Sunday, April 3, 2011

APRIL 2011

Thought I would post an update on how I'm doing in my year-long quest to not acquire books. Well, I have made it through the first quarter without purchasing any books for money...(takes a bow)...I can do this!

I've also joined a challenge over at one of the Paperbackswap forums called "The Biggest Book Loser." Basically, the winner is the person who pares the most books from their physical TBR (To Be Read) pile--that is to say, books that are in your possession that you haven't yet read, those on a library list or wish list not counting. I know I probably won't win the challenge as I am still acquiring books fairly regularly from my PBS wishlist, but as we are moving next year to a smaller apartment and thus will have less room, I am determined to have my physical TBR down to 400 or under by 2/1/2012. (This started on Feb. 1 of this year.)

Progress so far: I have acquired 27 books and removed 80 from the TBR stacks, with a net loss of 53 books. The acquisitions were all from my PBS wishlist except for one freebie ARC from Amazon Vine. The removals were either those I read and posted to PBS or donated or those I culled without reading, deciding I'm no longer interested in reading them now or in the near future. I also pared my PBS wishlist down considerably, eliminating many titles that are readily available at my local (superb!) library wishlist is down to about 160 now, and it hasn't been that low in years. Will do a quarterly update--this wasn't too bad considering I didn't join in til Feb. 1 so only 2 months worth of work. :)

Now, on to my April reading adventures!

1. MURDER AT WRIGLEY FIELD by Troy Soos (AUDIO) #3 Mickey Rawlings historical mystery. It's now 1918 and WWI is in full swing. Mickey and his fellow major league baseball players await word from the top whether they will be allowed to continue the season without fear of being drafted, or whether baseball will be deemed 'non-essential' entertainment. Because of all the other players who've enlisted, Mickey now has a starting role playing second base for the Chicago Cubs. While marching in the 4th of July parade entering the stadium, Mickey's friend and roommate, shortstop Willie Kaiser, is shot dead, and Mickey vows to find out who killed him and why, even if Willie's sister hadn't asked him to. He's also supposed to be looking into the matter of who has been sabotaging things at the ballpark, making things difficult for his boss. Mickey wonders if Willie's death was random or if his German heritage had something to do with his demise--anti-German sentiment runs strong, so much so that things like eating pretzels and owning dachshunds are seen as 'un-patriotic' and one must watch what they say lest someone have them arrested for treason according to the new anti-sedition laws which forbid any sort of criticism of the United States Government. Vigilante groups like the Patriotic Knights of Liberty are running rampant, and when Mickey learns that Willie worked part time in a munitions plant where several of the bosses are members of that group, he gets hired there to snoop around and soon finds himself being targeted for injury or death too. Although this book seemed a bit slower-moving than previous ones, I still enjoyed the reading of it immensely--the reader (Johnny Heller) is perfect for the series and there was a lot of interesting historical information passed along through the course of the story, woven skillfully into the plot itself so that it didn't feel like a lecture at all. Very enjoyable and very much looking forward to the next in series--and sorry to see that the series isn't longer. A.

2. THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD by Agatha Christie. One of the Hercule Poirot mysteries told from the point of view of Dr. Sheppard, the physician in a fictional rural UK village. When the wealthy lord of the manor is found stabbed to death in his study, it's determined that many people had motive to kill him. Dr. Sheppard relates the story from his diary notes, including his surprise when the mysterious neighbor next door turns out to be none other than Hercule Poirot, now mostly retired and living somewhat reclusively. Using Dr. Sheppard as his Hastings, Poirot--who's been asked by the victim's niece to investigate alongside the police--gathers evidence in his usual meticulous fashion and then applies his little grey cells, of course comes up with the solution by the end of the book--an interesting plot twist that (having read the book before) I did anticipate. A charming visit to the English countryside of the 1920's, including a dip below the surface to reveal all the usual baser human emotions of hate, greed, jealousy and fear under the idyllic appearance. A+

3. A HAT FULL OF SKY by Terry Pratchett. (AUDIO) #32 overall Discworld, #2 in the Tiffany Aching mini-series. Something is after Tiffany Aching--a witch, aged 11. She's off to the mountains to be an apprentice witch and helper for Miss Level, who lives in two bodies at once. What is after Tiffany is the Hiver--an existential mindless nightmare parasite that takes over a host and twists its mind and actions, and not for the better. The Nac Mac Feegle note this catastrophe and even though Rob Anybody Mac Feegle is about to become a father, his new bride the Keldar tells him he must save Tiffany, so the troop of six-inch-tall blue men are off to help their 'big wee hag' out of her dilemma. Granny Weatherwax, senior witch from Lancre also makes an appearance and assists Tiffany in getting rid of her pest. Another great entry in this series within a series--great fun, plenty of wisdom, and Pratchett's usual well-drawn characters. A

4. THE WEAVER AND THE FACTORY MAID by Deborah Grabien. #1 Haunted Ballad mystery set in the UK. Is it a mystery? A gothic ghost story? A charming English story? Yes, yes and yes. Ringan Laine is the guitarist and vocalist in a traditional folk band, which doesn't often pay enough of a living wage to subsist on. So he also does home restorations. When the owner of the manor home he's nearly finished restoring explains that he isn't able to pay him in cash due to a problem with the courts tying up his liquid assets, Ringan is livid--until the man offers him the title to a plot of land with a cottage and old tithe barn instead. Worth much more than the few thousand quid he was owing, Ringan accepts, and then finds out that the house and barn are both haunted. When his longtime girlfriend Penny arrives to check out his new home, they both have chilling experiences that unsettle them to the core, each with a different ghost. Eventually, they feel they must figure out the mystery of just who is haunting the property, and why. And they do discover it, but then the question becomes how to banish the spirits so that they can carry on living in the cottage? What an interesting story! Not a lot of 'action' per se, and not even that much of a mystery in that you discover whodunit right along with the protagonists. Very atmospheric, with a sense of place that puts you right in the middle of things without being overtly 'descriptive'--that is to say, it's not a bunch of adjectives strung together, but a true multi-dimensional picture woven together with words. If you don't like a paranormal element to your books, you probably should pass on this. If you've an open mind or like ghost stories, I highly recommend it. The writing is wonderful and I already feel as though Ringan and Penny and their circle are my friends--and I can't wait for another visit! A.

5. TELL ME, PRETTY MAIDEN by Rhys Bowen. #7 Molly Murphy historical mystery set in 1902 in New York. In one of those 'be careful what you wish for' scenarios, Molly--a private detective--finds herself suddenly overrun with cases and struggles to keep up. She decides to ask her beau--Daniel Sullivan, a police captain who is still on suspension--to help her out. This doesn't sit well with Daniel, somewhat of a traditionalist, but if he's actually going to wed Molly someday, he'd better get used to her independent spirit! He's bored, so he agrees and works at following a young man whom Molly was asked to investigate by his fiance's parents while Molly takes a non-speaking part in a Broadway musical in an attempt to ferret out who is trying to ruin the show--and the lead actress, former vaudeville performer Blanche Lovejoy--by pretending to be an angry ghost, causing some quite dangerous accidents. Meanwhile, Molly and Daniel stumble on a well-dressed young woman in a snow bank in Central Park, near frozen, who doesn't respond verbally or appear to even understand what's being said, despite several different languages being tried. Molly takes steps to prevent her from being sent to the insane asylum since no one claims her--and on top of all that, Mrs. Van Woekem, a society matron whom Molly has become friends with wants her nephew found--he's apparently on the run, having gone beyond his usual hijinks into robbery and murder, according to his friend and the New Haven police. Still, it's all in a day's work for Molly. The plot was somewhat predictable as I did figure out how several of the cases strung together and the ending wasn't much of a surprise. Still, I enjoy the author's writing style and Molly, Daniel and their circle of friends as well as the historical ambiance. Looking forward to the next one. B+

6. A THOUSAND CUTS by Simon Lelic. The book was originally published with the title "Rupture" in the UK--a much more appropriate title, I thought. Blast publishers who feel the need to tweak titles in different countries! This is a first novel, a police mystery about a school shooting in London where the perpetrator was a teacher who shot several students, a fellow teacher, and then himself. The teacher, Samuel Szajkowski, was the new history teacher at an exclusive prep school and had apparently endured unremitting bullying and pranks from everyone from the headmaster down to the students almost from his first moments at the school. The investigation is conducted by DI Lucia May, who is unwilling to glide through her investigation--which on the surface, seems cut and dried. We know whodunit--does it really matter why? Eventually, Lucia wonders if the shooting was connected somehow to the vicious beating of another student that had already been under investigation. She also wonders why her boss is so eager to put the 'closed' stamp on the case and is attempting to rein Lucia and her investigation in well before she thinks it's time. The story is told partially in first-person as Lucia listens to the various witnesses, and partially in third-person narrative from Lucia's point of view, alternating chapters. It's a very effective and interesting tool, and the author skillfully brings each witness into focus without ever naming who they are. A very timely piece of fiction, focusing on bullying, which has been so much in the news of late. I can't say I really enjoyed the story itself--the whole scenario is just plain gut-wrenchingly horrible. But I did very much enjoy the author's thought-provoking telling of the story. Going to be looking for more from Mr. Lelic, to be sure! A.

7. MISS ZUKAS SHELVES THE EVIDENCE by Jo Dereske. #8 in the Helma Zukas mystery series set in fictional Bellehaven, WA. Helma, a librarian, is meeting her "friend" Wayne Gallant's teenage children for the first time. Before they can spend much time together, Wayne--who is also the chief of police--is seriously injured when he falls or was pushed off a cliff, sustaining a serious head injury. He was investigating the death of a professor from a local university, at first thought to be a heart attack until an injection site and unusually high levels of insulin in his blood were found. The professor's much-younger wife is the daughter of Helma's new neighbor, the former wrestler known as TNT. The professor was not diabetic, but after nosing around a bit at the behest of TNT--who can't stand his daughter's crying and carrying on--she discovers that the wife's cat WAS diabetic and on insulin. Mary Jane becomes the primary suspect then, but Helma doesn't believe her guilty and she carries on investigating--also hoping to find out who injured Wayne Gallant--all while trying to keep up with his two teenaged children. As Helma tends to be rather set in her ways and somewhat rigid, she needs some help and she gets by with assistance from her colorful friend Ruth and her mother and aged Aunt Em and ventures rather far outside her usual behavior. I have still not been able to pinpoint exactly why I enjoy this series so much--cozies have become far from my favorites, but I look forward eagerly to each of these, and also am dreading the end of the series as there's only three left. A.

8.LOVE SONGS FROM A SHALLOW GRAVE by Colin Cotterill. #7 Dr. Siri Paiboun mystery set in 1970's Laos. Dr. Siri, the national coroner, has a serial killer on his hands--a killer who has brutally murdered three young women with a fencing epee, something that's not exactly lying around on every corner in Laos. Most people don't even have a clue what it is. So tracking this killer should be simple, right? Tell that to Siri's policeman friend Phosy, who thinks he has it all figured out until he reads a note with some very pointed questions from Siri--who has gone off on an all-expense-paid political junket to Cambodia with his friend Civilai and ends up as guests of the Khmer Rouge--who are not quite the benign entity they were believed to be before their reign of terror started. Siri ends up separated from Civilai, accused of being a spy and imprisoned and comes close to meeting his ghostly friends up close and personal. Another wonderful story that reads much too quickly. These characters have truly become friends over the course of the series and I've learned a lot about this time and place that I don't think any amount of factual lecturing could impart. I was very relieved to see there is already a next in series due for release next year. A+

9.THE MIRROR CRACK'D FROM SIDE TO SIDE by Agatha Christie (AUDIO) One of the later Miss Marple mysteries in which an American movie star, Marina Gregg, and her husband buy Gossington Hall, a local manor house near St. Mary Mead. As they hold a fete to welcome the village to their home, Heather Badcock, one of the organizers, dies--first thought a fit of some sort, later determined to be poison, or at the very least, a massive overdose of a fairly common anti-anxiety medicine that's all the rage among the movie set. But was the dose meant for Mrs. Badcock--or for Marina Gregg? Miss Marple's friend who attended the do, said that she had seen a look of abject horror on Miss Gregg's face shortly before the death took place. Miss Marple's Scotland Yard friend, Inspector Craddock, makes an appearance and once again enlists her to assist, by using her knowledge of the village itself and of human nature--since she is now quite elderly and almost confined to home, she must rely on others' eyes and observations to solve the crime. Delightfully read by Rosemary Leach, very much enjoyed. I'd read the print version years ago and vaguely remembered about halfway through 'whodunit' but it didn't spoil my enjoyment of the reading at all. A

10. THE HOB'S BARGAIN by Patricia Briggs. Stand-alone fantasy novel featuring a young woman, Aren of Fallbrook, who hides in a crawl space under her home as her husband of one night and her entire family are killed by roving bandits. She is besieged with guilt as she had a vision of something horrible but didn't say anything to warn them--she has magic that has long been kept secret and not many in their small village know about it. Now it seems magic is awakening again and Aren's visions become stronger and more frequent--and then a violent earthquake destroys much of the area around their home. Traveling to Hob's Mountain with a traveling minstrel and Kith, longtime friend of Aren's dead brother, they encounter several magical creatures, including the Hob himself--last of his kind. He is willing to help the villagers with the bandits--who are visiting more frequently and becoming more violent--but he will need to strike a bargain for something he needs as well--and Aren is likely the one who will pay the price. Enjoyable read, quite different from Briggs' current paranormal 'urban' fantasies. I wouldn't mind seeing more books set in this realm actually. There is a certain amateurishness about the book--it doesn't seem fully developed--but there is a lot of promise here. B

11. THE LAST KINGDOM by Bernard Cornwell. #1 Saxon Chronicles historical fiction series. This book, set in the ninth century A.D. in England introduces Uhtred who is just a boy when the Danes come calling at Bebbanburg--now Bamburgh--for the first time. His father is the lord there, and the Danes end up killing him and his elder brother, which leaves Uhtred the lord...but he is captured by the Danes and essentially raised by them. He comes to love Earl Ragnar, who treats him more like a son than his blood father ever did, such that when he is a young man and is returned to the English, his loyalties are seriously divided. He does want to regain his father's lands from his uncle though, determined to become Uhtred of Bebbanburg in more than just name. But which allegiance can get him there? Fight with the Danish Vikings who have already captured most of England, or back King Alfred, who holds the last kingdom on the island for the English? Well, what can I say? It's Bernard Cornwell, so the storytelling is brilliant, the descriptions of battle are horrendously evocative, and the characters are very well-fleshed and complete, especially Uhtred, whose voice tells this story. I very much look forward to continuing on to read the other books in the series, and like the rest of Cornwell's books, these will remain on my Keeper shelf in hardcover. A+

12. CHILD 44 by Tom Rob Smith. #1 Leo Demidov mystery set in 1950's Russia. Leo is a State Security agent--one of those who arrests the people who are guilty of traitorous actions, who are to be "questioned" (read: tortured) and then either sent to the Gulags or executed. Of course not all these people are actually guilty--but Leo is so indoctrinated into the "party line" that he just doesn't see it that way. If you are accused, then you MUST be guilty and deserve whatever you get. Until a vicious, ambitious co-worker who has it in for him inserts Leo's wife's name into another prisoner's confession and thus Leo is asked to investigate his own wife and then denounce her. He refuses, and he and Raisa are sent to do the lowest of lowly jobs in a remote manufacturing community. Shortly after their arrival, Leo finds the body of a child in the snow--stripped, its stomach cut out and soil stuffed in its mouth. Horrified, Leo realizes that this crime must have been committed by the same person who killed the son of another agent back in Moscow months earlier--a crime that he helped to cover up and officially called 'an accident' without ever actually seeing the body or crime scene. Suddenly he is gripped by the need to solve this crime and to his dismay as he secretly begins an investigation, discovers dozens of other similar murders occurring in small towns along the railroad line, all having been covered up by the State and never formally acknowledged as murder. With the help of some others willing to risk their skins, Leo and Raisa gather information and knowing full well it means execution at the end of the line if they are caught, set out to stop the monster preying on Russia's children. What a wonderful book! Not the details of the story, mind you--those were nothing short of horrible. It seems very well-researched and also well-written; the author manages to make you somehow take Leo's side even though at the beginning he is a high-ranking officer in a machine that systematically terrorized and destroyed the whole vastness of the Soviet Union. I was able to figure out the plot twist well ahead of time with the carefully laid down clues the author left, but that didn't spoil my enjoyment of the story. Dark, graphically violent and deeply philosophical, this book won't appeal to everyone, but I personally am very much looking forward to the next entry in the series. A+

13. FAINT PRAISE by Ellen Hart. #6 Jane Lawless mystery set in Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN. Jane is asked by her friend Roz to move into a vacant loft in her building, Linden Lofts, to see if she can figure out what is going on there. The previous renter, Arno Heywood (a well-known local television personality) recently committed suicide by jumping out a window on the Foshay Tower--in drag, no less--and since then, a number of apartments in the historic building have been broken into with strange goings-on. Jane, ever curious--not only about the goings on, but about what it would be like to live in an expensive historic building--agrees, despite the Christmas season and things being very busy at Jane's restaurant, Lyme House. Then her aunt Beryl falls ill and is hospitalized and Jane finds she has her hands more than full. But when she herself witnesses some of the strange events at Linden House, she is determined to find who is behind them and even possibly who drove Arno Heywood to his death. Of course she ends up in trouble herself a few times along the way, but also meets a possible love interest, the daughter of one of the other tenants. I really enjoyed this entry in the series--some of the others have been just so-so, but this one felt to me like it was clicking on all cylinders. I was relieved especially to have Jane back as the focus of the book--the last one with Cordelia, her theatre-producer friend at the helm and as the focus, I didn't much like at all. The local flavor in this series is especially wonderful for those who live in the area. A

14. DYING TO SIN by Stephen Booth. #8 DC Ben Cooper/DS Diane Fry mystery set in the Peak District of England. A body has been found at Pity Wood Farm, an old family farm recently sold off when the last remaining Sutton brother, Raymond, goes into a care home. Developers are digging and re-doing much of the farmstead when a college student unearths a hand while digging--which soon proves to be attached to a body, estimated to have been in the ground for about a year. While the forensic and pathology departments try to determine cause of death, Cooper and Fry begin interviewing neighbors and old Mr. Sutton, whose mind isn't very sharp anymore. No one has been reported missing in the area, although the villagers and people living on the surrounding farms are decidedly reticent in dealings with the police, so they're stumped as to who the body might have been. They're surmising that it may have been one of the many seasonal workers, often foreign help provided by agencies when another body turns up wrapped in the same plastic, only estimated to have died about four years previously. As Christmas approaches, the whole of the police force groans with the knowledge that celebrations with family and friends may be in short supply, and a new Det. Superintendent seems hell bent on making some major changes--one that may see Diane Fry transferring out. Cooper, meanwhile, struggles with his deepening relationship with SOCO Liz Petty. I picked up on many of the clues as to 'what was going on' fairly early on (and am surprised that the cops didn't!) but didn't figure out the whole package until just before the reveal. Another enjoyable visit to Edendale and surrounding area. The relationship between Cooper and Fry still irks me and the dialogue still at times feels somewhat unnatural, but the stories themselves are wonderful. Fry bugs the heck out of me, and sometimes I want to smack Cooper upside the head, too, but something about the books keeps drawing me back to the series and they never disappoint. A

15. MOONSHINE by Rob Thurman. #2 in the Cal and Niko Leandros paranormal mystery series. Having defeated the big bad Auphe in the last book, Cal and Niko are now somewhat settled in New York, doing investigative and security work for hire with Niko's girlfriend, the vampire named Promise as business partner. They're asked to investigate a lower-level member of The Kin, a werewolf mafia gang, by a fellow member who thinks he's going to be taken down as part of his co-gang member's aspirations to rise to the top. Not particularly wanting to get involved in a gang war, they're set to refuse when a $50,000 fee is dangled in front of them--and money is always in short supply, especially now that Niko is back in college, pursuing his dream of studying history. They end up at a gambling parlor for non-humans called Moonshine and there the story takes off with loads of plot twists, plenty of action and surprises. Meanwhile, Cal (who is only half human) is relentlessly pursued (romantically that is) by Georgina ("George") a seer whom Cal is trying to fend off because he doesn't want to get involved with anyone given his monster half, figuring it can only lead to bad things. I really enjoyed this book--I liked the first one, but it was kind of slow moving at first to set the backstory down. This one was action almost from the get-go, and yet it wasn't ALL get to know Cal & Niko better, and several of the secondary characters really have some flesh added to their bare bones in this one, too. I like the writing style, the author's refusal to shy away from a bit of raunchiness and 'language' and adult themes, and Cal's irreverent sense of humor has me laughing throughout. Glad I have the next one available here--I think this could become another of my favorite paranormal series. A

16. THE MARK OF A MURDERER by Susanna Gregory. #11 Matthew Bartholomew medieval mystery set in Cambridge in the mid-1300's. Matthew and Brother Michael investigate a series of murders in Cambridge that begin after the town/gown riots in Oxford resulting in dozens of deaths. Some Oxford scholars run to Cambridge, and almost immediately, two of them end up dead, followed by several others, who appear to have been ravaged by a wolf, or something with sharp teeth that ripped their throats out. The Oxford people think that the Cambridge scholars had something to do with it, and one of Cambridge's own people who was attacked but survived saw one of Michaelhouse's scholars, Clippesby--known for his rather crazy and eccentric ways--near him, and thinks he is the one who did it. Matthew, who is Clippesby's doctor, hospitalizes him to keep an eye on him, but the killings continue. I must admit I was surprised by the ending and the bad guy in this one, unlike most of the books in this series which are rather easy to figure out. I notice that I am leaving longer and longer spaces between reading books in this series, because they are getting to be somewhat wearying and formulaic with the constant scrapping between the scholars and the townspeople, Matthew's constant harping at Michael about his weight and frequent descriptions of Michael's piggy eating style, etc. They also tend to re-hash details and ask the same questions over and over throughout the course of the book, much of which could be cut out and not be detrimental to the story at all. I like these characters and the setting, and I think as long as I continue to leave many months between readings, I will continue them, but they are no longer a favorite series as they used to be. B-