Just for the record, this review is entered upon in a spirit of iconoclastic journalistic integrity, and therefore without reading one word of the the Book Club Reader’s Guide at the back of the book. So there, publishers!
Quite seriously, it’s a bit much to ask from readers. ‘Smart and tough’ as per the blurbs Lilly Hawkins may be, but not in a way that’s going to leave people intensely invested in her life choices.
From the escapist thriller standpoint, though, Hot, Shot and Bothered has a lot going for it. Lilly Hawkins, our heroine, is a ‘shooter’ – basically, a mobile cameraperson – for a small California TV station. All of which should (and, given that this is book two of the series with a third previewed in the back, evidently did) catch the mystery–lover’s interest immediately.
Lilly’s profession – which was, unsurprisingly, also author McFarland’s at one time — is both fascinating in itself, and remarkably useful in terms of finding corpses. Most of the current investigation takes place in and around a live breaking news scene, and the atmosphere is flawlessly authentic. McFarland does an excellent job just of keeping the details straight, let alone weaving them into a coherent mystery thriller.
Lilly herself is much less organized, albeit her creator does have a clear vision for the character… just a trifle too clear, perhaps. Lilly comes across as something akin to a media savant, instinctively tuned into Getting The Story but completely tone-deaf to actual human interaction. Which is in turn all meant to be charmingly self-deprecating, as she discovers that real life rarely plays out according to the script.
And it’s funny, in spots, and even charming, sort of… unfortunately — as in all stories in the Quirky, Neurotic Singleton genre from which this one borrows heavily — all of this is more or less keyed into how long the reader can tolerate a character’s self-absorption.
This is at its most obvious when you consider that the body is discovered while a wildfire rages all around the lake, thousands of human and animal lives are in danger, and not only Lilly’s but her boyfriend’s career – and, as things progress, very possibly their lives — are on the line. It would help if in the middle of all this Our Heroine’s motivation for pursuing the death of one person had substantially more — not meaning exactly, but depth, is all I’m saying (all I can say, without giving too much away). At least, it would make the book club discussions a bit livelier.
The case involves a body pulled out of a lake that turns out to be a major player in Lilly’s past, a principled, well-meaning teenage friend that Lilly rapidly becomes obsessed with proving wasn’t the drunken party girl everyone’s assuming she became. This, again, is fine as far as it goes; you couldn’t ask for a more deliciously pitfall-laden investigation for our socially clueless heroine. Again, McFarland’s ear for a human dilemma is as sound as her plot mechanics. Not particularly original in either case, but solid and well-chosen.
The trouble is, her skill at carrying all that potential through isn’t, yet. At least, I’m assuming there’s a ‘yet’. There’s a lengthy interview with the author at the back of the book too, but it’s not particularly helpful in this regard. It may simply be that Hot, Shot and Bothered is McFarland’s idea of the pinnacle of human drama… but lord, I hope not. She’s got too much going for her.
So it’s a bit frustrating to find that there’s an awkwardness about not only Lilly’s but all the characters’ interactions, as if the author is self-consciously constructing them according to a template – the combination of stock ‘trendy’ elements in the characterizations and earnestness in the execution strongly suggests the heroine of a TV crime drama — rather than exercising her imagination as to what people would actually do in the situations she describes.
Despite occasional, welcome flashes of authorial self-awareness on this score, her character is not exactly this reviewer’s idea of someone I’d love to spend time with over the course of several books. Of course, I am also aware that I’m addressing a universe in which Confessions of a Shopaholic is not only a smash hit book series but an A-list movie, so you may want to take all of the above with a grain of salt.
I would however just point out that it’s a likeability/annoyance balance that’s especially hard to strike in a thriller setting, wherein Quirky Clueless Girl’s neuroses actually enable moral superiority over the poor saps she’s questioning. The hell with their imperfections and hesitations and stuff! Don’t they want to see justice done for poor Jessica?
Meanwhile, back at base, the template requires that Quirky Girl has a circle of amusedly tolerant friends, plus a gruff boss who in his heart of gold really just wants what’s best for her. Check. (Admittedly, when following decades’ worth of media clichés there’s not much you can do with a newsroom setting). Also a solid, loving man, who would ordinarily be way out of her league, but instead is inexplicably stuck by her side patiently waiting for her to figure it all out. Check.
Hence, Rod. A tall-blond-and-handsome, impeccably-dressed ex-star reporter for a big LA station, who gave it all up because he’s a closet… um, nerd. Seriously, not leaving much out here. OK, maybe the stage-fright, but if I’ve got this correctly (not having read book one) the basic idea behind that is that he was totally stressed out by having to maintain a professional facade, ie. pretend not to care about superhero comics.
It is nice to see one of these relationships based on passing the clueless ball back and forth, rather than the man constantly rescuing the woman from it. But as a standalone character, Rod is the culmination of all the book’s problems: equal parts wish-fulfillment and awkward stereotypes. Including the particularly irritating two-parter that holds a) all geeks are automatically interested in all aspects of the media universe and conversely b) the author’s readership isn’t aware of any. So that the former is trying to score nerd cred by referencing such esoteric concepts as Joss Whedon making a Wonder Woman film. (A couple interns obviously patterned after Bill & Ted get off a bit more lightly, but still aren’t helping the cause any.)
So Rod has a chance to make it back to the big-time with this wildfire story (despite – in one of the threads of real humour – inadvertently convincing the Governor that he’s an alcoholic), and this means Lilly must bravely face having her own world rocked (on account of possibly having to move to big noisy scary LA, because apparently the idea of ‘suburbs’ is as exotic as ‘comics’ in this universe), and Lilly’s friends are supportively trying to help her overcome her fears…
…and somewhere in the midst of all this there’s a drowned woman, who grew and changed and maybe made bad choices. Someday soon, I hope McFarland can figure out how to shift the focus back to the parts that really matter.