Dark & Disorderly
by Bernita Harris, fantasy (2010)
Carina Press, $5.99, ISBN 978-14268-9033-8
When I first had Bernita Harris's Dark & Disorderly land in my inbox and I saw that this is the first book in the series called The Adventures Of Lillie St Claire, my initial reaction was that a fan of Lillian Saintcrow must have taken her admiration of the author to new heights. Oh, admit it, you must have thought the same too when you saw the name of the heroine.
This is an urban fantasy story with a romantic suspense element, a heroine-centric one, of course, and in this alternate Earth, we have psychic folks called the Talents. These people can animate or eliminate the dead. Our heroine Lillie's job is to eliminate ghosts, which comes in handy when her husband Nathan refuses to stay dead after an accident and returns as a zombie to... tie up loose ends? Kill her? Lillie doesn't know for sure at first.
Nathan wasn't a Talent and he became increasingly distant, distrustful and even nasty toward her up to the point where he died in that car accident. She's not exactly sorry to see him die, but... well, you have to read this story to find out what went down between her and Nathan. The circumstances behind Nathan's death kickstarted a suspense plot that sees poor Lillie cast as the prime suspect in her late husband's murder. Not only that, people are starting to view Talents as dangerous freaks, and John Thresher, the psi-crime detective whom she is inconveniently attracted to, could very well be one of these people.
Okay, since I understand that Ms Harris is a debut author, I'm going to be gentle with the surgical instruments. So let's start with the good things first. The story may seem familiar at the surface with its focus on ghosts and zombies and other spooky woo-woo stuff, but it's actually more of a hard-boiled suspense type than a vampire or werewolf shagfest masquerading as urban fantasy. It's always nice to read something that is different from the usual fare. The world building is fine, although I feel that those twits calling themselves "Talents" are bound to get non-"Talented" people to feel a bit miffed. It's like gorgeous people calling themselves "Special" - the otherwise not-so-gorgeous majority of the people in this world are not going to be fond of folks who call themselves that, I tell you.
Unfortunately, I soon feel exhausted reading Ms Harris's long and winding sentences in this story. I am the kind of reader who reads aloud inside my head, and as a result, I have to take a break now and then in order to catch my breath. The author has a tendency to over-describe even the most mundane scene. Here's a sample:
I collapsed on the couch, slept for four solid hours and woke wrinkled, thirsty, and hungover, with a mind still not able to think much beyond which foot to put before the other. Changing into jeans and sweatshirt, I decided laundry had become a priority. My compassionate leave was up. I must check with the municipal office tomorrow for assignments, and I needed something clean to wear. Particularly underwear, but I might as well catch up on the lot, and it would take forever in my apartment-size machine. Maybe the ritual of routine activity, the commonplace normality of that chore, would settle my mind. I gathered my laundry into a bundle buggy and set out.
Two streets up and one street over, a mini-mall hosted a laundromat, video store, beer store and a 7-Eleven. I could stock up on eggs and bread, some cheese and fruit, on the same trip.
The laundromat was nearly empty. Except for a sprawled teenager with earbuds and an iPod, bobbing his head and picking his nose in time, and a freckled, overweight mother immersed in a bodice ripper and a bag of chips. Her kinderkid, a cute, towheaded brat with a bowl cut, trudged round and round the row of seats between the washing machines and the bank of dryers. He waved a plastic sword in one hand and pushed a duck on wheels with the other, all the while happily chanting a line from some television show over and over. Obviously, a multi-tasker. At least it wasn't scissors. Other than that, the place was quiet.
I dodged past him and took three machines at the far end for myself - darks, lights and delicates. I parked my cart and went next door to buy groceries, then stood outside among the cigarette butts by the overflowing trash can to eat an apple.
This section of town seemed relatively clean of entities. Maybe Ric had made a recent pass through it because of the elementary school on the next block. Some parents objected to their children meeting the disembodied daily on their way to and from, though I had the feeling some of the older kids probably thought it was cool. Children attracted some types of ghosts, the restless, hungry ones. Sometimes, unfortunately, nasty ones as well. Probably drawn by the excess energy, like the little kid in the laundromat. I wondered if he’d slowed down any. I dropped the apple core in the garbage bin and went back to see.
He hadn't. Same song, same sword, same circle.
Imagine reading such chunks of words for 290 or so pages. I wish the author had varied the tempo of her narrative, inserted some shorter and even choppy sentences during the more dramatic moments, and cut down a little on the tangents taken in the heroine's point of view. Sometimes I don't need to know every single detail in the scene, just tell me what really matters in that scene and let my imagination fill in the rest of the blanks. Anyway, maybe this is just me - I don't mind Ms Harris's way of writing in small doses, and she's offering me an elephantine dose here.
I also feel that Johnny is inconsistent. He goes back and forth from trusting and nice to cruel and suspicious without warning. Even the heroine notices this, but that doesn't stop the author from having Johnny treat Lillie hot one minute and cold the next. Because I can't make sense of Johnny's behavior, I don't know whether I can buy his nice treatment of her at the end of the book. I'm also uncomfortable with how Lillie is placed in a position of weakness by that point, crying because she thinks he had "written" her "off" and, after all she had been through, she feels grateful that he's by her side. If Johnny is a stable character, I won't be as bothered by this as much, but Johnny is unpredictable and even bipolar at times. I can only feel that Lillie has signed up to get her heart broken again.
At the end of the day, I feel that Dark & Disorderly has some major flaws that I can't entirely overlook, but still, it is an interesting story that succeeds in being different from the usual glut of vampire and werewolf melodrama in the market. A part of me likes this story for its untapped potential, while another part of me feels most disappointed by the flaws in this story. I may need to take a look at the next book in the series before I can conclusively decide whether I want to stay on the train, so to speak, or get off at the next station.
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