Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Protagonists: Skeeter, Aibileen, Minny
Setting: Jackson, Miss., 1962
Rating: 5.0
During one of the most turbulent years in Mississippi during the Civil Rights struggle, 22-year-old Skeeter returns home and, wanting to be a writer, strikes on an idea: write about the lives of black maids, "the help." She does this with the aid of maids Aibileen and Minny. They have to do it furtively, though, since such a project could turn dangerous. Everyone who had read this book before me told me it was great -- and everyone was right. The dialogue, the story, the tension, the history -- all were done wonderfully.

I don't want to say much, so as not to spoil the book, but one note of caution -- if you listen to it on audiobook (as I did) be careful when driving. It's hard to see the road through the tears.

(Audiobook narrated by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer and Cassandra Campbell)

Unnatural Causes by P.D. James

Protagonist: Supt. Adam Dalgliesh
Setting: Monksmere, England
Rating: 4.0
No, this is not a new book. This is the third in a series (I'm reading those P.D. James books I haven't read yet). In this novel, there's no rest for Dalgliesh, even on vacation in Monksmere (Suffolk). While Dalgliesh is visiting his aunt Jane, writer Maurice Seton's body is found floating nearby in a dinghy, his hands cut off. Not only is this gruesome, but the death mimics what would have been the opening chapter of Seton's new book -- suggested by another writer who lives in the community. Then the postmortem shows that Seton's death was of natural causes, despite the chopped-off hands. Dalgliesh, of course, still suspects murder. James gives us a clever plot, but what's most interesting about this early book is that James begins to develop Dalgliesh. We see Dalgliesh, a widower, struggle as to whether he should give up the single life he enjoys for marriage to Deborah Riscoe (who we met in the first book), and we get a snatch of his poetry.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Keeping it Short

As part of a reading challenge for February, I tackled two books of short stories this month. Now, short stories are not my favorite -- I usually feel as if they leave something wanting, a sort of reading lite.

The challenge didn't entirely convert me, but I did read some wonderful short stories. The best of writers do know how to write short while also fleshing out plot, characterization and setting in just a few pages.

Mysterious Pleasures, edited by Martin Edwards
Rating: 4.4
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Crime Writers' Association in 2003, the group put out this collection, including some original short stories written just for this anthology. While I didn't enjoy every single story (some just fell flat), I'm very glad to have read this book. It introduced me to some writers who I've now added to my TBR list. And there were some excellent short stories in this anthology. In "One Morning They'll Hang Us," Margery Allingham's Albert Campion solves a case before even visiting the crime scene. Reginald Hill, in "The Game of Dog," has Peter Pascoe and his dog joining a group of dog-walking men at the pub -- and wondering whether a pub game led to murder. Ruth Rendell's "When the Wedding Was Over" sees Michael Burden get married, while Chief Insp. Wexford solves a minor mystery. There's also an offering by the late Dick Francis, "The Gift," which revolves around an alcoholic sports writer who might have the story of his life. Editor Martin Edwards (himself a mystery writer) has assembled a collection that offers us some of the very best mystery writers. If, like me, you want a taste of short stories, this is a good place to start.

A Good Hanging by Ian Rankin
Protagonist: Det. Insp. John Rebus
Setting: Edinburgh
Rating: 4.8
I could read Rankin's short stories all day -- he's that good. What I also like about this collection is that they add to Rebus' characterization and that, taken together, they read as one story -- just a story of one Rebus case after another. The title story is about a student hanging during the Edinburgh Festival. In order to solve the crime, Rebus must attend a Shakespeare play which holds a vital clue. In "Not Provan," it seems a guilty man will go free at trial -- unless Rebus can break his alibi. And in "Sunday," we see Rebus on a free Sunday, a seemingly ordinary Sunday, as he does laundry, makes coffee, cooks a steak ... then we learn it's not just any other Sunday. If you've somehow skipped the Rebus short stories (and there's another collection of them in Rankin's The Complete Short Stories), I highly recommend them.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

Protagonist: Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar
Setting: Cambridge, England, 12th century
Rating: 5.0
It’s hard to combine history with a mystery thriller – and, in fact, some people have taken issue with some of the historical details of this novel – but for my part, this was a gripping, entertaining read. It’s the year 1170, and the King of England has asked his cousin, the King of Sicily for help. Children are being murdered in Cambridge, and the populace has blamed the Jews, shutting them in a castle. But Henry Plantagenet is anxious to clear the Jews, for they are the money lenders, and therefore very valuable in raising tax revenue. The King of Sicily sends a team of three to help – Simon of Naples, a highly skilled investigator, Adelia Aguilar, a sort of coroner, or “mistress of the art of death,” and Mansur, a Saracen and eunuch sent to protect Adelia. When a young boy Adelia has befriended is kidnapped, the hunt becomes even more frantic.

Into this mix throw in a bit of romance (which could get dicey, but adds to the novel’s enjoyment here as Adelia debates with herself marriage versus her career as physician) and a substory involving the Crusades. There are also several plot twists, even after the killer is found out. All in all, a highly enjoyable Medieval mystery.

The Complaints by Ian Rankin

Protagonist: Malcolm Fox
Setting: Edinburgh
Rating: 4.7
Insp. John Rebus has retired, so from Rankin we now get a different type of cop: Malcolm Fox, who works for The Complaints and Conduct, the cops who investigate other cops. He and his team have just finished a case involving veteran officer Glen Heaton, meaning The Complaints has stirred up some more anger. Fox is also dealing with his sister, who is being physically abused by her live-in boyfriend, when he's asked to start investigating another cop who worked with Heaton, this time as part of an online child pornography group. Before Fox can even begin, he gets a call from that same officer, Jamie Breck, with news that his sister's boyfriend has been killed. Although Breck is one of the main investigators and this might appear a conflict of interest, Fox's boss tells him to continue investigating Breck. He does -- and finds Breck to be intelligent, charming, very likable. Can he really be a pedophile? And what about all the coincidences starting to build up?

The novel is all about rights and wrongs, as we try to figure out just which cop is bent -- and which is honest. As Fox mulls:

He wondered: did it bother him that the world wasn't entirely fair? That justice was seldom sufficient? There would always be people ready to pocket a wad of banknotes in exchange for a favour. There would always be people who played the system and wrung out every penny. Some people -- lots of people -- would keep getting away with it.

'But you're not one of them,' he told himself.

Rankin gives us a great story, a great protagonist and more than enough reason to believe there's life after Rebus.

There's a good interview with Rankin about this book and future plans at