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)