review: first grave on the right

First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones (2011)

First Grave on the Right is the first book in Darynda Jones’ Charley Davidson series. For those of you on a budget, one of the first things you’re going to notice is the price tag on this ebook (and oddly enough, the ebook is a dollar more than the physical paperback version). If you’re like me and haven’t read anything by this author before, you might be a little wary. My monthly book budget is $30 (and that has to also cover my KU subscription), and after tax this book would have taken a third of that amount. That was a big commitment for me for an author whose work I wasn’t sure I was really going to like. But, if you’re a reader on a budget, I’ve got good news for you. First Grave on the Right was available in ebook format from my local library. So if you want to give this book a try but you’re not sure if your book budget can handle it, try your local library. If that fails, you might be able to find a copy in your local used bookstore.

As you have likely already guessed, the protagonist of this book is Charley Davidson. If you’ve read any of my other reviews on first books in a series, you’ll know that the success of a series is going to hinge, first and foremost, on the protagonist. Who is Charley Davidson and what makes her a compelling character who we want to care about and follow throughout the story? How is she different from every other protagonist we meet in an urban fantasy novel (more on that categorization in a bit)? Well, Charley is a grim reaper.  According to her, the grim reaper. In addition, she’s also a private investigator and a consultant for the local police department. She can see and talk to dead people. She narrates the story from her first-person point-of-view, and her voice is engaging, sarcastic at times, vulnerable at others. She’s not a “new adult” kind of character, fresh out of college or high school, green and without any life experience. She’s not just been thrown into a world where she has new abilities or powers that she has to learn to use or understand. She’s not a character with a destiny (at least not yet). This is not to say that she doesn’t, through the course of this book, discover some things she didn’t know.  She may not have a destiny, but there are a couple of mysteries hovering over her life.  While she works to solve mysteries on behalf of her clients, she is also trying to do the same for herself. I like Charley.

The world in which Charley exists looks a whole lot like the one I walk through everyday. Again, if you’ve been around my blog for a while, you know how much I appreciate it when an author chooses to locate his or her series in a city that isn’t New York or Los Angeles. Jones chose Albuquerque as the setting for her series.  That’s in New Mexico if you’re not good with geography. Thus far, another decision Jones has made that isn’t your norm in an urban fantasy novel is that other than the presence of the grim reaper and the ghosts of the dead, there really aren’t any other supernatural elements to the story. No vampires or werewolves or shifters, no witches or wizards, no demons or dragons. It’s for this reason that I hesitate to fully throw this series into the urban fantasy genre. It sort of fits, like a square peg in a round hole. I also want to note here that it’s also not paranormal romance (whether it becomes that over the course of the series remains to be seen, but book one doesn’t fall into that category). I’m more inclined to put this into the paranormal mystery/suspense category. And no, for most readers the category doesn’t really matter and I’m not the person who has to put a label on everything. However, I get super cranky when I think a book is one thing (based on the back cover copy or advertising, etc) and it’s something else entirely. I just want you, the potential reader, to be forearmed and have a better idea of what to expect.

Another thing to be aware of before you pick up the book is the existence of two separate mystery plots, and honestly, I think this is one area of the book that could been executed better. The first mystery plot revolves around the murder of Patrick Sussman, whose ghost appears to Charley and asks her to solve his murder. Not long after he appears, Charley gets a call from her Uncle Bob, a detective for the Albuquerque Police Department, asking her to come to a crime scene. When she arrives, with Patrick in tow, she learns that her newest client and her uncle’s murder victim knew each other. Within this mystery plot is another mystery to be untangled, involving a missing teenage boy and a man convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. In addition, there is a second mystery plot involving a mysterious stranger that appears in Charley’s dreams as well as someone she calls Bad, a shadowy figure that has been present at critical times in her life but whose face she’s never seen and whose identity remains unknown. The challenge, as you might guess, is balancing these two mystery plots, particularly since one really has nothing to do with the other (they do not come to intersect, as you might expect, but instead run in parallel). What happens is that Jones puts down one plot in favor of the other plot, so that at times it feels uneven and I wondered “when are we going back to the other plot?”. Put in a different way—there is a lot going on in this novel so be prepared.

Since this is a first book in a series, I tend to pay particular attention to the supporting cast of characters. Charley’s best friend is a woman named Cookie, a single mom who runs the office and does research for Charley’s P.I. agency. Cookie is exactly what you’d want in a BFF type character. She is supportive but also challenging. She is a trusted confidant with an open-mind. There are also two sidekick type characters in Uncle Bob and Garrett, a bounty hunter. Garrett also could qualify as a love interest, though whether that’s where future installments in the series go is another thing that remains to be seen.  In First Grave on the Right, Garrett is more antagonist than love interest. Indeed, Garrett is meant to be contrasted against the actual love interest in the story, a man from Charley’s past called Reyes. There are also two ghosts who help Charley with her investigations. Angel, a thirteen-year-old boy killed during a gang drive-by shooting, and Rocket, a ghost who died in a psychiatric institution. All of the supporting characters are intriguing and more than cardboard characters performing their specific roles in the story. None of them will make you want to stop reading and throw the book across the room.

The job of a first book in a series is to get me invested in the characters and their world, and make me want to pick up the next book in the series. I will say I was immersed in Charley’s world and I wanted to keep reading to find out the solutions to all of the mysteries. Jones also leaves the book on a kind of cliffhanger, a coda if you will, that entices me to want to pick up the next book to see what happens next. As I said above, I like Charley and I like the supporting cast. And while I gave this book a five-star rating (not something I do lightly), I can’t say that at the end, I was ready to rush out and find the second book. Will I come back to this series in the future? Yes, I’m sure I will, but it’s not on the top of my reading list. It’s not even currently in my reading list. With that said, though, I do recommend reading First Grave on the Right simply because it is distinct enough to not be like every other series in the genre.

Have you read First Grave on the Right? What did you think?

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