Sunday, December 16, 2007

And elsewhere ...

Over at It's a Crime!, Andrew Taylor, author of the Lydmouth series, gives us his recommendations for Christmas books (be forewarned, some of them are pretty grim!) Other authors also weigh in, including Matt Beynon Rees, Zoe Sharp and Martin Edwards (I must read Peter Lovesey's The Secret Hangman!).

At Books to the Ceiling, the very well-read Roberta Rood gives us her Best of 2007, a two-part list (thanks to her, I now have a much longer list of books to read).

Writer Louise Penny (Still Life, A Fatal Grace and, soon to come to the U.S., The Cruellest Month, has a lovely blog in addition to her Web site. Life at her country home sounds almost as idyllic as Three Pines!

Our roundup has to include Carnival of the Crime Minds, which is making its way around the world with guest bloggers.

And, finally, don't miss In For Questioning, a great blog that provides podcasts of mystery authors and others involved in the book world, including Maddy Van Hertbruggen, founder of 4 Mystery Addicts, an online discussion group with about 993 members (at last count). Maddy tells us which fictional character she'd be afraid of running into on the street.


A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny
Setting: Three Pines, Canada
Protagonist: Insp. Armand Gamache
Rating: 5.0
CC de Poitiers, the villain in the tiny fictional town of Three Pines, is electrocuted at a Christmas curling competition. Suspects abound, and in addition to the central mystery, there are other smaller mysteries surrounding the plot, including one that may impact Gamache's career. This novel is set around Christmastime, and it was just wonderful to read it in the last days of 2007. A great way to end the year.

Naked to the Hangman by Andrew Taylor
Setting: Lydmouth, Wales
Protagonists: Det. Richard Thornhill and journalist Jill Francis
Rating: 4.5
This is the eighth in Taylor's Lydmouth series (one of my favorites). This one takes a different turn, going back to Thornhill's past as an officer in Palestine. His actions then haunt him now, as a fellow officer appears in Lydmouth. We don't get too much of the storyline between Thornhill and Francis, but still an excellent (as always) book in the series.

Sanibel Flats
by Randy Wayne White (first in series)
The Heat Islands by Randy Wayne White (second in series)
Protagonist: Marion "Doc" Ford
Setting: Sanibel Island, Florida
Rating: 3.5, 3.7
Read these books for their wonderful portrayal of Florida, a Florida that is fast disappearing. White's description of a fast-moving thunderstorm over open waters is reason enough to read The Heat Islands. The plots are OK and the characters a bit skimpy or cardboard-like, but I still have high hopes for this series (which I hope to continue reading).

Fleshmarket Alley by Ian Rankin
Protagonist: Rebus and Siobhan
Setting: Edinburgh
Rating: 3.7
I was blown away by the early Rankin books; this one failed to capture me. Maybe I like Rebus too much for him to share the page with Siobhan. Still, it's interesting to see Rankin weave a greater plot out of a small, mundane thing. In Edinburgh, I visited the real Fleshmarket Close (Alley for us Americans). Apparently, Rankin was none too happy with the American name change of his book.

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak (on audio)
Protagonist: Liesel Meminger
Setting: Nazi Germany
Rating: 4.0
This is a Young Adult book, but so many Older Adults recommended (and raved) over it, that I sought it out. When Death comes to take Liesel Meminger's brother, he finds himself drawn to Liesel's life, especially after she steals her first book at the gravesite, "The Grave Digger's Handbook." Liesel can't read yet, but her kind foster father soon teaches her how to read, and she never looks back. A touching story, with beautiful prose.

Two Way Split by Allan Guthrie
Protagonist: Robin Greaves
Setting: Edinburgh
Rating: 3.3
Guthrie's been swept up with the newest of the "tartan noir" writers (although, isn't all Scottish crime fiction pretty much gothic or noir?). Robin is an armed robber who thinks his wife is sleeping with his partner in crime. Oh yeah, and Robin is also schizophrenic and has stopped taking his medication. Noir is not my cup of tea, but this character was so different that I was hooked until the end.

The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy Pickard
Protagonist: Cast of characters
Setting: Small Plains, Kansas
Rating: 3.1
On a winter night, a teenage girl is found dead in the snow. It seems no one knows who she was, but the townspeople bury her and come to revere her, as it's believed that she performs miracles. But 17 years later, long-ago secrets start to surface. Turns out plenty of people knew who she was. Despite some very nicely written scenes, this novel was disappointing. While the cover touts a "novel of suspense," there was little mystery in it, the characters' actions didn't always seem plausible and there was just a tad too much of the Harlequin-romance-plotting in it for me.

Catch Me When I Fall by Nicci French (on audio)
Protagonist: Holly Krauss
Setting: London
Rating: 3.0
Holly, who is manic depressive, is a woman out of control, sleeping with a man not her husband, gambling (and losing 11,000 pounds). The first part of the book is told through Holly's eyes and we feel sympathetic for her, as she is stalked by Rees (the man she slept with) and by loan sharks. Then the point of view changes to Meg, her friend and business partner, after Holly attempts suicide (a bit confusing, as I feel asleep with the iPod in my ear). From there, the book picks up, and turns into a thriller. All is not what it seems, especially after a second suicide attempt. I'd heard a lot about this husband-and-wife writing duo that goes by one name, and I hope to read more of their books. This one, though, by all consensus, seems to be a weak spot among their works.

Rating system:
5.0: Wow!
4.0: Pretty good
3.0: Mediocre to good
2.0: Pretty Bad
DNF: Did not finish

Friday, November 09, 2007

October reads

If not for audiobooks, it would have been a very light month indeed.

On audio, I listed to no. 2, 3, and 4 in the Julia Spencer-Fleming series:

A Fountain Filled With Blood
Out of the Deep I Cry
To Darkness and to Depth

Protagonist: Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne
Setting: Millers Kill, N.Y.
Rating: 4.0 to 4.2
Read by Suzanne Toren
These book are set in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York, and Spencer-Fleming does a wonderful job of creating characters and showcasing the beauty (and danger) of the mountains. This is, in fact, a great place to set mysteries. Cell phone service is very spotty up there (sometimes, I've moved just six feet and been able to get cell phone service), so characters are often unable to make that crucial call that would get them out of a dicey situation. With each book, Spencer-Fleming stretches and produces something better. These books should really be read in order, as the relationship between the characters grows. I read no. 5 first, but the most recent book brings to a point much of what's been happening in the series, so I do not recommend reading it out of order.

The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke
Protagonist: Dave Robicheaux
Setting: New Orleans, after Katrina
Rating: 4.5
Burke writes a rich, atmospheric novel about the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina on Robicheaux and the people he's investigating. Burke is one of those writers who turns a phrase so beautifully that you read it a couple of times to savor it. While I liked the book overall, I didn't like the characters and Burke often changes the tense, which can be confusing. There are those who love Burke's books, but I'm unlikely to pick up another one.

Rating system:
5.0: Wow!
4.0: Pretty good
3.0: Mediocre to good
2.0: Pretty Bad
DNF: Did not finish

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

September reads

Not surprisingly, after a U.K. trip, I'm still reading only U.K. authors (or, in one case, about an English author):

The Case of the Missing Bronte
by Robert Barnard
Protagonist: Percy Trewothan
Setting: Haworth
Rating: 3.5
The premise: What if a missing Bronte manuscript turned up? What would people do to claim it? In this case, attempted murder and mayhem ensue, but there's the usual humor in the Trewothan series.

Hidden Depths by Ann Cleeves
Protagonist: Vera Stanhope
Setting: Northumberland
Rating: 4.5
I've been raving about Cleeves' Black Raven, and now there's another series I'm hooked on. Vera Stanhope is a middle-aged, overweight, never married, slightly bitter detective -- who also is very good at her job. In this novel, a boy is found strangled in his bathtub, surrounded by flowers. Then a young woman is found on the beach, similarly posed. The clues lead to a group of four men, longtime friends. Can one of them be the murderer?

Prey to All
by Natasha Cooper
Protagonist: Trish Maguire
Setting: London
Rating: 3.5
Banister Trish Maguire gets pulled into a TV program examining whether a jail woman did indeed kill her own father. As Maguire investigates, there's another murder, and suddenly she's looking out for her own safety. The book's characters are interesting, but the author employs a technique which kept confusing me -- switching the narrator's voice from character to character. For being slightly confusing, I give this book lower marks.

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
by Stephen Greenblatt
(on audio, narrated by Peter J. Fernandez)
Rating: 4.7
Even if you haven't read Shakespeare in, oh, 20 years, this is still an entertaining account of Shakespeare's life that also provides a look into Elizabethan England. I highly recommend this book!

Curious Scotland: Tales from a Hidden History
by George Rosie
Rating: 3.2
A sort of history of Scotland -- tales of quirky aspects of the country's past. It won't fill in for a complete history, but is a quick, fun read.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Rankin -- and maybe another Rebus?

The last author to speak to our group was also the biggest name in mystery writing in the U.K.: Ian Rankin, a funny, engaging speaker (shown here with tour guide Ros Hutchison). We'd studied Rankin and his first book, Knots and Crosses, before meeting him -- a book very much inspired by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which, while set in London, is really modeled on Edinburgh). In this first book, we have Rebus, a character who has involuntary flashbacks and doesn't allow himself to explore his consciousness, therefore "hiding" himself, as our study leader Carol Kent describes it. Both books have a deeply flawed character with a dark side, and both feature young girls as victims. In Knots and Crosses, the plot even converges at a gothic library.

If you read Knots and Crosses with Jekyll and Hyde in mind, you get that right away. But reviewers of that first book didn't, prompting Rankin to write a second book: Hide and Seek, the title hammering home the point. "We all have a mix of good and bad," Rankin told us at a lunch at the Scottish Book Trust in Edinburgh. "As P.D. James says, we're all capable of murder."

Some other tidbits from Rankin:

"There are two things I like about being an author: You are omniscient and omnipotent. You have the power of life and death over your characters. At the same time, as well as being godlike, you are are still playing pretend."

Rankin calls himself an "accidental crime writer," not having meant to write a crime novel when he first started, although he wrote in his notes for that first book that "the hero may be a cop." Now, he loves writing in this form: "I love the sense of pace, a strong pacing narrative. I love the games you can play with the reader, that questions are answered. You get a comfort from that which you don't get from real life."

Although readers like to think Rankin is like Rebus, "Rebus is not at all like me," Rankin says. "I'm a wishy-washy liberal. Every book is an internal argument between us [himself and Rebus]....He's horrible Mr. Hyde so I can be nice Dr. Jekyll."

What is said to be the final Rebus novel was published this week in the U.K.: Exit Music, which immediately climbed to No. 1 on the Sunday Times bestseller list. Scottish detectives must retire by the age of 60, and Rebus has reached this age in the books. However, cold case detectives can be older, and Rankin left the possibility open of someday returning to either Rebus or Siobhan (Rebus' younger female partner). Saying he had several other projects in the work, Rankin added that "it may be a couple of years before I can go back to [Rebus] with a blank slate, and see if I can do anything with Rebus of Siobhan."

So who knows -- we may not have seen the last of Rebus.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


Our last day in England before arriving in Scotland had us driving along the Northumbrian coast (photo left) and stopping to have lunch with Ann Cleeves, who makes her home in this area and has set some of her novels here. Cleeves has been writing for more than 20 years, and last year won the prestigious Duncan Lawrie Dagger for her book Raven Black, set in the remote Shetlands islands.

Cleeves was visiting the Shetlands three years ago with her husband when, she told our group, "I saw three ravens against the snow. I thought if there was blood in the snow, it would be like a fairy tale. That image stayed in my head: Those ravens, so black against the snow." What started out as a short story metamorphosed into her award-winning crime novel (the first in a four-part series). She also explained that she uses the traditional "cozy" form, layered with psychological insights. In Raven Black, Cleeves expertly masters the theme of being an outsider, giving the book a rich depthness.

Cleeves is among the current generation of U.K. writers who are using the traditional British mystery forms and adding so much more. For those of us who love British mysteries, it's a great time to be reading!


The novel Dracula by Bram Stoker is not only set in Transylvannia. In fact, a large part of it is set in Whitby, an English coastal town. In Dracula, all is obscured in mist and fog. In truth, Whitby is a quaint town. Here are a few photos, including the ruins of Whitby Abbey, where Dracula finds his first vicitm.

Dracula (the book, not the many movies) represents an example of a foreign invader who "doesn't only invade, but wants to take over all of England, especially its women," our study leader, Carol Kent, tells us. With its repetitive intensity of the vampire's attacks, "the reader finds it hard to believe Dracula can be conquered," Kent says.

The book may not be what you think. All my exposures to Dracula had been through movies, yet the original book is much different. Dracula is hardly seen in the novel, and the happenings are told through different narrators. In the book, we have much more of a monster than the romantic vampires of, say, Anne Rice's novels.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Bronte Sisters

The Brontes may not be immediately associated with mystery, but the gothic form, according to study leader Carol Kent, is "the most enduring influence on mystery." And Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, is, of course, a pure piece of gothic fiction. So today, we were off to Haworth and the Bronte Parsonage, where the Bronte sisters lived, beginning in 1820. There, we met with author Robert Barnard (above at the parsonage), a prolific mystery writer as well as president of the Bronte Trust. Barnard gave us a tour of the Bronte house, and later a tour of The Red House, owned by friends of Charlotte and immortalized in her novel Shirley. It was a double bonus: one of Britain's most-known authors and a Bronte expert! Barnard has a wicked sense of humor -- I recommend his Death by Sheer Torture and The Case of the Missing Bronte, but Barnard has more than 40 books -- so plenty to choose from.

It was also our second pub lunch on the tour -- and I must mention it because it was at the Old Silent -- the namesake of Martha Grimes' novel The Old Silent. And one mystery solved for me: Yorkshire pudding is not a pudding (in the American sense, at least), but it is still quite good!

The mystery of Yorkshire

Where better than the United Kingdom to immerse yourself in mysteries? As part of the Smithsonian's Mystery Lover's England and Scotland tour, I'm doing just that -- getting quite the literary education while visiting some of the most beautiful countryside anywhere. Our base for now if the Majestic Hotel in Harrogate (North Yorkshire), a turn-of-the-century grand spa hotel.

Study leader Carol Kent, a former Georgetown University professor, has presented us with first-rate classes on gothic literature (think horror, the supernatural, a brooding atmosphere and the macabre) and how some modern authors "defang" the gothic by turning it on its head (authors Robert Barnard, Reginald Hill).

We've had some wonderful guest speakers as well -- authors Staurt Pawson, Ann Cleeves and Martin Edwards formed a panel on why the North of England is so hospitable to mysteries. For Cleeves, one explanation is that the south has become populated by wealthy newcomers who don't spend their time peeking out windows to see what their neighbors are doing. But in the north, there's more seclusion -- and more noisy neighbors. The landscape helps as well -- the moors and dales of Yorkshire have been inspiring writers since the Bronte sisters.

Cleeves and Martin have novels coming out soon -- watch for them! And if you aren't a Pawson fan yet, his Insp. Charlie Priest is one of the best characters today in detective fiction.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

August 2007

Death in the Truffle Wood by Pierre Magnan
Protagonist: Commissaire Laviolette
Setting: The village of Banon, Provence, France
Rating: 4.5
I might have read this book for the quirkly title alone, but I also received a few recommendations. Written in 1978, it was finally translated into English in 2005, and is a quick, fun read. In Banon, passing hippies start to disappear -- and then show up dead. It's a real whodunnit, and the characters are as quirky as the title -- after all, a truffle-sniffing pig has a major plot role!

S is for Silence by Sue Grafton
Protagonist: Kinsey Millhone
Setting: Santa Maria, Calif.
Rating: 4.7
Grafton's best, the story bounces back and forth between Kinsey's investigation and the actual events surrounding a disappearance, possible murder. Kinsey is asked to solve a woman's sudden disappearance, 34 years later. What she finds is a string of heartbreaking secrets.

The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid
Protagonist: Jane Gresham
Setting: Lake District, England
Rating: 4.0
Jane Gresham, a Wordsworth scholar, is on a hunt for a missing poem and the answer to a long-ago mystery involving an HMS Bounty mutineer. Those who might know the whereabouts of the poem suddenly start dying before Gresham can get answers. I like McDermid's writing and the plot sounded promising, but I was disappointed -- too many characters, a bit choppy and way too melodramatic. And the worse, a predictable ending.

In the Woods by Tana French
Protagonist: Adam Robert Ryan
Setting: Knocknaree, Ireland
Rating: 4.3
Three children go into the woods to play, but only one returns. The other two have gone missing and the surviving child has no memory of what's happened to them. This child grows up to become detective. One day, a young girl is slain in the same woods. With his partner Cassie, Ryan, now a murder squad detective, tries to unravel the strange case. This has a very bleak ending, and one that was ultimately unsatisfying. Until then, I was hooked -- great characters, very well-written. But the ending spoiled what had been a great read.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling (audio).
Progatonist: Harry Potter
Setting: Hogswart
Rating: 4.5
As usual, Rowling doesn't disappoint. Harry, growing up, has his first kiss, but also has the bitter experience of seeing a loved one die. The book, much darker than previous ones, is obviously setting up the final two books.

In preparation for trip to northern England and Scotland, some classic gothic literature: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Dracula by Bram Stoker, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.

Friday, July 13, 2007

July 2007

I've not had much time this month to read fiction, but still some interesting books:

The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman
Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times makes an interesting argument on why globalization and outsourcing is good for the United States, using ancedotes and interviews with today's business leaders. But he also makes the point that the U.S. has to step up to challenges today, writing, “In China today, Bill Gates is Britney Spears. In America today, Britney Spears is Britney Spears – and that is our problem.”

The Vanishing Newspaper by Philip Meyer
All over the country, newspapers are slashing staff and closing bureaus as they try to maintain high profit margins. Is this the best solution for newspapers? Meyer offers a business model for papers, and writes that, first and foremost, newspapers must continue to preserve quality. For anyone interested in the future of newspapers, this is a must-read.

The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business by John Battelle
An interesting look not only at the history of Google, but also what factors led it to become the behemoth it is. Also, an explanation of how search is impacting marketing and news.

For a change of pace now:
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (audio)
Protagonist: Harry Potter
Setting: Hogswart Academy
Rating: 4.6
"Oh, you have a fine on this," the librarian tells me when I finally return it. OK, but it was a rather long book (and I hear the books that follow it are even longer!). This is the fourth in a series, and much darker than the first three. I read the first three years ago, but with the series coming to an end, now is the time to jump back into the books. Sure, it's a children's / teen book, but don't we all wish we could have gone to Hogswart?

Bleeding Hearts by Ian Rankin
Protagonist: Michael Weston
Setting: London, Edinburgh, U.S. (from NYC to Seattle)
Rating: 3.5
Rankin is one of my favorites, but this book didn't capture me the way his Rebus series does. In fact, I found it very hard to finish. It's told from the point of view of a hired killer, Michael Weston. No matter how nice the guy, it's hard to sympathize with someone who kills people for a living. Premise: Weston is anonymously hired to kill a TV reporter, but a series of events after the killing lead him to try to find out who hired him -- and why. It eventually leads him to a cult in Seattle, with a private detective, Hoffer, hot on his trail. In a twist, Hoffer has been hired not only to find Weston, but to kill him. Ultimately, there is a confrontation.

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black (pen name for John Banville)
Read on audio by actor Timothy Dalton
Protagonist: Quirke Griffin
Setting: Dublin to Boston, in the 1950s
Rating: 4.0
The first in the Quirke series, this is more a novel of family secrets than a detective story. When Quirke, a hard-drinking pathologist, finds his brother-in-law changing the file of a dead woman, he becomes almost compulsive in finding out what is going on -- and in the process uncovers far more.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (audio)
Protagonist: Kathy H.
Setting: Hailsham school, somewhere in England, in the 1990s
Rating: 3.8
This is a slow-moving book, set in a typical English school. Except the students aren't typical -- they are clones, being raised solely to donate organs when they become adults. NPR reviewer Maureen Corrigan said of this book that it "takes time to settle in a reader's mind" and that's exactly how I feel (and have felt about previous Ishiguro books). It took me a while to decide that, yes, this is a good book, but while I was reading it, it made me feel uncomfortable -- or unsettled. Now that it's settled in my mind, as Corrigan says, I can say that it's a worthwhile read.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

June 2007

Death by Sheer Torture by Robert Barnard
Protagonist: Insp. Perry Trethowan
Setting: Northumberland, England
Rating: 4.8
A real whodunnit with a sarcastic edge. How can you not like a book where the detective, in an aside to the reader, says: "Look, I won't tell you anything more about that damned risotto. I don't need to be accused of writing gastronomic pornography." Perry has the ultimate dysfunctional family -- his estranged father is found dead on a torture machine, wearing spangled tights, no less. While Perry doesn't want to go back, his boss insists, and soon he's back at the old family mansion. The killer's identity is obvious -- but only after Perry explains it all. Robert Barnard is a recent find -- a real treat.

Q is for Quarry by Sue Grafton (audio)
Protagonist: Kinsey Millhone
Setting: Santa Teresa and Lompoc, Calif.
Rating: 4.6
Kinsey teams up with a retired detective and an old, ailing detective on a cold case murder -- trying to find the identity of a teenaged girl who was killed. It's as much about the case as about her relationship with these two old detectives. A departure for Kinsey, and another in an outstanding series by Grafton.

R is for Richochet by Sue Grafton (audio)
Protagonist: Kinsey Millhone
Setting: Santa Teresa
Rating: 4.4
After the excellent Q, this one fell a few notches, especially because I couldn't believe that Kinsey would let herself be led around by a woman just out of jail.

The Collaborator of Bethlehem by Matt Beynon Rees
Protagonist: Omar Yussef
Setting: Bethlehem
Rating: 4.9
This has been one of the best novels I've read this year. In this, Rees, in his first novel, has created the unlikely detective of Omar Yussef, a frail, elderly schoolteacher. When one of his former and best students is falsely accused of being an Israeli collaborator, Yussef sets out to find who the real collaborator is, in hopes of clearing his student. This is a book based on the very real violence in the Mideast (Rees was Jerusalem bureau chief for Time magazine) and it can be quite chilling -- in a way that most thrillers are not. This is a powerful book, and I'm glad to say Rees is making this a series.

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
Protagonist: Judas (Jude) Coyne
Setting: Upstate New York to Louisiana
Rating: 4.7
It's been a long, long time since I was an avid Stephen King reader, and I wasn't expecting much when someone pressed this book into my hands -- written by King's son. But this book hooked me right away -- it's one of those that are hard to put down. A ghost story / thriller (with a little mystery thrown in), it reminds me a bit of Stephen King, but Hill definitely has his own style. Try it -- you might like it!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

May 2007

Baby Shark by Robert Fate
Protagonist: Kristin Van Dijk (aka Baby Shark)
Setting: Texas in the 1950s
Rating: 4.7
Reviewer after reviewer has called Fate's Baby Shark an amazing debut. It sounded overblown, and given the subject matter, I wasn't sure I'd like this book. But let me say -- it will definitely be among my top 10 reads for the year. Fate has created a one-of-a-kind protagonist, the 17-year-old Kristin, half-woman, half-child. One night, in a pool hall, a motorcycle gang kills Kristin's father and brutally rapes and beats Kristin, leaving her for dead. The pool hall owner, Henry, whose own son has been killed, saves Kristin and helps her become Baby Shark, a pool hustler out for revenge. This book will draw you in and, before you know it, you'll have reached the end. Fortunately for us, Fate has already given us a second book, Baby Shark's Beaumont Blues, and a third book is in the works.

Recalled to Life by Reginald Hill
Protagonists: Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe
Setting: Yorkshire, England
Rating: 4.6
Dalziel and Pascoe unofficially investigate a 30-year-old crime, one which sends Dalziel to New York City, where he tangles with burglars, shifty women and New York cab drivers. A great spin to a "golden age" mystery. These two detectives are wonderfully written, and yet the plot doesn't take a back seat to the characterizations, as often happens in some books. Until the very end, the truth is hard to suss out -- and then, after the reader thinks the mystery is solved, there's another neat twist. Definitely one of the better mystery authors writing today.

The Necropolis Railway by Andrew Martin
Protagonist: Jim Stringer
Setting: England, 1903
Rating: 3.5
If you love to read about railways and their history, this is a book for you. If, like me, that isn't of such great interest, then this is still a pretty good little mystery. I have to admit, though, the book was heavy on railway lore and I found myself skimming over parts of it. The author based his novel on the real-life London Necroplis Cemetery, which ran funeral trains from Waterloo to Brookwood Cemetery from 1854 to 1941. In this novel, young Jim Stringer moves to London to become a railway man and finds that the man he's replaced recently disappeared. After a few more deaths, his life is suddenly in jeopardy, too.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (audio)
Protagonist: Margaret Lea and Vida Waters
Setting: Yorkshire, England
Rating: 4.8
Setterfield's first novel is one of gothic suspense that moves back and forth between the present and the past, as aging author Vida Waters commissions Margaret Lea to write her biography. Waters has never told the truth to any of the journalists who have interviewed her, so Margaret is understandably hesitant. But slowly, secrets are revealed, and mysteries solved.

P is for Peril by Sue Grafton (audio)
Protagonist: Kinsey Millhone
Setting: Santa Teresa, Calif.
Rating: 4.2
Fortunately, Grafton's books just keep getting better. Here, Kinsey is hired to find a man who has disappeared -- not by his wife, but by his ex-wife. She solves the disappearance long before the book's end, but still has a few more mysteries to figure out, one involving her soon-to-be new office landlords. There's enough double-crosses and red herrings in this one to keep it very interesting.

The Torso by Helene Tursten
Protagonist: Det. Insp. Irene Huss
Setting: Gotenburg, Sweden, and Amsterdam
Rating: 3.5
A body found near the seashore is so mutilated that police can't even tell the gender. But through a tattoo, detectives in Sweden piece together the killer's identity -- and soon determine that other murders are linked. The language in this book is quite stilted (although that may be due to the translation) and some of the scenes were a little too gruesome for my taste, but the main characters are interesting, and the author does a great job of incorporating family life, giving the reader some lightness in what would have otherwise been a very dark book. A series I would continue reading.

The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori by Robert Barnard
Protagonist: Det. Constable Charlie Pearce and Det. Supt. Mike Oddie
Setting: Haworth, Yorkshire, England
Rating: 4.5
A young man is found dead in the Indian Tandoori restaurant parking lot. Then the story switches back in time and we meet Declan O'Hearn, who had been hired to help an aging artist. Declan has a feeling something sinister is afoot, and then he suddenly disappears. Is he the dead man in the parking lot? A great mystery, in the tradition of Agatha Christie.

Barrel Fever by David Sedaris (short stories)
Rating: 4.0
When he's good, Sedaris' warped humor is hilarious (as in the "Santaland Diaries," based on his stint as a Christmas elf at Macy's). Unfortunately, some of his other stories just sort of fall flat.

Rating system:
5.0: Wow!
4.0: Pretty good
3.0: Eh, mediocre
2.0: Pretty Bad
DNF: Did not finish

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Jill McGown

Jill McGown, who wrote a series with two great characters, Lloyd and Judy, has passed away. Julia Buckley has more in her blog.

Seems like in the past few weeks we've had several notable deaths: Kurt Vonnegut and Michael Dibdin, who wrote the Aurelio Zen series. Sad to think we'll no longer see new books from these authors.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

April 2007

The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill
Protagonists: Chief Insp. Simon Serrailler and Sgt. Freya Graffham
Setting: Lafferton, England
Rating: 4.7
A woman vanishes in an area known as "the Hill." Freya uncovers other cases of missing people and the police soon have what appears to be a serial killer -- although no bodies. This is the first of the Simon Serrailler series, although this book is mostly told through Freya's eyes -- we even get to know Serrailler through the lovestruck Freya. Very much character-driven, the novel takes its time setting up the story -- and then hits you with a shocking ending.

The Mosaic Crimes by Giulio Leoni
Protagonist: Dante Alighieri
Setting: Florence in 1300
Rating: 2.5
An interesting premise: Dante Alighieri, as prior of Florence, solves two murders (the story opens with a mosaic artist killed inside a church, his face covered in quicklime). However, the author seems more interested in showing off his knowledge of Dante and Florence during the 1300s than in crafting a good mystery. As much as I like Florence, this book could have been trimmed by half (at least!).

O is for Outlaw by Sue Grafton (audio)
Protagonist: Kinsey Millhone
Setting: Santa Teresa, Calif.
Rating: 4.4
Kinsey's ex-husband is in a coma, shot with an old gun that had belonged to Kinsey. Kinsey picks up his investigation where he left off. Very nicely written, with a mix of humor (Kinsey getting a tarot card reading!), mystery and a bittersweet look at the past. One of Grafton's best so far.

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman
Protagonists: Det. Infante, Det. Porter
Setting: Baltimore
Rating: 4.9
Thirty years ago, two young sisters were kidnapped. Now a woman turns up claiming to be one of the sisters, but is she really? The story moves back and forth in time, drawing us into the girls' family. Great characters, great plotting and great resolution. Lippman has been getting rave reviews, and now I see why.

Wolf to the Slaughter by Ruth Rendell
Protagonists: Wexford and Burden
Setting: Kingsmarkham
Rating: 4.7
Second in this series. A young woman is missing and a murder may have been commited in a room that is rented out by the hour. But there's no body and the only clue is a name. Excellent use of solid detective work, with a nice twist at the end.

Killjoy by Ann Cleeves
Protagonist: Insp. Stephen Ramsay
Setting: Hallowgate, England
Rating: 3.5
A young woman is killed during rehearsals at a community theater. Investigating, Insp. Ramsay runs into an old flame. Wish I could have liked this one better, but the characters were a bit flat and uninteresting.

Sea Fever by Ann Cleeves
Protagonist: George and Molly Palmer-Jones
Setting: Porthkennan, England
Rating: 4.0
Palmer-Jones and his wife board the Jessie Ellen along with other birdwatchers on a mission to persuade Greg Franks to visit his family. But as the fanatical birdwatchers are excitedly discovering a seabird never recorded before, someone is murdering Franks. Great mystery. This time around, really engaging characters.

In a Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming (audio)
Protagonists: Rev. Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne
Setting: Millers Kill in upstate NY
Rating: 4.3
First in the series. Having read the most recent in the series and knowing where it's headed, this was still a good read -- for the characters. Plot was OK, although a tad long in some places. Highly recommend reading this series -- in order!

Rating system:
5.0: Wow!
4.0: Pretty good
3.0: Eh, mediocre
2.0: Pretty Bad
DNF: Did not finish

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Read this!

J.B. Thompson has a great interview with Robert Fate on her blog. Fate's two books, Baby Shark and Baby Shark's Beaumont Blues, have been getting a lot of buzz on an online mystery discussion book. They center around a teenage pool hustler who is out to avenge her father's death. I have the books, so what have I been waiting for to read them?

For the true book addict: A New York Times article about LibraryThing. If you have 2,956 books (as one client does), this is where you can go to catalog them and talk about them with others.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

March 2007

Started the month out in Paris -- in mind, if not in body.

Murder in the Marais by Cara Black
Protagonist: Aimee Leduc
Setting: Paris, the Jewish quarter of Marais
Rating: 4.0
Aimee is a computer forensic detective, along with her partner Rene, a dwarf. In this, the first in a series of now seven books, a Nazi hunter asks Aimee for help in finding someone. It leads to murder, of course, as well as to Aimee's involvement with a neo-Nazi group and some over-the-top action scenes in high heels and a tight skirt. The descriptions of Aimee and Rene hacking into government and other databases was interesting -- not usual in gumshoe novels, but realistic and yes, even tension-filled. I look forward to reading Black's other novels, all set in a different part of Paris.

Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin
Protagonist: Det. John Rebus
Setting: Edinburgh
Rating: 4.5
It's taken me a while, but finally I've gotten around to reading Rankin. Not only that, but I plan to read his series in order, and so started with this first one. Rebus is not entirely new to me, as I had watched the BBC series, but it is a somewhat different Rebus than the TV version. In this first book, Rebus has been getting cryptic, anonymous notes with either knots or crosses in them. Almost too late, he realizes they are tied in to the person who has killed four girls. Some elements struck me as too far-fetched: that he would suddenly know the killer under hypnosis. Yet, still a solid police procedural. And the book did win the Gold Dagger (awarded in Britain to the best new crime novel). I'll soon be on to Rankin's second.

Hide and Seek by Ian Rankin
Protagonist: Rebus
Setting: Edinburgh
Rating: 4.9
Second in the series. Rebus investigates a junkie's death in an Edinburgh housing complex, but there's much more to the death and soon Rebus is seeking out his own "Mr. Hyde" in the city of Edinburgh. In just two books, Rankin has already developed one of the most interesting characters in mystery fiction.

Tooth and Nail by Ian Rankin
Protagonist: Rebus
Setting: London
Rating: 4.5
Third in the series. Rebus is asked to help London police find a serial killer, based on his one success in a previous case (in Knots and Crosses). Rebus doesn't feel like an expert, but he'll be damned if he doesn't prove himself. With his ex-wife and daughter now living in London, there's also family problems to unravel. Even when he throws in a car chase at the end, Rankin adds some unusual twists and turns.

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant (on audio)
Protagonist: Bucino Teodoldo and Fiammetta Bianchini
Setting: Venice
Rating: 4.8

After the sacking of Rome in 1527, courtesan Fiammetta and her dwarf servant Bucino escape to Venice with the clothes on their back and gems that they have swallowed in their stomachs, to start anew in Venice. There, they meet with La Draga, a blind healer who helps Fiammetta regain her beauty. Dunant has written a little masterpiece. Using a combination of real and fictional characters, she crafts a story of Venice in the 1500s (in her version, Fiammetta is the model for Titian's Venus of Urbino). But more than that, the story, narrated by Bucino, is a tale of love, loyalty and survival.

The Art of Detection by Laurie King (on audio)
Protagonist: Kate Martinelli
Setting: San Francisco
Rating: 4.6
King merges characters from her two best-known series: Martinelli and Sherlock. There's a story within a story -- a recently-discovered Holmes story that may have been written by Arthur Conan Doyle. The Martinelli character is very likable, a detective trying to balance family and work, but driven to find the killer. It was the Sherlock story, though, that really elevated this mystery for me.

N is for Noose by Sue Grafton (on audio)
Protagonist: Kinsey Millhone
Setting: Noda Lake and Santa Teresa
Rating: 4.3
Kinsey Milhone is like an old friend, and it's always interesting to see what scrapes she gets into -- even when you know where the story is headed. In this one, Kinsey is hired for what seems a straight-forward investigation: a wife wants to know what was troubling her husband, a police officer, before his sudden death of a heart attack. But soon, Kinsey finds herself being shadowed by a black van and beaten up in her hotel room.

All Mortal Flesh by Julia Spencer-Fleming
Protagonist: Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne
Setting: Millers Kill (upstate New York)
Rating: 4.4

Fifth in a series with Clare Fergusson, an Episcopal priest, and Russ Van Alstyne, the police chief. They've got troubles: they've fallen in love, but Russ is married. Then Russ' wife seems to have been murdered in their house. First, Russ, and then Clare, are suspects. This novel, nominated for a Gumshoe Award, has many twists and turns, with a grim ending. I can only hope that Spencer-Fleming has another in a series planned.

Rating system:
5.0: Wow!
4.0: Pretty good
3.0: Eh, mediocre
2.0: Pretty Bad
DNF: Did not finish

Interesting reading

From the San Francisco Chronicle, Eddie Muller interviews Irish crime writer Ken Bruen and other news.

There's nothing like an unsolved crime to keep interest alive. Now a movie comes out about the Zodiac killer, and we learn that it's more than just a little interest. For many people, it's become a full-time obsession. At the Washington Post, this story about Robert Graysmith, who has written a book on the case. And at NPR, this fascinating look at "Zodiac hunters."

Saturday, February 10, 2007

February 2007

The good reads continue:

Raven Black by Ann Cleeves
Protagonist: Insp. Jimmy Perez
Setting: Shetland islands off Scotland
Rating: A+
Comments: A teenaged girl is murdered, bringing up memories of a young girl who disappeared years earlier. The same woman finds both bodies, and then her own young daughter goes missing. Cleeves' slow-moving book draws you in, cleverly laying the clues while you are looking elsewhere. A wonderful sleight-of-hand, right up to the moment the killer is revealed. This is the first in four books that Cleeves is writing about the Shetland islands and Insp. Perez. The book isn't available in the U.S. right now, but worth buying through

Under the Beetle's Cellar by Mary Willis Walker (on audio)
Protagonist: Journalist Mary Cates
Setting: Texas
Rating: A
Comments: A group of religious fanatics kidnaps 11 children and their bus driver, holding them hostage underground. As federal negotiators try to free them, journalist Molly Cates uncovers information about cult leader Samuel Mordecai that puts her right in the middle of the story. Suspenseful and very believable (almost painfully so, at times). This book was recommended without my having ever heard of Mary Willis Walker; now I'm sure to seek out her other books.

The Babes in the Wood by Ruth Rendell
Protagonists: Wexford and Burden
Setting: Kingsmarkham, England
Rating: A
Comments: Floods are threatening the town of Kingsmarkham, but Wexford has bigger problems when two teens and their sitter disappear over the weekend. You can never go wrong with Rendell. This is a slow-moving police procedural, but also a novel about families and relationships.

M is for Malice by Sue Grafton (audio)
Protagonist: Kinsey Millhone
Setting: California
Rating: B-
Comments: Kinsey is asked to find a missing man. That she does quickly, but it only brings bad fortune. Her old boyfriend, Robert Dietz, returns. Will he stay this time? The book's mystery is well-plotted, but there was just a little bit of supernatural woo-woo thrown in -- which threw me off. Still, I have the next in her series lined up.

January 2007

A great start to the year:

Tilt-a-Whirl by Chris Grabenstein
Protagonists: Ceepak and Danny
Setting: New Jersey seaside town
Rating: B+
Comments: Officer Ceepak and Danny, a part-time cop, are the first on the scene of a murder. The only witness, the man's daughter, later disappears, Ceepak has made a vow to protect her, so he and Danny are soon on a case which takes all manners of twists and turns. Characters nicely drawn, great humor, fast-paced. This is Grabenstein's debut novel, and he's definitely an author to keep an eye on. There's an interview with Chris over at

The Devil's Feather by Minette Walters
Protagonist: Journalist Connie Burns
Setting: Zimbabwe, Baghdad and Winterbourne, a town in the English countryside
Rating: A+
Comments: A psychological thriller with an intertwined mystery. Connie Burns uncovers a series of women's murders, first in Zimbabwe and then in Baghdad, and she's sure she knows who is behind them, but has no proof. Then she's kidnapped in Baghdad. On her release, she goes into hiding in England. But we all know that the man behind the murders, and her kidnapping, will soon show up again. The tension was so well-maintained that it was hard to put this book down, and it continues to haunt me weeks later. This is the first Walters book I'd read, but certainly not the last.

Saturday by Ian McEwan (on audio)
Protagonist: Henry Perowne
Setting: London
Rating: A
Comments: Henry Perowne is a successful doctor in a happy marriage, with well-adjusted grown children. All seems perfect, until Henry is in a minor car accident. The book is hard to classify: thriller? Somewhat, but the story moves slowly, even though all the events take place in a day. As usual, McEwan's prose is wonderful. And when the story does pick up, it's hard to walk away from it.

Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason
Protagonists: Insp. Erlendur, with Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg
Setting: Reykjavik, Iceland
Rating: A
Comments: When a man is found murdered in his home, with few clues except for a note -- "I am him" -- Erlendur and his team must delve into his past to find out who murdered him. Not much of a whodunnit, but an excellent police procedural. A story of family ties, as well.

Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indridason
Protagonists: Insp. Erlendur, with Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg
Setting: Reykjavik, Iceland
Rating: A+
Comments: Again, Erlendur and his team must go into the past when a skeleton is found at a construction site. Is the skeleton a woman who disappeared shortly before her wedding, or someone who lived at a nearby house? Long-ago secrets are finally uncovered. This one was a whodunnit, as well as a who-is-the-skeleton mystery? Gripping -- and very moving.

L is for Lawless by Sue Grafton (on audio)
Protagonist: Kinsey Millhone
Setting: Texas
Rating: B
Comments: This time, Kinsey actually leaves California! Funny characters and funny situations, especially when Kinsey has to go undercover as a hotel maid. Better than recent books.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

2006 Top Reads

1. The Roth Trilogy (mentioned in last post). A story that still haunts me.
2. Don't Look Back, by Karin Fossum. Sparse, beautiful language.
3. Call the Dying by Andrew Taylor, part of the Lydmouth series. I've been reading one or two a year; I have one left until Taylor's next book (hopefully, he will continue the series!).
4. The Distant Echo by Val McDermid. As usual, a wonderful story by McDermid.
5. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. Scholars on a search for Dracula that takes them through England, France, Amsterdam, Budapest, Istanbul, Bulgaria and, finally, to the U.S. An epic tale that was hard to put down.
6. Still Life by Louise Penny. Wonderful mystery set in a small town in Canada. Looking forward to her second book.
7. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. A great audiobook. Essentially, a love story that transcends time and death.
8. The Lighthouse by P.D. James. Even in a weak book, James can do no wrong. Her settings and characters are so richly drawn that I overlook other faults with the book.
9. The Dead Hour by Denise Mina. One of my favorite characters, Paddy Meehan, returns in this second book.
10. Black Dog by Stephen Booth. First book in a series, and I can't wait to read the rest. His detectives, Diane Fry and Ben Cooper, are two of the most interesting around!