Saturday, November 28, 2009

An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear

I have waxed poetic more than once about Jacqueline Winspear. She is one of my favorite mystery authors. No, she is one of my favorite authors, genre notwithstanding. Winspear does incredible research when writing her books to create one of the most accurate and realistic settings for a novel that I have read. As an author of historical fiction she has a better ability to create 1930s England than any author who was not writing during the 1930s.

The plot in this novel was easier to deduce than some of the other Maisie Dobbs stories. Nonetheless, the plot was no less fascinating for the easier deduction of the plot. In this story Maisie is researching a small town's brickworks that a client hopes to purchase. There is something off about the town which leads Maisie into a search of the towns past. Like her other stories the mystery resides in World War I. As with her other stories Winspear has an ability to get to the heart of the War and the difficulties it created for the European population. (I will openly admit, I have used situations in Winspear's books to create a plausible and identifiable setting in my history classes before. That's how genuine her research is.)

This is one of the first books in which Winspear sets up the coming world - although book four I believe also alluded to growing concerns on the Continent. While her stories continue to focus on World War I, she is beginning to allude to the growing problems in Germany. I am curious to see if in future books Winspear begins to incorporate fascism and Nazism into the stories. I would love to read her perceptions of right-wing politics in 1930s England. I have no doubt she will create an undeniably accurate and realistic world.

There is one more Jacqueline Winspear Maisie Dobbs book on my shelf waiting for me to read - Among the Mad. There is another to-be-published in 2010, The Mapping of Love and Death. I try not to read them too quickly as they are like candy - best savored over time.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians #1) by Rick Riordan

I have mentioned before the I adore young adult fantasy. There is nothing more enjoyable than picking up a well-written, well-plotted fantasy that is fun and light without excessive violence, death, or sex. The Lightning Thief fulfills this exact category. It is engaging, a light read, and teaches something as well.

I would guess that Riordan had an idea for a book and discovered the mass appeal of the Harry Potter series. He took his idea and ran with it recognizing that a market existed. Trying to not sound like Harry Potter, there are moments when he set himself up as too obviously different. Instead of fleeing his family during the school year, Percy Jackson flees during the summer. Instead of no parents and evil extended family, Percy has the perfect sweet mother. Those moments don't take away from the book, but they did catch my attention.

Percy Jackson has ADHD and dyslexia - appropriate quirks for today's middle school reader. I like that Riordan describes those characteristics as signs of half-blood relationships to the Greek Gods. It's novel and a fun take on an old issue. Oh yeah, and if you haven't read the book - the main premise is that Percy Jackson is half Greek God.

Which brings up the main plot of the book. Riordan introduces his readers to a whole slew of classic Greek mythology: Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Aphrodite, Medusa. Although these are less relevant in today's world, I think its noble to introduce this world to kids. Knowing who Hermes is makes the FTD symbol at florist shops suddenly make sense. Riordan takes the classic tales and adapts them to the modern world. It's fun.

As far as appropriateness of this series for the kids themselves? My son's only six and he's too twitchy to listen to a story this long yet. But, I think it is a great series for boys - a group who has been ignored as readers until recently. I've been told that the further in the series the more death and destruction that occurs so parents may want to pre-read depending on their child's interests.

For me, I'm anxiously awaiting for the rest of the series to show up in my kids Scholastic flyers.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Mansions of the Dead by Sarah Stewart Taylor

Mansions of the Dead is the second Sweeney St. George mystery. Taylor has created an extremely unique premise for her series. The main character is an art history professor who studies funereal art. She spends significant amounts of time in cemeteries studying the gravestones.

This book, unlike the first O Artful Death, takes place in a university setting. The murder victim is a student of Sweeney's who is taking her funeral art course. He also happens to be the son of an extremely well-connected Boston family causing distinct problems for the police. The family throws up roadblocks left and right to keep their own lives private.

Taylor crafts a good story. She gives significant detail without drifting into telling facts just to show off what she knows. She inserts historical tidbits that are pertinent to the story without being too heavy-handed. Her main character is a complex person with a past and foibles that are realistic. The policeman in the story has depth and flaws without being the stereotypical useless cop. Boston is an important third character in the novel with the city's personality and quirkiness playing into the character's interactions.

Like the first book, I feel like the university setting gives the character a reason for knowing history without being the most realistic depiction of life in a university. Sweeney St. George grades an entire set of papers in a short hour span. Any professor knows how long a set of papers really takes to grade. And she seems to be able to drop in and out of class at will and drops in on student dorms without anyone so much as wondering about his professor's presence at his doorstep.

Taylor also likes to give her characters a lot of alcohol which is not unrealistic. Except that two of the characters who drank quite heavily in this book both have alcoholic parents. From what I've seen of the world (which is not comprehensive by a long shot, but still...) children of alcoholics tend to be particularly careful about what, when, and how much they drink.

Do these minor flaws destroy the story? Not in the least. I find myself engaged in the characters and the plot in Taylor's books. They are a nice addition to the world of historical, academic mysteries.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Fatally Flaky by Diane Mott Davidson

Diane Mott Davidson is the queen of the the cozy. She was one of the early authors to include recipes tied directly to the plot of her book. I was lucky enough to attend a few of her early book signings that included a full dinner made up of recipes from her books. She was fun to listen to, very *real*, and all around a good influence for a future aspiring writer-to-be. Since those days I have read nearly every Goldy's Catering mystery.

Since I'm writing a nano cozy mystery of my own this year it seemed logical to pick up a classic example of the cozy. Fatally Flaky called to me from the bookshelf. I have to say, I was disappointed. I feel as though Davidson has fallen into the pit of knowing that her books sell based on her name and therefore are less well-developed and less well-written than they used to be. To see this book was fluffy is an understatement.

The story revolves around a bridezilla and Goldy's attempt to cater her wedding. Forty-eight hours before the wedding the venue, the menu, and the number of guests change causing Goldy to rush to accommodate the bride. A brand new character appears on the scene, Goldy's godfather. Another character reappears for Goldy but is brand-new to the reader. While I realize that continuing a series into its 15th book means introducing new characters to get victims and murderers is a challenge. However, it is hard to believe in characters who are seemingly so important to the main character have never been mentioned before.

Likewise, Tom (Goldy's husband) likes the godfather on one page, dislikes him on the next, and tolerates him on the third. Davidson can't seem to remember her own interpersonal relationships.

I read these books because my mother passes them on. However I doubt that I will be jumping up to read more of this series anytime soon. I have much more inviting, better written, better plotted books on my shelf waiting my attention.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The War Against Miss Winter by Kathryn Miller Haines

Mysteries have so many sub-genres that it is impossible to classify many of the books. I enjoy historical mysteries but with reservations - I generally don't read stories that happened more than two hundred years ago - a personal preference. If there is a time period I lean towards it is the 1920-1940s. I love World War books. And Haines story is a quintessential World War II Americana story. I have also found that I really enjoy reading the first mystery in an ongoing series. I am intrigued to see how an author crafts the world for a repeat character who will be solving crimes again and again.

I met Haines at a book signing when The War Against Miss Winter first appeared and I chose not to buy the book. I don't remember my logic at the time. Most likely it had more to do with more growing stack of 20 plus books that I had already bought than any particular disinterest in her book. Anyway, my mom bought the book instead, read it, and passed it on to me. And I'm glad she did.

Haines, an actor, sets up the story of a down and out actor who works for a private eye in World War II New York. Familiar with the genre of the era, Haines uses a lot of slang. It gives the story authenticity and a film noir feel. However, there are points when I feel like Haines overdoes the jargon. There are times when it is fine to say "walking" rather than repeat "legging" for the tenth time. Haines has also done her homework. She depicts the life of civilians during the War well quoting propaganda posters frequently to demonstrate the emotion being supplied to the Americans by the government. The world of chorus girl, hopeful actresses gives the story another level of intrigue. Haines uses famous plays for the title of each chapter and quotes Shakespeare from time to time adding to the character's believability but also giving credence to Haines' background.

The crux of the story revolves around a missing play and a dead playwright. If you read carefully Haines lays out exactly what the solution to the mystery is - although the whodunit is less straight forward. But she crafts the plot well enough that it is not overly obvious rendering the book unpalatable.

I have the second installment of the Rosie Winter saga waiting for me on my bookcase. I will happily dive into it one of these days. The gumshoe, "long-legged dame" feel is a light sub-genre that I don't read frequently and probably would not pick up first. But I enjoy the time period and the main character enough to absorb the style for what it is.