Sunday, August 20, 2006

Roth trilogy

By far the best books I've read this year (and even last year, for that matter), Andrew Taylor's Roth trilogy (The Four Last Things, The Judgement of Strangers and The Office of the Dead) traces the psychological development of a serial killer, back to her years as a young girl. The books go back in time, each narrated by a different person, and interweaving the lives of two families. Well, three families really. Layered onto the main story is the mystery of Francis Youlgreave, a mad poet-priest who died 50 years before Angel, the serial killer, was born. Yet, his life is intertwined with hers. It is a masterful approach, like nothing I've seen before. The final pages of the last book will leave you stunned. Rating: A+++

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

A mixed bag

A mixed bag of mysteries lately:

A Season for the Dead by David Hewson. An author with many fans, but I wasn't one. While this book was set in Rome and had a likable detective, I couldn't help but see it as a DaVinci Code clone. Not very gripping, with a love story that was unbelievable and unlikely. Rating: C

Cold Granite by Stuart MacBride. A well-written book. Again, a detective I really liked. A setting that draws me (Scotland). But the book was hard to read -- it was about the kidnappings, killings and mutilations of young children. That's a subject that turns me off automatically, but I finished the book for my discussion group. I would read another MacBride, though, because I thought his writing was great. Rating: B-

Flesh and Blood by John Harvey. Thirteen years ago, a teenaged girl disappeared. British Det. Elder, now retired, works with police in reopening the case. Then another teen is killed and Elder's own teenage daughter is kidnapped. Is this being done by the original suspects, or a copycat? Interesting, complex story. Very well-written, with strong characterization. My only complaint has to do with the ending. Rating: A-

Lost by Michael Robotham. It reminded me quite a bit of Flesh and Blood. Missing girl, cold case. The book opens with Det. Insp. Vincent Ruiz being pulled out of the Thames, a bullet in his leg and no memories of what happened. All he knows is that it has something to do with Mickey Carlyle, a 7-year-old who disappeared three years ago. With help from psychologist Joe O'Loughlin, he begins to piece together his memories, and comes to believe Mickey is still alive. A great detective thriller with a wry sense of humor. Rating: A

The Dead Hour by Denise Mina. Second in the Paddy Meehan series. This has become one of my favorite characters, a young journalist working in 1980s Scotland. Paddy takes a bribe to walk away from what seems a domestic abuse case, and the next day the woman is found brutally murdered. Now Paddy can't let it rest until she finds the killer. In the meantime, Paddy's life takes an interesting twist. Rating: A+

Mad Hatter's Holiday by Peter Lovesey. One of the early books by this great English writer. Cross between an old-fashioned murder mystery and a police procedural. Rating: B

The Fractal Murders by Mark Cohen. First in a series. Wise-cracking private eye with a past -- pretty formulaic, but OK for a first novel. At times, the character reminded me of Spenser or Kinsey Milhone. I wouldn't necessarily read his next book, though. Rating: C+


Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading by Maureen Corrigan opens with: "It's not that I don't like people. It's just that when I'm in the company of others -- even my nearest and dearest -- there always come a moment when I'd rather be reading a book." Right away, I knew I had found a kindred spirit in Corrigan, who reviews books for NPR and The Washington Post. Her memoir is that of a book lover. She's also a professor of literature, and at times the book becomes a bit too academic, but overall an engrossing read -- for those of us who love to read. Rating: A.

Personal History by Katharine Graham. For a long time, I put this off (maybe because it's a long book). Then I found an audiobook copy at the library. Even though I own a copy of her book, I went with the audiobook (so much easier at times!). The book is long, and at times slow, but her personal life was more interesting and complicated than I would have thought. I met Graham in 1985, as an intern at the Post, and she seemed so poised and self-assured. Interesting to read then that, as one of the first women publishers, she was unsure of herself and her decisions for many years. Yes, there's some interesting insights into journalism in this book, but really it's her life that's more interesting. Rating: A+

Shining a Light

P.D. James' The Lighthouse is not her best effort, yet even a mediocre James is a great read. Her books may be a bit formulaic, yet no one else writes the traditional English whodunnit like James. In the Lighthouse, a much-hated author is killed by hanging (from the lighthouse) on an island accessible to only a few people. Adam Dagliesh, along with Kate Miskin and Francis Benton-Smith, are brought in to solve the crime, but then Dagliesh is infected by SARS, and the island is quarantined -- with the killer among them. Rating: A+

Other recent reads:
The Raphael Affair by Iain Pears. The first in his art history mysteries, set in Italy and London. Fast-paced, with charming characters and witty writing. A series that will go to the top of my TBR (to be read) list. Rating: A

Bad Twin by Gary Troup (aka Laurence Shames). This book is a tie-in to the Lost TV show, although there was little to actually tie it in. On its own, stands up well as a private-eye book. Rating: B-

Friends, Lovers and Chocolate and 44 Scotland Street, both by Alexander McCall Smith. Both were audiotapes, which I find the best way to "read" McCall Smith. His books are a light romp, with enjoyable characters and minor mysteries (although 44 Scotland Street is not a mystery). I enjoy hearing the lilting Scottish accent, which helps transport me to his Scottish settings. Rating: B

Another Man's Poison by Ann Cleeves. Another underrated British mystery. The sixth in a series featuring bird-watcher and crime solver George Palmer-Jones and his wife Molly. In investigating whether a politician poisoned protected species of birds and if that had to do with a woman's murder, they come across long-ago family secrets. Rating: B+

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Preparing for Prague

One of the things I like to do before a trip is read about the place, and I don't mean just guidebooks. Even novels can give you a sense of the place. The first one I read, The Phoenix of Prague, by Douglas Skeggs, was a spy thriller. Czech-born British agent Jan Capek returns to Prague in 1991, just after the fall of Communism, to track down some paintings. Very taut, very believable, with an ending I didn't see coming. Some good writing, like this: "She gave a grunt ...'I know they're not Communists,' she said. 'You know they're not Communists, but has anyone tried telling those bastards that they're not?"

If Phoenix was dark and a little bitter, on the other hand there's the saccharine The Twelve Little Cakes, by Dominika Dery, a memoir of her childhood in a village outside Prague, with parents who were political dissidents. It's hard to believe she remembers entire conversations from when she was 3-years-old, but we'll give her some latitude as a memoirist. That wasn't what bothered me about this memoir. The book was a bit too long, and dwelled too much on childhood memories that, frankly, were not that interesting. Still, it did have provide glimpses of life under Communism, and how her family's spirit and love compensated for the material things they didn't have.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

A quiet thriller

A psychic at a birthday party tells a young man that he will kill someone before his next birthday. The young man becomes obsessed with the prediction. Weeks before his birthday, as the southwesterly winds of Brazil start to blow, two people linked to him are violently killed. Southwesterly Wind by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza takes that simple premise and weaves a seductive mystery. I call it a quiet thriller because there are no car chases or bang-bang scenes. The only chases are when a detective (on foot) follows one of the suspects, sometimes for hours at a time. With only three possible suspects, you think you know where the author is headed -- but do you really?

Friday, February 17, 2006

An author to read

"Andrew Taylor is one of the most interesting, if not the most interesting novelist writing on crime in England today. Like Ruth Rendell he produces particularly good, emotionally complex psychological novels and rather better straight detective novels than she does in her Wexford series." Harriet Waugh, The Spectator

Having just finished another book in his wonderful Lydmouth series, I have to say Andrew Taylor is one of the most underrated authors today. These are books in which everything comes together wonderfully: plot, dialogue and especially characterizations. The story within the stories is the relationship between Det. Insp. Richard Thornhill and journalist Jill Francis, and that is as riveting as the mysteries themselves. Thornhill and Francis reveal themselves to us slowly, layer by layer. Each book in this series has gotten better, with an eighth one to be published soon. Lucky for us!


It's bad enough being a prepubescent teenager, but can you imagine learning at the age of 14 that you're a hermaphrodite? Such is the story at the center of Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. Although, to be fair, the story is much more than that. It's about the history of a Greek family and their assimilation into the U.S. culture. It's about Detroit and it's about the changing mores of a country. It's a rather long story and at times, I wished Eugenides would have just gotten on with the story, but it did hold my attention until the very last page -- page 527. Even though it was quite implausible at times, at other times it read like a memoir. Poor Eugenides, people must look at him sideways nowadays and wonder if he's actually a hermaphrodite. Sometimes, you can be too good of a writer.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Judgment lost?

I really like Sue Grafton's book -- well, her audiobooks. They're pleasant to listen to as I commute to work and they have a quirky female P.I. who I like -- Kinsey Millhone. I'm up to J is for Judgment with Grafton (still a ways to go till I get to her latest, S is for Silence). I like that Kinsey's family background was expanded in this book. And, for the most part, I was liking the storyline and plot. Now mysteries stretch the limits of credulity all the time, but I was listening to the last chapter and shaking my head. Grafton has Kinsey dive into the freezing ocean to rescue the killer and -- the kicker -- Kinsey and the killer carry on a full-length conversation as they swim and tread water. Now really! I can believe a lot, but swimming after a killer as you try to get their confession? Hmmm, a bit too much.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Our heroines

I've read two books back to back with female P.I.s, strong, independent ones. But they couldn't be further apart. In The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith, we have Aud Torvingen, an ex-cop who teaches defense classes and is always on the defense herself. More than that, she verges on the edge of being a sociopath herself. She likes to be in "the blue place," the place she's transported when she becomes violent. She's a cold person, not the kind you want to meet in a dark alley unless she's a friend. But despite this (or because of it), the book really draws you in. The writing is also quite wonderful, very lyrical. Takes place in Atlanta and Norway.

Birth Marks by Sarah Dunant is my type of book. For starters, it's set in London (and Paris). For mysteries, you can't do better than an English setting, in my mind. Here we have Hannah Wolfe, who is hired to find a missing dancer and then hired to find out why she drowned in a river -- was it suicide or murder? I love Hannah's quips: "Funny how time flies when you're breaking the law," as she breaks the law by picking a lock and entering an apartment. I love that she tries to pick up a guy in a bar and, of course, he's someone who's been following her. And that, nervous over said guy, she pokes herself in the eye with her mascara brush. She's smart, yet vulnerable. The book is also a good commentary on greed and corruption. This is one author I want to keep reading. In fact, Dunant speaks about another book that has just joined my must-read list, Transgressions.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

First Lines

One of my discussion groups had a lively debate on first lines. Here are some of the best ones:

"It was a dark and stormy night. And I know, God damn it, but I can't help it; it was."
A Death on 66 by William Sanders

"It wasn't like they said. It wasn't her entire life flashing before his eyes. Only the part she was pissed off about."
The Sixteenth Man by Thomas B. Sawyer

"We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge."
Darker than Amber by John D. MacDonald

"My mind was on Steinbeck; my foot was on a hand."
Till the End of Tom by Gillian Roberts

"I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer's headless body in the trunk, and all the time I'm thinking I should have put some plastic down."
Gun Monkeys by Victor Gischler

"At least this time I didn't have a lobster clamped to my testicles."
Cast Adrift by Peter Guttridge

"This is a bank robbery," the big man said, his voice muffled by the stocking that covered his head and distorted his features.
"And this, sir, is a drycleaners," the matronly woman behind the counter responded with a frown. "I suggest you try next door".
Foiled Again by Peter Guttridge

"Bill Roberts decided to rob the firecracker stand on account he didn't have a job and not a nickel's worth of money and his mother was dead and kind of freeze-dried in her bedroom."
Freezer Burn by Joe Lansdale

"The so-called extraterrestrials who'd visited Maggody a few months ago had found no sign of intelligent life and I doubted anyone else could either."
Miracles in Maggody by Joan Hess

"It could have been the extra garlic I'd put in the Rogan Josh which woke me at 2:06 am but it was probably the noise Billy Tuckett made falling through the bathroom skylight and killing himself."
Angelhunt by Mike Ripley

"The last camel collapsed at noon."
The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett

"I woke up with a twenty-pound dog wrapped around my head like an Easter bonnet."
False Profits by Patricia Smiley

"It may be only blackmail," said the man in the taxi hopefully.
The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham.

"The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge."
The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe

"On the day his destiny returned to claim him, Ted Mundy was sporting a bowler hat and balancing on a soap box in one of Mad King Ludwig's castles in Bavaria."
Absolute Friends by John Le Carre

"In the crypt of the abbey church at Hallowdene, the monks were boiling their bishop."
The Bone-Pedlar by Sylvian Hamilton

"Countess Judith kept her husband's head in a box."
The Gleemaiden by Sylvian Hamilton

"Which one of you bitches is my mother?"
Lace by Shirley Conran

And for those of you who want even more, this person has devoted an entire blog to first lines, while these folks give out awards to best first lines.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Karin Fossum

If you want a haunting thriller / mystery with a psychological edge, then that's Karin Fossum's books. I read her first book, Don't Look Back, for my online book discussion group, 4 Mystery Addicts. She's a Norwegian writer, her language is very sparse yet she draws you in immediately and never lets go. She starts out leading you in one direction, only to pull a fast one on the reader. And what she does in the beginning, she does in the end, leaving us with a very ambiguous ending -- do we really know who the killer was? It was a very neat trick.

Her second book in the series is He Who Fears the Wolf. It's dark, disturbing and very good. It's more of a psychological thriller really, though, than a mystery. You may very well figure out the killer before the ending, but it's still a powerful read.

Welcome to my blog!

For the past year, I've kept a journal of the books I've read and what I've thought about them. For 2006, I've decided to go public and share those books I love with the rest of you. Hope you enjoy my blog!