2. BONE BY BONE by Carol O’Connell. Non-series mystery/thriller Oren Hobbs has come home after twenty years, the last several spent as an Army CID officer. The family housekeeper, Hannah Rice, has been writing and letting him know that his little brother Josh (who disappeared the summer Oren turned seventeen) has been coming home—bone by bone. Someone is leaving pieces of what they presume is Josh’s skeleton on his father’s front porch. And yet Judge Henry Hobbs (retired) hasn’t seen fit to contact the local sheriff’s office. Why not? No one knows for sure what happened to Josh—a bright fifteen-year-old with a penchant for photography and for watching people. Oren suspects that a picture Josh took captured someone doing something they didn’t want known and that he was killed because of it. But who? Everyone knows everyone’s secrets in small town Coventry, California. Don’t they? This story sucked me in right from the beginning, never revealing too much, just enough crumbs to keep you following the trail—which was also littered with many red herrings, several of which I fell for along the way. You were never really allowed to get to know Oren too well either—the story didn’t take place inside his head, really, so there were many questions I still had about him at the end of the book, even. The characters were all rather complex—and yet you didn’t ever really ‘know’ them if that makes any sense. But this is one of the few books I’ve read recently where I can honestly say that character development didn’t really matter too much. It was the story that was intriguing, and the entire package worked very well. I had read the first of this author’s series featuring Kathleen Mallory and liked it well enough, but it was one of those that got abandoned and lost along the way, with so many other books to read. I think I will need to get back to it soon. A.
3. THE CROSSROADS by Chris Grabenstein. (audio) The author of the John Ceepak and Christopher Miller adult mystery series branches out into young adult fiction with this book, I would tend to call it a paranoramal fantasy/horror story, a ghost story. Zach Jennings and his father and new stepmother are moving into their new home in rural Connecticut. Fortunately, Zach gets along well with Judy, his stepmother—his real mother had died of lung cancer and actually doesn’t sound like a nice person at all. When they arrive in the small town where Zach’s dad grew up, they’re met by a whole parcel of ghosts—although they don’t realize it at first. They also meet nasty old Mrs. Spratling, who keeps a Monday morning vigil at a large tree in the corner of the Jennings’ property where her boyfriend met his demise fifty years previously—along with about fifty other people who died in a Greyhound bus accident. What emerges is a twisted, sordid tale of secrets, lusts and greed close to the surface of small-town life. Told partly from the view of Zach, and from several other of the characters, too. This was an excellent story, very suspenseful, and probably quite scary when read or listened to by the pre-teen/young teen audience that it’s intended for. Grabenstein certainly makes the crossover to YA fiction very well and tells the story with his usual easy-reading style and enough light humor to offset the scarier parts. Very well done! A.
4. AN EXPERIMENT IN TREASON by Bruce Alexander. #9 Sir John Fielding mystery in which Jeremy and Sir John become involved in a plot involving Benjamin Franklin and the American colonies. Someone has stolen a packet of letters from the home of a prominent member of Parliament, believed to be damning to certain British officials with regard to the rights of the Colonials. A footman was brutally coshed on the head and killed during the burglary, therefore it’s a murder case as well. Mr. Franklin is high on the suspect list as having hired certain thugs to perform the deed, but without proof, Sir John and Jeremy are stuck at a standstill. Several changes are in the works with regards to secondary characters as well, as the Fieldings’ former cook, Annie, stars in a production of Romeo and Juliet, Molly (the new cook) settles in and is courted by Dr. Donnelly (the medical examiner) and Jeremy and Clarissa’s relationship begins to change. Enjoyable entry in the series as always; the author’s notes indicate that he played fast and loose with known historical fact in this book with regard to Ben Franklin’s involvement, but I thought he did it very well. It *is* historical fiction after all! A.
5. EXCALIBUR by Bernard Cornwell. Third of the Arthurian legends “Warlord” historical fiction trilogy in which Derfel Cadarn, Arthur’s one-time second in command and now a monk, completes the tale of what happened to Arthur—who never was a king, though he should have been. It’s 530’s A.D. in Britain, and the Saxons are on the prowl again, trying to gain more land. Arthur still stands behind his promise to Uther that he would support Mordred as Britain’s king, and it does nothing but gain him trouble. He’s also trying to recover from Guinevere’s betrayal and is not himself. The story is told of what happens to Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin, Nimue, Lancelot and to Derfel himself to some degree. I absolutely loved Cornwell’s take on the whole Arthurian legend, treating it as more historical fiction than fantasy and telling a plausible tale of what could have been the basis for the whole “King Arthur/Camelot” legends. Excellently wonderful, and this whole series is staying on my Keeper shelf. A.
6. PRIEST by Ken Bruen #5 Jack Taylor mystery set in Galway, Ireland and featuring the tormented alcoholic ex-Guard once again. Just released from ‘the nuthouse’ where he’s spent many months with his brain on vacation and subdued by medication after the tragic events at the end of the previous book (trying not to give spoilers here!), Jack discovers just how much Galway and his situation can change in just a few months’ time. He discovers that his old landlady at the hotel has died and left him a hefty sum of money and an apartment, his friend Jeff has become a drunken bum, and someone has beheaded a priest—a priest that had been one of those accused of sexual abuse of young boys a few years previously. His old nemesis Fr. Malachy actually approaches Jack and asks him to investigate, and Jack is also approached by a young man who has been following his career and wants to go into partnership with him as a pair of P.I.’s. Through many stressful, horrible situations, Jack manages not to succumb to his desire for a drink, but this tale, too, ends tragically in what is becoming a bit of a formulaic plot device. I really didn’t expect anything different, as Jack can never seem to catch a break or a bit of lasting happiness. A stark and depressing tale, yet a deeply philosophical one that plumbs the depths of Jack’s soul, I wouldn’t read this if you’re looking for something light and uplifting—but despite the predictable ending, it was still a good read. B+.
7. THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster. A classic children’s fantasy tale that I’d never heard of til recently—written in 1961 and full of the sort of puns and wordplay I would have loved as a youngster—wish I’d known about it then. Milo is a young boy who is disillusioned with life—wherever he is and whatever he’s doing, he wishes he were somewhere else doing something different. Thoroughly bored with life is our Milo. One day he comes home to find a tollbooth in his bedroom, something he’s pretty sure wasn’t there before. He climbs in his little car, pays his toll and finds himself suddenly somewhere else and certainly doing something different! Consulting the map, he decides to head for Dictionopolis, but first must travel through Expectations, the doldrums and the Foothills of Confusion. Wonderful story with a very basic life lesson (that I think some people never quite learn, actually)...hilarious characters, word streams and funky illustrations as well. A+
8. A FISTFUL OF CHARMS by Kim Harrison. #4 in the Rachel Morgan “Hollows” paranormal mystery cum paranormal romance series. Why, why, WHY does every good paranormal series I read start out so great and slowly devolve into a pseudo-romance full of sexual tension, descriptions of clothing, hair, body parts and with a veritable smorgasbord of sexual choices for the heroine? I really liked the first two of this series. The third one was okay, but I could see where it was headed, which is probably why I took so long to get to this one. It’s happened to sooooo many series I started out raving about, though…it drives me freakin’ insane!! The story, the real story of what is happening in this paranormal world between the vamps and Weres and Pixies and witches, etc. gets lost in all the sweating, mingling of scents, rapid hearts beating, descriptions of washboard abs, sexy bottoms, leather clothing exchanging of bodily fluids. Bah! I finished this book two days ago but I can barely recall what it was about. And it’s rather an irrelevant point since I won’t be continuing the series anyway. I’m sad about it, because I really liked Rachel in the first couple books. However, I am happy because although Book 6 just came up on my PBS wishlist, I finished this book in time to cancel the order before the member could respond to my auto request. Yes! The book gods DO love me after all! D+
9. BURNING BRIGHT by Tracy Chevalier (audio download). Wonderful historical fiction tale about a couple of families in 1792 London. The book loosely contains William Blake, noted poet, artist and engraver and all-around ‘odd duck’ as the neighbor of the two families, but it’s mostly about the Kellaways and Butterfields. The Kellaways are innocents, newly-arrived in London from Dorsetshire—chair-maker Tom, his wife Annie and children Gem and Maisie, having been promised work by traveling circus owner Philip Astley. The Butterfields are hardened, street-wise life-long Londoners. The story changes points of view and we come to know particularly Jem Kellaway and Maggie Butterfield very well as they have adventures in the streets of London, have visits with their neighbor Mr. Blake and his wife Kate. I love books like this, not about kings and queens and Lord this-and-that, but the ordinary folk and a snapshot of what their lives were like over a year or so’s time. Chevalier has ever told wonderful stories, and this one is no exception. While William Blake isn’t a central character in the book, he is rather prominent in the minds and eyes of the other characters and it does feature some of his work, as this takes place not long after he’d written his famed “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience.” I grew fearful towards the ending that the author would wrap everything up in a nice little packages in the way that real life never is, and thus spoil the whole story, but not to worry—it was decidedly satisfying for me. The reader was excellent, too, doing a myriad of voices and accents without faltering. A.
10. THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows (audio download) Wonderful production, a story told in letters back and forth between several people in the UK in 1946. It’s post-war England and writer Juliet Ashton is busy doing book tours when she receives an interesting letter from a Mr. Dawsey Adams on the island of Guernsey. He had picked up a book that used to belong to her, a work by Charles Lamb, which he really likes, and had some questions for her. They begin a correspondence that leads to Juliet corresponding with many people on the island, members of a group called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—so-named during a ruse to fool the Germans who had been occupying the island at the time of the group’s formation. It started out as a bit of a joke but actually did develop into a book club, and Juliet decides that it might be interesting to write about the group, the German occupation there (which she knew precious little about) and Guernsey in general. After several months of correspondence, and despite the protestations of her steady boyfriend, rich American Markham Reynolds, Juliet heads off to the island to meet her pen pals, totally unprepared for what she finds there. Absolutely wonderful book!! This was the first audiobook I’d read that was done by more than one reader, almost like an old time radio production, with the letters being read by four or five different people. It was very hard to stop listening to this wonderful reading. Yes, it’s rather sappy in places but the way this book was done, I didn’t mind it at all. There were parts that were terribly sad, others that were joyous and hopeful, the characters were brilliant and well-fleshed and there’s plenty of literary reference for the seasoned bibliophile, too. I was saddened to hear that the primary author, Mary Ann Schaffer, passed away before the book was ever released, so we won’t be privy to more of her work. Very likely to make my top ten of the year! A+
11. EIGHT OF SWORDS by David Skibbins. First of a mystery series featuring Warren Ritter, a fifty-something tarot reader with a street stall in Berkeley, California, and fugitive from the law because of his “un-American” activities back in the ‘60’s. Well, actually, it’s believed that he’s dead—and Richard Green, the person he was, IS dead for all intents and purposes. He’s also bi-polar and prone to do a lot of self-medicating. The story sucked me in immediately, with Warren doing a reading for a teenage girl in which he forsees a bad end. He gives his clients one of his tarot cards with a sticker containing his contact information, and when the girl is kidnapped later that day, he’s contacted by the police, as Heather’s backpack with his card in it was found in an alley not far away. To top things off, his sister Tara—who believes that “Richard” has been dead for the last couple of decades—is on a temporary job in Berkeley and sees him at his tarot stall. This puts Warren into a whole dilemma of “fight or flight”—does he stay and try to figure out what happened to Heather, and to resolve things with Tara, or does he run to Spokane or Alaska, where he has two other identities that he can use? He decides to stay, which sets off crisis after crisis for Warren—not easy for anyone, but for someone living on the edge psychologically, especially devastating. I really like Warren, despite some of his stupid choices, and the writing style is easy to read, casual and with just enough humor to balance out the edginess. I’ve already put the second in series on my PBS wishlist. A winner! A.
12. HE WHO FEARS THE WOLF by Karin Fossum. #2 Inspector Konrad Seijer mystery set in Norway. An elderly woman is found dead in her remote cabin home, her garden hoe firmly planted in the side of her head. Meanwhile, Errki Johrma, a disturbed young schizophrenic, has escaped from a nearby asylum so everyone assumes he is the perpetrator of that heinous crime. A young boy walking in the woods taking some bow-shooting practice who discovered the woman’s body reports having seen Errki in the woods near her cabin. But Inspector Seijer isn’t so sure, and even comes up with a bizarre bet with his second in command that their culprit isn’t Errki at all. The young man’s psychiatrist doesn’t believe he did it either, as violence simply doesn’t fit his profile of past behaviors. Seijer is working not only the murder case, but the case of a bank robbery that occurs the next morning—a bank robbery that involves a hostage, no less. The two cases begin to strangely entwine during the course of the investigation. I enjoyed this book more than the first in the series. Seijer wasn’t quite so morose in this book, maybe that had something to do with it. The book rotates back and forth with chapters told from the point of view of several characters, including the bad guys. Sometimes this works for an author and other times I find it annoying, but Fossum uses that tool remarkably well and the book had a very satisfying feel to it: I’m certainly glad to have already procured the next few in the series. A.
13. THE MYSTIC ARTS OF ERASING ALL SIGNS OF DEATH by Charlie Huston. ARC for review from Amazon Vine. This is the gritty, edgy tale of Webster Fillmore Goodhue, a former teacher cum slacker, now employed by Clean Team, a company that does clean-up at crime scenes after the forensic teams are done. Hired by families too bereaved to deal with such a mess and without the knowledge of how to handle it even if they wanted to, Web finds a certain satisfaction in scraping bloody bits of brains, offal and gore and restoring a room such that you could not tell that a brutal murder or suicide or other messy death occurred there. Web himself is pretty messed up inside, having lived an “interesting” childhood, shall we say, and then suffering a major traumatic incident as a teacher that left him essentially unable to cope with most of life except by sleeping and by being a total jerk while he’s awake. Despite all that, I liked him almost immediately, much as I have liked every one of Huston’s main characters in previous books. I know I’m not supposed to like them, but I can’t help it. Perhaps it’s just the author’s ‘voice’ or writing style, but like his other works, I found this book hard to put down and devoured it in a matter of hours. Not for the faint of heart, nor the prim and proper, this book is graphic, full of gory descriptions of crime scenes, evidence of man’s brutality towards one another and it oozes darkness—and yet, it left me with a sense of hope, too. I believe this book is meant to be a stand-alone, but I hope I’m wrong, because I would love to see it become a series. There’s already a great main character and a set of interesting, well-fleshed out supporting characters too. Excellent and highly recommended for lovers of indecently pulpy noir. A+
14. THE GOLDSMITH’S DAUGHTER by Kate Sedley. #10 Roger the Chapman series set in 1470’s England. Roger and new wife Adela are off to London in January, even though Adela is now three months’ pregnant. Adela has hopes of seeing some of the festivities to celebrate the royal wedding of King Edward’s four-year-old son to Lady Anne Mowbray. Meanwhile, Edward’s brother George, The Duke of Clarence sits in the Tower, charged with treason. Roger has a bad feeling about the trip, and sure enough, while in the crowd at the wedding and again during George’s trial the next day, Roger is spotted by Prince Richard, whom he has done service for in the past and whom he is extremely loyal to. Richard charges Roger to solve the murder of a local goldsmith—or actually, the goldsmith’s son-in-law—as the wife is rumored to be the killer and she is related to King Edward’s latest mistress, Jane Shore. Richard wants to approach Jane to ask her to intercede for his brother George’s life, but he wants a bargaining chip before doing so. He feels that solving the murder and removing the suspicion from her cousin’s head will be enough. Roger ends up spending most of his week in the investigation while Adela spends time with the Lampreys, old friends of Roger’s from previous trips. And of course Roger solves the crime, although the answer was as plain as the nose on your face from midway through the book. This is one of my favorite historical series, with Roger’s ‘voice’ telling stories at an advanced age as he recalls them from his past. Depite the obviousness of the mystery, I still enjoyed this one and always applaud Sedley’s descriptions, settings and of course her characters, too. A.
15. RITUALS OF THE SEASON by Margaret Maron. (audio) #11 Judge Deborah Knott series set in Colleton County, North Carolina. It’s Christmas, and Deborah’s wedding looms large on the horizon, but there’s no time for celebrating just yet. An up-and-coming assistant DA, Tracy Johnson, has been shot while driving down the interstate and her year-old adopted daughter May, who is in her carseat in the back, lives only briefly after the ensuing crash. Suspicion centers around people she’s previously prosecuted, especially since she’s gotten a death threat recently. And then it’s revealed that she was beginning to dig into an old case regarding a woman on death row who is to be executed the following month. On top of that, the autopsy reveals that Johnson was pregnant when no one knew she was seeing anyone seriously—so was her death related to her personal life, or her professional one? Although admonished to stay out of the investigation, Deborah gets tangled in it anyway and solves the old murder case while the sheriff’s office finally draws enough evidence to light to solve Johnson’s murder. As is common, I knew the bad guy as soon as he was introduced, and watched the clues fall into place as they all scrambled around after the wrong guy for quite awhile. But I still love this series, and the reader is just excellent too. The highlight of course was Deborah’s wedding, and watching her huge family prepare for it and spending Christmas in Colleton County was wonderful, although a bit late. LOL A
16. SOLACE FOR A SINNER by Caroline Roe. #4 Isaac of Girona historical mystery set in 1550’s Spain, featuring the blind Jewish physician and his family. In this installment, the Holy Grail has apparently come to Girona in the hands of a merchant who is trying to auction it off to the highest bidder. Rumors abound and then one of the hopeful buyers ends up dead, as does the merchant himself. Near-panic ensues in the marketplaces as the rumors escalate about the Grail and its powers. Isaac begins to investigate as one of the members of the Jewish community is suspect, and the Bishop, whom Isaac tends faithfully. is annoyed with Isaac for stirring up trouble and tries to stay out of the fracas. While I didn’t dislike this book, I certainly didn’t like it as much as the previous ones in the series. It seemed rather blah and I had a hard time getting interested in the political/religious intrigue and in the main part of the story even though I enjoy Isaac, Raquel, Yusuf and the rest of the supporting cast very much. I’ll give this one a B- and hope the next one picks up again.
17. DIE ONCE by Marianne MacDonald. #6 Dido Hoare antiquarian bookseller mystery set in London. A regular customer of Dido’s has committed suicide and a few days later, her bank contacts her to say that the cheque he used to make his last purchase from her has bounced. She contacts the solicitors handling his estate and is hired by them to do a valuation on his books, and in the process of doing so, Dido realizes that something is just not right about the whole situation, and she begins to think perhaps someone helped Tim Curwen over his balcony. Conversations with a small nearly-blind lad who lives next door and a couple of irate CID detectives who pop in to the flat to see what Dido is doing there begin to raise her suspicions even more. Dido, naturally, gets herself into investigating and helps unlock the mystery. Once again I have to say that, much like the last book in this series that I read, I found most of the situations to be totally implausible. Why on earth would a woman with a young toddler to raise put herself in such jeopardy on a continual basis?? This was not a person she had any sort of deep relationship with so that her running hither and yon would be inspired by passion or a deep friendship of great longevity or something. Why would policemen willingly share details of ongoing investigations with her—a bookseller and rank amateur—and even invite her along on snooping expeditions? Why would she willingly withhold vital evidence from the investigating officers and still not be able to figure out the bad guy til the end of the book when I had figured it out about a third of the way through? LOL I just can’t see how any of this could have happened, really… my head was rattling continuously as I shook it incredulously. Don’t get me wrong—I like Dido and her world a lot (what’s not to like about an antiquarian bookstore??) and I’m still wishing her father were a real person that I could call up and natter with. BUT… truly, I think the author needs to make situations that an amateur like Dido could reasonably get into or else make her a policewoman. Were I basing my grade strictly on the characters and settings, the book would get an A, but the continual stream of ludicrous actions by Dido and just plain lowered it to a B-.
18. WATER FOR ELEPHANTS by Sara Gruen. Historical fiction set during the Depression about a young man whose parents die suddenly in a car crash when he is away at Cornell University, and is due to take his final exams to become a veterinarian. At a total loss when he finds out that his parents had mortgaged their home and essentially lost the farm with nothing in the estate, Jacob Jankowski just starts walking. Hungry, tired, footsore and grieving, he ends up hooking up with a traveling circus, and this is the story of what life was like under (and behind!) the big top, trying to survive during the Depression. The story actually bounces back and forth in time, being told by a much older Jacob, who is now ninety (or ninety-three, he’s not sure which) and living in a nursing home. When the circus comes to town, all these memories come flooding back. I don’t want to say too much or give anything away, so just GO READ IT! I absolutely loved this book! It’s a gritty tale, doesn’t gloss over the realities of life and yet somehow manages to be a gently told story. I fell in love with the elder Mr. Jankowski—he reminded me so much of one of my favorite residents from when I used to work in a nursing home. I always did like the feisty ones!
19. THE GHOST AND MRS MCCLURE by Alice Kimberly. #1 in the Haunted Bookshop mystery series, set in small town Rhode Island where Penelope has moved from New Yorkwith her young son Spencer after her husband’s suicide. Moving in with her aging aunt Sadie and buying half-interest in her failing bookstore, Penelope revamps it, modernizes everything and uses her background in publishing to try and make Buy the Book viable again. She manages to snag big-time mystery author Timothy Brennan to come speak and do a book signing. Little does she realize that Brennan, one of her favorite authors, is a real jerk. And it turns out someone else thinks so too, as he’s murdered during his talk right on camera. At first it’s thought he suffered a heart attack, but later it’s revealed that he was deliberately driven into anaphylactic shock with nut oil. While all this is going on, Penelope discovers that her bookstore is haunted by Jack Shepard, a 1940’s tough-guy private eye—the very one that Brennan’s books are based on. The reason he’d agreed to do a signing in Buy the Book was that Brennan and his staff had discovered that Shepard had died there. And of course Penelope is briefly a suspect ibecause of the massive publicity to the shop generated by Brennan’s death on site. This was a fairly decent book for a cozy, but it wasn’t great. The plot was very transparent and I’d figured out whodunit and the subplot way in advance. I’m going to try the next in series—although I’ve put it on my library list rather than taking up a wishlist spot at PBS—and see if it shakes my tree a little more. I like Penelope and the supporting cast, but the characters were a bit weak and, I don’t know—lackluster I guess. A light and predictable read, what will make or break this series for me is whether (as seems typical) it denigrates into a mystery-cum-romance and whether the author will keep Jack’s ghost’s abilities within the parameters she’s set down in this first book. B
20. ROUNDING THE MARK by Andrea Camilleri. #7 Inspector Salvo Montalbano police procedural mystery set in Sicily. Salvo has become disillusioned with the world and with policework specifically and is all set to turn in his resignation when he gets caught up in an unofficial investigation dealing with illegal immigrants. He comes across a scared black immigrant boy at the docks who looks at Montalbano imploringly as if to ask him to help him escape—but the woman who takes the little fellow by the hand appears to be his mother, so why was the boy afraid? The question definitely needs answering a few days later when the boy turns up dead, the victim of a hit and run accident. When this unofficial case ties in with the case of a dead body that Montalbano literally ‘ran into’ while swimming, his instincts go into high gear and the scent of the chase banishes all thought of resignation from his mind. Excellent as usual, and as usual, don’t read this series while hungry—the descriptions of the wonderful foods will leave you drooling! A.
21. BONK: THE CURIOUS COUPLING OF SCIENCE AND SEX by Mary Roach. (audio) The author takes her usual quirky look at a touchy subject, delving particularly into the various documented studies about sex—attitudes, practices, and the actual nitty-gritty science of coupling—done by the likes of Masters & Johnson, Kinsey and other lesser-known researchers, both past and present. She discusses not only the subject matter undertaken by these folks, but the researchers themselves, their lives and thoughts about sex. Traveling the globe to meet with researchers and to observe some studies in action—even to participate in some herself—the author helps to debunk some common misconceptions about ‘the science of sex’ and ‘how it all works’ and offers up a few little-known facts along the way. Roach’s off-beat sense of humor comes in handy during the discussion, and she handles the delicate subject with straightforward aplomb that greatly diminishes any squeamishness or embarrassment. Also explored some were cultural considerations, although I would have liked to have had even more discussion about that. Since her audience is primarily from Western civilization, that’s where she concentrated her efforts. I enjoyed this book quite a lot, learned a lot, and the reader for this audio version was really good too, which made concentrating not a problem—which sometimes it can be when I’ve attempted other non-fiction books. There were many footnotes and asides throughout the book, but to me they weren’t distracting, just added extra information—in fact, some of the most interesting bits were in the footnotes, I thought. It will be really interesting to see what topic Ms. Roach decides to dive into next! A.
DNF: FAULT LINE by Barry Eisler (ARC for review)