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.


Holly said...

Holy cow! You did read a lot while in California. I'm sorry you were sick, but glad to hear you are feeling better. Now, tell me, do you bring all those books in your suitcase?

My mom was just telling me about Rhett Butler's People. She enjoyed it as well. I read/skimmed GWTW back in high school. I enjoyed it and the movie. But not sure I care to read any more about Tara. :-)

The Joan Druett series sounds interesting as does the Pauline Sokol series.

Thanks for all the great reviews! After I'm finished knitting the socks I'm addicted to right now I'll get back to reading. I haven't even read my book club book for this month. I am reading Iris, Messenger right now though and somewhat enjoying it, although, not quite as much as Percy Jackson.

allisonmariecat said...

Ha ha! No, I brought one book to read on the plane (and Lilah actually napped two hours, so I got to read. And eat!). The rest were either my mom's or acquired on Borders runs. I do bring like 20 books for Lilah, though :)

I think you'd like Pauline Sokol. They're fun books, good popcorn reading.

Yeah, I pre-ordered the next Percy Jackson and I can't wait (May! Yay!), but Iris was fun in the meantime. Not as good, I agree, but a fun diversion nonetheless. I've been on a huge mystery bender (and I just picked up a few more), but I might re-read Harry Potter after I get bored with those.