Monday, March 29, 2010

Mystery Monday: The Chet & Bernie Series

If you're looking for a fun mystery that has a bit of a different twist, Spencer Quinn's Chet and Bernie series may be just what you're looking for.

Chet and Bernie are in charge of the Little Detective Agency. Bernie Little is a private investigator based in Arizona who is not very good with money, tends to drink a little too much, can be a brute when need be, but is ever loyal to his good buddy, Chet. Chet is a dog. He and Bernie are equal partners in the detective agency and what truly sets these mysteries apart is that they are written from CHET'S point of view! Yes, you read that right. The DOG is telling the story.

It took me a chapter or two to get used to Chet's point of view. But after that, I got into it. It was sort of fun to read the story from his vantage point. And it actually added a bit of suspense to the book. At times Chet knew answers to the mystery that Bernie didn't and being a dog, Chet couldn't communicate this information to Bernie. It kept you reading to find out how Bernie was eventually going to figure everything out.

In the first book Dog On It, Chet and Bernie are in search of a missing teenage girl. Chet is dognapped and happens to discover where the girl is being kept. He just has to figure out how to lead Bernie to her.

In the second installment, Thereby Hangs a Tail, Chet and Bernie are charged with guarding a prissy show dog named Princess. But Princess, her owner, and roving reporter Suzie Sanchez go missing. Chet and Bernie are on the case!

I will fully admit I am NOT a dog person at all. I have always been a bit tentative around them. But I have become a fan of these books centering around Chet. And I HIGHLY recommend them to any dog-loving mystery fans out there. I think you will really get a kick out of them. It was amusing to me how well Quinn seemed to capture the personality of a dog and the observations Chet made about humans. I'll be sure to continue reading this series!

Source disclosure: I purchased both of these books.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Reason I'm Behind on Things...

Hee hee....I just couldn't help posting this one. ;-) Little Kellan is the reason it's been forever since I've had time to get reviews up here. He's two months old today! And it's funny, I thought having a new baby would cut down on my reading time, but in fact, I've been keeping up pretty well. I actually have reading time carved out in my day because I read while I'm nursing him. It's fantastic! I squirrel away in the nursery with him and my book and I have a good 20-25 minutes to myself in silence. I love it! However, I haven't been able to read anything too difficult, so much of my reading has been lighter fare. It's just too hard to focus on a more literate book in short increments. At any rate, I just had to share a photo of our newest little reader!

The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper

The House at Sugar Beach is Helene Cooper's memoir of her childhood in Liberia, Africa and continues through her college years in America and eventual American citizenship.

For whatever reason, I continue to be drawn to books with African cultures at the center. And this was no exception. I had absolutely no knowledge of Liberia going into this book. I found its history very interesting. Freed slaves from America were shipped back to this country to settle and start life again causing dissension between the people already inhabiting the area and the new settlers. The tension appeared to escalate in the late 1980's and 1990's causing great violence and civil war in the area.

Helene Cooper's family dates back to the original ship arriving with freed slaves. She grew up living in a mansion and having a grand life compared to people in the area. Often the wealthier families in Liberia would accept children from the "country" people or the native cultures into their homes and raise them as their own. This gave the children a better life than they would have otherwise. This is how Eunice came to live with the Coopers. She and Helene became sisters almost as if they were blood.

As the violence grew and her family was no longer safe (in fact her mother was raped), they moved to America and settled in the south. Unfortunately, Eunice was sent back to her family and did not travel to America. While Helene finished out her high school years and then college she would write letters to Eunice until they just lost touch. Helene went on to become a journalist working for the Wall Street Journal and other papers.

The House at Sugar Beach recounts all of these events in great detail. I found the book to be interesting, but to a point. I felt the first half about her childhood dragged a bit. I admit I skipped 100 pages (102-202) in the middle. And I don't feel like I really missed out on much except reading about the violence against her family. I actually prefer not to read that and was happy I could gleam what happened from tidbits later in the book. I enjoyed reading the second half more than the first. Overall, a mediocre read. Not sure what my book club will think about it. I anticipate it will be a DNF for many. Although, not the greatest book ever, I don't think it was a waste of my time. I did learn about a country and its history that I knew nothing about before. And that's never a waste of time! :-) And it was also interesting to read about a woman as strong as Helene Cooper.

Source disclosure: I borrowed this book from the library.

YA Weekend: the ghostgirl series

I'm not sure what drew me to Tonya Hurley's ghostgirl series. I think I read some reviews on various book blogs and thought the concept sounded interesting.

In the first book ghostgirl, Charlotte finds herself starting her junior year of high school. She has vowed to do anything she can this year to become part of the popular crowd. She spent all summer planning her return to school and how she was going to reinvent herself. And on the very first day of school, she is lucky enough to get paired up with her dream guy in Physics class. Then she just so happens to choke to death....on a gummy bear. From there she is whisked away to the Afterlife or actually somewhere in between. She (as a ghost) now must attend Dead Ed in the same high school she attended while living. She learns she can pop in on her living classmates and see what they are up to. While doing so, she realizes that Scarlet, the sister of Queen Bee Petula, can see her. The two embark on a strange friendship. Throughout the course of the book, Charlotte refuses to accept her death and still tries to get the guy and be popular by living vicariously through her "living" classmates. By continuing to deal with the living, she alienates herself from her fellow dead students.

The second book Homecoming finds Charlotte now moved on to the other side, though she's not quite sure if this is heaven or some place in between. She and the other Dead Ed students are working in a phone bank answering calls from teenagers who can use their help. Day in and day out Charlotte's phone never rings, frustrating her to no end. Back at her old high school, Queen Bee Petula has contracted a deadly staph infection from a botched pedicure. It seems the only way to help her out of her coma is for her sister Scarlet to go to the other side to find Charlotte to help her.

These books are very light fare and perfect for the 13-15 year old set. For me, Charlotte gets a bit annoying with her whiny attitude toward the injustice of her death. It also bugs me how much she wants to be one of the popular girls. I love the character of Scarlet. I was glad that the football jock dreamboat seemed to have more depth to him than what you would expect. These are somewhat fun, but a bit mediocre overall. They are very quick reads. The books themselves are gorgeous with a die-cut cover, color and decorative embellishments on every page and silver trimmed pages. HOWEVER, the extra height of the book (and perhaps the silver trim) make the book very heavy and awkward to hold for long periods of time.

These are very good for escapist reading. A third installment ghostgirl: Lovesick is due out this July.

Source disclosure: I borrowed these books from the library.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Patrick's Day Murder

Holiday reading can be fun, so I picked up the 14th installment of Leslie Meier's Lucy Stone series in anticipation of St. Patrick's Day. I've read a few books in this series and knew it wasn't a "must read in order" series. Lucy is a reporter for the Pennysaver in Tinker's Cover, Maine. Her pregnant daughter-in-law is in the hospital with toxemia and her daughter is under the influence of a fanciful child convinced that fairies are real. But she finds time to investigate when local pub owner Old Dan is found, without his head. Old Dan's estranged brother arrives from Ireland with his abrasive wife, with plans to produce Finnegan's Wake with the local church. Lucy ends up in the chorus, despite a lack of singing talent, giving her a window into the drama behind the scenes. The ending will surprise no one. This isn't on my A list of mystery series, but Lucy is usually a fun diversion. I expected a blarney-infused installment to be highly entertaining, but the plot was dull and plodding. One victim's death is so far-fetched as to be laughable. Celtic/Irish lore is thrown in for effect, but nothing really sticks. The attitudes of the Tinker's Cove residents changing toward the newcomer is implausible, and the "surprise" toxemia grated on my nerves, since that's the sort of thing that's closely monitored. All in all, an installment you could skip, and not recommended for your St. Patrick's Day fix.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Mystery Monday - Sequels Edition

The Seventh Witch by Shirley Damsgaard is the seventh in the Abby and Ophelia series about a psychic librarian coming to terms with her heritage as a witch. For the first time, we get to see the full array of powerful women in Ophelia's family, as she and Abby travel to the North Carolina mountains for Great Aunt Mary's 100th birthday. While I missed Darci, I really enjoyed meeting the family, and a chance encounter with Cobra was also fun. Great Aunt Dot, who sees fairies, was a hoot, and the rivalry with another clan was interesting. All in all, a worthy installment. The first in the series is Witch Way to Murder, and they're probably best read in order, given the ongoing character development. These are the best paranormal mysteries I've come across.

Bridezilla by Laura Levine: The Jaine Austen mysteries are fun and quirky, but insubstantial, like popcorn. Jaine is a writer for hire who runs into a disproportionate number of dead bodies. Killing Bridezilla was a lot of fun. Jaine's former high school classmate (and Queen Bitch) Patti hires Jaine to write her wedding vows. She wants Romeo and Juliet...but snappier. The money is too good for Jaine to pass up (someone has to keep Prozac supplied with Yummy Fish Guts cat food), and she finds herself sucked back into Hermosa High history as she continually rewrites to meet Patti's demands. Patti had stolen her groom from another classmate, kicks a bridesmaid out of the party for being too fat, and generally offends everyone she meets. So it's not that surprising when she turns up dead, having plunged from the very balcony that was to serve as her stage, landing on the point of an arrow brandished by a tacky cherub statue. Jaine investigates to clear another classmate. This installment in the series was hilarious and non-stop entertainment. The high school nostalgia brings a surprisingly thoughtful element to balance the hilarity. A very cute, funny mystery. The first in the series is This Pen for Hire.

Apple Turnover Murder by Joanne Fluke: Something about the Hannah Swensen mysteries keeps me coming back again and again, now for the thirteenth time. Is it the small-town charm of Lake Eden, Minnesota? Or Hannah's array of cookie recipes (it's definitely not the hotdish recipes...)? Or the delightfully quirky cast of characters who surround her? I think it's all of these. What it's not is that love triangle with Norman the dentist and Mike the cop, which got tired several books ago. Still, it's not intrusive enough to ruin the fun for me. The twelfth book (Plum Pudding Murder), ended with the arrival of an old flame of Hannah's, promising more in this line. And the despicable Bradford Ramsay is indeed key to the mystery, having been murdered right after Hannah threatens him. Oops. You'd think in a town with a body count like Lake Eden's, people would learn to stop saying incriminating things like "You'll be sorry!" At any rate, Hannah investigates while she tries not to obsess over why Norman has been so distant since returning from a visit to dental school buddies. The usual small-town Minnesota charm ensues, and I enjoyed reading this installment. A cliffhanger ending promises that the love triangle nonsense isn't over, but I'll put up with it to visit Lake Eden again next year. The first in this series is Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder.

Scone Cold Dead by Kaitlyn Dunnett: I enjoyed Kilt Dead, the first Liss MacCrimmon mystery, and was looking forward to the second. Really, this series should be perfect for me, as it engages me on several levels: my inexplicable fondness for Maine, my love of small-town cozies, my interest in dancing and Scottish history/culture. Liss moves back to Moosetookalook, Maine, after a knee injury ends her career as a Scottish dancer, to run her aunt's Scottish Emporium. The Highland Games setting in Kilt Dead was more fun, I think, but really, this is a case of early promise not panning out. In Scone Cold Dead, Liss's old dance troupe is coming to town and her former manager is murdered. He was so thoroughly unlikeable that I didn't particularly care who killed him, but there were more problems in this cozy. The pseudonymous Dunnett seems to have adopted the obligatory love triangle of recent cozies, and Liss's boyfriend is grumpy about one of Liss's friends, who turns out to be male. I really can't see why she likes the boyfriend. He was thoroughly unlikeable throughout the book, and Liss was insensitive. I don't buy the law enforcement professional asking for Liss's help "because she knows the dance world." Sure, interviewing her makes sense, but asking an amateur to assist in an investigation? The reasoning seemed thin - it's not like they speak a different language and he needs an interpreter. The murder method is ridiculously complex and fraught with potential for error. I plowed through to the end, hoping it would live up to the promise of Kilt Dead, but no luck. In a fit of optimism, I picked up the third book in the series, A Wee Christmas Homicide, and didn't even finish it. This is extremely rare for me. I usually at least skim to the end to find out who did it, but I couldn't be bothered. In this holiday mystery, Liss discovers she's sitting on a gold mine: the cute little kilted bears she thought brightened up the Scottish Emporium are Tiny Teddies, the must-have toy of the season. Two other Moosetookalook businesses also have supplies. Instead of just chucking them on eBay, Liss comes up with a convoluted plan to celebrate Twelve Days of Christmas and bring tourists to benefit ALL Moosetookalook businesses. The obnoxious Gavin, who had tried to fleece Liss by purchasing all her Tiny Teddies, is murdered, and good riddance I say. Why Liss investigates is beyond me, and I didn't care in the least who killed Gavin. I'm sadly giving up on this series.

Source disclosure: I purchased all these books.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

YA Weekend

Enola Holmes and the Cryptic Crinoline by Nancy Springer: I like Enola Holmes. She's spunky, resourceful, and bright. While her life would be much easier if she would just trust her brother Sherlock, it's understandable why she doesn't, and chooses instead to rely on her own instincts and deductive reasoning skills. In this, the fifth in the series, Enola's landlady, Mrs. Tupper, goes missing. Enola unravels the mystery, which leads to Mrs. Tupper's past during the Crimean War and to a meeting with Florence Nightingale. The historical setting is believable, Enola's cat-and-mouse game with her brother balanced nicely against the central mystery, and the mystery and codes compelling. A really fun series. The first is Enola Holmes and the Case of the Missing Marquess.

Source disclosure: I purchased this book.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Flashback Friday

In addition to my more current reading, I sometimes dip into older series or favorites from long ago. They seem less newsworthy than advance copies or hot new releases, but might still be of interest. I thought Flashback Friday might be fun for these excursions! by Joan Hess: I like Joan Hess. Her Claire Malloy series is one of my favorite cozy series. I've dipped into her Maggody series before, but never read them in any particular way. To be honest, I'm not sure what to think of this series. It's a rather fun way to pass the time, but don't feel like "must reads" the way her Claire books do. Arly Hanks went off to the big city, got educated, and returned to be sheriff in her rural hometown of Maggody, Arkansas after her marriage crashed and burned. The tongue-in-cheek verbosity that is so well-suited to Claire (a bookstore owner in a college town) makes Arly a bit less sympathetic, as though she feels superior to her rural roots. This is perfectly understandable, given the stereotypical redneck hick neighbors (especially the Buchanons, an inbred clan featuring a moonshiner with a pet sow), but the line between contempt and amused affection is a fine one, and I'm sometimes not altogether comfortable with the portrayal of rural folk or of Arly's attitude toward them. Maybe I'm taking it too seriously. At any rate, this, the twelfth installment in the series, the town of Maggody is about to go online, with a new computer lab staffed by a new arrival in town. As the Maggody folk explore the internet, ghost images of their neighbors in compromising positions pop up unexpectedly, leading some to conclude the devil is at work in the internet. A meandering plot, some obvious twists, and the sidelining of the mystery in favor of Maggody life made this one tough to finish, though the flashes of Hess's trademark humor made for some chuckles.

They keep reprinting classic Nancy Drew mysteries, so someone must be buying them. But I have to wonder whether kids these days too savvy to enjoy Nancy's sleuthing. I hadn't read this in years, but I remember them with great affection, particularly the first, The Secret in the Old Clock, and some other standouts (The Brass-Bound Trunk and Password at Larkspur Lane), with only dim recollections of the plot. I re-read the first four, The Secret in the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, The Bungalow Mystery, and The Secret at Lilac Inn, when I was sick and not feeling up to very involved reading. These books are still fun, and the pre-internet, pre-cell phone era has great charm. Nancy is plucky and brave. Her father respects her contributions to his cases. And the mysteries are fairly interesting as they unfold. Who doesn't love an old-fashioned caper involving a missing will and deserving would-be heirs? And hidden staircases and secret passages? The Secret in the Old Clock was originally written in 1930 by the pseudonymous Carolyn Keene (produced by ghostwriters of the Stratemeyer Syndicate) and extensively revised in 1959. Good luck finding an affordable copy of the original, which I understand includes some racial stereotypes that were unacceptable by 1959, as well as cosmetic changes to cars and fashions. These four books are pre-George and Bess. Nancy's great friend is Helen, who is later written out. I found these to be fun, quick reads. The dated elements (social strata in River Heights are hilarious, average families have housekeepers) add to the charm, really. I've been collecting this series for Lilah to read when she's older.

A side note: I reviewed Not a Girl Detective, a CeCe Caruso mystery by Susan Kandel, right here. It's just a blurb, really. But this book is a lot of fun if you're a Nancy Drew fan interested in the history of the Stratemeyer Syndicate and of the Nancy Drew series. It's well-researched, and, while you can find the information on Wikipedia, it's more fun to watch CeCe unfold the layers of history.