Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Best 2009 Reads

It's that time of the year: when we begin to reflect on the past year. For reviewers and other readers, that means their best reads of the year. Janet Rudolph has an impressive collection of best mystery lists at her blog. Of course, these lists often serve to remind us of the many books we did not get around to reading! But, given that constraint, I offer my own list of books I most enjoyed reading this year (some were published this year, but not all). They are:

Shatter, Michael Robotham
A Rule Against Murder, Louise Penny
The Brutal Telling, Louise Penny
A Darker Domain, Val McDermid
Echoes From the Dead, Johan Theorin
The Shanghai Moon, S.J. Rozan
Bleeding Heart Square, Andrew Taylor
The Last Refuge, Chris Knopf
River of Darkness, Rennie Airth
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley
The Coroner’s Lunch, Colin Cotterill

With best wishes for many good reads in 2010!

The Shanghai Moon by S.J. Rozan

Protagonists: Lydia Chin and Bill Smith
Setting: New York City
Rating: 5.0

It is very rare that I fall in love with a story on the first page. Yet The Shanghai Moon pulled me in immediately, spinning a yarn that was as alluring as the Shanghai Moon itself -- a legendary piece of jewelry at the center of the story. Private eye Lydia Chin is hired to help track stolen jewels dating back to World War II, when Jews fleeing the Nazis went to Shanghai. The story is told in flashback through a series of letters from the jewels' original owner, Rosalie Gilder, and by her surviving family. But someone is not telling the truth, and even after being fired from the case, Chin, with partner Bill Smith, can't let go.

Now, mysteries with jewels are nothing new (Wilkie Collin's The Moonstone is considered the first detective novel). But Rozan spins her story around two independent women -- Rosalie, a young woman sent alone to Shanghai with her younger brother (and this part is based on the very-real Jewish settlement in Shanghai during World War II) and Lydia, whose ringtone is the theme to "Wonder Woman" but who is also very rooted in the Chinese traditions. Set in New York City, Rozan very much brings the sights, smells and yes, even tastes, of Chinatown to life.

The Shanghai Moon is part of an award-winning series, but this novel can be read on its own (in fact, I haven't read any of the other novels -- yet -- and had no trouble following the characters). It's been seven years since Rozan has written a Chin/Smith novel. All I can say is, welcome back!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Darker Domain by Val McDermid

Protagonist: Det. Insp. Karen Pirie
Setting: Fife, Scotland
Rating: 4.7

In 1984, a miner goes missing during a strike. His family believes that he's joined strikebreakers in another part of Scotland. But, more than 20 years later, Mick Prentice's daughter is trying to find him -- and she can't. Her son needs a bone marrow transplant to survive, and her father is the last hope for a match. Seemingly unrelated, a year later, Catriona MacLennan Grant, daughter of a powerful businessman, and her baby son are kidnapped. Catriona is killed, but the baby disappears. Now, a journalist vacationing in Italy has found a clue that may lead to the kidnappers. Both cold cases land in DI Pirie's lap, and both, unsurprisingly, are related. McDermid does a wonderful job of switching back and forth not only between time and place, but also between characters. Pirie is so well-drawn, in fact, that it's a shame this is a standalone novel, and not a series. The book is gripping, and moves at a quick pace. I would have given it a perfect rating except that some of the revelations were easy to figure out. Still, even when I thought I had it all figured out, McDermid had a few more curveballs to throw.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor

Protagonists: Lydia Langstone and Rory Wentwood
Setting: Bleeding Heart Square, London, 1934
Rating: 5.0

Lydia Langstone is an upper-class woman used to the finer things. But when her husband strikes her, she leaves her comfortable life to share a gritty apartment with her estranged father in the somewhat seedy Bleeding Heart Square. Rory Wentwood, a journalist who has spent years in India and is now unemployed, also finds himself renting an apartment there. The legend of the square has it that the devil, disguised during a party, danced away with a lady, leaving her body on the square, her bleeding heart on the cobblestones. Now, someone is sending apartment owner Serridge hearts and skulls. Could it have something to do with Miss Penhow, the middle-aged spinster who owned the apartments before she fell in love with Serridge? Miss Penhow mysteriously disappeared a few years ago, and now Rory, acting on behalf of his one-time fiancee Fenella, is trying to find out what happened. Lydia soon becomes involved in the mystery, as well.

While Bleeding Heart Square is most assuredly a mystery, Taylor's books are so much more, this one being a Dicksensian tour of the have's and have not's, of a politically-torn England pre-World War II and of the options open to women at that time. Taylor is a master of the atmospheric, and he paints bleakness beautifully. I've read some criticism that the book moves too slowly, but that is what I like about Taylor -- he writes psychological suspense like no one else. He pulls you into the characters' stories so completely and then -- surprise -- wraps up the mystery you almost forgot about.

Starvation Lake by Bryan Gruley

Protagonist: Gus Carpenter
Setting: Starvation Lake, Michigan
Rating: 4.5

In this debut novel, journalist Gus Carpenter returns to his hometown in northern Michigan, having been fired from a large Detroit newspaper. Now he's working for a small daily that fills the pages with light-hearted features. That's until police find a snowmobile that belonged to the town's legendary hockey coach in Starvation Lake, miles from where he disappeared years ago. Suddenly, Gus and rookie reporter Joanie are on to a big story. Warning: There's a lot of hockey in this novel -- Gus is forever remembered by townspeople as the goalie who lost the team their state ice-hockey championship and he still plays in an adult league. The amount of hockey detail does bog the book down sometimes. Still, there's a very good mystery here, great characters and wonderful descriptions of the snowy small town of Starvation Lake. This is a stellar debut and I look forward to more from Gruley.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Second books

Lately, I've been experiencing second book-itis, and it is not a good thing. I love, love, love the first book -- recommend it to other book lovers, even. Then a funny thing happens. The author comes out with a second book, which I snatch up. Only to be bitterly disappointed. Just the opposite happens, I dislike the second book intensenly. I first noticed this with Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind (loved it) and The Angel's Game (really disliked it).

This month it has happened twice. Years ago, I read and loved Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife. So when she published her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, I looked forward to another great story. Symmetry is a gothic novel (one of my favorite genres), replete with a scary cemetery, ghost and two sets of twins. When Elspeth Noblin dies, she leaves her London apartment to her twin sister's own twin daughters, Valentina and Julia, with the stipulation that the American-raised girls live in the apartment for a year, an apartment that borders the real Highgate Cemetery. The story is one of obsessive love, in effect the opposite of the first novel, which was more of a pure love story.

The other books are The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larrson, a gripping mystery that had me up in the wee hours of the morning reading, and The Girl Who Played With Fire, which (you guessed it) I didn't like. Both books are set in Sweden and feature journalist Mikael Blomkvist and computer hacker/investigator Lisbeth Salander. The first book featured Blomkvist primarily and revolved around a closed community-type of mystery. In the second of a trilogy, Salander is front and center in a more thriller-type of novel. The problem: I didn't really ever like Salander, the plot rambled too much and there were so many characters that I had trouble keeping track of who was who. So, for me, another book in the dislike column.

Has this ever happened to you? I'd love to hear other people's experience. Do we love the first book too much to ever like anything else by the author?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Deadly Month

As part of a challenge for 4 Mystery Addicts, my online book discussion group, I concentrated this month on books that had "die, dead(ly) or death" in the title. What I found were some gems, including:

Mourn Not Your Dead by Deborah Crombie. Scotland Yard Supt. Duncan Kincaid and Sgt. Gemma James are called to investigate the death of Alastair Gilbert, a top-ranking police official who was widely disliked, both within the force and in his village. This, of course, makes for lots of suspects. Much of this series, so far, revolves around the growing relationship between Kincaid and James. Generally, I would recommend reading a series on its own, but this book could be read as a standalone. It's the fourth in the series, and much stronger than the three that came before.

Death of a Perfect Mother by Robert Barnard. Two sons are planning their mother's murder -- but she's killed the day before they
can put their plan into place. Again, we have a victim who is highly reviled in the village, so anyone could have done it. I expected this one to be light, knowing Barnard's touch with humor. However, the humor here is very dark. A good book, but not one I would recommend to those who haven't read Barnard before.

Dead as a Dodo by Jane Langton. After Barnard's dark, dark humor, I needed this. I had never heard of Langton; I had gotten her book for free and it might have stayed in storage if not for the October challenge. Now I must look for the rest in this series. Visiting Harvard Professor Homer Kelly and his wife are in Oxford, where they start to sleuth after a murder at a college museum of science. The plot involves some specimens of Darwin and the book throws in a dash of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (much of that book is said to be influenced by the author's days in Oxford). The book is full of whimsy, as well as serious scientific and theological debate. Somehow, Langton pulls it all together.

Dead Run by P.J. Tracy. Somehow the women of Monkeewrench and Wisconsin deputy Sharon Mueller end up in the ghost town of Four Corners, Wisconsin, where the entire town has been killed by nerve gas, set off by homegrown militiamen. More of a thriller, which I'm not usually into, but this book had me hooked.

Death Will Help You Leave Him by Elizabeth Zelvin (see review and interview below).

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Interview with Elizabeth Zelvin

Elizabeth Zelvin has written Death Will Get You Sober, followed by Death Will Help You Leave Him, out this month (see review below). She talks a bit about her latest book:

Q. First, thanks for agreeing to answer my questions. I want to start off with the protagonist, Bruce Kohler, who narrates the books. Many mystery writers have protagonists who struggle with alcoholism, but you have one who is a recovering alcoholic. Why did you approach the character from this point?

A. Apart from being a writer for my whole life and loving mysteries, my primary reason for writing these books was and is that I have something to say about recovery, which is a remarkable process of transformation that takes great courage and honesty on the part of those who recover. The first book, Death Will Get You Sober, is dedicated to them.

Q. You are a psychotherapist in addition to being a writer. How much do you draw upon your experiences for the books while still maintaining client confidences?

A. Besides being a psychotherapist, I spent fifteen years working in and then directing alcoholism treatment programs. My private practice, both in a conventional therapy office (more than fifteen years) and now as an online therapist (almost ten years), has included many clients who have been affected by addictions, codependency, and compulsive behaviors such as eating disorders and compulsive spending, either in themselves or people they love, as well as adult children of alcoholics, sexual abuse survivors, and survivors of other kinds of family dysfunction. My characters are fictional. I would never write about a real particular client. But a lot of recovering people have written to say how much they appreciate my getting it right. Recovery is my briar patch—if you remember Brer Rabbit, that’s the place where I feel most at home.

Q. In Death Will Help You Leave Him, you also write about co-dependency and bad relationships. Why write about these issues in a mystery book?

A. I have worked with a lot of couples—those who just need a little fine-tuning and those whose marriage or committed relationship is a war zone — as well as people whose capacity for intimacy has been damaged by domestic violence and sexual trauma. And they say that 96 percent of Americans are codependent. It’s not a genuine statistic, but it makes a point about how our culture encourages us to seek our identity and self-worth outside ourselves. Too often, codependents turn to abusive, addicted, or unavailable partners, the very people who can’t meet their needs. In fact, I’m more of an “expert” in codependency than in addictions: I’ve been writing and lecturing about it professionally for more than twenty years. Bad relationships are universal — almost everybody has had at least one, and I hope that draws them to Death Will Help You Leave Him. As for writing about relationships, isn’t that what novels are all about? And therapy, and poetry, and songs, my other creative areas. The mystery is the sturdy coathanger on which I hang my characters and their relationships. I love a character-driven mystery — my own or someone else’s — and to me, relationships are the most interesting thing in the world.

Q. Your books have true laugh-out loud moments. Where does the humor come from, especially when dealing with issues of addiction?

A. The humor is built into recovery. There’s a lot of laughter in AA meetings. It comes from the perspective of people who look honestly and thoroughly at their past behavior and have a sense of humor about how royally they screwed up. I tried to show some of that in the fictional AA meetings in the books. I’m so glad you laughed out loud. I think my books are hilarious, myself. And Bruce’s wisecracking voice is one of those gifts from the Muse or a Higher Power or whatever you want to call it. I have nothing to do with it except to be a channel.

Q. The first things that one notices about your books are the titles, of course. They are longer than the norm and a bit off the wall, with a touch of humor. Can you tell me how you came up with the titles? Was it a marketing idea?

A. On the contrary. When I started, all I knew was that I wanted to write a mystery about recovery, and that the title was Death Will Get You Sober. In fact, I told so many people about it that it’s a miracle I ever wrote the book. Once Bruce gets sober, the first thing he has to deal with is relationships. And I wanted the murder to involve an abusive relationship, so Death Will Help You Leave Him was the right title. I didn’t even know it would be the boyfriend who got killed. I had some cases in mind where the codependent girlfriend minimized the danger and then got killed — but when I sat down to write it, it didn’t come out that way. Until the publisher accepted my title, I was very nervous, because by that time I had come up with a string of Death Will titles, each one with that twist of making what death does sound positive, and each associated with an addictive or compulsive disorder I could write about. I knew publishers often change titles, and I would have been sunk if they hadn’t gone for mine.

Q. It seems you’ve gotten a lot of positive reaction, beginning with your first book. Have you gotten any unexpected or strange reactions from your books?

A. A few people, including agents, editors, and reviewers as well as readers, have found my novels dark and depressing. I’m not exactly surprised, but I suspect they’re missing the humor — and even more important, the hope — because they bring their own experiences with alcoholism or addiction to what they read. For example, someone whose spouse or parent died of alcoholism without ever finding recovery — and who has not sought help for his or her own pain — might have trouble connecting with the tone, which is lighthearted in spite of the serious issues I write about.

Q. How has the experience of writing mysteries been different from your other writing: the nonfiction and the poetry?

A. I’ve written several mystery short stories in addition to the novels, and I’ve found writing novels very different from the shorter forms I’ve done: the stories, poetry, songs (which are quite different from the poems in language, meter, and tone, though they may cover the same subjects), and a variety of nonfiction pieces including my blog posts on Poe’s Deadly Daughters — which make me feel like a journalist and are great fun to do — and professional articles and chapters, which also use a very different language. Writing a novel is the hardest kind of writing for me. For every day when the words flow, there are several when I’m slogging along with grim determination, finding it hard to believe I’ll ever make my way to the end, no less be able to fix the bad parts and make the good parts hang together. Writing itself comes easy to me. Storytelling, especially the complex story a mystery novel tells, is a challenge.

Q. You have two strong books in the series. Can you tell us a bit about your next Kohler book?

A. In the next one, Bruce and his friends Barbara and Jimmy take shares in a lethal clean and sober group house in the Hamptons. I had a lot of fun doing the research: picking strawberries, fishing for blues from a small boat, and talking with the local cops — who told me group houses are illegal in the Hamptons.

Q. Are you going to continue with the Kohler series, or do you have ideas for other mystery books?

A. I hope I can keep the series going. If I can’t, the idea that’s knocking loudest on the inside of my brain is a young adult novel. The protagonist already exists, in a historical short story that will appear some time in 2010 in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. A couple of other characters and a story line are rattling around in my head. My protagonist is a young Marrano sailor on Columbus’s first voyage. He couldn’t be more different from Bruce, but he has his own distinctive voice. I think a strong voice is one of those gifts you can’t possibly refuse when it comes to you.

Q. Who are your favorite mystery authors, and what book are you reading now?

A. I love character-driven traditional mysteries with depth and complexity. Unlike Bruce, most of their protagonists are cops or PIs, often women, but they are my role models. Among my favorites are Margaret Maron, Marcia Muller, Nevada Barr, Dana Stabenow, Julie Smith, Reginald Hill, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, and Janet Neel, whose first mystery, Death’s Bright Angel, is one of my all-time favorites. And if I can claim a couple of eminent foremothers, they’d be Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey.

Right now, I’m taking a break from mystery and rereading all of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels, in anticipation of reading the new one that’s just come out. What brilliant books, and on so many levels. I’ve read them all several times before, but I’m going slowly this time—and bringing my added experiences as a writer — and I marvel at how she manages a huge canvas of time, place, memorable characters, accurate and minutely observed detail — from battles to sex to domestic concerns — and an immense sweep of satisfying plot, conflict, and action. She’s a great storyteller who’s also a marvelous writer.

Death Will Help You Leave Him by Elizabeth Zelvin

Protagonist: Bruce Kohler
Setting: New York City
Rating: 4.5

There’s always been a long tradition of detectives with alcohol and other substance abuse issues (even Sherlock Holmes!), but Zelvin serves up something completely different: an amateur sleuth who is a recovering alcoholic.

In her second Kohler book (the first was Death Will Get You Sober), Bruce Kohler gets swept up in a murder investigation, pulled in by friends Jimmy (also a recovering alcoholic) and Jimmy’s girlfriend Barbara, an addictions counselor. One of Barbara’s clients, Luz, is suspected by police of killing her boyfriend, the married Frankie, a one-time drug dealer. The foursome team up to find the real killer. Their first stop: the wake at the funeral home, a scene so funny it’s worth the price of the book alone. From there, it’s subways and taxis across Manhattan and Brooklyn, and a few other escapades.

The book does have its dark side. While the first book dealt with alcoholism, this one turns the focus on unhealthy relationships. Even Kohler struggles with this, yo-yoing back and forth whenever he gets a call from his ex-wife, who is bipolar, unmedicated and in an abusive relationship. Some scenes are so wrenching you want to reach out and slap the ex – or Bruce himself.

Zelvin is a psychotherapist, so she knows what she writes about. But her ability to bring us both tragedy and humor, sometimes in the same sentence, shows she’s a talented writer as well. Zelvin already has a third book in the works. Will I be reading it? Oh yes, you can say I’ve become a bit addicted to the series.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

Protagonist: Chief Insp. Armand Gamache
Setting: Three Pines, Canada
Rating: 4.7

Three Pines must be the most pleasant place to live – with its cozy bistro, its bakery and used book store, tight-knit friends and wonderful views. Perfect, except for the murders. After yet another one in Three Pines, even the residents notice, joking: “Every Quebec village has a vocation. Some make cheese, some wine, some pots. We produce bodies.”

With that out of the way early in the book, we readers suspend disbelief and continue on with the story: a man who lived as a hermit deep in the woods has been murdered. Even stranger, his body has been found in the bistro owned by Gabri and Olivier. And even stranger than that, the hermit’s log cabin was filled with treasures: tapestries, first edition books, a priceless violin.

Who would want to kill this man? Could it have been the new owners of the Hadley House, who have turned the old, haunted house into a beautiful new hotel and spa (and whose property holds the log cabin)? Could it have been someone in the Czech community, since the hermit was thought to be Czech? Or even someone closer to home?

While all of Penny’s books are beautifully written and take us to this heart-wrenchingly lovely town, this book also has an undercurrent of fear and suspicion running through it. And it is heart-wrenching in a way not expected. As usual in a Penny book, we still have questions unanswered in the end. And maybe even a seed of doubt.

This is the fifth in the Gamache series. Up to now, I’ve rated all her books near-perfect. This one slips a few points for two reasons: her previous book (A Rule Against Murder) was perfection. Comparing the two, this one falls short. Second, much of the book is repetitive – series readers already know a lot about the village and the characters. While the characters have always made the books come alive, here they detract from the mysteries – because much of what we’re told has already been revealed in earlier books. But those are small quibbles in a series that has become my favorite.

This is a series that needs to be read in order, and it is:
Still Life
A Fatal Grace
The Cruelest Month
A Rule Against Murder
The Brutal Telling

Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indridason

Protagonist: Insp. Erlendur
Setting: Reykjavik, Iceland
Rating: 4.5

The fifth in the Erlendur series to be translated into English, this book opens with the murder of a young Thai boy – stabbed and left to die in the snow. His half-brother, meanwhile, is missing. A straight police procedural, the novel delves into anti-immigrant feelings in Iceland. Indridason also introduces another case into the novel: a missing woman, newly married. And the boy’s death also unveils part of Erlendur’s past: as a boy, he and brother were stuck in his blizzard. While Erlendur was saved, his brother was never found. While his brother's death is always close to his thoughts during this investigation, Erlendur is loath to speak about it to his children – who are very interested in their father’s past.

Scandinavian novels have a reputation of being bleak. Arctic Chill doesn’t disappoint in that regard. The prose, stripped down and spare, adds to this – there is no sense of warmth, even when the cases are solved. Arctic Chill isn’t the best book in the series – Jar City and Silence of the Grave were far better – but this is still a very good book.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

Setting: England, 1348
Protagonist: Camelot
Rating: 4.8
(Audiobook narrated by Maxwell Caulfield)

As the black plague sweeps across Medieval England, a band of travelers thrown together by circumstance sets out toward the north, trying to escape the pestilence. They do escape the plague, but not death, as they are killed, one by one. But by whom – or what?

This is a mystery wrapped in the supernatural. The travelers love to tell stories, especially of witches, vampires and werewolves – and at one point believe they are being hunted by a wolf. What they don’t tell are their own stories – each person carries a secret, hence the “liars” of the novel’s title. Led (and narrated) by Camelot, an old, hideously scarred peddler of religious relics, the band includes a Venetian musician and his apprentice, an albino child who reads runes, a magician who travels with a merbaby (not quite grown mermaid), a young couple expecting their first child, a midwife and healer, and a man who claims to be half-swan, and has a wing in place of one arm.

This is a book to be savored; it is not a light read, by any means. The constant rain, the travelers’ troubles and the superstitions of the era weigh the novel down. It is, however, educational – the author’s notes at the end give you an idea of the research done. And it does keep you engrossed to the very end, where one last twist awaits.

The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill

Protagonist: Dr. Siri Paiboun
Setting: People's Democratic Republic of Laos, 1976
Rating: 5.0

Dr. Siri is set to retire, should retire, deserves retirement. At 72, he’s given years of service to the Communist cause. But his superiors need a national coroner – “from each according to ability, to each according to need,” a top government official lectures Siri – and so the doctor reluctantly becomes a coroner, learning from dusty books. Well, it turns out Siri has a knack for this. First, a government official’s wife is brought to his morgue, ostensibly a natural death, but Siri suspects not. Then two Vietnamese men are found drowned, possibly tortured, a finding that could endanger international relations. And Siri is flown to a northern army base in the jungle where commanders have mysteriously been dying.

The first in this series has plenty to keep you riveted. But what’s really special about this book is the witty writing and richly drawn characters. Oh, and the good doctor also sees dead people – those who come to him in his morgue also come to him in visions.

Every once in a while comes a book that surprises you because it is so unlike anything else in the genre you've read -- The Coroner's Lunch is that book. The rest in the series (which you can be sure I'll be reading) are:

Thirty-Three Teeth
Disco For the Departed
Anarchy and Old Dogs
Curse of the Pogo Stick
The Merry Misogynist

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff

Protagonist: Det. Simon Ziele
Setting: New York City and upstate Dobson, 1905
Rating: 3.7

In the Shadow of Gotham won St. Martin’s Minotaur First Crime Novel Award last year, and comes with great promise: an atmospheric novel set just after the turn of the century, when psychology was beginning to delve into the criminal mind.

Amid all this, we meet Ziele, who has transferred to a small upstate town from New York City after his fiancée dies in the General Slocum ferry disaster. But this quiet existence is not to last. A young woman is brutally murdered and the crime sends him back to the city to investigate. There, a noted Columbia University criminologist, Alistair Sinclair, believes that a patient he has been treating, Michael Fromley, is behind the murder. But Fromley has disappeared. So Ziele, with the help of Sinclair and those in his office, sets out to find Fromley, who always seems to be two steps ahead of them – as if he had inside knowledge of the investigation itself.

The book gets high marks for atmosphere and historical detail – I felt I was right there with the characters. And the characters are very engaging, especially Ziele, who despite his tragedy is not mired in melancholy. But when it came to the plot itself, which is critical in a mystery, of course, the book fell short. Much of the time is spent chasing shadows around Gotham. There is a nice twist in the story, but it comes too soon in the book, and the rest of the story drags after that. The ending, when it comes, is anticlimatic.

Yet given all that, I’m still curious about Pintoff’s next book (she reportedly has at least two more planned in the series). I like the characters and the time period, and am interested in seeing what happens next -- both to the characters and to Pintoff, as a writer. The series has promise.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Havana Twist by Lia Matera

Protagonist: Willa Jansson
Setting: Cuba and Mexico City
Rating: 4.5
When attorney Willa Jansson's "superlefty" mom disappears in Cuba, Jansson sets out to find her, traveling back and forth between Havana and Mexico City. After several murders, former flame Homicide Lt. Don Surgelato joins her. I liked this book for several reasons: there's quite a bit of humor among the plot twists and turns (sort of like a Kinsey Millhone abroad) and because she depicts the Cuba of the 1990s with harsh accuracy. The hotel Willa stays at could have been the same one I once stayed at: one with a small, drab hotel room that reeked of mildew. Says Willa about a second trip to Havana: "I dreaded returning to Cuba, not because America had demonized it for forty years, but because of the scarcity and sadness hanging over it, swallowing up residents and tourists alike." This is the seventh and, as far as I can tell, the final Willa Jansson book in the series. It's a shame, because I would have liked to have read much more about Willa.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Protagonist: David Martin
Setting: Barcelona
Rating: 4.0

When The Shadow of the Wind came out a few years ago, I devoured the novel, discussed it with friends, recommended it to other book lovers. I was smitten. Comes now the sequel, The Angel's Game, the story of a writer (David Martin) who sells his soul -- quite literally -- for immortality. He's writing pulp fiction for a magazine and living in poverty when a publisher comes calling with a deal: write a book creating a new religion and David will no longer have to worry about money - or his terminal illness. This publisher, Andreas Corelli, wears a lapel pin of an angel, but it turns out he is quite the opposite.

The story had several elements that should have enthralled me: it is high gothic, as lyrical as The Shadow and featured the Semperes and the Cemetery of Lost Books from the first book. However, the story failed to capture me. I put it down several times to read other books -- always a bad sign that I'm bored with a book. I did, however, stick with it -- this is the writer of one of my favorite books, after all. And the book does pick up in the second half. Still, the story is far darker than The Shadow and relies on a great amount of "woo-woo," some of it just too hard to believe.

Yet, given the many faults I found with it, the story did eventually ensnare me. No, it's not a great book; it's one that lives in the shadow of Ruiz Zafon's first book. Still, a good read.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Protagonist: Flavia de Luce
Setting: Bishop’s Lacey, England, 1950s
Rating: 5.0

Flavia de Luce is a precocious 11-year-old chemist whiz who turns to detecting when her father is jailed for the murder of a man found in their garden. She was also the only one around when the man uttered his one dying word: “Vale.” This sets Flavia on a hunt for the truth, pigtails flying behind her as she zips through town on Gladys (her bicycle). The best part of this book are the eccentric characters which populate Bradley’s book (which includes Flavia’s two older sisters, who she is always tormenting – when they are not tormenting her). But there’s also a fine plot – involving a rare stamp stolen years ago and another death. And it turns out the man found dead in their garden was once a close school friend of her father’s, before they had a falling out. And so the plot thickens. This book utterly charmed me – and apparently others. At least two more books featuring Flavia are in the works.

Monday, August 03, 2009

River of Darkness by Rennie Airth

Protagonist: Scotland Yard Det. Insp. John Madden
Setting: English countryside
Rating: 5.0

This is the first of a trilogy, set in the years immediately after World War I, where both police and criminal have been affected by the war. Madden, whose wife and child died of influenza, carries the scars of wars, physically and emotionally. The criminal, a serial killer, also carries scars from long ago. Someone is killing entire families, but especially targeting the women, it seems. Madden and his team -- which includes Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair, young Detective Constable Billy Styles and, eventually, village bobby Will Stackpole -- methodically work to discover the identity of the killer and find him. This is as well done a police procedural as I've ever read, with the added layers of psychological mystery, wartime horrors and even romance for Madden. Before I'd ever finished it, I already had book two in hand.

Dying to Sin by Stephen Booth

Protagonists: Ben Cooper and Diane Fry
Setting: Pity Wood Farm, Peak District
Rating: 3.5

When construction workers uncover a skeleton at Pity Wood Farm, police are brought into the muddy, dilapidated farm to uncover the mystery of who this person is, as well. One of the farm's owners is dead, the other is an elderly man in a home, suffering from dementia. And the town, closed-mouthed to outsiders, isn't likely to offer up clues. Booth's series (this is the eighth) is very atmospheric, and this book doesn't disappoint in that regard. You can almost feel yourself mired in the mud along with police, or lost in the fog with Ben and Diane in one pivotal scene. However, I found the main characters' lives to have become, well, a bit dull in this book. Hopefully, that'll change in the next book.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Last Refuge by Chris Knopf

Protagonist: Sam Acquillo
Setting: Southampton, N.Y.
Rating: 4.4
The last refuge refers to Sam Acquillo’s nine-tenths of an acre next to the Little Peconic Bay, where he’s retreated after suddenly (and violently) quitting his engineering job, and following his divorce. There he lives peacefully with his dog Eddie (named after Eddie van Halen), until his elderly next-door neighbor is found dead in a bathtub filled with water. No one seems to find it suspicious, except for Acquillo, who knew she didn’t like to take baths – only showers. He gets himself named as administrator of her estate, only to uncover shady real estate deals and possibly other past murders. Acquillo writes about the real Hamptons – not the glittery, celeb-filled one, but the one in which the have-nots struggle to make a living. This is an author I will continue reading (this is the first in a four-book series). Not only can Knopf write a great mystery, but he had great, oddball characters; sharp, witty dialogue; and a portrayal of the Hamptons as it really is.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Frank McCourt dies

A few years ago, shortly after Angela's Ashes was published, I went to a standing-room only event to hear Frank McCourt read from his book. I hadn't read the book yet and came away feeling he was a lovely man -- down-to-earth, warm and funny. Then I read the book, and it was one of the most moving stories I've read -- all the more powerful for being real. I'm saddened by his death, yet also heartened that late in life he was able to share a story, one that was embraced by so many people. While it revolved around an Irish family, the themes that ran through this story were universal. In fact, if I were asked to name 10 modern classics, Angela's Ashes would be at the top.

Murder in the Rue de Paradis by Cara Black

Protagonist: Aimee Leduc
Setting: Paris
Rating: 3.7

A reviewer once compared the Leduc series to Kinsey Millhone, and it's not too far off. While Aimee is much, much more fashionable (this being Paris, after all) and she has a sidekick to get her out of trouble, fans of Kinsey will probably also enjoy this series, which gets better with each book. In Murder in the Rue de Paradis, the eighth in the series, Aimee's on-and-off-again lover, Yves, returns to Paris and asks Aimee to marry him. She says yes, but after one night together, Yves is murdered. Although police are investigating, they're also hiding something from Aimee. As Aimee investigates, this becomes a story about Kurdish and Turkish politics, and a sleeper jihadist sleeper cell that is scheming an assassination. Black manages to pull all this off, along with a surprise twist at the end.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon

Protagonist: Sherlock Holmes
Setting: English countryside
Rating: 3.3

If you are expecting another neat Sherlock Holmes story, you may be very disappointed in this tale, which has very little detecting in it. We meet the great detective (always unnamed, just “the old man,” but undeniably Holmes) at the end of his life. Living alone in the English countryside and tending to his beehives, Holmes is lured out of his retirement after he meets a young boy, a survivor of the Nazi camps, and his parrot, who seems to have learned (and retained) some German codes. Soon, the parrot is missing and someone from the household in which they boy lives is dead. Holmes is more concerned with the parrot than the murder, promising the boy he’ll find his pet bird. But the story meanders, with Holmes just about stumbling on the one clue that leads him to the bird thief. He's not so much a great detective in this story, as another old man suffering from dizzy spells and heart problems. As wonderful as Chabon’s writing is -– and his prose is beautiful -– I hated to see the great detective portrayed this way, and the plot was just flat. My recommendation: read an original Arthur Conan Doyle story.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

American Wife, The Senator's Wife

Two recent books have made me glad to not be married to a man in politics:

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (audiobook)
Protagonist: Alice Lindgren
Setting: Wisconsin
Rating: 2.5

This was an audiobook I plodded through for a book club meeting, but I found myself gnashing my teeth through most of it. Loosely based on First Lady Laura Bush’s life, it tries to give us a glimpse into the feelings and motivations of a fictional first lady. Yet, it’s hard as a reader to get the image of Laura Bush (or George Bush, for that matter) out of one’s mind. I was too distracted by the attempt to fictionalize the life of a real-life person to enjoy the story. There were also too many parts that just dragged for me, and the ending disintegrated into a piece about the Iraq war. Even for those of us who aren’t right-wingers, this book was a big miss.

The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller (audiobook)
Protagonists: Delia Naughton and Meri Fowler
Setting: New England
Rating: 4.0
Here, in the hands of a master storyteller, is a more compelling story, or set of stories – that of Delia, an older woman, and the younger Meri, her neighbor. The book alternates between their stories, and we see how each struggles with marriage and independence. But the book’s focus really is on Delia Naughton, the more interesting of the characters. Married to Sen. Tom Naughton, she has been separated from him for years – Tom is unable to be faithful to his wife (and that reminds us of another real-life president). While she remains married to Tom, Delia lives in their family home and he lives in Washington. She and Tom have their occasional fling, but keep these secret from even their own children. When Tom has a stroke and is unable to care for himself, Delia brings him back to the family home to care for him. Finally, Delia has him to herself. But here the characters’ stories intersect for a powerful climax. Weeks after listening to this book, I'm still thinking of the characters -- always a sign of a good book.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Dancing With the Virgins by Stephen Booth

Protagonists: Ben Cooper and Diane Fry
Setting: Peak District, England
Rating: 4.0

In this second book in the series, Cooper and Fry investigate the death of a woman, and attacks on others, in a national park area, near the Stonehenge-like stones called the Nine Virgins. The book revolves around the investigation, of course, but much of it is also about the water-and-oil relationship between Cooper and Fry. While the book is a bit slow in some parts, the mystery does unravel in rather surprising ways. Booth is an underappreciated mystery writer, which is a shame, because he is really great at bringing his characters to life. He also writes about the haunting moors, the farms and even the slaughterhouses in the area with compelling details. This is a series I'd highly recommend.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Havana Bay by Martin Cruz Smith

Protagonist: Arkady Renko
Setting: Havana
Rating: 4.3
In this fourth book in the series, Moscow investigator Arkady Renko finds himself in a post-Soviet Havana, investigating the death of Russian spy Sergei Pribluda, found floating on an inner tube in Havana Bay. The Cubans insist it was a natural death; Renko, of course, disagrees. Renko has another reason to be in Cuba, one driven by personal reasons. Still reeling from a great tragedy, he tries suicide. But in the midst of killing himself, someone breaks into his apartment and tries to kill Renko. Instead, Renko kills the intruder with the needle he was going to use on himself. This doesn’t endear him any more to Cuban police, who really don’t want him there. But one policewoman, Det. Osorio, eventually comes to believe in Renko. Both are outsiders, in different ways, and make a perfect team. Not only does Cruz Smith deliver a powerful plot, but he captures the Cuban psyche and life under Communism in the “Special Period” perfectly.

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

Protagonist: Jackson Brodie
Setting: Edinburgh
Rating: 3.5
When Will There Be Good News? is not your usual crime fiction book, and this seems to arouse strong feelings about it – whether you like it or not. Although the book is billed as one in the series starring Jackson Brodie, our supposed hero is this hapless person, amnesiac part of the time, who has a small role in solving the crime. Rather, the main crime solvers are Det. Chief Insp. Louise Monroe and teenaged orphan Reggie Chase. The characters are strong ones, but the story meanders and doesn’t pick up until halfway through the book. The other important character is Dr. Joanna Hunter. As a child, her mother and two siblings were killed; the killer is released from jail at about the same time that Hunter disappears. This is where our trio of protagonists, whose stories have been told separately, finally converge. Atkinson’s writing, and her wit, are wonderful. But if you want a linear, more traditional mystery, then you may be one of those readers who fall on the side of disliking it.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Interview with S.J. Bolton

Recently, I reviewed "Awakening," the second book by British author S.J. Bolton (see review two posts below). This book so intrigued me that I had to know more about the author.

Q. You’ve had interesting careers before this, as an actress and in PR. What drew you to writing novels?

A. Looking back, I realize I had all the ingredients that make up a writer, I just didn’t recognize them for what they were. I’ve always loved books and read avidly, the part of my job I enjoyed the most was the writing and I’ve always been one of those people who have a fantasy life running in parallel to the real one. It wasn’t until I was married with a baby on the way that I realized I might have a work of fiction in me. Once I started, it was like falling off a log! I loved it and knew that, published or not, it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my working life.

Q. Elsewhere, you’ve written that you wanted to write “spooky crime.” The supernatural does pop up in some mysteries, but you’ve really embraced it. What is it about the spooky that draws you?

A. Its very darkness; the sense that no rules apply; the expectation of a journey into the complete unknown from which there may be no return; complete escapism from the real world. All these things and many more. I’ve always loved stories of the supernatural but because I write in a very strict genre, I have two editors, one on either side of the Atlantic, who work very hard to keep me grounded in reality. Ultimately, there is nothing supernatural in my books; it just looks that way for a while.

Your first book, Sacrifice, has been short-listed for several prizes. Writing this novel, did you have any idea of the impact it would have?

A. All the time I was writing Sacrifice I had no idea it would even get published. Technically, I felt the book was shaping up well but I knew the story might prove too fantastic, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, to be taken seriously by the publishing world. Luckily for me, it was, but even now that it’s been published in several countries, the reaction has been mixed and extreme. For every person who’s loved it, another has hated it.

Q. You’ve written two books with a third one almost finished. They all have very different settings and plots. How do you come up with the ideas for them?

A. My ideas come from the people and places around me. Sacrifice was born out of my own experience of wanting to have a child and finding it difficult to conceive. Awakening was inspired by the village I live in now and by its residents – both human and reptilian. My third book is set in a remote town in the Pennine hills in the north of England, the place were I grew up. I find myself inspired by landscapes frequently. For a small island, Great Britain has a remarkably diverse and beautiful topography and I love to imagine the dark undercurrent beneath the idyllic surface.

Q. I’m always interested in how writers create characters. Are any of them based on people you know?

A. All of them. That’s not to say people will necessarily recognize themselves. Sometimes it’s just a hairstyle or a mannerism that makes it into print. I don’t worry too much about developing characters at the outset. I have a very vague idea about them – age, appearance, occupation. Then I concentrate on telling the story and let the characters develop themselves through their behaviour and their reaction to events.

Q. In Awakening, you’ve created a damaged yet strong protagonist, Clara. Long after I put the book down, I kept thinking of her – and wondering what would happen next to her. Any chance you’ll ever bring her back, or are you done with the characters once you finish a book?

A. I’d love to see Clara again. She is easily my favourite heroine so far. Her job, though, is very specific, so I will need to come up with a mystery that, somehow, revolves around wild animals. Nothing immediately springs to mind but maybe one day.

Q. Can you give us a peek into your third book – what is it about?

A. Folklore meets forensics on the bleak and remote Pennine Moors. A charismatic young Anglican priest is on the verge of falling in love with a beautiful children’s psychiatrist, when the remains of several young children are found on land close to the church. The resulting events test his faith to its limits and threaten everyone he cares about.

Q. Who are your favorite current authors?

A. Stephen King is, and probably will remain, my favourite contemporary author. He combines the most formidable imagination with a real gift for language. So many books can wind me up for so many reasons but when I open a King novel, I feel myself breathing a deep sigh of relief. I know I’m in the presence of a master. Other authors I love include Joanne Harris, JK Rowling, Thomas Harris, Dan Brown and Tess Gerritsen. New writers that I think have immense talent include Ariana Franklin, Simon Beckett, Nick Stone and Tom Cain.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Shatter by Michael Robotham

Protagonist: Joe O’Loughlin
Setting: West Country
Rating: 5.0

There is a moment when all hope disappears, all pride is gone, all expectation, all faith, all desire. I own that moment. It belongs to me. That’s when I hear the sound. The sound of a mind breaking.

It’s not a loud crack like when bones shatter or a spine fractures or a skull collapses. And it’s not something soft and wet like a heart breaking. It’s a sound that makes you wonder how much pain a person can endure; a sound that shatters memories and lets the past leak into the present; a sound so high that only the hounds of hell can hear it.

Can you hear it? Someone is curled up in a tiny ball crying softly into an endless night.

Joe O’Loughlin, who we met in Robotham’s first book, The Suspect, is back, this time teaching college psychology as his Parkinson’s disease gains on him. He’s asked by police to help talk down a woman who is perched on the Clifton Suspension Bridge, naked except for her Jimmy Choo shoes and with the word “slut” written across her stomach in lipstick. Even stranger, she’s talking into a cell phone. O’Loughlin is unable to save her; she jumps to her death. A few days later, her business partner is found dead, also naked, hanging from a tree in a park.

Why would these women kill themselves, seemingly on the orders of a person on the other end of their cell phones? With police, and the help of friend Vincent Ruiz, a retired chief inspector, O’Loughlin figures out the how, then the why and finally the who. From there, it’s a cat-and-mouse game with one of the most chilling villains I’ve come across lately. This is a man who has come mentally unhinged, and there’s no reasoning with him. The book’s title refers to the killer’s M.O.: he “shatters” the psyche of his victims. After O’Loughlin is able to prevent a third murder, the villain strikes close to home. At this point, the tension is so high that, as a reader, I wasn’t able to come up for breath until the end.

I knew Robotham was a good writer, but after his last book, The Night Ferry, I was a bit disappointed. This book has put him back on my list of must-read crime writers. Shatter is far and away his best. If you listen to audiobooks, then I further recommend “reading” it in that form. The narrator, Sean Barrett, only enhances the story. There’s one point where O’Loughlin and the villain are having a rapid-fire conversation; Barrett modulates the voices enough that you always know who is speaking.

This book gets a perfect score from me. In fact, it’s the best book I’ve read so far this year.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Awakening by S.J. Bolton

Protagonist: Clara Benning
Setting: Dorset
Rating: 3.5
Clara, a 30-year-old veterinarian, has become a reclusive in a quiet, rural town. Half of her face has been disfigured (although how and to what extent remains a mystery for awhile), and so Clara tries to have minimal contact with the world – the human world, at least. All that changes when snakes, some deadly, start showing up in villagers’ homes, killing one man. Clara is the only expert on snakes in the village, and she’s soon thrust into the middle of the crisis. When she becomes a suspect after several other deaths, Clara has to prove she’s innocent. Normally, a book about snakes would not have attracted me at all, but I found this a compelling read. I was drawn to Clara, so much that I kept wondering how her life would turn out after I finished the book (from what I gather, unfortunately, this appears to be a standalone). Awakening is due out in bookstores in June.

The Black Tower by P.D. James

Protagonist: Cmdr. Adam Dalgliesh
Setting: Toynton Grange, Dorset
Rating: 3.5
Recovering from an illness, Dalgliesh receives a letter from a family friend, Father Baddeley, imploring him to visit. By the time Dalgliesh is able to travel to Toynton Grange, a home for those with physical disabilities, Baddeley has died. But there’s been another suspicious death, so Dalgliesh lingers for a few days. There follows more deaths, an attempt on the life of Toynton Grange’s owner and questions about Father Baddeley’s death. This is a classic closed community mystery – not James’ best, but certainly not disappointing. It is the fifth in her series.

Strip Jack by Ian Rankin

Protagonist: Insp. John Rebus
Setting: Edinburgh
Rating: 3.3
When MP Gregor Jack is caught in a brothel, Rebus is sympathetic, suspecting the government official was set up. When he visits Jack’s home, he finds a nervous man – and not only because of the press coverage. Jack’s wife, who likes to indulge in sex and drug parties, is missing. Soon after, she’s found dead – and there are plenty of suspects. This is the fourth in the Rebus series. As always, Rankin brings us memorable characters and sharp dialogue.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Colorado Kid by Stephen King

Protagonists: Vince Teague, Dave Bowie and Stephanie McCann
Setting: Maine island of Moose-Lookit
Rating: 3.5

(Warning: Contains a spoiler). Stephanie McCann is a young intern at The Weekly Islander, run by Vince Teague and Dave Bowie, who have been at the newspaper forever. One day, they share the story about the Colorado Kid with her – a man, at first unknown, is found on the beach without identification. He is eventually identified (he was from Colorado), but his abrupt disappearance from work, only to show up later that day in Maine, is a mystery. Teague and Bowie have taught McCann that a good feature story always has “a beginning, a middle and an end.” This novel, however, only gives the reader a beginning and a middle – no end at all, since the mystery is never solved.

While I enjoyed the story during its telling (narrator Jeffrey DeMunn did a great job of capturing the Maine accents and Stephen King can tell a story), the ending left me feeling frustrated, a bit cheated. I’d recommend this only on audiobook, which is how I experienced it, and only after warning people that this book, billed as a mystery and the first entry in the Hard Case Crime series, is not a traditional whodunnit by any stretch. Also, this is most definitely a case of not judging a book by its cover -- this is a most deceiving cover.

The Book of Murder by Guillermo Martinez

Protagonist: Luciana
Setting: Buenos Aires
Rating: 3.5
Luciana, who worked as a transcriber for two authors as a young woman, calls one of them up 10 years later (our unnamed narrator) with a tale of how the other author, Kloster, is slowly killing off her family and friends. She feels he is doing it as revenge for the death of his daughter, of which he somehow blames Luciana. But the deaths all seem accidental or unrelated to Kloster. Is Luciana going mad, or is there something behind her story? Book kept me hooked, but fell flat -- very flat -- with the ending.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Savage Garden by Mark Mills

Protagonist: Adam Strickland
Setting: Tuscany, 1958
Rating: 4.7

Young art scholar Adam Strickland is sent to Italy by his thesis adviser to study a Renaissance garden built by a Florentine banker in memory of his wife, who died in 1548 under mysterious circumstances. The garden, filled with statues, a temple and grotto, is indeed interesting as art. But it becomes even more interesting when Adam hits upon the key to deciphering it: Dante’s The Divine Comedy – the nine-tiered garden is modeled on the nine circles of hell. Following the clues, he suspects that the banker, Federico Docci, may have killed his own wife, Flora, for having an affair. But this is not the only mystery.

At the Villa Docci estate, Adam begins to suspect that one of Signora Docci’s sons may have murdered his brother. Although the family has always said that Emilio Docci was killed by German occupiers at the end of World War II, the stories don’t add up. The third floor of the house, where Emilio was killed, has been locked since the murder. Eventually, Adam unravels this mystery, as well, although we get a little twist at the end.

Also recommended: Mill’s first book Amagansett, a mystery set on Long Island just after WWII.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Protagonists: Mariam and Laila
Setting: Kabul
Rating: 4.3

This, the second book by Hosseini, follows the fate of two Afghan women. First, we meet Mariam, who is married off after her mother dies. Her father, who has legitimate wives and children, refuses to take in Mariam, daughter of a house maid. Mariam has an unhappy, abusive marriage after she continually gets pregnant, only to miscarry and then suffer beatings by husband Rasheed. We meet Laila, a teenage girl, in Part 2. Her childhood friend and lover, Tariq, begs Laila to marry him and leave Kabul with him and his family as violence escalates. But Laila stays with her parents. Shortly after, a rocket hits their home, killing both parents. Laila is taken in by neighbors Mariam and Rasheed. Yet for Rasheed, it is not an act of kindness; he wants her for his second wife. When she’s told that Tariq and his parents have died in a bombing, Laila, pregnant with Tariq’s child, finds herself with no choice but to marry Rasheed. This book tells the bleak story of women in Afghanistan – from being forced to wear burqas to not being able to leave the house without a man. The book’s bleakness does not abate until the end.

Hosseini’s first book was the huge bestseller The Kite Runner, which focused on the relationship between sons and father, and on atonement. Both books have their camps – those who think one book is better than the other. Personally, I prefer The Kite Runner, although Splendid Suns is still a strong book with a powerful message.

Death in a Strange Country by Donna Leon

Protagonist: Commissario Guido Brunetti
Setting: Venice
Rating: 4.2
This is only the second in the Brunetti series (now at 18 books), but Leon was already writing terrific police procedurals early on. In this one, Brunetti investigates the drowning of a young American soldier from the nearby base of Vicenza. Although his superior wants the case wrapped up soon – as a mugging gone wrong – Brunetti keeps at it, uncovering a conspiracy involving the dumping of toxic waste. He’s pulled from the case to investigate an art heist from a Grand Canal palazzo, but that turns out to have a connection to the murder, as well. With his superior caring more about politics, Brunetti’s hands are tied in dealing out justice – but there is a certain justice dealt out. Just as interesting are the characters and their interactions, especially those involving Brunetti’s family. His family life is described in loving, yet realistic, details, and we get to know a bit more about his father-in-law, a count with powerful ties.

Also looks interesting: I have not read this entirely, just perused: Brunetti's Venice by Toni Sepeda, with an introduction by Donna Leon. This newly released book is a tour guide of sorts. Sepeda gives authorized tours of sites mentioned in Leon's books, and this is an extension of those tours, complete with maps. I'll save this book for some future trip to Venice!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tours for mystery readers

Two of my most memorable trips ever were to England and Scotland, through Smithsonian Journeys (an arm of the Smithsonian Institution). It's something I've written about in the Smithsonian Journeys blog this week.

Smithsonian Journeys has two tours: the Classic Mystery Lovers Tour, which takes you from London to Torquay (where Agatha Christie lived) to the Cotswolds and Oxford. We also spend an afternoon in Wales. The other tour, Mystery Lovers England and Scotland, takes a different route, from the Yorkshire Dales to Edinburgh. Both tours are led by three wonderful women: Rosalind Hutchison, tour guide; Carol Fleisher Kent, study leader; and Moira Black, tour manager. All three are incredibly knowledgeable and main reasons for my returning for a second trip.

Another reason: These trips don't just take you to sites where books are set, but we meet with current-day big-name authors, including Ian Rankin, Colin Dexter (creator of Inspector Morse), Ann Cleeves and Andrew Taylor, among others. Author Robert Barnard, shown above, gave us a personal tour of the Bronte Parsonage during one trip.

These trips are on the pricey side, but worth it. We stay at luxury hotels and the groups are never very large. There's a relaxed atmosphere to the tours -- not the usual mad dash, no-time-for-the-restroom tours that I've experienced before. In fact, the bus has even stopped at times so we can get out and snap photos of the countryside. These are trips I would recommend to anyone who loves mysteries. I'm awaiting the day when the Smithsonian adds a third mystery tour!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Interview with L.J. Sellers

L.J. Sellers has written an intriguing book in The Sex Club (review below) and I'm happy to report that this is the first in a series of Det. Wade Jackson books. Below, Sellers talks about her books:

Q: Your first mystery book, The Sex Club, is about middle-school teens involved in sexual situations. You weave in issues such as lack of sex education in the schools and parents who cloak themselves in religion rather than talk to their kids. Are these issues you’ve seen in real life, and why address them in a crime novel?

A: I was seeing the lack of sex education in schools begin to permeate our culture, most of it as a result of the policies of the last administration. My concern, when I was writing the story, was that teenagers would suffer through higher pregnancy rates and more exposure to STDs. And of course that is what’s happened now. I also have seen firsthand how religious suppression of sex and sexuality is unhealthy and often backfires, pushing individuals into risky behavior. I consider all of this to be a crime against humanity. So why not write it as a crime novel? Especially since that’s what I love to do.

Q: How has the reception been to this book?

A: Readers and reviewers have raved about it. I get e-mails all the time from people who have just finished it and feel compelled to tell me how much they liked it and to ask when my next book is coming out. I’ve only seen two brief reviews from individuals who didn’t care for it. Honestly, I expected more. When you write about sex and religion, you’re guaranteed to get some people worked up. That was one of the points I was trying to make.

Q: So, have you gotten any funny looks when mentioning the title of this book?

A: Surprisingly few. Most people respond favorably, saying something like, “That will get people’s attention.” Although some readers in the mystery community have commented that they didn’t care for the title. And one book group, who liked the story so much they asked me to join them for a discussion, said they were embarrassed to ask for it at the bookstore or library. On the other hand, one NY reader who posted on Goodreads said she loved carrying THE SEX CLUB around the subways. So the title has had mixed results.

Q: You’ve created a very likable character in Det. Wade Jackson, a separated father trying to balance raising a teenage daughter with his profession. I’m glad to see he’ll be back in a second book, Secrets to Die For. What can you tell us about the second book?

A: I’m so glad you like Jackson. I wanted him to be likable and respectable. I didn’t want to write a hard-drinking, bitter, morally questionable cop character. He’s not perfect, but his issues are the same as everyone’s: family, money, and health.

Here’s the pitch for STDF: A social worker visits the home of a young boy she has been assigned to and is brutally murdered shortly after. To Detective Jackson, it looks like an open-and-shut case against the ex-con father of the young boy. Then complications develop when new evidence points to a serial rapist whose violence is escalating. Meanwhile, the murder victim’s lover knows something about the rape victims but has secrets of her own that she’s afraid to reveal. Soon she is kidnapped and held captive, and Jackson must uncover the truth in time to save her.
SECRETS TO DIE FOR will be out in September from Echelon Press. Any everyone will be hearing more from me about it as the release date gets closer.

Q: Is Wade Jackson going to become a series?

A: It is a series. I’m working on the final draft of the third book now. And I have standalone thriller, THE BABY THIEF, in which Jackson appears as a minor character. I hope to have this book on the market soon too. I’m also outlining the fourth Jackson story. So by the end of 2010, I should have five Jackson novels available.

As background information: When I wrote THE SEX CLUB, it was story I felt very passionate about and had to tell. It also happened to have a detective in it, so I wrote the Jackson character as someone I liked well enough that I could bring him back in future stories if I wanted to. I didn’t set out to write a series. But readers loved the characters so much, I decided to write a few more Jackson stories and see how it went.

Q: You started out as a journalist, working many years in editor positions in pharmaceutical magazines. How did you make the jump to writing books, and was this something you had wanted to do for a long time? And did your experience as a journalist help in writing these books?

A: I started writing novels rather early in my journalism career. My first novel was a challenge to myself, after reading a particularly bad novel and thinking ‘I could do better than that.’ So I brainstormed a storyline, outlined it, then wrote the novel. It was so much fun, I wrote another one. Then I started thinking about getting published. BTW: It took a long time. My journalism experience is what led me to outline my first novel before I started writing — and every novel since. I believe this is tremendously helpful. Journalism also gives me the discipline and confidence to sit down and write every day whether I feel inspired or not.

Q: Is being a published mystery author what you thought it would be? Can you relate some of the more unexpected, or even stranger, things that have happened to you since you published The Sex Club?

A: Online social networking has drastically changed how writers interact with readers and with other writers. It’s not a scenario I imagined when I first fantasized about the life of a novelist. Ultimately, I have more friends and fun than I thought I would, but considerably less money.

One of the strangest things that happened was discovering that the name of the antagonist in THE SEX CLUB is the name of real person who’s involved in a mystery community we both belong to. I was horrified and hoped she wouldn’t find out. But she did and she contacted me, and fortunately I managed to smooth things out with her. But it made me realize that my fiction can have repercussions in the real world. Another interesting by-product is that now I get requests to read, review, blurb, and edit sexually explicit books. I don’t write sex scenes or read them as a general rule, so it’s funny to have people think that’s who I am because my novel has the word sex in the title.

Q: Which are the authors you read?
A: This is hard because some of my favorite authors from the past, I no longer read. And some new authors I like, I’ve read only one of his/her novels so far. So this list will be a mix. Favorite authors from the past: Lawrence Sanders, Steven King, Leslie Glass, Margaret Atwood, Sue Grafton, John MacDonald, Rex Stout. Favorite current authors: John Sanford, John Grisham, John Hart, Laura Lippman. Potential new favorites: Harlan Coben, Victor Gischler, Duane Swierczynski, Gillian Flynn, Karen Olson.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Sex Club by L.J. Sellers

Protagonist: Det. Wade Jackson
Setting: Eugene, Oregon
Rating: 4.0

From the title, you might expect some tawdry book, but this is a crime novel with some important points to make. The "sex club" refers to a group of middle-school kids, 13 to 15 years old, who get caught up in sex games that turn deadly when the body of one girl is found naked in a dumpster. Det. Jackson knew the girl -- she was a friend of his daughter (Sellers paints a nice portrait of him as a separated dad trying to raise a teenage daughter). He's helped by Kera Kollmorgan, a nurse at a Planned Parenthood clinic, who has begun to notice trends among the teen patients and formed her theories -- but patient confidentiality prevents her from telling Jackson everything.

To add to the tension, the clinic is bombed by a religious fundamentalist, also the mother of one of the sex club members. Soon, the mother is targeting Kera herself -- for death. There's a somewhat predictable ending, but before she gets there Sellers weaves in some issues to think about, such as the importance of sex education in schools. And that high school may already be too late to start discussing these issues with kids. This is Sellers' debut book, and I very much look forward to reading her next one.

Bitter Recoil by Steven Havill

Protagonists: Bill Gastner and Estelle Reyes-Guzman
Setting: Northern New Mexico
Rating: 3.7

In this second book of the series, Gastner, just out of bypass surgery, drives across the state to visit former deputy Guzman, now newly married. But he soon finds himself helping her on a nonstop 24-hour case: first, a young pregnant woman is killed, seemingly thrown from a moving car. Then, young men are being killed, possibly the ones who were in the pickup truck with the girl. The bad guy becomes obvious pretty quickly, but Havill still maintains our interest with some interesting twists and the growing characters of Gastner and Guzman, and the book moves quickly to its resolution.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin

Protagonist: Julia Davidsson
Setting: Oland, Sweden
Rating: 5.0
Twenty years ago, Julia's 5-year-old son slipped out of his grandparents' garden and vanished into the fog of this Swedish island, his body never found. But now, his grandfather Gerlof, who lives at a home for the elderly, has received one of the boy's sandals in the mail. He calls his daughter, and together they begin to try to solve the mystery. Their main suspect is the notorious murderer Nils Kant, a man who killed three people (or four, if you count his own brother's accidental drowning) before leaving Sweden. But Gerlof believes Kant returned and still lives on Oland. These two very unlikely heroes -- Gerlof, wracked by a disease that sometimes leaves him unable to walk, and Julia, alcoholic and still embittered after 20 years -- become stronger the more they delve into the case, with the help of Oland's lone policeman, Lennart Henriksson. This story moves slowly, and cuts between present-day and Nil's own story. But by the end, you've come to really care for these characters. The ending, therefore, is even more heart-wrenching. This is a story that will stay with me for a while.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny

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

The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday by Alexander McCall Smith

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