Sunday, September 6, 2009

September 2009 Reads

I've been on vacation and thought I would get more reading done...but I mostly listened to audios this past week, as I was busy doing a lot of stuff around the house that was perfect for listening while I worked. :)

1. MORETA: DRAGONLADY OF PERN by Anne McCaffrey. (AUDIO) #7 overall publication order of the "Pern" fantasy series, this seems to be a stand-alone story of the weyr-woman Moreta, whose dragon Orlith is the queen of Fort Weyr. The events in this book happen about 900 years before the earlier books in the series, and take place when they are just discovering that dragons cannot only go "between" and thus traverse hundreds of miles in the blink of an eye, but that they can also go other places in TIME. A plague is upon the land, started by a strange cat-like creature and spread to horses and other four-legged beasts. Many all across Pern have died, but some have recovered, and the principle of vaccination is put to good use to keep many people (and animals!) alive. Moreta works together with Alessan, new leader of Ruatha Hold--they meet at a Gather there, and shortly after when the sickness starts, they work together to secure ingredients needed to treat the illness by using dragon riders to travel other places and times. A romance develops between them, but the story has a rather sad and bittersweet ending, but this is something you sort of knew was coming if you're familiar with the series, as there is a ballad in some of the other earlier books (that Menolly sings if I remember right) about Moreta's Ride--and now it all makes sense. Very well done, enjoyable to listen to--another different reader than previous books, but very well-suited to the prose and the tone of the book. A.

2. THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE by C. Alan Bradley. (AUDIO) I guess this would be classified as a 'historical' mystery, as it takes place more than 50 years ago, in 1950 in the English village of Bishop's Lacey. Our heroine is a precocious 11-year-old girl named Flavia de Luce who loves chemistry and spends as much time as she can tinkering in the lab she inherited from her mother, who died when she was just a baby--and where she concocts such things as poison ivy lipstick for her annoying older sister. The de Luce family has lived at Buckshaw for generations, and the current family consists of Flavia, her two teenage sisters, and her father, a reclusive stamp collector. The household staff consist of Mrs. Mullet, the cook and housekeeper, and Dogger, the gardener and general dogsbody. Flavia is awakened one night by loud voices and discovers her father arguing with a tall red-haired man--whom she later discovers dead in the cucumber patch! When her father is arrested for the murder--the man was an old school chum of his--Flavia sets out to free him and travels around on her ancient bicycle Gladys digging up ancient history and cogitating until she comes up with the solution--but not before she ends up in plenty of hot water! I think Flavia is either someone you will really appreciate and enjoy, or someone you'll look at as an annoying brat and give up reading in frustration. Put me firmly in the 'enjoy' camp! I loved this whole story from beginning to end--the atmosphere, Flavia's way with words, the literary references strewn throughout, and even though I'm NOT a fan of chemistry, Flavia's passion for it (and for poisons!) came through to illuminate her character and the story. The reader did an excellent job, too, and made listening a pleasure. I noticed that there's another entry in this series set for publication next year and I'm already looking forward to it. A+

3. MISS ZUKAS AND THE LIBRARY MURDERS by Jo Dereske. #1 Helma Zukas mystery. Wilhelmina "Helma" Zukas, a thirty-something librarian working in a smallish seaside town in Washington State, is a very precise woman. So when she is a little late for work one morning (she knocked over a houseplant when she went back into the apartment to make sure she'd drawn the blinds--and had to clean it up) only to find a police car parked in HER spot, she's a little put out. Arriving inside, she finds that there's a murdered body in the Mo-Ne aisle of the fiction stacks--not one of their regulars, thank heavens! Helma takes it as almost a personal affront and sets off doing a parallel investigation to the police. As I said, Miss Zukas is very precise--so while she doesn't actually out-and-out lie to the police, she does omit some very pertinent information that she observed/gleaned during the course of the investigation. I was a little leery of this book as I've had bad experiences with most cozy mysteries of late, but I actually liked this one. Miss Zukas obviously has a touch of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and could keep company with Mr. Monk without too much trouble I think. LOL But although she's rather rigid and epitomizes the 'spinster librarian' stereotype, there is an undercurrent of wry humor and her bawdy friend Ruth rather offsets Helma's prim and properness. I did have one of my 'gut feelings' about the bad guy, but didn't figure out the hows and whys of the mystery until closer to the end. I've already set out to procure the second one in this series. B+

4. LABYRINTH by Kate Mosse. The blurb on the front of the book reads a quote from author Val McDermid stating, "Eat your heart out, Dan Brown--this is the real thing." Well....I don't know about that. It's another tale of lore regarding the Holy Grail, another possible story and explanation of the secrets of the Cathars lodged in the mountains and caves of what is now southern France. The story weaves together the lives of two women, Alaïs Pelletier in the 12th century and Dr. Alice Tanner in 2005. Alaïs is the second daughter of Bertrand Pelletier, close advisor and seneschal for the Viscount of Carcassone, and when the Inquisition begins and war appears imminent, her father confides a secret of great importance to her and gives her an ancient book to keep safe. She knows it is part of a trilogy and that there are two other books who also have appointed guardians, but she strives to learn more and investigates on her own when her father refuses to share more details with her. The modern-day Alice, an Englishwoman in France to meet with a lawyer regarding a bequest from a previously-unknown aunt, asks an archaelogist friend if she can volunteer on a dig in the Pyrenees for a few days. While doing some work, she discovers a secret cave entrance with two bodies and some interesting artifacts--a ring with a small labyrinthine stone disc most notably. She also has a strange flashback sensation and sees some visions as though in a dream. From there, things start to get really weird. Alice has a feeling of being followed and soon her hotel room is riffled through. Then one of the young policeman who was at the site approaches her and gives her a number to call--and subsequently is run down by an unknown assailant. Unsure of who to trust and unable to reach her friend Shelagh, Alice also investigates, and continues to have the strange dreams, too, and the story continues to entwine and Alice discovers her connection with Alaïs. This was a good story, but for some reason, it took me ages to get through it and I had a hard time staying on track and interested for very long. Part of it was that it was rather bloated and overblown and in need of some judicious editing--sort of the polar opposite of Dan Brown's Grail story, The DaVinci Code, which was action packed and short on detail. I think a book somewhere between the two in tone and substance would be ideal. This story was also quite predictable, and I think anyone who's read anything of Grail lore will easily know what's going to happen by mid-book at the latest. In short, I'm glad I read it, and would recommend it for those interested in the Grail or the story of the Cathars, but I wasn't blown away. B.

5. THE PHYSICK BOOK OF DELIVERANCE DANE by Katherine Howe. (AUDIO) Story of a Harvard graduate student studying Colonial America who is attempting to come up with something to write her dissertation about. Connie Goodwin then is asked by her mother to ready her grandmother's house in Marblehead, MA for selling. What Connie finds there is chaos--the house hasn't been touched in 20 years and has no electricity, telephone and is coated in layers of dust. But she finds the family Bible with a key bearing what she believes is a name, Deliverance Dane, and also develops strange feelings accompanied by headaches. The researcher in her takes over and Connie soon finds herself immersed in the search for Deliverance Dane, and comes to believe that she was accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials. As her advisor begins pressuring her to come up with some new primary sources for her research (Deliverance Dane's book of receipts--recipes--would do nicely), Connie begins spending more time with Sam, a fellow that she met who does building restorations. When he falls off some scaffolding and is badly injured--then it's determined that he fell due to a seizure and these become more severe and almost life-threatening, Connie follows an instinct that leads her to Deliverance's physick book, which she believes holds the key to curing Sam. Meanwhile, the chapters are interspersed with "interludes" that actually tell the story back in the 1690's of Deliverance and her daughter Mercy. I actually found the interludes more interesting than the contemporary parts. I do like this sort of book, and I did like this one, or at least the premise for it, although I have to say it was very predictable all the way through and I was disappointed by the lack of something unexpected happening. The characters in the modern sections were rather undeveloped--sort of cookie-cutter images of "the hunky boyfriend," "the evil villain," "the steadfast friend/roommate," and "the quirky mother" pulled from some melodramatic serial. And Connie herself rather reminded me of an "airheaded academic." I wanted to smack her upside the head more than once. In short, the book is a wonderful idea that seems to have fallen a little short on execution--I would have liked it much more had the modern parts been more believable (example: Connie's apartment was only an hour away from the grandmother's house--why would she stay there in layers of dust and decay with no phone, no electricity, minimal running water, etc. when she could have taken a week or so to at least make it semi-habitable first?) and if the characters had been more than just going through the motions. The narrator did a commendable job with the varying voices and accents as well, although I can't say I really "enjoyed" her voice or the telling as much as I have some other readers. I'm giving this a B-.

6. MAMA DOES TIME by Deborah Sharp. #1 Mace Bauer mystery set in central Florida. Mace works at a local wildlife park and is dismayed one September morning to get a call from her Mama saying she's at the jail--the dead body of a man was found in the trunk of her car when she came out of the bingo parlor and she's been hauled in for questioning. Mace rallies with her two sisters, Maddie and Marty, and they essentially overwhelm the police station trying to get her out. Detective Carlos Martinez, new in town from Miami, locks Mama up which puts him in a costume with horns and a pitchfork in the girls' eyes. Soon they provide evidence that Mama couldn't have committed the crime so she is released, but Mace and her mother get a threatening letter with a decapitated, stuffed dog that looks suspiciously like Mama's Pomeranian, Teensy, so Mace figures no one is safe until the real murderer is caught. It turns out the dead guy was an ex-gangster in a witness protection program and Mace and her sisters immediately suspect their mother's boyfriend, Sal, who hails from New York and looks and talks like a gangster. He moves down the list when Mace runs into an old boyfriend, whom she learns has borrowed a lot of money from the dead man--and was seen arguing with him. More suspects come to light, and Mace continues investigating behind the scenes, much to the chagrin of Detective Martinez. I have to admit that Mace was actually better than many "cozy" mystery heroines at keeping the police informed of what she was doing--although that might have had something to do with the fact that Det. Martinez is quite a hunk. LOL I really enjoyed this book--Mace is a great character that I really like, although I am generally not a fan of "southern" books, this one was okay because of Mace. Even the yappy-little-dog-in-a-sweater-toting Mama, the epitome of the petite, polite Southern lady with all accessories color matched, didn't put me off. LOL The writing style was easy to read and relaxed, the only downfall being that the dialogue felt somewhat stilted and unnatural at times. (If you are alone in a room with someone and you're talking privately, do you keep interjecting their name into the conversation every few sentences? I don't...I mean, they're the only one there so they know I'm addressing things to them, and vice versa, so there's no need. I find that it's fairly common with newer authors to do that, though--it's not really bad writing, just sounds awkward, at least to me.) At any rate, I'm glad I took a chance on this mystery when the "Southern" bit could have easily put me off, as I enjoyed it very much. Looking forward to the next one! A-

7. UNPAID DUES by Barbara Seranella. #6 Munch Mancini mystery. Munch, an auto mechanic living in 1980's California, has another visit from her past, which comes back to haunt her again when a beaten, dead body found in a pond comes up with a picture of Munch attached to the name and prints, nearly giving Detective Mace St. John another heart attack. The victim is actually someone named Jane Farrar, "New York" Jane to Munch, who had been one of the gang of druggies Munch used to hang with ten years previously before she went straight. Munch wonders whether Jane's husband Thor might be the perpetrator as he had savagely beaten Jane (and many others) to near death before. She is loathe to tell all to St. John though, because it will dredge up a very bad incident in her past life in which she unknowingly participated in a brutal triple murder--she was the driver for a supposed drug heist that Thor, Jane, and Sleaze John did, and didn't know until later that people had been killed. Munch fears that revealing this will pull the rug out from under her new stable, sober life with a decent job and her adopted daughter Asia. On top of this, Munch's friend Deb's son Nathan "Boogie" Franklin comes for a visit--she hadn't seen him since he was a young boy, and now is a teenager, living on his own. Munch invites him to stay until he finds a job and gets himself together. Munch's romance with Detective Rico Chacon is on shaky ground as well, as she attempts to get him to commit to a more permanent relationship and provide some stability--but of course, he's still married. The mystery was painfully simple to figure out, and as much as I love Munch, I wish some of the mysteries would involve something besides her sordid past. Yes, it's true--past mistakes will come to bite you in the butt, and by now we get that. I hope the next book is more firmly rooted in Munch's present life. B.

8. ECHOES FROM THE DEAD by Johan Theorin. Translated from the Swedish, this compelling story mingles past and present very skillfully. Julia Davidsson has been mourning the loss of her five-year-old son Jens for twenty years. He disappeared into the fog one day and was never seen again, presumed drowned, but his body was never found and Julia is haunted by the fact that he may still be alive and wants to know what happened to him. She has, over the years, distanced herself from family back on the Baltic island Öland because it's just too painful to continue seeing people who were in her life when Jens disappeared. Now she is simply existing and working as a nurse in a city some distance away, drinking too much and spending much time brooding over Jens. When her father Gerlof calls her and says that he has received one of the sandals that Jens was wearing when he disappeared in a parcel in the mail, Julia extends a work leave and is off to Öland to once again take up the quest for knowledge. While there, she reacquaints herself with Gerlof, now elderly and living in a care home, suffering from Sjögren's syndrome, which causes much pain and difficulty with movement. She really knows no one else, and has plenty of time to confront the past and her own demons as she spends time in the places of her childhood. When one of Gerlof's friends who had been working on the mystery of Jens' disappearance with Gerlof is found dead, crushed by one of his stone sculptures, Gerlof (who has been rather reticent with Julia about some of his thoughts and findings) realizes how real the danger of knowledge about the past likely is. Has the past come back to haunt the whole island? Is the mysterious Nils Kant, a felon who shot three people--including a local police superintendant--with a shotgun and then fled to South America still alive and coming back for revenge? His body was returned and is presumably buried in the cemetery, but some believe he is alive. The local policeman, who was the son of the one Kant shot, thinks this is nonsense and tells Julia so as they begin striking up a friendship. As the story is unveiled in bits and pieces--told from several points of view including that of the young Nils Kant--clues are dropped here and there. I admit I did figure out most of the mystery well ahead of time, but it made the story no less compelling. You just had to read on and find out what happens to Julia and to Gerlof, too. Dark and brooding (which seems fairly typical for Scandinavian mysteries) and very well-written--and thus, presumably well-translated also--I was thoroughly enthralled with this story from beginning to end and would highly recommend it. A+

9. PROVEN GUILTY by Jim Butcher. (AUDIO) #8 Harry Dresden paranormal mystery set in Chicago. This is the first audio version of the series I've listened to, and the book is narrated by none other than James Marsters--aka "Spike" from the Buffy TV series! If you're expecting his Spikey accent though, you'd be wrong. Marsters voice is barely recognizable if that's the only thing you've heard him in. He actually has a very nice, very expressive voice, and adopted Harry's 'tone' very well. Harry is contacted by Molly Carpenter, teenage daughter of his friends Michael (wielder of one of the Holy Swords) and Charity to come bail her out of jail. Upon arrival at the jail, though, Harry discovers (after the shock of seeing a pierced, tattooed, rather grown-up looking Molly) that it's her boyfriend who's been jailed for assault. He supposedly visciously attacked an old man in a rest room at SplatterCon, a horror movie convention that's in town. After speaking to him, Harry believes he's innocent and upon putting up the bail and bringing the two of them back to the convention, ends up getting caught in the midst of a huge attack--perpetrated by beings that appear to be the bad guys from the horror shows come to life. Things just get weirder and weirder from there, with the White Council and the Summer and Winter Courts getting involved. Harry leads a team that ends up having to go into Winter to retrieve Molly who was captured by some critters from the Never-Never, and once again Harry ends up facing several life or death situations on no sleep, little food or rest and without much planning or foreknowledge as surprises spring up one after another. Also addressed in this book is Harry's continuing battle with the demon Lashiel who exists in his head, and his relationship with Karin Murphy, the cop who heads Chicago's Special Investigations unit. This is by far my favorite paranormal series, as it's all about the magic and the alternate world that Butcher has created in Chicago--a little sexual tension here and there but no out and out romancey clap-trap. I found I really enjoyed the audio version and likely will continue to listen to them rather than read them, at least for as many as the library has available. Excellent! A+

10. OH DANNY BOY by Rhys Bowen. #5 Molly Murphy mystery, set in 1902 New York. Molly is still struggling along as a private detective, but not doing very well. Her two young charges and their father are presently in the country where Bridie is at a camp recovering from the typhoid fever, so although she is grateful that she doesn't have to worry about feeding more mouths when she doesn't have much income, Molly is somewhat at loose ends. She's been studiously refusing to even open the letters she has been getting from police Captain Daniel Sullivan almost daily, being very angry at herself and him for their encounter at the end of the last book. But he sends a messenger to summon her to the jail where he's being held on charges of taking bribes and being in the pay of the Eastman gang. Since his assets have been frozen, he can't even make bail. Molly stirs into action, shocked at his condition after a few days in jail, trying to figure out who stood to gain by Daniel's being out of the police force. Then, surprise of all surprises, Daniel's former fiance, Arabella Norton comes to see Molly and wants to hire her to find a friend of hers who's disappeared. I wasn't sure who the bad guy was in this one until fairly close to the end. Molly had some interesting adventures, teaming up with a female police "matron" whose policeman husband had been killed in the line of duty, so she had taken to overstepping her bounds and investigating a serial killer case, which Molly helps her with. I enjoyed the book, despite Molly's continual back-and-forth fight with herself over her feelings for Daniel. Have the next couple in the series here already and looking forward to them. A.

11. THE STEPSISTER SCHEME by Jim C. Hines. #1 in the "Princess" fairy tale fantasy series in which Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White team up to rescue Cinderella's husband, Prince Charming from the clutches of her evil stepsisters Charlotte and Stacia who've kidnapped him and taken him off to Fairytown. But are the stepsisters really bright enough to have come up with this scheme, or is there someone more powerful and evil behind it all? It sounds kind of cheesy and rather "chick litty" doesn't it? And when the blurb on the back of the book compared the trio of beauties to Charlie's Angels, I cringed inwardly. But I enjoyed Jim's "Jig the Goblin" series so much, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. And it's really not like that at all--it's great fun! Fairy tales mingle with myth, legend and fantasy (with the requisite dwarves, pixies, witches and fairie folk) in a light, adventurous romp. These three strong but very different women work together (with a few odd helpers--some willing and some not so willing) to free the Prince against near impossible odds, each playing to her own strengths and helping each other out of various scrapes along the way. Quite enjoyable, and definitely looking forward to book two! A.

12. THE SERPENT'S TALE by Ariana Franklin. #2 Adelia Aguilar "Mistress of the Art of Death" historical mystery. The Bishop (Adelia's former lover Rowley, who is also the father of her child Allie) summons Adelia to investigate the death of one of King Henry's mistresses, Rosamond. It's being made to appear that Queen Eleanor (recently escaped from her imprisonment) has done the deed, and Rowley is anxious to get to Rosamond's manor before the king so he can hopefully divert an all-out war, which is sure to ensue if Henry believes Eleanor has killed one of his favored mistresses. Adelia, traveling as always with Mansur (her Arabian assistant who must needs pose as the real doctor since women aren't allowed in England at that time) and Gyltha, is reluctant to leave hearth and home but is compelled by her tie to King Henry. Waylaid by a band of mercenaries hired by the Queen herself, they end up seeking shelter at Godstow abbey and more murder and mayhem ensues until Adelia sorts out who's done what. During the discovery process, she's frightened that the murderer will discover what she knows (or assume that she knows more than she does!) and seek retribution against her by harming her child. I did not see the solution coming, so that was a big plus, even with the hints that were dropped along the way. This book was a bit of a letdown after the stellar opening book in the series, though, and while I enjoyed the tale quite a lot, there were a lot of things that required you to suspend disbelief to carry on. Still, as I often say, it IS historical FICTION, and in the author's notes at the end, she does comment on some of the things she took liberties with. I also felt that Adelia's character was changed somewhat being that she is now the mother of a young child, which weakened her in some ways, especially as it applies to her role as an intrepid investigator--but in other ways it strengthened her and made her a more rounded person. I'm definitely looking forward to the next one. I really like Adelia's supporting cast a lot! B+

13. CHARLIE BONE AND THE BEAST by Jenny Nimmo. (AUDIO) Read by Simon Jones. #6 in the Children of the Red King YA fantasy series. This book is read by a different reader than the previous five, and I'll start off by saying I did not enjoy his reading as much--too many of his varied voices sounded alike, and unlike with the previous reader, you couldn't always tell who was speaking just by the voice. The voices of individual persons also varied a little each time they spoke, as though he'd forgotten who he was. Still, I enjoyed the story itself, as the new boy at Bloor's Academy, Dagbert Endless (who has as his endowment the ability to call the sea--he's a self-proclaimed "Drowner!") tries to come between Charlie and his friends by sowing dissention and whispering gossip. Meanwhile, in the town, a wolf beast has been howling and the citizens are up in arms, organizing a hunt. Charlie believes that this is actually Asa Pike, the wolf-boy who was previously the sidekick of Manfred Bloor, but who stepped in to save Charlie at the end of the last book. Charlie believes that Manfred is holding Asa prisoner somewhere and is planning to rescue him, but with half of his friends not speaking to him because of Dagbert's whisperings, it's proving a little difficult. Charlie's mum and dad are absent in this book, off taking an extended second honeymoon, since they've been apart for ten years, Lyle Bone having been believed dead in a car crash. Looking forward to the next one, although I do hope the reader gets a grip on his characters' voices a little better by then. B+

14. UNNATURAL CAUSES by P.D. James. #3 in the Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard series. Dalgliesh is off to Suffolk on holiday to visit his Aunt Jane, his only living relative, for a week of peace and quiet on the coast. He's going to be contemplating a major life issue--should or should he not ask his steady girlfriend, Deborah, to marry him? Once at his aunt's, though, he doesn't have much time to ponder at all--he's distracted when one of the villagers goes missing--and then turns up dead, floating in a rowboat with both his hands chopped off! In the small seaside community of Monksmere, many are writers and artists, including the dead man. Maurice Seton was the author of popular detective fiction, and he was disliked in varying degrees by his neighbors and fellow villagers. Mr. Seton was last seen down in London at his club two days previously, and of course aside from the mystery of who killed him, there are the questions as to why, how, and why the disfigurement was done. Dalgliesh is determined to stay 'on the side' and not become involved, knowing that even should the local constabulary deign to call in The Yard, he would be exempt since he is too closely involved with and knows most of the suspects--including his dear aunt, whose wood chopper was apparently stolen to do the limb severing. So he gleans information as he is able and tries to resume his holiday, to little avail. This book was a bit different from her first two in the series in that we actually get to know Dalgliesh better--there is as much focus on him as on the mystery itself, so for me this was great, as characters are just as important to me if not moreso than plotting. The mystery was still very well done and I enjoyed this book immensely. Although I'd read it before some years past, I did not remember 'whodunit' and wasn't sure even right up til the reveal. The book was written in 1967, which makes it by necessity a bit dated in some ways, but in others, the story itself is really timeless and stands the test of time quite well. Very enjoyable and well-done! A+

15. GIRL IN A RED TUNIC by Alys Clare. #8 Hawkenlye Abbey mystery set in 1190's Kent, England featuring Abbess Helewise and Sir Josse d'Acquin, knight of King Richard. The whole country of England seems to be poor and hungry as people give and give to attempt to ransom their captured King Richard. Even staunch supporters such as Sir Josse and the Abbess are much less enthusiastic than they once were, especially the Abbess as her giving and giving makes it harder to feed and help those who are hungry and in need. Abbess Helewise gets a visit from her past when her Leofgar, her eldest son (she was a widow when she entered the nunnery and had fostered her two young sons out) whom she's not seen since he was a child, comes calling at Hawkenlye. His wife is ill, seemingly in the midst of a post-partum depression, and his fourteen-month-old son has developed fears and terrors and refuses to speak. Professing to want them under the care of the Abbey's well-known healer, Leofgar spends some time with his mother and Sir Josse, who happened to be there himself with a bit of a fever and cough. Soon it becomes apparent that the young family is on the run from something or someone--but what, or whom? When a man is found hung from a tree a short distance from the Abbey, Leofgar and his family disappear in the night, and the Abbess and Sir Josse set out to discover the mystery, and of course eventually do. I enjoyed this book more than the last one in the series, which seemed a little long-winded and unfocused. This one had me wanting to eagerly read on, and getting to know a bit more about Abbess Helewise's past was interesting, too, although much of the contents of her dreams and memories were rather, shall we say, unseemly for a nun! I'm by no means a prude, but nun + romance just doesn't add up to anything I really want to read, and I do hope THAT trend doesn't continue, but I am still looking forward to the next. B+

16. WORLD MADE BY HAND by James Howard Kunstler. Speculative "post-earth-changing-event" fiction set in a time slightly in our future, about 20 years after the United States economy collapsed due to the lack of availability of oil, there were several nuclear bombs dropped on major cities, and this was followed with a couple of serious flu epidemics which depopulated the country to about a quarter of its former self. The folks of Union Grove, a smallish town in upstate New York, like everyone else in the country, live in a whole new world. A world without cars, electricity, and supermarkets. A world without mass-produced goods, medicines, and a world where former bank presidents and real estate agents work in the fields like peasants in days of yore. The middle-aged ones still clearly remember the days of cell phones, computer and commuter trains. The younger ones--and there aren't that many, since exposure to the flu viruses seem to have sterilized most people--gape in awe as their elders try to explain what a car is and how it used magic fluid to 'drive.' It wasn't necessarily the smartest folks who survived--it was those who were adaptable to change, who were willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work. This is the story of a month or so in the life of Union Grove, primarily of Robert Earle, a forty-seven-year-old former software executive who is now a carpenter, earning his keep (most business is conducted by barter) by repairing and revamping things around town. Several different factions exist in the area, including a big farm cooperative, a gang of hoodlums who run the 'general store' which sells salvaged goods, and a rather freaky religious cult. What this story tells us is that regardless of how much things have changed, some things remain constant: the capacity for human beings to do evil, and the capacity for human beings to do good, and that the capacity for both resides within each of us. This was a good story, an interesting story with a few well-fleshed and real characters that you came to care about (although a lot of the secondary ones seemed to be almost caricatures in a way) and it was a well-written story, but it wasn't a truly unique concept and the book seemed to run out of steam at the end. I'm reminded of Pat Frank's 1959 classic Alas, Babylon, among others. Definitely worth a read though if you enjoy this sort of book. B+

17. THE LONG-LEGGED FLY by James Sallis. #1 Lew Griffin mystery set in New Orleans. The book travels through time from 1964 when Lew was a young private eye to the 1990's when he's an older author of mystery novels and sometimes "looks into things" on the side. Lew Griffin is a tough black private eye and even in the 1960's he was cynical and world-weary, drinking too much and barely scraping by, alternating between apathy and rage with little in-between. Self-educated and sensitive underneath it all, his drinking problem develops into a full-blown alcoholism over the years, of the variety that leaves you indebted to friends who haul you home off the street and tuck you in bed, bail you out and eventually commit you to detox. The cases in this book were essentially unremarkable and the focus here was all Lew. Now, characterization is important to me, but in a mystery, there has to BE a mystery, too. There really wasn't much here. By the time he got to the '90's, I liked him and his philosophical musings, but overall the book was quite depressing and had it not been short and easy to read, I would have stopped early on. The writing style was lyrical and very evocative and quite unusual for a mystery about a 'tough guy private eye' and I wonder if the author's obvious talent is somewhat wasted here. I'm still not sure what the purpose was in writing the book in this format with snippets of Lew's life over the years, and the so-called cases he had really didn't tie together coherently. In short, I have mixed feelings about the book. As a mystery, it doesn't quite "work." As a story, it was very interesting, and probably a must for anyone who knows and loves New Orleans. I have the second in the series here and will give it a try, but if it's written the same way I probably won't continue beyond that. C.

18. FURIES OF CALDERON by Jim Butcher (AUDIO) #1 in the Codex Alera fantasy series, a much more 'traditional' fantasy than Butcher's other modern-day "urban" fantasy Harry Dresden series. The land of Alera is about to be besieged by war, with the barbarians at the gates. While Alera itself seems based in Roman history, it's odd because the barbarians (the Marat) sound like the marauding American Indians of tomahawk and scalping fame with their various tribes and clans. Alerans use magic by bonding with furies, which are elementals based in air, earth, fire, water and metal. Like many fantasies, this story switches point of view several times to tell the various storylines of the main characters. Tavi, a fifteen-year-old boy living in Bernardhold, nephew to the steadholder, has not yet bonded with any furies, and thus is known as a freak and Amara, a young Cursor (messenger/spy) who is a windcrafter sent by the First Lord to the Calderon Valley (Tavi's home) to seek out information about the invasion, and who finds a traitor very close to hand, are the main characters. Tavi's uncle and aunt and Amara's tutor and traitor Fidelius as well as several other secondary characters also figure heavily in the story. As they trek along, sometimes together and sometimes not, they meet a fairly predictable set of adversarial situations. I did enjoy the book, but something about it failed to fully engage my interest. Good, but not great, in other words. It was a rather slow starter, and Butcher does a good job of building the world of Alera, although all the various magical rules and the governmental setup were a little confusing for awhile. The tone of the book was completely different than Butcher's Dresden Files series also, missing the wry humor and smart-alecky main character, but if anything it shows that the author is not a one-dimensional writer but can easily expand his horizons, and has done so. I'm hoping that subsequent books in the series will be a tad easier to get through now that I'm familiar with the world of Alera. The reader for this one was good, but not a favorite. B.

19. THE MERRY MISOGYNIST by Colin Cotterill. #6 Dr. Siri Paiboun series set in 1970's Vientiane, Laos. As usual, Dr. Siri and gang have two cases going--the first, a personal one, has Siri and his noodle-making wife Madame Daeng trying to locate Crazy Rajid, a mute Indian street person who hasn't been seen by anyone for several days. They follow a set of riddles around the city to try to figure out what happened to him--Siri has a bad feeling about it, and he's learned to pay attention to his spirit guides. The second case involves a woman brought to him as a 'customer' to the morgue, a beautiful young woman who appears to have been the victim of a strangling. Fairly routine, until they get to the internal exam and find a foreign body stuck in her female parts. At first it seems to be a lone case, but eventually someone remembers a similar case a few years ago and Siri and Inspector Phosy investigate what they believe to be an especially brutal serial killer, a rather uncommon animal in Laos. On a personal note, Nurse Dtui (also Inspector Phosy's wife) is large with child, and Siri is being investigated by the Housing Authority, since he does not live at his proscribed address but has moved in with his wife above her noodle shop and allows various and sundry characters to inhabit his former home. Very, very enjoyable read--this is definitely among my top ten favorite series of all time. If it were possible to give six out of five stars, I would gladly do so! A+

20. KILLER'S PAYOFF by Ed McBain. #6 in the 87th Precinct series, set in fictional Isola, modeled after New York. Classic "cop fiction" with the boys from the 87th trying to track down the murderer of a blackmailer/extortionist who was mowed down gangland style in the street. First they must track down who he was blackmailing, and then figure out which among them had the means and opportunity to go with their obvious motive for wanting the man dead. Or maybe it wasn't one of Sy's "clients" at all--maybe it was someone from his personal life who wanted him out of the way? Great police procedural, although a bit dated, as it was written in 1958--the author uses lots of monetary figures which make me laugh--you know, the blackmailer was living in the lap of luxury in a $350/month apartment, stuff like that. LOL I've speculated before on whether he realized at the time what a time capsule he was creating? Enjoyable, quick read, interesting to read about the characters that I came to know and love later in the series before they were really fully formed. B.

21. KITTY AND THE SILVER BULLET by Carrie Vaughn. #4 Kitty Norville paranormal series. Kitty, a werewolf who's been basically exiled from her former pack in Denver, must return home again when her mother falls ill. With boyfriend Ben (also a werewolf) in tow, she tries to make a low-profile return, rarely leaving Ben's condo there except to visit her mother and do her radio show The Midnight Hour at KNOB. But of course word leaks out and her former pack-leaders Carl and Meg, now ruling the pack with essentially a reign of terror, are looking to hunt them down and kill them. Meanwhile, Kitty has been approached by one of the Master vampire's assistants who wants to make a move on the Master and with the alliance that Carl and the Master have forged, helps Kitty to see that the only way to make the town safe again is for them to work together to oust the current leadership. Kitty is torn--all she wanted was to exist quietly, do her radio show and stay on the sidelines. She's not sure she's pack leader material, but some of Carl's pack have come to her pledging support. When her family is threatened, she knows she must act. Excellent, action-packed entry in this series, which has become one of the few paranormal series I've stuck with so far, that seems to get better with each book. There is some romance and sexual tension, but it's understated and doesn't take over the whole story, so I don't mind it at all. A+.

Current reads: SOVEREIGN by C.J. Sansom, and listening to INKHEART by Cornelia Funke in audio.

DNF: I ended up not finishing the audio version of THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG by Muriel Barbery; I gave up after about an hour. It was the readers' voices that put me off--and since it takes place in France, there was a lot of what I call the "snotty-sounding French accent" going on. I just wasn't in the mood. It may be a perfectly good story, but I'll probably just wait to read it in print.

Also DNF'd a book I'd gotten from Amazon Vine to review, THE TATTOO MACHINE by Jeff Johnson--which sounded really interesting but was just poorly written and scattered, sort of like anecdotes cobbled together rather than a coherent story. I usually try to finish review books, but after 40 pages I knew I didn't want to waste any more time on this one.