Sunday, February 4, 2007

February Reading

1. DEATH MASKS by Jim Butcher. #5 Harry Dresden paranormal series. Once again Harry races through the book on 20 minutes sleep chasing bad guys, trying to earn enough money to stay out of the poorhouse, and to keep one step ahead of the White Council. In this book, Harry is challenged to a duel to the death by a warlord vampire of the Red Court, is hired by a Vatican official to recover the Shroud of Turin, which has been stolen by an international mob of religious artifacts thieves known as the Churchmice, and must deal with the return of Susan, his girlfriend who has been turned into a sort of ‘half a vampire’ and who has been away from Chicago for a year. Quick-paced, full of Harry’s usual wit and wisdom, and enjoyable as always. A.

2. AMAGANSETT by Mark Mills. Historical mystery set in coastal NY after WWII. This book was a slow starter; I nearly gave up after 40 or 50 pages, but I’m glad I didn’t because at some point I found myself totally sucked in and the book got very difficult to put down. Story of a young socialite found drowned off the coast of Long Island, hauled in by two fishermen when her body became tangled in their nets. The medical examiner lists it as an accidental drowning, but Deputy Hollis has a ‘feeling’ that she didn’t die of natural causes although there are no overt signs of foul play. He’s ordered to leave the case alone but investigates on his own. Told from the perspective of Hollis as well as Conrad Labarde, one of the fishermen who found the body. Lots of flashbacking and backstory explanations which did get a little tedious over time but also helped to really flesh out the main characters. It’s only this extensive flashbacking that caused me to lower the grade slightly. Otherwise, excellent story! B+

3. BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD by Sean Chercover. I started reading this book and after just a few pages, thought to myself, “Oh no! It’s a MOB book!” Mob books and movies are definitely not my favorites. As in, I would not knowingly pick one up. LOL But I kept reading for a few more pages, and the next thing you know, I was coming up for air at the end of chapter nine. This is the best hardboiled PI mystery that I’ve read in a long time, mob book or no. PI Ray Dudgeon is a likable, if doomed character with a set of very interesting friends and acquaintances, some of whom are affiliated with the Chicago “Outfit” as we’re told the Mafia are referred to there. Excellent book. Fast-paced, well-plotted and with well-fleshed characters, it’s hard to believe that it’s a first novel. A+

4. THE LAST JUDGEMENT by Iain Pears. #4 Jonathan Argyll “art history” mystery in which ghosts of the past float up to haunt Flavia and Jonathan as they try to figure out how a painting that Jonathan bought figures into two murders and a multitude of other curious incidents. Enjoyable read as always, as our two intrepid heroes jaunt across Europe chasing answers about an obscure and unimportant painting, The Death of Socrates, and the people who owned it in the past. Tied in with Nazi war criminals, Resistance members, and people who aren’t what they seem, the painting is causing Jonathan more trouble than he ever dreamed possible. A.

5. FROM TIME TO TIME by Jack Finney. Sequel to Finney’s time-travel classic, Time and Again, this book begins with Simon Morley, our intrepid hero, back in the 1880’s, the time he chose to stay in at the end of the first book. But something happens that spurs him to temporarily leave his wife Julia and their son Willy in 1882 and head back to modern times—and then again to another time altogether! While I mostly enjoyed this book, I felt it got a bit draggy and repetitive in spots and it wasn’t quite as compelling a read as Time and Again. The book raises some interesting questions: if you could go back in time and change a few small things that would ultimately change the course of history (would that be the future?) and affect the world you live in today in unfathomable ways, would you? I give this one a B.

6. THE MAGICIAN’S GUILD by Trudi Canavan. Black Magician trilogy Book 1, about a teenage girl named Sonea, a commoner who gets caught up in a protest against the Magicians on Purge day. When she becomes very angry and throws a rock that breaches the Magicians’ magical barrier, it’s obvious that Sonea must have latent magical power. Soon everyone is searching for her—from the Guild itself to fellow slum-dwellers, eager for the reward that turning her in would bring. Sonea is shuttled from hiding place to hiding place by a small group of friends while trying to make sense of her new-found magic power—only to discover just how dangerous it can be when she has no idea how to control it. I thoroughly enjoyed this book! The writing style kept you reading on and on, and while it contains many of the elements that make up other fantasy books and is not a terribly unique story-line, I thought it was a very well-told story and the author was able to make her characters and settings come to life. A.

7. THE MUGGER by Ed McBain. #2 in the 87th Precinct police procedural series, this book is an oldy moldy! It’s older than I am, and that’s pretty darned old. LOL I’ve read many of these years ago and am now in the process of re-reading them all and will eventually catch up with the newer ones. This book features a mugger who wears sunglasses at night, robs women of their money, slugs them in the face and then bows at the waist and says, “Clifford thanks you” before running off. It’s a foregone conclusion that things are going to go beyond mugging at some point, and they do. The book is a bit dated (this WAS written in 1956 after all!) so there were some things I had a good chuckle about, like a Detective 2nd Grade making just over $5k a year, and other things that were sort of annoying—like a stool pigeon who talks constantly in that 50’s hip slang, daddy-o, you dig? (I kept thinking of him as Maynard G. Krebs! LOL) But it was a quick, enjoyable read and I look forward to the rest of the series. B+

8. THIRTY-THREE TEETH by Colin Cotterill. #2 Dr. Siri Paiboun mystery, set in 1970’s Laos. Dr. Siri is the reluctant 72-year-old national coroner in post-Vietnam war Laos, as well as the current embodiment of an ancient Hmong shaman. Thus, he sees ghosts and hears spirits which help him in his mystery-solving. With his devil-may-care attitude, he is often bordering on running afoul of the new Communist regime in Laos, mostly because he would love nothing more than for his superiors to remove him from office and let him retire in peace. As with the last book, several mysteries and sub-plots join forces to make this a full and interesting book. Full of ‘woo woo’ (supernatural stuff) so if you don’t like that sort of thing, you may as well just stay away from this one. Except that Dr. Siri is such a delightful character I would recommend him to anyone! A.

9. DEAD SOULS by Ian Rankin. #10 Inspector Rebus British police procedural. For some reason, I had a hard time getting into and getting through this book. Rebus investigates the disappearance of the 19-year-old son of some old school friends from Fife, and the whole issue of “MisPers” (missing persons) is explored. While that is happening, he also contemplates the suicide death of a fellow officer who seemed to have it all going for him, and Rebus believes he was murdered for some reason. Then the subject of paedophiles and childhood abuse comes up, with that theme running through several cases, old and new. The book seemed a bit ‘bloated’ though, the storylines getting sidetracked from time to time, and this detracted from the story rather than enhancing it as sometimes is the case. Usually when I pick up a Rebus book, it’s hard for me to put it down and I’m done in a day or two. This one, I would read a couple dozen pages and become distracted, set it aside to go read something else for awhile and it took me nearly a week to get through it. C+

10. THE LAST JEW by Noah Gordon. Historical fiction taking place in 1480’s to early 1500’s during the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Many converted to Catholicism rather than leave, but many who converted (‘conversos’) were later hunted down by the Inquisition, persecuted and burned at the stake. This is the story of Yonah Toledano, teenage son of a master silversmith who is separated from his family during their hasty flight from their home. His father is killed, his younger brother, aunt and uncle flee to who knows where, and Yonah finds himself totally alone, to the point where he feels like the last Jew in Spain. As he wanders from town to town, farm to farm, working manual labor jobs and staying in each place for only a few seasons (occasionally a few years until trouble managed to find him again) and eventually apprenticing himself to a physician in Saragossa, pretending outwardly to be Christian but inside still trying to stay true to the memory of his father and remain a Jew, Yonah meets many fascinating people and has many adventures. Absolutely wonderful story, very atmospheric and moving, and with an appropriate ending. A+

11. AGATHA RAISIN AND THE FAIRIES OF FRYFAM by M.C. Beaton. #10 Agatha Raisin mystery in which Agatha (once again fleeing Carsely to try to escape the memory of her beloved James who is still “away”) ventures off to rent a cottage in the little Norfolk village of Fryfam. It’s not long before Agatha’s out of sorts, a murder has occurred and she’s tangled up right in the midst of it. Meanwhile, little mysterious lights keep appearing in her garden, and the neighbors, a superstitious lot, attribute them to ‘the fairies’ since this is such an ‘old country’ and all. A typical, light enjoyable Agatha Raisin book. B+

12. CROWNER’S QUEST by Bernard Knight. #3 in the Crowner John historical mystery series set in 1190’s Devon, UK. A priest is found hanged in the privy behind his home, at first presumed a suicide but upon further investigation, it’s obvious someone else did the deed. Why would anyone kill such a quiet, mousy little man who was happiest in the church library poring over history books, especially on a holy day such as the Eve of Christ’s Mass? When a second murder takes place a few days later, Crowner John de Wolfe begins to see the connections though of course his brother-in-law the Sheriff would disagree and seems to be deliberately trying to keep the coroner from investigating fully. Political intrigues and women troubles plague the Crowner in this book and a simple little murder is never quite what it seems. Enjoyable historical mystery with refreshingly realistic characters. A.

13. GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE by Susan Vreeland. Historical fiction, actually a book of short stories that follow a painting from modern times back to the painter and the subject of the painting. It's many different stories and varied lives woven into one tale. I like stories like this that follow an object (a painting, a house, a place) through history, and Vreeland did this one very well, able to narrate a story from the perspective of a wide variety of characters, from a modern-day math professor in the USA to a French Lady in the time of Louis XIV, to a Dutch farm wife. I enjoyed it very much and will be looking for more from this author. A.

DNF: SHADOWMANCER by G.P. Taylor. Fantasy book that was (to me) childishly and amateurishly written. Gave it a good 40 pages but couldn’t get interested in the story or the characters and the author’s writing style I just found annoying.