Saturday, June 30, 2012

Need a summer read?

DEATH IN A WINE DARK SEA by Lisa King is a fantastic mystery featuring an irrepressible female sleuth who is reluctantly drawn into a murder investigation. When we meet Jean Applequist, it is with these words: "Jean Applequist loved having sex on boats but had never managed it on this particular vessel, even though she'd been aboard several times." With this, King establishes her heroine as wildly different from the bland amateur-sleuth mystery heroines I'm used to, and Jean is a breath of fresh air in an often stale subgenre. Jean is on this particular boat for the wedding of her best friend, Diane, to Martin Wingo, whom Jean despises. When he ends up overboard before the cake is cut, Jean isn't exactly sad to see the end of him, but her loyalty to Diane wins out when Diane begs her to look into the death. Accompanied by the much younger Zeppo, Jean begins poking around, finding no end of viable suspects, and realizing that Martin was even more despicable than she had thought.

The suspects and supporting characters are well-developed and complex, but the real gem is Jean. She may be the first feminist amateur sleuth, though I haven't done research to be sure. While many amateur sleuths blunder about and wander stupidly into danger, needing rescue, Jean knows her own mind and makes her own plans. She is refreshingly smart and resourceful, and she knows when to ask for help. She and Zeppo play off each other beautifully. Zeppo could be a caricature (horny younger man), but in King's capable hands, he is a rich, thoroughly imagined, interesting man. Jean's friend (and self-defense instructor) Roman and the hilariously complex Ivan are other standouts.

King evokes San Francisco through the fog, the food and wine, the scenery. It's a great locale for a mystery, and Jean's day job as a writer for a wine magazine brings in fun tidbits about wine while her love of mystery novels adds its own dimension. The mystery itself is superb; the cast of suspects is large and interesting, and the solution to the mystery unexpected and satisfying. I would certainly follow Jean to future installments of a mystery series.

Source disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. I enjoyed it enough to buy my own copy.

Friday, June 29, 2012

A Little Cozy

IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER by Julia Spencer-Fleming: The opening line of this reissued trade paperback is snappy: "It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby." In the small New York town of Miller's Kill, former Army helicopter pilot and current Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson is pulled into a murder mystery when she finds a baby on the steps of the church with a note indicating that his birth parents want the childless Burnses (Clare's parishioners) to adopt him. She takes on the role of advocate and counselor for the Burnses, bringing her into conflict with Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne. When the young mother is found brutally murdered, Clare's position as priest to many key players makes her helpful to the investigation. Naturally, Russ and Clare find a mutual attraction, but it's complicated by the existence of Russ's wife, though the marriage is struggling. The chemistry between Clare and Russ is fantastic, and her struggles with her faith (and status as a priest) and her sexuality are compelling and sympathetic, while Russ's agonizing over his failing marriage and attraction to such a compatible woman is grounded and realistic.

Clare is more nuanced than your standard cozy heroine. The military background and calling to priesthood certainly set her apart. She is also the first female priest in a parish that is not entirely on board with modern church doctrine, but she has a sense of humor about it.

"Can you tell me what happened, um..." What was he supposed to call her? "Mother?" "I go by Reverend, Chief. Ms. is fine, too." "Oh. Sorry. I never met a woman priest before." "We're just like the men priests, except we're willing to pull over and ask directions."

The abandoned baby inspires her to work on outreach and support for unwed mothers, an unpopular notion with the vestry. She also decides to ride along with Russ, in order to get a feel for the town and its problems. A thin excuse for a non-police officer to involve herself in an investigation, but that's standard in cozy mysteries. Also standard is the frustrating "too stupid to live heroine syndrome," which prompts female sleuths of all persuasions to wander off into danger without a weapon or a cell phone or letting anyone know where they've gone. But these are minor quibbles, and really, they're annoyances of the genre. The mystery is interesting and has plenty of suspects and twists and turns, but the complex relationship between Russ and Clare is what prompted me to download the next book in the series (A FOUNTAIN FILLED WITH BLOOD), and, one after the other, to read all the books in the series (six more after BLEAK MIDWINTER).

The bitter cold in Millers Kill is the perfect antidote to the summer heat.

Source disclosure: I received a review copy of this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

Thursday, June 28, 2012


THE SISTERS GRIMM: THE COUNCIL OF MIRRORS by Michael Buckley concludes the nine-book series featuring sisters Sabrina and Daphne, descendants of one of the Brothers Grimm, who took all the fairy tale characters to America, established a town called Ferryport Landing to house them, and added a magical barrier to keep them safe. When some of the characters decide they want to escape the barrier, war breaks out, and Sabrina and Daphne must act to save their family and all of Ferryport Landing.

I can't give a plot summary of this book without spoiling the eight books that precede it, so let me just say that it's a satisfying ending. All the loose ends are wrapped up, but not in a by-the-numbers checklist sort of way. There are surprises and sacrifices and a prophecy to shake things up. Sabrina and Daphne conduct themselves in accordance with their established character traits, but eight books' worth of character growth is far from thrown out the window. I realize that, as an adult, I don't require epilogues (and might even prefer them left out), but had I read this series as a child, I would have been delighted with Buckley's addenda.

The series begins with book one, THE FAIRY TALE DETECTIVES, in which the orphaned girls are sent to live with the eccentric Granny Relda, and is great fun for fans of fractured fairy tales. Sabrina and Daphne are resourceful female leads and very believable as sisters. Puck adds comic relief through his pranks, which are usually disgusting. The girls grow into their legacy consistently throughout the series, but certainly act their ages (eleven and seven). I highly recommend starting with the first instead of jumping into the series at the end or in the middle.

Source disclosure: I purchased this series.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Teaser Tuesdays - DEATH IN A WINE DARK SEA

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.
Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

Grab your current read
Open to a random page
Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My teaser is from DEATH IN A WINE DARK SEA by Lisa King: "Zeppo sighed. 'Weasel. Most people would find that insulting. But I'll think of it as a term of endearment, coming from you.'" (p. 83)

Monday, June 18, 2012


THE EXTRAORDINARY OF NICHOLAS BENEDICT by Trenton Lee Stewart makes a compelling stand-alone novel, but for readers of THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY and its sequels, this prequel is a real treat. We meet Nicholas at the age of nine, when he is already an old pro at adjusting to life in a new orphanage, as his narcolepsy and night terrors tax an institution's patience. He joins 'Child's End, ruled by a pack of bullies called the Spiders, and makes a single friend, John. He is locked in his room at night, kept busy with chores, and can't spend all his time in the glorious library, but Nicholas, with his ingenuity and photographic memory, manages to circumvent the rules and avoid the Spiders' sworn punishment. Fortunately for Nicholas, the orphanage has a secret: the Rothschilds, who had lived in 'Child's End, left journals hinting at a hidden treasure and a missing inheritance. The orphanage's director is seeking the same things in order to save the orphanage, but without Nicholas's extraordinary talents.

Nicholas's ingenuity and the friendships he develops are a genuine pleasure to read about. His attempts to outwit both adults and children are not always successful, but when they are, they are great fun as they unfold. Nicholas balances daily life in an orphanage with the novel's big mystery, and developments and resolution of both are satisfying.

Nicholas is charming and his voice perfectly balanced between a child's worries and the thought processes of a genius. The politics at the orphanage are believable (for a time, his friend John, sick of being shunned, turns his back on Nicholas) and the bullies sufficiently threatening. Most importantly for a prequel, this book gives us the foundation for Nicholas's future character and exploits. An excellent standalone, but will be most loved by readers of the series. Source disclosure: I purchased this book.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

THE GIRL BELOW by Bianca Zander

THE GIRL BELOW is an extraordinary first novel suffused with a creepy surrealism that makes the pages turn themselves. The main character, Suki Piper, is twenty-eight years old when she returns to London after over a decade in New Zealand, where she sought her absent father following her mother's death. There is no magical reunion, but Suki remains there, working and sharing a flat. By the time she returns to London, her roots there have all but dried up, and she crashes, increasingly unwelcome, on an old friend's couch. A visit to her childhood flat folds her into the family of Pippa, her old babysitter, whose ailing mother, Peggy, needs care. Pippa also hopes that Suki will be a good influence on her surly teenaged son, Caleb. Suki has her own demons: surreal experiences that might be hallucinations or might be time travel. She continues to be pulled back into a horrifying time in her childhood involving a debauched party thrown by her parents and a visit to a creepy WWII bunker. She shares these hauntings/visions/time travels with Caleb and is dismayed when they follow her to Greece, where she has joined Pippa at Peggy's deathbed. Zander shifts easily between Suki's childhood, her time in New Zealand, and the present. Suki is a fascinating character, a woman vaguely haunted by her past and unable to grasp her present. Her jobs are meaningless, her friends superficial, her boyfriends hopeless. She stays in New Zealand despite her father's rejection of her, even running errands for him and his new wife just to feel a part of something. Her hard-partying life doesn't fill the void she has felt since that mysterious incident at the age of eight, and she drifts into Pippa's family without really meaning to: Pippa pulls her in and Suki doesn't resist. Pippa's brother, Harold, offers a look at her future: "The thought of ending up like his when I was in my forties, still stewing over what my parents had or hadn't done to me as a child, was dismal, and it struck me that there had to be a cut-off point, where it all stopped being their fault and became my own" (p. 198, uncorrected proof). This is the point of crisis that Suki has reached, and it is not clear at first whether her visits to the past will stop her drifting, heal old wounds, and prevent her ending up like Harold. Zander uses, to great effect, several images from Suki's childhood to evoke dread. Every time the Wendy tent appears, or she hears the scraping of the bunker hatch, is chilling. Even the hot sun in Greece can't dispel the Gothic gloom. Eventually the threads come together to suggest a future for Suki, but be warned: if you like every little thing tied up in a neat bow in the last chapter, you may find the ending unsatisfying. Since the novel deals extensively with the unreliability of memory, I closed the book (which I could not put down and thus read in one sitting) feeling as though Suki's journey had been told in a complete and beautiful way. I highly recommend this novel. Source disclosure: I received an uncorrected proof through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer Program.