Thursday, February 28, 2008

I Am So Boring!

I am, it's true. I read two more books, but just two more in the Pauline Sokol series by Lori Avocato. Nip, Tuck, Dead and Dead On Arrival. I hope it's not super annoying, but as I review books in a series, I don't like to reveal too much. That way, if you decide to pick up the first one, I haven't revealed something that happens in Book #11 that spoils something in #1. Anyway, I enjoyed both of these. The series begins with A Dose of Murder. Reading the whole series in quick succession, I'm probably more critical than if I had read one per year. It's more obvious how limiting the insurance investigator job is from a mystery standpoint, since all the murders are going to have to do with insurance fraud. Avocato's Ranger counterpart, Jagger, is very mysterious and doesn't have a ton of character development because, well, that's what happens when you have a character whose big thing is being mysterious. She did reveal something about him in Nip, Tuck, Dead, but the implications still haven't been revealed in Dead On Arrival, so I think she's trying to get a lot of mileage out of this tidbit. But these are minor quibbles in what I think is a pretty entertaining cozy/humorous mystery series. Also, Pauline is attracted to Jagger, but she has one guy per book she's also interested in. This is a little doofy, but that's okay. If you can't wait for Fearless Fourteen to come out, pick up A Dose of Murder and see how you like Pauline!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Vacation Reading Round-Up

Lilah and I got the stomach flu on our travels to California, so I read A LOT for two reasons. I didn't feel well enough to do much of anything else, and Lilah was feeling crummy and wanted to be held while she napped, and she napped a lot. So here it is!

Death at Gallows Green by Robin Paige: This is #2 in the Kate Ardleigh series by Robin Paige, the nom de plume for Susan Wittig Albert and her husband. Beatrix Potter is a character, and I wonder if the research for this inspired Albert's Beatrix Potter mystery series that I love so much. I enjoyed the first, Death at Bishop's Keep, but liked this one even better. I'm told that this series eventually gets a bit tiresome, but not yet. A constable is murdered, and Kate and her new friend Beatrix Potter pursue an investigation, as does Sir Charles. The authors do a good job of invoking Victorian England, and the historical setting is not distracting in the least. Kate is very likeable, and the subplot about Kate's various admirers is sort of fun, given all the misunderstandings. Kate's friendship with Beatrix is fun, as are the references to Beatrix Potter's stories. The mystery is well-constructed, not obvious, but not out of the blue either. You could certainly read this one without reading the first, but you wouldn't have the background on how Kate comes to live at Bishop's Keep in the first place.

The Stiff and the Dead, One Dead Under the Cuckoo's Nest, and Deep Sea Dead by Lori Avocato: Since these are #2-4 in the Pauline Sokol series (beginning with A Dose of Murder), I'll review them together. I read A Dose of Murder quite a while ago, and was fairly entertained. This is the thing. This series was probably pitched as "Stephanie Plum but with a nurse-turned-insurance-investigator instead of a lingerie-buyer-turned-bounty-hunter." It is really derivative. You could write a list of characters in the Stephanie Plum books and find a corresponding character in the Pauline Sokol books. Instead of Grandma Mazur, there's Uncle Walt as the token elderly sometimes-sidekick. Instead of Lula, the plus-size retired 'ho, there's Goldie, the Creole transvestite. Instead of Joe Morelli, the "normal" love interest, there's Nick Caruso. Instead of Ranger, the mysterious, dressed-in-black master bounty hunter who serves as mentor/love interest, there's Jagger, the mysterious, dressed-in-black master investigator who serves as mentor/love interest. Instead of a Hungarian mother who has dinner on the table right at six, there's a Polish mother who has dinner on the table right at six. And these are just the similarities off the top of my head. Avocato doesn't do wacky/madcap as well as Evanovich, but the books are entertaining anyway, if you can get past the Plum parallels. In The Stiff and the Dead, Pauline goes undercover to investigate insurance fraud at a hospital. In One Dead Under the Cuckoo's Nest, she goes undercover to investigate insurance fraud at a mental institution. And in Deep Sea Dead, she goes undercover to investigate insurance fraud on a cruise ship. So you can see that the insurance fraud investigator job is more limiting than a bounty hunter one. And these are written as traditional mysteries, unlike the Stephanie Plum books, and you KNOW the murder has something to do with insurance fraud. Either participants in the fraud are killing each other, or someone found out and is killed, etc. All this might make it seem as though I didn't like the books, but they're actually enjoyable. Avocato writes snappy dialogue and engaging characters, and the books are a nice diversion if you're waiting for Fearless Fourteen to come out. Good fun!

Bubbles A Broad and Bubbles Betrothed by Sarah Strohmeyer: The first in this series is Bubbles Unbound, which introduces Bubbles Yablonsky, a single mom who is trying to parlay her eight years of education at Two Guys Community College into a reporting career. Bubbles was born in bred in her steel-town home of Lehigh, Pennsylvania, and her fashion sense runs to big hair and spandex. Strohmeyer has a gift for wacky humor, and Bubbles is a lot of fun. She's brash, street-smart rather than book-smart, and so darn motivated and earnest you just want to hug her. These two entries in the series (#4 and #5) are entertaining reads. Bubbles's skill as a reporter is improving, her relationships with other characters in the series progress, and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. This is a fun series.

A Watery Grave by Joan Druett: Joan Druett is the author of many non-fiction books related to nautical history, and she decided to parlay this knowledge and research into a mystery series. Half-Maori Wiki Coffin is the sleuth, though he's briefly suspected of the murder. Once he's cleared, the sheriff deputizes him to do some detective work as he joins the fleet of the American expedition to explore the South Seas. The expedition is actually real, though Druett explains in an author's note that she invented several characters and one ship for the purposes of the novel. Her research is clearly thorough, which makes for occasionally dry reading, but lends authenticity to the proceedings. Wiki is a well-written character, and he has to deal with racism from several quarters, including the sheriff who makes him a deputy! The plot is well-wrought, with lots of red herrings and plot twists, and the solution is not in the least obvious, though there are lots of "a ha!" moments as you realize that various occurrences and details are connected. I enjoyed this, the first mystery in the Wiki Coffin series, and I'll be looking for #2, Shark Island.

Rhett Butler's People by Donald McCaig: This is the "authorized" sequel to Gone With The Wind (to distinguish it from that non-authorized gem of modern literature, Scarlett). I should have put a sarcasm alert before the Scarlett reference. Anyway, I imagine the Margaret Mitchell heirs are hard-up for cash and authorized this book to drum up sales for GWTW. One review I read said something like, "Was it strictly necessary to re-write GWTW from Rhett's point of view? No. Is it fun anyway? Yes." and I agree. I thought McCaig did a nice job. I probably wouldn't have picked this up myself, but my mom had it lying around and I was running through books like crazy during the stomach flu thing. We learn a lot about Rhett's background that isn't in GWTW, and no doubt many liberties are taken. I do have the urge to read or rent GWTW again, as it's been years and things were hazy for me. I thought the book moved well and I was sucked into the plot and historical setting quite well. Great literature? Eh, not so much. But a diverting read. I read one amazon review that was basically an impassioned defense of Melanie. The reader gave the book one star because of one scene in which Melanie does something the reader insists she never would have done. Hoo boy. So, if you liked GWTW too much, you might not like this book, but if you didn't like it at all, you won't be interested. If you're in that narrow category of "Yeah, I read GWTW and it was good," I recommend this book. Otherwise, you're in for 500 pages of either boredom or anger. And I'd wait till it's in paperback, too.

Bell, Book, and Scandal by Jill Churchill: This is a late entry (#14?) in a well-established cozy mystery series, possibly one of the first in the genre. I used to read these Jane Jeffries mysteries and came across this one in Borders. I picked it up because I had vaguely fond memories for Jane Jeffries books, liked the title, and liked the setting (a mystery writers conference). I wasn't disappointed. The first few chapters are a bewildering account of Jane buying a new car and preparing for the conference. They meander and don't really seem to belong. I think they're pages that in earlier books, back when her editor still actually edited her books, Churchill would have written for herself as background but not published. Eh, that can happen in long series, and I was willing to overlook it. The story really gets going a few chapters in when Jane and best friend Shelly arrive at the conference, and this part is so much fun, you won't care about the clunky opening. Jane and Shelly are likeable sleuths and the conference is a fantastically fun venue for a mystery. Lots of crazy suspects, and Jane's attempt to get her mystery novel published is character-advancing and interesting. The first in the series is Grime and Punishment, and if you're looking for a light cozy mystery series, you can't go wrong with Jane Jeffries. I have to pick up some of the others I've missed.

Skinny Dipping by Connie Brockway: This is a contemporary romance novel putting on airs by calling itself "women's fiction," whatever that is. I think that's the PC way of saying chick lit. Mimi, a tele-medium who reports to callers what their dead friends and relatives tell her, is in her forties and well into a life of "letting it slide," with no real relationship, few possessions, and her life's only constant, a summer home on a Minnesota lake where her crazy extended family spends a few months every year. To say it's obvious that Mimi will find a guy and some kind of ambition is an understatement, but that's okay. Mimi herself is hard to relate to, since most of us want things, which she doesn't seem to do. The imminent sale of the family home, Chez Ducky, pushes her into close quarters with a workaholic, germaphobic businessman and his son. There's not a ton of suspense here, but this is a surprisingly enjoyable read because the extended family on the lake sections are so engaging. The ending drags a bit with a clunky denouement, but if you're looking for contemporary romance with humor and a fun wacky family setting, this one is worth picking up.

Daddy's Girl by Lisa Scottoline: Scottoline does legal thrillers, which I read from time to time, and she's very good at suspense. This one has all the plot twists you could possibly want, and more, and was hard to put down, despite a sometimes-annoying subplot about her interfering family and frankly annoying boyfriend bogging things down. Nat Greco is a law professor waiting for tenure. Her colleague Angus asks her to guest-lecture at his class for prison inmates. While Nat and Angus are there, a riot breaks out and Nat finds a dying prison guard whose last words are "Tell my wife it's under the floor." Nat gives the wife the message, and the wife is later shot, her house ransacked. Evidence points to Nat, who with Angus's help, bolts from the police and the killer at large. The premise is intriguing, and the plot moves fast. I enjoyed this one, though I tended to skim the parts with Nat's interfering family and was relieved when she finally kicked the boyfriend to the curb (among his many endearing qualities is a scene in which Nat calls him from jail, only to have him answer with a "We're in the middle of a game. Call you later!" and hang up without asking what she wanted. Seriously, ESPN rules this guy's life (and the lives of her brothers and father), and it's pretty obvious she's going to dump him eventually). Anyway, it was a good diversion from the stomach flu.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Lamb by Christopher Moore

The full title for this book is Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, which is good, since if you are offended by the title, you can just skip this book. The "author's blessing" at the beginning of the book says something like: "If you came here for humor, may you laugh; if you came here to be offended, may your ire rise and your blood boil," which I thought was really cute. I really enjoyed this one. Christopher Moore is sometimes a bit juvenile with over-the-top scatological and sexual humor, and there were some parts in this (as with all his books) at which I rolled my eyes. But overall, I enjoy his humor, a melange of satire and one-liners, and I did in this book as well. Here's the premise: A slightly inept angel named Raziel is charged with resurrecting Biff who is called Levi, who is asked to tell the story of Jesus (here called Joshua, after the Hebrew rather than the Greek form of Jesus' name) as he knew him in childhood. Raziel and Biff stay in a Holiday Inn, where Raziel becomes addicted to television and Biff sneaks the Gideon Bible into the bathroom to get caught up on what he's missed. Biff begins to tell his story, interspersed with modern day scenes with Raziel. To be honest, I expected Biff's bible-reading to lead to some sort of conflict, but that well was left untapped. That was fine, since there was plenty to keep my attention in Biff's gospel. Biff is the less-than-holy sidekick in this story: he happily helps Joshua understand sin by experiencing the joys of an array of harlots, and he (sometimes reluctantly) accompanies Joshua on his trip to self-discovery via eastern religious figures. I found myself getting caught up in the journey, and I thought it was well-told. Clearly, Moore did a lot of research to make his narrative ring true, and as the Passion approaches, the story turns surprisingly earnest.

In short, if the title makes you chuckle, I recommend this book to you. If the title makes you angry, and you enjoy a good bout of self-righteous indignation, I also recommend this book to you.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen...and more

I've been reading, just not getting around to posting about it. :-) Our book club pick for January was Water for Elephants. I was glad to be pushed into reading this one. I have been meaning to get around to it for months now and just needed a little incentive. All I really knew about it was that it was the story about a man being in the circus.

It's actually a very well-written tale of a man's life in the circus circa 1930. As a young man, Jacob Jankowski leaves his studies at Cornell after losing his parents in a car accident. He runs away and hops the rails which turns out to be a train for a fledgling circus. The book alternates between present day with Jacob as a very old man and his past days in the circus. The flow is pretty smooth and the characters, including the animals exceptionally well developed. A love story emerges that leaves you hoping the characters end up together.

As I've said before, I enjoy learning about new things while reading fiction. There was an author interview in the back of my book revealing the in depth research the author did on the history of the circus in America. And many of the animal characters and things that happen at the fictional circus were taken from actual events. The elephant in the book is a combination of two elephants Gruen read about. It makes the story that much more interesting to know these things really happened (including an elephant sneaking off and drinking the whole supply of lemonade). A word to any animal activist readers: there are several scenes of animal cruelty in this book. While I wouldn't say you shouldn't read it, you might want to prepare yourself for that part of the story.

I definitely recommend this one. And everyone I've talked to who has read it, loved it, including everyone in my book club who read it.

I've finished the second Percy Jackson book, Sea of Monsters. This was a very good sequel, almost better than the first because it concentrates a little less on character development and more on the story. In this story, Percy must battle a Cyclops in order to return the Golden Fleece to Camp Half-Blood. Another fun update of Greek mythology. And I'm looking forward to continuing the series.

I received The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim for Christmas. I am really enjoying this book! It has a different tidbit of knowledge for each day of the year. Each day of the week has a particular subject (Monday=History, Tuesday=Literature, etc. The book starts with ancient history and works its way toward more modern trivia as the year progresses. Each day covers a particular topic such as Plato, Alexander the Great, Venus de Milo, The Harlem Renaissance, etc. The section defines the topic, puts it into the context of its time period and at the end gives fun facts about the topic. I've found it very interesting and a nice review of things I learned about in school. Or I'm learning about things I should have learned about in school. ;-)

I also finished a really great book about sensory processing issues called Sensational Kids by Lucy Jane Miller. The book discusses Sensory Processing Dysfunction (SPD). It explains the different types of sensory processing disorders, and then goes into a-day-in-the-life story of a child with each type. Very fascinating and educational. I have read a few books on the subject to educate myself in the wake of learning my daughter Ella has sensory issues. I found this one to be most informative and very well-written for a parent's understanding.

Okay, I think that has me all caught up. I've been listening to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer on audiobook. I'm about 2/3rds through it and enjoying it. I only listen to it every now and then so it'll take me a while to finish it. But I'm finding this book much easier to listen to than The Accidental (I was one of the only people on the planet to not like this one).

Now, I'm in the position of deciding what book to read next... :-)