Thursday, January 14, 2010

January 2010 Reading

1. MURDER AT FENWAY PARK by Troy Soos (AUDIO) #1 Mickey Rawlings historical mystery set in 1912--this one in Boston. Mickey is a rookie major leaguer, second stringer utility player who, upon reporting to Fenway Park, comes across a man's body that has been beaten with a baseball bat. Initially suspected, later he finds out that the body was moved to another location so as not to generate negative publicity. Who was the man? When another death happens--this one an elderly assistant that Mickey had questioned about the first killing who was shot in an alley, it seems that someone is trying to set Mickey up. He works with a lady friend of his who introduces him to the principles of detecting and sets out trying to discover who had the motive, means and opportunity to do in both men. Was it the powerful owner of the Red Sox, or one of the players trying to cover up a problem? Or someone else from the shady gambling world? I had listened to one of the later books in the series last week, and it was definitely better than this one. I think if I had listened to this one first, I may not have continued. It just felt very circular, with the main character going around and around and around and over the same evidence and same suppositions over and over again. And there were a LOT of different characters to try to keep straight--which isn't always easy when listening to an audio book. I spotted the bad guy right away but I didn't know why or how he'd done it. Perhaps it was just listening to this so soon after the later, much better, book that caused it to suffer in comparison. I will likely listen on, but will take a nice long break before the next one. B-.

2. GRAVE GOODS by Ariana Franklin. (AUDIO) #3 "Mistress of the Art of Death" historical mystery. Adelia Aguilar, a doctor who must hide her profession because she is a woman in 1176 England, is summoned once again by King Henry Plantagenet. He requests that she (and the Moorish "doctor" Mansur who is actually her assistant) go to Glastonbury Abbey to inspect the bones of two people whose coffin was displaced during an earthquake. He wants her to find that these bones are the bones of Arthur and his queen Guinevere so that rebel Welsh will submit to his kingship at last and stop fighting him, hopes set on Arthur 'The Once and Future King' saving them. Along the way, Adelia and her party encounter brigands, and she later comes to find out that her traveling companion Lady Emma, did not make it to her destination--the home of her dead husband's mother, but disappeared somewhere on the trail. Frantic, Adelia attempts to find Emma while still doing the King's bidding, hoping that this favor will set her free from his service. But what if she cannot in good conscience state that the bones are Arthur and Guinevere's? The King will be most displeased. I really enjoyed this one more than the last entry in the series--the reader was excellent, the characters so well drawn and climbing up my list of favorite casts of 'motley crew' of the protagonist. The mystical elements of Glastonbury and the whole Arthurian legend also added a bit of special interest for me to this chapter of Adelia's life. Looking forward to the next in this series very much! A.

3. THE MESSENGER OF TRUTH by Jacqueline Winspear. #4 Maisie Dobbs series, set in post-WWI England. Maisie, a former nurse turned private investigator is hired by a young woman, Georgina Bassington-Hope, whose brother Nicholas has just died in what was ruled an accident when he fell from some scaffolding while preparing for an exhibition of his paintings. Georgina has a funny feeling that it was not an accident, and wants Maisie to figure out if her feeling has any substance to it. Nicholas Bassington-Hope was very talented, and had been documenting the war in his latest paintings, a set that together is said to be his magnum opus--which are missing. He had them hidden away, not to be displayed to anyone until his exhibition, and no one knows where they are--or will admit to it. As Maisie visits Nick's friends and family and those associated with the art gallery, she begins to get the same feeling Georgina had, but nothing solid. On the personal side, Maisie's assistant Billy Beale and his wife Doreen are having a bad time of it as their youngest child Lizzie is hospitalized with a severe case of diphtheria, and Maisie continues to settle in to her new home and resolves to figure out what she should do about her relationship with Dr. Andrew Dene. This series just seems to get better the further along I read in it. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and until very close to the end, I did not figure out who the bad guy was--plenty of red herrings although in thinking back, the clues were there to be ferreted out. Looking forward to the next in series to see what direction the author takes Maisie in. A.

4. DRAGON KEEPER by Robin Hobb. #1 Rain Wilds fantasy trilogy. This world will not be a strange place to those who have read some of Hobb's other trilogies. This series, set mostly in the Rain Wilds, takes off where the Liveship Traders series ended, although with new characters leading the way and some of the old favorites making cameo appearances. That said, I do think it would read well on its own, although maybe wouldn't make quite as much sense as it did knowing the backstory. Alise Kincarron Finbok is a dragon/Elderling scholar, married to Hest Finbok--an outwardly charming but inwardly controlling and cruel man who thankfully spends most of his time away from home. Part of their marriage contract stated that Alise could go to the Rain Wilds to study dragons, and this she does when the dragons have only been out of their casings for a short time. The dragons are not the magnificent creatures she expected--many are small, slow-witted, and most have shriveled, stunted wings which won't allow them to fly. Their ancestral memories are only partly intact, most being confused about their role in the world. Still, when the dragons head up river in search of the fabled city of Kelsingra, Alise (and Hest's secretary Sedric, whom he's sent to chaperone her) goes along with Captain Leftrin, on his liveship Tarman up the river after them. The book also features Thymara, a sixteen-year-old Rain Wilds girl, badly 'affected' with claws for finger and toenails and heavy scaling who becomes a dragon keeper to Sintara, a blue female dragon. It's very clear that this book is part of a series, as the ending doesn't really resolve anything, just segues into the next book leaving pretty much all the storyline threads dangling. I love Hobb's writing style and the world she's created, but I can't say I was overly fond of any of the main characters in this book. They didn't seem quite as well-fleshed as some others in previous books, and at times they were just downright annoying. While this book didn't bowl me over as the first books of her other trilogies have done, I still really enjoyed this and am definitely looking forward to book two in the series to see what new discoveries about dragons and Elderlings are going to come forth. B+

5. SIDETRACKED by Henning Mankell. #5 Kurt Wallander Swedish police procedural set in and around Ystad. Wallander, hoping for an uneventful few weeks leading up to his summer holiday, is sorely disappointed when two troubling cases present themselves. First, he takes a call from an elderly farmer who has observed a girl in his rape (canola) field all day. She's behaving oddly and won't go away and wants the police. When Wallander arrives, he also observes the girl's odd behavior and it's not long before, to his horror, she dumps gasoline on herself and sets herself on fire! While he is still reeling from that incident, a call comes in about a man murdered with an axe--who's been scalped. One of those is bad enough--and it will be a higher profile case, as the victim was an elderly retired government official--but when a second murder with the same M.O. comes to light a few days later, Wallander knows they have a serial killer on their hands and his holidays to be spent abroad with his Latvian lover Baiba are in jeopardy. As Wallander and his team try to determine the connection between the two victims, they call in a profiler, although he is somewhat inexperienced given that serial killers seem to be not that prolific in Sweden. Tension mounts as they fear another killing and reprisals from the public and the press, poring over hundreds of reports and trying to come at the crimes through many different angles. While all this is going on, Wallander finds out that his father has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, although he's at the early stage where he knows there's something wrong. As usual, Wallander is a bit of a gloomy gus, and sometimes it can be a bit of a struggle to slog through his worries, self-doubt and pessimism. I still find him endearing, and of course his selfless dedication to his work is to be commended--otherwise, how would the criminals be caught? LOL At any rate, this was an excellent entry in the series and I'm looking forward to the next. A.

6. THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins. (AUDIO) #1 Hunger Games YA fantasy series. Katniss Everdeen is sixteen this Reaping day--the day when Tributes from all the districts of Panem--a post-apocalyptic country somewhere in future North America--are chosen. Tributes are children between twelve and eighteen, a boy and a girl from each district, who will fight to the death in a nationally televised (watching is mandatory) program called The Hunger Games. Sort of a reality show on steriods! Her name is in the barrel many times, so Katniss is totally shocked when her little sister Prim's name is chosen. She loves Prim more than anything, and thus invokes a rarely used rule and volunteers to take her place, knowing that this most likely means a death sentence for her as no one from district twelve has won the Games for years. Like the Olympics, the Tributes survive because of their sponsors, and when you come from the poor mining district, no one is interested in backing you. She and Peeta, the boy accompanying her from district twelve, are off to the Capitol, where their dictatorship is ruled from, to have a couple weeks of training before being sent into The Arena--where the terrain, the wildlife, the weather and available resources are controlled by the powers that be. More than anything they want an exciting show, so if the various Tributes were to just isolate themselves, they would do 'something' to bring them together for confrontations. Implanted with tracking chips before being released, the Tributes know that they are being watched 24/7. I found this book gripping, compelling, horrifying and very difficult to stop listening to. The characters were very well-drawn, and it wasn't long before you felt you knew Katniss inside and out and liked her despite her foibles. I cannot speak highly enough about this book and am very much looking forward to listening to the next one. The sad thing is, I find this whole scenario to be not as fantastical as it should be. This audiobook was skillfully read by Carolyn McCormick. A++

7. IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER by Julia Spencer-Fleming. #1 Rev. Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne mystery set in upstate New York. Clare, recently new in the small town of Miller's Kill, becomes acquainted with Sheriff Russ when an infant is left on the church's doorstep. Accompanying the child is a note, naming him Cody and asking that he be adopted out to the Burnses, a family in Clare's parish who have been trying for many years to conceive, and then to adopt. A couple of days later, when Russ is giving Clare a tour of the town and outlying areas, Clare stumbles upon the obviously-murdered body of a young woman who is later determined to be the mother of the baby. The most obvious suspects would be whoever the father of the child is, or perhaps the Burnses themselves, looking to uncomplicate the adoption process. But Clare can't believe that they are guilty, and being lawyers themselves, that they would be so desperate and stupid to do such a thing. She begins digging into things on the side, since Russ, who takes an instant disliking to Geoff Burns, seems hell bent on fitting them up for the murder. As the case goes on, another dead body turns up and Clare herself is put in mortal danger. I mostly enjoyed this book--the writing style was compelling and easy to read, I mostly like the characters and the sense of "place" was really phenomenal. However, I have a really hard time believing that someone as smart as Clare could do so very many really stupid things, most of which I'd classify as "fem jep"--putting herself in jeopardy and needing to be rescued purely because she did these stupid things. I also found it a little unbelievable that she had access to as much inside information as she did, often directly from the Sheriff himself, which just seems like really sloppy police work. I also find Clare terribly naive not to think that people were going to talk and gossip about her and Russ, given the amount of time they spent together on the case and being alone together at one another's homes for dinner and such--hard to believe that a minister of the church--ANY Christian church--would put themselves in that situation or not be mindful of their public persona, especially being so very new to the town. But suspending disbelief on those things, it was an enjoyable mystery and I will definitely be reading on in the series as long as the romance or continual, unresolved sexual tension doesn't take over the plots. B+

8.IN A DRY SEASON by Peter Robinson (AUDIO) #10 DCI Alan Banks British police procedural set in the Yorkshire dales. Banks, slowly recovering from the tailspin caused by his wife Sandra leaving him months previously, his son Brian dropping out of college to form a rock band, and being on the 'outs' with his Chief Constable Jimmy Riddle, is thrown a joke of a case by Riddle designed to do nothing more than put him in his place. Off to a remote area of their district to investigate a set of bones discovered by a young boy playing in some ruins that appeared when a reservoir area dries up, Banks soon discovers this case is right up his alley. He and DS Annie Cabot begin to piece together details of the decades-old murder, a woman's body wrapped in WWII blackout curtains and buried in an outbuilding of a cottage in the now-defunct town of Hob's End, which has been covered in water for many years. The reader knows the story (and can guess at much of the mystery) well before Banks, because it's told in part via the journal of a family member of the deceased from back in the 1940's. This is the first audio book I've listened to in this series and I enjoyed it very much. The book was perhaps a bit lengthy, but that's my only criticism of it. Looking forward to the next in series and probably will listen on in audio again. A.

9. ONE GOOD TURN by Kate Atkinson. #2 Jackson Brodie mystery, this one taking place in Edinburgh during The Fringe Festival, a city-wide art/craft fair. Jackson (a former cop, former PI and now a man of leisure, having been left a large bequest by a client) is in town because his girlfriend Julia is performing in a play. The book is really a conglomeration of stories about different people and how their lives intersect during this intense few days, beginning with a case of road rage in which a large man leaps from his Honda (thus becoming "Honda Man") and brutally attacks the driver of a rental car that he rear-ended with a baseball bat. Jackson witnesses this crime, as do several other players in the book, and the story follows each of them around in turn as their lives continue to intersect in one wacky coincidence after another. I love Atkinson's writing style and her interesting way of plotting books, but I found this one to be a bit long and too convoluted at times, and I struggled, especially mid-book, to stay engaged. In the end, though, Atkinson skillfully brings all the parts together in an interesting conclusion that I didn't see coming. I do look forward to the next in the series though, as the author does leave Jackson's life on a bit of a cliffhanger. B.

10.SEVENTY-SEVEN CLOCKS by Christopher Fowler. #3 Bryant & May British police procedural featuring the Peculiar Crimes Unit. This mystery goes back in time again, to 1973, telling the story of how the PCU investigated the deaths of several members of the noble Whitstable family, members of the fabled Watchmaker's Guild and (they believe) another secret society within the guild. These strange murders, all with a different MO (and all the methods of death very odd indeed) are obviously tied together due to the family connection, but the PCU is up in arms trying to figure out how and why. Under pressure from the higher-ups, the press and the Whitstable family themselves, they must navigate a host of strange and seemingly disconnected clues to piece together the real story, one that spans decades of planning and deceit. Told from the point of view of both Bryant and May as well as a couple of other people, I have to admit that the book got a little confusing at times, and was a little too convoluted with forays not only to the '70's, but also back into the 1880's with other stops along the way. It was interesting, but (possibly because of the way I read the book--piecemeal, on my breaks at work over the course of more than a week) I'm still not sure I have the whole thing straight in my mind even after the reveal. There are a lot of subtle nuances and half-hidden clues that I'm sure I missed. Still, you gotta love Bryant & May, and the historical tidbits and information is all very interesting, too. I'm marking this one down slightly from the grades previous books in series got, but I think in future I won't be using this series as a 'take to work' read so I can concentrate on things better. I'm still really looking forward to the next one! B+

11. THE WITCH'S TRINITY by Erika Mailman. Historical fiction set in rural Germany in the village of Tierkinddorf in 1507. A famine has decimated the land, with poor harvests for two years, most of the woodland creatures killed off, the people becoming nothing but skin and bone. Gude Muller is the elderly mother of the local miller--now out of work with no grain to grind--and she is horrified when a visiting friar, a representative of the Inquisition from Rome, hauls out his copy of the Malleus Maleficarum ('The Witch's Hammer') and drags the local herb woman, Kunne, to trial for witchcraft, blaming the crop failure and famine among other things on her. Kunne is a kind, wise woman and lifelong friend of Gude, and when she is accused, Gude is the only one who stands up for her, to no avail. Kunne is burned alive at the stake in the village green, and Gude soon finds herself imprisoned in the Witch's Tower awaiting her own judgment. She is hoping her son Jost returns soon--he's off with most of the village men on a hunting trip further afield in hopes of finding game to ease the hunger of the village--for she knows her spiteful daughter-in-law Imeltrude will do nothing to save her. In fact, Gude believes she may be the one who accused her in exchange for some food from the friar. A somewhat bizarre and confusing tale in places because of the strange dreams Gude had (were these real, or what was actually happening? I'm still not sure) and it was equally horrifying in other places as (for example) the witch burning is described in quite graphic detail. It was interesting, and a very good study in mob mentality and what hunger can motivate a person to do, but the plot lacked much in the way of cohesion and I'm still scratching my head about parts of it. B.

12. MISS ZUKAS AND THE ISLAND MURDERS by Jo Dereske. #2 Helma Zukas mystery, featuring the intrepid librarian who lives in fictional Bellehaven, WA. Helma gets an anonymous letter reminding her that she promised to plan her 20-year high school reunion, and also hints that the death of a classmate after a basketball game their senior year may not have been an accident as was previously believed. Since Helma was the class treasurer and invested their funds with her usual aplomb, she and her friend Ruth who also hails from back home, decide to invite the whole class from Scoop River, MI (all fifty-two of them) to come to Bellehaven to spend a weekend at a resort in the San Juan Islands. Only half of them end up coming, and it's clear that someone is out to sabotage not only the reunion, but also possibly Helma and other members of the class who may know something about the classmate's death. This is kind of a strange series--to read the description, you wouldn't really think it would be my "thing" but I'm finding that I actually quite enjoy it so far. Helma is staid, practical, old-fashioned, and seems much older than her age. Her friend Ruth, an artist, is the polar opposite, being flamboyant and outgoing and always with a man on her arm. This mystery had a somewhat predictable ending, but overall it was a good, light read and I'm enjoying getting to know these characters better. B+

13. GOOD OMENS by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. (AUDIO) The end of the world is coming. Or it should be...actually, no one's quite sure. The ultimate battle between good and evil depends on the competence of the good and evil minions, though--so you can bet things aren't going to go quite as their bosses (whoever they are) planned. They can't even get the baby who is the spawn of Satan into the right home, having mixed him up with another baby or two in hospital, which isn't noticed until he turns eleven and his hellhound doesn't arrive--at least, not at *his* house. Things just go downhill from there, with the usual Pratchett hijinks and insane humor. Coupled with Gaiman's superb storytelling ability, this book is a gem, skillfully read by Martin Jarvis who does a great job with various voices and accents and gets the tone of the book perfectly right. I love each of these authors' books written individually; I sure hope they collaborate again in the future! A.

14. RED HOUSE by K.J.A. Wishnia. #5 Filomena Buscarsela mystery. Fil, Ecuadoran-born ex-cop, having survived her bout with lethal doses of toxic chemicals with only occasional lung problems, now is working as a rookie investigator for a big private eye firm, doing the necessary apprenticeship to get her investigator's license. Filomena decided that she needs to provide not only a loving, but a more financially stable home for daughter Antonia, now 12 years old. However, the pressure to bring in real paying clients to the firm (which most of the Spanish-speaking community are not) is huge, so she is kept very busy. And on the side, she's helping a couple of clients for virtually no pay at all. When the residents of a particular apartment house keep meeting with various accidents, she tries to follow the trail back to who stands to gain if the apartment were to end up empty. The first assumption is the landlord, but who's feeding the baddies information that lets them do their dirty work so easily? I really like Filomena's gutsy character, with her unique outlook on life and a cross-section of another of the little cultural blips that most of us don't get to see or experience. If I remember rightly, I wasn't overly thrilled with the previous book, but this one seemed back on track. Only one more book in this series, and I for one will be sad to see it end. A.

15. NINE MEN DANCING by Kate Sedley. #12 Roger the Chapman mystery in which Roger is heading home to Bristol with a nearly empty pack, stops in a small village of Lower Brockhurst. There, he hears of an ancient mystery of two travelers who were set upon and killed but not robbed more than a hundred years previously, and a more recent puzzle, when a local beauty disappears after declaring that she will not be marrying young Tom Rawbone, but instead has been betrothed to his father, Nathaniel. Running away into a violent storm, she's not heard from or seen again. Roger, always with a nose for a mystery, is asked by Eris Lilywhite's grandmother to see if he can look with the fresh eye of an outsider and find out what happened to her. No one believes she ran away, given that she had just schemed her way into the role of future mistress of the local manor. By all accounts, Eris was not at all well liked, despite her beauty, and though the obvious suspect in her disappearance would be young Tom Rawbone, there are plenty of other people who are not at all sad to see the back of her, wherever she might have gone. With the clock ticking--as Roger has promised his wife Adela that he will be home in time for St. Patrick's Day feast--and a host of sometimes conflicting clues to sort through, Roger must come up with a solution so he can set for home. He can't help but feel that the two mysteries, decades apart, are tied together somehow.The mystery was terribly easy to sort out, but as always, I love this series for the historical sense of time and place, the author's easy-reading writing style and the characters, not so much for the mysteries themselves. Loved this one as much as previous entries! A.

Current Reads: SLEEPLESS by Charlie Huston, THE ROSE RENT by Ellis Peters, WILFUL BEHAVIOUR by Donna Leon, and listening to BEFORE THE FROST by Henning Mankell