J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

The Altar Girl: Black souls wear white shirts.

I did something out of character this past week. I read a book. That’s not the part that’s out of character, obviously.

No, the part that departed from my typical MO is that I read a book because it was free, and not because I was particularly interested in the subject matter. I’m typically of the belief that the real price of books isn’t the money you pay for them – it’s the time you spend reading them. There are SO MANY great books out there to read that I don’t want to spend my time on something mediocre when there’s always something interesting on the horizon waiting for me. But this time, for some reason, I made an exception.

Amazon was giving away a free book on Kindle. The only catch was that I had to choose from four books. Of those four, The Altar Girl was the only one whose synopsis didn’t make me cringe.

That being said, let’s not make that into a backhanded compliment. It actually did sound interesting. It reads like this:

The daughter of uncompromising Ukrainian immigrants, Nadia was raised to respect guts, grit, and tradition. When the events around the seemingly accidental death of her estranged godfather don’t add up, Nadia is determined to discover the truth—even if she attracts the attention of dangerous men intent on finding out what she knows through any means possible.

Her investigation leads her to her hometown and to the people least likely to welcome her back: her family.

In this thrilling prequel to the Nadia Tesla series, Nadia must try to solve the mystery surrounding her godfather’s death—and his life. The answers to her questions are buried with the secrets of her youth and in post–World War II refugee camps. What Nadia learns will change her life forever.

The concept interested me, mostly because of learning more about Ukrainian-American culture, which has become very topical in world news. Not to mention, I enjoy a well crafted mystery/thriller.

Did this book deliver on that? Was it worth the time?

What I liked:

Nadia Tesla.I’ve said this many times, but I’ll say it again. For a novel with a first person POV to work, you have to like the POV character. The biggest and only exception I can think of is Catcher in the Rye. I’ve had my books turned down by agents because they didn’t “fall in love with” my first person character (which is okay, I sort of designed it that way at the starting point. Mostly because the POV was partially inspired by Catcher in the Rye. Surprise!), and the main reason I’ve not touched the Sookie Stackhouse novels is because I cannot stand Sookie’s POV.

There is absolutely none of that issue here. Nadia is a pretty interesting character. She has money from a previous high profile corporate job, but she’s unemployed. She’s had issues with her weight, and her love of junk food is mentioned many times, but she’s good looking enough for a doorman at a strip club to mistake her for a job applicant. She can be firm, strong, and independent, but still winces when she clashes with her family. She’s had survival training from a WW2 refugee, but she lives in New York City, most decidedly not a place where you need to know how to forage for food and start a fire from nothing.

Basically, she is very human, and very fallible. She’s smart, but not on the level that you usually find in the protagonist in a murder mystery. And why should she be? She’s not a detective. This story reads like the adventures of someone who works a 9-5 job bumbling into a darker underworld, and not giving up because of a heady combination of stubbornness and loyalty to their deceased godfather. She makes mistakes. Her guesses and hunches are usually wrong. Sometimes she’s downright oblivious to the actual truth. And the only way she gets by is by a small margin of luck and some timely help from the people who care about her.

I loved all of it. This book is billed as a prequel, so maybe she’s a better sleuth in the other installments, but I enjoyed how flawed she was in this one.

The mystery. In my opinion, to be good, a mystery/thriller needs two basic staples:

1) A fair number of surprise twists and turns.

2) Enough clues laid in the narrative to give you a possibility of seeing those twists coming. Ideally, you won’t see them, but once the twist comes, you’ll look back and see enough bits, pieces, and slices of dialogue that the author had it set up all along. Anything less, and to me it just feels like they just pulled a deus ex machina to make the story work. And in a mystery, that’s unforgivable.

This mystery is unusual because it’s not a detective solving a homicide. It’s a random girl investigating an accident because a low life stepped into her life and threatened her out of nowhere, and her refusing to let it go. It works specifically because it takes so many of the rules and tropes of mysteries and ignores them. Almost all of them, in fact, EXCEPT for the two that I just listed. Thumbs up for that.

The narrative.

Nothing had changed. My brother still cared. Nothing had changed. He never wanted to see me again.”

That line really got me. This book captures the dynamic of a strained familial relationship extremely well. It can be argued that the book is almost more about the relationship between Nadia and her brother Marko than any perceived murder. She’s a straight and narrow corporate type. He runs a strip club. She drives a vintage Porsche. He rides on a Harley.

The dichotomy of their relationship works really nicely, and is fleshed out with topical flashbacks.

What I didn’t like:

Donnie Angel.The antagonist of this book is a touch sketchy. He’s a lowlife that’s spent his life doing violent things, but he gets punked by Nadia. Well, that’s putting it mildly. She breaks his leg. To be fair, she does it because he was going to break her leg, but even that doesn’t make sense.

 

We find out later that one of the big reasons he picks Nadia up and threatens her when she doesn’t know what kind of business her deceased godfather did was because he wanted her to go find out for him. He knew she’d get nosy, and he knew that people within the tight knit Uke community would answer her questions, where he would barely get a hello out of them.

This is all good and well, except for the part where he was going to break her leg if she didn’t react with her wits and survival training. How much amateur detective work could she get done if he actually broke her leg? The only recourse I can think of is that he wanted her to escape him at the beginning, but didn’t expect her to break his leg in kind.

He was just really dumb and incompetent, like the gangster characters in a Batman story. They’re no real threat, they’re just a fill-in bad guy for when you need an antagonist.

 

The verdict:

This book was a quality read. I liked most of the working parts, and actually wouldn’t be opposed to reading more of Nadia’s adventures. I guess that’s why they make these books free sometimes, huh? Well, I guess it worked with me.

 

****.

 

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This entry was posted on June 11, 2015 by in Books, Literacy, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , .
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