moment I held it (it looks better in print than it does on the screen).

There was not enough actual scene setting or recapping, though, despite all the hints, and it's probably worth reading the first book, Red Rover, first. My review of Oranges and Lemons is going to be entirely from the perspective of not having read it, though. It's probable that the frustrations I did have would have been mended by knowing more of the backstory and knowing the characters better. But books still need to stand on their own. That's going to be a central criticism throughout this review! (It was a pretty good book, it just had some issues that inspired a great deal of analysis).

Characters & Plot
We open with a boxing scene, which tells us that our character is insecure, butch, in her forties, trying to get physically fit and has a partner. To my disappointment, the boxing - something that I would assume becomes a fairly significant investment of time and training - is only mentioned one more time, in a failed attempt at hitting someone. It told us so much, and then just disappeared.

Anyway, we learn a bit about Calli's office, and then a rich corporate lady, who's a bit of a ditz business-wise, turns up with her dedicated, old lady, backbone of the establishment assistant. Turns out there are some weird financial irregularites in their advertising department, and Calli is hired against her better judgement to go undercover. But at least it comes with a hotel suite - a pity that she has to wear the heels, makeup and new wardrobe to match.

The old lady turns up dead shortly after, in a screamingly obvious suspicious coincidence, and Calli plunges into getting to know her new associates, interviewing dissatisfied clients, bringing in a drag queen friend as a distraction and getting help from more computer literate friends. It's generally believable, full of interesting characters and a good set up for solving a mystery.

And then somebody dies (contrary to the blurb, she does not 'stumble across the body', simply turns up after he dies and the police have arrived) and it all gets thrown out the window as the main culprits and victims start cracking. Well, no, that's not entirely true; they do slog through the computers and find evidence and hold an interview challenging the suspect, but it all ends up seeming a little pointless, as the main villain of the piece ends up taking matters into his own hands, rather than anyone actually being able to solve everything. He calls Calli out to meet him, which she very stupidly does, although that's partly understandable as she had been up for goodness knows how long, seen someone commit suicide, and had just left her mother in hospital (her mother's only role appears to have been to exhaust Calli, though). The last part of the book is mostly Calli and the villain together, and the villain explains the (multiple) intricate plots of money and embezzlement and murder that he has been involved in, including one that Calli never suspected and - while it does fit into the background story - was never really worked into the main story. It would have been a fascinating bit of motivation and additional depth, if it had been followed through a bit more later on.

In around this, we read a lot about Calli's relationship with Jess. Calli and Jess are a classic butch-femme couple who have been together 'a while'. Jess is an attractive, needy, flirty, Chinese American woman, who has two loving parents (which is where the Chinese American aspect comes in) and decides she wants to get married. Calli is caught flatfooted by this, and slowly wrestles with the idea of actual commitment, rather than running screaming (something she apparently would have done once).

Most of the personal subplot revolves around Calli coming to terms with the idea of marriage, and settling down permanently, Jess getting excited about the idea, and Calli displaying (privately) all her insecurities and character flaws. Apart from being well written, and full of interesting personal growth (though I don't think I could have read an entire book dedicated to Calli being Scared of Marriage - at least, not one more overt about it!), it also focuses on a moment in lesbian relationships that we don't often read about. It's after the falling in love and new romance, and long before the happy permanent couple; it's the reasonably committed and in love pair that has decided that they might as well go the whole way. It's the point that usually only becomes the main feature of a story when the two split up instead.

Calli's personal life and her job get fairly equal time, and end up blurring into one. I'm still torn on whether this ended up being a good or bad thing for the story; the personal life was generally strong and showed us most of Calli's personal development and character flaws, but it also lacked the most backstory, and seemed to come at the expense of the 'main' story. That might be the problem, actually, the assumption that the mystery Calli is hired to solve is the main story, when instead, it's a story about Calli and her continued life and personal development. The former stands alone much better than the latter.

Calli as the Personal Investigator
I'm really torn on whether Calli's actions were a good or a bad aspect of the book. She is the narrator and main character, so she is most of the story in herself. Her internal thoughts and actions led me to believe that she was a pretty tough cookie, an experienced PI, who's been around and has police contacts, and is somewhat traumatised by an unknown event in a previous book (and a little more elaboration on that would really have helped, if only to indicate what is likely to be a trigger and how), and generally recommended by people. She clearly showed actual character growth, and her personal life was a mixture of domestic and sexy bliss, and Tough Butch clashes/puts up with dainty Femme.

But I don't know what she actually normally does, not really. It was made clear that the undercover job was unusual, but I don't know if that's because it was a weird thing to ask for, or if it's just a bit outside of Calli's area of expertise. I don't know whether she's better at talking to people and gathering data, or if she normally just stalks them around the streets, or what. I think she's more of a 'cheating spouse' investigator, but for all I know, she could do arson cases. There are hints throughout the book that she doesn't do violent stuff, like murder, but because the default assumption for a PI in a mystery is that sooner or later, Crime Happens and it will probably become a murder mystery, then we don't really believe it. Especially when there are just as many hints about her ending up in the middle of a homicide case in the last book.

Why does this matter? Well, because her case does fall apart, people do die, and she remains completely, almost deliberately, oblivious to the fact that she's the main character in a murder mystery. Ergo, they might actually be murders. Once she's forced to admit this, she starts getting properly suspicious, but still! Her best scenes involve her interrogating, or networking to solve her problems, and again, I don't know if it was chance or experience that meant she could do those things.

And when she ends up in the middle of the drama, she pretty much falls apart. Sure, she's utterly exhausted and caught off guard and emotionally wrung out, but it felt like that was put in in order to give her an excuse not to do anything. So the ending of the book is a rather long section in which she walks right into a trap, makes a pathetic attempt at self defense, is kidnapped and forced to drive around and held under the gun, and basically just gives up. And I spent this time veering between 'this is a normal reaction that people have and she's a wreck to start with' and 'I thought dealing with whackos was her job? Even if she doesn't seek out the nastier crimes, surely she's had some experience and training?'.

The ending itself was a cop out, with her getting rescued and leaving me trying to figure out how they followed her, knew she was in trouble, and managed to get away with it. Sure, there were hints as to how, but not actually explaining it felt like lazy writing. And then it ends. And there is no goddamn conclusion. I know some authors like to end with the action and not put people through tedious wrapping up scenes, but seriously, a little more winding down and explaining and sorting out the mess would have been appropriate. Sure, the villain monologues a lot of it, but we can't trust him, our protagonist is half asleep anyway, and we don't know what they did to tidy up after him.

For example: it was made pretty clear that the creative team weren't team players, but how much was active obstruction and how much was just them being random or perfectionist? What happened to the tweets the villain was sending out? (A neat way to get insight into his thoughts, and perspective on Calli, but it felt like a loose plot thread as well).

The romance and marriage subplot was decent; it was nice to read an established lesbian couple, learn about their growth and lack of perfection, and watch them move actively towards a happily ever after.

The detective-mystery aspect wasn't so good - it started out strong and raised my hopes excessively, which may be why I criticised the end game so much. It wasn't that it wasn't an interesting story, and that Calli was an interesting character, but she was so clearly in over her head, or in a field completely sideways to her usual job, and the mystery basically solved itself, once events had moved along enough. The flashes of competency and behind the scenes work just made the rest of her detecting more obviously lacking.

If anything, if this was a 'real' person, I'd say that either she needs a lot more training, or she needs to learn how to separate her personal life and her job. She wastes a lot of energy dealing with her personal traumas and her personal romantic issues. Frustratingly, while her job was clearly her priority in the book, the romantic couple issues seemed to come at the expense of the story itself. And that's really frustrating, because it was a nice, strong side story. I'm not sure if it just came to life and strangled the main mystery a bit, or if the main plotline just didn't shine so well in comparison.

 The writing style and scenes and conversations had no irritating quirks, and were generally well written. Enough so that I am almost completely ignoring them in favour of griping about the ending!
I suspect the lack of back story (we need details, dammit!) is a major lurking factor behind most of my discontents. Without reading the first book, it's not an interesting progression in the characters' stories, and how they moved on, it's a story that doesn't quite stand on its own, and the answers to all the questions I have are probably floating around in the first book.

Overall, it's a perfectly decent story, and the main character is enough of a hook that I'd be interested in reading more books about her. I'm still not sure how I feel about mystery-romances in general, and this may be colouring my review; they are a very distinct subgenre, but I guess I like my mysteries to be less diluted with romantic subplots. Unless they're really good.

Oh, and it's properly edited. That's always worth mentioning.

You can buy Oranges and Lemons as a paperback or Kindle ebook on Amazon, as well as Red Rover, the first book in the series.

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this review! Liz Bugg's books are on my to-read list and I've never been a mystery reader, so it's nice to her the perspective of someone who knows about them!