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!!

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Middle Sister's September Reads


September smorgasbord, with books from all over the place.

Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History without the Happy Ending by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie This audio book started off well, with sly innuendo and auditory sleights that let the listener feel like they were in on a joke with the author. But then Cassandra Campbell, the reader, starting using a breathy, childlike voice to impersonate all the princesses and that got irritating really fast. Especially when the princess in question was neither young, romantic, or innocent. While some of McRobbie's historical accounts were interesting, some were little more than an encyclopedia entry, brief and dry. about a third of the way into the book the focus shifted to the sexual exploits of many of the women. Surely they were important for other reasons? Surely they did other things? This feminist reader hates seeing people objectified, regardless of the justification, which most of the time renders the subject an object, just as these accounts did. The WWII spy who was arrested, tortured, and executed by Gestapo was dealt with very perfunctorily but the peccadilloes of Napoleon Bonaparte's sister went on and on and on. Tending to mediocre despite a good start.

Black as He's Painted by Ngaio Marsh  I love Ngaio Marsh and have a tremendous fictional crush on her detective, Roderick Alleyn. Sadly, this particular title doesn't age as well as others in the series. There are too many period terms that are cringeworthy today: e.g., "nappy head" which it hurts to even type.  I literally grimaced every time the phrase "the smell of people of other races" appeared, and is appeared way too frequently to be ignored. However, there were several side plots that were delightful and charming: the descriptions of the acroabtics of Lucy Locket the cat are so perfect I assume Marsh was a cat lover who had plenty of opportunity to witness cat behavior; and The brief presentation of Rory and Troy's marriage, which is always so solid and deep and inspiring. Despite the skin crawling that the offensive language caused, I did feel, some ways, the racism so evident in the behavior of certain characters in the book is very timely in 2017. Recommended

The Impressions of Theophrastus Such by George Eliot I'd never read Eliot, so when my book group selected this, her final literary effort, I was intrigued, especially when researching and learning that it was social commentary disguised as fiction. I was further intrigued upon reading it. The first half was good but somewhat uneven in my opinion, although Eliot's sly humor often poked out. But she hit her stride in the second half, with scathing social commentaries such as "So Young" and "The Too Ready Writer." In the current political milieu, "Moral Swindlers" should be read by every journalist and opinionator. Skewered by rapier words. Recommended.


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Middle Sister's Mid-Month Review: Revolution Song.

Read this book. Everyone, read this book!

I really enjoyed Russell Shorto's The Island at the Center of the World, so when I saw that NetGalley had his latest up for pre-publication review, I had to read it. Not only is he a fantastic researcher and eminently readable (easy, elegant, yet not overwhelming in his prose), the subject was the Revolutionary War, my favorite period of American History. Revolution Song was even better than I'd hoped, and I;d hoped it would be really good.

Mr. Shorto takes 6 figures from the Revolutionary War era, some famous, some not, some deserving to be better know than they are. Using exhausting and meticulous research, he traces the history of the trajectory to war and its consequences through the lives of these six. And being the contemporary historian that he is, he picked a powerful set of six people; George Washington, famous but yet never treated with as deft and thorough a history as here; Abraham Yates, well known in his lifetime in his home state but now my personal hero for his prescient and sagacious and wise trepidations about the revolution and the constitution; Cornplanter, an Iroquois leader, also prescient and in some ways the saddest figure of the six; Venture Smith, who is kidnapped as a boy in Africa, enslaved in America, and who earns his own freedom and perhaps understood that word far more intimately than the others, and certainly ore so than the readers; George Sackville Germain, an English nobleman and soldier who advocated for war from the safety of England; and Margaret Montcrieffe Coghlan, anAmerican by birth, an Englishwoman by marriage and choice, whose pitiable life demonstrates how the cruelty and indifference of men to women ruined entire lives, generations of lives, and continues to this day to be the norm in parts of the world.

A revolutionary American leader, a want-to-be English leader, a a wise Native leader, a prescient local leader, a freed man of strength, and an woman who was enslaved by her society--they represent large swaths of eighteenth century society and resonate with today's audience. Mr. Shorto makes them come alive. How they met and survived the war, and how it changed them and their worlds, is riveting reading.

But what I walked away with was, in his own words, not what Mr. Shorto himself admits he expected--the grave fears of Mr. Yates re: congressional overreach, party loyalty being placed above civic duty, the emergence of a would-be dictator enriching his own pockets while dismantling our government and the protections our forefathers (including my own great, great, great, great, great grandfather and his four brothers) expected government to provide the average American--they are so relevant to today, clearly enunciating what we see happening every day as reported in newspaper headlines, that I wonder what Abraham Yates would think if he were alive tp see what we did to this country, what we allowed to happen to this country. Actually, I think I know exactly what he would think.

"Secrecy... was the soil in which tyranny grew."
Political parties "...serve ...to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force--to put it in the place of the delegated will of the Nation, the will of the party."
"'The alternative domination of one faction over another... is itself a frightful disposition' which could lead 'to a more formal and permanent despotism."

Rough Hewer, we need your wisdom and your determination and courage again.

What an amazing book. It is the best book I have read all year, truly. Not only for the research and the writing, but the unexpected relevance to the United States of today, the reminder of how hard fought our freedom was, and the dangers our founding fathers tried to prevent.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Middle Sister's August Reads

I passed the dogs days of summer immersed in murder and mayhem.

Weycombe by G. M. Malliet  I've read and enjoyed other books by Ms. Malliet, so was excited to read her newest book. But it's a bit of a departure, and while the author may have enjoyed stepping out of her usual spot, I confess I didn't enjoy it very much. I didn't like the main character, Jill, from the beginning. She was in a very bad place in her marriage and I thought we were supposed to be either sympathetic or annoyed, and I was annoyed. As the book progressed, I began to actively dislike her. By halfway through, I knew who the murderer was, and now for confession 2--I was pissed off at having invested all that time in order to be hoodwinked. But because I was reviewing this for NetGalley, I persisted, only to be disappointed by the last two pages. I don't want to spoil this for other genre lovers, but I found the book exasperating and unenjoyable. (NetGalley)

Spider Woman's Daughter by Anne Hillerman This is the first of the Jim Chee novels written by Anne Hillerman after the death of her father, Tony Hillerman. While it was nice to revisit a series I've enjoyed for years (not the least because I know that part of the southwest well and can see the highways and the mesas and the sky in my mind as I read), I'm not sure I enjoyed this book as much as I'd expected to. Having both Jim and Bernie encounter people whose interest in them was clearly physical laid it on a bit thick and was not something I could imagine Tony doing. Revisiting a character from an earlier novel as a pivotal character in this one was clever, and the southwest does spin its magic over some folks and bring them back over and over. But Anne's style is flatter than her father's, which had more magic and a greater appreciation of the physical setting than this book had. A little tighter editing might have eliminated a few scenes that were unnecessary and distracting. But all in all, it's nice to visit with old friends, and I was kept on tenterhooks wondering what would happen to Joe Leaphorn, a situation I rarely find myself in with mysteries. (Audiobook)

A Knit Before Dying by Sadie Hartwell I enjoyed the first Dorset Falls mystery enough to try the second in the series. There's less physical description of the yarn store, the setting in Connecticut, and the town than last time. I did appreciate that Josie's character was growing a bit and beginning to enjoy her new life in unexpected ways. The mystery was not completely riveting, and i would have like it that much more if Josie's participation had been a little more inadvertent (a knitting clue? Seriously? That stretches even my incredulity and I happily suspend disbelief when reading.)--that would have made the series a bit more unusual and would save the author from the curse of Cabot Cove (which, if you've never heard of it, refers to the remarkable number of murderers and victims in the Murder She Wrote franchise who live in such a small town). But I enjoyed this quick read, and would recommend the series to cosy mystery lovers and knitters alike. (NetGalley)

The Best of Doctor Thorndyke Detective Stories by R. Austin Freeman I first discovered R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke on manybooks.net. The Dr. Thorndyke series date to the early 20th century and number nearly 2 dozen novels, so I was excited to find a new Golden Age of Mysteries author with a large number of books to discover. Today we'd call Dr. Thorndyke a forensic scientist, and I enjoy seeing this kind of intuiting and detecting taking place without the conveniences of modern technology. Eight short stories are reissued in this anthology, and while there are elements that are dated or even a little cringeworthy when attitudes or words are used that are now out of date or unacceptable, this is a great introduction to genre lovers in search of a new and enjoyable series to dive into. (NetGalley)