Sunday, December 26, 2010

Royal Flush, Her Royal Spyness

Recently I found this delightfully lighthearted and silly series of Rhys Bowen  mystery novels set in post-WWI period London and Scotland. They feature Lady Georgiana Rannoch, a naive and broke but sharp royal (Queen Victoria's great granddaughter) who is attempting to eke out a living as a house-cleaner, escort, spy for the queen, detective, or whatever comes to hand while avoiding being married off to some disgusting foreign prince by her royal relations. King George V is on the throne and his wife, Queen Mary, is anxious to get her son, David, the Prince of Wales, and future Edward VIII/Duke of Windsor away from a brash Baltimore social climber who at that time, is still married to Mr. Simpson. We all know what happens next.

The settings in London or Castle Rannoch Scotland are amusingly drawn, the dialogue is fresh and sparkling, historical characters like David and Wallis Simpson, as well as the adorable Princess Elizabeth,  are fun to read about.

True, the characters fall closer to caricature and issues like class differences, snobbery, and starvation are presented more as  a kind of joke but it is overall pretty fun stuff. The series explores "Big Weekend" the England between wars themes like Jacqueline Winspear or Charles Todd but in  a very lighthearted way.  I guess it is best defined as a historical cozy. The next in the series, Royal Blood, is coming out soon, and I look forward to reading it.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Nobodies Album

Carolyn Parkhurst's The Nobodies Album, reviewed in the NYT Review of Books:  is not really a mystery.Well, actually, it is about a murder that gets solved during the course of the story. So it is a mystery? A crime novel? There is a crime after all. Carolyn Parkhurst ( is a gifted writer. Her previous novel, The Dogs of Babel, is about communication with dogs and also is about a death that may be a murder.   

Octavia Frost, a best-selling novelist and estranged mother of a rockstar, Milo, is planning to re-write the ends of some of her novels and publish the new endings. The story is told in first person perspective by Octavia,  who is cold and distant and just not too likable. Note that Octavia has her own website: and even a blog. Excerpts from her novels and their new endings are included. Her novels are rather funny and since seem to have been pretty bad. Germs of her sad, lonely autobiography as it unfolds are part of these stories. Can you re-write the end of a novel once it is published? Does that destroy the relationship that readers have with a novel?  I can only imagine Anna Karenina having second thoughts or Holden Caulfield deciding to improve his attitude. Anyway, How much of a writer's life is reflected in her writing? How much is therapy and how much is petty self-justification? It is an intriguingly post-modern idea in a time when fans are given the opportunity to pick their own endings - when a novel and its ending could be  evolving, flawed, and temporary and not the final perfect creation the reader in their passive way comes to rely on. What are novels anyway? However, in this case, it doesn't seem so important.

Octavia's son, Milo, is arrested for the murder of his girlfriend and Octavia, to whom Milo has not spoken for 4 years (although she has followed his career in the distant, stalker-like way that social networks and youtube allow), tries to overcome his antipathy toward her,  and helps him with pretty unpredictable results. I am intrigued by the incompetent (or is she?) self-serving narrator and I really enjoyed the dialogue, the characters - particularly Octavia - the others are a little thin, and the novels within the novel. The rock world seems a little incomplete; Parkhurst clearly knows more about the creative acts that result in novel-writing than in rock songs. The older rock star that Milo befriends - a sort of Jimmy Page or Steve Tyler type -  is a pretty weak character but overall it was a fun read that seemed to have a lot going on.


Friday, November 26, 2010

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A sampler of mystery reads

This mixed bag includes some books I've read over the last year and have been meaning to blog about...An assortment of historical, cozy, contemporary, and atypical detective novels. All are worth reading and well written.

Abigail Adams Mysteries: Barbara Hamilton Ninth Daughter, Marked Man

Abigail Adams
The Adamses are taking over  our house! We have been watching John Adams the HBO bio-pic based on the David McCullough biography and starring Paul Giamatti as Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail. Never would have thought Adams was such a whiner! Laura Linney's Abigail is almost exactly what you might guess: a steely New England beauty who was John Adams best supporter, critic, and dear friend - a very intelligent woman and perfect housekeeper at a time when people used sand for cleaning, shopped everyday, and had to boil their laundry in lye in giant washtubs. The early episodes are better, well more lively.  Anyway by coincidence, also just finished Ninth Daughter, the first of the series, having first read Marked Man. A fun series set in  pre-revolutionary Boston when the Boston Tea Party, Massacre and all kinds of mayhem leaving to the Rev. are taking place. They are well researched and characters well-drawn; Abigail is an interesting heroine.

Hank Phillippi Ryan Prime Time

I wanted to like this - HPR sent me a nice note and said she would read my blog when I signed up for the 4mysteryreaders listserv, which was really nice.  I read HPR's  prize winning short story On the House and it was excellent. Just not buying Charlotte McNalley, her on camera news reporter for a big city TV station - the plot was taut and the dialogue not un-witty but it didn't grab me. I may read some of the others though, just to see if it gets better.  

Randall Peffer Listen to the Dead 

Set in New Bedford and the cape islands, this is an interesting mix of contemporary and 1960s Carribean drug smuggling. It has a kind of haunting background full of the resonance of the past including the 1980s New Bedford serial killings and other violence. The interaction between quiet low-key harbormaster Corby Church who finds bones on a lighthouse island and Puerto Rican detective Yemanjá Colón, who channels the dead and whose grandmother is a Santeria priestess, is fun and interesting. I have to admit the scenes with the grandmother were not very convincing and seemed an odd kind of comic relief. The mood did swing back forth from kind of haunting to a sort of out of control comedy. It's pretty good. Even so despite all these positive qualities I kind of lost interest half way through and  did not finish but it was so full of good things I may read more of the series. Peffer's a talented writer.


Elly Griffiths The Crossing Places: A Ruth Galloway Mystery  

Set in the UK in a Norfolk salt marsh full of stone circles and bog bodies and with its main character an overweight archaeologist loner, this would seem so perfect for me that  I had to read it but once I started reading it I found it hard-going. It has a fabulous atmosphere and the characters, notably Ruth Galloway,  are human and flawed, and therefore kind of  interesting but the human interactions, institutional settings, don't ring true.  In one part because it focuses on the  kidnapping and murder of young girls and that is very hard for me to read (I can get past it at times like the recent Nevada Barr but it has to be very well done). Another problem was summed up on another blog, a commenter said that it is very hard for non-archaeologists to write about archaeology  in a way that seems credible and that is true here. Although Elly's husband is an archaeologist, she makes too many mistakes (archaeology done by one person, no description of archaeological techniques that make sense, instant C14 dating, no continuity on the descriptions of bodies and artifacts) to be able to buy it.

Jean-François Parot The Nicholas le Floch Affair A Nicolas Le Floch Investigation  

Set in pre-revolutionary France (sense a theme?), this was really, really good.  Gallic books sent me a copy and my husband and I both read it and loved it. A popular TV series in France, this really well researched novel has some interesting and rather eccentric characters, and pre-revolutionary jitters.


 Betty Kerr Orlemann Mission: Murder 

Set in horrifying murder central Bucks County ;-), this geriatric cozy is pretty sweet.I liked the main character 80-year old Hattie Farwell. My main problem with it is the made up political candidate that involves some ridiculously unbelievable dialogue and situations. Dialogue and interior monologues are not too believable in general but it was still an enjoyable read.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron

I have been a fan of Jane (Austen that is) since I was in grade school and got Pride and Prejudice from the scholastic book fair thinking it was about racial prejudice - only to find out it was quite a different subject matter and style. Only later did I realize it was supposed to be funny. I've read all of her novels and her letters and some of the other stuff. And have seen a bunch of the movies - and Clueless - as well. The Jane Austen Book Club I found dreadful but the others were pretty good. Of her novels,  Emma is an especial favorite along with P and P and Persuasion.

Earlier this year I read Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World,' by Claire Harman (2010, Henry Holt. 277 pp. $26). Quite an engaging and witty look at Jane's life, ideas, and writing and her ever growing world of fans. The story of how her posthumous  reputation grew and changed and who liked her (Disraeli, Franz Fanon) and who didn't (the odious and over-wrought Charlotte Bronte)  is quite fun to read. I recommend it highly if you are an Austen fan. Here are some interesting  reviews:

Jane was not a dainty innocent village miss  but rather a knowledgeable professional writer who wanted and sought publication and fame, if at least initially, anonymously. Her life may have been rather retired and obscure but she lived during the tumultuous and lively Regency Period (read Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman for a horrifying glimpse into the real life of the Regency ton) and she was involved in the events of her day and knew about high society although she chose not to write about it. Her brother Henry was married to a French countess whose first husband died on the guillotine, another brother was adopted by rich people, and two other brothers were admirals in the Royal Navy and fought in the Napoleonic Wars.

In her book, Harman  is rather shocked (and apparently rather horrified) to find out that Stephanie Barron writes a crime novel series in which Jane Austen is the detective. As if it's almost as bad as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! (a topic for another bog- not!).

I don't think that Harmon had read Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen series.   I have read  Barron's series at first with skepticism and then utter enjoyment. These are well researched, well-written, tightly plotted and historically interesting crime novels and the Jane Austen references, history, biography and wit are dead on. The dialogue is witty and quick and there are few false notes. Barron has done her homework; she's read all of the novels and letters and a great deal more besides that she references on her website. There is a certain element of fantasy that many Austen fans share - they want her to have a kicking romance worthy of her charm and wit but there is no evidence that she ever did. To that end Barron invented the wicked, ingenuous, and noble Lord Harold Trowbridge as Jane's mentor and rather slow-moving suitor. Of course this secret romance is doomed. We all know Jane never married, may have had brief romance or two,  and was only briefly engaged. It is also rather sad as she died young, at 41.

In the latest novel, she meets the poet Lord Byron in Brighton (and Barron freely admits there is no evidence she ever went to Brighton or met Byron). The novel is well plotted and full of well-developed fictionalized real characters (Byron, Lady Caro Lamb, Lady Oxford, the Prince Regent, Jane and Henry Austen) and fictional ones (the Earl and Countess Swithen). The setting is sparkling and vividly described. Well worth reading for the historical, literary, atypical detective crime novel sub-genre fans.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Burn & Body Work

Two very good books in long time mystery series by two of my favorite authors.  Both are within the hard-boiled female detective sub-genre -Heck, Sara is one of the creators of that sub-genre and a master of it. Both are masters of setting and atmosphere.

Sara makes Chicago (a place I've never been) so real to me that I think I could find my way around if I was suddenly (and mysteriously) dropped off there. Her relationship with little (6 foot tall) cousin Petra, who is almost as annoying as V.I. Warshawski herself- it must be genetic- continues to grow. V.I. is the world's worst girlfriend to her preoccupied new musician boyfriend. Frankly I always think she must be VERY good looking or people would run like the dickens to get away from her and most do. How does she make a living? Anyway, Body Work is a very contemporary story that  includes an Iraqi soldier's PTSD, body image, violence against women, and performance art as part of the plot. You get to learn a lot more about  her friend, bar owner Sal Barthele,  and about Darraugh Graham, both pretty minor characters in most of the prior books. And all of the friends and family, like Lottie, Mr. Contreras, and Peppy,  are along. A seriously good read.

In Burn, Nevada adds a new character, Clare, an actress and mother, who goes to incredible lengths to save her children. When I became a mother, I realized a mother is really not sweet but an angry tiger protecting her young. The plot of the novel is terrifying to any mother - the kidnap of her children turns Clare into something unexpected and not altogether pleasant as she sacrifices everything in her life to save them. Anna Pigeon stumbles on to the secret in her usual gruff way. Working through the National Parks a lot more thoroughly than Ken Burns, Ranger Anna is in New Orleans staying with her friend Geneva, who works as a singer at the New Orleans Jazz NHP, on a kind of vacation healing from the nervous breakdown she had on Isle Royale and further messed up by the events in Big Bend  in her last outing. It is full of twists and turns and terrific post-Katrina atmosphere. 

Friday, May 28, 2010

I'm Back...

Been reading, just not blogging. Three recent books:

The Black Cat by Martha Grimes
A Murderous Procession by Ariana Franklin
The God of the Hive by Laurie King

All three were good and well worth reading. Martha Grimes is always amusing and a pleasant, relaxing read that doesn't require intense thought. Richard Jury is there as is Melrose Plant and his well-healed friends in a brief appearance. The setting is London and Buckinghamshire and slightly sad story of young women gone wrong. Shoes are at the heart of it all - aren't they always? Parts of the story verge into a cat and dog mystery, which I despise but this is so light-hearted and Mungo such a cool dog, that it's OK. It's sort of a Police procedural; Richard Jury is a Scotland Yard detective and each book is named for a pub that figures in the action.

Another Mistress of the Art of Death story takes Adelia and Co. back to Sicily but you can't go home again, now can you? The plot of this one is pretty closely tied to the previous one (I think City of Shadow?) where she runs afoul of some bad guys in the forest and has to kill one of them. The setting is 12th century England, France and Sicily as Adelia accompanies King Henry II's 10 year old daughter to her wedding while her own daughter stays with Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Some cool stuff about Richard the Lionhearted, crusades, Cathars. Nicely written and interesting.

God of the Hive.. Best for last really. Also closely tied to the previous one, Language of Bees, where Sherlock Holmes discovers his artist son by Irene Adler and convoluted murder and mayhem ensue.It is now in the 1920's. King's characters are always interesting and she doesn't disappoint with a haunting new character, Robert Goodfellow, as well as the American pilot Javitz, Holmes' granddaughter Estelle, not to mention more from Mycroft Holmes and Sherlock.
King interweaves the original Holmes stories and characters into the story with a lot of amusing winks to real Holmes fans but freshens and updates the whole thing through the eyes of Mary Russell, Holmes' rich, young, scholar and co-detective wife.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

False Mermaid

by Erin Hart. Interesting stuff- part police procedural with CSI type details since the main character, Nora Gavin, is a pathologist and part supernatural - Irish ghost story. Nice atmospheric details, interesting characters, folklore, Selkies, bog bodies...This is the 3rd in the series. Lake of Sorrows and Haunted Ground are the others. I look forward to reading more.

Two Time not the charm

I am pretty disappointed with Chris Knopf's Sam Aquillo series. I liked the first one,  Last Refuge, for a variety of reasons. I'm drawn to the outsider, the man with the mysterious past, the down and out detective that can't help himself, who solves crimes in spite of himself, almost to save his own life. I liked the Long Island setting, which rang true from what I've known of Long Island. The character was interesting and the writing was fresh. The dialogue seemed witty.

Previously I reported could not finish another  later book, Hard Stop, and would try one of the others. I read Two Time hoping to like it but  I really don't and can't. His main character really rubs me the wrong way and when I can't remember who was killed and don't even care, it's time to stop reading.  In this case I got to a part with a detailed and very  negative description of  the body of a heavy-set woman character and then I didn't want to read any more of it. I guess she didn't boost Knopf's middle age phantasy of his 50 year old tough guy Sam with his pick of lovely, slender, and submissive bikini-clad young women. Actually even worse is the way Sam treats his would-be girlfriend.

I've read other love-to-hate protagonist series but I find Sam just unpleasant, and worse, his character just does not ring true. Life is too short to waste more of it on this jerk. Another DNF....

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Latest DNF (Did not finish)

Chris Knopf's Hard Stop - didn't like it. Sam Aquillo now seems like a lying jerk instead of the quirky, kind of nihilist guy of Last Refuge, which I really, really liked. I may try Head Wounds or Two Time, his other books

While My Guitar Gently Sleeps - Just couldn't get into it.

Deborah Crombie- Can't believe she lives in Texas....

Just finished Necessary as Blood (2009), the highly praised Dreaming of the Bones, and her first novel, A Share in Death. In my last blog I mentioned reading And Justice There is None in February while the snow was falling. So I've really jumped around in the series! but now I plan to read the rest.

Her London and UK - Dreaming is set in Cambridge-seem so believable I was surprised that she was not a Brit but a Texan. However, one of the book jackets says she's married to a Scot and spends a lot of time in the UK. And Justice There is None's Notting Hill setting made me want to call British Airways on the spot and spend some time at the Portobello Market. I think she may be creating a montage of different parts of London in different books. It is not just the tourist London but a London of slums, yuppies, immigrants, and secret treasures down back streets.

They are really good. The plots are tight and quick moving, the setting is detailed and rings totally true, and unlike many series, her books get better with each one. True, they are following a serialized story of the growing romance and the careers of Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James but at the same time can be read as stand alone novels as I have done far.

The relationship between the protagonists Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James is pretty believable and supporting characters like their kids Toby and Kit, Gemma's friends Hazel and Tim, Betty, Wesley, the families, their police associates Melody and Doug - they are interesting and far from one-dimensional. The dialogue also rings true.

The police procedural part- both Gemma and Duncan are with Scotland Yard- does seem well researched but is actually very familiar to all of us anglophile imbibers of Prime Suspect and other shows and movies.

Highly recommended. Can't wait to read the next one!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

So what have I read lately?

And Justice There is None by Deborah Crosbie
The Last Refuge by Chris Knopf
Hedging by Annette Meyers
Grave Matters by Ariana Franklin

Now reading The Red Door by Charles Todd

All are quite good; I have to say that Deborah Crosbie does such a great job of re-creating Notting Hill and London that I want to go there; missing Portobello Market and the pubs, etc. I was pretty surprised to see she lives in Texas!

J.D. Salinger - Not really mystery

When we read Catcher in the Rye in High School, I remember the teacher asking what would happen to Holden when he grew up? What would he be? Or do? Presumably catching the children as they ran through the rye was not an actual adult occupation. Some people guessed a teacher; some an artist; none guessed he'd be a success. I was not so sure. At the time I really identified with Holden Caulfield and many of his criticisms of society and his outsider status. I didn't realize he was an "unreliable narrator" since I was unaware of that literary device. No matter what I read I couldn't help but naively take the narrator at face value. I was deathly afraid Holden would have grown up and compromised his outsider quality in order to fit in with his upper class milieu. I was afraid that I would also lose my self-perceived outsider status and become a materialistic, status seeking middle class type with no sense of truth or beauty. I need not have worried as it turns out. I didn't know then that there are many ways to live and there are a lot more than two choices. I was, I guess, also unreliable. I wonder what would have happened to J.D. Salinger if he had grown up. I guess we'll never know now.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Tears of...boredom

Tasha Alexander

Tears of Pearl
A Fatal Waltz
A Poisoned Season
And Only to Decieve

Tears of Pearl is the fourth novel in the Emily Ashton Victorian era series. Emily, a scholarly Victorian outcast and widow, has married her sweetheart, Colin Hargreaves, and they are on their honeymoon in Turkey.

In the previous books and especially the first two, Emily is appealing since she is at odds with so many of the mores of her society and with her cold society mother.  Emily makes mistakes and struggles to learn about her dead husband and herself and find her place in the world. In the process she gains a new love and solves crimes beginning with her husband's death. I really enjoyed the first three books in this series. Tasha Alexander had clearly done a lot of research and they were fresh and well-written and interesting.

In Tears of Pearl, Emily has lost much of her appeal. This book was a big disappointment. She is no longer struggling with herself or her society - she is a smug know at all, a representative of British colonialism who goes to a foreign country and provides instruction for the rulers of the country about how to conduct their affairs. This derivative and frankly pretty boring novel reminded me strongly of Elizabeth Peters without the humor or even Anna and the King of Siam with its escape-from-the-harem subplot. Alexander is at great pains to show us Constantinople but it never comes alive as anything more than a backdrop. Her redition of Victorian England was much more convincing. The characters were thin and the dialogue trying. I slogged through it all although by the middle of the book I was tired of it.

One can only hope that Emily will regain her appeal when she goes home. Assuming the next novel is not set in Transylvania, South Africa, or Egypt.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Beat the F***ing Reaper

OMG. I just finished Beat the Reaper, being the first "For Mystery Addicts (4MA)" list discussion book I've read since I joined that list, and is it ever good. 4MA will be discussing it from 1/20-1/30 if you want to check it out. You'll see my use of the almost invective in the subject line is entirely appropriate. LOL from start to finish. Thanks fto 4MA for recommending it since I would never have picked it on my own to read based its subject, hero, and cover art. Didn't seem like my kind of thing.

Does anyone remember the bit by Firesign Theater? "Now it's time to play Beaaaat the Reaper!!!"

Its plot is basically unbelievable and is not so much a whodunit or police procedural or any type of subgenre I can easily button hole it into. Thriller? Mafia mystery? Medical mystery? Unholy mix of them all. Its setting is not evocative or detailed and even the hospital setting is kind of sketchy.

Manhattan (where it's allegedly set) is not given much of any detail (well there is one memorable Manhattan location). A few scenes in Bergen County could have been interesting - having spent some time there myself - but Josh Bazell has other fish to fry. Almost literally.

In any case most NJ natives take a fairly dim view of Sopranoesque NJ settings that outsiders love to tout. See, for example, historian Marc Mappen's new book (There's More to New Jersey than the Sopranos).

No, the fun in this book is in the hysterical dialogue, observations, footnotes (yes footnotes) of medical matters, and the characters, especially that of the main character, Peter Brown/Pietro Brnwa. The action lurches along at high speed - I almost feel I've ingested some "Moxfane" myself - the high speed drug of choice for this chronically sleep deprived guy. I imagine this book would be hard going for the squeamish since many violent and bloody things occur but it was really, really funny and fun to read. A wacky kind of pageturner.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

U is for Undertow...pretty good

I started reading Sue Grafton in the 1990s after her books were discussed on an episode of "Northern Exposure." (It's the 5th season - Birds of a Feather/episode 77701, which aired in 1993- don't you love the internet????) Dr. Joel Fleishman's mother (a talky mystery reader who uses mysteries to avoid the problems of real life before she learns to fly like an eagle and shut up) is there for a visit, "There's always a twist," she said. That sounded good. I usually figure out the killer pretty early in a crime novel and I do like mysteries that are, well, mysterious, with a satisfying resolution.

I've read the whole series from A to U (thus far) and liked many of them pretty well. A is for Alibi remained the best in my view - the characters were fresh and new and the plot was very twisty indeed.

Although I kept reading, the recent ones have not been that good. I was figuring the solution on page 10 or it was such a mess I just didn't care. Kinsey Milhone, the detective and main character, seemed sour and bitter and not in a fun way. She seemed elderly and grumpy, not the 30-something she was supposed to be. I really found it distracting that Grafton got the dates and years all mixed up so it didn't make any sense and then she was grouchy when readers pointed it out (I think in S...).

So I was really pleased to find that U is for Undertow is pretty good. The plot is complex and its solution is interesting. Not entirely a surprise since a lot of it is provided and the only real mystery is when Kinsey will figure it out. Kinsey herself is more introspective, less bitter, and more humorous, and she is finding out things about her past that start to resolve some of the earlier issues raised in previous books about her family.

Her usual friends make appearances: Henry, Rosie, Cheyney, and Con Dolan, and they are good characters. New characters are good, especially Jon Corso, Deborah Unruh, Shawn, and Hale Brandenburg, the PI she meets who was hired to investigate Aunt Gin, who she certainly learns more about. Santa Theresa, the imaginary stand in for a California city (Santa Barbara?) is not especially evocative, although I like the scenes set in Peephole and Horton Ravine (what a Seuss-like name). I don't really feel I am in 1988 especially. The scenes set in the 1960s are better drawn, I think, although Kinsey's view of the 1960s seems odd and out of touch for someone who was 18 in 1968. The plot resoultion is satisfying and pulls together all the loose ends. Her resolution of the family issues at the end (it would be a spoiler to say more) is moving. It is pretty good, acceptable and enjoyable, but it is not "genre-bending" as described on the back cover.

In terms of the hardboiled female detective sub-genre, I also read Hardball by Sara Paretsky and Locked In by Marcia Muller recently. Both series have also recently had issues where the main character finds out about their pasts. V.I. finds out more about her parents and her dad's record as a cop in Hardball and Sharon had found out more about her ethnic identity and her past in previous. I think Locked In was a very inventive novel and very clever in that Muller has Sharon immobilized throughout the novel; that was genre bending to me! Also Sara Paretsky's view of the 60s in Hardball really rings true and provides a historical look at race relations and events in Chicago that is wonderfully written and evocative in a way that transcends the genre. Chicago is a character in the books the way the imaginary Santa Theresa is not. U is simply not as good as either of these novels and does not scale any heights but it is, as I have said, pretty good and fun to read.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

U is for... as yet Unknown

I got U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton. I really hope it is better than R,S, or T. I am sorry since I really liked the alphabet series at first but the last few seemed tired and were not that good. Actually T was better. We'll see...

Monday, January 4, 2010

"The Black Minute"

Started to read the Black Minute by Christopher Valen last night. This police procedural is the second in a series with John Santana, a homicide detective in St. Paul, Minnesota formerly from Colombia. Valen's first novel, White Tombs, got great reviews and won awards. "The Black Minute" is a nice title, I thought, and the subject matter, dealing with the Hmong and Asian communities in St. Paul, seemed evocative and interesting.

I wanted to like it but I could barely get through the first few chapters. The writing was awkward, the dialogue stilted, the characters seemed flat and unappealing, and the author's 3rd person narrative had him making some strange assertions and interpretations. I found it hard going. Maybe White Tombs is better ; I might check it out. Here are some examples of some of the prose I found hard to read:

"Santana had hoped he avoid the quick denial by letting her know where he was coming from but she was still putting up a front."

"Jenna Jones's bottom lip quivered and her brown eyes glistened. But she held herself together by crossing her arms tightly across her chest, refusing to let the death of her friend light an emotional fire."

Maybe the plot makes up for it but I am not going to find out!

Sunday, January 3, 2010


Kindred in Death. Clever, clever Nora Roberts manages to combine sci-fi, romance, hard-boiled woman detective, and police procedural in her J.D. Robb series. The first Naked In Death is the best but they are all pretty fun and the mysteries are bloody but good. Her group of friends and associates evolves as the series goes on. And she writes about 1 a week!

The Classics

Even though I've been talking about contemporary mystery fiction, I've read a lot of the classics too. In my first blog I said I liked historical fiction, I've read a lot of the woman hard-boiled detective sub-genre: Paretsky, Muller, Grafton, as well as Cornwall, Skye Kathleen Moody (Venus Diamond series), Maron, and a bunch I can't think of at the moment. Really my mystery reading began long ago with Nancy Drew and the formation of our Nancy Drew reading boy-bashing club in elementary school, "The Pennsauken Little Spies". I've also read a lot in other sub-genres although not every one by any means.

Now the classics: I've read some of the earlier twentieth century classics such as Christie, Sayers, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, Raymond Chandler, Hammett, Dick Francis, P.D. James, Mary Stewart as well as earlier formative stuff like Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841),The Mystery of Marie Roget (1842), and The Purloined Letter (1844); The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins, Sherlock Holmes (of course!), Henry James (Turn of the Screw) in addition to lots of spy novels like Fleming, Le Carre, Deighton, and so on.

Reading an essay in Wikipedia (, this is much bigger subject than I had thought and there is a good deal already written about the historic of the genre, with many lists, guides, interpretations, and discussions. see for example:

The history of mystery, crime, or detective fiction can be seen to start with one of Scheherazade's tales in the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights).

Classic detective fiction like many other kinds of fiction can be traced to innovative geniuses of the 19th century. Crime fiction, whodunnits, mysteries, what ever you call them are divided into a lot of subgenres and these are increasing every day. Subgenres include "cozy," "historical," "detective," "police procedural," "crafts," "art," famous historical figures as detectives, "pets," "chick lit," and more, and many of these have further subdivisions. This is a much bigger topic than I realized and it will be really interesting to delve into it some more...

Saturday, January 2, 2010

In Big Trouble

Newest read: In Big Trouble by Laura Lippman. I thought it was the new one in the series but it was actually out of sequence (see list below) - that explains some of the disconnect I felt. Really I think Laura should stay in Baltimore. She makes Baltimore pretty real in Charm City, Baltimore Blues, Sugar House and the like but her take on San Antonio is pretty bland and seemed kind of pseudo. I've got to admit I've been to Baltimore and have lived in run-down edgy northeastern cities all my life so such places hold more meaning for me than the places of Texas and New Mexico and the like. I like her Tess Monaghan series pretty well and some of her books are pretty good. In some ways I just can't really believe in Tess, her success or lack of as a PI, Tyner, Aunt Kitty and especially Crow. And Laura looks pretty smug on her cover pic. I tried and couldn't read her non-series books: Hardly Knew Her and Life Sentences. Here is her list of books:

Baltimore Blues
Charm City
Butchers Hill
In Big Trouble
The Sugar House
In a Strange City
The Last Place
Every Secret Thing
Like A Charm
By A Spider's Thread
To The Power of Three
Baltimore Noir
No Good Deeds
What the Dead Know
Another Thing to Fall
Hardly Knew Her
Life Sentences

More of my favorites or ones I will definitely read more of: Janet Evanovich (yes she HAS been to Trenton), David Liss, Maan Meyers, Annette Meyers, Tony Hillerman, Sharyn McCrumb, Walter Mosley, and Laurie King (that is her Mary Russell mysteries) in my list of favorites. More on them later I hope... In addition I should talk about why I didn't like the recent books written by Sue Grafton and Patricia Cornwall.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Mysterious Beginnings

I just finished reading The White Garden by Stephanie Barron (AKA Francine Mathews). It's her latest stand alone novel following Flaw in the Blood. While Flaw in the Blood was a mystery that suggested Queen Victoria was an insane sociopath murderer (I had to go back and read a classic biography of the queen to check her facts and if there was any hint of this!) Maybe a little unfair to Queen Victoria but she's not a in position to object. The White Garden suggests Virginia Woolf was murdered - oh, to say more needs a spoiler. Amazing stuff. I couldn't stop thinking about it. Apparently she is working on a new Jane Austen mystery- this one to be called Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron. Her Jane Austen stuff is really well-executed with an impressive use of letters, her books and stories, and the little that is known about Jane that her sister Cassandra failed to burn. Stephanie seems to get better with every book. Her books are evocative, artful, and well-written with a wry humor and elegant interesting characters.

I recently re-read Indemnity Only by Sara Paretsky, the first V.I. Warshawski novel, to remind myself about what V.I. was like at first, after having read her newest V.I. Warshawski novel, Hardball, in the recent past ( Paretsky pulls no punches with V.I., who is hardheaded and hard to take at times. Hardball is really good with lots of action, more interesting Warshawski relatives, tension with Mr. Contreras, and trouble with Lotty. Interesting stuff about the Civil Rights movement in Chicago that Sara knows really well. Sometimes V.I. behaves in a way that is totally unbelievable but it is pretty in keeping with her character.

Other recent reading included the new Marcia Muller Locked In; Duchess of Death, the bio of Agatha Christie, Even Money by Dick and Felix Francis, A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd, Margaret Maron's Sand Sharks, What Remains of Heaven by C.A. Harris, The Painted Lady by Edward Marston, and that's just a very partial list.

This blog is really for me so I can keep track of the ones I read and what and how they were. I thought of writing comments or mini-reviews or what ever I like - a kind of diary of a mad mystery reader. I don't know many people who read mysteries and no one who reads them like I do.

The first mystery I read was in 7th grade. It was The Mirror Cracked by Agatha Christie and was a revelation to me. Reading mysteries became a sanctuary of a sort. It has been a cure for insomnia and anxiety, taking me away from the (sometimes dull, sometimes annoying or troubling) worlds I live in, and my problems (lame as they might be to most people) and to new worlds of the past and sometimes future (e.g., J.D. Robb) and other places. I read lots of other things particularly classics, history and science topics, and stuff that relates to my professional field. More on that later perhaps.

Well, what do I read?

As a genre reader, I am fairly selective but fortunately there are tons of authors writing the kinds of thinks I like to select from. I prefer historical fiction or ones with evocative settings. I avoid overly gimmicky mysteries where cats or dogs are detectives, ones about knitting or sewing, that include recipes, or ones about serial killers or where children are hurt or killed (if I can tell).

Favorite authors include those mentioned above, Elizabeth Peters (a new Amelia Peabody novel is coming out in April, Caleb Carr, Sharan Newman, Jacqueline Winspear, Anna Blundy, Suzanne Arruda, and more. I intend to write more as it comes up. If you read mysteries too, feel free to write and tell me what you like.