Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny

Protagonist: Chief Insp. Armand Gamache
Setting: Manoir Bellechasse, Canada
Rating: 5.0
Armand Gamache and his wife, Reine-Marie, are celebrating their wedding anniversary at the isolated Manoir Bellechasse, an old hunting lodge built by the robber barons. Also visiting for a family reunion is the insufferable Finney family, except for two of their members -- Peter and Clara Morrow, the Gamaches' friends from Three Pines. The Finneys are Peter's family, and in this fourth book we finally come to understand Peter's dark side, which we've only peeked at previously. This may be Penny's best novel yet. She strips it down to just the essential characters and gives us a Golden Age murder mystery -- the old country house, a list of suspects and a baffling murder. And Penny doesn't waste a word; even the description of the roofline earlier in the book has a significance. Oh, but one warning. Don't read on an empty stomach. Her descriptions of food will have you salivating!

The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday by Alexander McCall Smith

Protagonist: Isabel Dalhousie
Setting: Edinburgh
Rating: 3.5
Isabel is really not meddling this time; she's asked by a doctor's wife to clear his name, after a patient dies having taken a new antibiotic that the doctor pronounced safe in clinical trials. Isabel doesn't exactly solve the case, although there is a resolution. Better yet, is the book's focus on Isabel's growing relationship with Jamie, the father of her son. It's nice to see a smart, strong woman who also has some very realistic insecurities when it comes to matters of the heart. Like the rest of the series, this fifth book is a nice comfort read.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Play With Fire by Dana Stabenow

Play With Fire by Dana Stabenow (audio, fifth in series)
Protagonist: Kate Shugak
Setting: Alaska
Rating: 3.7

As I’ve said before, these early Stabenow books are light on mystery, but big on descriptions and characterization. In Play With Fire, it’s summer, and hot, for once. Kate is picking mushrooms, suddenly a big cash crop following a forest fire that provided the right conditions. She’s helping her paraplegic friend Bobby and his new lover, Dinah. In the forest, she stumbles across a much-decomposed body. She figures out soon enough who he is, but not why his disappearance hasn’t been reported for 10 months. There’s a lot of digression in this novel about religious fundamentalists (who are a major part of the plot) and the education of native Alaskan children (the victim was a teacher). While I agree with Shugak’s (or Stabenow’s?) views on both topics, she does come across as preachy. There is, however, a touching scene where we learn more about Kate’s early years in college – and we gain greater insight into the culture clash that many young Alaskans must experience. At times like this, Stabenow is at her best. It’s a series I’ll keep reading.

Down River by John Hart

Down River by John Hart
Protagonist: Adam Chase
Setting: Rowan County, North Carolina
Rating: 3.5

In this novel about family secrets and family dysfunctions, prodigal son Adam Chase returns to the family’s Red Water Farm, five years after being acquitted for a murder he never committed (and which was never solved). Adam was jailed on the strength of one eyewitness – his stepmother, and his father turned him out of the house. Few believe him innocent. There’s good reason for him to stay away, but he returns when childhood friend Danny Faith calls in need. But on his return, Danny is mysteriously missing. And soon after his arrival, a young woman who grew up on the farm (and is in love with Adam) is assaulted – and then there’s another murder. Adam is again a suspect. In his corner, he does have old flame Robin, a police officer who still has a photo of Adam on her bedside table, even after five years (ah, male writers…). Hart has been compared to John Grisham and Scott Turow. If you like those authors, you’ll probably love Hart. If you don’t, well, this book is still readable enough, although a little overblown, both in plot and writing. Most of the twists in this thriller were easy to figure out before the reveal. Even though it won the Edgar award and has gotten much acclaim, I hesitate to strongly recommend it.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Heartshot by Steven F. Havill

Heartshot by Steven F. Havill (first in the series)
Protagonist: Undersheriff Bill Gastner
Setting: Posadas County, New Mexico
Rating: 3.7
This series is refreshing in that it features overweight, cigarette-puffing, retirement-age undersheriff Bill Gastner (the sheriff is mostly a political job; the undersheriff does all the work in fictional Posadas County) and a young Latina detective, Estelle Reyes, as his sidekick. In this debut, the sheriff’s office finds itself dealing with a major drug problem, one that has killed several teens. Gastner ends up in the hospital – not because he’s shot at, stabbed or otherwise hurt in the line of work. It’s his heart. His bad heart becomes key at another pivotal point later on – you can see it coming, but the author pulls it out with a nice scene. This book had its faults – one being that the bad guy is easy to spot, early on. Still, it’s a series I’ll continue.

To the Power of Three by Laura Lippman

To the Power of Three by Laura Lippman (audio)
Protagonist: Homicide Sgt. Harold Lenhardt
Setting: Glendale High School, Maryland
Rating: 3.5

To the Power of Three tells the story of three teenagers – Kat, Josie and Perry – best friends since third grade. But something happens the summer after their junior year, and Kat and Perry become estranged their senior year. Then, on the last day of school, Kat is shot dead in a high school bathroom. Perry, the suspect, is critical after shooting herself. And Josie is apparently the only witness, but she’s sticking to a story that has huge holes in it. She’s pressed by Sgt. Lenhardt, who (unfortunately) does not have a greater role in this story. The novel unravels slowly, going back in time to third grade, showing us the bonds that held these girls together. Lippman captures the essence of the teenage years spot-on. But this book, which I’ve heard highly praised, fell flat for me. There were too many peripheral stories that detracted from the main story and, worse of all, the resolution was anticlimatic. In the end, I was disappointed.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Minotaur by Barbara Vine

The Minotaur by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell)
Protagonist: Kerstin Kvist
Setting: Essex, England
Rating: 5.0
Vine has written a modern gothic novel, complete with its own House of Usher -- Lydstep Old Hall, where Mrs. Cosway lives with her four daughters and a son. Kerstin, originally from Sweden and hoping to find a job near London, comes to live at Lydstep to care for son John, who she is told is schizophrenic. With its old house, covered in Virginia creeper, locked rooms, a mad relative and a highly dysfunctional house, Vine slowly plays out this very gothic tale. There isn't much action in this book, but Vine does keep up the tension. We know something will happen -- to whom and how, we don't know until the end.

This book has reminded me how much I enjoy gothics. Edgar Allen Poe is credited with transforming the genre, bringing us “The Fall of the House of Usher.” But modern gothics -- with their gloomy, foggy atmospheres, families mysteries and even ghosts -- are still being written. Here's a sampling of some (if you know of any others, please let me know!):

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. The narrator, Margaret Lea, is hired by famed author Vida Winter to write her biography. But while she may be famous, nobody really knows Winter – or her many secrets. Lea moves into Winter’s stately Gothic home in the English countryside, and visits the author’s crumbling family mansion, where she feels the ghosts of the past watching her. A tale of twins, ghosts and family madness, this is modern gothic at its best.

Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott. Writer Lydia Brooke is asked to finish a manuscript on Newton and his ties to alchemy, a book begun by Cambridge historian Elizabeth Vogelsang, who died in mysterious circumstances -– drowned and clutching a glass prism. Brooke moves into Vogelsang’s studio, where pools of light move in strange ways across the walls. Soon, Brooke is convinced that deaths in Newton’s time are somehow linked to current deaths. This has been called an intellectual thriller, but it is undeniably a ghost story as well.

The Sister by Poppy Adams. This is the tale of sisters Ginny and Vivi. After nearly 50 years apart, Vivi returns to the rambling family mansion where Ginny has lived alone. While there are no hauntings or supernatural activity, the novel maintains a taut tension by going back in time to reveal the family’s dynamics, raising questions about central events. The novel also employs another gothic trait, a mentally ill family member, in an interesting way.

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. Judas Coyne, a rock star, collects strange objects. On an online auction site, he buys a suit that’s advertised as being haunted by the owner’s ghost. It arrives in a heart-shaped box and, soon enough, Coyne is being haunted by a ghost -– as it turns out, the stepfather of a groupie that Coyne slept with. This debut novel by Hill (Stephen King’s son) is a gothic ghost tale with some nice twists.

Duma Key by Stephen King. While King’s fiction usually falls into the horror genre, this book veers more into the gothic, with family secrets, twins (another gothic element), ghosts and other supernatural happenings. In fact, when main character Edgar Freemantle moves to Duma Key in Florida, he makes a reference to his rental house being like the House of Usher (for its creaking sounds). It’s on Duma Key that Freemantle, who owned a construction company and who lost an arm in a horrific crane accident, develops his artistic talent –- except that another hand seems to be guiding his paintings. King goes light on the horror in this book, and the result is a terrific gothic novel.

A Cold-Blooded Business by Dana Stabenow

A Cold-Blooded Business by Dana Stabenow (audio, fourth in series)
Protagonist: Kate Shugak
Setting: Prudhoe Bay, Alaska
Rating: 4.0

Kate Shugak is hired by a large oil company to investigate who is bringing drugs into the camp. She goes undercover as a "roustabout," quickly finding out that drug use is indeed rampant among the employees. She stumbles onto the bad guys partly by detection work and partly by luck. While the plot is thin on the detecting, we forgive Stabenow. I read her books mostly for the descriptions of Alaska and the native culture.

This is a series I recommend reading in order. The first one, A Cold Day for Murder, begins Kate's career, when a park ranger and an Anchorage investigator, goes missing. In the second, A Fatal Thaw, a mass murderer shoots up eight bodies. But a ninth person appears to be killed by a different rifle. In the third, Dead in the Water, Kate goes undercover on a crabber ship, to find out what happened to two deckhands that disappeared. Each book, so far, has been set in a different locale. Whether it's a large national park or the confines of a crabber, Stabenow succeeds in showing us another part of her state each time.

Stabenow herself sums up her 16-book series in this cute YouTube video. Be forewarned, though -- there is one spoiler.