Monday, February 13, 2006

SB Day: My adventures with True Crime and Gennita Low

It’s Smart Bitches Day once again, so as Beth says:

Write it!

Post it!

Comment to let us know!

Bask in the glory of your inner bitch!

To this I add, please feel free to bitch about anything book related, not just romance (don’t like the basic tenets followed in SciFi or Fantasy? Annoyed as all hell by the latest Patterson? Don’t get the popularity of the Jessica Fletcher novels? Let it out!), and go ahead and post your link here. You can be a smart bitch no matter your gender. It’s an honor, Man.

Oh yeah, and while you're at it, add any links to any--I repeat--any book review sites you know of no matter what the genre or grass-rooted-ness to this post. Let's all build a link archive together, shall we?

That said, let the bitching begin!

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I went through a True Crime phase when I was twelve or thirteen. I’ve always been fascinated by people and their behavior—legal and illegal—so one might think the natural progression to being a True Crime reader was always there, but I had an inciting moment: someone told me that Ted Bundy killed girls with straight hair, parted down the middle.

This freaked me out because I had straight hair (sometimes), and it parted down the middle (all the time). Suddenly I was convinced that Ted Bundy was going to come and get me. Sure he was in jail and on death row, but who knew when he would break out in a daring escape facilitated by a toothpick, a sheet and one well-darned sock, and come and get me! I had to be prepared. I had to read up!

Being the geek with an overactive imagination that I was, being uninformed was not an option.

Some might claim that this early exposure to actual documented violence (as opposed to fantasized video game/movie violence), might have tweaked me somehow, desensitized me to violence in the fictional form, but this argument is flawed. Reading True Crime, with its “just the facts, ma’am” relation of horrific (and now often sensationalized) events, let that wild imagination fill in the blanks. This, combined with events in the lives of those around me, actually left me with a very clear set of rules when it came to reading violence in fiction.

  • Less is more, always. No exceptions. The mind will fill in the blanks and the depths the human mind can plumb with are terrifying.

  • Very few people write violence well. Maybe its my police jargon upbringing, but often it seems that the narrator overcompensates by becoming too descriptive or just outlandish.

  • Often writers tell, not show, and in that telling they lose the impact, or abuse the situation.

  • When writers use “ripped from the headlines” plots, many become to focused on the research they put in, and it detracts from the character I should be pulling for (again, this is not all writers. See Tess Gerritsen for an example of how it should be done). I’m not reading for an info dump. I’m reading for a story, and one of that story’s plot threads just happens to be immediate in today’s world.

If these seem to contradict each other, I can only say that it is because a good author can get me to forget one of my points. A well-written story is a well-written story no matter the subject matter.

And I have just read a well-written story.

Gennita Low contacted me a few weeks ago and asked me if would be interested in reading an ARC of her latest book, Sleeping with the Agent. She was in the midst of switching publishers, wanted to get a handle on her own marketing situation—something I obviously approve of—and was trying to get her book out there to be reviewed by actual readers on the web. Since it was already out in stores and I had yet to set up any intermediary addresses to keep my anonymity (which I have now done), I told her I would try to grab a copy off the shelves. She cautioned me that it involved human trafficking, something that some readers might find offensive, and I have to admit that this gave me pause due to the points above.

It shouldn’t have.

Sleeping with the Agent, the third in a trilogy involving a SEAL/CIA (a branch known as GEMS) joint operation. The heroine of this book, Llallana Noretski, was one of the villains of the last novel (occupying a gray area as she was not completely responsible for her actions), and Reed, her hero, was on the SEAL team of one of the men she betrayed. Lily, as she’s known to her friends, was a former sex slave at an Eastern European brothel who was rescued by the CIA. Instead of just rehabilitating her and sending her on her way, Lily was brainwashed into believing that not she, but a non-existent sister was the sex slave (and still was), and turned her into the ultimate sleeper agent. Lily was a weapon and didn’t even know it, until she was triggered in the last book, betraying her friends, knocking out her lover, and almost blowing up a UN meeting.

Needless to say the woman has baggage.

What makes Low’s character different from all the other female characters with horrific pasts in romance is that Lily has done horrible things, and is willing to still do horrible things to protect the young former sex slaves in her care. Meanwhile she’s dealing with wondering if she’s crazy, whether she’ll be triggered again, and a flood of memories the CIA had locked away inside of her. In the hands of less gifted author, Lily would have dwelled, she would have been all inner monologue and no action, we the reader would have been subjected to revisiting the same horrific subject over and over again—in detail—until we threw the book against the wall.

Low doesn’t do that—at least not in this book—she gives us the “just the facts, ma’am” in Lily’s own voice. She shows us that this is a kick-ass, responsible, driven woman who has been shaped by her past and is working on letting it rule her. She allows Lily to come to the realizations that her unknown past had always been affecting her life just was we do.

And what I’m most thankful for is that she doesn’t try to convince us that Lily was a sexually scared woman just waiting for Reed to awaken her. She acknowledges that Lily has had other lovers, that sex was a form of dominance for her over her partner (a way of getting some back), and that she knew that something was wrong with the picture. What Reed offers her is different because he’s focused on her, and not his own needs, and gives her options.

It’s clear that Lily is forced to trust him early on (hey, they jumped off a ledge and into a river together), but it is a trust that he would have eventually earned without the dramatic event.

The human trafficking and the sleeper cell threads weren’t just plots, but elements that added to the characters on the page—specifically Lily’s character. Reed’s character, in this way, came out a little less defined (in this book at least) simply because his character had been shaped by earlier, and less trigger point, events. His relationship with Arch (his father figure character) and his mother was not as well defined as Lily’s past, because it wasn’t the subject of international espionage. Due to that his revelations later on in the story seemed out of place with the flow of the plot, perhaps because this is a book with so much happening on the international level.

While the book wasn’t perfect (I felt I was missing something by having not read the earlier books—which I will now do—that there was a slight underdevelopment of Reed’s character, and a few moments that went from limited pov to omniscient—a pet peeve of mine), it accomplished what it set out to do: take a gray character with a “ripped from the headlines” plot and make it a fast-paced, educating, enjoyable read. Low’s handling of her sensational subject matter in a tasteful, plot perfect way, along with the development of Lily’s characters as someone we want to cheer on, takes what could have been a wall-banger in less skillful hands, and turned it into an exciting end of what must have been an action-packed series.

Romance readers, who claim to read for escapism and not real life, should not be deterred from picking up this series. They’ll be missing out.

And no, this is not my True Crime infected brain talking. I ended that stage years ago, when I realized if I wanted True Crime I could just open up the paper or walk down the street. Obviously I like a little escapism too.


lady t said...

I went thru a True Crime phase myself(it happened between my Movie Star AutoBio and All Out Horror stints during my rather dull youth)-The Son of Sam was busted in my hometown and I remember the tension around the city before his capture(interestingly enough,Spike Lee's Summer of Sam movie shot the capture of SOS right in front of my building!)and there are plenty of great writers in that genre or atleast there were,back in the day.

Nowadays,there are too many quickie TC books out there-used to be someone would fully investigate the whole story plus the trial and then have a book out a few years later-due to the everexpanding media,there are about two or three books on a major crime out as fast as a Polaroid picture,well before,during and after the trial!

Good review,btw. Hope more folk slip some ARCS your way:)

Bookseller Chick said...

Lady T, I agree with you on the nature of True Crime as it is now. It's no longer about whether the crime is actually "solved" but about how much money can be made while the crime is in the spotlight. Do not get me started on the Peterson trial and its associated books. With the Green River, Ted Bundy, and Summer of Sam, the True Crime writers spent years putting together research and highlighting the ups and downs of the criminal investigation without the grandstanding.

And I hope people send some arcs my way too,