Monday, January 2, 2017

Middle Sister's Autumn Reads

It's been a long while since I posted my book reviews, but there have been some upheavals in my life that precluded both posting and, sadly, reading. But I did get a few books read.

Stone Coffin by Kjell Eriksson Originally published in 2001 in Sweden, this book was just translated and published here in the US, riding the wave of the popularity of Swedish noir. The enjoyed the book. The descriptions of Sweden were very realistic. Ann Lindell, the protagonist, is at a crossroads in her life in this title int he series, and while I generally am impatient with verbal introspection that lasts as entire book, the fast pace of the novel kept the moody inner torture to a minimum. While Ann was not my favorite character, perhaps because of her circumstances, I did like the other police officers and many of the secondary characters. These are good, honest people caught up in circumstances out of their control, and underscore that as different as we may think we are, based on language, or religion, or location, or whatever, we are all the same. Not as noir as other, currently more popular, Swedish authors, so a good avenue for a mystery reader to explore to expand their reading list.

That Affair Next Door by Anna Katherine Green My suggestion for my mystery book group, which focuses on female detectives and a particular era. This is the first of a short series starring Amelia Butterworth, a spinster of a certain age living in late nineteenth century New York City, who observes rather mysterious events at the house next door. Assuming that the police are incompetent, she sets out to investigate, and does uncover some information that Ebenezer Gryce, Green's series protagonist, doesn't. The general consensus of my mystery book group was that Amelia Butterworth was haughty and irritating, but we were impressed that an author would even entertain the idea of a female 'detective' at this date, and the freedoms and opinions of her character made us re-examine our own preconceptions of what late Victorian life was like for a middle class spinster in a large city in America.

West With the Night by Beryl Markham This book was quite popular in 1985 when I worked in a bookstore and it was re-published by, I think, Macmillan/Scribners, after the success of the movie based on Isak Dineson's  Out of Africa. I wanted to read it then, and didn't, but did finally get around to listening to the recorded version. I've not read Dineson although I have seen the movie, and I did find Markham's impression of Baron Blixen very interesting when compared to Dineson's and the movie's portrayal of him. While most of the book was enjoyable, Markham did lose me when she wrote an anthropomorphized horse's view of his new life, which was so at odds with her style in the rest of the book. An interesting, first-hand account of what life was like for a privileged set of white Europeans in Africa at the early decades of the twentieth century, parts can be uncomfortable for an urban, 21st century reader.

The Torso in the Town by Simon Brett One of the early Carole Seddon mysteries, originally published in 2002. A dinner party is interrupted by the discovery of a headless, limb less torso in the basement. Brett provides the slightly askew version of the English country town murder: people live in picturesque, hundreds of years old houses that suffer the pangs of age; everyone in the small village knows each others' secrets, or thinks they do, and are delighted to gossip about them; the vicar is not the pillar of society but a weak, doubtful milksop; the rough publican has a heart of gold and a sensitive side, etc. Carole is not my favorite character: she's too rigid, too judgmental, and thus too fallible perhaps. Rather, I like her ostensibly carefree friend Jude, open, tolerant, curious, and pushes Carole to be a more open and better version of herself. I may be seeing too much of myself and my female friends in Carole and Jude. Regardless, a visit to Fethering and its environs is always pleasant.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Middle Sister's September Reads

September is still summer out here in the desert, so instead, I indulged in a little autumnal reading and dreaming.

Pumpkin Picking with Murder by Auralee Wallace I read the first in this series a few months ago and enjoyed it, so what better way to dream of fall than with a book with pumpkin picking in the title? As so often happens, the second in the series does not quite live up to the first. The 'madcap' adventures are there, but instead of reading as completely random and therefore funny, they read as forced and deliberate. Erica is again visiting her mother at Otter Lake, and while her mother utters only 3 or 4 words throughout most of the book, hers is a funnier and more engaging presence than the voluble Erica. Freddie is a caricature of the Freddie that was funny the first time around. The story centers around the twins, and their characters have not developed at all, despite the murder mystery centering around them and glimpses into their past. The motivation for the murders was believable; the involvement of the twins in the murders, less so.The evolution of secondary character Rhonda Cooke was the highlight. I'd give this one a C--everything seems more forced, and that's never fun to read.

George Washington's Secret Six by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger Popular version based on an older, thoroughly researched book written by a historian that traces the development and activities of a New York City and Long Island-based spy ring that assisted George Washington during the Revolution War (in other words, this is not the product of original research). This little known aspect of Revolutionary War history was important to local NYC-focused military activities, and it was only recently that, by happenstance, the leader of the spy ring was identified. I love that a secret could have been kept that long, and that the spies themselves did not try to profit from their activities after the War ended. What I found most intriguing was Agent 355, a woman, presumably in NYC and presumably of high social rank (as the information she passed on was obtained from officers and probably during parties), whose identity remains a secret. In a brief paragraph, the authors conclude that she probably died on a prison ship that sat in New York Harbor. I disagree. We have enough diaries and memoirs and information from that time that if a socially prominent woman had been arrested and imprisoned on a ship, someone would have recorded it. I think it far more likely that she ceased operations when the situation was too dangerous, and then the usefulness of the spy ring ended, and she went on to live her life quietly, as most 18th century women did, or that she may have died of typhoid or childbirth. Anonymous women like prostitutes and washerwomen may have been able to die on the prison ship without anyone knowing or recording their loss; but a woman prominent enough to obtain this kind of information? Nope. History light and definitely geared to public consumption, but a good bibliography is included.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Middle Sister's Mid-Month Review: Thrive

I admit to having become increasingly interested in health books as I advance through middle age. I definitely want to age well and soundly.

Thrive by Kamea Chayne

Thrive is an all-over guide for those seeking to improve their lives wholesale. Sections address sleep, exercise, and food, but also includes sections on how to improve your personal shopping to improve our communities and our world. Big kudos to this book for having an exhaustive list of footnotes to support all the health and other facts and information included. Too many health and how-to guides just say things, for wild example: 'eating x has been shown to be good for you,' without telling us who found this, how, and exactly what did x improve. The scientist in me loved that these were legitimate sources, too, including professional nutrition journals. I appreciated the individual, and often small, actions that were proposed that can help the reader to improve their lives, to enjoy more, to thrive, and how these were connected to the local and wider community.

There were only a few tables towards the end of the book, and these didn't translate well in the ebook version (hopefully this was improved in the final version). However, tables and charts could have enhanced earlier sections of the book as well. The only real objection I have to the book were the chapter-ending summaries: virtually word for word what had been said in the preceding chapter pages, this was a big waste of space and time. Bulleted high points or better yet, an elegant summary or personal reflection would have been better. If you are not a devotee of magazines like Prevention and Health (which I admit I am), there will be a lot of new, easily digestible information in here for use to improve your overall health and well being, as well as that of the community in which we live.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Middle Sister's August Books

Just days ago, one of my online book forums gleefully poked at the hackneyed bullet list of plot points that a subset of the cosy mystery genre always exhibits: main character suffers some kind of emotional setback--loses job or fiance or both, has unexpected turn of good luck by inheriting business-house-pet, mystery follows, amateur detective figures out the whodunnit way ahead of the professionals, her love interest/child/self is almost killed, murder is solved, rainbows erupt all over as flowers burst forth and birds sing and her life turns from an bottomless pit of one bad thing after another into a sweeping tide of good fortune and sunny skies. However, there's no reason a book that follows these hackneyed bullet points can't be fun to read, especially in the dog days of summer.

Engaged in Death by Stephanie Blackmoore  Hackneyed props: woman dumps two-timing fiance, only to have his grandmother leave the grandmother's house to her upon her death. Woman and sister move in, murder follows. While this follows the typical genre format, I did enjoy Engaged in Death overall: I liked the fact the sisters were so very different; I liked the grandmother; I liked the old house. I didn't particularly like how Mallory gave Summer a kitten even after Summer told her her father wouldn't let her get one. Great way to get the kid in trouble and annoy the neighbors (of course, it had a happy ending, but in real life, these kittens get tossed in the trash or worse). I didn't like the way Rachel just ignored her sister's misgivings and started the wedding business. I also didn't like how the wedding business venture was undertaken: no business would let the menu and so many other things be changed literally days before the wedding, at least, not without charging an arm and a leg for it. The food has already been ordered and probably delivered, same for flowers, etc. And I also was irritated by Mallory's exchange with Bev's son--she set out to find out if he was involved in the murder, so why feel mortified? And the reader is told repeatedly how big the mansion is (even though it only has one bathroom), but then Mallory thinks she can get it ready to sell in two weeks (see location 2960); please. My house is 1200 sq ft and I couldn't get it ready to sell in two weeks, and I only have one bathroom, too. All in all, the book was pleasant. I wasn't sure Mallory was a very good lawyer, since the words "small business loan" "illegal hacking into computer files" were lost on her, plus there was no addressing the question of whether the muffins and cake Rachel cooked and sold in their kitchen were a health department violation, and let's be serious, no probate would have allowed the money to be released that quickly that one month later, renovations were underway. Still, if you can overlook being annoyed by little discrepancies at a regular rate, you will enjoy this as a quick summer read. I'd give this one a grade of B.

Death at the Day Lily Cafe by Wendy Sand Eckel The east coast of Maryland--one of my favorite places; I'd love to live there so I was immediately interested in the book.  Follows hackneyed plotline--after divorce, woman retreats to inherited farm and opens cafe. I was ambivalent about the main character, Rosalie. I found her interactions with Tyler and reactions to Bini a little immature. But I really liked Glenn, the main secondary character, and some of the other locals. Some editing would have helped passages like this: "Crows will keep the hawk away," Bini said, followed two lines later by Rosalie asking "Are they at least keeping the hawk away?" Some of the supposed banter fell flat (a navigation system to clear a path through a bunch of dogs? No, maybe a broom to clear a path, not a GPS.), and would a woman who owns a farm and lectures the reader about organic food really have no idea what a CSA is? That question should have been asked by one of the locals, not Rosalie. But then, this is a woman who lectured a gay man about knowing what it felt like to be a social pariah after her divorce (as if that is even remotely similar to the experiences of a gay person in our culture). I also had another problem with timelines in this book, too: it takes months to get a liquor license, sometimes, and yet Rosalie gets hers in a matter of days. And what mother just barges into her daughter's bedroom when the latch is on, which she acknowledges is unusual for the daughter, and then is horrified by what she sees (or thinks she sees)? And what woman who is so enamored of her chickens that she names them doesn't ask which one was eaten by the hawk? This many seem like a litany of nitpicking, but these are just a few instances of little annoyances that started to mass and detract from any enjoyment of the book. I'll probably give this author another chance because of the location and Glen, but if I had to grade this, I'd give it an A for location and a C for everything else.

Show Time by Suzanne Trauth This, too, manages to incorporate some of the required hackneyed bullet points: Dodie lost her home and her job to Hurricane Sandy, moves to north New Jersey and gets a job with a cousin of her former employer. See, that's how you spin the hackneyed bullet points in your favor. Full disclosure--I really wanted to like this book because it takes place in my old home state, New Jersey, and there is a real love of everything Jersey in this book. And overall, i did like the book. I liked Dodie, her friends, the fact that she recognizes her job is pretty much a dead end job but she likes her life (for the most part) and is content. I didn't like her willfully ignoring passing on information to the cops she knew she should because otherwise the author might have had to work a little harder to make her central to solving the mystery. What cop worth his badge doesn't investigate the entire building where a dead body is found? I'm supposed to believe no police officer went to the third floor of the theater, where the murder actually took place? And do not get me started on the whole getting Pauli (a minor!) to hack into Jerome's email and Dodie not understanding or appreciating why Bill the Handsome Cop was so pissed off (even though he spells it out for with the words "inadmissible evidence."). But I loved the wonderful way my NJ was depicted, and so I will give this one an A for location and overall a B+.

Big Foot Stole My Wife by Joan Hess A collection of short stories by one of the funniest mystery authors writing today. Hess departs from her laugh-out-loud style for some of these short stories, but I was delighted to see Arly and Ruby Bee make an appearance and they did not disappoint. This one gets an A, as all Hess books do.

A new Donna Andrews and a new Joan Hess--August was a good month for a mystery lover.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Middle Sister Mid-Month Review: Kilt at the Highland Games

Kilt at the Highlad Games by Kaitlyn Dunnett  The latest in the Liss MacCrimmon mystery series, set in a small town in Maine. Liss is a former dancer who now runs a store dedicated to all things Scottish. In this entry, the local bookstore owner and her family disappear, and Liss and the other residents of Moosetookalook (yes, you read that correctly, that's the name of the town) are puzzled and upset, but don't start really worrying until local realtor Jason Graye is murdered. Liss and PI Murch weave the disparate threads of an arson, the disappearance, murder, attempted murder, and other strange happenings into a tartan of coincidence. I've always been torn by this series: I like the setting a lot, I like a small town full of quirky characters, I like how the point of view shifts from one main character to another. But the mysteries always leave me disappointed and this one did, too. Without giving too much away, one of the "other strange happenings" is a break-in at the realtor's office, when, in reality, the information that was being sought via the B&E is easily accessible online on any realtor's webpage. And these books clearly take place now; Liss even comments that most of her sales are online. This incidence read to me as "oops, need another mysterious happening, so let's throw in a break in/murder/attempted murder here." It's a glaring weak link that unfortunately is central to tying all the crimes together. There are other weak links and I don't want to spoil this too much, but let's just say that I think there is room for improvement in the series mysterious quotient, but the framework is enjoyable enough that I read this series despite the weak links.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Middle Sister Mid-Month Review: Die Like an Eagle by Donna Andrews

Die Like an Eagle by Donna Andrews  Donna Andrews' Meg Langslow series is well known for its zany characters, zany situations, and laugh-out-loud zaniness. Yes, that's a lot of zany, but truly, the earlier entries in the series were hilariously funny and chock full of quirky characters. This latest book seems to have lost Andrews' zany touch. Meg is now happily married and the mother of twins, and I'm not sure if it's this domestic tranquility that has sapped the series of its charming eccentricity. Don't get me wrong, even a bad Donna Andrews (which this is not) is far better than your average cosy mystery, but I didn't laugh out loud once during this book. I spent time wracking my brain to remember if there had been an inkling in earlier stories that Meg's whole family loved baseball, and what, if anything, had been on the farm where there was now a baseball diamond. The whodunnit was a minor surprise, and the setting and characters remain consistent with what has come before. I am left wondering exactly how many cousins Meg has. The lack of laughter makes this one of the weaker entires in the series for me, but I would still recommend it. (NetGalley)

Monday, August 1, 2016

Middle Sister's July Reads

Three out of five books were successes this month--not a great month for escapist summertime reading.

The Wrong Box by Robert Louis Stevenson The month started off with a bang. The current selection by my 19th century literature book group can only be described as a Victorian-era screwball comedy. Those are not four words one normally associates with each other. Stevenson wrote this with his stepson, and I do not know which author contributed the madcap comedy, but it's hard to believe this was written by the same author of Treasure Island. There are similarities between the two: good pacing throughout the novel, interesting and unusual and sympathetic characters, surprise twists. But Stevenson surprised me with a genuinely likable and strong, albeit minor, female character (she's got the brains), and managed to make the reader forget all about the unlikely coincidences that move the story along because they were laughing too much. Recommended (Kindle)

Yellowthread Street by William Marshall Police procedurals generally aren't my cup of tea, but I decided a change of pace this summer would be welcome, and the reissue of this 1988 novel in ebook format worked perfectly. Yellowthread Street had the perfect blend of police grit, zany minor characters, and strong characters that make an ensemble story work. The tory successfully veered from understated gore while the Manchurian was being hunted to the understated poignancy of Harry Feiffer's wife's telephone conversation, all wrapped up in an exotic setting--pre-unification Hong Kong. I read this in two nights because I couldn't put it down. Recommended (NetGalley)

A Very Vintage Christmas by Bob Richter Christmas in July? Why not? This unusual history of Christmas decorations was liberally punctuated with the author's reminiscence's about past Christmas celebrations and his own hobby of collecting Christmas ornaments. I just wish the Kindle ARC had better graphics, as at least half of the photos were not visible. If you love Christmas, or are beginning your own Christmas ornament collection, you'll enjoy this breezy read. After all, every one of us who decorates for the holidays is a Christmas ornament collector. (NetGalley).

I guess I have read too many genre mysteries and too many ARCs now. I find I have lost my patience with stories that don't capture my attention. And if they capture it for the wrong reasons...

An Untimely Frost by Penny Richards This book had a couple of elements going for it that intrigued me: it's a historical mystery, centered on a woman who joins the (real life) Pinkerton Agency. But I barely made it past the first four chapter. In Chapter 1, Lilly is urged to divorce her philandering husband. In Victorian American society, this was still highly scandalous, and even though Lilly is an actress, it would have been socially unacceptable. And then Lilly is convincing herself that she can join the Pinkertons because she has been taught by her acting  mentor everything from "agriculture to zombies." Zombies? Victorian society had never even heard of zombies. I've read plenty of Victorian literature, published in the US and UK, and have never read that word in a book actually published in the year the story takes place. So I looked it up; the first book to popularize zombies was published in 1929, 50 years after this story takes place. So I gave the book up. If it had been steam punk lit, I'd have persisted. But I am tired of authors who think that readers want a 21st century story with 21st century characters speaking like 21st television stars, wearing costumes.  Not finished and not recommended. (NetGalley)

A Child's Garden of Death by Richard Forrest Again, a promising abstract: English professor helps police chief friend solve strange murder. The discovery of the burial of three people in a small pit far from any residential or commercial development that appears to date to thirty years ago--promising. The setting was Connecticut--promising. Because many ebooks don't list the originally publication date, it took clues in the text and some online research to discover the book was originally published in 1975. There were elements of the story that just dated it too much for a modern reader: the references to the main characters meeting during the Korean War; Lyon's (yes, the main character is named Lyon) hot air balloon ride to take photos of the crime scene (twenty-something readers will not realize drones didn't exist then; thirty-something readers will wonder why he didn't use a glider instead). But I started hating the book when the medical examiner identified the seven-year-old victim as a girl. You CANNOT identify the sex of children from their skeletons. The secondary sex characteristics osteologists use to identify the sex of a skeleton don't appear until adulthood. Osteologists and forensic anthropologists call these subadults for a reason. The child was buried with a doll; wouldn't it have been better plot point for the police chief to assume it was a girl from this and then be surprised when it turned out to be a boy? I'm assuming the identities of the victims was eventually discovered. I stopped reading the book shortly after this. We've known for a very long this simple fact and even in 1975, a quick glance at an anatomy book or an encyclopedia would have told the author that identifying a 7-year-old as a girl or boy would have been impossible. The constant interruption for dream sequences, with no indications in the text or formatting to indicate we'd switched from action to dream, was extremely annoying, too. Not recommended. (NetGalley)