Monday, June 11, 2018

Middle Sister's Mid-Month Review

Lots of travel time this month, so lots of time to catch up on reading.

Edgar Allen Poe and the Jewel of Peru by Karen Lee Street Last month I complained about historical books that fail, that transplant 20th and 21st century characters and ideas and social mores into the past, covered with a veneer of pseudo-historicity. I'd read several that fell victim to this idea of what a historical novel should be and I disliked them intensely. This novel is the exact opposite, and succeeds brilliantly where they failed. Edgar Allen Poe and the Jewel of Peru is a perfect example of what a historical novel should be. Ms. Street has undertaken a lot of research on Edgar Allen Poe and the geographical setting to create a brilliant representation of 19th century Philadelphia. She has also created an interesting, unique, and well-written mystery replete with sharply delineated characters and images. Edgar, Sissy, and Muddy, their relationships, and mid-century Philly are carefully constructed. I read the entire book at one go on an airplane, but I would have stayed up late several nights to read this. I truly hope there are more Edgar Allen Poe mysteries to come, and this is one series I would love. Highly recommended/A+

Hopjoy Was Here by Colin Watson Digital reissue of a classic police procedural originally published in 1962. While there are a couple of scenes that induced groans (Ross' seduction, for example, read like a James Bond farce), the book is a clever, well written, and well-paced mystery with enough surprising twists and turns to keep any reader entertained. Character development was not an important part of mysteries in the first half of the twentieth century, so modern readers used to internal dialogues and angst may be disappointed, but the characters are sufficiently fleshed out to allow the reader to sympathize with them. Although characterized as a police procedural, this is not a McBain-type police novel, but rather an English country murder in which the detectives are not the standard amateurs but police and government agents. Clever and enjoyable and a very fast read. Recommended/A

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Middle Sister's May Reads

May heats up quickly and unapologetically here in the desert, which gives me the perfect excuse to crank the swamp cooler down, close the drapes to keep the scorching sun out, and settle down on the couch with a book and iced tea.

Murder, She Knit by Peggy Ehrhart Knitting, New Jersey, a middle aged protagonist--this book was written for me, I thought. Pamela, widowed copyright editor for a knitting magazine, is enjoying late fall: her daughter is coming from college for Thanksgiving, she has a new neighbor who has piqued her curiosity (and her ire), and she's invited a colleague of her late husband to her knitting group's next meeting, which she is hosting in her spotless house. Too bad the night is marred by a murder, and the victim is found under Pamela's bush. Pamela and her neighbor find themselves sleuthing to solve the mystery before Pamela becomes the next victim. The suburban NJ town was very familiar and delightful to visit, although very much gentrified and yuppified and millenialified (a terrible word, I know, but how else to describe a lifestyle where Pamela gets to work from home, make daily visits to the perfect, eco-friendly co-op which only carries locally sourced, non-GMO, certified fair trade items that are reasonably priced?). Part of me found Pamela too good to be true (she keeps her large house effortlessly perfect) but also annoying (she admits that she rewrote articles she's editing after "she just decided what she wanted it to mean and rewrote accordingly." AUGH!!!! If I had had an editor like that, wait, I did--and I complained mightily.), especially her irritation with her neighbor and her jumping to conclusions which invariably turned out to be wrong. The mystery is not too hard to figure out, but also isn't far-fetched, and the clues are subtle but present so readers who like to solve the murder can. I enjoyed the book, and while I'd like to see Pamela not be so perfect, it was a restful visit to a town similar to my old home town in NJ and a quick read, so I'd recommend this as one of the better knitting subgenre cozies currently in print. Unlike a lot of those, you can tell this author probably does know how to knit.

Murder in Belgravia by Lynn Brittney Historical mystery set in England during WWI that makes the mistake so many genre writers make--trying to make the characters 21st century enough to satisfy modern readers while using a historic period to provide atmosphere, technical challenges to the art of detection, and a suitably exotic location and time. It's a good thing this was a quick read, because if it had not been, I'd have been tired of how egalitarian and politically correct (a term I hate but which is perfect for this situation) everyone in the book was and given up on it halfway. There is no one central character, but rather 4 main characters (a female doctor, a female lawyer, a male detective, and a male veteran now policeman) who join forces as an unorthodox and unofficial Scotland Yard team to deal with crime in a London overrun by working women of all kinds, injured soldiers, and gangs. Of course there is a love triangle (she loves him but he loves someone else, who turned him down to marry another who has died in the war). Of course no one bats an eye that these people, largely strangers, set up a house in which to live together and work out of, chaperoned by one's titled mother who is delighted to hobnob with charwomen and prostitutes and only faintly horrified when she learns of the existence of boy prostitutes and who is willing to clean dishes and act completely unlike a titled Lady. Sure. I'll probably pass on any future entries in this series; everyone is too modern in their mannerisms and outlooks, too pc--even the gang leaders. Unbelievable.

Cherringham--A Dinner to Die For by Neil Richards and Matthew Costello Super fast, superficial read. Retired New York cop moves to perfect English village, where everyone is handsome, nice, and able to live very comfortable lives without any means of support. This perfect village is lucky enough to have two, not one but two, top notch restaurants; that is, until it looks like the owner of one is trying to destroy the other. Is he being set up, or is revenge for past indiscretions in their convoluted former lives the reason? Again, slightly annoying characters--Jack the cop who lives on a boat and can whip up gourmet meals in a tiny kitchen and make the perfect martini, and Sarah who may or may not be interested romantically in him but sure spends a lot of time with him if she's not. It's never a good thing when both protagonists grate on your nerves every so slightly. The mystery was okay, the solution okay, the setting okay, the format annoying. Every sentence is its own paragraph. Please. I.e.:
                  Or-
                  Something else?
                  Anna smile at the two of them.
                  "You'd better go," said Sarah.
                  A smile from her as she nodded; dinner and post-mortems to come.
     Ugh. Spare me. Hate this style with a passion.

My goodness, is it the heat that is making me cranky or were the books that annoying this month?

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