Wednesday, July 7, 2010

JULY 2010

1. PRETTY IN INK by Karen E. Olson. #2 Tattoo Shop mystery, featuring Brett Kavanaugh, who owns the Painted Lady tattoo shop in Las Vegas. Brett is at a drag queen show, an invited guest because she did tattoos for several of the stars, when one of them is attacked deliberately during the show--a champagne cork popped directly at her. When Trevor (aka Britney Brassieres) later ends up dead, the apparent victim of poison, Brett gets involved in a bizarre case involving several other drag queens, her trainee employee Charlotte, and the police detective who is now dating her brother Tim's ex-fiancee. Oh, and there's a handsome emergency room doctor in the mix as well. Soon the FBI is involved, as the poison was nothing less than ricin, a seriously dangerous chemical often used in terrorist attacks. Somehow, Brett's employee Charlotte is mixed up in all of it, though she's not sure just how, and she begins to doubt how well she really knew the girl. I actually liked this better than the first one. I feel like I'm getting to know Brett better, and while there is a little romance thrown in, it didn't feel like the focus of the book, and this was definitely better than your average cozy, although as usual with amateur sleuth mysteries, the main character ends up doing some pretty stupid stuff. The tattoo informaton is interesting too, of course. I give it a solid B+.

2. BONE RATTLER by Eliot Pattison. #1 Duncan McCallum mystery set in Colonial America, New York state of 1750's. Duncan is a Highland Scot, once training as a doctor, now an indentured servant to the Ramsey Company, plucked from prison (where he was put for supposedly aiding the Highland rebellion) to go to the new world. When the new tutor to the Ramsey children is murdered on board the ship heading to America, Duncan is bullied into taking his place. He does so fearfully, having received a mysterious warning from his friend Adam who died a few days previously, and also a posthumous warning from the tutor himself in the form of cryptic messages. Once he gets to the new world, Duncan begins to see just what the Ramsey Company is up to--at odds with the military and the Native American tribes, Lord Ramsey seeks to turn his portion of the world into another kingdom where he has all the control and power, and sets various factions against one another to make it so. This was a wonderful book, although I can say it won't be for everyone. There are a lot of mystical elements to it, especially featuring Native American spirituality as well as the myths and old religion of the Scottish Highlands intermingled. It's a thick, meaty, literary mystery with lots of lush prose and a tangled plot, many interesting characters. While this is neither my favorite time or place historically, aside from a few slow spots where it seemed to take forever for things to move forward, I really enjoyed this mystery and look forward to the next one in the series. A-

3. DEATH OF AN ENGLISHMAN by Magdalen Nabb. #1 Marshal Guarnaccia mystery, featuring this Carabinieri stationed in Florence, Italy. It's Christmas Eve, the Marshal has a terrible case of flu, and he's planning to head south to visit family for the holidays, but a murdered Englishman who had retired to live there in Italy takes precedence. A somewhat pudgy man with an eye condition that makes them water profusely in any sort of sunlight, the Marshal actually sleeps through much of the beginning stages of the investigation, so wracked with fever is he, and his subordinates do much of the evidence gathering. The Englishman was apparently well-connected politically too, as Scotland Yard sends two detectives to observe and assist where needed, although they aren't officially there. Eventually though, the Marshal is well enough to put his two cents in and solves the case. This was a slim little book, quickly read, although not really that engaging. It was interesting to see how things looked from the Carabinieri side of Italian police work vs. the regular police that I've read about in a couple of other mystery series, but I couldn't really get interested much in any of the characters in this book and found the mystery rather blah. It was an okay read, but not good enough for me to want to pursue further entries in the series, at least for now. C+

4.HERESY by SJ Parris (AUDIO) Set in 1580's Oxford, England, this novel is told from the point of view of real historical figure Giordano Bruno, an excommunicated Italian monk who was sought by the Inquisition for heresy. Known as a poet, philosopher, magician and scientist, in this book he is recruited by Queen Elizabeth's spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. Ostensibly in Oxford to participate in a philosophical debate with the Master of one of the colleges, Bruno is also keeping his eyes out for a possible nest of Catholics who are still hoping to unseat Elizabeth from the throne. But a series of puzzling murders featuring members of the college leave Bruno stumped, and he must investigate on the sly so as not to arouse further suspicion against himself, already being a foreigner and known for some of his heretical views. Unsure of whom he can trust (and sometimes choosing unwisely) he ventures from one theory to the next while trying to determine if the murders have anything to do with the Catholics' plot against Elizabeth or are something else altogether, often placing himself in grave danger along the way. This was an excellent book, and I'm hoping that it will become a series. The way it ended certainly left it open for another episode. The reader was excellent, using a wide variety of accents and distinct voices that made it easy to tell who was speaking. The historical atmosphere and sense of place was wonderfully evocative and the mystery was interesting as well--although I had my suspicions about the bad guy, there were plenty of plot twists that kept it interesting. Very well done! A.

5. MISS ZUKAS AND THE STROKE OF DEATH by Jo Dereske. #3 Helma Zukas mystery. Helma. a librarian in fictional small-town Washington State, is called by her friend Ruth who finds a dead body in the alley behind her house. Of course it was someone Ruth had seen in a bar earlier the same day, and was heard threatening him because he was bothering her. Ruth doesn't know who he is, and though she's under suspicion, stolidly maintains her innocence. Helma must once again contact Chief Gallant to see if he will leak any information that will help them figure out who did kill the man--a despicable being, from everything they've been able to learn. Helma must also decide whether to join the library's team in the annual Slope to Surf race--a five-part race involving downhill and cross-country skiing, canoeing, running and kayaking. The person doing the canoe part of the race can't participate and Helma does have experience as a paddler--and a gorgeous canoe handmade by her uncle back in Michigan when she was a teenager. But she's really not keen on competition and fears the changes being part of such a group would make in her usually solitary life, which she finds mostly satisfactory. The mystery wasn't much of a surprise, but the ending was! It will be interesting to see if this particular incident is mentioned again sometime in the future. I like Helma and the cast of interesting secondary characters and I find this quite a satisfying series given that it's mostly what you'd call a cozy--although there is a bit of an edge at times and some hidden, unexpected off-color humor too. Looking forward to the next one! A-

6. A PLACE OF SAFETY by Caroline Graham. #6 in the Chief Inspector Barnaby series, which was adapted for TV as the "Midsomer Murder" series. (I still haven't seen any of them!) Barnaby and Sgt. Troy are off to the village of Ferne Bassett, where a local gardener/handyman's body has been found dead, his dog having been discovered earlier in the day, severely beaten and barely alive. While no one in the village liked Charlie Leathers--including his wife--it's uncertain who would dislike him enough to murder him. As we meet each of the players in the village drama--the tormented children's author and his recently-divorced sister, the local (sort of) vicar who (along with his much younger wife) takes in troubled teens and several others--we find that village life isn't as idyllic as is often portrayed. Each person has secrets, resentments, shattered dreams and broken hearts--but how do they tie into Leathers' murder, and the disappearance of young Carlotta Ryan, one of the troubled teens? Leathers was certainly blackmailing someone, but who? And is it related to his murder, or is there something else happening below the surface? This series has quite a few thins that make it somewhat atypical of your usual police mystery--telling the story from the point of view of many of the various characters, for one thing, and setting the scene very firmly before ever introducing the police for another. It does get a bit long-winded sometimes with the emotional descriptions of each person's despair and problems and petty resentments built up over a lifetime, but I suppose those are somewhat necessary to help understand the motivations of the characters. The mystery wasn't much of one, but I do like Tom Barnaby and his family, and even and his sour-puss Sgt. Troy too. The series tends to be kind of hit or miss (there were a couple of earlier books that I barely made it through) but I did enjoy this one quite a lot. Only one more left in the series, and I will look forward to it--then I can feel free to watch the TV series based on these characters. B+

7. STALKED by Brian Freeman. #3 Jonathan Stride and Serena Dial mystery. Thankfully, the story takes place back in Duluth, Stride's hometown, where he's decided to return after a brief stint in Las Vegas. Serena has accompanied him and they are settling into life again on the shores of Lake Superior. Stride's former detective partner Maggie is accused of murdering her husband, and though he must recuse himself from working the case officially, he is convinced of her innocence despite the damning evidence and looks into things in his spare time, thus ticking off the detective in charge of the case--who also happens to be the person Stride bumped out of the head of detectives job when he moved back to Duluth. Meanwhile, Serena, now working as a private investigator, is hired by the local district attorney to uncover a blackmailer. When the two cases begin intersecting, it leads to clues in several cold cases, and some hot new ones--more disappearances and deaths with tendrils curling into several prominent people's lives. To be honest, this wasn't all that much of a thriller, per se. I thought the main solution was fairly obvious, and also thought there was way too much coincidental linking of the cases and too much bizarre stuff going on to be really believable. There was also a lot of what I'd call gratuitous sex stuff that wasn't really germane to the cases. I'm not a prude of any sort, but sex for the sake of it within a mystery is kind of....well, boring. I rolled my eyes a lot. I also thought that Serena, now that she was a private detective, fell into the amateur sleuth trap of doing Really Stupid Things. Frequently. If it weren't for Freeman's atmospheric portrayal of Minnesota, and Duluth in particular, I'm not sure if I would have finished it or not. I do like Stride and the secondary characters too, and because I already have the next couple of books I'm sure I'll read them. I'm just not as enthusiastic as I once was. C+

9. IN DUBLIN'S FAIR CITY by Rhys Bowen. #6 in the Molly Murphy historical series set in early 1900's New York. This episode takes Molly back across the sea to her homeland, having been hired by a rich theatre producer to see if she can trace his long-lost sister. He hadn't known of her existence until his mother confessed on her deathbed that she had left the baby, who had become ill, in the care of a priest. There's little hope of finding the now-fifty-year-old woman, but the man is paying well, and Molly needs the money. She also needs to have some time away from Captain Daniel Sullivan, so she boards the very ship she came across on two years previously and sails for Ireland. Before the boat even leaves, the famous actress Oona Sheehan whom Molly had met briefly at the party where she met the producer, approaches her and asks Molly to take her place for the duration of the voyage so that she can enjoy some much-needed privacy and rest from the constant adulation of her fans. It looks like easy money to Molly--a hundred dollars!--for living the week of the crossing in luxury. But the murder of Oona's maid Rose only a day out from Ireland leaves Molly reeling, and near the top of the suspect list, since Oona herself apparently left the ship moments before it sailed. Once in Ireland, Molly sets about her task and even manages to enjoy being back in her homeland, until her search for MaryAnn Burke gets her entangled in a complicated political plot which puts her seriously in harm's way from several directions. I liked this book better than the last one--since she was out of New York and away from Capt. Sullivan, there was less of the romance and more of the mystery and the setting of Ireland was a nice change, too. I like this author's writing style and I like Molly, too. A.

10. CHARLIE BONE AND THE RED KNIGHT by Jenny Nimmo. (AUDIO) This seems to be the last in the Charlie Bone "Children of the Red King" young adult fantasy series, and it was definitely a winner with all of the loose ends tied up nicely. Charlie's parents are still off on their second honeymoon, his friend Billy Raven has been captured by the evil enchanter Harken and trapped in Badlock, and Charlie must find a way to rescue him--and then discovers that his parents may be in danger as "Dagbert the Drowner's" father is in town, probably to do harm to the Bones by causing a disturbance in the sea. Charlie and his friends are also looking for a box that holds the Red King's true will, which leaves his true heir (believed to be Billy Raven, NOT Ezekiel Bloor!) as the owner of Bloor's Academy as well as much other property and wealth. Charlie and his friends are fighting the evil heirs of the Red King with all their magic and might on several fronts, and are helped in the background by the Red Knight--a mysteries figure that no one knows the identity of. As all the different threads begin coming together towards an exciting conclusion, Charlie and his friends' lives are hanging in the balance. Very well done, enjoyable end to this series. I'm now going to have to seek out more books by this author, as she's got a couple of other series that were written before this one. Highly recommended, but do read these in order, or they won't make much sense. A+

11. THE MIDSUMMER ROSE by Kate Sedley. #13 Roger the Chapman medieval mystery. Mid-summer is approaching and Roger the Chapman is on the road, peddling his wares across rural England. Just a few miles from home, he's crossing the river with a ferryman and realizes he is near an abandoned home that his first wife had told him about--a strange murder had taken place there fifty years before and was haunted. He decides to take a look in before heading home, and ends up witnessing a stabbing, and is then clonked on the head and thrown in the river--rescued only because his leather jerkin kept him afloat so he didn't drown before the ferryman could pull him out. At first people believe he was hallucinating, his overactive mind making up things related to the old murder. But when a body turns up in the river a week later, Roger is vindicated, although it's awhile before he knows who it was who committed that murder. When another man related to the case turns up dead and a friend of Roger's is implicated, he redoubles his efforts to meddle in the law's affairs and do their job for the lazy Sheriff. And what is Timothy Plummer, spymaster to the royal family, doing in town in disguise? Is there another political plot afoot? I really enjoy this series. Roger is one of my favorite fictional historical characters and his well-fleshed secondary characters are great, too. Very atmospheric writing that puts you in the time and place with the descriptions of sounds, smells and attitudes, too. Excellent visit as usual, although these do become a bit predictable after awhile. B+

12. ALICE I HAVE BEEN by Melanie Benjamin. (AUDIO) Her interest captured by a photograph of young Alice Liddell, the 'real' Alice that Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson) based his Wonderland books on, dressed as a beggar girl and really looking nothing like the blonde and immaculate Alice who tumbled down a rabbit hole, the author sets out to make up a story about what Alice Liddell's life has been like. An 80-year-old Alice looks back and tells of her childhood growing up in Oxford where her father was Dean of Christ Church College, and she and her sisters were brought up in the strict Victorian fashion of the day. It tells how Dodgson told the story of Alice verbally to the Liddell girls, and how she begged him to write it down, and of the impact it had on her life. She bounces around in time from her 80-year-old self, to a giddy young woman in love, to an older married woman watching her sons go off to war, and back time and again to the young Alice, in awe of and often at odds with the rest of the world. I listened eagerly to the first parts of the book, but found that it did bog down somewhat in the middle and had to take a break from it. Samantha Eggar narrates and does a truly wonderful job of capturing the perfect Victorian tone for Alice's narration and does an excellent job with the other voices as well. I'm glad I did go back to listening as the last few discs once again picked up the pace and finished off a truly wonderful story. Highly recommend this, especially if you are a fan of Lewis Carroll's works. A.

13. MANDARIN PLAID by SJ Rozan. #3 Lydia Chin/Bill Smith mystery series set in New York. This series alternates between Lydia and Bill's point of view, and this is a "Lydia" book. Hired to make a ransom drop--$50,000 for the return of some sketches of exclusive clothing design items for her client Genna Jing's upcoming line called Mandarin Plaid--Lydia is shot at just after the drop takes place and the money disappears. A call to Genna shortly afterwards indicates that it was not the sketch thief who got the money, and Lydia feels she betrayed her client by letting the money be lost. Bill had been watching but chased the shooter (to no avail) and even though the client is now skittish and actually tells them to stop investigating when they apparently get too close to some secret she's harboring, Bill and Lydia carry on, having discovered that a possible suspect in the thefts is now dead. As they get further into the tangled, dangerous web of designer fashion, Lydia and Bill must sort out who stands to gain the most if Mandarin Plaid doesn't hit the runways. There were a few surprising plot twists, but the ultimate solution wasn't much of a surprise to me--which was fine, it didn't diminish my enjoyment of the book. On a personal level, Lydia also continues to battle her family's resistance to her profession and her mother's continued attempts to set her up with a "nice Chinese boy" while Lydia struggles with her ever-growing feelings for Bill, whom Lydia's mother refuses to acknowledge and calls "Crooked Face." I enjoy this series a lot, with Lydia caught between the two worlds, never fully at home in either, and yet still being a very strong person doing just what she wishes--except perhaps when it comes to Bill. Looking forward to the next in series. A.

14. THE SINGING SWORD by Jack Whyte. #2 Camulod Chronicles historical Arthurian fantasy. It's 360's A.D. and Publius Varrus, the co-leader of the Colony in the western part of what is now England, faces new challenges as ever-bolder Saxon (and other!) raiders threaten his peaceful home. Together with Caius Britannicus, his brother-in-law, who leads the self-sufficient group with him, he steps up to meet those challenges, which include strengthening their defenses and learning a new way to fight with heavy cavalry. Publius, a blacksmith by trade, begins to attempt to forge a new type of weapon that will serve as sword and spear to soldiers mounted on large warhorses. And always at the back of his mind is the sword he wants to forge, made of the special 'skystone' that fell from the sky in the previous book, the perfect weapon that would be his life's work. Meanwhile, his daughters are growing up and their friend and neighbor to the north, Ullic Pendragon, comes calling asking for an unheard-of allegiance between his Celts and the Roman Britons, forged in a marriage between Veronica, Publius' daughter, and Uric, Ullic's son. Throughout this time, the Colony sets out building a large hill fort to keep their people safe in the face of increasing raids and violence, which is completed and christened Camulod. Spanning several years, this book in the series sets things up for the actual time of Arthur--at the end of this book, Uther Pendragon (Veronica and Uric's son) and Caius Merlyn Brittanicus (son of Ullic's sister Enid and Picus Britannicus, Caius' son) are mere infants, having been born at exactly the same time. Wonderful book, enjoyable story--not all pleasant as there is plenty of violence and death which was appropriate for the times--and with interesting historical detail. I'm looking forward to the next one very much. A.

15. THE WIDOWER'S TWO-STEP by Rick Riordan. (AUDIO) #2 in the Tres Navarre PI series set in Texas. Tres, with his PhD in English, is using his degree in the way many English majors do--by doing something totally unrelated to their studies. He's almost got enough hours logged in with his mentor to apply for an official Private Investigator's license when a person he's staking out is shot right while he's (supposed to be) watching. Julie Kearns was a fiddle player, suspected of stealing the demo tape of an up and coming country singer, Miranda Daniels--and now she's dead. Tres's boss is not happy with him and asks him to think seriously about whether he wants to continue in this line of work. He thinks it's in his blood--his father, Jackson Navarre II, was Sheriff for many years. His mother sets up an (unwanted) interview with a local university where he would be able to teach and use the degree he earned back in California, but he has now been drawn fully into the case of the fiddle player's death, and the intrigue of who really did steal the demo tape. More bodies stack up, Miranda's manager has disappeared off the face of the earth, and Tres isn't such which way to look for suspects. Eventually things get solved--and I admit to being totally surprised by the plot twist at the end. I really like Tres, with his literary references, yet he's very much down to earth and not at all a stuffed shirt. The secondary characters are great too, from his siren mother with her toy boy boyfriend, his wheelchair-bound, pot-smoking brother Garrett, to his friend Ralph, who seems to be somewhat of a gangster with the Mexican mob. The audio version was well-done, narrated by Tom Stechshulte, who did a variety of voices skillfully, such that I was just able to picture the speaker right in my head by listening. Enjoyable second entry and very much looking forward to the next. A.

16. MURDER IN THE RAW by C.S. Challinor. #2 Rex Graves mystery. Rex, a Scottish lawyer, is off to the Caribbean at the behest of the Winslows, owners of the inn where he stayed the Christmas before and solved a murder. It seems one of their guests, a famous French actress, has disappeared into thin air and they'd like Rex to look into things since the gendarmerie on the island don't seem very interested. Rex agrees, and then they mention, "Oh, by the way--this resort is a naturalist resort." (i.e., a nudist colony!) Rex arrives and before long adjusts somewhat to the nudity, and begins questioning the other resort-goers, most of whom are long-time friends of the Winslows who vacation together each year. Sabine Durand left behind a small fragment of blood-soaked fabric hooked on a rock on the beach, the fragment believed to be from a gauzy cover-up she was seen wearing awhile before she disappeared. The gendarmes think a shark got her, but Rex discovers that Sabine wasn't terribly well-liked, and was known to have flings with men--is her much-older husband the culprit as some believe? This was a quick, light read and despite being relatively cozy, I liked it. The writing is sort of stoic and staid, and the characters a bit clich├ęd, the mystery itself terribly easy to figure out and predict the outcome, but with the occasional wry humor tucked in to make things interesting, it's very readable. The series reminds me somewhat of the tone and writing style of the Miss Zukas series, which is another series I was kind of surprised that I liked. At any rate, I'm planning to read on to the next one. Not a spectacular read but still quite good, nice to read as my 'bedtime' book before drifting off to la-la land. B.

17. THE DRAGONS OF ARCHENFIELD by Edward Marston. #3 Domesday medieval mystery series set across England in the 1080's. Ralph Delchard, a knight, and Gervase Bret, a lawyer, travel across England with their retinue resolving land disputes and investigating claims and set tax rates for the Conqueror. In this instance they are going to Archenfield, near the Welsh border, where resentments among the Welsh still run high against the Norman conquerors as well as the Saxons. A disputed portion of land is sought by two sworn enemies, but the third man who has claim to it is suddenly burned to death, trapped in his own home with a red dragon carved in the earth and colored with cow's blood from the man's own cow. The red dragon is the symbol of Wales, so nearly everyone thinks the murder was done by Welsh insurrectionists, but the man got along peaceably with his neighbors and had no personal squabble with the Welsh, and Ralph and his team feel that the killing had a very personal element to it. Did one of the two men coveting his land kill him so brutally or was it another, more personal, matter? Ralph and Gervase are determined to find out, and during their investigation are threatened by both of the powerful landowners and Gervase is captured and tossed in a dungeon--by whom, he doesn't know. I figured out one of the plot twists ahead of time but the main mystery remained a mystery til near the end. I quite enjoy this series, set in one of my favorite historical time periods. I like both Ralph and Gervase, although they are quite different men--and their secondary characters are also now quite familiar. Wonderful period detail, interesting weaving of real historical events with fictionalized details. Excellent as always, looking forward to the next, although they are getting harder to track down--I think the library will need to cough up the next one. A.

18. BONESHAKER by Cherie Priest. This is a historical fantasy/sci-fi book in a sub-genre called Steampunk--which I'd never heard of until a year or so ago. Set in the era where steam power prevailed, and usually featuring lots of cool gadgets and inventions (a la Jules Verne), and alternate history, this is the first entry in this genre I've read, and I have to admit I loved it! Of course, it had the added bonus of also containing zombies. LOL This one is set in Seattle during the Civil War--although in this version, the war carried on into the 1880's. Sixteen years previously, much of the city--then little more than a cow town--was devastated by a machine invented by one Leviticus Blue, the winning entry in a contest to make a device that would cut through hundreds of feet of ice to get at the gold everyone was sure was under Alaska's soil in the Klondike region. Instead, the machine went wild and tore up Seattle's underground, including the vaults of several banks. The money was never found, nor was Blue's body. The Boneshaker unwittingly tapped into a vein of plague-bearing gas which turned those exposed to it into zombies (or 'rotters' as they're called). A huge wall was built to encase the city center where the Boneshaker dug tunnels, and soon those left inside were either zombies or outcasts seeking to avoid them. Except for the mysterious Dr. Minnericht, who was sort of the Godfather down there "inside." Or so Briar Wilkes--once Briar Blue, widow of Levi had heard. Was the incident an accident as Blue proclaimed, or was he deviously trying to get at the bank's money all along? If Briar knows, she's not telling, and sixteen years later, their son Zeke needs to know. He sets off inside the walls to find answers, and Briar heads in after him. Wonderful adventure story full of great gadgets, a wide variety of interesting characters, and penned with an easy-reading style that makes it hard to put down. It looks like there will be more books in this style/series called The Clockwork Century, although it doesn't look like the next one features these same characters. I will definitely be reading it, though, and looking for more Steampunk too. A+

Current reads: VEIL OF LIES by Jeri Westerson, THE FLANDERS PANEL by Arturo Perez-Reverte, and listening to MISSING MARK by Julie Kramer.