Wednesday, January 5, 2011


It's a brand new year! My New Year's Resolution this year is not to purchase (with money) ANY books this year! PBS trading is okay and library borrowing will be a must, but no money-for-books exchanges. It's not going to be easy, but I know I can do it. :)

1. A TRACE OF SMOKE by Rebecca Cantrell. #1 Hannah Vogel mystery set in 1931 Germany. Hannah, a thirty-something independent woman who has resigned herself to life alone after her fiance died in the Great War, is now working as a newspaper reporter (but writing under a man's name.) She is at the police station to get some information for a story from her friend Fritz, but is instead horrified to see a photograph of her younger brother Ernst on the "Hall of the Unnamed Dead," a series of images put up on the wall so that citizens can help the police identify unnamed corpses that are found. Ernst led a reckless life as a cross-dressing homosexual, singing burlesque in one of Berlin's 'queer clubs' in the days before the Nazis took complete power and shut such things down. Hannah, who cared for the decade-younger Ernst after her parents had both died, is devastated and sets out to find out who killed him and why. Using her guise as a reporter, she numbly goes through several days asking questions of his known friends, co-workers at his club, even following some of them into rather seedy places and even uses her police friend, never letting on to anyone that Ernst is dead. While she had reconciled herself to Ernst's lifestyle and loved him fiercely, what she discovers shocks her to the core, as it involves some very senior level people in the up-and-coming Nazi party. What an excellent way to start the new year! This is definitely not my favorite time in history, but the author does a great job of putting you in the time and place and describing life from the point of view of an average non-Nazi citizen as they watch the Party slowly take over the country. The story and the mystery were also intriguing, and I found myself really liking Hannah a lot. She seems to be, to me, the 'opposite woman' to Maisie Dobbs, whose story takes place in about the same time over in England. Interesting looking at things from the German viewpoint. Very difficult to put down and definitely looking forward to the next one! A+

2. THE LAST PLACE by Laura Lippman. (AUDIO) #7 Tess Monaghan mystery set in Baltimore. Whitney, Tess's good friend, sends some work her way from a consortium of non-profits that she is on the board of. They're researching police techniques in the rural areas around the city in hopes of finding some fuel for their fire: more funding for domestic violence prevention. If they can prove that the rural police messed up and need more education, they hope to lobby the legislature for the funding. They hand Tess five unrelated, unsolved homicides from the outlying areas and ask her to see how they were investigated. What ends up happening is that the cases aren't quite as unrelated as they thought. Tess hooks up with a former cop out on disability who had obsessed over one of the cases, and they are allowed to assist the state police peripherally when they bring the evidence of the serial killer to them. I have to admit that the mystery itself was rather easy to figure out--the clues were just dangled in front of you and I kept wanting to smack Tess because she didn't see certain things. Then again, she was a bit distracted--having had to go into court-ordered anger-management therapy after she (and Whitney, although Tess never implicated her friend) tracked down a guy who seduced Whitney's teenage niece in an internet chat room. (Apparently the use of Nair on the entire body warrants assault. LOL) Still a very enjoyable visit with Tess and Crow, the dogs and her friends, even though I was at least two steps ahead of them all the way. And I think I'm finally getting used to the narrator's (Barbara Rosenblatt) voice, which I found annoying as hell at first. A

3. FART PROUDLY: WRITINGS OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN YOU NEVER READ IN SCHOOL by Carl Japiske. A collection of stories, newspaper articles and letters written by the esteemed Mr. Franklin, which, as the subtitle indicates, are not likely to be included in school curriculums. The book opens with the quote, "He who lives on hope dies farting" which was published in Poor Richard's almanac in 1736. The other pieces run in a similar vein, with Franklin leaving his guise as diplomat, statesman, inventor and wise, respected philosopher behind--he gets downright bawdy at times, other times inciting rebellion and scandal. Which is probably why I enjoyed it so much--it made an excellent 'bathroom book' for the past few weeks. LOL A.

4. LORDS AND LADIES by Terry Pratchett. #14 in publication order in the humorous fantasy Discworld series. We're once again back in Lancre with Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and...well, Magrat Garlick used to be the third member of their witches' coven until King Verence proposed. Now she's Queen-in-waiting, planning her wedding and bored silly, so not able to help much when Granny and Nanny make their plans to take on the Lords and Ladies--the elves--who are trying to get through to this dimension through a stone circle in the Ramtops. They know how truly nasty elves are--nothing like the sweet, beautiful creatures they project themselves to be. As the Bursar, Archchancellor and Librarian of Unseen University make their way to Lancre for the wedding (picking up the dwarf Casanunda--an old friend of Nanny Ogg's--on the way) and the rest of the town prepare, a series of events unfolds--in at least one dimension--that makes the whole town want to crawl under their beds. Very enjoyable--I had forgotten how much I love this book (read it years ago) and had totally forgotten Casanunda--he's now emerged again as one of my favorite Discworld characters. A+

5. THE TRACK OF SAND by Andrea Camilleri. #12 Inspector Montalbano mystery set in Sicily. What are the odds that you would look out your window one morning and see a dead horse lying on the beach? This is how Salvo Montalbano's day begins, and things continue to stay weird for several days. By the time he follows the horse's tracks and locates where he was killed--a victim of a brutal beating--the corpse has disappeared. When a beautiful woman comes into the police station to report her horse missing, things get even weirder, and as usual the case intersects with another and gets all muddled up before the lightbulb goes off over Montalbano's head. Meanwhile, he deals with people breaking into his home, women trouble, consumes much yummy food, has his share of grumpy and melancholy thoughts, buffaloes his superiors and baffles his staff, but eventually gets to where he's going in the end, solving both cases--once he starts following the right track. Enjoyable visit to Montelusa and surrounding area with my favorite Italian curmudgeon, as usual and expected. Keep them coming, Mr. Camilleri! A.

6. SARAH'S KEY by Tatiana de Rosnay. (AUDIO) This book is part historical fiction, set in 1942 Paris, and part modern. The first part tells the story of Sarah Starcyzinski, a young French Jewish girl born of Polish parents. The events take place during July of that year, when the "Vel Dhiv" roundup took place--with thousands of Jewish families arrested (by French police, not the Gestapo) and initially held in a cycling velodrome, then moved first to interment camps within France and eventually on to Auschwitz. Sarah has her own particular horror to live through that involves her young brother Michel, who gets left behind when the family is arrested. Meanwhile, in modern-day Paris, Julia Jarmond, a middle-aged American now living in Paris (and married to a Frenchman) is set to move into the apartment where Sarah's family lived in 1942. Julia discovers this connection when she begins researching the "Vel Dhiv" roundup for a newspaper article she's writing and then, when she learns that her hsuband's family took the apartment when a Jewish family was arrested, becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to that family, which eventually leads her to Sarah's trail. The two stories intersect, of course. This book sounded a lot better than it was. I didn't like the main character in the modern part very much, and there was a point in the last third of the book where Sarah's voice goes away and her story is left dangling--and that's when I really lost interest, not really wanting to put up with the whiny Julia's ramblings. I enjoyed the story overall, and learning about an event in history that I really had no knowledge of, but it could have done with a lot less of the minutiae of Julia's life. C+

7. THE CORPSE IN THE KORYO by James Church. #1 Inspector O mystery, set in modern day North Korea, mostly in the capital Pyongyang, but O also travels out to several outlying areas. The story begins with him on a stakeout to take a picture of a car going by on a road in a rural area outside the city. Those are his orders, but of course the camera fails due to dead batteries and the story moves along to a tale of intrigue and espionage between one Ministry and another, sort of a Spy vs. Spy kind of thing with a friend of O's boss named Kang directing much of the action as he tries to evade the Military Security branch run by Colonel Kim. Many deaths occurred along the way, and O is never quite sure who to trust, so mostly he doesn't trust anyone. It was confusing at first, since I had virtually no knowledge of how things are in North Korea, or what life is like. But I quickly came to like Inspector O, and once I stopped trying to figure everything out and sat back to enjoy the story, it was fine, the details fell into place and I really enjoyed getting to know the country and the main character. The writing style is hard to describe--somewhat of a literary, lyrical side to it, and a definite dry sense of humor there in the background too. I have to read the next book just to find out if O ever gets his cup of tea! A.

8.FINAL NOTICE by Jo Dereske. #6 Miss Zukas mystery set in fictional Bellehaven, WA. Helma has her elderly, somewhat eccentric Aunt Emily come to stay with her after she has a 'brain incident' and isn't able to stay alone just yet. Shortly after her arrival, a man is killed outside Helma's apartment, and Aunt Em is shocked to recognize him as the man who tried to steal her purse in the airport--she had poked him good with her hatpin, and he fled, but she's sure it's the same man. Further investigation and Helma's looking into her aunt's checkered past leads her to believe that her aunt may well be in danger because of things that happened years ago. Enlisting the help of her 'friend,' police chief Wayne Gallant, Helma narrows down the search--although she's uneasy asking for Chief Gallant's help, as rumor has it that he is seeing his ex-wife again. I really like Helma and do enjoy this series very much, and got a kick out of Aunt Em, who is about as polar opposite of Helma as you can get. And yet they 'work well' together. Interesting story, although the mystery wasn't too mysterious, and looking forward to the next one. A.

9. THE LIONS OF THE NORTH by Edward Marston. #4 in the Domesday historical mystery series, this time the Royal Commissioners are off to York, once again settling land disputes at the behest of the King. Ralph Delchard, Gervase Bret, Canon Hubert and Brother Simon the scribe are joined by a northern noble, Tanchelm of Ghent, who is joining their group at King William's order. There are many disputes to investigate, and it's complicated by the rovings of outlaw bands, including the notorious Olaf Evil Child, who actually has the temerity to steal the group's sumpter horses at an overnight stop along the way. Insulted to the core, Ralph Delchard makes his displeasure known to his old friend, Aubrey Maminot, with whom the party will be lodging at York Castle. Aubrey allows that Olaf is already a thorn in his side, and if caught, he'll be fed to his pets--two ferocious African lions that prowl the ditches around the castle at night, and whom their trainer Ludovico and Aubrey are the only two allowed to handle. Another wonderful story full of history and a sense of time and place that is unrivaled by other writers of historical fiction and mystery. The characters are also wonderful and varied and after only four books have almost become old friends. This has fast become one of my favorite historical series--it's too bad the books are out of print and are so difficult to come by. But I eagerly look forward to the next. A+

10. BIGGIE AND THE POISONED POLITICIAN by Nancy Bell. (AUDIO) #1 in the Biggie Weatherford cozy mystery series set in fictional small-town Texas. The story is told through the eyes of Biggie's 12-year-old grandson J.R., and is a light, humorous mystery mostly focusing on small-town Texas life. Biggie is a wealthy widow and one of the movers and shakers in tiny Job's Crossing, and she pretty much does as she pleases and usually gets her way. So when a new landfill is built next to her family's cemetery, she doesn't have a hissyfit--she gets moving, marshalling her supporters to get rid of it. When the mayor--an overweight, blustery man with a heart conditions--keels over in his whipped cream at a table in the local diner, with Biggie and J.R. looking on, it's first thought he just had the inevitable heart attack. But Biggie thinks he was poisoned and sets out to prove it, although she's not sure why just yet. It must have something to do with her lodger's car blowing up though, don'tchathinkhoney? Two such bizarre events would just have to be linked, since nothing much exciting happens in Job's Crossing. I downloaded this from the library because I needed something quick and light (and of course, the first in a series) and distracting, and it was a rather fun listen. However, not sure I will continue on--there is way too much sticky-sweet southern humor for my usual taste, and if I do listen further (I believe the library has most of the series available as audio download) it will be with plenty of space between the books. B.

11. THE FABULOUS RIVERBOAT by Philip Jose Farmer. #2 in the Riverworld Saga. This book, the second in a series that features a sort of repository for the dead--basically, everyone ever born on earth is resurrected in the Riverworld--focuses on Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. His big dream on Earth was to build and captain a Riverboat, and now that he's basically got all eternity, he's determined to do it. This life-after-death place isn't exactly what you'd call heaven, though--the same cliques, clans and territorial battles still break out, and as some resources are in short supply, Sam knows he will have to do battle or barter to get the materials he needs. As with the previous book, a host of different characters from history--ancient and recent--show up, often in unlikely roles. Quite entertaining and an interesting concept of what 'life after death' could be like. B+

12. THE TAKEN by Inger Ash Wolfe #2 Hazel Micallef mystery set in rural Ontario in fictional Port Dundas, although Hazel and her second, James Wingate, do spend time ruffling feathers in Toronto on his old stomping grounds when a case takes them there. A supposed body dredged up from the bottom of a local lake ends up being nothing but a mannequin--but one that someone wants the police to find--it's been weighted to stay in place and an IP address on the back of the mannequin leads them to a website showing a live feed with the merest of hints that someone is being held captive. Oddly, the case is unfolding like the serial story appearing in the local newspaper, and Micallef must butt heads with the press as she attempts to find the writer of the story. Hazel, recovering from major back surgery and dependent on the care of her ex-husband and his new wife as well as powerful painkillers, shouldn't even be back to work yet, but something about this case has yanked her chain and she is determined to find out who is manipulating the police--and her in particular--for their nefarious purposes. A very strange story, and a very interesting one, although I have to admit at first I was really tired of Hazel's pity party. It did get better and by the time I hit the halfway point had a heck of a time putting it down. I really do like Hazel--she's very human, very flawed and vulnerable for all her blustering. Eagerly awaiting the next. A.

13. IGNORANCE IS BLITZ by Anders Henrikssen. A collection of bloopers from college term papers, specifically dealing with history, from ancient times to near-modern history. Spelling errors, grammatical errors, misuse of words, punctuation and especially concepts--all things that drive me right up a tree. So a whole book of them? Made me laugh my butt off. I learned rather quickly that I could not read it while eating lunch. LOL I like the "Anguished English' books as those are examples taken from high school and the world at large. The people writing these papers actually made it into college. Though heaven only knows how! A couple of my favorites: "Judyism was the first monolithic religion. It had one big god named Yahoo." "The wholey Roman Empire amazed many when it was found in Germany." "The invention of the sex tent helped to determine place and orientation at sea." It's best read in small bits, otherwise it can tend to get overwhelming. Plus, you'll strain something laughing too much for too long if you read it all at once. :o) A.

14. AN UNACCEPTABLE DEATH by Barbara Seranella. #8 and final Munch Mancini mystery. Munch, now clean and sober for nine years and living a stable life with her adopted daughter Asia, is enjoying planning her wedding to police detective Rico Chacon, when he is shot to death by other cops in a drug bust gone wrong. Among allegations that Rico was a dirty cop, Munch stuffs her grief and despair to the back of her soul while she lets her practical side take over and sets out to prove that he wasn't. She believes Rico was killed because of her--she had just learned that there is a bounty on her head, put there by the former head of an outlaw biker gang that she all but dismantled when she went straight. Now the gang is re-forming and their first order of business is to take Munch down, and she wonders if he somehow got in the middle of that. She makes deals as a confidential informant with a couple of groups of cops and then essentially does what she needs to do anyway to figure out why Rico was killed. An excellent ending to this series, very sad and poignant, yet hopeful too. I am going to miss Munch a lot. A.

15. PLAYING WITH BONES by Kate Ellis. #2 DI Joe Plantagenet mystery set in fictional Eborby, UK--modeled after the city of York. A young girl is found dead in a dark close, strangled and then with a strange mutilation--her big toe of her left foot is severed, and an old porcelain doll is laid next to her with its toe also removed. When one of the constables brings to Joe and his boss DCI Emily Thwaite's attention a book he's reading about historical murders that contains an excerpt about the Doll Strangler of Singmass Close, they realize the strong similarity to the strangulation of four women back in the 1950's. The toe mutilation was never reported anywhere, so whoever is doing this now must have some connection to the first killer. Another case involving a missing girl intersects with the murder case. I enjoyed this second entry in this series although there seemed to be way too many red herrings and a lot of huge coincidences happening in order for things to fall into place as they do. Still, I am looking forward to the next in series and also to trying the author's other long-standing mystery series. A-

16. CASTLE IN THE AIR by Diana Wynne Jones. (AUDIO) Second in the "Castle" YA fantasy series (the first was Howl's Moving Castle) although we don't actually run into characters from the first book until about the last third of the story. Not really a series, they're just sort of loosely connected. Most of it is about Abdullah, a young carpet-seller in the desert country called Zanzib who daydreams about a life much unlike his own--with himself a prince stolen by evil men and who ends up married to a beautiful princess, and not a seller of carpets besieged by his late father's first wife's nosy family. Meanwhile, Abdullah is sold a magic carpet by a mysterious stranger, and he finds that when he sleeps on it, many of his daydreams seem to come true as he travels to far-off places--and he ends up in Ingary (the country in the first book) with a magic genie in a bottle and a disenfranchised Strangian soldier and a couple of cats, trying to chase down the Princess Flower-in-the-Night, who was stolen by an evil djinn. Full of good humor, a good story and some great characters, and very well-read also by Jenny Sterlin. Going to look for the next one in this sort-of series. B+

17. BREATHING WATER by Timothy Hallinan. #3 Poke Rafferty mystery set in Bangkok, Thailand. Poke gets into big trouble when he wins a poker game and the 'prize' is writing the autobiography of the loser--a rich, important man in Thailand, somewhat of a folk hero from the poor northwest of the country who rudely thumbs his nose at the rich, 'noble' class who have ruled the country for centuries. However, powerful people don't want the book written--and others want it written, but only the version they want to be told. Poke and his family are threatened, followed, menaced, attacked--and they don't even know by whom. Probably several parties, all with very powerful friends. Poke tries to figure out how to maintain his status quo without tipping off any of the warring parties what he's doing. Meanwhile, Poke's best friend Arthit, a policeman, is going through hell as he discovers that his beloved wife Noi is probably planning her own suicide as her progressive muscular degenerative disease leaves her with increasing pain that no one can help. And Miaow, Poke's adopted daughter, is having growing pains of her own, trying to figure out where she fits into the world. Another excellent, complex story of Bangkok, from the mean streets to the mansions of the powerful. I absolutely love Poke and his family and friends and was glad to see Boo back in the picture. I've just received the latest in the series, The Queen of Patpong, and it's not very likely that it will gather much dust on my TBR pile! A+

18. A CORPSE AT ST. ANDREW'S CHAPEL by Mel Starr. #2 Hugh de Singleton medieval mystery set in 1360's in the town of Bampton, UK. Still recovering from the plague two decades previously, a spate of lawlessness seems to have taken over the countryside as Hugh, a surgeon, settles into his double role as Bailiff of Bampton Castle for Lord Gilbert Talbot. When Alan the beadle is found dead--first presumed attacked by a wolf, later noted to have been shot with an arrow--Hugh must investigate the death and is attacked several times himself for his trouble. As he follows several twisty, tenuous threads trying to solve several small mysteries that come together in a somewhat pedestrian, obvious conclusion. That isn't to say that I didn't enjoy the book--I did, very much. The sense of time and place provided by the author is outstanding and indeed is the strong point of this series so far. I do like Hugh, but he seems to be just developing as a character. The writing style is at times a bit off-putting and doesn't always flow smoothly, and also with several repetitive phrases that seemed to stand out sometimes. But the entire package was quite enjoyable and I look forward to getting to know Hugh better in the next book. B+

19. A CAST-OFF COVEN by Juliet Blackwell. #2 in the so-called "Witchcraft" series featuring Lily Ivory, a witch and vintage clothing shop owner in San Francisco. Lily is asked by her employee Maya, who is also a student at the San Francisco School of Fine Arts, to come to the school and look around on behalf of the woman who runs the school. She's offered a chest full of vintage clothing they found in an old trunk in a closet, but hopes Lily can use her powers to find out about a visitation by a suspected ghost in the bell tower of the school and perhaps do something about it. The noises and ghostly presence has ramped up recently and become disruptive. While at the school, a man falls--or is pushed--down the bell tower steps on the exact site of a suicide several decades earlier. The natural conclusion drawn by many is that the ghost killed Jerry Becker--a rich big-wig with lots of money invested in the school, as well as a daughter, Andromeda, who attends there. Lily is pretty sure that Becker's killer was human, and since he wasn't well-liked and had lots of money, there are plenty of people with motive. Further investigation leads her to believe there is indeed an evil presence at the school, but not from a ghost--rather, from a demon that someone has summoned. Along the way, Lily has to deal once again with Aidan Rhodes, a powerful witch who makes her uncomfortable on several levels, and Max Carmichael, a journalist whom she went out with once and who definitely interests her (and vice versa) but who is a bit of an enigma and who finds her whole witchiness very discomfiting. She also encounters several other men who briefly caught Lily's attention as the story progressed. I enjoyed the book for the most part, although at times I'm not sure if the author is trying to pass Lily off as a witch...I mean, a real witch, or if she's got her living in some type of a paranormal world. I suppose given that she has a goblin familiar who disguises himself as her pet potbellied pig, I really shouldn't take any of it too seriously, right? This should probably be classified as light urban fantasy rather than mystery. There are things that were semi-accurate, though--and some of it just accurate enough to perhaps confuse people who aren't familiar with *actual* witch/Pagan practice and belief. The one other gripe I have is that the author's propensity to make every man Lily met or came across a potential love interest, however briefly, was really annoying. And of course there are at least a couple of permanent romantic interests to keep Lily pulled in two directions, which is one thing that has put me off many so-called mystery series that started with promise and then devolve into romantic baloney, with the mysteries taking a back seat--no, more like being hogtied in the trunk while the romance and sexual tension steer the series. (The whodunit in this one was sort of a no-brainer.) That said, I like the writing style, I like Lily and her shop and her circle of friends for the most part, and Blackwell really is able to provide a wonderful sense of place, making the city of San Francisco one of the main characters in the book. I also love Oscar to pieces! LOL I'll give the series one more read, and if the next book is obviously continuing down the romance road, as much as I like the other parts of the book, I'll probably stop there. B

CURRENT READS: THE DARK WIND by Tony Hillerman in audio, MAMA RIDES SHOTGUN by Deborah Sharp and Wild Indigo by Sandi Ault in print.