Monday, October 3, 2016

Middle Sister's September Reads

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Middle Sister's Mid-Month Review: Thrive

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

Thrive by Kamea Chayne

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

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

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Middle Sister's August Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 11, 2016

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

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

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

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

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

Monday, August 1, 2016

Middle Sister's July Reads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 1, 2016

Middle Sister's June Reads

You might think I haven't been reading much this past June, but I am in the middle of a thick non-fiction book I'll review next month. I did manage to take a few breathers with some cozy mysteries:

Final Fondue by Maya Corrigan Val Deniston has had to start her life over again on the Eastern Shore of Maryland after an unpleasant encounter cost her her job. She's moved in with her grandfather and is running the cafe at a local athletic club. Her new hometown hosts a festival every year and Val convinces her grandfather to rent his spare bedrooms to tourists to earn some money. Naturally, one of the renters ends up murdered in Granddad's backyard. I loved the setting, as this is one of my most favorite parts of the country, but I was a bit more ambivalent about Val. I think her interactions with her new boyfriend colored my opinion of her. But Granddad is adorable and I hope we see more of him. There was plenty of evidence that the book needed editing: bridesmaid's parties are called hen parties in England, but I'm from New Jersey; we don't use that term in the mid-atlantic or anywhere else in the US. Granddad is happy Val will be staying with her cousin and out of danger, but Val seems to be unconcerned with his safety, sleeping in the house with a murderer (and basically says so, twice). The police chief told her, twice, not to talk about the murder, so what does Val do straightaway? Tells her cousin all about it. Okay, this isn't an editing complaint, it's a character complaint, but it's symbolic of many of the little things that bothered me about Val. Big editing mistake: a supposedly high-powered New York City chef threatens Val that he will send a photo of her cafe "to Monsieur Michelin" so she can get a star. Umm, there is no Monsieur, just a publishing house that reviews restaurants. We know he's obnoxious, but this is not a threat to a chef and cookbook publicist nor a joke a high-powered chef would make; wouldn't both know what Michelin ratings are. Doesn't the author? Who gets severance pay when fired, Gunnar? You get that when you're laid off. And what amateur-trying-to-be-a-professional wedding photographer owns face-recognition software? Too many niggling things like this ruined my enjoyment of the book, so I'll conclude this by saying there are some potentially interesting characters (although Gunnar and Val both need to grow up), a lovely setting, and with some tighter editing and better character and mystery development, this could be a nice series. (NetGalley)

Murder Has Nine Lives by Laura Levine Laura Levine's Jaine Austen series is reliably laugh-out loud funny, and this entry in the misadventures of Jaine doesn't disappoint. Jaine's latest mystery centers on a cat-food commercial for which Jaine's cat Prozac has been hired. The cat food producer is murdered, and Jaine gets involved. Her bumbling detective work is punctuated by hilarious dates with a man who's not what he seems, her attempts to write the copy for Toiletmasters revolutionary new toilet, and her parents' emails re: the Big Scrabble Tournament and an Alex Tribek sighting. There's a little bit of Jaine and her zany folks in all of us. Granted, I'd figured out the whodunnit halfway through but that in no way affected my enjoyment of the book, and that is the hallmark of a fine mystery writer, when the reader doesn't even mind having figured out the murderer because the story is so much fun. Enjoy Jaine's latest misadventure with a cocktail and some ice cream.

Monday, June 27, 2016

New Mug From Big Sister

A present from Big Sister. It's almost perfect for the blog.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Middle Sister Mid-Month Review: The Man Who Built the Sierra Club

The Man Who Built the Sierra Club by Robert Wyss (Columbia University Press, June 2016)

The book is a lengthy and meticulously meticulously researched biography of David Brower of the Sierra Club. It is extensively footnoted, of which this nerdy scientist approves. I was particularly fascinated by the sometimes dry, extremely detailed play by play of the fight over Glen Canyon Dam, sitting, as I am, just a few hundred miles south of the dam, a fight that lingers and continues to impact modern water policy in the southwest. The discussion of Brewer's relationship with the great nature photographer Ansel Adams was also interesting, providing some insight in that creative genius' political and business side. As stated, sometimes dry, but with masterly command of the dozens of Sierra Club and government officials whose actions excited, infuriated, and sometimes angered Brower. His private life is summarized and certain issues not glossed over, but the overwhelming majority of the book is focused like a laser on the major environmental battles Brower waged (Glen Canyon Dam and Diablo Canyon among them, with others very familiar to residents of the West). Recommended to nature lovers, environmentalists, and others interested in the intersection of public policy and the environment.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Middle Sister's May Reads

May was a good month, not because I read a lot, but because I finally finished a book group selection that I started in January. January! I will freely admit that I just passed over the 400-page March/April selection and have no intention of starting it. Call me Rebel Middle.

Picture Miss Seeton by Heron Carvic I first encountered Miss Seeton back in the 1980s, when I worked in a bookstore. I read every one, and I think the paperbacks may be moldering somewhere in my mother's house. Imagine my delight to learn that a publisher is reissuing these as digital books. Hooray! So I started with the first, in which we meet Miss Seeton and become quite fond of her. The Battling Brolly is her nickname, and as much as I'd like to grow up to be Miss Marple, I think a crossover between Miss Seeton and Mrs.Pollifax is more illustrative of the old lady I'd be. Cosy mystery lovers will welcome discovering this elderly female detective and her English fictional world. Very recommended. NetGalley

The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne This is the two-volume book it took me 5 months to read. Partly because it was so long and partly because long stretches of it were so boring. I don't remember The Scarlet Letter being this obtusely verbose. Maybe Hawthorne was paid by the word? I read that he wanted this to be his gothic novel, and while there are certainly gothic elements, it falls far, far short of the subgenre in terms of plotting, characters, even setting. Just be grateful this is not the Hawthorne assigned as school reading. Not recommended, and I hope his ghost doesn't haunt me for that opinion.

The Lunatic at Large by J. Storer Clouston This was the May/June book club selection, and it was a nice palate cleanser after The Marble Faun. I had never heard of Clouston, but apparently his novels were very popular during Victorian times (at least, so says the Interwebz). I enjoyed the sly humor, the ridiculousness of some of the lunatic's escapades, but still wonder at how he managed to be deemed a lunatic in the first place (which takes place before the novel begins). Trick ending that I admit I was too naive to see coming (my only excuse was I was still clambering my way out of the sinkhole that was The Marble Faun and should have given this more attention). Recommended for those that think all Victorian literature was Dickensian in style and substance.

Murder Under the Covered Bridge by Elizabeth Perona Cute concept, although it seems a bit after the trendy mark, to have a bunch of senior women staging photo shoots to create their own sexy seniors calendar (a point that one of the characters makes herself). I am reaching a certain age myself, and I like spunky older female detectives. I experienced some confusion early on keeping all the women separate; only a few had, to me, really distinguishing patterns of speech or some characteristic repeatedly commented on by the author (one walked very slowly) to allow me to recognize her when she was named. My biggest problem is that we are told right away our spunky seniors are recreating the illicit one-night romantic stand of one of the women's ancestors, and then, as if it was a huge secret, we find out, many chapters later, that a child was the result. Well, yes, if her great-granddaughter was recreating her one night stand, then it's no secret there was a child (location 1709 vs. Chapter 1). What was unknown was what happened to the carriage driver, which makes the discovery of the diary and all the passages related to it pointless. Some of the women's inner thoughts and comments were, well, the only word is, stupid. "Was he [the shooter] waiting for them to bring the body up top so he could finish him off?" If the shooter was a sniper, she wouldn't have had this thought because they'd all be dead already. "For as remotely located as the bridge is there's almost no graffiti." Um, that remote location would explain why there is no graffiti, ladies. And they take evidence off the murder victim, the first diary. Ever heard of withholding evidence? "...she was descended from Mediterranean stock" [location 809] and "Hispanic-looking faces" [location 2453]--cringe worthy phrasing, and not just because of political correctness. I got tired of the repetition of the term Sixty List and the constant references to pop culture (Dr. Oz, really?). The final straw was stealing the key off the body of Belinda Flowers in the funeral home, which the author calls "taken off." Nope, call it what it is--stealing. And they are going to let Dolly be convicted of something she was duped into and hope that "God takes care of it?" Too many typos, too many inconsistencies, too many bad plot devices--not recommended. NetGalley

Horses of the Night by Geoffrey Aggeler I like historical mysteries, and I don't care if the protagonist is gay or bisexual, but I had to stop reading this after only a few chapters. There was a dramatic sword fight with some very atmospheric prose, but even that could not salvage my interest. I got tired of the main character talking about, referring to, judging every person he knew or met by whether he had/would/could/wanted to sleep with them. Frankly, I didn't like the character enough to care. Not recommended.  NetGalley

Monday, April 25, 2016

Middle Sister's March and April Reads

Since I missed last month's deadline, I am going to get these reviews posted early for April. A couple of these were advanced reading copies from NetGalley, and as such may have had formatting issues that are not pertinent here.

The Grey Mask by Patricia Wentworth This classic was read for my mystery book group. Published originally in 1928, The Grey Mask introduces us to Miss Silver, the other elderly female detective that few have heard of. I've read this and other Miss Silver mysteries in the past, but not with the critical eye of my mystery book group (which, the by way, is called Miss Marple's Mavens). This time around, I found it much more interesting that Miss Silver is a secondary character who appears very few times in the story, which is told from another character's point of view. Some of the physical descriptions of setting were fantastic (the blowing wind and scratching tree limb scene, for example), but other scenes were almost clinical and devoid of much detail. The repetitive description of one character was a deliberate and effective ploy to make us dislike her (and it certainly worked on me). The book left many unanswered questions about Miss Silver that I recall (possibly incorrectly) are never answered throughout the series, notably how did this former governess become a paid-for private detective so late in life? Quick and enjoyable read, definitely recommended for genre fans.

London's Glory by Christopher Fowler If you have never met Bryant and May, you do not know what you are missing. I have a fictional crush on John May and wish Arthur Bryant were my curmudgeonly uncle. This collection of short stories doesn't explain their past or that of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, but it does provide additional examples of their quirky detection, and also gives some secondary characters more prominent roles. I loved the introductions in which Mr. Fowler explained how or why each story came about. Definitely recommended for genre fans.

Only in Naples by Katherine Wilson I love travel memoirs, and I was all set to enjoy this one, because it fit in the mold of so many others I've enjoyed: young woman (here, immediately post graduate) goes to Italy and her life is changed. Okay, so unlike many other travel memoirs cum biographies, Ms. Wilson didn't travel abroad to undertake a college semester or just to travel, but because her parents felt everyone should live abroad for a few months after graduation just for the experience (read, wealthy family bankrolls extended vacation), and her enthusiasm was very lacking. Okay, so Ms. Wilson was oblivious as a child to her family's wealth (read, she thought everyone had Very Important People You Read About in the Newspaper over to breakfast and a swimming pool and trust funds); I can understand that. However, the book soured immediately upon her arrival in Italy: her employer sends her off to dinner with a family whom the employer knows, and Ms. Wilson immediately falls 'in love' with the son and pursues him shamelessly. I'm not a curmudgeon, and I believe in love at first sight, but that is not what I felt from reading this. What I read was a very lonely young woman, who had limited romantic experience, met, on her first, disoriented, jet-lagged night in another country halfway around the world, a disinterested young man with an accent whom she relentlessly pursued until she badgered him into a relationship. There were a few characters mentioned that had great potential, but their lives were never pursued. Ms. Wilson's writing lightens up when writing about food (she had severe food issues as a child, unsurprising since her mother reportedly told her she was fat even as a small girl), but not enough to save this book. Not interesting enough to overcome the negatives and not well written enough to overcome the lack of substance.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo I caved; I read a bestseller. Lent by my friend Debbie, whose book club read it. Full disclosure--Debbie hated it and didn't get past the first half. My sister also read it and loved it. So I began the book aware that it inspired vastly different opinions. The first half was a bit repetitive, and honestly, I can't imagine any child as fascinated by ordering and tidying as Ms. Kondo was, but then, I am a habitually messy person and know that. I did approve of her message, although I interpret 'things providing joy' as 'things that are very useful.' I definitely approved of the message to get rid of things you dislike or are holding onto for no reason. However, the author lost me when I was told to thank my things for doing their purpose (thank you, handbag) and to say hello to my house when I walk in (hello, house! Did you miss me?). The last straw, which was luckily near the end of the book otherwise I might have followed Debbie's lead, was being told to empty my purse every night so it can relax. Emptying my purse makes the counter messy, which is the opposite of being tidy. My purse doesn't need to relax. Debbie thought the cultural differences were too extreme to make this interesting or useful to her. It's not cultural differences for me (although I definitely get that Shinto Buddhism beliefs underlie much of the approach), it's a question of how one views inanimate objects. And while I agree you own your things and they should be useful and make you happy, I don't think they need to be thanked or welcomed aloud. Still, I plan on trying her method of folding to see if it makes my messy sock drawer neater. But I won't thank them.

The Voice of the Violin by Andrea Camilleri My continued vacation in Italy... Inspector Montalbano finds a very dead and very naked woman in a house that he has broken into (why tell you why the police inspector was breaking into a house? Read it to find out why.) and has to surreptitiously get the investigation started without revealing his connection to the discovery. Peppered with several good red herrings, a victim both likeable and elusive, and gorgeous descriptions of food, mystery lovers will enjoy this greatly. It helps if you read the series in order because there are recurring characters whose relationships with Montalbano change over time, but enough background information is provided that it is not necessary. If you are looking for a new series with an intelligent main character, crisp writing (well, the translation is great so presumably the original is as well), and a great setting, meet Inspector Montalbano.

Reward for Winter by Di Slaney Reward for Winter is a collection of poems written after the author left her urban life to live on a rural English farm (which in itself sounds like a interesting memoir I'd read). I particularly enjoyed the poems that stemmed from the lives of historical local figures and those that addressed nature and the changing seasons. I also enjoyed the glossary that defined terms like gular flutter (yes, that term appears in a poem). Enjoyable and a nice change of pace for one who often indulges much too often in genre literature.

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman Superb nonfiction book about birds that should appeal to birders and science lovers alike. Ms. Ackerman's detailed summary of current theories on bird intelligence and abilities, their social structure, and morphology was riveting. The comparisons between the larynx of humans and the syrinx of birds was fascinating. Well written, meticulously researched, one of the best books read this year. Highly recommended.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Middle Sister: Murder on the Hour and Murder on the Half Shell

Two Net Galley reviews to post this week, both with promise and both with Penny's, but neither without their problems.

Murder on the Hour by Elizabeth J. Duncan This is the seventh in the Penny Brannigan series, but the first that's come across my nightstand. There were a lot of things to like about this book: the setting: a small town in Wales, typical of the Golden Age of Mysteries that I so adore; numerous secondary characters, well crafted and fleshed out; tight plotting and pace; a trendy back story: an Antiques Roadshow-type traveling tv show for Welsh TV is in town and everyone is dragging their family heirlooms to the manor to be appraised.. A slightly unusual twist--we meet the victim very early and get to sympathize with her; I was very sad when she was murdered as I'd hoped we'd get to learn more about her. The few things I didn't like: Penny is just too perfect. I wanted to like her; she's just over 50, still working, single and dating; except for the dating part, she could be me. But she's too chic, too perfect, and I found it hard to really see the story through her eyes. At one point, instead of surreptitious snooping (what we expect in our amateur detectives), her questioning came across as just nosy and prying. And the typos! I have no idea how long this galley was available, and therefore how long before I read it that the copy had been set, but the fourteenth typo was the number for a chapter: Thrity. Yes, thrity. C'mon, folks, thirty is not an unusual word in the English language. Does nobody at the publisher use spellcheck? All in all, I like the series for the setting and the support characters, and will look for more. Perhaps Penny is warmer and more real in other titles.

Murder on the Half Shell by Shawn Reilly Simmons Another Florida mystery for me, this is the second in the Red Carpeting Catering series. First the pluses: the author did a fine of setting the scene--I felt like I was on an island in Florida (there's an awful lot of condensation on glasses and people in this novel). The plot was fairly tight, with few extraneous or unnecessary scenes, and overall the pace was good. The downside: again, I'm just not crazy about the main character. I understand she's got a reputation and a business license to protect, so lecturing her underage servers on their time off about drinking is understandable, but it felt stiff and preachy. The romance with Joey fell flat: she spends the night at his hotel, but the day before, when they both change into swimsuits, they each go into the bathroom to change. Why even mention this? All it did was underscore what I saw as a lack of intimacy between two people we are repeatedly told are a couple. Their big romantic scene at the end felt like a middle schooler asking a girl to go steady with him. Now, I am not one for lots of sex or steamy mysteries, but if there is a romance, I want it presented realistically and this one didn't cut it for me. And FYI, Ms. Simmons, there is no NJPD, or New Jersey Police Department, as she later tells us. There are municipal police departments in every city and township, and there are New Jersey State Troopers, but Joey, a homicide detective, would work for a city PD. I haven't read the first novel, so don't know if Ms. Simmons has set Penelope in a fictional town in NJ or a real one, but yikes, what a glaringly stupid or naive statement to make repeatedly. The usual problem with typos and inconsistencies: e.g., on one page, Penelope "polishes off her beer," and on the next page, she takes a sip of her beer. Am I likely to read the first novel in the series? Nope, and even if I come across it with nothing interesting awaiting me on my Kindle Voyage, I'll likely skim it really fast just to see how badly she portrays my old home state, NJ.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Middle Sister's February Net Galley Reads

I am still slogging through the Nathaniel Hawthorne book for my book group, which technically should be over by the end of February, but when I needed a break from all his heavy prose, I read two mysteries that will be published in the next few weeks (galleys courtesy of Net Galley).

Shards of Murder by Cheryl Hollan It's pretty clear from this blog that I read a lot of cosy mysteries. Shards of Murder had potential, but I think could have benefited from a strong editor. Pages and pages were spent on introducing the reader to students in a glass making class who were not really relevant to the story (used as an aside to fill in Savannah's day when not detecting could have been dealt with in a few short paragraphs)--they weren't suspects, they didn't detect, nothing. Savannah is supposed to be a great glass artist, best in her class at school, and yet she wears matronly clothes (this is what she wore to judge a juried art show: tailored black jacket, plain white cotton blouse, khaki slacks, straw hat, jute shoes--do artists even own khaki pants? This sounds like something this college prof would wear to proctor an exam) and doesn't know the term hoochy mama? Our love interest wears his pants tucked into his cowboy boots?  Never, never, never! It read like the author was trying to hoodwink the reader into thinking she was a bohemian artist herself and got the culture, but the reality is plainly different. Some informal word choices ("lastly" in a list of 2 things?) and odd verb choices, describing something as the second item of the same kind to appear when the first wasn't even mentioned until several paragraphs later--all could have been taken care of easily and would have improved the narrative. And I hated (hated is strong, but is accurate) the condescending attitude Savannah had to the the twins when the reader is first introduced to them--"it's pretty amazing that they walk from their house every day. Especially when you consider they are 87 years old," in front of them, to strangers--every near 87-year-old I know would have smacked Savannah upside the head for that disrespect. No real insider to the committee would have spoken the way he did. I wanted to like this book (it has a dog, who does agility, and a potentially really interesting setting in the juried art show, and a potentially interesting secondary character in the kid with Asperger's) but it fell flat for me on many levels. Here's my advice--drop the stupid white board, and if they have to use it, Savannah spends way too much time erasing names and reassigning tasks that the reader could not care less about, so nix all those passages that reproduce the whiteboard.Get a strong editor, tone down the lessons on glass making to just what is needed to advance the story, and bring in some humor or local color.

Skinny Dipping with Murder by Auralee Wallace A much better mystery. Funny, with characters that were much more engaging, better flow in the narrative and continuity (clearly a better editor), and only a sprinkling of typos (oddly, all at the end of the book). Erica's obsession with her teenage embarrassment did get tiresome, but I guess it is true that teenage humiliations are hard to overcome. The supporting characters are almost all well fleshed out, although I really didn't get a grasp on her mother as a hippy other than being repeatedly told she was. Vegan? So what, I know lots of vegans who aren't anywhere near hippydom. The romance with Grady has potential, and he seems like a nice guy, which I can't always say about mystery romantic leads (who tend to be a little too perfect and too smarmy, in my opinion). Freddie is a great sidekick and I hope we see more of him in future books. The mystery wasn't very mysterious (I had the murderer pegged immediately after the murder) but the pratfalls Erica experiences on the way to solving the mystery were funny, the pacing was good, and I'd be happy to spend more time at Otter Lake.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Middle Sister's January Reads

I have already reviewed two of the books I read this month, so this post will focus on the other January books. Two were successful, two were not. Let's begin with the good books.

Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff What a fanstastic book! It details the accidental crash of an Army plane in Dutch New Guinea during World War II. With an exhausting attention to detail that other authors should envy (ahem, W.C. Jameson from December, I'm looking at you), copious notes, survivor interviews, newspaper and film footage research, this book is a great example of investigative narration. The author's treatment of the indigenous population was exemplary. As it turns out, my friend Debbie was reading this same book at the same time, and although our tastes are usually quite different, we both loved it (despite reading it on our smartphones). If you enjoy books about history, World War II, tropical exploration, survivor stories, heck, if you just like a good yarn, especially when it's real, rad this book. Highly recommended.

The House of Worth by the Litchfield Historical Society I love historical costumes, and this catalog for a recent exhibit at the Litchfield Historical Society is a lovely book. It includes entertaining essays that introduce the women who were sent the haute couture sketches by the House of Worth as well as a brief biography of the house. My only objection: I was reading this on my Kindle Voyage, and the illustrations were not formatted for this presentation. Every single dress was cut up into multiple pieces that were shuffled like some strange Picasso sketch. Read this on your laptop or tablet. (Net Galley)

And now for the badies. I rarely give up on book. It has to be pretty bad on some basic level to make me give up on it. These two managed that.

Unleashed by Emily Kimelman I didn't care about the language (much rougher than mine but not much worse than my own sister's often potty mouth). I thought the circumstances that open the book--how the main character lost her job--were funny and familiar to anyone who has ever worked in the food service or retail industries. But the author described the main character's newly acquired dog with the same exact same words just pages apart; a minor annoyance, but I guess I just wasn't in the mood for it. I may give this one another go (I need something to read during my lunch break and this is on my smartphone).

Killer Cupcakes by Leighann Dobbs I had literally just read a review of this series in the Mystery Reader's Journal that praised the series before I started it, so I went in with high expectations. I enjoyed the first scene--heroine lets dog out, dogs wriggles out of yard and poops in neighbor's yard, heroin meets hunky neighbor. But, c'mon--she owns a pastry shop and she's not there at 3 a.m., baking? Just one person, her friend and coworker, is? Not any bakery I've frequented and given my love of all things sweet and flaky, that's a lot of bakeries. She wears stiletto heels and she's on her feet all day (and this is supposed to make me think she's a successful business woman)? I might have forgiven that stupidity on the character's part as part of her character (vanity, by the way, is not generally a likable quality in my estimation). What I couldn't forgive was this: hunky neighbor turns out to be policeman (believable) investigating the murder of heroine's ex (believable) who says to her "of course I don't think you did it" three minutes after interrogating her. Based on meeting her picking up poop, or just because he's got the hots for her? And when Lexy admits the breakup with her ex was not amicable, does he pursue it? Nope, he shuts his notebook and drops that line of questioning. And then, then--"Jack reached across the table resting his hand over hers." ARGH!!! Police harassment! Police intimidation! Does the author know what the words 'unprofessional behavior' mean? That was it. I shut the book. Look, I get some people like romance more than mystery, and this is clearly aimed at that reading populace, but in the light of how many cop shows there are n television, I think even the sappiest reader would question a cop who acts like a randy baboon rather than a highly-trained professional investigating a murder. Sorry, but I can't recommend this in good conscious to anyone who likes their fiction to even sort of resemble reality.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Middle Sister's Second Mid-January Review: A Muddied Murder

I am going to change my review style a bit. When reviewing titles for Net Galley that have a looming publication date, I'm going to post reviews during the month with the specific title in the post title line.But monthly reviews of non-Net Galley titles will continue as in years past, with a round-up at the end of the month. Here is my second Net Galley title for January:

A Muddied Murder by Wendy Tyson I found this first outing for this new series to be enjoyable. It's set in a lovely part of the world (rural Pennsylvania), the main characters (Megan, Denver, Bonnie, Clover, etc.) are all nice enough folks you'd nod to in real life. The author uses the setting very effectively, with the denouement during a terrible thunderstorm, which presumably gives rise to the title. I suppose it could also be an allusion to the muddied pasts that seep through the story: Megan's family ghosts, the farm's two-hundred-year legacy, the mysterious pasts of Denver, Sarah, and other characters. But Megan's dash for help through the blinding storm most readily springs to this reader's mind. History-buff that I am, I liked the Revolutionary War connection to the modern mystery in which Megan is tangled. What didn't I like--the most obvious ploy to try to keep the reader coming back: the decades-old drama between Sarah and Bonnie, the mystery behind Sarah's mother (Where is she? Where are the children?), the loose end that Eddie appear to be, floating off-center in Italy with just brief appearances. I know, I know, these are deliberate carrots to keep us coming back, but I hate carrots being really obvious, and I found these to be blatant. The mystery was not terribly mysterious, as I figured out the whodunnit early. I did find some bits of Megan's actions to be out-of-character: she was a high-powered lawyer yet she doesn't even discuss Jeremy's menu, nor have a contract with him, nor pursue the failed inspections that begin the book with more vigor? I realize my objections are largely nitpicking, which is probably due to my really liking the premise of the book and wanting to see it fulfill the potential I saw for it. Overall, a solid B+, maybe even verging into an A- for the author's descriptive powers of the farm, the town, and the storm. A promising start to the series.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Middle Sister's Mid-January Review:Bill Bryson's Road to Little Dribbling

I just finished reading Bill Bryson's soon-to-be-published "Road to Little Dribbling." I have read several of Mr. Bryson's books and enjoyed them all, and while I enjoyed much of this one, I have to reluctantly admit that my takeaway from this one can be summarized easily: meet Bill, the curmudgeon. Mr. Bryson writes about his forte, walking around various parts of England, the subject his first book many years ago, but does not revisit all the places he wrote about then. Unfortunately, he usual conclusions are: "I visited here in 197-, and it was nicer/prettier/cleaner/less crowded then." Oh, there are a few places that charm him today, but in general, it seems that England today is nothing like the England of 40 years ago, and not in a good way. I'm pretty sure people in the 1970s said the same thing about the England of the 1930s. And of the England of the 1880s, and so on, and so on...

If you like Mr. Bryson's books, you'll find enough to enjoy in this one, but if you've never read his work before, start with another one, or you might be put off forever, and that would be a shame.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Middle Sister's December Books

December's list is short, sadly.

Amelia Earhart, Beyond the Grave by W. C. Jameson. A preview read for NetGalley, I am unable to recommend this book. Jameson rehashes a theory originally put forward in 1971 without providing any new data to support it or to merit its resurrection. Repetitive uses of the same annoying phrase (so frequent that I started counting them), typographical errors, and odd word choices had me checking to see if this was a vanity press that did not employ editors. Major inconsistencies include the author wholeheartedly accepting the overheard hearsay evidence of a small boy (and indirectly at that, as the author never spoke with him) at some points and later rejecting evidence from that same source when it contradicts the author's pet theory. Full confession--I personally know two of the anthropologists derided in the book and can assure readers of this blog that they are highly respected, well-trained scientists. With faults too numerous to go into, give this one a wide berth.

Trouble in Mudbug by Jana Deleon. Interesting setting: Louisiana bayou, check. Sympathetic heroine: check. Paranormal occurrences: check. Yes, gentle reader, I gave another of this subgenre a try. Well this was much better than the others I've read, mainly because the ghost Helena is a hoot, I still can't say I am a fan of paranormal mysteries. However, the appearance of Helena to her estranged daughter-in-law, Maryse, and Maryse's reactions were depicted very realistically. Personally, I was disappointed in the very graphic sex scene included for no real reason (and I wound up reading that passage in the lunchroom at work), but I realize I may be in the minority when it comes to disliking graphic sex or violence in my novels. Pleasant read otherwise.