Catching Up: The Cutting Season and In the Bleak Midwinter

These past couple of weeks… no, wait, it’s actually been more like a month, hasn’t it? Whew. This past month has been a killer. The start of school has thrown me off more than usual this year, because I’ve got more responsibilities than I normally have, and keeping my plates spinning on top of all my sticks has kept me so busy that I’ve scarcely had time to read anything, let alone blog about it. (This is unheard-of for me since almost 20 years ago in graduate school.) I’m several books behind in my blogging, so I thought I would put two together here, since they have something in common: Teresa has already written excellent reviews of them, so I don’t have to!

The first is In the Bleak Midwinter, by Julia Spencer-Fleming. I actually read this because of Teresa’s glowing review — I always take her word on books she loves, and mysteries are no exception. In this case, I agree with everything she says in her review: the wonderful sense of place, the excellent characterization of the two main characters, the nice pacing of the mystery itself. I did have a couple of complaints that Teresa couldn’t have foreseen. One was that most of the other characters (not Clare Fergusson, the priest, and Russ Alstyne, the cop) were pretty flat. There wasn’t anyone who could have been a best friend or a confidant to either one of them. One pleasure of really great mysteries is a large cast of memorable characters, and that was lacking here.

The other complaint I had is probably just my issue. I have an adopted daughter, and I am extremely sensitive to adoption issues. One of the main storylines in In the Bleak Midwinter is a baby who is left on the church doorstep, and the church, the police, and various families are left to deal with the aftermath. To be honest, I hated how every single person handled it, with the possible exception of the foster mother. I found it insensitive and full of improbable loose ends. I was kind of mad at the book by the end, and even though other books are unlikely to feature more babies on doorsteps, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read more. Convince me!

The second book that Teresa reviewed beautifully for me is The Cutting Season, by Attica Locke. I read Locke’s first novel, Black Water Rising, last year, and was completely engaged by it, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to read this one.

Once again, Teresa’s review hit all the points I was going to address. I was especially struck by the way the novel appears to be a fairly straightforward whodunit — who killed the girl who was found buried on the plantation? — but in fact, Locke weaves questions of race, gender, and power dynamics into every aspect of the novel. The character of Caren Gray — the daughter of servants and the descendant of slaves, educated at law school but not a lawyer, single mother, boss at the plantation, employee of the white plantation owner — is herself a perfect storm of power, race, and gender contradictions. And the migrant cane workers, reflecting in their fragile status the modern equivalent of slavery, call out the hypocrisy of Belle Vie as a venue for weddings and school trips.

One of the things I liked best about this book (and about Black Water Rising) is that much of this dynamic is not spelled out. As Teresa said, Locke permits us to be frustrated with Caren’s choices, and to understand her on her own terms. If she’s afraid of the police, Locke doesn’t explain why: she allows us to feel that fear and understand it in our bones, whether we’ve experienced racial profiling or not. It’s a book that treats its readers as intelligent and experienced. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Teresa for such great reviews, and for letting me lean on them! I’ll be back in proper form soon, I hope.

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9 Responses to Catching Up: The Cutting Season and In the Bleak Midwinter

  1. I wonder if anyone would take up the challenge of writing a series where every book began with a baby on the doorstep?! A bit Calvino-esque, perhaps. I can’t decide about In the Bleak Midwinter. The religion and the leads’ attraction challenged my comfort zone, and her inability to go and get the right sort of clothes just pushed me over the edge.

    • Jenny says:

      Ha ha! Calvino-esque, that’s exactly what it would be. I would love to read that series. I was quite comfortable with the religion part (I am Episcopalian, and it seemed natural) and I didn’t mind the leads’ attraction, as long as they deal with it. But the clothes I agreed with! She’s ex-military! She would know that!

  2. I just picked up The Cutting Season from my library yesterday and I can’t wait to read it. I keep hearing good things. Mysteries aren’t my usual thing but I wanted to expand my horizons and I keep hearing good things about this one.

  3. Alex says:

    The Locke has had a series of excellent reviews in the UK, more so than the previous book I think. Certainly, it has made me think that I ought to go back and start to read my way through the author’s work chronologically – my favourite way.

    • Jenny says:

      I always like to read an author’s works in order, too, though honestly for this author it really doesn’t matter, because they are stand-alones and don’t even take place in the same area. But both come highly recommended from me, and I’ll be looking out for more.

  4. Teresa says:

    I don’t disagree with your complaints about In the Bleak Midwinter, but those things didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book. I don’t really look for large and appealing casts in mysteries–that’s something I’m more likely to take pleasure in on a reread. (Probably goes along with my inability to keep track of large casts and remember character names.) And I think Clare and Russ’s lack of other potential friends was a contributing factor in their attraction to each other. If either had a good friend, that tension could largely be short-circuited. I’m interested to see how Spencer-Fleming handles all that because it could go colossally wrong in so many ways.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, but surely — in Laurie King, aren’t Mahmoud and Watson and Mycroft and the Green Man and Mrs. Hudson and so forth part of the attraction for you? They are real people, not stock characters. Same for Dorothy Sayers. I do agree that the lack of other friends was a contributing factor to their attraction, though. They both seem lonely. And I’m interested to see where that goes, too!

      • Teresa says:

        It’s not that I don’t enjoy great supporting characters. I do! But I also don’t miss them when they’re not there, as long as the leading characters are solid. I suppose if the supporting characters were truly atrociously written, that would bother me, but these supporting characters were mostly just one-dimensional. And actually, with Sayers, it wasn’t until the second read that a lot of her background characters started to gel as full-bodied people for me.

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