Sunday, May 8, 2011

May 2011

1. THE SATURDY BIG-TENT WEDDING PARTY by Alexander McCall Smith (AUDIO) #12 No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series in which Mma Kutsi and her fiance Phuti Radiphuti finally are planning their wedding, and in which Mma Ramotswe has heard rumors that someone has fixed her (former) tiny white van and thinks she may have spotted it around Gabarone. While her new blue van is fine, she still has feelings for that tiny white van and would like nothing more than to be able to drive it again. She also deals with a case in which someone has killed a couple of cattle belonging to a farmer out near Lobatse--and not just killed, but sliced the tendons in their legs so that their death was slow and painful, which is totally unacceptable to Mma Ramotswe, whose father the late Obed Ramotswe was a cattle man. The lady detectives also have problems with Charlie, one of the apprentices at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors--he is apparently the father of twins and is not owning up to his responsibility as their father. As with all of these books, there isn't much of a mystery, it's more a visit with friends to hear the continuing saga of their lives and spend a few hours in a totally different culture. As always, I enjoyed this visit even if it is a somewhat syrupy-sweet view through rose-colored glasses. The reader for the audio versions is great and does a wonderful job with the voices, accents and nuances of the stories. A

2. THE PRODIGAL SON by Kate Sedley. #15 Roger the Chapman medieval mystery set in the UK. Roger is in the Green Lattis pub savoring an ale when a stranger approaches several people including the chapman, asking after news of his brother's ship that sailed from Bristol several weeks previously. There has been no news, but Roger thinks he's met the young man somewhere before, but can't quite place John Wedmore. Until a day later when the sheriff comes calling, stating he's got young Mr. Wedmore in his jail, accused of being a thief and murderer, implicated by a countrywoman who named him her page six years ago. And he's asked to speak to Roger--who subsequently learns that John Wedmore is his previously unknown half-brother and he realizes he 'recognized' his father's facial features in the young man. Roger ends up journeying out to Wells, where he was born and grew up, to the country manor of his brother's accuser to see what he can learn about this six-year-old murder in hopes of exonerating him. Meanwhile, a long lost son returns to that manor at the same time as Roger and begins stirring up a hornet's nest. Enjoyable visit as always to 14th century England. The mysteries are not terribly difficult to figure out, but the writing style, the characters and historical ambience make all the difference. A

3. GARDEN SPELLS by Sarah Addison Allen. Not sure how to categorize this book...I guess a combination of magical realism (comparable to Alice Hoffman, perhaps)...and a hefty dose of chick lit would be about right. It's the story of the Waverley sisters, Claire and Sydney, and how they each come to find themselves and some basic truths about their family. Everyone in the small town they live in knows the Waverley women have always been a little strange, and the present generation has also inherited some of the Waverley magic. Claire now lives in the old Waverley house, working as a caterer who does 'special' work--meals concocted from edible flowers and herbs from the Waverley garden that affect people certain ways depending on the ingredients. There's also an apple tree in the garden that throws apples at people. Sydney, who's been absent for ten years without a word, flitting around the country much as their mother did, Claire imagines, shows up one day with her daughter Bay in tow, seeking refuge. As they learn to become sisters again and deal with their strange elderly Aunt Evanelle and the unwanted attentions of a couple of local men, both women begin to find where they fit into the grand scheme of things. An interesting, though easily read book without any real surprises, predictable in many ways, and yet this author has such a wonderful way of weaving words together that it has moments of absolute brilliance and was very difficult to put down, although the neatly wrapped up ending was rather anti-climactic. When looking back on the whole package was okay, though not spectacular. B+

4. A FIELD OF DARKNESS by Cornelia Read. #1 Madeline Dare mystery set in 1980's Syracuse, NY. Madeline is a reporter--well, she writes mostly filler pieces for the local newspaper in Syracuse, NY where she moved with her husband Dean who is an engineer, a designer, mostly roughing it working on railroads while on the side working on a device that will save a lot of time and money. Madeline comes from old money, as in Mayflower old money--but her parents fell out of the money loop--her mother having divorced and remarried several times and her father a paranoid aging hippy living in a trailer in California. Madeline longs to be part of that inner circle again, but she's not a whiner--she just does what she has to do to get by, including living in butt-ugly Syracuse in a dismal apartment. Then one day Dean's uncle--his family are farmers in the area near Syracuse--brings up an old unsolved mystery in which two girls who were never identified were brutally murdered, their bodies posed--and hands Madeline a set of dog tags that just happen to belong to her cousin Lapthorne--one of the moneyed set. They were found by a local farmer not far from where the girls were found but never reported to the police--and Madeline is instantly intrigued and sets out to clear her cousin's name--even though she hasn't seen him in more than ten years, he's always been one of the good guys in her eyes and she doesn't want to go to the police yet. Her searches lead her down some dark and scary paths, with suspects suddenly falling out of the trees, and when it's obvious the killer realizes she's investigating, she begins to fear for her own safety--but is her fear misplaced? Someone close to her is leaking information, but who? Great read! I am not a big fan of frou-frou books about people with money, but I really like Madeline, and this story was a doozie! The author also is a very dynamic writer, with certain phrases and descriptions that leap out at you and give such a sense of place and...I don't know...feeling, I guess. Definitely not a cozy, and probably not the best choice for my "bedtime" read, but a great one nonetheless. A+

5.HUNTING A DETROIT TIGER by Troy Soos. (AUDIO) #4 Mickey Rawlings historical baseball mystery series, this one set mostly in Detroit in 1920, where Mickey is currently playing ball as a utility infielder. Mickey, at a union organizing rally, ends up accused of shooting one of the principals, Emmet Siever, although he's not charged as it's termed self-defense. Trouble is, Mickey didn't shoot him at all, and he wants to know who's set him up so conveniently--and who the real killer is. The publicity has turned his Tiger teammates against him, and a union-busting 'personnel manager' with the backing of the Tigers owner wants him to badmouth the union--when what Mickey wants is not to be involved at all. Add in a mysterious fake policeman (whom Mickey later learns is actually a federal agent in the organization that was the predecessor of the FBI) and Marguerite Turner, an actress that Mickey had a relationship with a couple of books ago and the story gets really interesting. Karl Landfors, Mickey's socialist newspaper reporter friend also makes an appearance to help Mickey navigate his way through all the different radical groups trying to organize workers. Very enjoyable listen as always. The reader does a great job at setting the tone and with the various voices throughout the book. The author picks a social issue of the times in each book, one that intersects somehow with baseball. In this book, it's the birth of the unions, the attempts to organize baseball players and the beginnings of the FBI and the power they wield over those whom they target as radicals, regardless of the truth. Great sense of time and place, infused with the spirit of baseball when it was young. A

6. WALKING A PERFECT SQUARE by Reed Farrel Coleman. #1 Moe Prager mystery set in New York City in the late 1970s--and in the late 1990's as well. Moe is an ex-cop, farmed out on disability from an on the job injury. In 1978, one of his cop buddies asks him to look privately into the disappearance of a college student, Patrick Maloney, even though Moe isn't officially a PI. He's been missing about 2 months when Moe first encounters the case, which the boy's father is 'paying' him in favors to look into...expediting the liquor license Moe and his brother Aaron will need for their planned wine shop--and some help in getting the wine shop itself going. After just a short time, Moe senses something is decidedly askew with the Maloney's disappearance--and with his father's efforts to find him. For example, the photo used for the 'have you seen this person?' flyers is from his high school prom--a couple of years old, and Maloney had drastically changed his appearance since then. Why would Mr. Maloney not use the up-to-date likeness of his son instead? In talking with friends and family of Patrick, Moe gets very different vibes as to what he was like--and he definitely had some sort of mental condition, possibly obsessive-compulsive disorder. As Moe continues investigating, he is first warned anonymously and then paid off by the father to drop it. However, Patrick's sister Katy hires Moe to continue, and he finds himself falling for her. He knows there must be something fishy going on because he's attacked and his car is blown up--which just makes him more curious. The story intermittently pops ahead into 1998, with Moe going to the bedside of a dying man in a hospice who has asked his nurse to summon Moe--he has no idea who he is, but he's uttered the magic words, "Patrick Maloney." I really enjoyed this story, and I like Moe a lot. There were a few typos or misspelled words/wrong homophones used ('sight' instead of 'site' is one I recall off the top of my head) that I found a bit distracting, but the writing style is very readable and the story itself sucked me in right from the get-go and I found it difficult to put down. I'll definitely be continuing on in this series! A-

7. PIECE OF MY HEART by Peter Robinson (AUDIO) #16 DCI Alan Banks mystery set in Yorkshire, UK. Nick Barber, a music journalist, ends up murdered in a holiday cottage in a Yorkshire village with no apparent motive for the killing. The story line bounces back and forth between present day and 1969 and the murder of a young woman at a local rock festival, whose death is (of course!) related to Barber's. Barber was doing an investigative piece on rock band The Mad Hatters, as there is an upcoming reunion planned. The Hatters were just getting started in 1969 and played at the Brimley Festival where young Linda Lofthouse died. Had Barber found something out about the murder, despite the fact that someone went to prison for Linda's murder--or perhaps it was the death of Robin Merchant, the Hatters bass player, which had been deemed an accidental drowning in the pool at a local Lord's country estate. Despite Banks' ambitious new boss trying to steer him in other directions, he's convinced that the past ties to Nick Barber's murder and sets out to find the connection. Well-narrated, interesting story, and although I didn't figure out the killer til close to the end, the pieces fell into place for me before they did for Banks. Strong characterizations, with plenty of fully-fleshed characters besides Banks himself, interesting story and plot, and the historical part provided an interesting cornerstone in time to weave together with the present-day story. Enjoyable as always...and scary to realize I'm fast approaching being caught up with this series. A

8. FROM THE GROUNDS UP by Sandra Balzo. #5 Maggy Thorsen coffee shop mystery set in fictional Brookhills, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. Maggy is looking for somewhere to house Uncommon Grounds, since the coffee shop burned down along with the rest of the small strip mall it was located in during events in the last book. On an almost non-existent budget and now sans Caron, her business partner, who must bow out due to financial strains, Maggy is wondering what to do. Then her moody friend Sarah, a real estate agent, offers to take Caron's place as her partner AND provide a building--an old railroad depot that (unknown to many) is about to become active again when Brookhills once again becomes a train stop. Sarah owns the building, as it was willed to her by her recently-deceased aunt, and her cousin Ronny is a contractor/developer, so it would seem that things are looking up. However, as soon as the papers are signed and they begin making plans, accidents start happening at the depot site, including the death of Sarah's crabby step-uncle, whose car was t-boned by a passing train when it stalled on the tracks. Maggy senses that someone doesn't want her to re-open Uncommon Grounds--at least not at the depot--but who? Of course she begins poking her nose in and with a few dropped clues from her boyfriend the Sheriff, discovers that Uncle Kornell's 'accident' was actually a murder. Love this series with its edgy, slightly irreverent humor, relaxed atmosphere and easy reading style. Maggy is a breath of fresh air compared to most of the cookie-cutter cozy heroines, and her friends are fully-fleshed, great characters too--including her gassy sheepdog, Frank. (She really ought to be nominated for a Watson award for the best sidekick! LOL) Very much looking forward to the next book in the series. A

9. MURDER ON WAVERLY PLACE by Victoria Thompson. #11 Gaslight mystery featuring midwife Sarah Brandt in early 1900's New York. Sarah is persuaded to attend a seance hosted by spiritualist Madame Serafina by her mother, the society matron Mrs. Peter Decker. Mrs. Decker hopes to contact Sarah's dead sister to seek her forgiveness for the terrible way they treated her. Sarah of course is certain the people conducting the seance are charlatans and hopes to show her mother that she's being ripped off. But after the very convincing performance, a few niggling doubts find their way into Sarah's mind, too. A few days later, she is summoned to the home where Madame Serafina holds her seances by Det. Sgt. Frank Molloy--it seems someone at a seance was murdered, and Mrs. Decker was in attendance. Sarah takes Madame Serafina into her home to keep her safe, and as she and Molloy investigate, the secrets of the seances start revealing themselves slowly, as do the suspects since those who would benefit from Mrs. Gittings' murder (she hosted the seances and was Mme. Serafina's patroness). Enjoyable enough, but rather predictable as I figured out the bad guy well in advance and there's very few surprises in these books--I think the author needs to shake herself out of the formula a bit and do something 'different' although not sure just what that means. The continued 'romantic tension' between Sarah and Molloy has gotten a bit old, although it's never as pervasive in this series as in some others. B

10. BOOK OF MOONS by Rosemary Edghill #2 Bast mystery. Second in the "Bast" mystery series featuring Karen Hightower, a Wiccan and member of Changings coven in New York, and whose witch name is Bast. It's set in contemporary New York--although this was written at least 15 years ago--and deals with the life of contemporary Pagans. In this book, Bast's friend Glitter calls her, distraught, because her BoS (Book of Shadows--a witch's own personal self-written "Bible" and spellbook as it were) has disappeared. Since Glitter tends to be a bit absent-minded, Bast helps her search but doesn't find the book. Life goes on, Bast assists Belle, her High Priestess, in informally interviewing a prospective new member. And then she starts hearing snippets of conversation at a communal picnic about other people missing their BoS as well, although most are simply writing it off to misplacing it. And when the prospective new member, Ned, makes a fool of himself by claiming to have an 'original' BoS from ancient times, he is laughed out of the picnic by skeptical Pagans who've heard it all before. When Ilona, the owner of a local Pagan bookstore, is found murdered, her assistant--none other than the aforementioned Ned--contacts Bast and gives her a package to hold for him. And when he turns up dead and she opens the package, to no one's surprise (or at least not mine!) it contains several stolen BoS and a very old book that claims to be the BoS of Mary, Queen of Scots. This book wasn't as good as the first one--for one thing, the bad guy stood out like a sore thumb almost from the time of introduction into the book, and for another, it just seemed full of melancholy and angst. I do find this series refreshing because it's about the life of normal everyday Pagans and isn't treated as a "paranormal" mystery just because of the beliefs and practices the main character has. I enjoyed it though and look forward to seeing how the author ties up the trilogy with the next one. B

11. THE BRUTAL TELLING by Louise Penny. In this fifth "Three Pines" mystery featuring the head of the Surete du Quebec, Armand Gamache, he and his team of homicide detectives are once again off to the quiet village nestled in the countryside. And yet again, the idyllic setting is marred by a dead body, this one lying on the floor of the bistro owned by Olivier and Gabri. Olivier is in absolute shock as he recognizes the man as a hermit who lives in a well-hidden cottage some distance from the village--and in fact he's just visited him that very night, but he can't tell the police that. Gamache picks up on the fact that something is bothering Olivier right from the beginning and knows something is being kept from him, but as to what it is or why, he has no idea. Once the team begins their ferreting, and the autopsy is complete, much information comes to light, including the location of his cabin--which is full of antique treasures, long lost to the world. Olivier begins revealing his involvement in bits and pieces, frustrating Gamache and his team to no end with each tidbit. I have a confession to make, that I have read comments from some of my reading buddies about this book and their dislike of it, and also their further comments about the NEXT book, where some unresolved issues from this one are sorted out. Without that knowledge, I would have very likely marked down this book as it just seemed to leave things hanging without a real final 'close the book/end of story' ending. As it is, I enjoyed the book itself with the cozy village atmosphere, the odd collection of characters, the wonderful foods and the literary references and the like. But the ending did NOT make me happy! It won't be long until I get to that next one, let me tell you! A-

12. THE CASE OF THE MISSING SERVANT by Tarquin Hall. (AUDIO) In this thoroughly enjoyable first in series featuring PI Vish Puri in Delhi, India, you are not only introduced to a whole cache of fun and interesting characters but given a cultural tour of a middle-class Indian household as well. Puri is contacted by an old friend, a prominent lawyer who is being set up to take the fall for doing away with one of his former maidservants who disappeared a couple of months previously.
Puri and his crack team--whom he's given hilarious nicknames like Facecream, Handbrake, and Tubelight--begin digging, surveilling and infiltrating the home of the lawyer to find out all the things that they aren't being told. As the investigation is underway, a body is actually discovered and suddenly witnesses are coming out of the woodwork who saw the lawyer disposing of it. Given the corruption in the Indian police force and political system, it's entirely possible that someone has it in for the lawyer and is framing him--and it's Puri's job to find out who and why. The reader was excellent, handling a variety of voices and accents well, with a pace and tone that captures the essence of the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, both the reader and the story itself, and the cultural immersion as well. There was a good mix of humor--the tone was light, but some serious issues were also addressed. The main mystery was fairly easy to figure out, as were the side mysteries but it didn't keep me from enjoying the story. A

13. MALICE IN MINIATURE by Jeanne M. Dams. #4 Dorothy Martin mystery. Dorothy, an American widow now re-married to Chief Constable Alan Nesbitt and living in Sherebury, UK has been asked by her friend/house cleaner Ada Finch to help clear her son Bob's name. Bob's a drunk, admittedly, but he appreciates his job as maintenance and odd-job man at Brocklesby Hall, and there's no way he stole some miniature doll house pieces from the museum housed there. Dorothy heads out to the museum to have a look around and meets the owner, Sir Mordred Brocklesby, a man much obsessed with doll house miniatures. There she learns that the issue over the missing pieces Bob is accused of stealing has been resolved, but she meets some strange characters and a nice woman named Meg Cunningham who is the curator and it sounds like something is definitely 'off.' A couple of days later, Ada summons her again--this time Bob's been set up for murder, as the old battleaxe of a housekeeper has been found dead of poisoning. Dorothy, cognizant of her new position as the CC's wife, tries to investigate inconspicuously so word won't get back to Alan, but of course that backfires. I didn't like this entry in the series as much as the previous ones, partly because so many words in the book were devoted to Dorothy's angst over not making Alan look bad if she did something wrong., and also to her thoughts about possibly moving to a different area, since Alan was offered a promotion elsewhere. She's just a bit too prissy for my taste. Also, there were some fairly preposterous coincidences involved in this story that made me snort and roll my eyes. I think I'll give the series a rest for awhile, but it's likely that I will come back to it later at some point. C

14. PRETTY GIRL GONE by David Housewright. #3 Rushmore "Mac" MacKenzie mystery set in and around St. Paul, MN. Mac is an unlicensed PI who works essentially doing favors for friends, given that he inherited a bundle of money a few years ago, left the police force and now lives a life of leisure most of the time. In this book, he's contacted by an old girlfriend from high school, who now just happens to be the first lady of Minnesota. The Governor has apparently been threatened although he doesn't know it--an e-mail to his wife says that he murdered his high-school sweetheart back in Victoria, MN, a crime that had never been solved. Lindsey wants Mac to look into it and so he sends out his tendrils of query and almost immediately he's captured at gunpoint and brought to an office building to meet a circle of powerful men who, between them, own much of the Twin Cities and control most of the running of the state behind the scenes. They want Governor Barrett's little problem to go away so he can become a US Senator and perhaps even go beyond that and they want Mac to know they can assist him in his quest to help Mrs. Barrett. Meanwhile, another faction threatens Mac and states that Barrett must NOT run for Senate. Caught in the middle, Mac figures the present problems are buried in the past so he heads to Victoria to try to figure out what happened those many years ago when Barrett's girlfriend was killed. Okay--I like Mac well enough; he's a tough, smart-alecky, independent kind of guy. But I find these stories to be nigh on unbelievable, with the perfect circumstances he's in where he has no work timetable, no one to answer to, no money issues, dozens of people who owe him big favors that he calls in at every turn, etc. to be a detriment to the story. ANYONE could solve crimes under those circumstances unless he was an idiot. Give me a story with the hero stuck in a dead-end job with a mortgage, back taxes to pay and a car that barely stays on the road who's stuck in a dead-end job. This story was worse than previous ones with the political shenanigans and conspiracy theories thrown in. The mystery of who killed the girl was obvious with a trail of clues marked with big red circles around them--or at least that's how I saw them--and I admit I skimmed to the end just to be sure I was right. I have to say that at this point, the ONLY reason I continue reading this series is the author's capturing the sense of place of the Twin Cities so well and it's fun to read about Mac driving down roads I drive down, past scenes I see with my own eyes. But at this point, I'm not sure it's enough to keep me reading. I'm taking a break for awhile, at least. C-

15. MEN AT ARMS by Terry Pratchett. #15 Discworld novel (in order of publication), this one following the 'Night Watch' sub-series, as might be guessed by the title. Captain Sam Vimes is about to retire--since he is getting married to a wealthy noblewoman. As he contemplates life without his job on the Night Watch, he's wondering if it's really worth it, but doesn't have time to think about it very long because a big case has fallen in their laps with a string of corpses from the various Guilds. Corporal Carrot is attempting to get his latest batch of recruits trained in, and a motley mix they are, with a dwarf, a troll and a female werewolf. Green as they are, Carrot uses them to investigate the series of deaths despite being 'warned off the case' by the higher-ups and informed by the various Guild masters that they are handling their own investigations as usual. Hilarious romp through Ankh-Morpork as Pratchett pokes fun at affirmative action, political correctness and police forces everywhere. The Night Watch string of books isn't my favorite Discworld sub-series, but still an enjoyable, light read with laugh out loud funny dialogue and wordplay. A

16. A LOCAL HABITATION by Seanan McGuire. #2 October "Toby" Daye paranormal mystery. Toby is sent on an errand by her liege lord Sylvester to check on his niece whom he's been fairly close to, but hasn't been returning his calls for several weeks. So Toby and Quentin, one of Sylvester's knights-in-training, head off to Fremont, CA--the real world place where the small duchy of Tamed Lightning is, which is where January O'Leary resides. And since it's right between two larger faerie counties, both with political aspirations to greatness, there is cause for worry. Once they arrive and see that January is okay, Toby is somewhat relieved, but puzzled when she insists that it is her uncle who has not been available--that she's left many voicemails for him with no response. Something seems 'off' to Toby, and once she begins poking around, it's not long before a dead body turns up, and Toby discovers that there have been two other mysterious deaths over the past month, both employees of the computer company that January runs. The mystery to "who dunnit" was very easily figured out very far in advance but the particulars as to how and why were still interesting to read about. I like this series and Toby's an interesting character. Much of it is based on Celtic myth and lore and seems pretty accurately researched, although there is something just slightly "off" about it and about Toby that keeps me from really loving the series--not sure yet what that is. I do intend to read on, but it's not one of those 'must read as soon as I get the next book' type things. B

17. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. (AUDIO). I've never been much of a Jane Austen fan, so I have to say I LOVE what they've done with the book with 'the manky unmentionables' added to the mix. Oh, it's the same story, basically...but much more fun with zombies and ninjas. And that's all I'm gonna say. Hehehe. I loved the narration of the book by this reader, who managed every voice from the quintessential Regency hoity-toity posh "Lady" voices, to one of the characters who was infected with the zombie plague and had almost totally turned and could barely speak. There were some LOL moments and of course when she was prattling on in the voice of Mrs. Bennet or her airhead youngest daughter Lydia, she did such a great job that it set my teeth on edge--as it was meant to. Looking forward to reading the continuation of the series--a sequel and then a prequel, both written by Steve Hockensmith, one of my favorite writers. A

18. THE PALE BLUE EYE by Louis Bayard. Historical mystery set at West Point Academy in 1830, when none other than Edgar Allan Poe was briefly a cadet there. This story weaves Poe nicely into the mix as he becomes an informant for retired detective Gus Landor, who was asked to investigate the heinous death of cadet Leroy Fry. He had apparently hung himself, but afterward, while the officers were being summoned, his body was stolen and his heart cut out. Believing it to be the work of Satanists--or at least the possibility--Landor convinces the lead officer that he's working with to let Poe assist him by infiltrating the most likely group of cadets. Eventually this leads to trouble when Poe finds himself falling for the lead suspect's sister, but his letters/reports to Landor are a delight to read. Rich with historical detail and weighty, twisty prose redolent of the times, with bits of Poe's poetry tossed in for good measure, an interesting mystery and a freaky plot twist at the end, this is an great example of a Gothic horror/suspense novel with one of my favorite writers brought to life. I will say it did get a bit boggy in places and you need some patience to get through those sections--if you're used to reading light, easily resolved mysteries you may have a hard time with this. But I quite enjoyed it. B+

DNF: RUNNING ON EMPTY by Sandra Balzo--first entry in a new series that was a big disappointment for me since I love her coffee shop series so much. I just couldn't get interested.