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.



Thursday, November 30, 2017

Middle Sister's November Reads

Happy Thanksgiving, gentle readers! This is my favorite holiday, and what better way to spend part of it than reading? Here's what I read this month of turkey, pie, and thinking about how lucky we are.

An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving by Louise May Alcott My book group decided to read holiday-themed children's books for November and December, and I started it off by reading this little gem (my suggestion). A lovely, feel-good story, complete with apple slump recipe. Although a fan of Alcott, I'd never read any of her children's work, so I was delighted to read this. Perfect holiday reading, not smarmy or old-fashioned at all.

They Came for Freedom by Jay Milbrandt Colonial history is my favorite period to read about, and a new book about the Pilgrims and Puritans, European expansion in the New World, and my favorite holiday caught my eye. Milbrandt proposed looking at the settlement of Plimouth (the correct spelling, I learned) from a religious point of view, and I'm not a reader put off by religious content unless it's overtly preachy and proselytizing. Milbrandt does a good job explaining exactly the history of the religious separatists who fled to what they thought was the northern end of the Virginia Territory. I was especially interested to read more about Squanto and Massasoit and their lives. However, Milbrandt began the book at the end, with Governor Bradford writing the history of Plimouth Plantation and lamenting the dissolution of the colony by the younger members.When we finally get to the last chapter, this dissolution is given short shrift. Bradford, Brewster, and the important figures die and then, within paragraphs, we read that Plimouth dissolved as a community. It did not feel like the execution of the book's theme lived up to the exposition. Details that irked: the statement that in the local Native American culture, "Royal lineages held top honors, followed by nobility" (Location 605). Native American society was not organized like European monarchies. It was tribal, with leaders achieving power by their own merit. There was no such thing as royalty or a nobility. And while his later discussions of Native American culture do not allude to this mischaracterization, the anthropologist in me could not forget he wrote it. The editor in me could not overlook several typos, such as missing hyphens. But this is quickly read, well researched addition to the history of America.

Slay Bells Ring by Karen Rose Smith  How could I not read this book? There was a big white dog on the cover. I'd never read a Caprice de Luca mystery, but that's never stopped me; I'm no adherent to the idea that series must be read in order. I admit I rolled my eyes at the name Caprice (does the author know what the word means? A sudden change of mood, foible, quirk, etc. Not something I'd want to be named after.). But when I've written several notes to myself by Chapter 2 that start with "Really?" I'm not hopeful for the rest of the novel. And I rolled my eyes at her job. House stager? A guest list for an open house? So not my thing, but the idea that her sister would cook entire meals so people who come to the open house can walk around eating entire meals and making a mess--I can't imagine this. I have heard of baking cookies so the scent of vanilla hangs around, since people think that's homey, but a full course meal? I got tired of references to how Caprice and Grant were waiting to marry for Grant's annulment to be finalized (which can take years), how they were refraining from sex until they got married (they may be waiting a long time), all of which is designed to show us how spiritual and better than the reader they are (at least, that's how it comes across, regardless of the author's intent). However, if the de Lucas are as traditional and conservative Catholic family as this implies, that would mean Grant was still married in the eyes of the church and she was dating, engaged to, and kissing a married man. Which kind of sounds like adultery to me. A great deal of time is spent with various dogs in the book, but the author must not be a dog person in real life because dog people would never use the word cage for a dog crate. By the time I got to the sentences "There was a schedule and everyone adhered to it. This was an important part of community service,"  and "Hugging as a family was an integral part of the De Luca legacy," and my personal favorite, "Conversation ran around the table and leapt across it" (location 501), my notes had deteriorated to "puhleaze!" (the only way to indicate rolling eyes on a Kindle, which happily does not have emojis). Then Caprice said "That's probably why Brett hasn't called me in yet." Brett is the investigating police officer. She is a house stager, not a police consultant, and you know how I am annoyed by amateur detectives who think they are better than the police.  And pews are empty, not open, if there is no one seated in them. There were multiple other irritations big and small, but I'll stop here. The mystery was passable but cliched--a likable family man playing Santa Claus is murdered, and his secret life (naturally that's the explanation) emerges. The murderer is easily identified early in the book. I grew up around loud, large, boisterous Italian families, and you'd think I would have found the de Lucas appealing, but I found them actually a little annoying. No one fights or argues at a holiday? Not realistic at all, in my experience. As a character ,Caprice was shallow, saccharine, immature (she's excited at the thought of getting married, but doesn't want to move out of her house, doesn't want to talk about whether they will have children?), and not particularly likable. While other reviews of the series I've stumbled across say this is just a weak entry in an otherwise enjoyable cosy series, I won't be reading any.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Middle Sister Mid-Month Review

Turkey Trot Murder by Leslie Meier This is the latest title in the Lucy Stone mystery series. On the face of it, I should really like Lucy: she's about my age (maybe a little younger now), she lives in Maine (I'd love to live in Maine), she has a loving but realistic family (well, I don't have that, but I appreciate her kids are not perfect nor is her husband, but they are genuinely nice characters). And yet, and yet...each book leaves me with a vague feeling of disappointment. I'm pretty sure my first disgruntlement came the first time the name of the local newspaper at which she works was mentioned, the Pennysaver. The Pennysaver where I live is a motley jumble of local ads and coupons with the occasional mass market flyer from a chain restaurant. It is not a real newspaper. I keep wondering why the coupon flyer has a news reporter, I can't help it. 

Then there are the little things, like this statement from this new release; "Somehow the realization that this young woman was not only beautiful, but also a chld of privilege, mader her death seem even worse."  Wow, just wow. If you're a plain or even homely person, living on a budget, your murder is less sad? Lucy takes photos of the dead body with her smartphone, knowing full well the Pennysaver won't publish them, so why did she take them--just curiosity? Ick. Or how about this sweeping braod side: "Lucy had a horrible sinking feeling. She'd seen how this worked. First the kids dropped out of school, then with too much free time on their hands they began hanging around with other dropouts, and before you knew it they started experimenting with drugs." Tell that to my own family members, some of whom have dropped out of college, and then gone back to college, and some of whom have found jobs and have no desire to go back and assume $50K or more of debt, but none has become a deadbeat druggie, strung out on the corner and doing who knows what illegal activity to supply their habit. Maybe the author is correct and her readers share these sweeping, black and white views of life, are so cynical and eager to see the worse in others, but I sure don't. And therein may lie my problem with Lucy Stone. 

On the plus side, the current political climate was dealt with very well in the book. The residents of Tinker's Cover are seen grappling (some of them anyway, many seem to be just fine with it) with members of their own community who are xenophobic and anti-immigration, with a group called America for Americans sounding sadly too familiar protesting and destroying businesses. Also too familiar--the many times the owner of new restaurant is told to go home to Mexico despite being a fourth generation American. Do people seriously think they can tell how long someone has lived in the US by the color of their skin? Clearly they must or things would be mighty different int he real world. So I give Ms. Meier credit for making this new release resonate with the times it's being published in, and with giving TInker's Cove a fave lift. It's not longer the picturesque Cabot Cove kind of small town where everyone knows each other but which has a murder rate that would scare a NYC cop. Now it's a small town seething with racial unrest, an opioid epidemic, and the kind of stupid prejudices that mar everyday life in the 21st century of the robber barons. And I hope that any of her readers who hold those narrow, simplistic views are unconsciously educated when they visit Tinker's Cove this time.

All in all, a fast read, not unpleasant. The murder is pretty straight forward, the murderer the most likely suspect, and everything is neatly tied up in time for a delicious community thanksgiving supplied by the restauranteur in which TInker's Cove residents get introduced to pepitas, pumpkin pie with chile spice, and turkey enchiladas.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Middle Sister's October Reads

October was a good month for reading, with longer and cooler nights finally arriving in the desert. I tried to get a third "death at..." book finished, but missed the deadline. But first, some audiobooks.

The Jesuit and the Skull by Amir D. Aczel Teilhard de Chardin has always been an anthropological and professional hero of mine, and his involvement with the discovery of Peking Man ignited my interest in paleoanthropology. A devout Jesuit and an exacting scientist, Teilhard de Chardin's life blended science and spirituality in a way I have always found fascinating and inspiring, and even more so now that I know the roadblocks he faced from the Jesuits.  His model of Jesuit obedience in the face of disapproval and actions to discredit him by his order, and his commitment to scientific discipline, however, were overshadowed by hearing the comments his friends made of him--a man thoroughly good, kind, and honest. What an epithet.

The mysterious disappearance of the Peking Man remains is still unsolved, eighty years later, although I, like many others, have my own suspicions about what happened.  The book was very well researched and written, and I rued I wasn't reading a hard copy which might have had photos. The book is well read, although the reader's voice is a little flat. The reader unfortunately adapted a slightly higher voice when reading Tielhard's letters, which seemed odd and jarring. Despite that, highly recommended.

Murder by the Book by Rex Stout Last year I though about reading all the Nero Wolfe books in order, and while I abandoned that idea, I have been working my way through them at a steady pace.
Naturally I was interested in one that dealt with the murder of the author of a dangerous book--dangerous to many, but who killed the author? While I liked this one, there was one cringing moment--when Archie imitates--to bully--a policeman with a stutter, and then does it more than once. I know it's very un-politically correct, but was this kind of behavior ever really acceptable? Yea, I get that people did, and do, make fun of others, but usually I really like Archie and this was very distasteful and soured my opinion of him. Despite that, the Nero Wolfe stories don't really suffer from their age, and this, like the other, is recommended for a tight plot line and an interesting depiction of New York City of 60 years ago.

Death at the Emerald by R. J. Koreto This book, set in theater scene of Edwardian London, promised to be a light read, and despite some minor wrinkles, did not disappoint. The author makes a better attempt than most to try to recreate the social strictures that limited a woman in Edwardian society (Lady Frances brings her maid with her because it would be unseemly for her to travel alone), but then throws in some modern behaviors that seem in glaring opposition (every single musing Lady Frances indulges in over her engagement). And might I say hate it when the amateur detective breaks the law and gets away with it (here, stealing evidence from the crime scene)? This happens early in the book and, I confess, colored my impression of it as a lazy way for the author to extend Frances' involvement without having to come up with a more clever way. The solution to all the mysteries was very blatant, and as you know, gentle reader, I never try to solve the mystery in my head,s o when I can without even thinking, it's pretty obvious. But for historical mystery lovers, this is not the worst reconstruction of a bygone era currently circulating in the post-Downton Abbey fictional landscape.

Death at the Seaside by Frances Brody Another historical mystery set in England, this time after WWI in the 1920s. Kate Shackleton, female detective, is on holiday visiting a school chum when she stumbles across a dead body while confronting some ghosts from her own past. I had not read any other books in the series, but this was not a deterrent to understanding the relationships between Kate and her team. The plot line was again, pretty obvious, and the potential murderers so few it was easy to guess who had done it and why early on. But the more modern setting of the 1920s and all the  attendant post-war social upheaval made this a more successful reconstruction of an historical time period than the previous book. The setting was depicted very well, with a treacherous storm that made me feel I was on the boast with Felicity and Brendan.

Coming up in November and December: holiday books!!