Tuesday, April 3, 2007

1. THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS by John Connolly. Not sure how to classify this book, I guess dark fantasy/fairy tale would suit it best. While the protagonist is a 12-year-old boy, the book itself is a bit gruesome to be considered children’s fiction. Perhaps for mature YA it would be okay. There are quite a few gory, bloody scenes and a lot of unhappy endings to the stories within stories—bit like Hans Christian Andersen meets Quentin Tarantino. David, a young boy who lives in London during WWII, loved his mother very much and watched her die a slow and painful death from what sounds like cancer. When his father remarries a short time later and they relocate to his new wife’s home, a large rambling house on the edge of the city, David seeks solace in his second love—books. His small bedroom on the top floor of the house is full of books—some are David’s and some old, leather-bound volumes that once belonged to an ancestor of his stepmother. Soon David becomes lost in his world of books and even hears the books whispering to him, has blackouts where he cannot remember being gone. Once medical reasons are ruled out, David’s father has him see a psychiatrist and things begin falling apart from there. Very intriguing tale of adventure, but also of life, love and loss. Although the ending to me was a bit of a sappy cop-out, when looked at from another perspective, I guess it works. The story itself though makes it totally worth it. A.

2. THE WICKED WINTER by Kate Sedley. #6 in the Roger the Chapman medieval mystery series, in which Roger becomes restless and sets out on a late winter selling spree and becomes trapped by a snowstorm at a country manor many miles from his home in Bristol. When not one but two murders occur, he naturally assumes that God has led him there to solve the murders and sets down to study the interested parties and puzzle out who could have and would have committed the murders. In this case, I didn’t even guess the killer ahead of time though I picked up on a couple of important clues—just misinterpreted who they actually pointed to.Very enjoyable light read as always; I have enjoyed each and every one of Roger’s tales, told to the reader in first person form as he recollects his younger days of travel though now an old man. Looking forward to the next—I’m having to rely mostly on my library for these as some of them seem to be only available in hardcover and quite expensive, even used. A.

3. DEATH OF A PRANKSTER by M.C. Beaton. #7 Hamish MacBeth series in which a notorious elderly practical joker is murdered in his home when he tells all his relatives he’s dying and invites them to his country home. Most of them avoid him like the plague because his jokes just aren’t funny—they’re mostly mean-spirited and cruel. Apparently someone has had enough and it’s up to Hamish to figure out who, since as usual DI Blair has his head up his bum. :o) Enjoyable, quick read as always; a visit with Hamish can always be counted on to make me smile. B+.

4. THE TROUBLE WITH MAGIC by Madelyn Alt. First in a series featuring Maggie O’Neill, a young woman in a small-town Indiana “northern Bible belt” town who finds herself out of one job but fallen into another—as an assistant in Enchantments, a mystical antique shop. She takes the job despite her new boss, Felicity, confessing to Maggie that she’s a practicing witch. Maggie’s Catholic upbringing makes her skeptical and uneasy at first, but after getting to know Felicity and her friends, comes to discover that there’s nothing evil about them, though Felicity becomes the number one suspect when her sister is brutally murdered. I really enjoyed this book, though I was dubious before starting it—these cozy mysteries with a mystical lean to them seem to be something I either really like or really can’t stand. This series seems to be getting off on a good foot—I liked Maggie and Felicity a lot, the author’s writing style was smooth and easy to read, and the ‘witchy’ bits were realistically portrayed. Looking for the next one! A.

5. THE OLD CONTEMPTIBLES by Martha Grimes. #11 in the Richard Jury/Melrose Plant series, in which a woman Jury has been dating is found dead, at first believed a suicide, but upon further investigation, it’s found that there were a few people with motive to see her dead. Jury is suspended and even a suspect for a while, and he enlists his friend Melrose Plant to go undercover at the country manor home of the dead woman’s in-laws as a librarian and to keep his ears to the ground for vital information. Grimes was back on track with this entry in the series after the previous effort (The Old Silent) which was quite bloated and convoluted. I enjoyed this one a lot and it was good to see Plant and Jury back in form. A.

6. THE RAVEN IN THE FOREGATE by Ellis Peters. #12 in Brother Cadfael’s medieval mystery series, in which Abbot Rodolphus returns from a conference in Winchester with a new priest in tow to head up the church in Shrewsbury. Much more harsh and rigid than his predecessor, who was well-loved and forgiving, Father Ailnoth is found dead in the mill-pond on Christmas morning with at least half a dozen parishioners with good cause to have murdered him. Hugh Beringar is off at King Stephen’s court to pay homage to his leader now that Stephen has dealt soundly with the upstart Empress Maud and is back on the throne, where Hugh hopes to find out if he will become the official sheriff of the county or if Stephen will appoint someone more influential. Cadfael pokes around in his usual wise yet unofficial manner to solve the mystery. Enjoyable, as always. A.

7. SHANTARAM by Gregory David Roberts. I’ve had this book on my TBR stack for over a year—the size of it itself is very daunting: nearly a thousand pages of small print. Once I started it, I could see that it was a very dense, rich novel, and it did take me about 2 ½ weeks to finish it, which is longer than any other novel in recent history has taken me. I guess you’d call it a literary novel in some respects—the author certainly has a way with words, and I found myself grabbing my journal and scribbling down quotations from it very frequently. Some flowery and wordy, others simple yet very profound, and still others that sucker-punched me right in the guts and quite literally took my breath away. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel about an Australian man who is a convicted criminal (armed robbery and heroin dealing) who escapes from an Australian prison and is a fugitive for many years, living most of them in Bombay, India. He becomes immersed in the Indian culture, learning two of their languages, living in their slums and eventually becoming a member of the Bombay mafia. While there, he lives, loves, and has a series of very wild and interesting adventures, including becoming involved in the Russian-Afghani war near Kandahar. This is a long, long book but a very good one, too. It’s about India, yes—but it’s also about life, the universe and everything. At some point after the events in the book take place, he is recaptured and serves out the remainder of his prison term and he wrote this book while in prison. I’m very glad I finally got to reading this book, though I know it’s not for everyone—there’s lots of graphic violence, and in parts gets long-winded and slows down. Not everyone will love it, though I do recommend everyone at least give it a try. A+

8. MIDNIGHT HOUR by Mary Saums. First Willi Taft mystery. Willi is a backup singer in Nashville, a young widow who is becoming fed up with her current life. On her 40th birthday, she discovers that someone is following her—turns out to be a PI who is actually following her current beau—who is (Willi discovers) married. Willi then becomes involved with Sam, the PI. There were some things that just didn’t ring true with the book and main character—hard to put my finger on, but one example is that Willi and Sam had only been dating a week, yet when he is murdered, his Uncle Ralph gives her his classic ’68 Chevy Malibu (“he’d want you to have it”) and they all (including Willi) act as though they’d been dating for months or years and that she’s part of the family! She’s also doing work in his office (“closing cases, sending invoices”) which Uncle Ralph also eventually lets her use rent free. After dating a guy for a week? Um…okay. Regardless of how benevolent and kind Uncle Ralph is, I found it all very hard to believe. There were just too many ‘holes’ and coincidences for me. (Stumbling upon a secret hiding place in Sam’s bathroom the first time she was in it?) I do like the writing style and I think Willi could develop into someone I like, but this first book is just too ragged for me to rate it very highly. C+

9. THE PRACTICAL PAGAN by Dana Eilers. I found this book to be kind of a bore and rather insulting in places. Eilers starts out by defining what a Pagan is, and then begins to lecture Pagans on how they should behave (after saying that there are no hard and fast rules to what it means to be a Pagan!) And the things she mentions are really silly—like, “bathe daily, dress neatly, say please and thank you, obey the laws of the land” and the like. Huh? Those are commonsense things for ANYONE and at age 48, I’m sorry, if I haven’t learned them by now, I’m not going to. Glad I didn’t pay money for this book. I admit to only skimming the last half of it, thinking maybe it would get more advanced or somehow better, but I can’t say that I really found much to be gained from it as a Pagan nor as a human being! I sent it along via PBS to someone else who wanted it. Hope they get more out of it than I did! D+

10. BLOODRING by Faith Hunter. First of a post-apocalyptic fantasy series that features Thorn, an unlicensed stone mage living in a small Appalachian town. As far as she knows, she is the ONLY mage out there living outside of an Enclave, and to be found out means certain death for her. She, along with several friends, owns and operates a gem and jewelry store while trying to hide the fact that she is indeed mage, and not human. When her ex-husband is kidnapped, she gets involved in trying to find him and realizes after a time that he was taken by forces of Darkness. I really like the post-apocalyptic ‘world’ of this book and the premise for it, but a couple of things were quite annoying. The first is that mages, while able to have sex and mate with humans, actually go “into heat” around other races (kylens and seraphs) and the author described this mage-heat at great length and in many places. I guess she thought it really sexed the book up, but to me, someone in heat without control over their sexual urges and instincts is just plain not sexy. There were also several other things that just didn’t add up. For example, as soon as one of her business partners sees these certain scars she has, and gets a good look at the amulets she wears under and within her clothing to disguise her glowing mage appearance, he recognizes her as a mage. How is it that she was able to hide that fact from her ex-husband when he saw every inch of her many times over and surely encountered the amulets during physical contact? Etc. I will read more in this series because, as I said, the premise is great and I like the main character and the writing style, but less of the going into heat thing would not go amiss. B.

11. FIRESTORM by Nevada Barr. #4 Anna Pigeon (national park ranger) mystery, this one is set in the mountains of California where Anna is serving as a medic at a firefighting station. With the wildfire under control and the various teams about to disband, a sudden front with excessive winds reignites the fire and sends a firestorm down the mountain, trapping Anna and a dozen others. Everyone survives the firestorm—except one man, who is found stabbed to death in his fire shelter. The man was not well-liked—in fact, he was positively obnoxious. But who among them had all of The Big Three—Motive, Means and Opportunity? It’s up to Anna, with minimal communication with the outside world, to figure it out. I enjoyed this much more than the previous Anna Pigeon book, which I read several months ago and which almost caused me to give up on this series. I’m glad now that I didn’t! The only thing missing from this book is Anna’s usual phone conversation with her sister Molly, a gruff, chain-smoking psychiatrist in New York. It still gets an A.

12. THE LAW OF THREE by M.R. Sellars. #4 Rowan Gant investigation, in which Rowan is once again stalked and terrorized by religious nut Eldon Porter. Eldon thinks of himself as God’s helper and is on a witch-hunt, and Gant is a self-professed Witch. When a member of Rowan and Felicity’s coven is found dead—tortured and disemboweled with a personal note for Rowan, he once again goes into high gear to try to figure out Porter’s next move and prevent any more loss of life. With the help of his good friend Ben Storm, a St. Louis detective on the Major Crimes Squad, Rowan has a leg up—however, Ben is teetering on the edge of respectability himself, especially with his new boss, “Bible Barb,” a right-wing Christian who, like the crazy Mr. Porter, has no knowledge of Pagan beliefs and thinks Rowan is a devil worshiper. With plenty of fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat action, this book definitely classifies as a thriller and was hard to put down. Where it falls down is with believable dialogue and character development and a certain repetitiveness of themes. Much of the conflict and dialogue seems to be a re-hash of previous books and the dialogue always manages to sound somewhat stilted to my ear. And the constant and frequent descriptions of Rowan’s migraines and ‘seizures’ wore thin after awhile. I was a little confused (as a nurse) as to why no one suggested Rowan have a CT scan and get himself on some anti-seizure medication at some point. That, coupled with his crippling headaches, could easily signal a brain tumor or other serious physical abnormality—yet it’s always written off as just part of his psychic abilities manifesting itself. Still, it is refreshing to find at least a somewhat realistic picture of Pagan belief and practice portrayed. I give this one a B and will continue to read on in the series, because I already have the next one here waiting.

13. WEIRD CURES: THE MOST HILARIOUS, DISGUSTING, AND DOWNRIGHT DANGEROUS MEDICAL TREATMENTS EVER by Dandra Dalmans and Joel Fram. A quick little book that’s just what the title says, albeit not a very detailed one. My nursey-self wanted more details, and the book was short on those—mostly a collection of blurbs and mini-stories about a whole host of bizarre medical treatments—from trepanation (making holes in your skull) to various things you can do with urine. Interesting, but just didn’t go far enough for me to feel it a really worthwhile read…it served its’ purpose as the bathroom book of the week, though. C+

14. THE JANISSARY TREE by Jason Goodwin. First in a new historical mystery series featuring Yashim, a eunuch living in Istanbul in the 1830’s. The Janissaries were an elite band of soldiers who let power go to their heads and eventually became more like the mafia than anything else—they provided public safety—to those who could pay for it—but they also provided the public menace. The Janissaries were attacked and disbanded by the Sultan in 1826, but a series of murders of the current city guard and mysterious poems left on the Janissary Tree (where they used to hang their criminals when they were in power) leads Yashim the investigator to believe that they may be attempting to make a comeback. While working on that case for the seraskier, the head of the current city guards/soldiers, the sultan’s mother has also asked him to look into the murder of a young girl in the harem—she was a virgin, ready to bed the Sultan and was killed in her bed before the deed could take place. Also missing are the sultan’s mother’s jewels, a gift from Napoleon Bonaparte, and she wants them back! Yashim scurries hither and yon trying to investigate all the crimes on his plate and like many good sleuths, ends up tired, sore and short on sleep. Excellent book that lands you in the heart of the times and the culture. And oh my…the man can cook, too! Make sure you don’t read on an empty stomach, as the descriptions of Yashim’s meal preparations are enough to make your mouth water! Definitely will be following this series…this first one is as rich as a good cup of Turkish coffee! A.