Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Jayne finds another book to feel smugly superior to

Hey, remember back in June I was going to do a book log once a week and then did one and then turned into a hermit never to be heard from again? Yeah, good times. I have emerged from my hermitude to do my favorite thing in the world: mock the hell out of something. Awhile ago I got a couple of gift cards to Borders. I picked up several books, some good, and others the literary equivalent to a bag of potato chips: contains no redeeming nutritional value but it's tasty and fills a craving. The potato chip book this time around was Doppelgangster by Laura Resnick.
As you can tell by the cover, this is one of those paint by the numbers urban fantasy books: cis white woman in skimpy dress holding a weapon while arching her impeccably plucked eyebrows to look menacing. By this we can deduce she is a Strong Female Character.

By now you should know that I love strong female characters--I hunger for them--but Strong Female Characters not so much. Having a female lead, either as protagonist or antagonist, who is fully developed and has flaws and ambitions and drive like a real live person is still relatively rare. What we get instead is the Strong Female Character, who is overwhelmingly a white, cis-gendered, thin woman, wearing revealing outfits--short dresses or skirts or sleeveless tops baring their midriff, maybe a tattoo or two, all the while giving bedroom eyes to the reader--who are two-dimensional, lazy cardboard cutouts that kick ass, because she is STRONG, because, you know, women can't be strong in other ways, like emotionally because that's icky girl stuff and no one wants that. Again, I enjoy seeing women kicking ass, but having them beat up men is lazy GRRRL POWER appropriation of feminism and limits them to caricatures.

Anyway, Esther, the star of Doppelgangster, fits this urban fantasy Strong Female Character to a tee. She is also dumber than a brick.

I picked up this book because it looked like a nice afternoon read and I was sort of hoping Esther would sort of be a female supernatural private eye (I am fond of both the Dresden Files and The Nightside series, but can we for once get a hard boiled private eye who just happens to be female? Or how about some diversity up in here? Urban fantasy is super rage inducing white and straight. I would shank someone for a queer poc protagonist), but alas, her fleeting charm does not last and I was able to get through about 90 pages before giving up.

Now, you might be wondering why I would devote an entire post to a book I did not finish and that answer, my friends, is that I love to mock everything and I also want an excuse to use my vast gif folder for evil. So mainly I will be discussing the failings of the book while using gifs to illustrate my reactions.

Apparently, this book is second in a series, so we start off with about three tons of exposition being dropped on our heads. We learn through Esther, because the book is written in first person, which seems to be the only point of view available to writers now, that Esther is bemoaning her lack of a love life because she killed a man.
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I would think that your love life would be the least of your concerns if you murdered a person, but then again I'm not a protagonist in a crappy genre book. Please continue. Turns out that Esther didn't actually kill someone, just helped. Well, that changes everything! Turns out Esther is an aspiring actress who is attempting to date a cop, so she wants to keep the whole accomplice to murder thing under wraps. Oh, and she's fighting Evil. Seriously, it's got a capital letter in the book, so we know she's a quirky, snarky woman and also that this is srs bsns.
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To make a long exposition short, Esther met and helped out Dr. Maxmillian Zadok, Manhattan's resident sorcerer and local rep of the Magnum Collesium, a secret organization devoted to wiping out Evil. In the course of helping him, Esther met Detective Lopez, her love interest, got saved from being eaten by a demon, and helped kill--or "dissolution," which is fancy sorcerer talk for straight up murder-- a dude who was trying to do Evil. There's more details, but, seriously, the only important thing is that Esther has firsthand hand, empirical proof that magic exists. This is really important to keep in mind for what happens later.

Our story proper opens up with this line: "The good-looking man standing in my doorway wanted to have sex with me."

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I am all for female characters' sexuality to be portrayed in a positive light and not give in to any slut shaming, but in trying to make Lopez and Esther's romance be cute, Resnick just succeeds in making it annoying as fuck. Like Mark Pellegrino, I am not impressed.

So the good looking man who wants to bone Esther is Connor Lopez, the guy she was attempting to date in the last book and hide the whole accomplice to murder thing from. He and Esther have a date that night, but Esther forgot because she just lost her job. She was a chorus girl in the musical Sorcerer!, which closed and she is now jobless. Also, she had been eating ice cream and then feeds Lopez some, which I guess is supposed to be flirty and cute and again comes across as those really annoying couples way into PDA who are convinced they are the cutest thing to ever cute in the history of cuteness. However, Esther is too upset to feel sexy, which is actually a real thing for women to feel and a nice touch from Resnick, so they thankfully stop looking longingly into each other's eyes.
Lopez gets some points for being understanding about why Esther doesn't want to go out, but loses them when he jokes about not getting sex. Oh god, Resnick is apparently fashioning this after Sex and the City, in that instead of portraying a relationship between a man and a woman who talk about their sex lives and what they both want and set up boundaries, we're just going to get a lot of cheap jokes like this one. Awesome.
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Esther gets a call from Stella, who offers Esther her old job of waitress at the restaurant Bella Stella. Bella Stella is a mafia hangout favored by the Gambello family. The restaurant was given to Stella by Handsome Joey Gambello, who had been her lover--Resnick's words not mine; I don't like the term lover--of about twenty years right up until he was assassinated in the bathroom. There's a tedious exchange where Lopez, while recognizing its their third date and their relationship is not at the point where he can make demands of her, argues it's not safe for Esther to work at Stella's because of all the mob killings going on, and Esther pointing out she needs a job and Stella has always given her one when she needed money. Lopez acquiesces because he's being transferred to Organized Crime Control Bureau and is all coyly, "At least I can keep an eye on you at Stella's," which is supposed to be cutesy and not at all patronizing.

Because of his transfer, Lopez has to go for training, which is going to keep him busy and away from Esther for a two weeks. What follows next is the most nauseating and lazy flirting I have ever read. I'm going to transcribe it so you can suffer with me.

Esther: So you were planning to wine and dine me tonight, and get me into bed, and then abandon me for two weeks?

Lopez: That was the plan.

Esther: I'm pretty sure that makes you a cad.

Lopez: I'm coming back. I just wanted to mark my territory before I go.

Esther: Mark your territory?

Lopez: A woman who could forget I was coming over tonight might forget me completely in two weeks. Unless I make a strong enough impression.

Esther: You're pretty confident about marking your territory.

Lopez: I just don't want some other guy stepping in while I'm off training to be a more effective officer of the peace.
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There's a little bit more about foot massages but this is the main part. Like I said, this is all supposed to be cutesy flirting, but it's problematic. By using this lazy shorthand of Lopez marking his territory, Resnick has played the sexism card. Esther, then, is not a woman who can make her own decisions about who she will or will not sleep with, but merely a passive object of desire, who has no sexual desires of her own and who needs a mark of a strong male to protect her from the others. This doesn't do much for Lopez either, since now he's a man ruled by his instincts and therefore when sex is on the table he must go all animalistic and mark her as his property. Instead of going down this sexist route that upholds strict gender roles and double standards, why not have Lopez and Esther agree that they're not in an open relationship and even if they're not having sex yet, they're still monogamous? It would almost be like they were--gasp!-- adults.
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I know I said this was a potato chip book, and it is, but that's still no excuse for lazy writing that upholds these sexist standards. Hell, Resnick could even still make it so that Lopez is awkwardly trying to ask Esther to be a couple while still flirting without the whole gross marking his territory joke. Not only would it not be sexist but it comes with the added benefit of not making me roll my eyes and hating Lopez.

Thankfully the next chapter has Esther working at Bella Stella and being hit on by some mafia wise guys. They're all basically stereotypes you'll find in any mob movie--think Goodfellows--but at least they have some personality, which is more then I can say for Lopez. One of the wise guys is retired button man Lucky Battistuzzi, who has a sort of big brother attitude towards Esther. Again, he's a caricature, but he's a fun one to have around.

We're introduced to Chubby Charlie Chiccante, a three hundred capo for the Gambello family. Part of the service at Stella's is for the waitresses to sing upon request of the customers. Esther sings for Charlie, who tips well if he likes your song. Afterwards he makes a pass at her, which she shoots down with a reference to her cop boyfriend, who presumably peed on her leg before leaving for his super cop training.

Lucky steps in when Chubby Charlie gets angry over the cop thing and leaves in a huff. There's some banter with Lucky, who blushes when Esther asks if he thinks about settling down with a woman. Like I said, a caricature he may be, but Lucky is oddly endearing, probably because, unlike Esther and Lopez, he's got a discernible personality.

Esther gets off shift and on her way out, runs into Chubby Charlie coming in. Esther asks why he's back, and Chubby Charlie insists this is the first time he's been at Bella Stella all day. Esther notices that his red hankerchief, which he prominently tucked into his pocket earlier is gone. And then we rehash the dating a cop dialogue from before, because it was so funny the first time around.

After what feels like 50 pages, Chubby Charlie finally goes inside Stella's, leaving a confused Esther behind. Hm, guys, it's almost like Chubby Charlie really wasn't there before. It's almost like he's got a doppleganger. Or, more accurate since he's a gangster, a dopplegangster!
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There's more banter with Lucky about if Esther was worried for Charlie, who she thinks may be having a kind of stroke, to light a candle at the church St. Monica's for him. We learn Esther is Jewish. No one cares.

We skip ahead to two days later when Charlie is back to Bella Stella, where he hasn't been eating his meal. Concerned, Esther goes to ask him if he's okay, and Charlie flips out. Charlie says he's been cursed. Esther is skeptical. He goes on to say he's seen his double, and to see your double is to be marked for death. Esther says he's probably having a stroke and should go to the hospital. Charlie repeats the whole having a perfect double and being marked for death thing. Esther continues to not get it. Charlie calls her a stupid broad, which is true. After telling Charlie to go to St. Monica's to get uncursed, Charlie repeats he's marked for death and then suddenly he's bleeding from a gunshot to his chest and dies.

On the back of the book is a review calling Esther a smart heroine, which is completely and utterly untrue. There are sponges smarter than Esther. As I earlier, Esther knows that magic and the supernatural exists. She was almost eaten by a demon, is friends with a 350 year old sorcerer, and, oh yeah, helped kill another evil sorcerer before he could carry out his vague Evil plans.

All this means is that, with prior interaction with Charlie, who insisted he was never at Bella Stella and was missing his handkerchief and this Charlie doing everything but using a flowchart to explain it to her, she should have, at least briefly, wondered if there was any truth to what he was saying about the double. It's not like this is the first book and the idea of magic being real is ridiculous. She knows it's real. I need my sassy gay friend for this.
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She really, really is.

The next chapter opens with Esther having the vapors from Charlie dying in front of her while cops swarm the scene. And who should be there but our very own territory marker! Lopez admits to his superior Detective Paul Napolie that he knows her. Before we get caught in another tedious Esther/Lopez exchange, Lucky shows up, who lets out that Esther has been calling Lopez her boyfriend. Napolie, who is actually professional, sees there's a problem with Lopez's girlfriend being the witness and Lopez working the case, while Lopez is just, "You've been saying I'm your boyfriend?" There's a lot of Lopez and Esther sort of arguing about the way their relationship his moving, and then there are rumors about them getting married, and I realize I've become stuck in a crappy romcom.
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Napolie and Lopez want to take Esther into protective custody as she has witnessed a mob hit, which she turns down. She gives her statement again on what happened, emphasizing she saw nothing, and they take her to OCCB's headquarters. This chapter has contributed nothing to the plot.

The next chapter starts opens with like 80 pages of Esther and Napolie going over the "you saw something/no I didn't" exchange for the bajillionth time.
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Finally, Esther goes home, where she hopefully has a defibrillator to jump start the plot again. The next morning Lucky calls, which means that I won't have to listen to Esther rehash what we already know in her inner monologue. Lucky wants her to meet him at St. Monica's. Lucky's been instructed to find out who killed Charlie and Esther is the last one to see him alive and witness the hit he needs to talk to her. And I guess St. Monica's is a safe place to talk.

Once at the church, they see Elena, who Lucky is sweet on. It's actually a sweet little scene where he admits to Esther that Elena might not like him but she's coming around. If only the Esther/Lopez romance were as cute as the one between the retired hitman and the snobby widow.

Esther tells Lucky what Charlie said to her and then Lucky, using small words and finger puppets, finally gets Esther to realize that Chubby Charlie actually did have a doppleganger, and it was the double that killed him. I'm going to nominate Lucky for sainthood because that was a freaking miracle.
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Esther takes Lucky to go see Max, the sorcerer who kills dudes he deems Evil. Max's front is an old bookshop, because even sorcerers fear the IRS. They hear an explosion and hurry downstairs, where they hear something like a demon growling and man crying out in pain. Waving away smoke, they see Max rolling around with a giant tan dog. And this is where it get ridiculous. More ridiculous.

Resnick attempts slapstick. Now, the problem with slapstick is that is a visual medium and translating that to prose is difficult--the comedic value comes from being able to see it playing out. There are writers that can pull it off; Resnick is not one of them. So what we get is a recitation of events, which would be vastly more entertaining if we could see them happening. As it is, it's just another tedious fail scene in a book full of them.
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After the slapstick, Max explains that the dog is actually a familiar named Nelli. I assume this will be important later. Apparently a signature of Resnick's writing is to over explain everything, so there's like three pages devoted mainly to the familiar, with a little comedic relief thrown in by Lucky offering to help Max take care of his IRS problem. I keep wondering when we'll get to the point of all of this.

After about three years, Esther and Lucky finally get around to telling Max about Lucky. Turns out that the doppleganger is a rare phenomenon. It's a traditional potent or omen, rather then something that actually kills people. Max explains for us readers who didn't get this fifty pages ago that it is a perfect double. Apparently Resnick believes that her writing is so subtle that we won't get the intricacies unless she explains it elevenity hundred times.
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Then there is delightful misunderstanding where Lucky asks if the dopplegangster whacked Charlie, and Max misunderstands what he means. This exchange is repeated another three times with minor changes. I can actually feel my brain shut down in an act of self-preservation.
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Then there's a haunted cabinet, which Lucky takes in stride because his grandmother had one. Oh, Lucky, why can't you be our stereotypical wiseguy narrator instead of Esther? Esther says she's tired from her day of accomplishing nothing and wants to go home. Proving again that he's smarter and more likable, Lucky asks if Esther's in danger from witnessing the hit. Max says no and that it's probably an isolated incident that won't happen again. The chapter ends with this: "At the time, it seemed like a reasonable supposition."--I call bullshit that Esther would know that word.--"We had no way of knowing then just how wrong it was."

Chapter six opens with "Chorus girl witnesses mob hit! was the first headline I saw on my walk home from the subway station." And this is the point where I abandoned the book because I just could not care even a little bit.
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The book itself is not terribly written. The prose is serviceable and the plot, if it ever gets off the ground, would probably be fun. The problem is that her main character and narrator is not likeable in the longterm and also is really stupid. Also, Resnick keeps repeating comedic elements--like the misunderstanding of words or the sad romcom elements of Lopez and Esther--over and over when they weren't that funny the first time around.

The pacing is also slow as fuck, because Resnick overexplains everything and keeps revisiting facts we already know. The events that take place in the first 90 pages could have been accomplished in about forty if Resnick would refrain from repeatedly explaining plot elements and tighten up and pare down each scene so that the plot can actually move forard. If she did this I would probably finish the book. But she didn't so I didn't, so we'll never know if Esther gets smarter or Lopez peeing on her pays off and they finally have sex.

Also, since I couldn't work this into the review, I will leave you with this glorious gif:
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1 comment:

Mellon said...

I stumbled over your blog some months ago (around christmas I believe) and I've been reading most of your older posts. Before I go on I have to thank you for every single Batman or Alan Moore related posts cause they have been (and still are) making my day every time I read them.
So, once I was done reading every post ever written I was sad because I there was nothing left to read. Yes, I have a lot of spare time and I am that pathetic. Anyway, I have been checking in on you guys from time to time and when I saw that you'd made a new post I was happy. When I saw that it included GIFs I was even more happy.
This comment has grown quite long so I'll stop writing. I guess what I'm trying to say is; you're all awesome and thank you for making me laugh! Keep it up! 8D