oddmonster (oddmonster) wrote in bookish,

Review: Sugar Skull by Denise Hamilton (2003)

#37: Sugar Skull by Denise Hamilton:

I scrolled through the wires again to see what else was going on in the city. All over town, people were dying violently -- shot in dead-end bars, withdrawing money from ATMs, working the night shift in liquor stores, and playing hopscotch on the corner. Usually, we waited until Sunday, when the final tally came in, then did a roundup. Unless the victims were rich, prominent, or had met their end in some horribly unusual and tragic way they got folded into the main story as smoothly as egg whites into cake. So far the wires were at fourteen and counting.

Synopsis: LA Times reporter Eve Diamond -- who, let us be honest here, has the best female Dirk! Pitt! name -- gets waylaid by a creepy dude who's convinced his teenage daughter has been killed by squatters. He's right, of course, but ask yourself this: what does this have to do with the LA mayoral race, a family of Mexican-American entertainment moguls and Eve's propensity for hucking ice cubes at mockingbirds.

Eve! Diamond! (that is just not getting old, people) is a low-level reporter at the L.A. Times who works hard, loves L.A. and keeps getting shafted by reporters and editors who like to make sure she knows she has no connections in Society to get her a leg up the corporate ladder.

Enter Vince Chevalier, who drags Eve out of work one day with the promise of murdered body: his daughter's. Intrigued, Eve follows, Vince delivers on his promise, the trail leads to a weenie mayoral candidate with a hot wife and a fundraising party, then the hot wife turns up dead as well. And then there's the hot Mexican-American scion of rodeo promoters who promises Eve a behind-the-scenes tour and takes that phrase to a whole new level, nudgenudge winkwink.

And Eve's homeless houseguest gives everyone crabs. It's awesome.

So, one of my favorite things about this book was the L.A. Times itself; specifically that every time Eve paused for breath, one editor or another would pin her down and give her a new assignment that was due at 3pm that day. This felt very much like every workplace I've ever been in. And while Eve gets mildly flustered, she keeps being all WHAT? THE WHAT NOW? A STORY ON ACCORDIONS? ACCORDIONS. BY WHEN? FINE. NO, THAT'S FINE, THIS MURDERED BODY WILL KEEP, WE'RE GOOD. And she makes good on her promise. Because that's real life. That's what you have to do when you're employed, Hannah Swensen. It's just how things have to work, murdered body or not.

Some bad things: Eve's kind of well, um...

There's no easy way to put this: Eve's kind of a dipshit.

She's impulsive and hard-working, she's dedicated and genuinely wants to be a better person than the awkward liberal that she is, but time and again she's also not the ripest banana in the bunch. Unprotected sex with a hot lead in one of your stories? GAME TIME. Let a teenager sit drinking your tequila in your car? WHY NOT. Take the schizophrenic street addict home with you and tell her you'll adopt her? SOUNDED LIKE A GREAT IDEA AT THE TIME.

Seriously, I don't know how Eve's not killed crossing the road, when she punches someone's ignition thinking it's the crosswalk button. She is just not bright.

But she is compulsively readable.

A huge part of the appeal of this book is how much L.A. plays a role in the story. Hamilton writes of the L.A. Cris Beam wrote of, the L.A. of homeless kids and transgender prostitutes, institutions that are worse than anything the street can offer. In Sugar Skull just as in Beam's Transparent, L.A. is truly the city of lost angels.

It's also an uneasily multicultural city, where different ethnic groups live cheek-by-jowl, building-by-building, and racism isn't easily dismissed in the name of tourism. I'm not surprised Hamilton's edited both LA Noir and LA Noir 2, and if I wasn't going to check out those collections before, I sure as hell am now. Holy crap, y'all.

Eve's a true Angeleno, happy to frequent ethnic groceries for the good deals and Ukrainian bakeries for the good eats, while at the same time getting nervous at a raucous Latino Dia de Los Muertos celebration. Although being Eve, she refuses to let her discomfort get in the way of finding the blonde transgender mermaid who's the key to at least seven of her competing stories.

I had a couple issues with the structural execution of the ending, along the lines of, if you show us your heroine hanging from a cliff by her fingernails, the next chapter shouldn't then begin, "So I made it off the cliff okay." That's a little anticlimactic and doesn't play fair with the reader, IMO. But the story as a whole hangs true, and bad things happen to good characters, bad characters and ambiguous characters. Eve walks into a set-up and proceeds to make a bad thing worse.

At the same time, though, it's an interesting way to drive a narrative: leave it in the hands of someone who is constantly distracted by shiny colors. Sooner or later, the story's bound to wind up someplace unexpected, even if it's by accident.

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