Wednesday, June 16, 2010

June 2010

1. A BAD DAY FOR SORRY by Sophie Littlefield. #1 Stella Hardesty series, featuring a 50-ish widow who owns a sewing shop in small town in rural Missouri. Sounds like a nice new cozy series, right? Um...well....not exactly. Stella has a side business--an unofficial business--of paying men who abuse their wives "visits" to help them realize they need to be nice. She put up with 30 years of abuse herself before (shall we say) embracing widowhood and resolving to help other women who are in a place she once was. Plumpish, graying and prone to mood swings and hot flashes (we have a lot in common! LOL) she put herself on a 'get in shape' regimen, oiled her guns (ok, so we don't have THAT much in common!) and put the word out. She's helped quite a few women over the past couple of years so when Chrissy Shaw approached her, bruises barely fading, asking her to 'talk to' her ex-husband Roy Dean, Stella does--but then finds she needs to make a second visit when he is spotted being nasty to another girl in a public place. Second visits are something that don't happen often. When Chrissy's toddler, Tucker, goes missing after Stella's second visit, she's certain it was Roy Dean who took him...but it's not even his child, so why would he? Stella sets out to find Tucker, but also notifies the Sheriff, whom she of course has a crush on but can't do anything about it given her sideline. What she discovers is that Roy Dean was involved with some pretty nasty people and she's really hoping that Tucker isn't in their hands. But she and Chrissy are determined to find out. I really enjoyed this book, although I can imagine it may stir up a bit of controversy. I've never been a proponent of violence and I hate guns with a passion, but then, I've never been an abused woman. I find it hard to understand women who let themselves stay in those situations for years, so if I had "met" Stella earlier in her life, I would most likely not have related to her very well. I'm thinking that Stella may help me to understand them a bit better. Now that she's seen the light, however, she's determined to help as many other women as she can and she does so with guts, grit, humor and pragmatism that are hard to argue with. The book was written in an easy-to-read style, and while her secondary characters aren't yet firmed up, I expect that will come along with subsequent books. I'm really looking forward to the next in series. A.

2. JUNKYARD DOGS by Craig Johnson. #6 Walt Longmire mystery series set in Durant, Wyoming. Sheriff Longmire, still gimping around with his bad leg, doesn't fancy chasing up and down the road in constant sub-zero temperatures and a series of Rocky Mountain blizzards, but that's just what he has to do. It starts with a report of the elderly owner of the local junkyard, Geo Stewart, having been towed behind his granddaughter-in-law's car with a rope. (It's a long story! LOL) It ends with Geo's death (among others) a couple of days later and the ride in between is the usual series of bizarre events which include the discovery of a severed thumb in a cooler at the junkyard, Walt's deputy Sancho wanting to quit, his undersheriff Vic trying to buy a house, and Walt himself getting his arse bit by one of Geo's big slobbery junkyard dogs. Is the issue land development, secrets from Geo's past, or something totally different that's kicking off this storm within a storm? I'm not telling! I love this series so much, it's hard to keep my hands off the brand new ones when they come out and then I'm left waiting for the next in eager anticipation. The characters are diverse and well-fleshed, the sense of place that Johnson imparts makes you feel as though you are right in the mountains of Wyoming, and the writing style is easy to read, humorous and yet poignant too. The mystery itself? Well, I had the bad guy spotted fairly early, but there were some doubts as the story went on, and I certainly hadn't guessed the backstory or real motive...just my gut telling me "That's the guy!" If you haven't read this series, I highly recommend it--but do read them in order. While the book stands on its own merit, it will make more sense if you read them in order. A+

3. IN A STRANGE CITY by Laura Lippman. (AUDIO) #6 Tess Monaghan, PI series set in Baltimore. This book focused on Edgar Allan Poe, who lived in Baltimore, and his museum, memorabilia, and mostly the famous cloaked, anonymous "visitor" who stops by every year with roses and cognac for his grave. An antiques dealer tries to hire Tess into finding who the visitor is and unmasking him because the visitor has something that belongs to him and the only way he can get it is to threaten him with exposure. Tess declines, but is curious and she and boyfriend Crow camp out in frigid weather to watch the yearly ritual. But a second visitor--someone dressed nearly identically--shows up and is shot dead by someone also watching. So was the dead man the intended target, or was the real visitor (who disappeared in the aftermath) the one that was meant to be shot? And what was the motive, in either case? When the dead man is revealed to be a gay man, the press (including an old acquaintance of Tess's) try to tie it in to another hate crime that occurred a few weeks previously. Tess, now fully interested in the case but without a real client, digs around anyway--and then she starts getting roses, cognac and letters in an antique-looking font with clues as to where she needs to go. Tess begins educating herself in Poe lore and is hot on the trail before long. I enjoyed this audio production, although sometimes the reader's (Barbara Rosenblat) voice annoys me. I've gotten used to her, but she often slurs, squeaks and sounds all around as though she's had a couple too many drinks. Still, she does capture Tess's spirit I think, and does a good job with the different voices. I have come to really enjoy this series, and this entry was special as Edgar Allan Poe is one of my favorite authors and his poem Alone, which is among my top five all time favorites, featured heavily in the mystery. The only detriment was that sometimes this book did get bogged down somewhat in all the Poe history and stuff--if it wasn't something you were interested in, it could have really been a slog, I think. Also, the bad guy was ridiculously easy to spot, and towards the end I wanted to smack Tess because she was being so stupid about not figuring it out. But this happens to me fairly often and it didn't really detract too much from the story. Looking forward to the next! A-

4. A SMALL SACRIFICE by Ellen Hart. #5 Jane Lawless mystery, featuring the lesbian restaurateur from Minneapolis. In this book, Jane's friend Cordelia figures more heavily as it involves a group of theatre friends Cordelia has known since college days. The first part of the book takes place in 1972 to provide the backstory, and then moves to 1994 (when the book was written) at a reunion of the group. Diana, the member who made it the biggest, has bought an old church in a small town in Wisconsin and rehabilitated it into a theatre. The problem is, Diana needs a bit of rehab herself--her lifelong love of alcohol has fried her liver and her physician has given her only a year to live if she doesn't reform. Orson, another of the group, contacts all the former members and proposes that they do an "intervention" with the help of a trained psychiatrist and get her into a rehab program. Cordelia agrees somewhat reluctantly to participate, putting her own rehearsal schedule in her assistant's hands for a few days to attend the grand opening of the theatre, after which the intervention is to occur. When another of the group, Theo, ends up dead before that can happen, Cordelia calls Jane (who knows most of the group members, if only slightly) and given her past sleuthing history, asks her to come up and poke her nose in--it's being called a heart attack, but seems very suspicious. I was a little puzzled by the relationship between these group members--they are touted as the best of friends, but almost all of the relationships within them as well as the group dynamic itself was very negative and stormy with a lot more prickliness and aggravation than friendship displayed. I can't imagine wanting to willingly be part of such a group. Of course a group that made nice and was happy and without conflict wouldn't have made much of a story and there wouldn't be a reason for murder I guess, but all that tension got hard to read about after awhile. The mystery itself couldn't really be figured out until later in the book when the clues started dropping, although I did make some fairly reasonable guesses early on. I like these characters, but this wasn't my favorite in the series--hope that Jane is back at the forefront in the next book. B-

5. THE OUTCAST DOVE by Sharan Newman. #9 Catherine LeVendeur mystery set in medieval France. Actually in this book, Catherine doesn't figure much at all except for the fact that she is related to some of the players--Solomon, her cousin, is the main character in this one. He is traveling around as usual as a merchant, but it's more precarious than usual. Solomon is a Jew, and things are getting more tough and more restrictive for the Jews. Catherine, a Christian, keeps secret the fact that Solomon is her cousin--officially he is her husband Edgar's business partner and nothing more. She isn't ashamed of him but keeps their association minimal for the sake of their family, as there is real danger in even being associated with Jews. Catherine's father used to run the business but decided to renounce the Christianity he had been raised in and go back to his Jewish roots, and is now studying as a scholar. On this trip, Solomon not only encounters his uncle Hubert (Catherine's father) but also his real father, James--a Christian convert who is rabidly attempting to convert other Jews, or to condemn them, and Jehan, a knight who was formerly acquainted with the LeVendeurs in Paris and now hires out as a mercenary/guard. When a young monk is brutally beaten and a teenage Jewish girl disappears, the authorities suspect and question several members of the Jewish community, and Catherine's family's lives are in mortal danger. She knows little of this, as she is back in Paris, heavy with child, with Edgar at her side instead of accompanying Solomon on this trip. It's funny, in the foreward the author mentions Catherine's absence and says she knows those who love the series will miss her--I actually didn't! I like Solomon much better. I love this series in general, but Catherine wears on my nerves after awhile, so it was actually refreshing not to have her in the book. There's only one more in this series, and I plan to finish it off before the end of the year. B+

6. SHOOT TO THRILL by P.J. Tracy. (AUDIO) #5 "Monkeewrench" mystery set in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, and featuring MPD homicide detectives Rolseth and Magozzi and the Monkeewrench computer team. Monkeewrench--a very computer saavy bunch who operate somewhat outside the law for the greater good--has been asked by the FBI to assist in tracking down a killer or killers who are posting video of their kills on the web. Their own crack squad can't find anything, so they aren't above seeking outside help when needed.So far, five victims in five cities killed in five different ways make them believe the murders are being committed by different people and are only related by the complex web of secret servers and routing methods that hide their real identity. But when Rolseth and Magozzi get called out to a body found in the Mississippi River (which first appears to be a drunken drag queen who fell in the river and drowned) that ends up as the sixth case, they begin working with Monkeewrench (Grace, Harley, Annie and RoadRunner) and FBI agent John Smith, who has been assigned to the case from Washington. Is there a connection between the murders? Of course there is. I have to admit that I was disappointed in this latest book in one of my favorite mystery series. It started out strong but kind of fizzled out after awhile when the bad guy became rather obvious (at least to me) and there was a lot of ranting from various people (but especially Rolseth) about the evils of the Internet. I also have to admit I wasn't crazy about the narrator for this book. His female voices sounded very fake, there wasn't much differentiation between some of the male voices, and none of the characters sounded even remotely like they were from Minnesota. I have enjoyed the previous books in the series quite a lot, but perhaps in part because I'd been waiting so long for this installment in the series, I felt let down by the cobbled-together plot and the mediocre narration. It was good to visit with old friends, though. B-

7. KUSHIEL'S AVATAR by Jacqueline Carey. Third in the fantasy trilogy featuring Phédre nó Delauney, set in a world much like Renaissance Europe. Phédre is an anguissette, a bearer of pain, marked by two demi-gods, the cruel Kushiel and the loving Naamah. Queen of the Courtesans, she now travels through the equivalent of Europe and the Middle East with her consort Jocelin (a former Casseline monk) and a small and varying band of trusted guides on a two-fold mission. The first is to learn the true Name of God so that it can be spoken on Three Sisters Island to break the curse her childhood friend Hyacinthe bears, leaving him trapped on the Island as Master of the Straits. The second is quite a surprise--she is summoned by Melisande Shahrizai, her arch-enemy (and also her most compelling patron) who betrayed not only Phédre herself but all of Terre d'Ange, seeing many good friends killed. Melisande's son Imriel, having been kept hidden in secret has disappeared and she wants Phédre to find him. This journey leads them into mortal danger and to the dark, hopeless, evil place where she and Jocelin must free Imriel, perhaps at the cost of their own lives. This is a wonderful conclusion to the entire series, in a richly woven world with many outstanding characters. Although this is a door-stopper of a book, it reads much more quickly than you'd think due to the excellent writing style and storytelling ability of the author. I let myself get totally sucked into the realm and was not disappointed with the ending--although the series does continue in the same world with more trilogies, the next one featuring Imriel. I can't say too much without giving away a lot of spoilers, but suffice it to say, this book (and series) is highly recommended, although you really must start at the beginning with Kushiel's Dart. A+

8. AFTERMATH by Peter Robinson. (AUDIO) #12 Chief Inspector Alan Banks series set in Yorkshire, UK. Banks has moved up the ranks temporarily in this book, filling in for his boss who is out on a medical leave, and he's finding he doesn't like those shoes much, sleeping poorly and worrying incessantly. Working on the Chameleon Killer case involving the disappearance and apparent abduction of several blonde teenage girls, Alan has the killer land in his lap when a 999 call from a neighbor reporting a domestic incident leads a patrol car to the home of Terrance and Lucy Payne. PC Janet Taylor nearly beats Terrance to death when he attacks her partner with a machete. Lucy Payne, bruised and dazed is carted off to hospital, but it's what's in the basement that gets Alan involved--the dead body of the most recently-abducted girl, staked out on a mattress, with several others found buried in a side room. But as the case progresses, Banks finds he's not satisfied with things, and wonders if Lucy Payne was complicit in the crimes, or if she was really as ignorant of her husband's activities downstairs as she claims to be. Payne is in a coma and unable to talk, and Lucy has latched onto her doctor's mention of "retrograde amnesia" and "post traumatic stress" and is being less than cooperative, egged on by her neighbor Maggie, who is also an abused wife who escaped from her husband back in Canada. And if Payne is the Chameleon Killer, there's a body missing. Banks' personal life also takes several interesting twists, which I won't comment much on so as not to give away spoilers. I've already read the next book in this series--it was the first Banks book I read, and after doing so decided to go back to the beginning and do it properly--which was also very excellent. I like the reader for this series although his voices of the different characters aren't always really distinct, but certainly pleasant enough and sets a good tone for the book. Enjoyable, although perhaps a bit long-winded with some needless repetition. B+

9. TEN SECOND STAIRCASE by Christopher Fowler. In this fourth installment involving London's Peculiar Crimes Unit, especially the unit's two elderly icons, Arthur Bryant and John May, the team is fighting for their literal lives as higher-ups plot to close the unit down. Unconventional methods and scads of broken rules and laws are frequently employed by Bryant and May, although their younger co-workers tend to do things a little more conventionally. A controversial artist is murdered right in her own display--fetuses floating in a tank of chemicals--and was reported by one of the children visiting the museum to have been thrown into the tank by a man on horseback wearing a historical costume. Obviously a job for the PCU, especially when The Highwayman (as he comes to be called) kills several more times and leaves them obscure clues until the bunch of them working together manage to piece them together and solve the crimes, as well as an old cold case from earlier in their career that's plagued them for many years. I love this group of eccentric detectives! They all work a little differently, Bryant relying frequently on intuitive reasoning and May taking the more logical, deductive approach. The other members of the group, although featured in less detail, support them well. The mysteries are interesting and bizarre, and there are often ties to historical elements that lead you to learning a lot of cool things without realizing you're doing so. A wild, rollicking, unorthodox trek across London and across time with plenty of laughs and some very poignant moments as well--very enjoyable as always. A.

10. SPEAK DAGGERS TO HER by Rosemary Edghill. #1 in the Bast mystery series, featuring Karen Hightower, a Wiccan living in New York whose magical name is Bast. When Miriam, a friend from the Pagan Community is found by her lover dead at home with no apparent injuries, the lover panics because of some run-ins with the law and calls Bast. A quick perusal of Miriam and her home reveals that she had gotten involved with some questionable practitioners--she's wearing a chicken claw necklace and Bast finds a strange, small book that looks similar to a Catholic missal, but it's written with blood. Things get even stranger when Bast checks her answering machine messages later in the day and finds one from Miriam asking for her help. If not for that, Bast might've been willing to let it slide. The police aren't interested in Miriam's death, her sister in the midwest is estranged from her, and how would you convict someone of causing death magically anyway? For that's what Bast believes has happens and sets out to prove it for her own (and Miriam's) peace. Her searches eventually lead her to Ruslan, who heads a group practicing a form of Russian shamanism that involve drugs, submission and black magic. The few people she tells within her own coven and circle of friends at first don't believe her and then are unwilling to help bring justice for Miriam's death. Bast examines her own beliefs and practices as she decides how she will proceed. I really enjoyed this book, first of all because it's realistic (although, written in the mid-90's, a bit dated) and doesn't treat the idea of Witches and Pagans as a "para"normal thing, but as a real system of beliefs and practices--which it is. I like Bast, I liked her grasp on the whole Pagan Community and I loved the sense of place the author imparted--this is New York, yes, but New York seen from a Pagan point of view. Unfortunately there are only three in this series...fortunately, I have the other two and am looking forward to them! A.

11. THE WINGS OF THE SPHINX by Andrea Camilleri #11 Salvo Montalbano mystery series set in and around Montelusa, Sicily, Italy. A young woman's body is found in a dump, shot through the head with a weapon that caused enough damage to make her face unidentifiable. But she does have a small tattoo of a moth on her left shoulderblade that should make identification a little easier. When Montalbano urges his friend at the TV news station to broadcast the picture though, several calls come in that would seem to indicate that there is a whole fleet of young Russian women out there with this same tattoo. Montalbano, naturally, smells a rat and begins looking to determine what connects these women and hopefully to find which of them is dead by process of elimination. Meanwhile, the Commissioner is breathing down his neck about a high-profile kidnapping case in which there has been no ransom demand from the kidnappers and no contact. Montalbano also is (as often is the case) contemplating his relationship with Livia, the woman he's been with off and on for years. They have a long-distance relationship which is probably a good thing or it would have been permanently off long ago! He also is enjoying his usual wonderful drool-worthy fresh Italian delights from the local trattorias and his housekeeper Adelia. Great visit to Sicily as always, now caught up (again) and waiting for the next to be released. I know that this author is quite elderly, but I sure hope he keeps writing these for a good long time! A.

12.THE RED PYRAMID by Rick Riordan (AUDIO) This review applies to the audio CD version. This is the first in a new young adult fantasy series called The Kane Chronicles. Sadie and Carter Kane, brother and sister who have lived apart since early childhood when their mother died, are reunited in London. Twelve-year-old Sadie lives there with her maternal grandparents, and fourteen-year-old Carter lives and travels with his father, Julius Kane, a noted Egyptologist. They generally get to visit Sadie only twice a year, and on Christmas Eve, Carter and his father arrive in London to visit, only to be waylaid by several people wanting Mr. Kane's attention rather insistently. Before they know it, he is attempting to summon a god in the Egyptian display at the British Museum, and he vanishes in a flash of light. Then all heck breaks loose as Egyptian gods and goddesses begin coming to life and fighting their ancient wars and battles all over again. Carter and Sadie find out that one of the men who met with their father is their uncle, and that they are of a royal bloodline, descended from the Pharaohs of Egypt. They also discover why they were separated when their mother died--their magical powers 'do' things when combined together that aren't always pleasant. As they travel (not always in this world) across country, they learn more about their parents, their magical heritage, and about their mother's death, and must step up to the plate to help save the world. Okay. I loved the Percy Jackson series. This one, I'm not so sure about. There were two readers, one male and one female, and neither one of them were what I would call spectacular. Sadie, who lived in London most of her life, has a British accent. Carter has an American accent. Both of them sound fakey and contrived at times, and the reading was done as if done by someone on speed...much of the reading was virtually 'yelled' by the reader, especially the female one. It was a fast-paced and action-packed book, but the frenzied pace of the reading meant I had to listen in small chunks and it very nearly gave me a headache. I'm not sure how much my lesser opinion of the book was due to the reader vs. the book itself. The story was interesting, but honestly I was not as enthralled as I was with the Percy Jackson books. These two characters just don't strike a chord with me as much, I guess. It was good, but I think if I continue on, I will read in print rather than listening. C+

13. THE POEMS OF EDGAR ALLAN POE by Edgar Allan Poe This was a re-read for me of an illustrated version of the author's poetry works, which contain two of my favorite all-time poems, The Raven and especially Alone. How do you critique poetry? I dunno. It's not my favored form of communication, but when I like it, I really like it. And I do I like Poe's stuff, although I'm not always in the mood for it, especially the overly dramatic, romanticized parts. Still, I recommend reading at least a few of his poems if you've never done so. B+

14.U IS FOR UNDERTOW by Sue Grafton. #21 in the Kinsey Millhone "alphabet" mysteries. Kinsey is approached by a young man who thinks he may have seen something related to a twenty-year-old kidnapping case. He went to the police and Kinsey's detective buddy referred him to her. Michael Sutton was only six when he saw two guys who he thought were dressed as pirates burying something in the backyard of the neighbor to a friend his mother had sent him to visit. He's sure this was around the same time a six year old girl was kidnapped, and reading about it in the local paper triggered the memory. Kinsey investigates, and the case intrigues her--much of what Sutton reports checks out and is plausible, until they find the spot and a dead dog's body is discovered there, not a little girl's. Case closed. Or is it? Things continue to niggle in Kinsey's mind and she keeps checking things out, only to discover that Sutton may not be a reliable witness at all, given his history. She feels taken in but still can't help believe the core of his story and won't put it totally aside just yet. Kinsey also has to deal with some personal issues relating to her family--the family she didn't even know she had until a few years previously, most notably her grandmother whom she'd always believed was indifferent to her and now finds out this may not be the case. This is one of the few 'bestseller' type series I'm into, and that I've stayed caught up with. Some are better than others, but Kinsey has remained one of my favorite fictional characters of all time over the years, stuck as she is in the 1980's before things were made easy for private eyes by computers, electronic records and instant communication. Kinsey has to do things the hard way. I liked this entry in the series a lot, with an intriguing story with a couple of interesting twists, although the story was fairly plainly spelled out as it was told from the point of view of several of the players in the drama. Enjoyable! A.

Current Reads: PRETTY IN INK by Karen E. Olson, BONE RATTLER by Eliot Pattison and listening to HERESY by SJ Parris.