Wednesday, March 10, 2010

March 2010

1.RAVEN BLACK by Ann Cleeves #1 in the Shetland Island Quartet featuring Inspector Jimmy Perez in the Shetland Islands off the coast of Scotland. A teenage girl is dead, strangled with her scarf and left in the snow just a couple of days into the new year. On this remote island community where everyone knows everyone else and their business, it's a special challenge to slice through the prejudices, the 'known' facts (or are they?) and to peel away those layers to find the truth. Jimmy Perez, who grew up in the islands and who went to the same school as the dead girl, Catherine Ross, is hoping to solve his first major crime. The detective in charge, down from Inverness, like Jimmy, believes in keeping an open mind, whereas most of the rest of the police force and islanders have already got Magnus Tait down for the killing--they believe he killed and hid the body of another young girl ten years previously, but have never been able to prove it. As the story unfolds, told from the point of view of several of the characters, I vacillated between several different possible baddies, but wasn't 100% certain until the reveal. Excellently written with a good balance of police procedure and personal involvement of the main character, not to mention a fine sense of "place," I find I'm very much looking forward to the next in series. A+

2. MURDER IN CHINATOWN by Victoria Thompson (audio) #9 "Gaslight" historical mystery featuring midwife Sarah Brandt and Det. Sgt. Frank Molloy in turn of the century New York. Sarah has a patient in Chinatown, an Irish woman who's married a Chinese man, and becomes involved with their family when the daughter of one of her relatives disappears, believed to have run away to avoid an arranged marriage to an older Chinese man. When Angel turns up dead some time later, Sarah helps the Lees navigate the police investigation with Molloy and of course finds out some things that he could not. This is the first time I've listened to an audiobook of the series and I wasn't overly crazy about the reader. I'm also finding I'm getting a bit tired of the continual romantic tensions between Sarah and Frank and I really hope the author marries them off at some point soon, or I fear I shall lose interest before much longer. This was okay, but I found this entry in the series seemed to have a lot of repetition and the baddie was easy to spot with extremely obvious clues--it really made me think that Sarah and Malloy had been eating something to kill their brain cells between books. Not a horrible book, but definitely one of my least favorite so far. B-

3.THE PEARL DIVER by Sujata Massey. #7 in the Rei Shimura mysteries, with Rei now settling in Washington DC after being banned from returning to Japan. Rei is getting reacquainted with her cousin Kendall, a political fundraiser, and through her introductions, gets involved in doing the decor for a new Japanese restaurant to be opening soon. Rei is excited to be building her business, but when Kendall is kidnapped from outside the restaurant one night, she wonders what she's gotten into. One of the restaurant's hostesses also asks Rei to help her track down her Japanese mother who disappeared from her life when she was a child. Rei and her boyfriend Hugh also become formally engaged and begin planning their wedding, although Rei sounds less than enthusiastic and she is also balking somewhat at Hugh's insistence that they try to have a child. I have to admit that I was less than enthralled with this book compared to previous books in the series. I really wish Rei could have stayed in Japan as it was the whole Japanese culture thing that drew me into the series in the first place. While there's some of that here, it's not the same as being in Japan. I've also grown somewhat weary of Rei and Hugh's on again/off again relationship, and wish they would either move forward or forget it. I have the rest of the series books here and will finish it, but I'm not quite as enthusiastic as I was when Rei was in Japan. B-

4. THE GRAVE MAURICE by Martha Grimes. (AUDIO) #18 in the Richard Jury/Melrose Plant mystery series. In this book, we find Jury recuperating in his hospital bed after being shot nearly fatally in the last book. Sgt. Wiggins brings him a copy of Josephine Tey's classic The Daughter of Time wherein a policeman investigates an ages-old mystery from his bed. Melrose Plant brings Jury just such a mystery, one involving the disappearance of a teenage girl almost two years ago. Coincidentally, the girl is the daughter of Jury's surgeon, who also asks Jury (somewhat hesitantly) to look into things. Nell disappeared from her grandfather's stud farm (along with a champion horse!) but no ransom demands were ever made for either the girl or the horse. So while Jury recuperates, Plant is off playing his Earl card again, pretending to be interested in horse breeding and wanting to buy some 'horse flesh' from the family while he pokes his nose in and reports back to Jury. Like most of the later books in this series, the mystery itself becomes almost secondary to the visit with Jury, Plant, Sgt. Wiggins and the rest of the regular cast and crew--which is a great part of the attraction to the series for me, but which can sometimes get a bit long-winded and off-track. In listening to this audiobook, it did sometimes get confusing as the author changed point of view and there wasn't always enough pause or voice change to make that evident at first. I guessed the solution to the mystery fairly early on, and this wasn't one of my favorite entries in the series, since horseracing is one of the things I have absolutely no interest in, but still an enjoyable visit with some of my favorite characters in the mystery world. B.

5. DEXTER IN THE DARK by Jeff Lindsay. Third in the "Dexter" mystery series, featuring Miami forensic blood spatter expert Dexter Morgan, who has a side job as a serial killer. Trained by his foster father, Harry the Cop, Dexter targets only those "deserving" of death--such as child molesters and other serial killers. When the bodies of two young women are found burned and decapitated with ceramic bull's heads attached in place of their own heads, Dexter visits the crime scene with his sister, Sgt. Deborah Morgan, and feels as though he's being watched--and then is shocked to feel his "Dark Passenger" who has always been there silently assisting in his endeavors, leave his body. For most of the book, Dexter is floating adrift without his Passenger, and amidst this bizarre crime investigation during which he's also stalked by this evil Watcher, he's trying to prepare for his upcoming wedding to Rita, his girlfriend of two years and also begin 'mentoring' her two children, Cody and Astor. I really enjoy this series, bizarre as it is, and find Dexter's whole viewpoint and take on his whole sociopathic personality very interesting. There's also, of course, a bit of a debate about 'good and evil' or 'moral and amoral' and 'right and wrong,' but as odd as it seems to be rooting for a serial killer, that's what I inevitably find myself doing. I have not yet seen the TV show that this series has spawned, but it's hard to believe they could possibly be as good as the books! A.

6. STILL LOST IN TRANSLATION by Charlie Coker. A compilation of mistranslated, mangled signs, menu items, notices, ads, etc. found in foreign countries and sent to the author. It's not always mistranslated, sometimes it's just an especially awkward translation--it may be "literally" correct but sounds totally wrong in English! The menu items were my favorites, leaving me with tears literally streaming down my face I laughed so hard at some of those. Some of the longer notices from hotels and shops were quite funny too. While most of the items you could glean what it was saying, there were some that just totally left you scratching your head trying to decipher just what it was they were trying to say. A quick, easy read and always good for drawing stares if you read in a public place. A.

7. ST. MUNGO's ROBIN by Pat McIntosh. Fourth entry in the Gil Cunningham historical mystery series set in 1490's Glasgow, Scotland. Gil is a lawyer, now in the employ of the church and thus he is who is the Questore when the Deacon at St. Mungo's is found murdered. There are several suspects, as no one liked him much, and an inspection of the accounts reveals that he was skimming a lot of money and properties. He had only just announced his intention to marry--and not to marry his mistress, who essentially shared his home--which upset a number of people in the household, not least the mistress herself. And other dead bodies follow, which seem to be tied to the first murder but which only complicate things. On a personal note, Gil and his betrothed Alys are nearing their wedding day, and he is concerned because she grows more distant. He thinks at first that it's just all the preparations for out-of-town family and friends and the celebration itself wearing on her, but fears that she is regretting the decision to marry. Gil must also deal with his somewhat wild and unconventional younger sister, Tib, who was found in flagrante dilecto with her lover--with all the complications that entails in that place and time. I do enjoy this series, despite usually being able to figure out the mystery well in advance--as I did with this one. I will say again that the only reason I continue to mark these down somewhat is because of the copious use of the vernacular...if it were modern Scots slang used just occasionally, I wouldn't have such a problem with it, but the language of the time was quite different and the author uses it very pervasively. Sometimes you can figure out what's meant, other times not, and it does pull me out of the story momentarily. What might be helpful is a glossary of at least the most frequently used words, which I do find helpful in several other historical series. Still, I love the characterizations, the historical details and that's why I keep reading on in the series. B.

8. PRINCIPLES OF DRUIDRY by Emma Restall Orr. A basic tutorial on Druidry--what it is, what it is not, its history and current practice, which is of necessity quite brief as there are many different paths and schools of thought/belief under the Druid umbrella. I found the writing style easy to read, the history interesting and learned a few things I didn't know about Druids, as well as had a few thoughts I'd had about this group debunked as well. This is a good first place to start for those who are curious about Druidry or think they may want to walk this path. It will stay on my Keeper shelf as a reference--although by no means comprehensive, it does have a good bibliography of other more detailed works where further information can be sought. B+

9. HOOD by Stephen Lawhead. First of the King Raven trilogy, which is the author's take on the Robin Hood legend. He begins this series in the 1080's in Wales, totally blowing most of the legend as most of us know it out of the water. King Raven (aka Robin Hood) is better known as Bran ap Brychan, who ends up fleeing into the primeval forest when his father and his warriors are slain by a power-hungry Norman count. Welsh lands are being fought over and plotted after by various barons, counts, and bishops who see a rich land ready for plunder. Bran, near fatally wounded in his flight, is nursed to health by a wizened old crone named Angharad who sings in a beautiful voice and plays the harp, telling old tales about King Raven and his loyal band of followers. Bran resists thinking about this when he can, as he has been something of a ne'er-do-well spoiled playboy and doesn't see himself in the role of a leader of his people. But the magical quality of the forest and Angharad's tales seep into his bones and soon he does, indeed, meld into King Raven. What a wonderful story! Blending known history with myths and legends, the tale itself is imaginative and written in a style that makes it hard to put down. Told from the point of view of a variety of different characters, the various parts fit together seamlessly to build a delightfully rich tale. I greatly look forward to the next two books in the series and I think I may have discovered a new (well, new to me!) favorite author! A+

10. MIRACLE AT SPEEDY MOTORS by Alexander McCall Smith. (AUDIO) Ninth in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series set in Botswana, this book has Mma Ramotswe trying to locate a client's birth family--she was adopted as a child and since her adoptive parents have died, she wants to discover her roots. She and Mr. JLB Matekoni are also somewhat at odds over a possible new treatment for their foster-daughter, who is paralyzed and in a wheelchair. Precious believes the doctor is trying to fleece them, but the kind-hearted JLB wants to do anything possible to help Motoleli to walk again. Mma Kutsi, with her wedding day approaching, goes bed shopping with her fiance and the Agency also has the mystery of some threatening letters that they've been receiving. As much as I've come to not like cozy mysteries very much of late, I just continue to love this series, as it sits you down in the middle of a different culture. Mma Ramotswe is one of my favorite literary personalities as she has such a pragmatic outlook on life and yet occasionally manages to let her foibles and humanity spill out, too. The reader for this series is excellent and makes the cultural details all the more real. Highly recommended! A

11. DOG ON IT by Spencer Quinn. (AUDIO) First in the Chet & Bernie mystery series told from the point of view of Chet, the dog. His partner in Little Investigations, Bernie Little, is the be-all and end-all of Chet's world. He doesn't always quite 'get' what's going on in Bernie's life, and while he realizes that Bernie's a bit of a mess--he drinks too much and doesn't handle the finances very well--Chet just loves him unconditionally. Chet & Bernie are hired by a distraught mother to find her missing teenage daughter--only to have Madison turn up while Bernie is questioning her mother. A few days later, he gets another call from the mother, only this time the daughter has really gone. As Bernie tries to figure out if this is an abduction for ransom, a runaway situation or abduction for more nefarious purposes, we're taken through Chet's world of acute smells and sounds and easy distractions. The mystery itself wasn't too much of a mystery, but I actually enjoyed this story a lot more than I thought I would. I like that the dog is just telling things from his point of view--he doesn't know what other dogs are saying, and often doesn't even catch a lot of Bernie's dialogue--but he's great at reading body language, scents, etc. The reader does a good job of making you believe he's really a dog and seems to interpret the written story very well. I have the second in series on my audio download list at the library--I'm honestly not sure how many books the author will be able to carry this premise, but we'll see. This first entry I took at face value and really enjoyed. A

12. PLAY DEAD by David Rosenfelt. This is the sixth book in the Andy Carpenter series. Andy is a defense lawyer in Paterson, NJ who can afford to be picky about the cases he takes as he inherited several million dollars from his father. He only takes cases where he really believes the defendant is wrongly accused. In this book, Andy begins by defending a dog--a golden retriever who ends up in the shelter Andy runs awaiting euthanasia after he bit the person who owned him. The dog had been abused and it was clearly self-defense. It comes to pass that the dog actually had belonged to a man now in prison for murdering his fiance five years previously, and the dog had been believed dead also. The man's sister appeals to Andy to help her prove that he didn't kill the fiance, and after reviewing the case and evidence and meeting Richard, he agrees to do so. The plot line was actually fairly predictable and I figured out the twist well in advance. I'm not generally a fan of 'lawyer/courtroom drama' but these are well-done, easy to read and not filled with endless procedural details and supposed 'thrills.' I like Andy and his supporting cast of motley characters, including his own golden retriever, Tara. So even though the mystery wasn't a surprise, it didn't really detract from my visit to Paterson with the gang. Looking forward to the next in series. B+

13. BEAN THERE, DONE THAT by Sandra Balzo. #3 Maggy Thorsen coffee house mystery set in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookhills. Maggy is somewhat aghast when her ex-husband's new wife approaches her with allegations that Ted is cheating on her--and was even cheating on her when he was cheating on Maggy with Rachel! Although she knows she should hate the girl, for some reason she likes her and agrees to help her by checking her calendars from the years involved to see if Ted's whereabouts can be corroborated. However, when Rachel goes missing and then her body turns up in Lake Michigan a couple of days later, Ted goes to the top of the suspect list. Although Maggy could believe Rachel's story of him cheating on her, she doesn't see Ted as a killer, although her sort-of boyfriend Sheriff Jake Pavlik likes him for the deed. Thus, Maggy does some nosing around on her own to see if she can counter that theory, if only for the sake of their college-age son, Eric--and as usual, she ends up in a heap of trouble. For some reason, I keep being surprised that I like this series. I'm not a cozy fan, but this isn't really cozy...there's a bit more of an edge to it, a bit more of the dark comedy that appeals to me. I like the author's easy-to-read writing style, and in this book I totally didn't see the plot twist coming, although I had an inkling about the baddie. Aside from the usual 'amateur sleuth curse' of needing to work almost against the police while investigating (and thus putting oneself in some really stupid, dangerous situations) I found this to be a very enjoyable, top-notch book and highly recommend it to those who like a lighter mystery with a bit of a dark side. A.

14. MY LADY JUDGE by Cora Harrison. First of a new historical series set in early 16th century Ireland, featuring Mara, Brehon (judge and lawyer) of the Burren, a somewhat isolated area of western Ireland. When one of Mara's assistants at the law school she runs, Colman, is found stabbed to death the morning after the Beltaine celebration on the mountain, it is up to her to investigate. Before too long, she realizes that she was not the only person who didn't much like her unpleasant assistant--he was blackmailing numerous people, and thus the suspect list keeps growing longer the more Mara looks into things. It was interesting to read this book, given that one of my favorite historical series is Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma series, featuring another Brehon but taking place nine centuries earlier. Much of the same laws were retained, and many of the Gaelic words were familiar from reading that series. There are some similarities between Mara and Fidelma, but many differences as well. This author does a wonderful job of setting the scene, giving a real sense of place with wonderful descriptive writing. Mara's character becomes quite well drawn and defined by the end of the book, and she's a character that I definitely want to go back and visit, along with the secondary characters she's introduced us to. I quite enjoyed this, and subsequent books may even be better once I get over the comparison to Tremayne's books. B+

15. NIGHTLIFE by Rob Thurman. First in a paranormal series featuring brothers Caliban and Niko Leandros. Cal is half-demon and the two have been running from his heritage since they were small. Their mother, an alcoholic whorish woman who died some years previously, was ever letting Cal know he was a freak and not wanted, but thankfully the love and care of his older brother sustained him over the years. Now living in New York City, Nik brings bad news: he's spotted a "Grendel" which is their term for whatever the paranormal half of Cal's genealogy is. Nik is not only proficient in the martial arts, he's a well-read health-food nut, but although he's imparted a lot of wisdom to Cal over the years, try as he might he can't change his brother from his sleep-til-noon-pizza-and-beer swilling self. The brothers seek advice from a couple of other people who might be able to tell them more about just what the Grendels are, and how best to deal with them. They don't have any true friends and have learned over the years to trust no one, but there are those who can be cautiously approached, those who have more knowledge of Cal's world of 'freakdom.' But soon the choices they had are very narrowed and they're fighting for their lives against a whole host of things--not least of which is a Darkling that has inhabited Cal's body and is directing his demon side to do some pretty awful things. I really enjoyed this first entry in the series--it's written in somewhat the same tone as Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden series, albeit perhaps a bit raunchier...more adult themes and dialog. Which I didn't mind at all. Definitely more of the mystery than the romance, so YIPPPEEEEEEE for that! Glad I've already got the second one here waiting for me. An enjoyable, wild ride. A

16. THE UNQUIET BONES by Melvin R. Starr. First in a historical series set in and around Bampton, UK in the 1360's. The country is still feeling the effects of the devastation left by the Black Death that coursed its way through two decades previously. Surgeon Hugh de Singleton is trying to make ends meet in Oxford but finding the going difficult when he is offered a position in Bampton by the Lord of the castle there. Not long after his arrival, a set of bones are found when the serfs are cleaning out the privy pit, first believed to be pig bones, and then believed to be the bones of a nobleman who had visited Lord Gilbert a few months previously and vanished. It turns out to be neither, as Hugh determines from observing the bones that they had belonged to a young woman. Lord Gilbert soon has Hugh working not only as the town's surgeon, but asks him to be his bailiff at the castle, and wants to know who those bones belonged to--as well as to discover what happened to his guest who disappeared. Hugh is a bit dismayed at the request, but is grateful for his position so does his best to solve both mysteries. I really enjoyed this book a lot. This is about my favorite time period in history to read about, and this author is a historian and graces us with lots of wonderful detail that brings you right into the time period. That said, he's also a good writer--not dry and scholarly sounding like some attempts at fiction by historical experts can be--and tells an engaging tale featuring an interesting man in Hugh de Singleton. The mystery itself wasn't too hard to figure out, although I did follow a couple of wandering paths away from the solution briefly. A thoroughly enjoyable foray--and I especially appreciated the author's glossary of terms. I read a lot of books set in the time period so knew most of them, but did learn a few new ones. Awesome! A+

17. A RULE AGAINST MURDER by Louise Penny. #4 Armand Gamache "Three Pines" mystery set in Quebec. Gamache and his wife of thirty-five years are staying at a secluded, exclusive resort in the forest, where they've spent each of their wedding anniversaries. Normally it's a time of relaxation and luxury for them, but this time they end up sharing the resort with the wealthy and snooty Finney family, who are holding their yearly family reunion a bit early. Gamache and his wife are surprised to learn that the youngest son, who arrives a day or two late, is their friend Peter Morrow from Three Pines. Trouble is brewing within the strained confines of the family, and when Julia Martin, Peter's sister, is murdered--found crushed under a newly-erected statue of their father, Charlies Morrow--Gamache must consider his friend (and Peter's wife Clara as well) a suspect along with everyone else in the family. Gamache moves his crack homicide team in, and they begin digging into the lives of all the cruel and eccentric Finney/Morrows family members, as well as the resort staff. I love this series more with each book I read. The whole package--the author's writing style, the wonderful characterizations, the whole Quebecois culture, and the mystery itself, which I didn't figure out til the reveal. I did recognize important clues when they came up for the most part, but my brain just couldn't put them all together to solve it. Very clever! I much look forward to the next in series, which I have here and was relieved to see another forthcoming after that. This series ranks among my current top ten favorites. VERY near the top! A+

18. A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART by Timothy Hallinan. #1 Poke Rafferty mystery set in Bangkok, Thailand. Poke is a travel writer living in Bangkok with Miaow, a young urchin he rescued from the streets and (sometimes) Rose, his girlfriend--a former bar girl who is now trying to set up her own cleaning business. Poke hopes to adopt Miaow, which costs a lot of money, so he takes up some detective work on the side hoping to generate some cash. Miaow has brought home a stray of her own, a boy a couple of years older than herself that is known on the streets as Superman--a troubled youth that Miaow insists must stay with them. Poke looks into the disappearance of an Australian man for his niece who has traveled to Bangkok to track him down after not hearing from him for several months. One of the leads he follows in that case leads him to the home of Madame Wing, a reclusive, very rich woman who then hires him to locate the man who robbed a safe of some sensitive, personal documents that could destroy her. He doesn't like Madame Wing, and as he begins to discover more about the particularly cruel and gruesome tastes of Uncle Claus Ulrich, he almost hopes he doesn't find him, either. And someone definitely doesn't like him nosing around--is it a couple of crooked cops, some of Madame Wing's entourage or someone else? Poke knows he and his cobbled-together family won't be safe until he sees both cases through to some sort of resolution. Hard to say much more without giving away too much. But Excellent first entry in series, rich in cultural detail, an easy-reading style that made it hard to put down, and yet captured in this fast-paced thriller were some very poignant moments that quickly endeared you to Poke and his friends and family. It's a hard book to read sometimes, with the horrors it exposes, but an excellent book all the same. Not for the faint of heart--graphic violence and abuse are depicted, but in my opinion, they are definitely not 'gratuitous' but essential to the plot and the story. What a way to end the month! A+

DNF: HOMICIDE IN HARDCOVER by Kate Carlisle. I seem to really be turning into Non-Cozy Girl lately...this one was just too much like a copycat of so many other cozy series with interchangeable cookie-cutter characters and storyline. I did give it 70 pages, given that it did have to do with books, but even that couldn't save it for me.
DNF: DEFENDING ANGELS by Mary Stanton. (Audio) I listened to over an hour of this and just could not get engaged in the story and found myself just not caring in the least about the main character.

Current reads: Listening to CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins, second in the Hunger Games trilogy. In print, reading THE SWEET GOLDEN PARACHUTE by David Handler and LYE IN WAIT by Cricket McRae.