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.