1. CHRISTMAS IS MURDER by C.S. Challinor. #1 Rex Graves mystery. Rex, a Scottish barrister, has been invited to spend Christmas at a hotel run by an old friend of his mother's, and as he hasn't heard from his girlfriend in ages (she's off to foreign parts volunteering or something) he accepts. Upon arrival, he discovers that there's been a death, an elderly man who apparently had a seizure of some sort in the common room. One of the other guests, a paramedic, tells Rex privately that he believes the dead man was poisoned. As a snowstorm blocks all traffic and phone reception, Rex feels obligated as an officer of the court to investigate as best as possible until the police are able to arrive. It isn't long before two more guests join the old man in the land of the dead, and Rex is really beginning to worry and wonder whom to trust. I think this is meant to be a classic British 'locked room' type mystery, but it really pales in comparison to the masters. It's cozy, but not annoyingly so. (Those who know my tastes will understand that comment! LOL) It struck me also that this is a perfect example of something we were discussing in one of my Goodreads groups a few months ago, about women trying to write a male lead character and vice versa--Rex didn't seem much like a man to me; his behavior and thoughts just seemed...I don't know, not manly. But then, I'm a woman, so what do I know? Maybe it's just that Rex was just not well-fleshed out, regardless of gender. Oddly enough, though the book had many faults, I found myself reading on and found it overall a quick, mostly pleasant read and found myself nearly done with it before I had time to grumble much. plan to continue on for at least one more book in the series. I'm hoping to get more of a sense of who Rex is in the next one, though. B-
2. BONE CROSSED by Patricia Briggs. #4 Mercy Thompson paranormal mystery. Mercy is a 'walker'--a skinwalker who can transform instantly into a coyote. She also runs her own garage in the Tri-Cities area (Washington state) and her boyfriend, Adam, is the Alpha of the local werewolf pack. Trouble is still bubbling in the area between the wolves and the vampires, as (last book) Mercy killed one of the leaders of the local seethe who was creating demon-vampires, and Marsilia, the seethe's mistress, wants her dead. It's not bad enough that Mercy is still recovering from the savage rape that took place last book, but as a message, Marsilia sends the nearly-destroyed body of Stefan, another of the seethe's leaders who helped Mercy, into Mercy's living room, thinking that in his debilitated state, he will 'forget' that Mercy is a friend and kill her before he himself dies. But Adam is there, and he and his wolves heal Stefan and take him to Adam's to recover. Mercy heads out of town to Spokane at the behest of an old college friend to listen to some ghosts in her house and try to get them to stop troubling her ten-year-old son, Chad. It's a good opportunity for Mercy to get out of town and lie low for a while--or is it? Amber's appearance on Mercy's doorstep might be just a little too convenient. Another great entry in this series, which is one of my favorite paranormals. Looking forward to the next. A.
3. THE LONDON EYE MYSTERY by Siobhan Dowd. (AUDIO) A young adult mystery told from the point of view of Ted Spark, a 12-year-old Londoner with (what I presume is--it's never actually named) Aspberger's Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. Ted is good with numbers, scientific concepts and deductive reasoning, but he has a very difficult time socially. As he puts it, "the pc in my brain operates on a different operating system than most people's." When Ted's cousin Salim disappears from the London Eye, Ted and his somewhat rebellious older sister Kat try to piece together what happened to him. Salim is visiting with his mother (Ted's Aunt Gloria) before they are due to move to New York in a few days, where Gloria will have a job at an art museum. Gloria and her sister,Ted's mum, Faith, aren't terribly close and it's been several years since Salim and his family visited from Manchester, so they don't really know Salim. Did he leave of his own accord, or did someone abduct him? Ted's main interest was in HOW he disappeared, since he and Kat watched him get on the Eye and watched his pod (as well as several others, in case they were wrong about which one he was on) empty out afterwards with no sign of him. A very wonderful story, told with an interesting protagonist's voice. At first, I was a bit annoyed by the reader--he had a kind of high, nasal, breathless voice with a sort of staccato rhythm that was hard to listen to. Then I realized that he was trying to talk that way, since he was using Ted's voice to set the tone for the story, and he did a really good job. I was hoping that this was the first of a series featuring the Spark kids, but unfortunately it isn't--the author died in 2007 at the age of 47 of breast cancer, and while she did write several other books for kids and young adults, this wasn't a series. She was passionate in life about getting kids to read, making books accessible to disadvantaged children, and in the last few months of her life set up a trust geared towards providing funds to get books in the hands of underprivileged kids. On her website, there is a motto that says, "If a child can read, they can think. And if a child can think, they are free." This so exemplifies my own childhood experience with reading that I've decided to contribute to her Trust in 2010 rather than purchase any new books for myself. You rock, Siobhan! A+
4. VERDICT UNSAFE by Jill McGown. #8 Lloyd & Hill British police procedural. A two-year-old rape case is brought back into focus when the rapist is released on a legal technicality. Not only are his victims put into an emotional tailspin, so are their families, the police officers involved and the community at large. A twisted and convoluted tale full of petty criminals, crooked cops, and nothing but lies and more lies in Stansfield and Malworth, where the crimes were committed. DI Judy Hill firmly believes that Colin Drummond was guilty, but new evidence keeps coming to light that put doubt into the minds of some of her co-workers, including DCI Lloyd. Judy is formally removed from the case by their new Chief, who's a misogynistic throwback--but actually the only real "case" is a pending lawsuit filed by Drummond claiming the police set him up, and also beat him savagely. She's assigned to work on a series of burglaries, that coincidentally involve some of the same players in the rape cases. As Lloyd, Hill and their officers try to cut through the layers of deception, the real story begins to unfold, backtrack, unfold some more until finally it becomes clear. I have to admit I hadn't a clue til very close to the end. I vacillated back and forth between several scenarios, none of which happened to be right. First time in awhile that's happened! Another enjoyable read in this series which as often happens, started slow and became un-putdownable towards the end. A.
5. THE BOOK OF ANSWERS by Barbara Berliner. This is a compilation of questions on various topics posed to the telephone reference line at the NY public library. It was published over 2 decades ago, so some parts (chapters on statistics and pop culture, for example) are somewhat dated, but there's a lot of interesting stuff too. Organized neatly into chapters such as Firsts (Who/what was the first _________?) Myth and Legends, Trademarks, Who Was Who? etc, and with each Q&A separated by double spacing, it was easy to read small chunks at a time without getting lost--which was important to me as this was my (ahem) 'bathroom book' for a couple of months. LOL Enjoyable, entertaining and informative--although an updated version would be a boon! B.
6. PAGAN CHRISTMAS: THE PLANTS, SPIRITS, AND RITUALS AT THE ORIGINS OF YULETIDE by Christian Ratsch and Claudia Muller-Ebling. This book looks back at history and explains the origins of some of our modern-day Christmas traditions: the Christmas tree, the colors red and white, various common decorations, St. Nicholas (and his cousins Father Christmas and Sinterklaas among others) and various festivals held over the centuries around the world that coincide with Christmas. The idea that Santa's reindeer fly because they're high on magic mushrooms made me giggle a bit, I must admit! There was a lot of new information in here that I hadn't come across before--probably because the authors are German and a lot of these traditions were things I wasn't familiar with--but unfortunately the book was not very well organized, got repetitive at times (possibly because there were two authors? I don't know...) and was not easy to navigate. I enjoyed reading about some of these things--including the bits about "Baccy Claus: the smoking Christmas man" with various 'baccy recipes! LOL This isn't a book I want to make room for as a permanent reference, however, as it just isn't very user friendly, however much interesting stuff it might contain. C+
7. SISTER PELAGIA AND THE WHITE BULLDOG by Boris Akunin. #1 in the Sister Pelagia series, featuring this red-headed nun who is an assistant to Bishop Mitrofanii in a remote Russian province in the 19th century. The Bishop sends Pelagia to investigate who is poisoning his aunt's rare white bulldogs, which are near and dear to her heart--even moreso than her human family, really. While investigating who is harming the dogs, a murder mystery with a human victim takes place and Pelagia goes under cover as a noblewoman (Pelagia's supposed sister) to be the Bishop's eyes and ears during this time of political unrest and religious upheaval. I have to be honest and say that had this not been a book I was reading to complete a Challenge for one of my groups, I probably would not have read beyond page 50. It began verrrrrrry slowly, and although the story did eventually become more cohesive and interesting about mid-book, the writing style was just generally off-putting, although perhaps that may be in part the translation? I don't know. There were way too many peripheral characters all with long names (for example, Vladimir Lvovich Bubentsov and Marya Afanasievna Tatishcheva) that were repeated time and again over and over. It was very confusing as to who was who for the longest time. I also never really got a sense of who Pelagia was, what she stood for. I don't mind a richly detailed, slow-moving so-called literary mystery, but this one was just not my cup of tea. I'm glad I finished the book, but I won't be carrying on in the series, even though I've got the next two here--will trade them off to someone who will doubtless enjoy them much more than I would! C-.
8. A SEA OF TROUBLES by Donna Leon. #10 Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery set in Venice, Italy. Brunetti and Vianello head out to Pellestrina, a island with a small fishing community, to investigate the death of a father and son fisherman team. Their boat exploded, but no one is surprised when it turns out that they were dead before the boat went up--brutally murdered, in fact. In the closed community, it's not likely that the police are going to glean much information from the natives, and Brunetti despairs of finding the culprit. But it turns out that Patta's secretary, the ever-helpful Signorina Elettra has family on the island and volunteers to take a week's vacation there as she does every year, and keep her eyes and ears open. Brunetti is afraid for her, but cannot dissuade her. When a local woman, a shopkeeper, is found drowned, they are certain it's related to the first murders, but can't figure out how. Soon things race to an exciting conclusion, although to be honest, none of it suprised me terribly much. I enjoyed this trip to Venice, but I have to admit it wasn't quite as compelling for me as many others in this series have been. Still, am looking forward to the next. B+
9. THE SUGAR HOUSE by Laura Lippman. (AUDIO) #5 Tess Monaghan mystery set in Baltimore, MD. Having returned from Texas with boyfriend Crow in tow, Tess is beginning to settle into somewhat of a routine with her PI business and her personal life. She is asked by her father to take on a case for an old friend. Ruthie wants her to find out the identity of the Jane Doe her glue-sniffing, addict brother was sent to prison for killing, albeit accidentally in a drug-hazed stupor. Her brother was subsequently knifed to death in prison, and Ruthie is convinced that it wasn't just another prison squabble, but that it's because of who the Jane Doe was. For her own peace of mind and closure, she wants to know why her brother died. Tess doesn't hold much hope of finding the woman's identity after a year has gone by, but she gives it her best shot, linking one clue to another--beginning on Baltimore's mean streets but which eventually leads she and her good friend Whitney Talbot, recently returned from Japan, to a very exclusive private eating disorders clinic on the coast. Having once tangled with her own bulimia demon as a teenager, Tess feels as though she's on familiar ground and does eventually find out who Jane Doe really is--but there's a story behind the story, and once Tess gets hold of a bone, she's like a junkyard dog and won't let go, even when it puts herself in danger. It took me awhile to warm up to the reader of this book; I've encountered her before and she's not my favorite, although many folks just love her. "Something" about her (Barbara Rosenblatt) voice/tone/whatever annoys me, but I like this series enough that I was able to enjoy the book despite it. I guess if I plan to listen on in audio I'd better get used to it anyway. Looking forward to the next adventure! A-
10. OPEN SEASON by C.J. Box. #1 Joe Pickett mystery. Joe is a game warden for the state of Wyoming, in remote Twelve Sleep County. He and his pregnant wife and two young girls live in a small house that comes with the job, and he's just trying to get settled into this life when Ote Keeley, a hunting guide and known poacher, fatally wounded, stumbles into Joe's yard and dies on his woodpile. It's an obvious case of murder, and Joe becomes a suspect because he and Keeley have a history, one in which Ote took Joe's gun away from him when he was attempting to write him a citation for poaching some months back. Joe wonders at the lack of real investigation by the Sheriff's department and sets out to find out what Ote was up to, who killed him, and most importantly, why Ote headed for Joe's house with a cooler containing animal scat. What he begins to unravel is a conspiracy reaching to the upper echelons of Wyoming's wildlife regulatory boards and which threatens to put not only Joe but his family in grave danger if he continues to rock the boat. Although the bad guy in this was painfully obvious almost from the beginning (at least to me) I still enjoyed this debut novel. The author is obviously either a native or someone who has grown to love the land he writes about, and makes the place very much a character in the story. The writing style is easy to read, the characters engaging and realistic, and the main character has a flawed charm about him that makes him easy to like and to care about almost immediately. I greatly look forward to continuing on reading this series! A.
11. WORMWOOD by Susan Wittig Albert. #17 China Bayles "herbal" mystery, generally set in Texas, but in this book is set in Mt. Zion, KY where China travels with old friend Martha to assist her doing herbal workshops at an old Shaker museum. Or at least that's what China thinks--on the drive there, Martha confesses that she has ulterior motives in asking China along, that there are some problems with the way the Shaker village museum is being run. Martha has ties to the old Shaker village as her Aunt Charity was a Sister in that community for many years, having left abruptly in 1912, not long before it closed down. Martha's also curious about why her aunt departed so suddenly, since she never mentioned anything about it to her family. She figures that China's cover as an herbalist will work well, even as China the lawyer digs around in the paperwork to find out what is happening legally with Mt. Zion. Since they are well on their way when Martha springs this on her, she reluctantly agrees although she was loathe to leave home for two weeks, with a lot of turmoil there as well. The story is actually two mysteries, one back in 1912 within the Shaker community, the other in modern times, and the narrative of the book goes back and forth between the two. While I knew a little bit about the Shakers, I found this a fascinating look at their culture and what life was like in one of their communities--certainly not all tranquil bliss like the image they projected! The mysteries themselves were rather easy to work out, but I enjoyed the two storylines entwining, and definitely liked this much better than the last book in the series which was told partly from China's husband McQuaid's point of view. The only thing really missing was China's usual setting back at her herb shop and all her friends and family there--that's two books in a row now where there has not been nearly enough of Ruby, Cass, Brian and his menagerie and the rest of the gang, and I really do hope they are back in the upcoming Holly Blues! B+
12. ORYX AND CRAKE by Margaret Atwood. (AUDIO) Since my opinion of Atwood's work has been rather hit or miss, and since my favorite of hers was another of her dystopian novels (A Handmaid's Tale--which is, indeed, one of my top ten all time favorite novels!) this book was recommended to me by several people and I finally got around to it. Set in a dystopian world in which most of the species Homo sapiens sapiens disappears from the planet, the story is told from the point of view of Snowman, previously known as Jimmy. Snowman now lives in a world where he is nearly worshiped as a prophet of the god Crake and the goddess Oryx by the beings that Crake created through gene splicing, cloning and other various bio-manipulations. Important though he may seem, Snowman lives in a tree to avoid being the prey of some of the other creatures Crake created that once in the wild were not quite what they were supposed to be and spends his time half-starved and full of nasty insect bites. Humans are mostly gone because of worldwide plagues, though Jimmy for some reason was immune. The story goes back and forth in time, to Jimmy's childhood, telling of life in the Compounds--enclosed communities run by various massive corporations and government agencies--where his father was also a scientist working on biogenetics. Jimmy's mother runs off to join a bio-terroristic guerrilla group, so he is mostly left to his own devices and spends hours with his friend Crake (an obvious genius even at a young age) watching various internet porn sites and games which quickly become boring to Jimmy. This is where he first "meets" Oryx, who was an eight-year-old star on a kiddie porn site called Hot Tots. Back then, the lands outside the compounds were known as the Pleeblands--where disease, violence and chaos were the norm for the Pleebes--those humans not fortunate enough to be part of a compound. As the story eventually unravels (it takes awhile to get going) to tell how and why Snowman came to be one of the few (the only?) human beings left, and how Crake and Oryx came to be deified, you're left with a sense that although the story is over, it really isn't. The reader of this book did a great job of inflecting the book with Atwood's wry, dark humor and with the various voices and managed the point of view/time changes very well, too. It would be misleading to say I enjoyed this book, but I did find it a powerful and most excellent entry in the field of dystopian fiction which I've come to be fascinated with in recent years. A.
13. SECONDHAND SPIRITS by Juliet Blackwell. #1 "Witchcraft" mystery featuring Lily Ivory, a 'natural' witch who has decided to settle in San Francisco after leading a rather vagabond life. She's opened up a vintage clothing shop in the Haight, the quirky neighborhood most known as a hippy hangout in the '60's. Just beginning to feel at home, she suddenly feels the rug pulled out from under her when she and a friend go the home of an old woman who has a large collection of vintage clothing from several eras that she wants to sell. Lily gets strange vibes from the woman's home, and a young neighbor girl just disappears before they've left--and later that night, the old woman herself ends up dead--laid out inside a pentagram--and this after Lily returned and performed a protection spell over the woman! Lily first begins investigating alone, but learns that she needs to trust her new friends, Bronwyn--a Wiccan who rents a corner of Lily's shop to sell her herbal concoctions and Maya, and even Aidan, a powerful male witch who knew Lily's father. Then there's Max, a hunky supernatural 'myth-buster' who keeps turning up wherever Lily is. I was surprised that I actually liked this book. Those who know me know I've really gotten picky about silly cozy mysteries lately, and since I'm Pagan, even pickier about my paranormal mysteries. This one took awhile to convince me but by the end I found I was indeed looking forward to the next one. The bad guy was terribly easy to spot, and there are a few things in the 'witchy' parts that made me scratch my head a bit...and I don't yet feel I have a good handle on Lily, but the fact that I want to know more speaks volumes. There were some darker aspects to things that (in my opinion anyway) elevated it above the usual sweetness and light cozy. I think this was a good opening to what will potentially be an excellent series--as long as the author doesn't veer off into the old 'love triangle" problem and use a bunch of romantic suspense malarkey to keep the reader interested. (Or, in my case, cause the reader to LOSE interest.) One thing that definitely endeared me to Lily is that she, like myself, has a 'parking space spell.' LOL A-
First in the Prior's Ford series, featuring the cast of the village of that same name in the Scottish lowlands. Not sure exactly how to classify this--not mystery, I guess general fiction, rather cozy, with a cast of motley characters each with their own hopes, dreams and problems, and some mutual issues affecting the village--the potential reopening of a granite quarry for one. Perhaps a written soap opera would be the way to describe this--though it's much less sordid than the soaps on TV--at least from the last time I watched one years ago! It's surprising that I liked this, really, but I did, very much. It tells the story of Glen and Libby, owners of the local pub (The Neurotic Cuckoo) who have an old secret in their past that they want kept quiet. Libby worries it will be brought to the fore when Glen heads up a committee working against the quarry re-opening. There's Jenny, Helen and Ingrid, local village women with younger children who together run a seasonal craft shop. There's Clarissa, recently widowed and a village outsider as she and her husband had only moved to Prior's Ford a few months before he died. And there's the Ralston-Kerrs, owners of Linn Manor (and the land the quarry is on!) who haven't two pennies to rub together but are valiantly carrying on as 'lairds of the manor' while they can. All in all, an enjoyable story with a lovely sense of place and atmosphere and some diverse, well-drawn and interesting characters. I closed the book feeling very satisfied and wanting to go back for another visit soon. A.
15. THE CINCINNATI RED STALKINGS by Troy Soos (AUDIO) This is one of the later books in the Mickey Rawlings "baseball" series set in the late 1910's/early 1920's. I needed an audiobook quickly to listen to on a long drive, and this one was there, so I snabbed it--very uncharacteristic for me, who never reads series out of order! Mickey is a utility infielder who's been traded all over the league, currently doing duty with the Cincinnati Red Stockings. He has an interest in baseball history and spends some time with a guy whom the team's owner has hired to set up a baseball museum to help draw in some crowds. When that man turns up dead, Mickey is at first a suspect and then becomes the hunted himself, as he figures the killer must have the idea that Mickey has something that the murdered man passed on to him--but for the life of him, he can't figure out what it might be. Until he does, the mystery is going to remain just that--the police aren't overly interested and seem content to let the murder go off as death in the midst of a robbery. I really enjoyed this book--enough that I went ahead and downloaded the first book to my MP3 player already. Mickey is interesting and I like the secondary characters too. It's interesting hearing about what baseball was like during those long-ago days, a time even before my parents were born. The reader had kind of an odd voice, not your "classical" deep, bounding male voice, but it suited Mickey's personality very well and was pleasant enough to listen to. Looking forward to going back to the beginning to hear about how it all started. A.
16. FIGURE OF HATE by Bernard Knight. #9 Crowner John historical mystery set in 1190's Devon. Lots of upheavals in the Crowner's life as the new Sheriff, who displaced his treacherous brother-in-law, begins dispensing the law. While honest, he's rather plodding and lazy and tends to let John handle most things. John's wife Matilda, an extremely socially conscious woman concerned with the neighbors' opinions and her diminishing status, seems to have developed a drinking problem after the fall of her brother from the highly lucrative Sheriff's position. And it's tournament season--jousting and melee are just beginning to gain popularity, and John is asked to referee at a joust to be held during the Exeter fair, given his battle experience as a knight of the realm. One of the knights, a local manor lord, behaves very badly after losing his joust (which meant losing his horse, armor and often a good chunk of money to the winning knight) and John publicly chastises him for his unchivalrous behavior. The coroner later meets up with Hugo Peverel a second time when he's found stabbed several times in the back in one of his barns on the manor. Soon his death is tied to two other previous deaths and the Crowner must figure out which of the man's friends or family killed the odious man--not an easy task with a wealth of suspects at hand, and it's further complicated when his brother-in-law Richard, a friend and neighbor of the family, throws in his support for them. I like this series a lot; the books seem to be well-researched and the author always has some interesting notes to read, too. Despite John's crabbiness, I like him and his secondary characters. The one thing that bothers me (and I know I've mentioned this before) is the constant use of the same verbs, often "animal sounds" attributed to the characters as they're speaking. For example, the Crowner, who is a rather gruff, curmudgeonly fellow, often snaps, growls or barks. His dandified brother-in-law frequently brays. If it wasn't for this, I would tend to rate the books higher, but at times it happens very frequently and is distracting enough to pull me right out of the story. I still look forward to the next one, though. B+
Current reads: DRAGON KEEPER by Robin Hobb (ARC for review, due out in January), MESSENGER OF TRUTH by Jacqueline Winspear, SIDETRACKED by Henning Mankell and listening to MURDER AT FENWAY PARK by Troy Soos in audio.
Hope your holidays are great, whichever you celebrate! And Happy New Year!