Saturday, January 17, 2015

Review: QUEENPIN by Megan Abbott

queenpin megan abbott

On the surface, a young woman appears to be a good girl: going to school to be a secretary, not sleeping around, taking care of her dad. But on the inside, she craves danger, action, excitement. And when her dad gets her a job at a casino, the world of bookies, gangsters, liars, and gamblers pulls her in. Soon she catches the eye of Gloria Denton, a cash handler for the big boys. Gloria offers her everything a woman could ask for–a swank apartment in the ritzy part of town, fabulous clothes, jewelry, fancy dinners out, cocktails every night, and a job making the rounds of every casino and track in town. But is Gloria her fairy godmother, or her evil stepmother?

I've seen Queenpin around the blahgs a few times over the years and always wanted to read it, but it wasn't until I saw Jessica's post on neo-noir over at Book Riot that I decided to take the plunge. I'm so glad I did! Queenpin is not what I usually read at all–it's hard-core noir. No one in this book is a hero, everyone betrays everyone else, and there's no redemption for the main character. I don't think I've ever read a novel this dark and cynical of my own volition. But at the same time, Queenpin tells a completely gripping story with fantastic, gritty writing that totally sucked me in and invaded my dreams.

In a lot of ways Queenpin reminds me of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier: our narrator is an unnamed, relatively innocent young girl who becomes fascinated, perhaps even obsessed, with a femme fatale who seems to represent everything a woman should be and everything she's not. "A woman of 36, dressed in black satin with a string of pearls," is how the heroine of Rebecca puts it, except I suspect Gloria is considerably older than 36.

In a few respects Gloria is a mother figure to the heroine, but really there's something more possessive and vaguely sexual about their relationship than a typical mother/daughter dynamic. When the heroine starts sleeping with Vic, a gambling addict, she acts more like a wife trying to hide her lover from her husband than a woman who's dating a guy her boss (or mom, for that matter) would find inappropriate. At one point Gloria tells her, "You're mine. Whoever put those marks on you might as well have put marks on me."

Which brings me to the major difference between Rebecca and Queenpin (aside from, you know, setting and genre and themes. Most things, really): there's no prince charming. Vic has all the charm of Maxim de Winter, but he's without a doubt a complete loser and a terrible person. Yet you can totally understand why the heroine goes for him–it's all about lust, and their scenes together are probably some of the hottest, yet-not-in-any-way-graphic scenes I've ever come across in a book. You can FEEL how they're using each other and it's compelling stuff. Sex, drugs, and rock n roll, baby. The heroine wants it all, and she wants it now, and that kind of greed fits perfectly into her relationship with Vic.

Obviously things do not end well for Vic and our nameless narrator. A gambling addict and a woman who collects gambling profits for gangsters? Yeah, that's a great combo. But the fact that he's the completely wrong person is part of his appeal to the narrator, too.

I'll be honest: as things went from bad to worse in Queenpin, the book started giving me nightmares. What happened to Vic in particular, even though he had it coming (everyone gets what was coming to them in this novel, and seeing as how they're all awful, it's nothing good), was just horrible horrible. Yet I think that speaks more to the intensity of the book than any gratuitous violence in it–I never once considered abandoning it. Like the heroine, I was hooked on the story and determined to follow the actions of these characters to their inevitable conclusion, no matter how bad it got.

Basically, Queenpin is REALLY good. If you want a noir novel with a feminine twist, you can't go wrong with this one. Raymond Chandler couldn't have written a better crime novel. I am definitely going to dig into more of Megan Abbott's noir fiction... although I may wait awhile for the aftereffects of Queenpin to wear off before I do.

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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Should You Get a Kindle Voyage?

kindle voyage shelfie

If you like tech stuff, and you like to read, chances are you have an ereader of some sort. Aside from my phone and iPad, I've had a Kindle Paperwhite for the last two years and loved it. However, this year Amazon came out with an improved ereader, the Kindle Voyage, that I super duper wanted and got for Christmas. Yay!

So, the question is: If you're thinking of replacing your older Kindle with the Kindle Voyage, or looking to get a dedicated ereading device (as opposed to just using your phone), is the Voyage worth it? I'm here to break it down for you!


On the surface, the differences between the Kindle Voyage and Paperwhite seem minor:

  • There's no "ridge" between the frame and the screen
  • You can now set the backlight to auto-adjust
  • There are buttons on the side that can turn pages in addition to the touch screen
  • The screen itself is much "crisper" (300 ppi as opposed to the Paperwhite's 212, whatever that means)
  • And it's slightly smaller and noticeably lighter (6.4 x 4.5", versus the Paperwhite's 6.7 x 4.6")

In practice, however, these small changes on the Voyage make a big difference! I love having the buttons on the side in case I'm holding it with my left hand, and I like not having to think about adjusting the lighting every time I move from indoors to outdoors or a bright room to a darker room. The smooth surface of the screen makes it much easier to turn pages via the touch screen, the lightness of the Voyage means it's super easy to carry around, and Amazon has done a good job of nearly eliminating the "etch-a-sketch effect" that was a hallmark of the early Kindles and Nooks.

The browser–which you can use to buy or borrow books via Amazon–is also VASTLY improved from the Paperwhite's. It runs quickly and smoothly and makes for a better buying experience. With the Paperwhite I would put it down to download books over my phone before I'd use its built-in browser.


As I've mentioned before, covers are a BFD for me. I loved both the classic Kindle and Paperwhite's covers. LOVED them. For the Kindle Voyage, on the other hand... well, it's been a bit of a journey.

ACcase Smart Shell Kindle Voyage cover

The first cover I bought was the ACcase Smart Shell Case. The color was very pretty, but the surface was extremely slippery, and there was a slight gap between the front of the cover and the Kindle. However, once I started reading with the cover flipped back, the slipperiness wasn't a problem and I liked the feel of it in my hands.

flintie protective leather cover for kindle voyage

However, I was somewhat unsatisfied and pretty sure there HAD to be a better cover out there. Which is why I decided to purchase another cover, the Flintie Protective Leather Cover. This one was not slippery. Yay! However, it felt cheap and dinky, and there was a much more significant gap between the cover on this one and the screen of the Kindle than there was with the ACcase cover. I DON'T LIKE GAPS. I used this cover for about an hour before switching back to the first one.

origami kindle voyage cover
No gaps!

And then I finally broke down and bought the Amazon-designed Voyage cover, which they call the Origami. The biggest negative with this one is it's expensive, like fifty freakin dollars (compared to the first two, which were around twelve dollars each). Uhg. BUT. But! It's also fantastic. The surface of the cover is pleasantly grippy and not slippery, the front locks securely in place to both the Kindle screen and the back of the cover using magnets, and I love the origami feature that allows you to fold the cover and prop up the Kindle for easy reading while eating or cooking.

So basically: the Amazon-designed cover is once again totally worth the price. If you're being particularly frugal for some reason, though, the ACcase is a not-completely-sucky alternative.

Minor Annoyances

The Kindle Voyage also comes with some minor, possibly-to-become-major-PITA annoyances that are worth mentioning.

First and foremost, I don't know if this just my device or what, but the thing in the lower left-hand corner that tells you where you're at in the book is IMPOSSIBLE TO CHANGE. On the Paperwhite, it's easy to tap and switch between what page you're on, how many minutes you have left in the chapter, how many in the book, etc. Yes, that info's usually wrong, but hey. I like to stay misinformed.

On the Voyage I can't even do that! If I tap on it nothing happens, unless I tap on the top to get the summary view, then return to the page view and THEN tap. I can see this sending me into Hulk Mode on a bad day.

Also the auto-adjust feature, while nice, is overly sensitive. One minor tilt of the screen can send the screen into bright light or no light mode. However, I can turn off the auto-adjust if it ever gets to be too annoying.

Those are really my only complaints so far.


Purchasing the Voyage as a replacement for an older Kindle or as a dedicated ereader is definitely worth it! The changes to the device make using it feel much more intuitive and require less "thinking" on the reader's part than any of the previous Kindles. So far I'm definitely happy with it.

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Friday, January 2, 2015

Review: THE DEVIL'S GRIN by Annelie Wendeberg

the devil's grin cover

By day, Dr. Anton Kronberg is one of the leading bacteriologists in the world. By night, Anton becomes Anna, a nurse living in the worst slum in London. Since women are barred from practicing medicine, Anna pretends to be a man so she can pursue her passion for science. No one's ever seen through her disguise–no one except the famous consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes. Now Anna and Sherlock must work together to solve the mysterious death of a man found floating in the Thames. Was it disease, or murrrrrderrrrr? I'm guessing the latter.

I have mixed feelings on The Devil's Grin. The story moves very fast, I loved Anna, and the mystery was somewhat chilling. But there seemed to be a lot of gaps in logical storytelling, and by the end I found myself wondering why Sherlock was included in the book at all (aside from marketing, of course).

I'm always a little hesitant going into crossdressing stories like this because they tend not to resonate with me (one word: Yentl. Uhg), but actually the crossdressing was one of the least-problematic aspects of the book. What did bother me was that Wendeberg took what started off as a very interesting character and turned her into something over-the-top and cartoonish. So not only is Anna a crossdressing, famous scientist, she runs through the woods barefoot like a little gazelle and swims in lakes on the moors. Naked. At night. In my head, I was picturing those drawings by (male, naturally) explorers of Indian women swinging from trees bare-breasted. Realism! Anna also exposes her naked self to Sherlock. Cuz, you know, why would a Victorian female who spends most of her life hiding the fact that she's a woman have body issues, AMIRITE?

The investigation also didn't seem like it progressed logically–or, to be more specific, the solution to the problem that Anna came up with didn't seem like a good default option. SPOILERS AHEAD, YE'VE BEEN WAAARNED: When Anna and Sherlock discover that the murder victim came from an asylum where they're performing medical experiments on their patients, Anna's solution is to:

  1. get a grant to study the diseases they're experimenting with; 
  2. become the world's leading expert on said diseases; 
  3. lure them into asking her to work with them (see: become an expert); 
  4. gain their trust; and finally, 
  5. expose their activities. 

This, she says, is the ONLY WAY TO STOP THEM. What? Huhn? There are a lot of assumptions running through that plan. What if she doesn't get the grant? What if they move on to other diseases by the time she's an expert? Meanwhile, there are a bunch of people still being experimented on and dying! Why didn't she and Sherlock do what they ended up doing anyway and just call the police to raid the asylum? Sure, they found a few more of the people working behind the scenes to run the experiments by following Anna's plan, but they probably could have discovered all that just as easily through other investigative methods. I would have expected Sherlock to be more dedicated to the principle of Occam's razor.

And speaking of Sherlock: let's be honest, the only reason I decided to read this book was because Sherlock Holmes was in it. Yet I wasn't very impressed by his role in the story. He never actually investigates anything–indeed, he doesn't seem to think there *is* anything to investigate (to be fair, he's mostly right). And the "romance" between him and Anna made me roll my eyes. Part of the Sherlock canon is that he's asexual. I'm not opposed to breaking the canon, but if you're going to do it you have to do it in a convincing way–like in the Mary Russell series, for example. Here it just felt rushed and uninformed. Wendeberg could have given Holmes another name and made him just another detective, and I never would have identified him as based on Sherlock Holmes.

This all makes it sound like I hated The Devil's Grin (additional question: what is the meaning of this title?), but I actually didn't. It was an overall enjoyable read with some weird moments. And honestly, I'm not sure I would have enjoyed it as much if it HADN'T had those WTF moments. Without them I might have (probably) gotten bored. Also, how many books do you read with crossdressing female detectives? Not a bunch!

Since this is a fairly original book and a very fast read, I'm willing to forgive a lot. I'll probably wind up reading the second book in this series (against my better judgment, what there is of it). If Sherlockian books about Victorian lady scientists who don't put up with any crap are of interest to you, definitely give The Devil's Grin a shot.

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