Wednesday, November 5, 2008

November 2008 Reading

1. CATCH AS CAT CAN by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown. (Audio). #10 in the Mrs. Murphy mystery series set in Crozet, Virginia and featuring Mrs. Murphy (a tabby cat), Tucker (a Welsh Corgi) and Pewter (a fat gray cat) and their human, Mary Minor “Harry” Harristeen, local postmistress. As usual, Harry becomes involved in a local murder investigation, the killing of one of the brothers who run the local auto salvage business. At first it looks accidental, but when two other dead bodies (obviously murdered) turn up and ties lead back to Roger, his body is exhumed and was found to be poisoned. What ties all three of them together? The answer was rather obvious to me, but my ‘bad guy’ antennae were twitching right from the very beginning—I just needed a couple of meaty clues to confirm my hunch. Mrs. Murphy and crew put Harry and the others on the right track in the end, of course. On a personal note, Harry is escorted to several local functions by an attractive and gentlemanly assistant ambassador from Uruguay, putting a fly in the ointment for Fair Haristeen, her ex-husband who is hoping to woo her back. Enjoyable light listen read by a wonderful reader. I’m catching up with the series rather quickly—only a half-dozen or so to go now! A.

2. AN EYE FOR MURDER by Libby Fischer Hellmann. First in the Ellie Foreman mystery series, and one of my TBR Challenge alternates, having sat on my bookshelf for at least a year and a half, probably longer, waiting patiently for me to get to it. Ellie Foreman is a documentary film producer in Chicago; she’s divorced, has an 11-year-old daughter and gets sucked into a decades-old mystery when her name and phone number turns up in the effects of a ninety-year-old man who died of an apparent heart attack in his rooming house. She has no idea who he was, but her father does, having known the man during and after the war—and all of that ties into a campaign video Ellie has been hired to produce for Marian Iverson, candidate for the Senate. This was a whirlwind ride, and to be honest, the whole story felt it a bit scattered. There were too many peripheral and historical characters mentioned and talked about, and none of them were very well developed such that I kept forgetting who was who and how they fit into the puzzle. This story had ties back to the Holocaust and I generally tend to find those types of stories interesting, but the coincidences that tied these diverse stories and people together were just a little too fantastical to be believed. I liked the author’s writing style, but the jury’s still out on Ellie—at times I really liked her, but often found her a little annoying for some reason. At any rate, while I enjoyed the book in parts, the whole together left me feeling a bit dissatisfied and not terribly eager to move along to the next in series. B-

3. CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E.B. White (audiobook) Short, sweet and wonderful classic children’s book about life on a farm for 8-year-old Fern Arable and her barnyard friends Wilbur the pig, Charlotte the spider and others, that holds many fond memories for me, I enjoyed it though I was rather disappointed in the reader. He had a rather nasal twang to his voice which just didn’t seem right for the book, and the pacing was a little bit “off” I thought. He also didn’t do real well with the different voices. Also the sound quality wasn’t all that good—you don’t realize how much that can affect a reading until you listen to a less-than-stellar production. I’m sure there are better recordings of this out there, but this is the one my library had available for download. Loved the book, not so much the reader. Okay—I just looked up to see who the reader is, and it says, “Read by the author.” LOL!! Well, I think he should stick to writing! :D B

4. OXYGEN by Carol Cassella. Just received the book for review from Amazon Vine last month, but it’s actually been out since July. Fiction about an anesthesiologist whose life changes dramatically when an 8-year-old seemingly healthy girl dies while on the operating table in her care. This, of course, devastates Dr. Marie Heaton and shakes the very foundations of her belief in herself and her ability to do her job, and she begins to spiral downward into a depression. She obsesses over the case, working over and over in her mind and poring over records trying to determine what she might have done differently. She tries to imagine how the girl's mother is feeling and even goes so far as to follow her, trying to see how she is handling things, imagining all the different ways the woman must hate her. But it's also the story of a woman, not just a doctor. Marie's relationships with her family are interesting, in some ways wonderful and in others as dysfunctional as you can get. This case helps her to work through some of her own personal issues that are only brought to light with the strain of this case. I suspected something was rotten in Denmark with Jolene Jenson’s death fairly early on, and though I wasn't sure exactly what it was, or who was involved, I wasn't surprised at the outcome. The ending was a bit of a let-down for me, and fairly predictable, I have to say. If not for that, I would give it a full five stars--as it is, I'd give it four-and-a-half. I really enjoyed the author's writing style and thought that she captured the essence of the medical community very well, of the atmosphere in the surgical area--I say this both from the viewpoint of a patient who has had several surgeries as well as from the viewpoint of a nurse. This is not my "usual fare" when it comes to reading books, but it was an excellent change of pace and I do indeed feel richer for having read it. I'll be looking for more work from this author in the future! A-

5. FINAL ACCOUNT by Peter Robinson. #7 in the Chief Inspector Alan Banks British police series set in the Yorkshire Dales. When mild-mannered, boring, middle-aged accountant Keith Rothwell is found shot to death point blank with a shotgun in his garage, Chief Inspector Banks is called out in the wee hours of the morning to investigate. It has all the earmarks of a mob execution, and when the team begins to dig into the man’s business affairs, they do find that he had a neat little money laundering business on the side. What they don’t count on finding is that the man also had a secret personal side, occasionally posing as the relaxed and much more hip Robert Calvert, complete with a flat in Leeds, a girlfriend, and a bent for discos and gambling. Add to this mix a money-grubbing, cold wife, a son with a secret and ties through his money-laundering business to a rising despot in a small Caribbean country, and the suspects seem to stack up like cordwood. Banks and team have their jobs cut out for them, and even when the crime is seemingly solved, Banks rests uneasily until the real solution is found. I had a bit of an inkling about the plot twist early on, but wasn’t sure just how it would pan out. Enjoyable read in an increasingly enjoyable series. A.

6. THE STORY OF DOCTOR DOOLITTLE by Hugh Lofting. (audio) This is the first installment in the classic set of children’s stories, this one first published in 1920 and touted as “the children’s stories for children who don’t mind big words.” LOL I don’t know that I’d ever read this before—I have seen a couple of animations of it, the recollections I have of them not really matching the book very well. This was a delightful story, read by a wonderful reader who sounded a lot like Dame Judi Dench, but wasn’t, her name being Nadia May. It was surprisingly fresh and not at all dated, and tells the story of how Dr. Doolittle went from being a people doctor to learning all the various animal languages and thus became an animal doctor, went to darkest Africa to save the monkeys who had become gravely ill, outwitted a tribal king set on keeping him imprisoned, and met up with the infamous Pushmi-pullyu which no one had ever seen before. His menagerie of animals was great, and the reader did a good job of making each of them distinct so you knew who was speaking. There are many other Dr. Doolittle stories that follow this one (which I hadn’t realized before) and I’ll have to see if the library has any others on audio download. A

7. SKY COYOTE by Kage Baker. #2 in The Company fantasy series. Botanist Mendoza fades a little to the background in this story that features mainly Joseph, the old immortal who recruited her for The Company, which is a conglomerate from the twenty-fourth century that creates immortals and time-travels them backwards in history. They aren’t allowed to affect *recorded* history, but unrecorded history they can have a field day with—and they do! Joseph is an old immortal, having been essentially a cave man’s son whose clan was all slaughtered by another clan. He was rescued and turned immortal and has had numerous ‘assignments’ which generally mean a few decades or centuries spent here or there. In this episode, he (and Mendoza and a large support crew) are sent to 1700’s California to a small village of the Chumash tribe, where their assignment is to move the entire village and surrounding area to a Company-managed spot in space for study and preservation. Joseph is given special implants (tail, teeth, fur) and is sent to earth as Sky Coyote, the long-absent God of the Chumash, to effect their cooperation with this transfer. What ensues is a rather hilarious tale of how man has always been man and the more humans change, the more they stay the same. Very enjoyable trek back (and forward) in time—this one was much more humorous than I remember the first book being, but there are important messages underlying the humor too. First rate fiction! A.

8. THE DIFFICULT SAINT by Sharan Newman. #6 in the Catherine LeVendeur historical mystery series set in medieval France. It’s the early spring of 1146 and Catherine’s sister Agnes is off to Germany to meet and wed her betrothed husband. It should be a time of family joy, but Agnes has refused to see or speak to Catherine and her father Hubert since she learned that Hubert is a Jew by birth, so none of the family is invited to the wedding. When word arrives that Agnes is accused of murdering her husband of three weeks, Hubert, Catherine and her Scottish husband Edgar and their children trek to Agnes’s side to help solve the murder, for they know she would not do such a thing. But who else had opportunity to poison him, when they ate from the same plate and cup of the same foods? Catherine and company have got their work cut out for them this time, especially since Agnes still insists that she doesn’t want their help nor does she want anything to do with them. This all transpires while there is growing hatred for the Jews, being stirred up by a fanatical monk named Radulf, who despite warnings from the Bishop to cease and desist, continues to rant and preach against them, inciting small riots and violence wherever he goes. Great entry in an enjoyable series, although with the many personal crises happening throughout the book for Catherine and her family, there wasn’t always much to be happy about. B+

9. SLOW DOLLAR by Margaret Maron. (audio book) #9 in the Judge Deborah Knott series set in Colleton County, North Carolina. In this book, the carnival comes to town for the Harvest Festival, and a young carney is found murdered in one of the game stalls (by Deborah, no less!) with his mouth stuffed full of bloody quarters. Things get really complicated when Deborah finds out that the young man was actually her great-nephew, his mother being the illegitimate (and until now, missing) daughter of Deborah’s older brother Andrew. Tally Hartley (once known as Olivia Knott) is part-owner of the carnival and while she recognizes that her son wasn’t a saint, she can’t imagine why anyone would want to kill him so violently. When another of the carnies ends up dead, things really heat up. As does Deborah’s personal life, in the form of a marriage proposal! Great light listening for a weekend when I had a lot of busy work to do and a bit of a migraine—so I didn’t have to think much, which was good. That said, I did still have an inkling about the baddie and picked up on a couple of big clues that cemented my gut feeling, too. I love this series! A.

10. THE DEATH OF FAITH by Donna Leon. #6 in the Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery series set in Venice, Italy. In this book, Brunetti’s superior, Vice-Questore Patta is on vacation, and all is quiet in Venice. So when a young woman arrives at his office to relay her suspicions about a series of deaths in the nursing home where she’s worked, Guido alleviates his boredom by deciding to do a cursory investigation. The young woman, he finally realizes, is—or was—the same young nun who cared for his mother at her nursing home but left abruptly about a year previous. Suor Immacolata is now known as Maria Testa and works as a laundress, but her conscience drove her to report that the five people who died might have been coerced into leaving part of their estate to the religious Order overseeing their care. She is suspicious primarily of one priest and believes there is a conspiracy afoot. Guido investigates but is unable to come up with any solid proof, and is just about to dismiss the entire case when Maria herself is run down while riding her bicycle from work. It appears to be a deliberate assault, and as she lies in a coma with a serious head injury, investigative efforts are redoubled. When Patta returns, Guido finds himself up against a brick wall that may involve the powerful organization Opus Dei. I love this series for the evocative way the author brings you right to Venice—the sights, sounds, smells, and oh my—the tastes! Guido and his family and his co-workers are all well-fleshed out, endearing characters that I enjoy coming to visit again and again. Although there are some similarities, the way police matters are handled there are generally quite different than what you would see in a typical American police procedural book, and this aspect is very interesting to me. Another great entry in a very enjoyable series so far. A.

11. JOSS WHEDON: THE GENIUS BEHIND BUFFY by Candace Havens. Biography of the innovative creator of the Buffy, The Vampire Slayer TV series as well as several other acclaimed works including Angel and the short-lived Firefly series, all of which I greatly enjoyed. Interesting read, though unfortunately it wasn’t really very in-depth and mostly seemed like a fan’s praisebook more than anything. The book seemed to be more about the whole Buffy series than about Joss himself and only alluded to his actual history, motivations and glossed over the real “biographical” details as well. It was also painfully out of date, written when Buffy was still in season seven production and nothing was known of its’ impending cancellation. While I did glean some interesting information that I didn’t know about Joss (for example, his birth name was actually Joe, and he later changed it legally to Joss), to call this a biography is a real misnomer. It was a quick, easy read and did help me to understand some of the things that happened in Buffy—why they happened as they did—but that’s really about it. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone looking for real information or insight into the man himself. C.

12. THE HISTORIAN by Elizabeth Kostova. This is one of my TBR Challenge books, and I was determined to finish it this year—so I did. I don’t know why I put it off so long—it was a great story. The tale goes bouncing back and forth through time via various letters, historical documents and narratives by Elena and her father as they pursue the Dracula legend—and the man himself! Her father, a man haunted by the death of her mother when she was a baby, struggles to maintain his job as a diplomat and still spend time with and see to Elena’s needs, and Elena is a shy, scholarly teenage girl who seems decidedly out of place in the hip and happening 1970’s. The story of their search, of her father’s emerging story from the night he finds an ancient book with a woodcut diagram of a dragon named Drakulya among his schoolbooks takes us across the Balkans, to Istanbul, from Oxford to Paris, from the 1930’s to the 1970’s and back into the 1400’s, and the book was engrossing and interesting. While it did seem to bog down in some spots mid-book, the author used those revolving venues and times to switch things up often enough to keep it moving, liberally peppering ends of chapters with mini-cliffhangers. Once I actually started reading it, it went by very quickly and I have to say I enjoyed it very much! A.

13. A KILLING CURE by Ellen Hart #4 in the Jane Lawless mystery series set in Minneapolis. Jane’s life seems to be on an even keel at last—her restaurant is doing well, there’s a new love interest in the form of Dottie, a city councilwoman, and no one she knows has died lately. But then her father, a defense attorney, receives a fake pipe bomb threat, which everyone believes is related to his new client, Emery Gower, who has been charged with the murder of the head of a local women’s club. Jane decides to look into things at the club (which, coincidentally, her best friend Cordelia has recently joined) on her own, but is surprised when, a few days later, after the supposed accidental death of another member of their board of directors, one of the club’s directors approaches her and asks her to secretly investigate *that* death. The red herrings fly fast and furiously in this book, and I pretty much fell for one of them throughout most of the book, thinking I’d solved the case when indeed I hadn’t. The characters are interesting, though perhaps just a tad bit clich├ęd, and I do really like Jane. I enjoyed the book, but there’s something slightly “off” about the writing style—perhaps it’s that the dialogue seems a tad bit forced, but I’m not sure if that’s it, or if it’s just the whole package. A good read, but not a great one, despite being surprised at the outcome. I’ll continue to read the series—Hart’s right on with her portrayal of the local Twin Cities settings and the main character feels like an old friend after a few books. B.

14. THE SMELL OF THE NIGHT by Andrea Camilleri. #6 in the Inspector Montalbano Italian mystery series. Montalbano, the grumpy old cur, picks up the stalled investigation of the disappearance of a local financial wizard a month previously when an octogenarian (who’d been in hospital until the day before and hadn’t heard that the man made off with his money) waving a gun invades his still-open office and threatens to shoot Emanuele Gargano’s faithful secretary if someone doesn’t refund his money. Montalbano’s sergeant is on ‘wedding holiday’ so he has another officer dig through Mimi’s notes to find out information about disappearing man, who swindled people out of billions of lire. There are two schools of thought regarding Gargano’s disappearance—one is that he’s living it up on a beach somewhere, another that he double-crossed someone with Mafia connections and is sleeping with the fishes. Montalbano is not sure either camp is correct, but leans towards the beach theory until he does some further digging. Montalbano’s personal life also takes on a reflective note with Mimi’s wedding coming up so soon, and although he manages to make his way through many delicious meals, he seems to be a little down in the dumps and his usual wry humor doesn’t always rescue him from his unpleasant thoughts. His beloved Saracen olive tree has been chopped down by developers and he and Livia are having problems too. Still, as always, a delightful visit to Sicily. A

15. A MIND TO MURDER by P.D. James. #2 Inspector Adam Dalgliesh British police procedural. It struck me while reading this book that, despite its having been published 45 years ago, the book didn’t seem “dated” as some older books can. The focus was the mystery, the plot, the who-dunnit-and-why, and not really on the characters. And while there was much detail about the psychiatric clinic where this took place, it seemed done in a….I don’t know, timeless manner, so that the lack of computers, a theft of £15 being a huge deal, the somewhat stereotypical female roles, etc. didn’t really matter. This book was at least partly told from Dalgliesh’s point of view though, so I do feel like I’m getting to know him better, but his supporting cast is still mostly a blur and the focus, as I said, was plot. And the mystery stumped me—this one involved the murder of the administrative officer of a private psychiatric clinic—pretty much a classic locked door crime, with a narrow time frame of about forty minutes when the murder could have been done, and several suspects with motive but only a few with opportunity. Once again, I fell victim to a red herring that led me on a merry chase until the very end and my usual ‘bad guy’ instincts suspected everyone at one time or another! LOL Very, very enjoyable and another series that I think I will be reading quite a lot of in the coming months. I believe I have read a few of them, but it’s been at least twenty-five years since then so I doubt I’ll remember which ones. A+

16. THE LIGHTNING THIEF by Rick Riordan (audio book) #1 in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians YA fantasy series. Percy Jackson is a twelve-year-old problem child. Diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia, and who knows what else, he’s been in and out of several boarding schools in his young life and has just been told he’s “not invited back” to his most recent school, Yancy Academy, after a disastrous field trip which Percy and everyone else around him remembers differently. Percy finds himself oddly sad about not going back to this school, because he actually made a friend and one of his teachers is nice and encourages him. At the end of the school year, Percy goes home to see his much-beloved mother and his nasty stepfather and he and his mother head for the beach for a week’s vacation while “Smelly Gabe” stays behind to play poker with his buddies. In a series of startling events, in which his mother is apparently killed, Percy learns that he is a demi-god—a child of a god and a human. His newfound friend Grover is actually a satyr assigned to protect him, and his nice teacher (who had been confined to a wheelchair in the earthly world) is Chiron, leader of the centaurs, and that all the legends of Greek mythology are actually real. Soon he ends up at Camp Half-Blood with other half-blood children of gods and goddesses (where he learns that his father is none other than Poseidon, and that being diagnosed with ADHD and being a ‘problem’ in the ‘real world’ is a common thing for demi-gods) and is sent on a quest to redeem himself, having been accused by Zeus of stealing his infamous lightning bolt. Excellent story, wonderful characterizations, and mythology that was actually accurate! Interesting blend of modern world and the mythological Greek world, too. The reader was also great, able to do many different voices and bring out the cynical pre-adolescent voice of the previously much-maligned and disappointed Percy himself. Plenty of humor, too. Definitely going to continue on with more in this series! A

CR: PILLARS OF THE EARTH by Ken Follett and downloaded THE SNAKE TATTOO by Linda Barnes in audio.