Sunday, January 6, 2008

JANUARY 2008

1. ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Audio download of the classic novel, which describes one winter day in the life of a prisoner in a Russian (Siberian) labor camp during the post-war Stalin era. Gritty and brutal, well-peppered with minute (and not pleasant) details, the book was full of stray thoughts and the odd profound philosophical comment, and I enjoyed listening to it. I’ve been a fan of Solzhynitzyn’s work since I was in junior high school, but it’s been many years since I revisited his books, and this is his first novel. Stark and sobering, and obviously full of first-hand knowledge, I’d recommend this to someone not familiar with the author’s work—it’s certainly shorter and a bit less daunting than some of his later books. ::grin:: The reader was very good for this production as well. A.

2. SECONDHAND SMOKE by Karen E. Olson. Second in the Annie Seymour, reporter in New Haven, CT series. When a restaurant in Annie’s neighborhood burns down with a body inside, everyone assumes it was the owner, Sal, since he is missing. But when it turns out to be his bookkeeper and assistant, LeAnn—AND she’s got a bullet wound in her skull, the chase is on. Of course Annie's ex-boyfriend Tom, a police detective is on the case. And Sal’s wife hires PI Vinnie DeLucia (Annie's wanna-be boyfriend--who's engaged to someone else) to find him and of course Annie herself is nosing around trying to find the real story for the newspaper. Then her father, a casino owner, shows up out of the blue from Las Vegas. Why? Annie is aware of possible ‘mob’ connections (it is an Italian neighborhood, after all) but can’t quite believe that her father is in the midst of something like that. Another mystery—and one that Annie isn’t sure she wants to know the answers to. And what is with all the references to the chickens? “Are the chickens dead, too?” a seemingly crazy man asks Annie the night of the fire. Huh? (The last book had cows, this one has chickens—if the next one has pigs, I’m going to start singing “ei-ei-o!” LOL) This book was as enjoyable as the first book in the series with a bad guy that I didn’t figure out until the last minute, though the clues were there had I chosen to assimilate them. There is a bit of romance/sexual tension but it's done well and not sappy or over-the-top, nor does it dominate the book, thank heavens. Really looking forward to the next one in this series and found this a GREAT way to open up the 2008 mystery season! A+.

3. THE BOOKWOMAN’S LAST FLING by John Dunning. Fifth and most recent (possibly the last, as I understand the author has had some serious medical problems recently) in the “Bookman” mystery series featuring Cliff Janeway, ex-cop and now bookstore owner/book dealer in Denver. I think this is my favorite Janeway book aside from the first one. I am not a big fan of (nor do I know much about) horse racing, but I learned a lot in this book. Janeway is contacted by an Idaho rancher, who inherited his wealthy boss’ book collection when he died. Or part of it—half went to his daughter, Sharon. But some of the books—hundreds of rare children’s books that were collected by the man’s wife Candice when she was alive—have gone missing and Junior Willis wants Janeway to see if he can figure out how and when. Once Junior and Janeway meet, the horse rancher/racer decides he doesn’t much like Janeway’s terms, but Janeway ends up staying on and working for Sharon—not only to find the missing books, but also to investigate Candice’s (her mother) death, which she has a wild hunch was not an accident as was presumed those many years ago. What a great book! Great storyline, wonderfully rich detail, immersion into the world of horse racing, and a mystery that I didn’t figure out. I was totally blindsided by the solution, which has me worried—two books in a row that I didn’t figure the mystery out. Am I losing my touch? LOL Probably not. More likely, Dunning is just a stellar plotter. Another A+ to start the year with!

4. DAVE BARRY’S MONEY SECRETS: LIKE, WHY IS THERE A GIANT EYE ON THE DOLLAR? By Dave Barry. (audio download) Was looking for something funny and lighthearted to listen to after the soul-wrenching Russian novel I listened to prior to this, and this one fit the bill perfectly. Parts of it were more humorous than others, and like most comedians, sometimes Barry seems terribly in love with himself and thinks he’s the funniest man alive. Once you get past that, you realize that it IS mostly pretty funny stuff. Some parts were definitely laugh-out-loud funny. My favorite bits were about the history of money, saving for retirement, choosing and paying for your child’s college education (hint: encourage them to get mediocre grades so they don’t get accepted to Harvard), and ‘making money in real estate,’ especially the section on OHDD—Old House Delusion Disorder. The section on starting your own business and what type to start is also great—especially the part about starting a pet-related business, because pet owners are especially stupid with money when it comes to their "babies." Highly recommended unless you are listening in a public place, because people will definitely look at you funny when you start chuckling, cackling and then chortling for no apparent reason. A.

5. THE PHYSICIAN’S TALE by Ann Benson. Third in a historical fiction/plague fiction series that goes back and forth between the 1300’s and slightly futuristic times, both featuring Plague and both featuring physicians. Janie, the modern-day physician, has Alejandro’s (the medieval physician) journal in her possession and became enthralled with his story and information and observations about the great Black Death. The book wraps up the story lines began in the two other books in the series (The Plague Tales and Burning Road) and tracks Alejandro and his family until after his death, and gives some resolution to the post-apocalyptic plague-devastated world that Janie, her husband and child live in as well. The book alternates chapters with one in the medieval world, another in the modern world, and many chapters end with mini “cliff-hangers” so it was very difficult to put the book down, since my natural stopping spots are at the ends of chapters. Very enjoyable read with the loose ends nicely wrapped up. I very much enjoyed the book—a nice mingling of genres with historical fiction, some sci-fi and a healthy (?) dose of plague fiction as well. A+

6. AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS by Jules Verne (audio download) I seem to be getting into ‘the classics’ by audio—books I’ve read as a child or younger person but not thought about in years. It’s kind of nice to have someone “read to me,” which didn’t happen much in my childhood once I was able to read by myself starting at around age four. I’m enjoying audiobooks in general much more than I ever realized I would. This one came in especially handy when I had a bad migraine and had some visual disturbances and couldn’t read for 3 days. Listening at low volume didn’t bother my head, so it was quite pleasant to trek around the world with Phineas Fogg and Passepartout while I was lying quietly with my eyes closed and couldn’t actually pick up a book. Wonderful reader and of course an excellent story, one of my favorites from my childhood. A.

7. DEAD MAN RISING by Lilith Saintcrow. Second in the Dante Valentine paranormal series. In this book, someone is killing psions…no, not just killing them, butchering them, flaying them, literally destroying them. Why? And why was the first victim a “normal” with no psionic ability? What is the connection between them all? Gabe, Dante’s policewoman friend, wants her to help look into it and find out. And will Dante ever get over her grief for the demon Japhrimel, her lover who had changed her irrevocably into something else—part-demon, yet still part-human Necromance, gifted to commune with the dead. I enjoy this series and I do like Dante, so this might sound weird, but I found this book to be very put-downable. The reason for that is, it was just TOO intense. There was no down-time in the book at all. Dante rolled from one crisis to another, spent many pages agonizing over Japhrimel’s demise and her role in that. It was just too much to read more than a few chapters at once without needing a break from the intensity. There was also a lot of repetitive descriptions of different smells, scents, etc. of not only places but people/psions, and that got to be kind of old after awhile. Still enjoyable and I will continue to read on in the series to find out what happens next. B+

8. IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS by Tim O’Brien. First read from my 2008 TBR Challenge List. I’ve had this book on my TBR for probably two years now, so it was definitely time to get to it! Stand-alone mystery that is also a study in the mind of a Vietnam veteran. Set in Minnesota, a fictitious lawyer named John Wade and his wife Kathy are at a cabin on Lake of the Woods attempting to recover from his devastating defeat in the primary elections for US Senator. Kathy disappears, and the story is told piecemeal in backwards fashion, outlining their early lives, John’s experiences in Vietnam, the story of their marriage and John’s career to that point, etc, and also gathers quotations and ‘evidence’ as the local sheriff tries to piece together what happened to Kathy Wade. Many suspect John in her disappearance, others say they wouldn’t be surprised if Kathy ‘finally left that creepy jerk’ and just walked away. But what really happened? I liked this book and yet in a way it annoyed me, but I can’t really say why without divulging a major spoiler. If you’ve read it, you’ll probably understand! If not, give it a try. It’s quite a ‘different’ story from any I’ve read recently, and I did find the descriptions of the Minnesota north country very accurate and evocative. B+.

9. PIPPI LONGSTOCKING by Astrid Lindgren. (audio download) Another of my favorite childhood tales that I sat back and enjoyed while doing some cleaning. The reader had kind of a strange voice but I grew used to it after a few minutes, and she did a pretty good job with the different voices. It was wonderful to visit Villa Villekula with Pippi and Mr. Nilsson (her monkey!) while she had her adventures and imparted her strange wisdom. Short but sweet, this book brought a smile to my face and sometime in the not too distant future I may try to find more of the stories if they are available in audio. A.

10. DEATH AND JUDGMENT by Donna Leon. Fourth in the Commisario Guido Brunetti mystery series set in Venice, Italy. When a prominent lawyer in international law is killed, Guido ‘catches the squeal’ and once again must begin asking questions in high places to determine who murdered him. Two more deaths follow, one in another city being written off as a suicide, and the third the first victim’s brother-in-law. What had they been up to that got them all murdered? Was the Mafia involved? If so, Guido must tread carefully, especially since his own daughter Chiara is marginally involved, having known the daughter of the first victim. Stellar as always, a wonderful trip to be dipped in the culture of Venice, although this time it’s more of a visit with the seedier side. Great setting, wonderful characters, viable plot—though I did figure out the bad guy quite a bit in advance. A.

11. MURDER CARRIES A TORCH by Anne George. Seventh “Southern Sisters” mystery in which Mouse and Sister get tangled up with some folks from a religious snake-handling group on Chandler Mountain when their cousin’s wife apparently runs off with a preacher from that church. Luke turns to his cousins for help a few days after she leaves, and of course they stumble upon a dead body while looking for Virginia, Luke’s wife. A couple of days later, the preacher turns up dead in Virginia’s car a few hundred miles away, the victim of massive snake bite. Honestly, how do these ladies manage to find such strange situations to get tangled in? I don’t know, but I love ‘em! Entertaining and fun as always, and Sister is back in form as she find a potential new husband in the person of Virgil Stuckey, Sheriff of the county where the snake-handlers live. I did figure out half the mystery ahead of time, and enjoyed the whole package as always. A.

12. HELL’S KITCHEN by Chris Niles. One of my alternate selections in the TBR Challenge, another book I’d heard rave reviews about but had always managed to leave it on my bookshelf in favor of something else. Difficult to classify, this isn’t a true mystery since we always know ‘whodunit’ but is more of a dark comedy and somewhat of a social commentary too, poking fun at Americans and some of our obsessions. The main theme here is finding a place to live in New York City, which I think most of us know can be a real bugger. People would happily pay a couple thousand a month to live in a filthy closet if it’s in the right location! The book follows several people as they’re hunting for an apartment—a self-professed writer, though he’s never actually written anything except fortunes (and bad ones!) for Chinese fortune cookies—a young married couple just in town from Michigan, a young woman from London whose artist boyfriend boots her out when his wife comes home from France. We also follow one landlord who has an apartment to let. Quite an interesting twist that I can’t really say much about without spoiling it. Anyway, it was an interesting book although a bit dry in places and a bit repetitive sometimes too, though I did quite enjoy the author’s scathing social commentary about Americans in general and her dark humor was right up my alley. Overall an enjoyable read. B+.

13. THE PUSHER by Ed McBain. Third in the 87th Precinct books, and we’re still in the territory of this being written before I was born! It reads like a tough-guy detective novel, which at times made me chuckle, because the wording and euphemisms now seem rather clich├ęd, though at the time were probably very in vogue. This story deals with heroin usage in one area of the city, and ties the Lieutenants’s son into the case of a dead junkie/pusher found in his apartment. But his killer made a very poor attempt to make his murder look like a suicide. Why bother? And why leave incriminating evidence all over the place? Was he trying to frame someone else? A very quick read, but with newlywed detective Steve Carella and his wife Teddy featured, and they become my favorites in later books. Interesting afterword by McBain, too, about the series and Carella’s storyline. A.

14. MURDER BOOGIES WITH ELVIS by Anne George. Last of the Southern Sisters mysteries, I decided to just finish this series off and be done with it, though I am definitely sorry to see it end! This time Mary Alice and Patricia Anne get tangled up with Elvis impersonators at a benefit show to raise money for the repairs and refinishing of Vulcan, the big iron bare-assed statue that usually watches over the city. Mary Alice’s fiancee’s son and son-in-law are both Elvis impersonators and get front row tickets for the sisters for the show. But when one of the contestants ends up dead of stab wounds, you just know the girls are going to be in the thick of things again, especially a few days later when the bloody switchblade ends up in Patricia Anne’s purse! I really enjoyed this last installment in the series, and though things were settled quite nicely, it saddens me to know that I will have to use my own imagination to concoct the further lives of Mouse, Sister and their families. A+

15. EVANLY BODIES by Rhys Bowen. Tenth, and last (at least for now—the author has taken a hiatus to concentrate on her other two series) in this series, featuring DC Evan Evans in Wales. This is another series I really hope does resume at some point because I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every one of them. When a new Major Crimes Unit task force is formed with rotating groups taking the helm, Evan finds himself a member of that group on the first day it was formed when a call comes in about a dead university professor found shot to death over his breakfast eggs in his home. Working with three other fellows from different precincts that he doesn’t know at all, Evan feels a bit like a fish out of water, especially with the boss, who is a rigid and uptight military type who wants to keep Evans and the other DC in a strictly note-taking, errand-running capacity. When other bodies show up in neighboring towns, killed with the same gun but with seemingly no connection between them, the race is on to figure out the killer’s motive. Very enjoyable visit to Llanfair and surrounding towns, as usual, though I did figure out the mystery fairly well in advance—with this series that never spoils my enjoyment of the book for me. A.

16. IT’S PAT! MY LIFE EXPOSED by Julia Sweeney. If you’re familiar with the character of “Pat” from Saturday Night Live, this book will give you a chuckle. Pat is an androgynous character and no one has ever quite figured out for sure which sex he or she is. Rounded and fluffy, we aren’t sure if she is female with a flattish chest or if he is a man with a nice set of bitch tits! LOL This book reads kind of like a yearbook or scrapbook of Pat’s adventures, with photos, all designed to muddy the waters even further. It was a cute, light read that did nothing to answer the question at hand, but that’s okay. I’m not really sure I *want* to know what sex Pat is anyway! LOL B.

17. GUARDS! GUARDS! by Terry Pratchett. Eighth in publication order of the Discworld fantasy/humor series, introducting Captain Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch, and his newest staff member, Carrot—a volunteer (gasp!) from the Dwarf country, who is human though he was raised by dwarves. And he arrives at a rather auspicious moment. Everyone knows Dragons are extinct, right? So how can there be one terrorizing Ankh-Morpork? Sam and the Night Watch are investigating, the wizards at Unseen University are aghast, and the Librarian is in a tizzy because a book has been stolen from his Library—one titled The Summoning of Dragons! I love the Discworld and these books are always pure escapism for me with plenty of laugh out loud moments, quiet chuckles and awe and incredulity at the brilliance and twisted imagination of the author. This book was no exception! A.

18. T IS FOR TRESPASS by Sue Grafton. Latest in the Kinsey Millhone PI series, set in late 1980’s California in the fictional city of Santa Teresa. This book seems quite a bit darker than the previous books, and focuses on a disturbing problem—elder abuse. Also, for the first time that I can remember, part of the book is told from the POV of a sociopath, Solana Rojas, the would-be nurse who becomes Kinsey’s nemesis when she is hired by her grumpy old neighbor Gus’s niece to provide home care for him. Also unlike many of the other books in series, there is no dead body til late in the book and much of the book details Kinsey’s day-to-day work as a private investigator, doing things like accident investigation, process serving, etc. While I think this is good in some ways—because it shows the reality of what the PI life is like, the book didn’t seem to flow quite as well as some of the others. Perhaps that was because of the changing POV, or because of the lack of a real “mystery” per se, but I still enjoyed it for the most part—it’s always good to visit with Kinsey in Santa Teresa, and I look forward to furthering my reading in the series next year when U is for ______ comes out. And of course the feeling of being caught up with another series is a good one, too! ::grin:: B+

19. A MURDER OF QUALITY by John LeCarre. (audio download) Second in the George Smiley espionage series in which Smiley is contacted by an old colleague from Special Forces to look into a disturbing letter from the wife of a teacher who claims he’s trying to kill her. By the time Smiley contacts an acquaintance at the school, he discovers that the woman is already dead, supposedly murdered by a crazy woman in their neighborhood. Of course Smiley is immediately suspicious and on the trail of the real killer. Enjoyable listen with an excellent reader and of course, LeCarre is hard to beat for plotting and characterization. A.

Please note: Due to some finanical difficulties, I will be offline from home for awhile, and this site is blocked by my work's firewall so I can't update from there, either. Edited to add: I do pick up a weak wi-fi signal from home occasionally so will try posting here as I'm able--much of the time I end up with error messages and needing to hit 'send' several times to get it to work, so if it's too frustrating I will likely just wait til we get our cable 'net back.

Cheryl