Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Caroline Minuscule by Andrew Taylor

Caroline Minuscule by Andrew Taylor
Protagonist: William Dougal
Setting: England
Rating: 4.5
I hate for a year to go by without having read a Taylor novel, so I went back to his first book, published in 1982. Dougal is a graduate student, the type of person who, upon finding his tutor murdered, walks away without alerting anyone; he doesn't want to spoil his dinner plans with girlfriend Amanda. But soon enough, he's enmeshed in the puzzle that killed his professor; it involves Caroline Minuscule (the name of a Medieval script). The payoff involves diamonds, but Dougal and Amanda have an adversary who will stop at nothing.

By the end of the book, Dougal has undergone quite a transformation. He’s also not the usual detective. As Taylor writes, “in a sense William Dougal is a modified Tom Ripley transposed into a British key.”

It's amazing what Taylor packed into a small novel (234 pages in paperback). This novel, in fact, won the John Creasey Award of the Crime Writers' Association and was shortlisted for an Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America. Taylor went on to write seven more novels in the Dougal series. So while I wait for Taylor’s next book in his Lydmouth series, I will continue to dip into the Dougal books. Taylor has written an interesting essay on his first book here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

2008 Tops

This was a good year for books, with some favorite authors again providing solid books, as well as some new-to-me authors, at least one of whom surprised me (I didn’t expect to like his books that much!). Here were my favorites this year:

Two favorites delivered, as always – Ann Cleeves, with White Nights, the second in her Shetland quartet, and Louise Penny with The Cruelest Month, her third in a seasonal quartet. These two rank highest for me. Not surprisingly, there are similarities between the two – beautifully drawn descriptions of the land, the villages and the people. Also, Cleeves and Penny write very much in the vein of traditional mysteries. I will read anything in the crime fiction genre – thrillers, spy novels, noir – but these traditional whodunits satisfy me the most.

The Pure in Heart and The Risk of Darkness, by Susan Hill, both part of the Serrailler series. These two character-driven books barely touched on crime, instead focusing on Simon Serrailler and his family. Not traditional, yet that was fine with me.

Another character-driven series is the one by Scottish author Aline Templeton. Her first three books on DI Marjory Fleming – Cold in the Earth, The Darkness and the Deep, and Lying Dead – were all among my tops. Fleming’s family life, with all its heartbreaks, is a large part of the books, but they also are strong police procedurals. This was a new author, but now is a favorite.

Another series – the surprise one – was Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series, set in Wyoming. A surprise because I thought it would be too cowboyish. But Johnson’s The Cold Dish, Death Without Company and Kindness Goes Unpunished has great characters (no stereotypes) and witty dialogue that reminds me of Robert Parker’s Spenser series. This is a series I now recommend without pause.

My other tops this year included:

The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo, set in Norway. This is a long, complex novel, but still a fast, gripping read.

Slip of the Knife by Denise Mina, the third in her Paddy Meehan series, which will run to five books. Paddy has grown up, and is a well-known Scottish journalist and a mom. The series deals with family relationships and justice. A series that definitely needs to be read in order (no. 1 and no. 2 are The Field of Blood and The Dead Hour).

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. There was a lot of buzz about this book, the first in a series in the Millennium trilogy (Larsson died after writing the third book). The buzz was on target, this time. This Swedish novel, which features the unlikely team of a magazine journalist and a young computer hacker, is long – yet you’ll want to read it in one sitting.

The Writing Class by Jincy Willette is a light, fast, fun read – with murder, to boot! Amy Gallup is a writing teacher at an extension course. For once, she has a great class. But there’s a fly in the ointment – a murderer in the class. Since the police aren’t investigating, the whole class decides to find out which one of them is the killer. A great read!

The Secret History by Donna Tartt was published in 1992, and has become a semi-classic in the genre. It’s another big book that I couldn’t put down, even though you know in the opening pages who the killers are. This is a whodunit in reverse, as the book unveils why and how the murder took place, and then the consequences.

I Shall Not Want by Julia Spencer-Fleming is the latest in her Millers Kill series. This is a series that must be read in order, as the relationship between the Rev. Clare Fergusson and Chief Russ Van Alstyne is pivotal in the books. I love the series, but it does have a romance aspect that not everyone likes.

Finally, two books in which I recommend the audiobook version, because the narrator does such a good job of bringing these characters alive:

Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris has wonderful plotting that revolves around a boy’s school and an outsider that pretends to be a student (and later a teacher), hoping to exact revenge. Another teacher, though, stands in the way. The plot unfolds like a chess game, although it’s the author who is always a move ahead of you.

No Time for Goodbye by Linwood Barclay takes an unlikely event – teenager Cynthia Bigge’s entire family disappears from her home overnight – and gives us a readable, likely plot. Twenty-five years, after a television show about the old mystery, strange events threaten Cynthia and her family. I’m not a huge fan of thrillers, but this one had me sitting in the car long after I had pulled into the driveway.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Pick of the Month: The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny
Protagonist: Chief Insp. Armand Gamache
Setting: Three Pines, Canada
Rating: 5.0

If a book of crime fiction can be a comfort read, this is it. Despite the murder, and all the other small cruelties and jealousies in this story, I still want to live in Three Pines. There's a warmth that resides there, at Olivier's Bistro, where you can have cafe au lait and fresh-baked croissants. In the woods, the village green, the shops. At the homes, where books, beautiful art and food welcome visitors.

Well, most homes. Not at the old Hadley House, where the familiar group of Three Pines residents decides on a lark to hold a seance. One of the group, though, is literally scared to death. Gamache and his team move temporary headquarters into Three Pines. While investigating the murder, Gamache finds himself threatened by his enemies at the Sûreté, more than ever.

Throughout the book, Penny lays small clues along the way, much as the villagers in the opening scene carefully hid Easter eggs. When the murderer is revealed, in a traditional Poirot-like scene, everything clicks into place. Mysteries are puzzles, and Penny has beautifully laid out each piece, but we don't see the big picture until that final piece is in place.

This is the third in the series, and there is some resolution regarding Gamache and his future at the Sûreté. But there are some threads left hanging at the end of the book, and so we look forward to book 4 (A Rule Against Murder, being published Jan. 20th in the U.S.). I suspect some of those threads will begin to unravel.

December Reads

The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black (audio)
Protagonist: Gannet Quirke
Setting: Dublin, 1950s
Rating: 4.5
This is the second in the series by Black (author John Banville, who uses a pseudonym for his crime fiction) about a pathologist investigator. Quirke is asked by former school acquaintance Billy Hunt to forego a postmortem on his wife, the attractive Deirdre Hunt, owner of The Silver Swan beauty parlor. Of course, Quirke is now curious, and a look at the body reveals a needle mark. Deirdre, pulled from a river, was thought to have been a suicide. The scenes of Quirke’s investigation are interwoven with flashbacks of Deirdre’s life. Quirke’s daughter also becomes entangled in the investigation when she starts a relationship with Deirdre’s lover. In this series, it really pays to have read the first book, since the second has more resonance if you know the history. While I liked Black’s first book, Christine Falls, for its lush prose, I found The Silver Swan an even better book. In addition to that wonderful prose, there is a very good mystery here.

A Christmas Beginning by Anne Perry
Protatonist: Superintendent Runcorn
Setting: Island of Anglesey off the north coast of Wales
Rating: 4.0
Superintendent Runcorn of Scotland Yard is on vacation in Wales when he comes across a young woman’s body in the village churchyard. Although a chief constable is called in from the mainland, it soon becomes clear that someone more experienced is needed, and so Runcorn steps in. Runcorn, a lifelong bachelor at 50, also finds himself falling in love. Runcorn is also a central character in the William Monk series, but nonreaders of the series (such as I) can still enjoy this novella.

Legally Dead by Edna Buchanan
Protagonist: Michael Venturi
Setting: South Florida
Rating: 3.5
This is the first in a new series in which Venturi, a deputy U.S. marshal in the Federal Witness Protection Program, takes matters into his own hands when he finds out that a mobster they’ve been protecting has been sexually assaulting and killing young girls. This, of course, gets him fired. Venturi moves to Florida, where he (with some help from friends) start staging fake deaths for people they feel are deserving – who’ve been falsely accused of something, for instance, but still are villified. Declared “legally dead,” they can begin their new lives in another country under new names. One after another, “clients” start appearing. The number of clients is a bit of a stretch, but I did like these individual stories. But soon, something goes wrong. Someone is killing those whom Venturi protected as a U.S. marshal -– and then someone kills one of his innocent clients. While the book has some faults, such as some thinly-drawn characters and a plot that goes overboard at times –- it was a fun, fast read for me.

Strange Affair by Peter Robinson (audio)
Protagonist: Insp. Alan Banks
Setting: London
Rating: 4.0
This is the 15th in the series, but this is not a problem if you haven't read the rest (or just read one other, like myself). Banks is on a leave of absence, dealing already with personal problems, when his somewhat estranged brother leaves a message on his answering machine, asking for help. Unable to reach him, Banks drives to London, only to find his brother's door unlocked -- and no sign of his brother. Meanwhile, a woman driver is killed on the highway. And Banks' address is in her back pocket. As partner Annie Cabbot investigates the death, it soon becomes clear that there's a link between the two incidents. A police procedural, this is also a heart-wrenching novel. It makes me want to go back and start the series in order.

Caught Out in Cornwall by Janie Bolitho
Protagonist: Rose Trevelyan
Setting: Penzance, Cornwall, England
Rating: 3.5
Rose Trevelyan almost always seems to be in the right place (or maybe the wrong place) at the right time. Here, she witnesses a man scoop up a little girl at the beach, and minutes later realizes she's seen a kidnapping, when a little girl goes missing. Rose, who is dating Det. Insp. Jack Pearce, is soon nosing around. This was not a book that grabbed me and made me want to read more in the series, but it was still pleasurable enough. The characters were barely sketched and the mystery was easily solved beforehand, but Bolitho's descriptions of Cornwall made up for that. This is the seventh in the series, and the last, as Bolitho has passed away.

The Church of Dead Girls by Stephen Dobyns
Setting: Town of Aurelius, upstate New York
Rating: 4.3
This is not a crime novel in the usual sense, although several crimes are committed. It's about how a small town reacts when three girls, one after another, are abducted. The three girls are never found alive -- but we know that from the opening pages -- so this is really not about them. It's about the rest of the town. Residents begin to turn on each other, suspect each other, and even attack each other. Although Dobyns has written a mystery series, this falls more into the category of psychological thriller.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling
Rating: 3.3
This is a slim children's book (can be read in an hour or less), and I'd only recommend it for the die-hard Potter fan. These fairy tales, especially the last one ("The Tale of the Three Brothers") plays a part in the last Potter book. As such, it's a nice edition to the Potter folklore.

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

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The best of the year

It's that time of the year. Lists of best crime fiction books of the year are appearing all over (my own top 10 pick will come in a few weeks; I still need to mull, and maybe read a book or two).

At The New York Times, Marilyn Stasio’s picks make me realize that I’m far behind in all the books I wanted to read this year; she names several on my list. Sarah Weinman, writing for the Los Angeles Times, has an entirely different list of top books.

NPR’s Maureen Corrigan picks five (only five!) crime fiction books for her list. From the Brits, Marcel Berlins at The Times offers a list, as well.

And, finally, if you like your holidays with a little crime, then Tom Nolan at The Wall Street Journal offers Christmas-themed mysteries.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Around the blogs

Books to the Ceiling has a great post on The New York Times' 100 notable books for 2008, which include only four crime fiction books. Writes blogger Roberta Rood: "I cheerfully acknowledge that most of the fiction I read is crime fiction. IMHO, that’s where you’ll find great writing, great characters, terrific stories - and blessedly little self-conscious, hyper-literary posturing."

There are all sorts of blog challenges. Here's one I may or may not officially join for 2009: Read your own books. The truth is that was my own personal challenge this year. I have at least 200 unread books (OK, closer to 300). I had thought to make a dent in them, but I kept adding books faster than I read them. And I kept hearing about books that I had to check out of the library. Considering I only read between 60-70 books a year, it's going to take a while to winnow down that pile. Plus, there's also a 2009 Support Your Local Library challenge. What's a reader to do?!

Finally, I came across the literature map quite by accident, but it's a fun little spot. You type in the name of an author and suddenly all these names will float across your screen, with the most closely related near your original name. It's fun to play with, even if you don't agree with all the choices.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Pick of the Month: The Writing Class by Jincy Willett

The Writing Class by Jincy Willett
Protagonist: Amy Gallup
Setting: Southern California
Rating: 5.0

Every once in a while comes a book that I drag from room to room, because it literally is hard to put down. The Writing Class is that book. Willett takes a conventional murder mystery format (the closed community), but gives it a fresh, dark humor twist. Amy Gallup is a fiction writing teacher at an extension college. She's also, as Willett writes, a "bitter, peculiar person" who lives alone with her dog and hasn't written herself for years. But, for once, Amy finds that she has a writing class that really clicks -- 13 people of varying degrees of talent. Yet almost immediately class members and Amy start receiving poison pen letters, then prank calls. It spirals out of control, until one class member is seemingly murdered. The police won't investigate, thinking it's an accident. So it's up to the class members, which include the killer, to figure out the mystery.

Willett has drawn each character so well that you really don't want any of them to be the murderer. Throughout the book, Amy draws up lists for her blog. So I, pen in hand, was soon making a list of each class member, trying to figure out the whodunnit (I never did). A few pages later, Amy herself has drawn up the same list (still no help).

The book also works on another level, for whoever has ever wanted to be a writer or just loves language. Willett includes parts of students' stories, some very good, some so bad they make you laugh. The critiques and Amy's lessons make you feel part of the class, as well as providing clues about each character.

The Writing Class hasn't gotten much buzz, which is unfortunate. This is a funny, well-crafted mystery, very worthy of reading.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

November reads

No Time for Goodbye by Linwood Barclay (audio)
Protagonist: Cynthia and Terry Archer
Setting: Milford, Connecticut
Rating: 5.0
One morning, 14-year-old Cynthia wakes up and her entire family has vanished from their suburban home – no note, no bodies. For 25 years, she wonders and waits. But after a television show does a story on the disappearance for the 25th anniversary, strange occurrences begin to happen. Cynthia’s husband doesn’t know whether to believe his wife – or believe she’s making things happen. To say anything else about the plot would be unfair. But this thriller is a grabber – from beginning to end, even when you figure out what’s really happening. This will make my top 10 reads for the year.

A Death in Vienna by Daniel Silva (audio)
Protagonist: Gabriel Allon
Setting: Vienna and Venice
Rating: 4.5
After an explosion at the Wartimes Claims and Inquiry office, spy and art restorer Allon is sent to Vienna – a bit unwillingly, as this is where his wife and son were victims of a car bomb. There are also other reasons why Allon is not welcome in Vienna. Those reasons intensify when Allon begins hunting down a Nazi official. Amid all this, we learn Allon’s mother was a Holocaust survivor. Silva does wonderfully in weaving all the threads together, in a powerful, moving spy thriller. Although this is the last of three interconnected novels, it stands very well alone.

A Carrion Death by Michael Stanley
Protagonist: Assistant Police Superintendent David “Kubu” Bengu
Setting: Botswana
Rating: 3.7
This is the debut novel by authors Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, and introduces Kubu, whose nickname means “hippo,” appropriate to the detective, who is always thinking of his next meal. But Kubu is also a thinking detective, and watching him connect the dots is a delight in this novel that opens with a body found in a remote gaming area, hyenas grazing on it. The case keeps returning to the influential Botswana Cattle and Mining, and the bodies keep piling up. Although I thought the pace lagged at some points, overall I found it an entertaining read – and the setting of Botswana add to the pleasure.

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

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Books for the Holiday

My blogging friend Amy, who has done much for promoting book blogs, now is promoting buying books for the holidays. Her new blog has recommendations for all ages.

Now this is nothing new in this household. My wish lists have always included books. And I love to give books -- especially to the nieces and nephews. This year, older stepson-to-be mentioned he liked the Hardy Boys. Mysteries! My favorite genre! Coincidentially, my friends at 4Mystery Addicts supplied a list of mysteries for young readers at about the same time. You can guess what he'll be getting from me.

But holiday books don't always have to be fiction. My brother and sister-in-law often get books on modern architecture or interior design (they hope to build a modernist home in upstate New York). My sister and mother get books on scrapbooking. My brother once gave me a lavish cookbook/travelogue on Spain. Cookbooks often make wonderful gifts.

I do have one recommendation this holiday season: Green Christmas: How to Have a Joyous, Eco-Friendly Holiday Season by Jennifer Basye Sander and Peter Sander. Some of their tips will make you rethink what the holiday season really is about.

Have a happy one!

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Other October reads

Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (audio)
Protagonist: Juliet Ashton
Setting: London and Guernsey island
Rating: 4.5
Juliet is a journalist who usually writes light, fluffy stories about the war. After the war, she seeks something of more substance to write about -- and stumbles upon the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, formed when the island was under Nazi occupation. Eventually, Juliet decides she has to leave London and visit the island to write her book. The story is told through letters, telegraphs and journals, and is not so much about books as it is about connections between people.

The Black Path by Asa Larsson
Protagonist: Rebecka Martinsson and Insp. Ana-Maria Mella
Setting: Sweden
Rating: 3.7
A woman is found dead on a frozen lake, and police soon discover she was a key player in a large mining company. That's the crime, but the book also delves into the minds of many of its characters, including Rebecka, who has just returned to work after being the victim of a crime herself (I do feel as if I missed something in not reading the first book in this series). Other people raved about this book. For me, it was a good read, but it is a dark and often uncomfortable book to read.

Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre (audio)
Protagonist: Parlabene
Setting: Edinburgh, Scotland
Rating: 3.2
When his neighbor is found dead, and journalist Parlabene ends up as a suspect for about a day, he decides to investigate. This book has awful amounts of bloodshed, throw-up and fecal matter -- and that's just in the first chapter. If you can handle that, there's also a dark sense of humor and great writing. While I could appreciate the book, not an author I'd probably return to.

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

Monday, October 27, 2008

Interview with Ann Cleeves

Ann Cleeves has become a favorite author. While I really enjoyed her Vera Stanhope novels, her Shetland series has made me a devoted fan (and others, judging from the success of it). In the Shetland books, she writes of a place bleak yet beautiful, with characters whose families go back generations in an insular community, and so secrets are often kept for years -- in short, a perfect setting for murder.

Cleeves graciously agreed to answer some questions about her novels and writing. Below is my interview with her:

Q. Your latest series, the Shetland quartet, is set on the remote, isolated Shetland Islands. Can you tell us how you came to set your series there?

I first went to Shetland more than thirty years ago. I'd dropped out of college and a friend got me a job as assistant cook in the Bird Observatory on Fair Isle, one of the more remote islands in the group. I couldn't cook and knew nothing about birds... but I loved it. And my cooking must have been OK because I went back the following year as head cook! I met my husband there and we've been back to the Isle and to Shetland mainland many times since. In fact I'm writing this on the train south after a visit to friends there. RAVEN BLACK was conceived after a visit in mid-winter. The place was beautiful - very cold, snow and ice and a big orange sun. There were three ravens, very black against the snow. I thought if there was blood too it would be a stunning image. And primitive, like a fairy story. I wanted to explore what it is to be an outsider - the islands provide a great background for that.

Q. You’d been writing for about 20 years before the publication of Raven Black (the first in the quartet and winner of the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award for the best crime novel of the year) brought you greater success. How does it feel to achieve such success after you’ve been writing for so long?

Absolutely wonderful! And very lucky. It's hard for mid-list writers to be recognised late in their career. There are lots of good writers who haven't received the recognition they deserve, so I hope publishers will look again at their established lists and look at new ways to promote the authors already there. I don't take anything for granted. This is a precarious business. All you can do is write the best possible book and hope that readers enjoy it.

Q. From the very beginning, your books have featured birds – and birdwatchers in the Palmer-Jones series. How did this come about?

My husband is a passionate birder. I started writing seriously when he was warden of Hilbre, a tiny tidal island nature reserve in the Dee estuary on the west coast of England. We were the only residents and lived in an old telegraph cottage. There was no mains water or electricity and there wasn't much else to do. I met lots of birders through him. Most of them were great people, but definitely obsessed! Obsession is a good subject for a crime novel. I killed off a birdwatcher in the first book. The fourth Shetland book returns to the world of birding and is set in Fair Isle. Almost like going back to where it all started.

Q. How do you create your characters? Do they pop up in your mind unannounced, or are they based on people you know?

When I started off I was a very lazy writer and the characters were based on people I knew. Now they're all made up. I think about them all the time when I'm writing. They're lurking in the back of my brain somewhere, so when they come out on the page, it's as if I'm writing from memory not imagination.

Q. Your third Shetland book, Red Bones, is scheduled for publication in February. What’s next after the Shetland series? Will you return to another of your series or start something new?

I'm working on the last book in the Shetland quartet now - one reason for spending the last week there. After that I'll write a Vera Stanhope novel. She's a cop based in Northumberland and I enjoy writing her. Also, HIDDEN DEPTHS, one of the books in which she features has just been optioned for TV here, and it would be good to have a new book out to coincide with a possible film! After that? I'm not sure. I haven't definitely given up on Shetland though.

Q. You recently toured the East Coast of the United States and attended Bouchercon in Baltimore. What were your impressions of the U.S. during this trip?

I always enjoy visiting the U.S. I love the space and the energy and the hospitality of the people. This time I sensed a lack of confidence, a questioning of accepted values. I don't think that's a bad thing. I admire the way people seem to be engaged in politics again - the people on the street checking that residents are registered to vote, kids talking about policies and politicians. It was certainly an interesting time to be there.

Q. Who are the authors you love to read?

A. My favourite authors in the UK are Andrew Taylor and John Harvey, but my real reading passion is translated crime fiction from Scandinavia and mainland Europe. I enjoy Dominique Manotti's work and was delighted when she won the International Dagger this year. Her translators are magnificent! For something light and witty I go for Andrea Camilleri who sets his books in Sicily: you get a wonderful sense of the heat and the food - and the absurd nature of Italian politics. He's brilliantly translated too.

Q. My 10-year-old stepson recently decided he’s going to write a book, and he’s considering two genres: either mystery or science fiction. He asked for my opinion, but now I’ll ask you: why mystery? What’s so special about writing in the mystery genre?

Mystery works for me because I don't have to worry about the plot. If you write in the English tradition - as I do - the plot is really set out in advance. There's a murder, a limited number of suspects, some resolution at the end. That leaves me the space to explore the stuff I really enjoy: relationships, families, the influence of place on people. I like playing with the rules of the form. And I am a real sucker for the cheap thrill of the surprise ending.

Photo courtesy of Duncan Lawrie Private Bank. For more information on Ann Cleeves, visit her website.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

White Nights by Ann Cleeves

White Nights by Ann Cleeves
Protagonist: Det. Jimmy Perez
Setting: Shetland Islands
Rating: 5.0

This is Cleeves’ second book in the Shetland quartet, and where the first one left us with the haunting image of black ravens against white snow, this one is set in the summer, where the nights are long and white, because the sun hardly sets. Amid the isolation of the Shetland Islands (very much a closed community), a strange thing happens at a gallery art opening where Perez’s friend Fran is exhibiting. A man starts sobbing, and falls to the floor. When Perez takes him away, the man claims to have amnesia, and has no identification on him. The next day, he’s found dead. Throughout the book, there’s constant mention of another man who went missing years ago, so you know he will soon play a part in the plot. Cleeves cleverly weaves a story about a close-knit community and long-kept secrets. While I figured out who might be the murderer, there was still a shocker at the end.

As murder mysteries, the Shetland quartet is superb. But I also enjoy it for the setting. As Cleeves has said herself, hardly anyone has set stories in this part of the world. While part of Scotland, Shetland has a Norse past that is still celebrated in the annual Up Helly Aa festival, featured in the first book. Cleeves continues to let us look into the lives of Shetlanders in this book, from the fiddle music (to hear it, go to YouTube and seek out Shetland fiddle music) to the shearing of the sheep, described in a beautiful little passage.

White Night was recently released in the United States. The third in the quartet, Red Bones, will be released in the U.K. in February. I highly recommend this series!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Diary of an Eccentric

As part of BBAW, I was paired up for an interview with fellow blogger Anna at Diary of an Eccentric, who writes about knitting, being a mom and -- mostly -- about reading. What I like most about Anna's blog are the author interviews. I've already added several books to my TBR list after reading her interviews and reviews. And for those who like to knit, by the way, some great photos and patterns (I myself will admit to having only learned to knit scarves). Please check out her wonderful blog!

Here's my Q and A with Anna:

Your blog says you write about reading, writing, knitting, and being a mom. Is there one interest, though, that you write the most about?

Definitely books. Books have taken over my life, and I'm thrilled! (My husband isn't, though, considering I now need another book shelf. Or two. But who's counting?) Writing and reading always have been my passions, and I love being able to write about what I read.

Can you tell us about yourself and your life, your interests?

First and foremost, I'm a wife and the mother of a beautiful, intelligent 8-year-old girl (dubbed "The Girl" on my blog...and I'm not biased or anything LOL). I work full-time as an editor and writer in the D.C. area, and in my spare time, I read, write book reviews, knit a few stitches, and work on the novel and short-story collection I hope to someday publish. I also love to stroll through nature, though a rambunctious kid makes it difficult to do much strolling!

Why did you start a blog, and how long have you been doing it? Has it evolved since you started it?

I started blogging a little more than a year ago, and my plan at the time was to catalog my knitting projects and discuss books and writing on the side. I've always been a bookworm, and when I started taking public transit to work, I suddenly had a little more than 3 hours per day of free time. Rather than spend it sleeping through my stops, I started reading one or two books a week. And when the unfinished knitting projects started piling up in my knitting basket, I found it easy to transform my blog into a space for my thoughts on books. I've also started interviewing authors, and that's been a wonderful experience. I still plan to post pictures of my knitting projects when I finish them, but knitting definitely has taken a backseat to books, and I've never been happier!

Your blog has some interesting interviews with authors. Has it been hard getting authors to commit to interviews?

Actually, it hasn't been hard at all! I'm finding that authors love the free publicity, which is great because I love trading emails with them and learning things about them and their writing processes that I can put to good use. And I'm making some friends. Generally, I just contact the author by email to let him or her know how much I've enjoyed their book, and then I ask if they'd be willing to answer a few questions by email at their convenience. So far, all the authors I've contacted have been so friendly and enthusiastic.

Is there one genre of books you read the most? What do you like about that genre?

I don't tend to stick to one genre. I just look for good books. I don't even have a definition for a "good" book...I just know it when I see it. I'm a sucker for a good family saga, though. I love books that cover a particular family over many generations, and I don't really know why. I've always been drawn to these books, and I think it's because I like seeing the characters evolve over many years. My favorites are "Liars and Saints" and "A Family Daughter" by Maile Meloy.

What's been the best experience you've had since you started blogging about books?

I've had tons of great experiences. "Meeting" fellow book bloggers, landing my first author interview, being contacted for the first time by a publisher to give away books on my blog, being contacted by an author who noticed I was currently reading her book, and being asked by an author to write a guest post on her blog. Those were BIG for me! But I really love when someone says a review that I wrote prompted them to read a particular book. It's always about the books and passing on my passion for reading.

What are some great books you've read recently that you'd recommend?

I'm not sure there's enough space to list them all! I loved Michelle Moran's Nefertiti, Ann Patchett's Run, Jennifer Cody Epstein's The Painter From Shanghai, Kate Veitch's Without a Backward Glance, Phyllis Zimbler Miller's Mrs. Lieutenant, and John Addiego's The Islands of Divine Music. An older book I read recently and really enjoyed was Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible.

What is your favorite book blog?

I have to give a shout out to my good friend Serena at Savvy Verse & Wit. I've seen her site evolve over the past year. I also enjoy reading Booking Mama, Literarily, Book Escape, Books on the Brain, The Written Word, and the list goes on. There's scores of great book blogs out there, which probably explains why the number of unread posts in Bloglines is usually in the hundreds!!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

Didn't know there was such a thing? Well, there is.

BBAW was started this year by blogger My Friend Amy, who explains why: "Acknowledging the hard work of book bloggers and their growing impact on book marketing and their essential contribution to book buzz in general, I am excited to announce the first Book Blogger Appreciation Week. Think of it as a retreat for book bloggers and a chance for us to totally nerd out over books together. And of course, shower each other with love and appreciation."

There will be events all week long at My Friend Amy's blog and others: awards for best blogs in many categories, giveaways, interviews, etc. For daily giveaways, see here. There will be over 100 books, plus other goodies, given away!

But the best thing about BBAW may be discovering new blogs; I've come across several good ones already. One of those is my interview partner Anna, whose interview I will post here on Tuesday. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

September reads

Death Without Company by Craig Johnson (2nd in series)
Protagonist: Sheriff Walt Longmire
Setting: Wyoming
Rating: 4.8
Visiting the old sheriff, Lucian Connally, in the Durant Home for Assisted Living, Longmire is drawn into what at first seems a natural death, that of Mari Baroja. Lucian is convinced it's murder, and turns out he's right. But that only begins the unraveling of decades-old secrets. Johnson's debut novel was wonderful, with witty, wise-cracking characters. They're back -- and this novel is just as good as the first one.

The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer (memoir, audio)
Rating: 3.7
Someone recommended this, simply telling me it was a memoir about a journalist on Long Island, N.Y. That was enough to intrigue me, a journalist on Long Island. Well, because the memoir covers Moehringer's life from childhood to young adulthood, there's actually little of his journalistic career in this. This is a tale of growing up with an absent father, a loving mother and a cast of characters -- mainly the men from the Manhasset, Long Island bar who help raise him, including bartender Charlie, his uncle. They take him to the beach as a child, and, perhaps more importantly, give J.R. the gift of storytelling. There are other men in his life -- such as Bill and Bud, the managers of a bookstore who give J.R. his first job, an education in books and the push he needs to apply to Yale. While this book dragged out a little too long toward the end, it's still a nice tale, very well told.

December Heat by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza (2nd in series)
Protagonist: Insp. Espinosa
Setting: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rating: 4.2
After a drunken night with his companion, a prostitute, a retired cop finds her murdered the next morning. Because of the alcohol, he can't remember anything. Worse yet, his belt was used in the murder, and his wallet and ID are gone. I'd read another in the Espinosa series and didn't like it as much. But here, Espinosa partners with the retired cop, Vieira, and the two work to solving this murder, along with other killings that follow them -- and soon threaten their own lives. The chemistry between the two makes this a much more readable, entertaining book.

Kindness Goes Unpunished
by Craig Johnson (3rd in series)
Protagonist: Sheriff Walt Longmire
Setting: Philadelphia
Rating: 4.5
This time, the setting changes to Philadelphia. Walt and Henry Standing Bear travel to Philly, Henry to set up an exhibit of Indian photographs and Walt to visit his daughter. But before he even has a chance to see Cady, she suffers a vicious attack that leaves her in a coma. There's no way that Walt will stay out of this investigation, of course. Like Johnson's first two books, this is a solid, well-crafted detective story. If I deducted any points, it was because it was set in Philadelphia. Part of the charm of the books is the Wyoming setting. Still, this is a highly enjoyable series -- one I'll continue.

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Protagonist: Tom Ripley
Setting: Italy
Rating: 4.0
If you've seen the movie and think you know the plot, you don't. The book is quite different from the movie, with only broad strokes connecting the two. The initial premise is the same: Tom Ripley is asked by Dickie Greenleaf's father to go to Italy to try to persuade his son to return to the U.S., where Dickie's mother is in bad health. Once there, though, Tom decides he likes Italy and, later, he likes being Dickie Greenleaf. But in the book, Tom is much more of a cold-blooded sociopath, with an ending that is very different than the movie.

The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith (audio, 4th in series)
Protagonist: Isabel Dalhousie
Setting: Edinburgh
Rating: 3.8
This book moves Isabel in an entirely different direction -- here, she's the mother of baby Charlie, her son with Jamie, a younger man (and the ex-boyfriend of her niece Cat). Although Cat was the one to end the relationship with Jamie, there's now a chill in the air. Isabel has also been ousted from her job as editor of a philosophy journal in a political move, although she extracts her revenge. There's a lot of pondering about philosophy and morality, but the story really picks up when Isabel decides to meddle, as she is wont to do, and uncovers a little mystery surrounding paintings that may be forgeries.

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

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Pick of the Month -- Gentlemen and Players

Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris (on audiobook)
Setting: St. Oswald's Grammar School for Boys, England
Rating: 5.0
"It is the game, not he who plays it," Roy Straitley, Latin master at St. Oswald's, tells his nemesis at one point. But oh, this book is about the players as much as the game. The narration alternates between Straitley and Snyde, whose father once was the school's porter. It also flashes back to Snyde's childhood, one spent yearning to be part of St. Oswald's. Eventually, Snyde steals a school uniform and sneaks into St. Oswald's, becoming fast friends with student Leon. But all this pretense leads to drastic consequences, and 15 years later, Snyde is back, masquerading as a teacher and seeking revenge, maybe even murder. Can Straitley, now near retirement, stop Snyde? This book was riveting, and made all the better by narrator Steven Pacey, who with just slight changes of voice, brings us the two narrators. The book will definitely be on my top 10 this year, and I give it a perfect rating, not finding one thing wrong with it!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Kindle That!

In Sunday's review of books, New York Times reviewer Marilyn Stasio has this to say about books vs. the Kindle:

"Honestly, the ideas some people try to put in our heads. Like the absurd notion that you shouldn’t choose a book by its cover. What better reason to reach for one of the compact, beautifully designed, irresistibly tactile Penguin paperback editions of Georges Simenon’s great Inspector Maigret mysteries than the pure desire to hold such a pretty thing in your hand? And then, maybe open it. Read a page or two. Get lost. I confess I made my first two selections (“The Hotel Majestic” and “The Bar on the Seine,” $12 each) on the sheer basis of looks because, regardless of the fact that classic Maigret is an incomparable pleasure even in a ratty edition, this particular series is a work of art. As executed by Jesse Marinoff Reyes, each cover is black, with the silvered lines and squared-off typography of Art Deco, and edged in color with a different geometric design. Many also have period cover photographs by Brassaï that are their own invitation to step inside a long-lost Parisian world. To look is to lust; to touch is to swoon. So — Kindle that, people!"

I, personally, have nothing against the Kindle. I listen to audiobooks, after all. Still, I do love the tactile feel of turning the page, and seeing the words on the page. And while I don't usually buy books based on the covers, I do admire a well-crafted book. I've bought some vintage books based just on the "look" of them -- after all, I had no real need for that little yellow edition of "The Observer's Book of Common Fungi."

Thursday, July 10, 2008

New author websites

It's always hard to know if a new author will hit home with you. That's why it's so important that they have websites or blogs where you can, well, sort of test-drive them. One good example is over at the Detective Kubu site. Detective Kubu is a new series (one book published, one in the works) by Michael Stanley (the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. It's set in Botswana, but don't confuse it with Alexander McCall-Smith's Precious Ramotswe. This series seems quite different. For a preview, check out the short story on their site.

Over at Mystery Turtles, nine authors blog about their lives and about getting published. In the latest post, author Morgan Mandel wonders if the price of gas will affect the number of books being published since, for some people, buying books is a luxury.

For those with thoughts of becoming a writer, Radine Trees Nehring has written a multi-part blog entry on what it takes to get published. It's very comprehensive.

Murderous Musings is another website I'll have to bookmark. Here six authors talk about everything -- from the Dexter novels to their murder weapon of choice (for their characters, of course!).

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

July reads

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (audio)
Protagonists: Edward and Florence
Setting: Chesil Beach, England
Rating: 4.5
As always, McEwan is a masterful manipulator of words -- and the reader's emotions. There's not much I can say about the book without giving away what happens. It does mostly center on one night -- the wedding night of a young, inexperienced couple. Edward is looking forward to it; Florence is terrified. It's a story of love, chances not taken, and regret. I especially recommend the audiobook, which has an interview with McEwan, explaining the choices he made in the book.

We Shall Not Sleep by Anne Perry
Protagonists: Reavley family
Setting: Western Front, 1918
Rating: 4.6
In this, the last of the five-book arc that spans World War I, the war is almost over, anticipated to end in a few weeks. But the Reavley siblings are rushing to uncover the man they call "the Peacemaker," who was behind their parents' murder and who seeks to break any stability that peace may bring. They get their break when his German counterpart crosses the line to meet with intelligence services officer Matthew Reavley. But before they can get him to London, a nurse is viciously murdered on the front, and the Reavleys have to find her killer before they can move the German officer. Although this book was not as strong as others in the series, it wraps up all the loose ends nicely -- and finishes on a perfect note. I highly recommend this series.

I Shall Not Want by Julia Spencer-Fleming
Protagonists: Rev. Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne
Setting: Millers Kill
Rating: 4.8
It's been two months since the accident that killed Russ' wife, and he and Clare haven't spoken in all that time. But then an accident involving undocumented Mexican migrants brings them together, and soon they are solving a string of deaths. Meanwhile, a new character, Hadley Knox, is introduced -- one that Spencer-Fleming has said may spin off into another series. Spencer-Fleming manages to pair a controversial topic -- illegal immigrants -- with a trio of love stories, the main one, of course, being the relationship between Clare and Russ. The author, however, isn't done with the Clare and Russ story -- this book ends on another cliffhanger.

Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith
Protagonist: Arkady Renko
Setting: Moscow
Rating: 3.6
Renko, an investigator for the prosecutor's office, is given a thankless assignment: investigate sightings of Stalin (yes, the dead dictator) on a subway platform. At the same time, Renko is investigating (not officially, of course) two colleagues he believes are corrupt -- heroes of the Chechen War, to boot. Throw in a homeless boy, a chess master whom Renko had taken into his home and who has now disappeared, and a lover who leaves Renko for one of the Chechen war heroes, and you have several plot devices that somehow manage to come together in the end. The book was a little too convoluted for me, but nevertheless an interesting look at modern Russia.

Ruling Passion by Reginald Hill (third in the series)
Protagonists: Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe
Setting: Thornton Lacey
Rating: 4.3
Peter Pascoe and his girlfriend Ellie set off for a countryside visit to their friends. But on arrival, they find a grisly scene: three of their friends dead and one of them missing. The missing man is the main, and only, suspect, but Peter and Ellie know he couldn't have killed his wife and friends. As usual, Hill delivers a wonderful story full of humor (amid the murders and other crime). Take for example, one slow-speed chase across a cluttered antiques shop involving Dalziel, already in bad humor from having to diet. More than 30 years after it was written, still fresh and funny!

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

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Favorite authors and more

Oh, happy day! My library system has a new program in which you can sponsor books. Each time your author writes a new book, you can pay for the book (at the library's lower cost) and be the first patron to read the book (with an expanded due date, too!). Thanks to the program, this weekend I walked away with I Shall Not Want, the sixth in Julia Spencer-Fleming's series. I discovered JSP last year and devoured all five books. As JSP says in this interview at Bookreporter, there will be a seventh novel, but the series will be limited. I'm not averse to that -- I think series should have a limit. But I will be digging into I Shall Not Want very soon!

One favorite author, Martin Edwards, writes about another favorite author, Peter Lovesey, and his most recent book, The Headhunters. Hmmm, another to add to my TBR list.

Susan Hill (yes, another favorite author. I have a long list, OK?) writes that she was puzzled about a recent review of the Serrailler series (the third of which is on my nightstand).

And over at The Washington Post, publisher Jonathan Karp has a must-read piece on the state of publishing. And what happens to books that don't sell ...

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Around the blogs

Robert Fate, who has written a great series about a tough, young woman, is interviewed at Poe's Deadly Daughters. He shares with us good news: Baby Shark, the first in the series, might well become a movie. We hope so -- it would make a terrific movie.

Fate has written his books in the voice of a young woman. One of my favorite authors, Andrew Taylor, has written about why this is so hard for men to do sometimes. His advice to male writers: "Just shut up and listen."

At In For Questioning, another great interview, this time with Scottish writer Donna Moore (Go to Helena Handbasket). Moore's a hoot, and so is this interview.

June reads

The Darkness and the Deep by Aline Templeton (2nd in a series)
Protagonist: Det. Insp. Marjory Fleming
Setting: Kirkluce, Scotland
Rating: 4.7
When a lifeboat rescue crew of three hits a rocky shore and dies, it turns out to be murder -- lights were set out that diverted them from their landing site. Then a fourth member of the rescue crew is killed in a hit-and-run. Templeton writes in the classic, cozy tradition, but brings real-life situations to her mysteries: drugs, underage pregnancy and anorexia (Fleming's daughter, in this case). In this second book, we also delve more into Fleming's team: Tam McNee, who loves to quote Scottish poet Robert Burns, the young Tansy Kerr and a newcomer out to prove himself, Jonathan Kingsley. Can they overcome their jockeying for Fleming's favor to solve the murders? Wonderfully written mystery -- fast becoming one of my favorite series.

Lying Dead by Aline Templeton (3rd in series)
Protagonist: Det. Insp. Marjory Fleming
Setting: Drunmbreck, Scotland
Rating: 4.9
When a young woman is found dead in the woods, Fleming and her team first have to find out who she is. With Fleming out of town for a day, two of her officers seem to have wrapped up the case -- or have they? Another murder is committed, one that can't be pinned on the first suspect. In the meantime, the divisions in Fleming's department widen to an unbearable point. With tensions high, Templeton delivers a whopper of an ending. With the year half-over, I think Templeton will be my find of the year -- a writer using the classic traditions of mystery in a fresh, powerful way.

Ammunition by Ken Bruen
Protagonist: Det. Sgt. Brant
Setting: Southeast London
Rating: 3.0
Four pages into the book, the amoral, unlikable Brant is shot and taken to the hospital. As he tries to solve who shot him, the rest of the cops in his precinct are getting into all sorts of trouble -- drugs, setting up innocent bystanders in order to get off an unpleasant assignment, organizing a vigilante's group (of senior citizens). This is very dark humor. Bruen fans will probably love this. Just not my cuppa tea.

T is for Trespass by Sue Grafton (audio)
Protagonist: Kinsey Millhone
Setting: Santa Teresa, Calif.
Rating: 4.0
Kinsey suspects that an elderly neighbor is being abused and robbed by his caregiver. We know it to be so, because the book alternates between Kinsey and Solana Rojas, the nurse. But, for Kinsey, proving it becomes more difficult. In T, Grafton has written one of her most chilling characters, and written a truly scary story about elder abuse. In my opinion, the best book in the series.

An Advancement of Learning by Reginald Hill (2nd in a series) (audio)
Protagonists: Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe
Setting: Holm Coultram College, England
Rating: 3.4
Dalziel and Pascoe are called to the college when, while a statue is being moved, a skeleton is found underneath. This is followed shortly by the fresh murder of a student. While this 1971 book is a bit dated (student protests and student orgies) and the narrator of the audiobook was terrible, any Hill book can still make me smile. Just plop Dalziel into an academic setting, and that in itself is worthwhile. Dalziel hates academicians -- but he hates the students, too. Pascoe, meanwhile, is trying to reignite an old flame -- despite Dalziel's interruptions. Characters in this book figure on later in the series, so that's another good reason to read this early novel.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Around the blogs

At Eurocrime, there's an interview with Turkish author Mehmet Murat Somer about his Hop-Ciki-Yaya series, which stars what might be the world's first
transvestite detective. His first book has recently been released in the UK, The Prophet Murders.

Carnival of the Criminal Minds jumps to author Sandra Ruttan's blog this week, where she continues a discussion on a mystery/crime fiction primer. Ruttan also directs us to other good crime fiction blogs. Expect to spend some time clicking around!

Another blog chock-full of information is Mysteries in Paradise, with its Sunday salon on what slows down your reading. I know I'll always find something worthwhile on this blog.

And at the incomparable Sarah Weinman's blog, she tells us about the book you HAVE to read.

May reads

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson (audio)
Rating: 4.0.
This was a book given to me, and I didn't expect to like it as much as I did. After all, I'm not a hiker and my one camping trip was, well, short of spectacular (lots of humidity and bugs). But I thoroughly enjoyed Bryson's wry sense of humor (and his laconic voice) in describing his hikes on the Appalachian Trail, accompanied by friend Stephen Katz. The book drags a little at some points, but it does gives one an appreciation for the trail and the hardships of hiking -- and Bryson and Katz don't even encounter any bears or rattlesnakes. At some point, the duo decide they aren't going to hike the entire trail -- it is, after all, more than 2,100 miles long. But they do hike a pretty big chunk of it in several segments. And while the book did scare me off from doing any long hikes, I'm thinking I can maybe handle a small hike here or there.

Cold in the Earth by Aline Templeton
Protagonist: Det. Insp. Marjory Fleming
Setting: Galloway, Scotland
Rating: 4.7
Before I was even done with this book, I was ordering the next two in the series. Templeton gives us a very realistic, likable protagonist in Marjory Fleming, who is torn between her job and her family during a time of crisis. In the midst of a foot-and-mouth epidemic in Scotland, which decimates most of the animals in this farming community, Fleming is confronted with the discovery of a skeleton -- that of a young woman that disappeared 20 years ago. The woman's sister also happens to have arrived, searching for clues, and suddenly is in danger herself. Templeton weaves a strong plot, but her strength is in the beautifully crafted characters. Every character in the book, even the most minor of them, is well sketched and brought to life. Templeton is not as well known as other Scottish writers, such as Ian Rankin or Denise Mina, but I'm hoping she will be someday.

Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine
Protagonist: Ben Tanaka
Setting: Berkeley, Calif., and Manhattan
Rating: 4.0
I need to listen to recommendations more often. For the second time this month, someone has handed me something I didn't think would bowl me over, but it did. In this case, a graphic novel. A cartoon, I thought. Sure, it's not serious literature, but Tomine still manages to address issues such as racism, stereotypes and relationships in this 103-page novel centering around sarcastic, insecure Ben Tanaka and long-suffering girlfriend Miko. The novel is at times hilarious, and at others heart-breaking. It only takes an hour or so to read, but it'll stay with you for awhile.

At Some Disputed Barricade by Anne Perry (fourth in series)
Protagonists: Reavley children
Setting: Western Front, 1917
Rating: 4.0
For anyone following my posts, you'll know I've been captivated by this World War I series. Each book contains a mystery, but there's a bigger mystery thread in this series: who is the Peacemaker, the man who is trying to achieve peace at any cost to England, and who is behind the murder of the Reavleys' parents? In the last book, we thought the Peacemaker had died. Not so. With this book, Matthew is back to following the Peacemaker. Joseph has returned to the front as a chaplain, where his sister Judith is an ambulance driver. When an unpopular colonel is killed, possibly by one of his own men, Joseph has to unravel the mystery, which may also involve his sister. A powerful look at the front -- and at war.

The Woods by Harlan Coben
Protagonist: Paul Copeland, county prosecutor
Setting: New Jersey
Rating: 3.4
Twenty years ago, there was a tragedy in the woods: two teenagers were killed and two others disappeared at a summer camp, including Copeland's sister. The guilt weighs on Copeland, who was supposed to be guarding the camps, but snuck into the woods with his girlfriend. But then one of the disappeared campers turns up -- he's been recently murdered -- giving Copeland hope that his sister may still be alive somewhere. Lots of twists and turns in this book, and a lot of good, witty dialogue. However, one of the plot lines will seem very similar to people who follow current events, and some of the resolution will seem implausible. Overall, though, a good summer thriller.

The Chameleon's Shadow by Minette Walters
Protagonist: Lt. Charles Acland
Setting: London
Rating: 3.0
Lt. Charles Acland returns from fighting in Iraq with half his face disfigured, and the loss of an eye. Not only that, he's a very bitter man and prone to violence just before he's afflicted with crippling migraines. Can Acland be behind the murders of three men? There seem to be a lot of connections pointing to him. With police investigating, and psychologists trying to help Acland, Walters unravels the plot. I thought Walters and her brand of psychological thriller would be a slam-dunk for me; The Devil's Feather was on my "tops" list last year. But there was only one character I liked in this book -- and it wasn't the protagonist. I also saw early on what would happen, which made the book drag for me.

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

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Pick of the Month -- The Mango Opera

The Mango Opera by Tom Corcoran (first in the series)
Protagonist: Alex Rutledge
Setting: Key West, Florida
Rating: 4.5
Corcoran's Mango Opera has struck all the right notes with me. A novel set in Key West is likely to do that, since you are guaranteed wacky characters and situations. But Corcoran goes beyond just mining the weirdness of Key West, vividly bringing out the character of the place -- and producing a fine, fast-paced mystery. Rutledge, a part-time crime scene photographer, is called out to a murder: his ex-girlfriend's roommate, who could have passed for a twin of the ex, has been murdered. Then, one by one, Rutledge's ex-girlfriends and ex-flings are either attacked or murdered (and, this being Key West, there are plenty of ex-partners). Rutledge would have been the likely suspect, except there are plenty of other suspects for him, the police and the FBI to consider -- even the last (maybe current?) girlfriend.

I am so glad to have found another great Florida writer. Corcoran has five more Alex Rutledge novels, so I have a feeling I'll be spending quite a bit more time in Key West, a nice rum drink in hand maybe.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Why I read

Over at Moments in Crime, Barbara "Barfly" Fister, has written an eloquent essay on why she reads. And she's tagged me to play in a blog meme, so here goes:

In "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading," NPR book reviewer Maureen Corrigan opens her book 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 comes a moment when I'd rather be reading a book." Growing up in a family of mostly non-readers, I thought I was alone in this burrowing of books, this need to escape into another life, even if for just a few minutes a day.

I don't know how I became a reader. My parents weren't big readers, though they did buy me books (including an encyclopedia set which they paid off in monthly installments) and took me often to the public library. At 9, already a bookworm, my mother thought the best way to explain my soon-to-be-arriving brother would be to take me to the library and find child-appropriate books on the birds and the bees.

But, if anything, it was Mark Twain who really made me a reader -- specifically, Tom Sawyer. My life couldn't have been farther from Tom's life -- we didn't have any white-picket fences to whitewash (or con others into whitewashing). There were no caves to explore in Miami, Florida, and the closest to a river was the always-murky canal behind our house. But I reread Tom Sawyer over and over in elementary school, in between The Bobbsey Twins.

My love of reading continued unabated throughout junior high and high school, as I devoured history books, science fiction, mysteries, anything. I credit my love of reading to thinking I could write, too, and becoming a journalist. Now, as a copy editor, I read for work as well. But I still read for pleasure, mostly crime fiction these days. For me, it's the challenge of the whodunnit, the unraveling of a mystery, that draws me (and for that, I prefer the traditional British mystery, thank you). I love these mysteries so much that I've traveled twice to the U.K. on mystery-book tours.

People have asked if I would ever consider writing a mystery myself. Maybe, though it seems an awfully hard task. For now, I'm much happier just being a reader.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

April reads

Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott (audio)
Protagonist: Lydia Brooke
Setting: Cambridge
Rating: 3.5
Lydia Brooke is asked by her former lover Cameron to finish a book on alchemy and Newton that was almost completed by his mother, who recently died in suspicious circumstances (drowned, clutching a glass prism). Lydia takes on the job of ghostwriter, finding that Cameron's mother had made some ties to 17th-century deaths and very similar present-day deaths. Usually, while I love the gothic and historical mysteries, Ghostwalk seems to ramble on a bit too much, throwing in an ill-fated romance and a storyline about radical animal-rights activists. In the end, the story was just not haunting enough to move it into the category of great mysteries.

Sideswipe by Charles Willeford (third in a series)
Protagonist: Hoke Moseley
Setting: Miami and Riviera Beach
Rating: 3.0
Willeford takes two separate story lines and ties them up neatly at the end. An old man becomes caught up with a convict, and you know it isn't going to end well. In the meantime, Moseley goes off the deep end, deciding he doesn't want to be a police officer anymore. Still, he manages to solve a crime here and there.

Murder on the Ile Saint-Louis by Cara Black (seventh in the series)
Protagonist: Aimee Leduc
Setting: Ile Saint-Louis, Paris
Rating: 4.0
A while back, I had read another in the Aimee Leduc series and not been bowled over. Lucky for me that I tried this, the seventh in the series. The character has become more rounded and interesting, and the plot -- involving environmental activists, bombings and an unexpected dip in the Seine -- was a great read. In this book, Aimee, a computer security analyst, gets a late-night call from a woman, pleading for her to go down to her building's courtyard. There, Aimee finds a newborn. Aimee, usually dressed in chic Chanel dresses and Manolo Blahnik shoes, immediately falls in love with baby Stella, nevermind the spit-up on her designer dresses. With one of the best sidekicks in detective fiction, Aimee is off to try to find the baby's mother -- and solve a murder or two along the way.

Angels in the Gloom by Anne Perry (3rd in a series, audio)
Protagonist: Reavley siblings
Setting: St. Giles, England
Rating: 4.0
Each book in this series just gets better. In this one, Joseph Reavley, injured at the front, returns to the quiet village of St. Giles. Perry's descriptions of war were riveting in the previous book, but so are her descriptions of the desperation in the men and women left behind -- especially the women, many of whom have lost their sons and husbands in war, and who are assuming greater roles in business. Of course, even in a quiet town such as St. Giles, there's a murder -- one of the men working on a top-secret project expected to change the outcome of the war. As Joseph investigates, Matthew Reavley is falling in love with a double agent and trying to find the identity of The Peacemaker, the man who killed the Reavleys' parents and is trying to bring peace, even at the cost of England. These books are much more than just mysteries; they are a sympathetic look into the costs of a world war.

The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang (first in the series, audio)
Protagonist: Mei Wang
Setting: Beijing
Rating: 4.7
When Mei Wang loses her job at the Ministry of Public Security, she opens her own detective agency (outlawed in China, so she has to call it information consultancy). Her first client is her uncle, who asks her to look into a Han dynasty jade stolen from a museum. This is so much more than a detective novel, though; the language is so detailed and so beautiful we feel we are reading a memoir -- the life of Mei's mother hangs in the balance after a stroke, and Mei's former-but-never-forgotten boyfriend returns for a visit from San Francisco. Author Liang, born in China and exiled after her involvement with the students' revolt that led to the Tiananmen Square massacre, has also written a memoir. Her second in the Mei Wang series, Paper Butterfly, is due out in May. I'm looking forward to reading both.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Protagonist: Richard Papen (narrator)
Setting: Vermont
Rating: 4.7
The murder happens on the first page of this book, but I was still spellbound enough to read the 500-page book in a few days. The novel unwinds everything that happened before -- what led a tightknit group of college kids to kill one of their own -- and what happens afterward. The group are scholars in classic Greek, and the story itself plays out like a modern Greek tragedy. This is a carefully constructed story, and well worth reading.

The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai
by John Tayman
Rating: 4.0
For 103 years, until 1969, more than 8,000 people afflicted with leprosy were exiled by the government to a remote piece of land, surrounded by high cliffs, in what author John Tayman calls the "longest and deadliest instance of medical segregation in American history, and perhaps the most misguided." This is the story of that segregation. Tayman not only tells us the history, but gives us some of the personal stories as well. Some of the handful of residents still left on Molokai have panned the book, but I found it to be a sensitive and moving story of what happened there, and what the government allowed to happen.

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