Review: Death Threads

December 31, 2013 at 7:55 pm (cozy mystery, mystery)

Death Threads
Death Threads by Elizabeth Lynn Casey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A librarian main character and a sewing circle of friends – what’s not to like, at least for this particular reader? I haven’t read the first book, but it’s copiously referred to in this one since its events happened only a short time before.

I admit I was completely taken in by the incorrect explanation for what was going on with Calhoun’s disappearance. I’m not entirely convinced about Tori Sinclair as an amateur sleuth, but her lessons in How to Be Southern are actually quite interesting to this northerner. I enjoyed it just fine, for what it is – a little light reading.

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Review: Stardust

December 31, 2013 at 7:50 pm (mystery)

Stardust
Stardust by Robert B. Parker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Spenser undertakes another rescue job in this novel, which is loaded with references to earlier novels in the series and pretty obviously draws on Parker’s experience with the filming of the Spenser TV series. Not recommended for readers who haven’t read a bunch of the earlier Spenser novels – while I think the author does a good job of laying out the relationship among Spenser, Susan, and Hawk without doing a lot of explaining, the fact that I know so much about them already may be clouding my judgment on that.

Secondary character-wise, as usual it’s full of interesting people, dangerous people, and some very, very damaged people. The mystery is about who is threatening the very talented by mentally unstable Jill Joyce – who won’t actually say exactly how she’s being threatened or who she thinks it is. There is, in fact, a reasonable explanation for that, though at this point in the evolution of the American mystery novel it might be considered a bit hackneyed.

Not one of my favorite Spenser novels, but not a bad one either.

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Review: Aunt Dimity and the Duke

December 9, 2013 at 8:52 am (cozy mystery, mystery)

Aunt Dimity and the Duke
Aunt Dimity and the Duke by Nancy Atherton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very pleasant, mild-mannered, and amusing mystery. The conceit of the series is not a secret: Aunt Dimity is a ghost, who uses her contacts among the living to gently manipulate people, for their own benefit.

The big reveal in this one actually had me greatly distressed for a few minutes, until it was resolved. I’m also, full disclosure, quite biased toward this one by its main character’s passion for gardening. Even better, English country gardens, and there’s a great English country house, too. By the seaside, no less.

Overall, though, the various elements of the story worked quite well together, despite their apparent heterogeneity. I was impressed.

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Review: Death at Bishop’s Keep

October 27, 2013 at 1:31 pm (cozy mystery, historical mystery, mystery)

Death at Bishop's Keep
Death at Bishop’s Keep by Robin Paige
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A nice, solid cozy-type mystery, set in 1890s Britain – with a short period in New York City to establish the character of Kate Ardleigh, the American niece of gentry spinster Sabrina Ardleigh. Kate is a self-possessed and independent young woman who wants to try making a living as a writer, but the lure of being invited to travel to England to meet and work for her previously-unknown aunt is irresistible. Besides, she can always mail her stories to her editor.

Things in Essex are not the tranquil country idyll that she was more or less expecting, what with deep-running hostility between the house staff and the mistresses (for it turns out that there are two aunts, one of them a bitter mean-spirited widow) and some unknown man being murdered and dumped in a local archaeological dig.

Kate is not the only point-of-view character; the other important one is Sir Charles Sheridan, gentleman scholar and photographer, as well as one or two others to help flesh out the story a bit. His point of view does drag on a bit with internal conflict over what women “ought to” be like versus what they’re actually like – specifically Kate, for obvious reasons.

An interesting and engaging mystery which drags in bits of actual history quite naturally, for the most part – from the occult/spiritualist craze to the ongoing efforts to development working automobiles (that bit about autos being restricted to 4 mph on town roads and having to be preceded and followed by men waving red flags? Absolutely true). So it’s good from the story, character, and history points of views.

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Review: The Dark Place

October 25, 2013 at 10:37 pm (mystery)

The Dark Place
The Dark Place by Aaron Elkins
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book and I got off to a really bad start, when clever and knowledgeable anthropologist Gideon Oliver somehow did not think of something that any Anthropology 101 student should be able to figure out. Heck, it was obvious to *me* and I’ve never actually taken an anthropology class (just hung out a lot with people who have).

Anyway, no amount of Gideon kicking himself for missing the obvious on pages 78-79 could make up for that, especially when it was blindingly obvious that Elkins only did it to provide a little suspense and some amusing difficulties for him … and possibly to provide an opportunity to rank on the stupidity of the Sasquatch legends a bit. These are not bad goals, of course, and the tactic would probably work a lot better on readers who weren’t grinding their teeth over Gideon’s denseness on this one point for most of six chapters.

Like they say, your mileage may vary.

So as the investigation trudged on and some really interesting and moderately credible things happened, I was still mentally grumbling over the beginning, and then when I became convinced that the ending would be really depressing, I put it down until the book was due back at the library the next day.

I was wrong, though – Elkins pulled a fast one that, again, would’ve worked better for me if I wasn’t already irritated.

I still like the characters, Elkins is a great character writer, and the various technical details about skeletons and a variety of other topics (though my husband swears some of those details are wrong). I won’t give up on this series just because this particular book ticked me off. Call it a 2.5 rather than a 2 rating, really.

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Review: Out of Circulation

October 15, 2013 at 6:34 pm (cozy mystery, mystery)

Out of Circulation
Out of Circulation by Miranda James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think this one took too long to get going – the murder victim wasn’t even found until Chapter 13, something like a third of the way through. Which is not to say that the social combat before then wasn’t interesting, but it took too long to get to that point, as well.

Except that, on the other hand, it turned out that much of what went on toward the beginning was more relevant to the subsequent investigation and plot than I first assumed. Or perhaps it was just my mood, so that the low-key development of the story frustrated me more than it could have otherwise.

At any rate, Charlie Harris is still a pleasant fellow to spend a few hours with – though some might find his conflict-averse nature stultifying – and so is his cat. Kanesha Berry continues to provide some “edge” in a setting that would otherwise be too nice for words.

The payoff for my decision to pick up and finish the book was good though – some archival research, some serious cogitating, a health scare, and a difficult decision for Charlie to make.

The next one in this series is expected out next January (2014).

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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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A Sheetcake Named Desire by Jacklyn Brady (2011)

November 25, 2011 at 7:22 pm (mystery)

Yes, the cozy mystery subgenre suffers from punny titles.   That’s one of its charms, to my mind, though occasionally they work a bit too hard.

Professional cake decoration is the gimmick of this series!  As a hobby baker, I always regard such confections with awe, so I was quite interested to get an “inside look” at the business.  Of course I’m assuming the author has done her homework, but it all certainly sounds credible.

As the title suggests, the “Piece of Cake Mystery” series is set in New Orleans (the next one, due in February, is called Cake on a Hot Tin Roof.  That was probably inevitable).  The lead character and unwilling sleuth is pastry chef Rita Lucero, whose visit to her not-quite-ex’s business – to get his signature on the divorce papers! – goes pear-shaped when he’s murdered and her mother-in-law starts leaning on her, heavily, to help deal with things … including her husband’s business’s problems.

Rita is an interesting and believable character, her mother-in-law is a fascinating portrait of old New Orleans gentry, and the Zydeco Cakes employees are an interesting and individual bunch.  So’s the police detective who’s on the case (I scent a potential romantic interest there, but nothing came of it in this book).  I remain as baffled as Rita, however, about why Philippe Renier left her and radically changed his taste in home decor and women (his girlfriend is … very different from Rita); I hope that the next book explores this a bit more, rather than leaving it totally unanswered.  I have some hope, as Rita’s relationship with her mother-in-law must remain important too.

It’s a mystery: I’m not going to tell you what happened!  Except to note that Rita’s role as potential-murderer didn’t last long, since interviews showed that she did not, in fact, have the opportunity to do the deed.  The need to solve the mystery arises from the fact that the murderer was either the competition, or one of the Zydeco Cakes employees – and Rita is pressed into trying to save the business from further sabotage for several complicated personal reasons.  Much more interesting, to my mind, than “ZOMG they think I did it!!!!”

I hope my library keeps buying this series, and I look forward to reading the next volume.

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July 2011 wrap-up

July 31, 2011 at 11:17 pm (military SF, mystery, Nonfiction - history, science fiction)

Not especially to my surprise, I’ve fallen behind on reviewing the books I’ve read this month.  So here’s a quick summary of the ones I haven’t managed to write a full review of:

Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi (2008).  I’m not an unreserved Scalzi fan overall, but I enjoy his work.  This one is interesting – a parallel version of events in The Last Colony, explaining a bunch of things that happened from the perspective of Zoë, teenage adopted daughter of the heroes of the other “Old Man’s War” series.  It holds together quite well as an independent novel, though.  A lot of it revolves around Zoë’s peculiar relationship with the alien Obin – those who’ve actually read all the Old Man’s War series (which I found I hadn’t, actually) will know what I mean, and those who haven’t should get to enjoy the reveal.  Zoë is a really engaging first-person narrator, the personal and political events are very well done, and I recommend the book.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1819).  This concludes my reading of Austen.  She takes a noticeably different approach here, trying to directly undermine the conventions of the novel (the first line is “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine”).   More interesting is the portrayal of two (or perhaps three) fundamentally dishonest people, and how difficult they can make the lives of the honest and straightforward.  There are also bits about the danger of letting one’s imagination run away with one.  And of course a happy ending.  Certainly worth reading.

Buttons and Bones by Monica Ferris (2010).  This is one of the cozy mystery series I’ve been following, courtesy of the public library – my goodness, this is the 14th “Needlecraft Mystery.”  Anyway, the conceit is that Betsy Devonshire owns a needlework shop in a small Minnesota town, and has a knack for solving mysteries.  Not all of the series hits the mark, in my opinion, but this one definitely passes it.  Maybe I’m biased because it has a significant historical element – the mystery is about something that happened during or after World War II – but I think it holds together very nicely, and the needlework element was, umm, woven in particularly well.  Though I did figure out what happened before the characters did, which I rarely manage to do.

Planet of Twilight by Barbara Hambly (1997).  My son picked up this Star War tie-in from the library, and I grabbed it one day when I was looking for a bit of light reading.  Boy, was that a mistake: this is serious stuff, even grim and depressing.  And very well written, not that I’d expect less out of Hambly; I’ve read at least one really bad Star Wars tie-in novel, and probably would’ve ignored this one if it hadn’t had Hambly’s name on it.  Anyway, it’s a fairly involved mystery-type plot revolving around exactly what Seti Ashgad is up to, and what is going on in a nearly lifeless world called Renat Chorios.  There is also plague, nasty alien life forms, intrigue, etc.  And like I said, kind of depressing, but a good book.

The Garden Triumphant: A Victorian Legacy by David Stuart (1988).  A bit of nonfiction I picked up at the flea market a while back and have been slowly going through.  I wouldn’t call it a valuable reference book by any stretch of the imagination; it’s a rather rambling narrative, with only a few shallow attempts at real historical analysis.  But it was interesting, if one is interested in historical gardening (which I am, to a certain extent). 

Extremis by Steve White and Charles E. Gannon (2011).  Another library book – military SF, this time.  I think I may have read one of the earlier books in this “Starfire” series; at least, the life circumstances of one of the human characters seem familiar.  At any rate, the novel revolves around the conflict between alien refugees (their star went nova) and the humans who already colonized the plant they’ve arrived at.  Communication between the two is hampered by the fact that the aliens have an empathic/telepathic form of communication rather than a verbal one, and interstellar war is the result.  There is some good character work going on here, particularly with the aliens; the parallels between the two sides’ political situation are perhaps a little too obvious, but didn’t break it for me.  And there were some really good space battles, triumph and heroism, that sort of thing.  Not bad work at all.

This month I also re-read three Mercedes Lackey novels – one of them because it’s set almost entirely in cold winter circumstances (there was a major heat wave).  So, that’s a total of 13 new-to-me books read this month, plus three re-reads.

Yes, I read a lot.  That’s what the point of this month of reviews was supposed to be!  It’s no wonder I can’t find the time to fully review them all.

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The Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton (2009)

April 19, 2011 at 10:23 pm (historical mystery, mystery)

Boston, 1773:  Abigail Adams, wife of anti-British activist John Adams, discovers a brutally murdered woman in the kitchen of a friend’s house.  Since this is a mystery novel, she winds up trying to find out who killed this stranger, along with where her friend has disappeared to, because the British authorities seem determined to pin the crime on her husband.

Fortunately, she finds an unexpected ally in the fact-oriented British Lieutenant Coldstone, and uses her extensive social and political connections to ferret out details, connections, and eventually solve the crime.

The author clearly has read the Adams correspondence, and intensively researched the social, legal, religious, and material culture of Revolutionary Massachusetts, but none of that gets in the way of the story.   The novel is full of beautifully woven-in historical detail, with vivid characters in Abigail, John, and other historical figures (as well as those that I presume are invented), and I adored it.

It’s written very much from Abigail’s point of view, with her running mental commentary on politics, religion, race, class, domestic life, and so forth.  I found her completely engaging, the plot carefully constructed around the peculiar advantages and disadvantages of Abigail’s social and political status, and the climax marvelously fraught and satisfying.

I’m already partway through the second of the series, A Marked Man.

By the way, “Hamilton” is a pseudonym for Barbara Hambly, and I highly recommend her Benjamin January series (set in early 19th century New Orleans) as well.

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