The Black Box by Michael Connelly. A solid police procedural, with roots in the 1992 LA riots and a modern-day resolution
The Black Box by Michael Connelly. A solid police procedural, with roots in the 1992 LA riots and a modern-day resolution
The Private Patient by P.D. James. I’ve read all of her books. This might be the last Dalgliesh book, as P.D. James passed away last November. It is classic James, with her examination of class issues, attention to detail, and convoluted plot. A woman goes to a private clinic for facial reconstruction and doesn’t survive the night. It’s not the best-written of the series, but I’ll take it. There is an elegiac air to the book. She takes care to wrap up certain details of her characters’ lives (in satisfying ways).
Mysteries, we read them:
Naked Greed by Stuart Woods. I read an ARC for this book. A perfect beach book, with popcorn or potato chips alongside. The book is filled with double-crosses and fine meals. I always like reading his books. Occasionally he gets off gems like this: "[t]he party had upshifted from cordiality to conviviality, though nobody was wearing a lampshade yet."
Rock With Wings by Anne Hillerman. I was fortunate to receive an early copy of this book. Tony Hillerman's daughter Anne continues the stories of Leaphorn, Chee and Manuelito, as well as other familiar characters. She's an extremely good writer. She captures the original voices very well and adds her own touches. She works in Stagecoach references, details of life on the reservation, and even zombies. Now I have to go back and read Spider Woman's Daughter. I missed it when it came out.
Robert Parker's Kickback by Ace Atkins. I received an ARC of this book. I enjoyed Cheap Shot so was looking forward to it. I'm sorry to say it was a disappointment. I hope that since it's an ARC, the prose will be tightened up before the final version comes out. Without spoiling it, I've encountered the basic plot before (Leverage 3.01 and elsewhere). There are interpolated scenes involving different (nameless) characters in a different location that are just annoying. He wasn't as good at capturing the essence of Spenser and Hawk this time.
And in nonfiction
Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime by Val McDermid. My "run right out and get it" book of the month. Do you watch CSI or Criminal Minds? Do you read true crime or mysteries? Do you enjoy reading about the development of technology? This book spans all those topics and more and does it brilliantly. Val McDermid covers every branch of forensics including history, procedures, and she includes examples, mostly from Great Britain. Her writing style is accessible and engaging. This book would also be a great gift for any mystery writer.
The Very Best of Charles DeLint. This was a gift in every sense of the word. The author collaborated with fans to pick the stories to be included. Charles DeLint also offered free downloads one day last month with the news being spread on social media. I found out from a friend and grabbed it. Many of the stories were new to me. I enjoy his urban fantasies quite a lot. While some of them are sad, most are decidedly optimistic. If you haven't read any of his work, this is a great way to get into it.
Last books from 2014 before I start the New Year. This was a curiously unsatisfactory lot, by and large.
Meet Your Baker by Ellie Alexander. Juliet is a former cruise ship pastry chef who returns to her home town to heal a broken heart and work in her mother’s bakery. Ashland is home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, so several of the characters work at or near it. For a first mystery, this is pretty good. I think she tried to put too much into it – the forest fires were a little unnecessary and the Mia subplot didn’t help the story along. Overall, though, this isn’t a typical cozy and I like it for that. (Updated: found out the author writes another series, so it isn’t a first novel)
Monster’s Chef by Jeffrey Tervalon. A chef with a drug problem is hired to work on a music superstar’s private estate. Weirdness ensures. I debated the rating and classification on this book for quite a while. On the one hand I read it in one sitting. It was more gripping than I originally thought. None of the characters are likable (intentional, I think, on the author’s part). I didn’t see the similarity to the MJ situation that other readers saw. I didn’t care for the hallucinatory nature of sections of the book.
Bread and Butter by Michelle Wildgen. Two older brothers open a classic restaurant. The youngest opens a hipper joint a few years later. I found this book a slog. I read the first two thirds and skimmed the rest. it’s a curiously bloodless sibling rivalry. They don’t seem very interested in each other. There’s something mysteriously wrong with the youngest but no details are given. The descriptions of the restaurants and the food were fine. There just wasn’t enough to engage my attention.
Whiteout by Ken Follett. Published in 2005, it now seems kind of an average techno-thriller. A deadly virus is stolen from an isolated lab during a Christmas blizzard and the facilities director has to get it back. Two teenagers do more to retrieve the virus than she does.
The Corsican Caper by Peter Mayle. Wonderful writing, the food descriptions made me hungry, but I must agree with others that it's novella length at best. No mystery or suspense either.
Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid. This rewrite of the Jane Austen classic is part of a series updating Jane's books. Instead of diaries and dances in Bath, it's Facebook, smartphones, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The heroine Catherine still gets carried away by novels, but here it's Twilight. Catherine stills learns the lessons from the original novel. I like Val McDermid and she took a good approach to the rewrite, it just didn't work for me. I wasn't that fond of the original. Some scenes felt authentic, especially the frenzy for cellphone connection, but generally I don't think it translated well to modern day.
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. This book was hugely popular when it first came out but I'm only now reading it for the first time. Dinah is a minor character in the Bible, sister to Joseph and daughter of Jacob. Her story as well as those of Leah and Rachel are center stage. Jacob and Joseph as well as the other men don't come off very well in this version. I liked the instances where religions collided - that's true to the era and the area. It was a good read.
The nonfiction book of the week is When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning. This was an entertaining and enthralling read. After the Nazis burned books, librarians held massive book drives to send books to soldiers. Hardcovers ultimately proved too heavy. Thus was born Armed Services Editions: small, lightweight, literally designed to be "pocket books." The stories about soldiers reading them under all conditions and in all theatres will move you. Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Katherine Anne Porter's short stories are two unlikely authors that soldiers adored. I think the ASE program might have been the reason my father went into publishing after the war. Certainly many soldiers ended with a deep love of reading. It helped raise American literacy, too.
Seven Wonders by Ben Mezrich
Blood Rubies by Jane Cleland
A Nip of Murders by Carol Miller
Betrayed by Lisa Scottoline
Seven Wonders by Ben Mezrich. When his twin brother is killed, Jack Grady vows to find out why. His brother’s research takes Jack around the world to visit the modern Seven Wonders and solve an archaeological mystery. Ben Mezrich is best known for his nonfiction books about whiz kids who gamble, create social networks, and take risks. Two of them became major motion pictures. The movie version of this book might be fun but you can skip reading it. It’s a mixture of Indiana Jones, the DaVinci Code and National Treasure, but not in a good way. It’s full of unbelievable coincidences and the writing is choppy. The MacGuffin is particularly unbelievable.
Blood Rubies by Jane Cleland. A chef known for her Faberge egg cakes is launching a new reality show. Josie Pigeon, local antiques shop owner, is called in to appraise a suspected Faberge snowglobe. This innocent beginning soon leads to a murdered financial guru, a suspicious stalker, and another murder. I was fortunate to receive an ARC for this book. I hadn’t read any of her books before. It was easy to get into the series and was perfectly fine as a standalone. She researched her topics thoroughly and tied together Faberge eggs, snow globes, financial wizards, and a pastry chef’s new television show in an engaging fashion. I enjoyed it and will likely look for more in the series.
A Nip of Murders by Carol Miller. I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of the book. It’s one of the cleverer and more creative cozies I’ve read this year. I waffled between three and four stars. Let’s call it 3 and 3 quarters? It’s a good second novel after a good debut. Definitely worth reading. It’s hard to discuss its virtues without spoilers. The use of geo-cachers to bring a bunch of suspects together has to be a first. The use of cream cheese to create a “situation” (for want of a better word) is also a first. Confederate treasure as a MacGuffin has been around for a while but this is one of the more creative uses I’ve seen. A lot of it had me baffled but she did wind everything up to a satisfying conclusion. I do like her cast of characters. The only part that bugged me was Daisy’s insistence on disbelieving everything Rick says or does. So far in the books he hasn’t been a liar.
Betrayed by Lisa Scottoline. Judy Carrier is an attorney with Rosato & DiNunzio. She’s handed a complicated asbestos case, her love life is crumbling, and she finds out her beloved aunt has cancer. Her aunt’s closest friend is murdered and in short order we are plunged into illegal immigrants, drug smuggling, and more. I received an ARC of this book (due to be published 11/25/14). I’m familiar with many of the characters but I don’t follow the series that closely – I was surprised that there are 13 of them. I’d call it suspense, rather than a mystery. I enjoyed the book, but there’s just one subplot too many. I think the one that finally drags down the book is the reveal that Mom is actually the aunt and aunt is actually Mom. It’s unnecessary and contributes nothing to the story. I even think the boyfriend thing is too much. We don’t care enough about Judy that it matters. Don’t read unless you’ve read some of the earlier books and have at least a passing familiarity with the situation and characters. Otherwise you’ll be confused.
Enemies at Home by Lindsey Davis. Flavia Alba carries on her father's work as a private informer in ancient Rome. If she doesn't solve a double murder, the slaves in the house will be executed. Flavia is her own character, completely different from Marcus Didius, but sharing some of the same quirks and passions. The novel is meticulously researched, the story is lively, and I didn't guess the killer. I'll look forward to more.
Memphis Ribs by Gerald Duff. Two police officers chase down murderers and drug dealers in Memphis during Festival time. There's plenty of barbecue and blues in the novel, but no suspense. The bad guys are identified in the first few chapters. It was written in 1999 and it seemed dated. The blurbs said the author had a good ear for the dialect, but I'll have to take their word for it. No suspense, no mystery.
Bones Never Lie by Kathy Reichs. A cold case from Tempe's past is linked to current murders. I'm not a steady reader of her books, and some of them have really put me off, but I found this one appealing. Odd, given the gruesome nature of the murders. The procedural details are realistic and I liked the characters, especially their persistence in pursuing the case. I do like the book Tempe much more than the TV series Tempe. She is more balanced and believable.
An Affinity for Murder by Anne White. Could there be an undiscovered trove of Georgia O'Keeffe paintings in upstate New York? Anne White story explores the world of art forgeries in a small-town setting. Anne White was a winner of the Malice Domestic grant in 1999 and this was her first book. I did enjoy the details about upstate New York and about O'Keeffe herself. I was less persuaded that a grown woman would be such a ditz. I understand she has a different protagonist for the later Lake George mysteries so I may give them a look.
Terminal City by Linda Fairstein. Alexandra Cooper, prosecutor for the NY Special Victims Unit, is called on on a horrific murder at the Waldorf Astoria. It gradually branches out into conspiracies and narrows into Grand Central. The final scenes are chilling. I loved all the details of Grand Central Terminal, the history, the reconstruction, the changes it made to the Manhattan landscape. I didn't love Michael Cooper, her love interest. This was the first one I read and he struck me as a jerk. I didn't know why he sniped at Alex and why she kept taking him back. I also had no idea about the subplot, which I think must echo back to earlier books in the series. It is definitely worth reading, if only for the setting.
The Blood of An Englishman by M.C. Beaton. Agatha Raisin's 25th adventure. (I read an ARC.) I've tried the series a few times before but didn't care for it. I find Agatha difficult to like. Why is she so man-crazy even though she has two steady male companions? Still, the excellent plot kept me reading and she was less annoying than she usually is.
Beatleness: How the Beatles and Their Fans Remade the World by Candy Leonard. This book documents and discusses the experiences of the first generation of Beatles fans. The author does an excellent job placing the whole Beatles phenomenon within the context of the mid to late 60s. The Beatles existed against the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of 1968 and political turbulence, and so much more. It was also within the context of the expansion of television and shared communications. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. For me, the Beatles pretty much provided my soundtrack to elementary school. She gets to the heart of the fandom in a way I haven't seen before, providing a well-researched cultural background without condescension.
Ain't It Time We Said Goodbye: The Rolling Stones on the Road to Exile by Robert Greenfield. This little book left me wanting more. The first two-thirds describes the last time the Rolling Stones could casually tour England. The personalities come through very clearly. The last third is set in various locations during the tax exile. The albums are iconic (Exile on Main Street) but the band was splintering. It's shocking to look back and see the amount of drug use so prevalent then. There are some eye-opening photos.
Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll by Peter Bebergal. Except when it didn't. The author conflates religious, mystical, and occult influences on rock music. It's true that early rock and roll was heavily influenced by religious music, that Eastern beliefs influenced later musicians and some progressive rock bands reinterpreted folklore. His thesis falls apart in the last chapter, mostly because he skips nearly 20 years of popular music, including grunge, disco, and punk. He devotes more space to fringe elements such as death music than their influence warrants. N.B. I read an ARC so some errors I saw will likely be fixed.
The fiction book of the week is Remains of Innocence by J.A. Jance. Part of the Sheriff Brady series. Lisa tries to escape inexplicable violence in her hometown while Sheriff Joanne Brady works to solve two shocking cases. Though I am not a fan of multiple viewpoints, the way the two stories alternated yet moved together inexorably to a joint conclusion was really fascinating. The motive was unexpected and a clever one. It can be read as a standalone, though I truly enjoy this series. Very well written.
Strangers by Bill Pronzini. I haven’t read Bill Pronzini in several years. I thought as long as I was revisiting Sharon McCone, I’d take another look at Nameless. Strangers is Bill Pronzini’s latest and it’s good. Nameless now has a first name – Bill – but he’s still the weary veteran. He’s better-connected to people he loves and thinking about retirement. He accepts a case from an old flame to investigate crimes her son is accused of committing. Pronzini gets the suspicious small town attitude just right. All the details he puts in bolster the atmosphere he creates. The mystery is good – I didn’t guess the perpetrator. Good characters and tight writing add up to a good book. Pronzini develops his characters in believable ways. Nameless is familiar but not stale. Guess I’ll be catching up with the ones I skipped.
The Good, the Bad, and the Emus by Donna Andrews. Who would have thought Meg would be here for 17 books? This is a nice next chapter in Meg Langslow’s life. The twins are growing, Michael’s still teaching and (thanks to yet another injury to her hand), Meg’s investigating another suspicious death. I would wish for more time spent with Michael and less time with some of the subsidiary characters. And I want Meg to have some time blacksmithing, darn it, because I loved those parts. (But it is authentic that with twins she doesn’t have time.) There’s one main plot point that you’ll guess pretty easily but the book is an enjoyable read. The animals are funny as always.
Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas by Stephanie Barron. I was pleasantly surprised to receive an ARC of this book. I was half-afraid she had abandoned the series. This is an excellent continuation. Ms. Barron captures Jane Austen’s voice perfectly. References to events in Jane’s life and concurrent events, such as Napoleon and the War of 1812, are sprinkled throughout. The mystery is excellent – a nice variation on limited suspects and a missing document. I liked the descriptions of the Twelfth Night party and also the difficulties of traveling at the time. Very well written.
Wait for Signs: Twelve Longmire Stories by Craig Johnson. I was given an ARC of this book. It’s terrific. It’s a collection of his Christmas stories over the years, plus a bonus story. Each story is a lovely little gem. The collection showcases the development of his characters from year to year.
This week’s nonfiction book is Antarctica by Gabrielle Walker. I enjoyed this book quite a lot. It’s the culmination of several years in which she visited numerous bases at varying times of the year. I knew a fair amount about the South Pole, Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton, but this book filled in the gaps. I liked how she wrote about all the different bases and different nationalities working on Antarctica. The science projects were fascinating. The challenges faced by the scientists are tough and it’s impressive that they meet them. The details of the working conditions can only be described by someone who’s lived them. I can’t imagine spending seven months on end with only ten people for company. One disappointment: the text cried out for photographs, especially when she wrote that she took her camera everywhere. I was lucky enough to have antarctic_sue's LJ for reference.
Small Plates: Short Fiction by Katherine Hall Page. This was an enjoyable set of short stories. Most of them featured her series character Faith Fairchild. Faith gets out of the kitchen, which broadens the scope of the stories. Some of the plots were really ingenious and the secondary characters all likable. My favorite was “The Two Marys,” the longest story that also closes the book.
The Alpine Yeoman by Mary Daheim. I’ve read this series from the beginning and we’re now up to #25. I always wonder what will happen to the alphabetical mysteries (Kinsey Milhone!) when they use up the letters. This book does require some familiarity with the series. The author finally tied up Emma’s relationship with Milo, which was a long time coming. The secondary characters have been developed all along, so the relationships would be confusing if you haven’t been following. I wish she’d spent a little more time on the mysteries and less on the domestic scenes. But it was still a fun read.
Designated Daughters by Margaret Maron. This was a good entry in the Deborah Knott series. It was family-heavy, lots of relationships I had trouble keeping track of. There were some very cute family scenes as well. The resolution of the mystery pressed one of my “don’t like” buttons – the secret that is no secret. But I do like her characters and her sense of place. I loved the auction house side story.
By Its Cover by Donna Leon. Not the best in the series but still enjoyable. Brunetti’s Venice is full of venal politicians and corruption. He enjoys his family and makes a stand where he can. Any booklover would be incensed by the crime solved here – selling pages out of books and entire books from libraries. I was a little surprised by the second culprit but I shouldn’t have been. As always her descriptions are exquisite.
The Night Searchers by Marcia Muller. I’ve gotten back to enjoying her books. Her main characters change and grow in natural ways. I wasn’t totally convinced by the way the two plots came together but that’s a minor quibble as both were interesting. I like the way she uses the Internet in her stories. No super-techs, just honest depictions. She captures San Francisco so well too. Sharon has been around a long time, maybe even longer than Kinsey. I’ll look forward to more.
Indexing by Seanan Grant. The book started as an Amazon Kindle serial but I didn't read it until the stories were compiled. I liked it. It goes back to the days before the Disneyfication of fairy tales. The darkness of fairy tales is an important part of their tradition. As Chesterton said "fairy tales teach children that monsters can be killed." I also liked the way the narrative has power, a different take on a solipsistic existence. Good characters. I'm not crazy about the way the viewpoints shift, but once I knew it had been a serial it made better sense. Though I classed it as science fiction, it's really more urban fantasy.
The Diva Haunts the House by Krista Davis. A Goodreads friend recommended this author. I think I picked up the wrong volume to start with. It's the fifth in the series. I didn't care for all the teenage angst and I was confused about some of the characters. I know Old Town Alexandria pretty well and the book didn't give the sense of place. It was an interesting plot and I liked the Halloween tips. I'll try the first book in the series.
Mystery Writers of America Presents Ice Cold: Tales of Intrigue from the Cold War. A very good short story collection. The stories captured the chilling nature of the Cold War, where spies were around every corner and the double-cross was to be expected. Lots of paranoia among the espionage.
This week's nonfiction book is Leonardo's Foot by Carol Ann Rinzler. She covers the topic of feet in Destiny, Disability, Difference, Diet, and Desire. Standing upright played as much a part in developing humanity as the brain. She went through foot problems, foot fetishism, measurements, everything. Lots of illustrations also helped. My favorite part was when scientists spotted a brain in the Michelangelo painting God and Adam and concluded God was passing intelligence, not the spark of life.
Nothing: Surprising Insights Everywhere from Zero to Oblivion edited by Jeremy Webb. It turns out there's a lot to consider in nothingness, whether you are talking about zero or oblivion. From the placebo effect to absolute vacuum to voodoo curse efficacy - this book covers it all. I found this collection of essays alternately charming and exasperating. Most of the essays are well written and informative and discuss interesting concepts. They tried to be a little too cutesy in the organization of the book. The chapters aren't logically arranged. Instead they have chapter headings like Surprises and Mysteries. Instead of grouping like essays together, they tried to make a "create your own story" arrangement. At the end of some (not all) essays, they offered suggestions to skip around in the book to follow particular topics. I didn't care for the approach.
Supreme Justice by Max Allan Collins. A really good suspense novel. The story is set in the near future and covers the murders of Supreme Court Justices. The protagonist is a former Secret Service agent good at reading body language. There are clever plot twists. The guy I pegged as doomed to die a heroic death turned out to be a bad guy. I liked the little chapter quotes from justices and others buried at Arlington National Cemetery. It's almost compulsively readable.
After I'm Gone by Laura Lippman I thought this was an absorbing read. Normally I don't like books with shifting points of view but she carries it out very well. The protagonist is investigating a decades-old disappearance and a murder. The book changes viewpoints and eras among the protagonist and the five women left behind in the disappearance. Each character is sharply drawn and believable. I don't want to spoil it for any readers, so I'll just say her resolution is fair and she leaves enough clues. Tess and Crow make a couple of appearances, but mostly in the epilogue. It's definitely worth reading.
Show Your Work by Austin Kleon A sequel of sorts to Steal Like An Artist, this book focuses on developing a reputation and sharing your work on the Internet and social media. Artists' communities are a time-honored tradition and we can create those communities virtually. He talks about the necessity of sharing and the importance of not oversharing. One piece of advice I've seen many times is to do something every single day. He encourages sharing work in progress. The book's design looks elementary but it contains useful information and encouragement.
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. It’s generally considered to be the first detective story. It was originally published in serial form, which accounts for all the repetition. Many of the conventions that now seem trite must have been seen then as amazing. He handled the different characters’ voices very well and pulled off the shifting points of view. The villain was pretty obvious.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. A classic Victorian novel that also manages to be a decent mystery. It has a very creepy opening. Excellent characterizations with the different narrators carrying through the story. I didn’t care for the very Victorian attitudes towards women, but that can’t be helped.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. This book introduced Tom Ripley. I didn’t care for the character but the book was riveting. In a sense, it’s like Woman in White in that Tom takes over another’s identity. He switches back and forth, comes up with lies in an instant, and generally manipulates everyone. He feels guilty about his actions, but not enough to stop.
Home of the Braised by Julie Hyzy. I had to read a modern mystery after those three. This series features the White House executive chef as the heroine. It’s in classic cozy style. I enjoy this series and this one did not disappoint. There’s a state dinner, international intrigue, and wedding plans.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This week’s nonfiction book took me a long time to read, mostly because I needed to digest each chapter. The book analyzes the two different decision processes the human brain makes – one quick and intuitive, one deliberate and problem-solving. He explains loss aversion: why people with little don’t want to risk losing it but will buy lottery tickets. He went through some of the fallacies we use in making snap decisions. I found WYSIATI (What you see is all there is) a great explanation of why we make dumb choices sometimes. It’s mostly fairly accessible. The two appendices are more complicated. The author is a Nobel Prize winner in economics.
Queen Victoria, a life of contradictions by Matthew Dennison. I am not really sure who the audience is for this book or its goal. It presents Victoria's life in a superficial way. It focuses on family and a few other people but it is too short to do them justice. It's not even a good introduction for those seeking to learn more about the woman who gave the name to an age and style. Disappointing.
The Sugar Season: A Year in the Life of Maple Syrup, and One Family's Quest for the Sweetest Harvest by Douglas Whynott. A surprisingly interesting book about maple syrup - its roots in American history, family involvement in a multibillion dollar industry, and how even maple syrup can be involved in an international theft. It was interesting to learn that while the techniques of harvesting sap have advanced, it's still highly dependent on Mother Nature. Global warming and man's effect on the environment is playing a part in the shifting industry.
Children of the Revolution by Peter Robinson. It's been a few years since I read any books by this author. I like the Yorkshire setting. The characters are fairly interesting. I just didn't find it that engaging. The mystery wasn't that interesting and the victim was unlikeable. Still it was a pretty good read.
The Merlot Murders by Ellen Crosby. I have read others in this series, so was pleased to find this first one. Very enjoyable. She got the descriptions of Virginia wine country right. Her details about wine making were fascinating. Likeable characters, even knowing what comes next. A good read.