Monday, August 11, 2008

The Book Awards Challenge

Along with 127 other people (and counting), I've taken up the Book Awards Challenge: To read 10 award-winning books in the next 10 months. My 10 picks:

The Edgar:
Best Novel: The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin (2007)
Best First Novel by an American Author: The Faithful Spy by Alex Berenson (2007)
Best Novel: Resurrection Men by Ian Rankin (2004)

CWA Dagger:
New Blood: The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh (2002)

Man Booker:
The Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2002)

Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Cotterill (2006)

Best First Novel: The Baby Game by Randall Hicks (2006)
Best First Novel: Monkeewrench by P. J. Tracy (2004)

Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness by Pete Earley (2007)

Best Novel: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2005)

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Pick of the Month -- The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson

The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson (first in a series)
Protagonist: Sheriff Walt Longmire
Setting: Absaroka County, Wyoming
Rating: 4.8

The crimes reported in Absaroka County are not the usual: a kid chasing horses with his snow machine (turns out he was herding livestock with it), someone sliding off an icy road and hitting a yield sign; and someone stealing Old Lady Grossman’s snowman (a practical joke by her nephew). So when someone reports a dead body, Sheriff Longmire figures it’s probably dead sheep. But the body is that of Cody Pritchard’s, one of four young men who two years earlier received a light sentence for the rape of Melissa Little Bird, a Cheyenne girl with fetal alcohol syndrome. And Longmire has what seems a crime of revenge — a dish best served cold. With his deputy, foul-mouthed Vic Moretti, and his good friend Henry Standing Bear, Longmire tries to protect the other three men while investigating the murder.

This is a book that, while recommended by several people, I had feared as maybe too cowboy-ish. Nothing of the kind. It is wise-cracking in the tradition of Robert Parker’s Spenser books but set in the high plains of Wyoming, described so beautifully that I’ve almost booked a plane ticket there. The traditions of the Northern Cheyenne and life on the reservation are also a big part of the book, adding yet another layer. Craig Johnson is definitely a fresh voice in crime fiction (his fourth book has just been published) and one I'll keep reading. For a great interview with Johnson, head on over to Mysterious Musings.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

August reads

The Sister by Poppy Adams (debut novel)
Protagonist: Virginia Stone
Setting: Dorset, England
Rating: 4.0
This book takes place in the space of six days and revolves around Virginia (Ginny), a reclusive moth expert, and her sister, Vivien, who after a 47-year estrangement, returns to the crumbling manor that was once the family home. Having lived alone for years, Ginny has sold off almost all of the furniture, closed off most of the rooms and never opens the front door to those who come calling. Into her carefully structured life comes Vivien, who had always been the more lively and headstrong daughter. Flashbacks, as narrated by Ginny, provide a tale of these two sisters and their parents. Family secrets come out. Beyond this, there is not much I can say about this modern gothic tale – to say much else would give it away. I will say this: the tale is ambiguous, leaving much to the reader to infer. While I enjoyed The Sister – so much, that I was unable to put it down while reading it – it still vexed me a bit that the author doesn’t really answer all the questions. It’s up to you, dear reader, to figure things out.

The Night Ferry by Michael Robotham (audio)
Protagonist: Det. Alisha Barba
Setting: London and Amsterdam
Rating: 3.4
The Night Ferry is the third of four books in which Australian author Michael Robotham employs a neat concept: each book takes a minor character from a previous book and makes them the protagonist. Alisha Barba was Det. Insp. Vincent Ruiz's sidekick in the previous book, Lost. Wounded in the last book, the young detective is recovering at home when she gets a letter from her estranged friend Cate pleading with her to attend their high school reunion. But at the reunion, Cate and her husband are run down by a motorist. Later, at the hospital, Alisha learns that Cate was faking her pregnancy, even wearing a prosthesis belly. This takes her to Amsterdam, in a complicated plot involving baby smuggling. I've really liked Robotham's previous books, but the plot here was lackluster, and didn't grab me. Alisha, however, is a wonderfully drawn character, and Robotham fans might want to read this just for her story.

A Mind to Murder by P.D. James (2nd in series)
Protagonist: Adam Dagliesh
Setting: Steen Clinic, London
Rating: 3.6
This is only James' second novel, and while it doesn't compare to her later novels (full of rich characters and interesting settings), this is still a better-than-average mystery. It's a locked-room variation, with the murder having taken place inside the Steen Clinic, with a limited number of suspects. The victim is the psychiatric clinic's administrator, Enid Bolam, an unbending woman who is not well-liked. There are plenty of suspects, but James gives us a neat twist at the end. It's certainly not the first P.D. James book I would recommend, but it was enjoyable.

The Risk of Darkness by Susan Hill (3rd in series)
Protagonist: Det. Chief Insp. Simon Serrailler
Setting: Lafferton, England
Rating: 4.6
Hill's books are not the usual traditional mystery stories, and that puts off many crime fans. By my rating, though, you can see I very much like the Hill novels. This one picks up a few months after The Pure in Heart, which dealt with the kidnapping of 9-year-old David Angus. In this book, there's another kidnapping, but this time the kidnapper is caught -- more by blind luck than great policing. This happens fairly early in the book, so the novel is not a mystery nor a police procedural. Instead, Hill deals with the way crimes affect the people involved and their families -- both the victims' and the criminals' families. These novels are also very much a look at the Serrailler family and this one continues in that vein, with some major happenings. I wouldn't recommend this book without reading the others that came before. If you're a fan already, this one doesn't disappoint.

Chill Factor by Stuart Pawson (audio, 7th in the series)
Protagonist: Det. Insp. Charlie Priest
Setting: Heckley (Yorkshire)
Rating: 4.4
Salesman Tony Silkstone readily confesses to murder -- for killing the man who murdered his wife. To most, he's a hero for doing so. But a small clue leads Priest to believe there's more to the story. This is a methodical, plodding police procedural -- done by an author who's wonderful at these. Pawson brings his characters to life with great wit. He's one of the best with one-liners. For example, this from Priest on a colleague's love life: "I didn't ask who 'she' was. Pete's love life has more dead ends and branch lines than the London Underground." Or this on eating at a Persian restaurant: "I paid the bill, which went a long way toward compensating the proprietor for the oil wells he lost when the Shah was deposed." This is a great series, and one that doesn't necessarily need to be read in order.

A Death in Vienna by Frank Tallis
Protagonists: Det. Oskar Rheinhardt, psychoanalyst Max Lieberman
Setting: Vienna, 1902
Rating: 4.5
This book is a traditional locked-room mystery: Medium Charlotte Lowenstein is found dead in her locked room, with what appears might be a suicide note. Yet there's a bullet wound to her body. However, there's no gun and, when an autopsy is done, there's no bullet in her body. Those in Lowenstein's circle think it's a supernatural killer, but Rheinhardt, assisted by his friend Lieberman (who reminds one of Sherlock Holmes) thinks otherwise. This is an interesting book, with Vienna beautifully described and with a bit of history about the developing science of psychoanalysis. I was really immersed in the characters and, with one thread left hanging, I'll have to seek out the second book in the series.

Rating system:
5.0: Wow!
4.0: A book I'd recommend
3.0: Mediocre to good
2.0: Pretty Bad