Four Cozy Mysteries

March 30, 2012 at 9:17 am (cozy mystery, mystery)

My public library got me through the first part of my illness earlier this week – by pure happenstance, I got these four books out a day or two before it started.

Wendy Lyn Watson’s A Parfait Murder (2011) is the third of her “Mystery à la Mode” series (the other two of which the library doesn’t have!).  I was short on emotional resources when I first started reading it, however, so heroine Tallulah Jones’ emotional pyrotechnics were a bit too much and I had to put it aside till I felt better.  Set in Texas, it features the hard-working divorced owner of an ice-cream shop (“Remember the A-la-Mode” – don’t judge, it’s memorable, at least) and her equally hard-working family: cousin, niece, and tough-as-nails grandmother.  And a murder committed on a carnival ride.  The book offers more of an emotional roller-coaster for the characters than a lot of the cozies do, and with its strong characters and multitude of plot twists, I suspect the series will make a nice change of pace for a lot of readers.

Really, the only thing it was missing was a recipe for actually making ice cream.  Ah well.

Next up: another Texas-based book, A Peach of a Murder by Livia J. Washburn (2006), first of an intended Fresh-Baked Mystery” series.   Here, heroine Phyllis Newsom is a retired schoolteacher whose peach cobbler is the last item one of the festival food judges tastes before he keels over, poisoned!  The other two deaths don’t appear to form a pattern … but there is one, and a rather sad one at that.  With a hint of potential romance arriving with a new boarder in Phyllis’s house – another of several retired schoolteachers – and comfortingly competent law enforcement, it looks like a series with solid potential.  (A little further investigation reveals that though this book is new to me, the series has already gone on for several additional books!)

The second “Magical Cats Mystery” by Sofie Kelly is called Sleight of Paw (2011), and it was just as fun as the first one (Curiosity Thrilled the Cat).   It’s possible that I’m more biased toward librarians as heroines than toward ice-cream entrepreneurs or retired schoolteachers (even retired history teachers).  Or perhaps I just like the presence of a little magic in this one – part of the relatively new trend that’s been gently folding urban fantasy elements into cozy mysteries.  Kathleen Paulson, library director in a smallish Minnesota town, is pretty sharp, if a bit handicapped by the fact that telling anyone about her cats’ peculiar abilities would make folks think she was nuts.  (Though I do think she’s a bit too anxious over what people will think about her occasionally carrying her cats around with her.)  I also like her unusual background as a child of theater people.  Anyway, the apparently-accidental death of a retired school principal leads to a lot of anxiety, as multiple well-regarded members of the community seem to be potential suspects, including a close friend of Kathleen’s.  I’ll admit I was pretty sure who the real culprit was, but the author kept it uncertain enough to hold my interest.  Definitely a series I’ll be keeping an eye out for.

Finally, Monica Ferris’ fifteenth “Needlecraft Mystery” is Threadbare (2011), and it seems to me that her basic writing level has definitely kicked up a notch.  I thought this was happening with the last one (Buttons and Bones), but now I’m positive.  There are multiple points of view that are deftly handled, the pacing is excellent, the characters seem indefinably more definite, and the range of topics explored is firmly branching out from “just” needlework to parts of the world around – in this case, the lives and options of homeless women, two of whom are the victims.  Betsy Devonshire, the small-town Minnesota needlework shop owner and amateur sleuth of this series, works hard to figure things out and is eventually able to apply logic and evidence to the problem, sorting out who the culprit is in a believable fashion.  But I’m most pleased about the author’s step up in skill level – it’s a great pleasure to see an already-accomplished person get even better.

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The potato question

March 28, 2012 at 11:34 am (WTF?)

A text addict, of course, will read anything.  Which explains why I was eating breakfast the other day and reading the back of a potato chip bag that somebody left on the table.

It doesn’t explain, though, why I read “It all starts with farm-grown potatoes” (bold type in original).

I mean, what other kinds of potatoes are there?  Ghetto-grown potatoes, planted in concrete and asphalt and watered with despair, ambling down the street with their pants around their knees?  Suburban lawn potatoes, hyper-fertilized, well-clipped, and dressed in expensive worsted suits? Or perhaps the dreaded mall-raised potatoes, nourished by consumerist ideology and florescent lighting, tottering along in high heels and way too much eye makeup?

Seriously, marketing people.  Are you even trying to make sense any more?

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Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2010)

March 22, 2012 at 2:11 pm (fantasy, negativity)

Page 143: I’m bored. I shouldn’t be bored – Tchaikovsky’s world-building is amazing, and his writing in general is excellent – but there it is. The writer loves his world so much that he spent 70-odd pages exploring one city. And the characters and the overall situation, which required them to leave that city. Now he’s already spent another 70-odd pages exploring a different city, with the four main characters handily divided up into three groups so as to expose the widest range of its huge and chaotic society.

 

And there are two [ETA: excuse me, SEVEN] more volumes of this series.

I mean, seriously. This is an incredibly creative fantasy world – the conceit is that in this world, humans used to be at the mercy of the giant insects that inhabited it, but instead learned to adopt specific insectoid aspects that gave them an important edge. So the Ant kinden are linked mind-to-mind, the Beetle kinden are sturdy and industrialist, the Mantis kinden are unsurpassed warriors, etc. There are physical differences between the kinden (the Fly kinden are all very short, and unreliable), and through the “Art” most people are able to do things like generate wings and fly. The aggressive Wasp kinden can apparently generate a “sting” of energy.

Fascinating. But not enough to carry on the story by itself. Intrigue and fighting in the streets and treachery and stuff are all there, but … I’m bored. It’s taking too long. Huge events are rumbling forward (evil empire versus loosely affiliated city-states). I’m not against big, sprawling novels in theory, but I just can’t get into this one.

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The Legend of Eli Monpress by Rachel Aaron (2012)

March 15, 2012 at 3:57 pm (fantasy)

ImageThis wasn’t the book I went to the bookstore for, but it was one of the three I allowed myself to buy this month. (Sure, it’s three volumes in one, but it counts as one purchase!)

And I bought it because I’d never before read a book in which the first scene features a protagonist sweet-talking a door. I just had to read the whole thing. Also, the cover art is perfect – how could you NOT like a book with that face on it?

But I digress. The titular Eli Monpress, sweet-talker of doors, rocks, and entire forests, romps larcenously through a vaguely earth-like world in which spirits inhabit everything. Those few who can hear and speak to them can get them to do extraordinary things that inanimate objects, plants, and so forth normally don’t do. Eli, however, is unusual even among these. I’m not going to tell you how, but I will tell you that there’s a reason such a young man is acting like he’s trying to get all his shots in before the end comes (note: it’s more complicated than a terminal illness). Apparently we’ll have to wait until the next volume or so to find out how that actually works out, though.

There are other major characters. The strait-laced and well-meaning Miranda would, to be honest, hold up better as a character in a book that didn’t have Eli in it. She also unbends quite a bit along the way, but sticks to her principles (including the one that says she has to arrest Eli, as soon as arresting him wouldn’t also cause a worse disaster), and you have to respect that. There’s Josef the swordsman, who we have to wait a while to learn more about, and his sword Heart of War (I’d call it a magic sword but frankly it’s more like a force of nature). And there’s Nico, a girl who has the great misfortune to be inhabited by a demonseed – created by a malign entity that’s been trapped under a mountain. There’s a whole organization devoted to hunting down demonseeds, which is yet another complication. These last two are Eli’s partners-in-crime.

Three books’ worth of plot and world-building is impossible to sum up in one review. The pace of revelations about the characters and their world is well-thought-out and creates a solid feeling of being given the information necessary, at the right time, to understand what’s going on in the story. It’s moving toward truly world-shaking events, it seems, and I look forward to seeing how it all works out.

What I liked best, however, is that the books are both dead serious and light-hearted, with events and issues of grave import – and moments of sheer ludicrousness. A lot of high fantasy these days seems to be grim, grim, grim all the time, and this series is a very nice change of pace.

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The Magician King by Lev Grossman (2011)

March 4, 2012 at 3:28 pm (fantasy, negativity)

I returned this book to the library unfinished.

I’d checked it out because I’d heard about it somewhere, in positive terms. And it’s quite interesting, really, even if a lot of it’s a ripoff of Narnia. Excuse me, an homage to Narnia. There are in fact some pretty interesting things in the chapters I managed to get through – I like the clock-trees. The backstory section about Julia was sad and fascinating. And I liked the part about Quentin choosing to take the ship that had to be refloated and repaired first.

But. Every other paragraph somehow gave me a vibe of “Look at me! I’m a Fantasy Novel!” An artifact of the point of view character being a transplant from our real world? Perhaps. My actual diagnosis is that it’s really a Literary Novel transposed into a fantasy world, leaving mostly intact the detached, nearly antiseptic mode of nearly every modern Literary Novel that I’ve started to read and then set aside in detached, nearly antiseptic boredom.

Quentin’s ennui is, to me, indistinguishable from the ennui of the real-world corporate time-server or ambitionless yet frustrated housewife. The attempt to transplant this mode into fantasy does no favors for either genre.

So “It was ok” about sums it up. It just wasn’t ok enough for me, personally, to finish reading it.

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Acquisitions!

March 4, 2012 at 2:55 pm (acquisitions)

We went to the bookstore yesterday, because we belatedly realized the latest volume of Elizabeth Moon’s Paladin’s Legacy series (Echoes of Betrayal) has come out.  We scored one of the last two copies of it on the shelf there.

And it occurred to me that this series and we, as readers of it, are the kinds of things that justify publishers’ printing of hardcover editions first: we don’t want to wait for it to come out in paperback, and are willing to pay hardcover prices for it.  In fact, I’ve already read it.  (Short review: more good character development (poor Arvid!), more fascinating developments, some tragedy, and one heckuva shocker at the end. Yes, more shocking than the dragon.)

Then I selected The Legend of Eli Monpress, an omnibus of three books by Rachel Aaron.  I plucked it off the shelf because I vaguely remembered reading something positive about it on the Internet somewhere.  Then I read the first scene of it there in the bookstore and said, “I have to have this book!”  (The Booklist cover plug that claims it’s similar to The Lies of Locke Lamora also helped.)

Then it came down to two other next-in-series books.  Decisions, decisions – despite the small financial windfall that underwrote this expedition, three books was our limit.  It was either Tricks of the Trade by Laura Anne Gilman, or The Serpent Sea by Martha Wells.  I want to read – and own – both!  Finally I decided that Wells’ career needs sales more than Gilman’s, so The Serpent Sea came home with us.

We also bought some stuff for book repair and bookbinding yesterday, but that’s really a topic for a different blog.  In the meantime: Whee!  New reading material!

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The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells (2011)

March 2, 2012 at 3:04 pm (fantasy, Reviews, science fiction)

Wells has invented a fascinating fantasy world with an abundance of very different species and glimpses of complex economies and political structures, scattered across a vast world. It has magic, at any rate, so it must be fantasy, but the factors I just mentioned actually make it feel a bit more like science fiction. To me, this is a bonus! But your mileage may vary, as they say.

It’s also a very personal story, in which protagonist Moon finally meets up with the first member of his own species he’s seen since his mother and siblings were killed. That’s partly because of how big this world is, and partly because the Raksura live in small, rather tribal communities, and partly because large swaths of the world (especially where Moon has been) are inhabited by people who still live in remote and poorly-connected villages.

Part of his problem has been that in his winged form (he has two), he resembles another species called the Fell, which is vicious and predatory. He knows he’s not one of them, but other people are generally inclined to shoot first and ask questions later. Anyway, Stone, the Raksura who finds him, brings him back home. There Moon struggles to adjust to a foreign culture where he doesn’t have to be afraid of discovery … and then the Fell appear not just on the horizon, but up close and dangerous.

So, remember the “sense of wonder” that science fiction is supposed to have? This has got that. Plus a sympathetic protagonist, various interesting other characters, some hard-won battles, creepy evil folks, and lots of neat stuff to explore. I hope to actually buy my own copy at some point.

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