Monday, April 30, 2018

Middle Sister's April Reads

Happy spring! Not much reading done this month because of lots of extracurricular activities, but I did try a partial theme: books.

Read and Gone by Allison Brook I should have saved this book for next Christmas, since it takes place at that time of the year. The series is called the Haunted Library because of the presence of a resident ghost, visible only to two people, one of whom is our amateur detective, Carrie. Carrie's father is a jewel thief, and he re-enters her life just when all is going well--great job, new boyfriend, caring friends. When his partner in crime is murdered, Carrie decides to find the jewels and clear her father's name--of at least this particular crime. I wasn't overwhelmed by the mystery. I'm not a fan of paranormal mysteries (so really, why do I keep trying this subgenre? I love the movie The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and I guess I keep hoping one of these books will live up to that excellence.), and the fact that Eveyln's clothes and hairs kept changing every time she re-appeared distracted me. Shops and salons in the afterlife? Maybe those are her idea of heaven. Some editing issues and typos were distracting, but I can read around those if I find the story interesting enough. But my lack of sympathy or interest in Carrie ratcheted upwards when in Chapter 10, we read: "'He must have been in his mid-sixites, the age I am now.' That is old, I thought." Really, Carrie? Hmm, wonder what the average or median age of cosy mystery readers is? Most egregious editing issue: we are told Morgan is a resident at the Hopewell Home for Seniors in Bantam at location 994 in Chapter 10. At location 1228, Chapter 12, we read "Carlton Manor Nursing Home, where Evelyn's friend Morgan Fuller was residing." What? And her job in P&E is never defined until near the end of the book. There were a lot of little inconsistencies (how could she tell the color of the car in the dark? Why would Morgan trust a complete stranger like Carrie with $200,000? What chorus has only 2 rehearsals before a Christmas concert, one the morning of the event? What hospital allows a concussion patient the option of a wheelchair ride to the car--in every hospital I know, there's no choice--you take a wheelchair to the curb.) and a lot of repetition of verbs (Carrie giggled excessively in Chapter 27, even at things that were not giggleable.) and even some subtle racism (why is the Indian doctor the only person in the entire book whose racial or ethnic or cultural heritage is specifically mentioned?). Carrie's romance, and the book and mystery, were naive and somewhat juvenile; the style fairly bland; and a good editor clearly needed. And no librarian would dismiss someone's fines, just because "It's a Christmas present to you." The city or county government would have that person under investigation for fraud instantly. Unless you really feel compelled to read every book that every takes place in a library, or with a ghost, or has a cat, I recommend you pass on this book. I'd give this one a C-/D+, and only because I didn't throw the book across the room.

Lost Books and Old Bones by Paige Shelton This title is part of the Scottish Bookshop series. American Delaney lives in Edinburgh, works at a bookstore with a secret, unusual, and somewhat creepy 'treasure room,' and has fallen in love. Naturally, dead bodies keep popping up. Naturally, they just happen to be people she knows. Naturally, this secret room just happens to hold clues to the mystery. Tying this mystery to the real history of Burke and Hare, early 19th century bodysnatchers in Edinburgh, was a interesting slant, albeit not handled extremely well. The connections seemed forced and artificial. Although not paranormal, Delaney has 'bookish voices' that spout quotations that are relevant to her search for the killer's identity. Minor typos (missing 'the' at location 803 and time misspelt at location 2385, for example) and inconsistent use of "tae" for "to" in the Scottish characters' dialogue (which itself was annoying; first, that every Scottish person said this, and second, that sometimes within the very same sentence, they used tae and to together, which makes the reader wonder about how they are talking rather than what the character is saying and what it means for the plot). Most annoying: every time Tom, Delaney's boyfriend, reappears after an absence, she calls him "my pub owner." Och, I was ready tae yell "You're a wee scunner!" at Delaney every time I read that phrase. Also annoying: this is third book in the series, and i've not read the first two, and allusions such as that at location 2240 in Chapter 19 to "a few ghosts I'd met last Christmas" without a little explanation were irritating (there are lots of writers who seamlessly makes these kinds of allusions and provide enough information for first-time series readers; it's not that hard to accomplish). I was most irritated that both Delaney and Carrie, from the other mystery read this month, thought the police were incompetent and not following every lead, made public things that had specifically not been made public by the police but which they sure felt comfortable telling everyone they met, and generally just acting like ninnies rather than innocents drawn into murderous circumstances. Maybe it's time for some non-fiction to cleanse my palette. I'd give this one a C, based more on the historical research into Burke and Hare than for any other reason.

The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix Published in 1865, this mystery was selected by my book group for our March/April read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Julian Symons has argued that this is the first modern detective novel, and I'd have to agree. The style and presentation were modern, the prose fairly clean and not very flowery or ornate, and while the subject of mesmerism is dated, it's handled very deftly and scientifically. While investigating the death of a young woman and the suicide of her husband, our detective uncovers a mystery that began years before, thousands of miles away, and through diligent interviews, diary entries, analytical reports, maps, and other modern devices, leads the reader to an inescapable yet unprovable theory. Or was it unprovable? Absolutely delightful, and a must-read for genre lovers.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Middle Sister's March Reads

The Trouble with Harriet by Dorothy Cannell  Originally published in 1999, an electronic version of this entry in the Ellie Haskell mystery series was recently released. When Ellie first appeared in the 1980s, she was a mystery series anomaly--a pudgy, rather plain woman, an ordinary heroine to whom genre characters could easily relate. Written with a not-so-subtle wink towards romance novels and some hilarious, intentionally flowery prose, I loved the series. I don't remember reading this when first published, so I happily revisited Ellie and Ben and Merlin's Court, especially delighted with the title since The Trouble with Harry may be my favorite Shirley MacLaine movie. Ellie's long-lost father arrives unexpectedly at Merlin's Court with the ashes of his lady love, and in the spirit of the movie, her ashes keep disappearing. Not my favorite entry in the series, but I did enjoy the peeks into Ellie's history before she became Our Heroine, and it holds up remarkably well despite the lack of modern technology that often glares in reissued novels. And no typos or other mistakes as the story was moved to a digital format--hooray!  Recommended

A March to Remember by Anna Loan-Wilsey I had to read a book with March in the title in March, right? This march, however, refers to an historical 1894 march by unemployed men on Washington D.C., and sets a murder mystery in and around both those observing the march and those participating in it. The historical aspect was very interesting, as this was an episode of American history I'd never heard of. The topic was very timely given the current economic and political climate in the US. The books appears well researched, in terms of of both the march and the capital of 1894 (appears because I didn't do more than a cursory investigation of Coxey's March myself). Hattie Davish, the main character, is intriguing because she's a working woman (a typist and secretary) at a time when most of these would have been men. I appreciated her sensitivity to the Washington prostitutes and her self-realization that with out a job, she'd be int he same situation as them. However, I found a few parts of the story contrived (her future sister-in-law happens to be friends with the wife of an important government official who happens to have a personal interest in helping the 'fallen women,' the interest of the First Lady in Hattie's personal affairs, etc) and the attitudes of a surprisingly large number of characters astonishingly late 20th century. I know modern cosy readers don't want to be annoyed or embarrassed or aghast by the attitudes of their amateur detectives, but this was veering slightly towards a steam punk-like fictional re-imaging. Hattie's fiancee was Mr. Twentieth Century Sensitive Guy, almost too good to be true. But all in all, it was a quick read, with an interesting historical hook that sub-genre devotees should find very appealing.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Middle Sister's February Reads

Hello, Gentle Readers, February was a fairly good month as far as books go (and I was able to catch up with a couple of magazine subscriptions that were stacking up, too, yea).

The Plot is Murder by V. M. Burns (Mystery Bookshop No. 1) The Plot Is Murder is the first entry in a new series set in a Michigan mystery bookstore. Sam Washington's husband has died, and she has decided to pursue the dream they were working towards together--to open a mystery bookstore. A unique twist to this series is that Sam has always wanted to write a mystery, and she has started to do so to help her through her grief. Sections from her book are included between chapters. I really enjoyed this book. Sam is a likable character, as is her supporting cast, e.g., Dawson, the former student now college football player who becomes her first employee, her Nana Jo, and her sister Jenna, an energetic attorney. Nana Jo's Golden Girl-esque friends supply a lot of humor, but are very one-dimensional and could easily start to irritate if they remain as cliched as they are portrayed in this novel. But Dawson, wannabe chef, makes up for them, and I'd love to see more of him. The mystery was okay, the pace pretty good, and the setting described well enough that even though I've never been to Michigan, I felt it to be familiar. I look forward to seeing how this series develops.

Alpha Alpine by Mary Daheim The 26th Emma Lord mystery comes after a hiatus of a couple of years in the series set in a small town in the Pacific northwest. I've read several, although not in order, and certainly not all of them, but enough to remember each time I visit Alpine the main characters who populate the small town. Maybe it would be best to read these in order, as Emma's life and those of her friends and family and fellow Alpiners change over the series. The town and its characters always feel familiar to me, and Daheim provides enough background that each can be read as a standalone or out of order. In this entry, several young women are killed, and Emma and Milo have to determine if there's a serial killer amongst their neighbors while they deal with an unexpected visit by Milo's brother and sister-in-law. I didn't enjoy this novel as much as I have other Alpine stories in the past, and I'm not sure if that's because the series is starting to sputter.

Murder in Thistlecross by Amy M. Reade Amy Reade has been compared to Phyllis A. Whitney and Victoria Holt, two authors whose novels I loved when in high school. Eilidh moved to Wales to rebuild her life by working as the estate manager for a friend of her family, and this scenario, plus the isolated setting and brooding, lonely atmosphere, definitely evoke Whitney and Holt. But I wasn't as drawn into Thistlecross as I always was into Whitney's novels. The inclusion of discussion questions at the end indicate that the author and publisher think the book would make suitable book group material, and it might, especially given the twist ending. Like the gothics of old, Reade does provide a definitive, happy ending for our heroine, which is no surprise to anyone familiar with the genre. I did appreciate the true to real life history created for Eilidh--the depression after her marriage collapsed and after the murders are solved, but found other plot twists unrealistic--Griff suddenly has enough money to buy the horses and a farm after the events of the murders. But overall a reasonably good book, well-paced, with a very atmospheric setting.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Middle Sister's January Reads

January 2018 started with a newly published book reviewed in the New York Times and followed that with the first in a highly successful series. 2018 looks to be a good year for reading!

The Written World by Martin Puchner Smoothly written summary of how reading (not writing) has changed human civilization. While the effect of writing on human culture is a given. reading has perhaps not been studied as much, and reading, just like writing, can be subversive, clandestine, and rebellious. While the New York Times made this sound like an academic treatise, I found that while much historical research had been done by the author, it doesn't fall within my definition of academic. There are chapter notes, but without footnotes, it was painstaking to check interesting facts or anecdotes. Nicely illustrated, with good examples from around the world and through time.

Tombstone Courage by J. A. Jance It's pretty much impossible to live in Arizona, be a mystery lover, and not have read J. A. Jance. And while I have read several, I hd never read the first Joanna Brady mystery. My library recently acquired audiobooks of the series, so I went completely against my natural inclination to jump willy-nilly into a series, and listened to the first. It's easy to see why the series has been a hit from the beginning, but I must protest the narrator. She used a riff on a faux Southern accent for the Arizonans, and I can assure after having lived here 30 years, native Arizonans do not sound southern. And she mispronounced Chiricahua, but I guess I can't hold that against 'foreigners."

The Cat of the Baskervilles by Vicki Delaney Cute idea for a series--an expatriate Londoner operates a Cape Cod bookstore dedicated to all things Sherlock Holmes (clearly riding the wave of the popularity of the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock). So many things that I would love--the location on Cape Cod, the setting in a mystery bookstore, and I wouldn't call myself an Anglophile but I've been to England and I love old English mystery series. But yet again, the author has the amateur detective snatch a piece of evidence from the crime scene and not tell the police about it--argh! I absolutely hate it when authors do this, give the main character the snobbish presumption that they know better than the professionals. Our Heroine, Gemma, makes several comments throughout the story that were a tad arrogant and put me off the character. In fact, Our Heroine actually muses, with regard to the detective investigating the murder, "She didn't like me and she didn't trust me, and I didn't fully understand why." Hello? You stole evidence from a crime scene, and I'll bet it's not the first time you have done that, Gemma; why would she like you? And when the police detective Gemma is romantically attracted to tell her that Det. Estrada is a a good police officer, Gemma muses that "I had yet to be convinced of that." Hmm, second-guessing the love interest? Not a good start for a romance. The dog trainer in my cringed when reading about her friend's "rambunctious six-week-old cocker spaniel;" puppies are generally only just getting weaned completely by 7-8 weeks, so a 6-week-old pup shouldn't be in its new home. Slipshod facts like that, so easy to check on the Internet, bother me. I found myself only tolerating Gemma for the sake of the bookstore on the Cape, and frankly that's not enough for me to pursue the series. I'd give this one a C--the setting on Cape Cod and in the bookstore is promising, the mystery and the whodunnit were solid enough (although the reason for the murder was a little unrealistic in my opinion, but that's not too much of an issue for me), but the main character grew more and more grating.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Middle Sister's December Reads

After the murder of holiday mysteries, more mysteries, but exploring other personal interests: knitting and history.

Knit to Kill by Anne Canadeo Fun cosy mystery centering on a group of friends who have found each other through a knitting group at their local yarn shop. This is book 9 in the Black Sheep and Co. series, but you don't have to have read the previous eight to enjoy this mystery (I certainly hadn't read the previous eight and I certainly enjoyed it). Lucy's upcoming nuptials inspire the knitters to go on a last fling weekend to a secluded, gated community on an island that resembles Newport, R.I. While Maggie is giving a knitting class, the group witnesses a confrontation between island residents and awaken the next morning to murder. The entire story takes place over a long weekend, and the pace is maintained well. The characters are well developed and likable, the setting sufficiently described to make you feel you were walking along the cliff trail and in danger of falling off, and the story is well written. Excellent fun for a long holiday weekend, recommended.

In the Shadow of Agatha Christie by Leslie S. Klinger Anthology of mystery short stories written by women in the nineteenth century. Although some of the authors, like Anna Katherine Green, may be familiar to devotees of the mystery genre, many will be new discoveries, including Australian authors. Every selection included was excellent, but two were stand outs: The Adventure of the Clothes-Line by Carolyn Wells and Jury of Her Peers by Susan Glaspell, the first for its humor, and the second for the contemporaneity of the crime and aftermath. All were excellently written, and I recommend this anthology heartily to all mystery lovers.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Middle Sister's Mid-Month Review: Merry Murder!!

A certain television station is known for showing nothing but holiday movies starting around Halloween, it seems, and pretty much spoiling the holiday season for those of us who long for its return to the month of December. But I was inspired to tackle a similar mystery theme for this month. So here is this bookworm's literary version--a stocking full of holiday murder mysteries.

Murder for Christmas by Francis Duncan A snow-bound mansion in the idyllic English countryside, an observant and unlikely amateur detective, a likable young couple whose romance is in jeopardy, a middle-aged spinster with a secret--this is the perfect holiday murder mystery! I adored Mordecai Tremaine, our slightly bemused yet kind amateur detective. The writing was perfect--tight and evocative. The suspense built rapidly, and matched the pace of the book, which occurs over just a few days. I admit I may have enjoyed this book even more because I read it after several other Christmas cosies, which were poorly written, poorly plotted, and poorly formatted. But I don't think so; I think I'd have loved this book regardless of comparing it to the others. And I will now seek out other Francis Duncan novels. Readers who love the Golden Era of mysteries are left bereft after they finish all the Christies, all the Sayers, all the Allinghams, all the Marshes. But rejoice and be glad, for I bring you tidings of a re-released series that will delight the mystery lover.

Holiday Murder by Leslie Meier Holiday Murder contains two reissues of Lucy Stone mysteries, Mistletoe Murder and Christmas Cookie Murder. Mistletoe Murder is the second Lucy Stone mystery, published in 1998; Christmas Cookie was published in 1999. I thought after reading last month's Turkey Trot Murder, the latest Lucy Stone, that I would try this one. Lucy's life has changed over the series--a fourth child and a new job among them, so I thought maybe the character had changed and I might like the earlier Lucy Stone more. Nope, I didn't. I still found her annoying, hypocritical, naive, and melodramatic. On the plus side, Meier's depictions of Lucy's kids are perfect--as they age, they assume teen attitudes and while they may also be naive and cute in their voice, they at least rebel and act like real teenagers. Unlike most small towns in the mystery series I read, I would not like to live in Tinker's Cove, and I wouldn't want Lucy as a neighbor. I'm sure I'm in the minority here, but Lucy's penchant to jumping to judgments and conclusions is irritating, and these two early books demonstrate that she learns nothing from her experiences and doesn't grow as a character over the arc of the series. There were also numerous typos, and that makes me like a book less.

How the Finch Stole Christmas by Donna Andrews The latest Meg Langlsow is another charming visit with her extended family and their intertwined lives which intersect often with murder and mayhem. One of the reasons I love these books is that the secondary characters are so skillfully drawn, and while they may make only brief appearances, the reader smiles when they arrive on the page and misses them when they depart. In this book, Meg's father and grandfather are important participants in the mystery, and they have officially joined the ranks of my fictional crushes. While there were no surprises as far as the mystery was concerned (I spotted the murderer as soon as the character appeared) and this is not the strongest mystery in the series, Finch is an enjoyable book to cozy up with as the snow piles up outside and in the pages.