Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz

I really loved this book! A great debut for Lisa Lutz. It had a comfortable feel about it, like an old "screwball" or “madcap” movie. A perfect read for a snowy day in the north. This book flowed along like a brook in flood season, finding alternate routes to its destination, with the occasional boulder or tree in its way.

This is a family that works together and lives together, with the exception of the son, David, who has made a career for himself outside of the family business. To say the family is dysfunctional does it a disservice as they are not so much dysfunctional as overzealous in their protection of each other, at the same time trying to protect their individual privacy. The family business is private investigation, the only problem being that they are more apt to be investigating each other than regular clients, at least in this first book. 

It's a good thing there are more in the future because I found I wanted more when I was done and continued right on into the preview of the next book.  That left me dissatisfied because it made me want the book right now. Fortunately, the next two are already out, “Curse of the Spellmans” and “Revenge of the Spellmans” with a fourth due out shortly, “The Spellmans Strike Again”. I’m only sorry I didn’t read “The Spellman Files” when it first came out.

The characters are wonderful, right down to Milo, the bartender who constantly has to phone Isabel, the main character, to come and get her little sister out of the bar before he gets arrested. My favourite character though, at this point, is Rae, the young sister, who has learned the art "negotiation" (translation blackmail) by the time she is eight.

Isabel is the rebel of the family and blames both the business and her family for all her life failures. She uses the same techniques of surveillance in her search for a boy-friend as in her search for clues.  Consequently at the end of this book she has reached Ex-Boyfriend #9.  This is a great read, fast and easy, funny and sad sometimes, I even loved the cover with all the pairs of eyes peeking through the newspaper. I recommend it for a relaxing change of pace. 5 stars.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fatal Encryption by Debra Purdy Kong

Reviewed for "Review the Book"

A cyber-mystery with a cast of characters many of whom I would like to give a good shake and others whose foibles I find myself laughing and shaking my head over. Debra Purdy Kong is an award-winning author and with this book she has gained another fan. With a family corporate business going down the drain and the threat of a cyber-attack on all their computers, the dysfunctional family has hired Alex Bellamy to try to break the encryption codes set to go off and destroy the corporation's system as part of a complicated extortion plan.

The action mostly takes place in Port Moody and Coquitlam, an area in the southwest corner of British Columbia near Vancouver, where I happened to grow up, and the details of the area are well-defined and familiar. The book is surprisingly wrapped around several families in a neighborhood very like the real thing. Hallowe'en plays a big role in both what happened before and how some of the crimes are solved. I say crimes, because besides the threatened cyber-crime, there are two separate murders. Are they connected to each other? Are they connected to the threat and extortion plan? One character in the book says it best, in a take-off of Sherlock Holmes, "...when you've eliminated the probable, look for the improbable or, in this case, the damn-near impossible".

Being suburbia, the neighborhood is fairly tight-knit, and gossip runs high. The same can be said for the threatened store and employees. This gives the opportunity for the author to play with the reader who is trying to solve the crimes before the characters do. The book is well-written, the characters interact exactly as they should. With three previous computer experts prior to hiring Alex, there are lots of opportunities for diversions, misdirections and straight-out lies. The book picks up momentum as it goes along until a flat out race to the end. An easy and enjoyable read, I expect it will be an interesting and exciting series, This is the second of the Alex Bellamy mystery series. I'll be curious about what he will get himself into next.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Conquer All Obstacles by Jo-Anne Vandermeulen

A complicated yet cohesive story that takes the reader through such obstacles as mental health, low self esteem, wrong priorities, abuse, and more. These do not overwhelm the reader by all applying to the same person, but the book most certainly shows us the law of six degrees of separation and how it does or can play out in our lives. The need to be in contact with ourselves and those closest to us is a strong theme.

Jo-Anne Vandermeulen has captured life trapped within the minds of mental health and how very hard it is to see the warning signs in many cases.  She has delved into the core of situations that can affect us adversely or bring such cases to light. Though a novel, it is so close to truth that it could easily be a collection of biographies. The book  is centered around the separate yet somehow closely woven lives of 12 individuals, some with obstacles and some on the outskirts affected by those obstacles of others.

The book is very interesting and suspenseful, and representative of many lost souls who are unable to recognize their own needs. It covers a time period of just 7 months, jam-packed with action and reaction.  This book is not necessarily morose, it does have its lighter, happier moments. It shows how there can be weakness in the strong and strength in the weak.  Powerful and passionate, I think this is a wonderfully written book, it gripped me right away and kept me reading into the night. I am so glad I had an opportunity to read it, and highly recommend it.  A must-read.   5 stars

Exit Music by Ian Rankin

I was very interested in reading this book because I had heard so much about the author and had never read one of his books before, not realizing that would make it difficult to review this as part of a series, so I will review it as a stand-alone. 

The final in a long-running series, this book was entertaining, the characters full-fledged and mostly long established.  Ian Rankin handles his characters well, the interaction is so natural - fun and serious by turns. There is the bull-headed terrier DI John Rebus, 10 days from retirement, fond of old movies and music who likes to test his young assistant on actors and musicians of decades past; DS Siobhan Clarke, his well-trained assistant who proves herself as both faithful and extremely capable; the straight-up newbie Todd Goodyear, and the two DCs assigned to Rebus, Colin  Tibbet and Phyllida Hawes. This comprises the core group under DCI Macrae. Excellent police procedural and team play.

Rankin's portrayal of the murdered expatriated but acclaimed Russian poet rings true.  With a group of Russian businessmen in town, could this be political?  Then one murder becomes two, with a slight connection between the victims. With tenuous connections, many red herrings and lies, the case quickly escalates into a masterful puzzle, pitting Rebus and Clarke first against DCI Macrae and later against each other.  His old nemesis "Big Ger" Cafferty may or may not be involved.  This interplay of characters engenders an almost family feeling, as though the past is a part of the present. It also makes for a fascinating ride and draws the reader into the "family".

When the case is taken over by the SCD (SCDEA, Scottish Crime and Drugs Enforcement Agency), and then by DI Derek Starr, I felt the anger along with the rest of the original investigators. With Rebus removed from the case, Clarke proves her mettle and capabilities.  I was a little disappointed toward the end, probably mostly on behalf of John Rebus, but also touched.  A fit end to a long-standing series. 

But, fear not, fans of Rankin. He will be with us for a long time yet, and he currently has his latest book "Doors Open" released as of this month. Whether this is a stand-alone or the beginning of another series I was unable to find out but I as a new fan will be looking up some of the earlier Rebus books, and following future books.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Stuff to Spy For by Don Bruns

Reviewed for "Review the Book"

Don Brun's characters come into the story fully fledged, at least they appear to be, although from the Prologue it would suggest the story is being told by a dead man. Nevertheless, the characters at the beginning are definitely like comfy socks, well-worn and comfortable, and so they should, this is the third book in the "Stuff" series.

Still acting in their high school personae, these two bumbling lifelong friends are still chasing the American Dream.  Even with Skip's Business School training he is still floundering in the security business he is now working for, while James works for Cap’n Crab.

An underachiever, Skip is put in charge of installing security for a government department (a big secret everyone seems to know), the Department of Defense, and it begins to look like they may finally be getting somewhere in life.  He hires his crew, including James, and as an afterthought he also hires their neighbour who has not particularly been of interest to them, but seemed to have some knowledge of the equipment.

Skip's first order of business though is to play the part of boyfriend to the boss' girl-friend to throw his wife off the scent of infidelity.  The plot is complicated and fun, I loved the interaction of all the characters, including those who have made their first appearance in this book.  I am at a slight loss because I have not read the first two, but this works just as well as a stand-alone and is a very enjoyable and fast read.

However, Skip is no sooner introduced to the project than the first body turns up his feet under his desk and is found laid out behind said desk, very dead. Then they learn that other people on the government project have gradually gone missing. To complicate matters more, there are some very strange characters populating the book, and more spy intelligence equipment is soon purchased, or borrowed in order to get to the bottom of things.  Skip is overwhelmed with women wanting his attention, not a common state.  James is the Hardy Boys fan who is the catalyst to getting the equipment, but who to spy on? There are so many possibilities, not to mention that they are being tracked themselves. 

Overall, this is definitely an entertaining book, complete with espionage, mystery, murder, spies spying on spies, and a romp that kept me reading. It was hard to put the book down. I most certainly will read the first two in the series.   5 stars

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Monet Talks by Tamar Myers: A Den of Antiquity Mystery

#10 in this mystery series, Abby Timberlake, owner of the Den of Antiquity antique store, fighting off some very high bidders, has purchased at auction the world's most beautiful birdcage. Built in the form of the Taj Mahal, it arrives with a mynah bird named Monet. Monet turns out to be quite a one bird show, he can not only voice obscure phrases but he can switch genders (in voice) without a break.

First Monet disappears, then people start to disappear. But if there is something about the birdcage that someone wants, why take the bird? Tamar Myers is well-known for her off-beat comic heroines in her series'. This almost tops it in content. Although maybe not quite as laugh out loud as earlier books, it is still giggly humorous. But then, after crashing a high society party, one of the main characters, who usually plays a truly priceless part for Abby to bounce off of so gleefully, is quickly among the missing.

This is how the story begins and Ms. Myers soon has us all embroiled in guessing and suspecting, also wondering why everything keeps coming back to the bird. There are serious accusations to sort out and downright hilarious ways in which four-foot-nine Abby goes about investigating. It takes her awhile to realize there is more to this crime than stealing the bird because she can't understand the phone calls she's getting. It's not really until she gets a package that fear takes over. Her friends the Rob-Bobs stay right with her almost every complaining step of the way... usually Rob complaining about Bob's "epicurean" cooking. All in all, another entertaining cozy mystery from Myers and certainly different.

Also see my review on Tamar Myer's Death of a Ruglord

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bookmarked for Death, #2 in the Booktown series, by Lorna Barrett

In this second book of Lorna Barrett's Booktown series, Trisha is celebrating the anniversary of the opening of her bookstore in Stoneham.  Stoneham has become a mecca for avid readers, the so-called Booktown, a result of the Chamber of Commerce inviting bookstores to move into an unfilled area of town, bringing in  tourism and brighten up the town. Trisha is hosting a book signing for the one-and-only Stoneham celebrity in town, Zoe Carter, a hugely successful author. Toward the end of the event, Zoe is discovered by Tricia as a murder victim on her premises. Anyone who read book #1, "Murder is Binding", will recall that Sheriff Wendy Adams is definitely not friendly nor helpful toward Trisha and forces her out of her store for several days to do her "investigation". Trisha takes refuge in her sister Angelica's Cookbook store/living quarters.

With many people attending the event, there are of course many suspects to go through, and with Trisha anxious to get back into her home and store, and with lack of trust in the Sheriff, she begins her own investigation. During her investigation she finds out more than she wants to know about Zoe, her niece and assistant, friends, and acquaintances around town and soon draws special attention to herself in a near miss accident. The book has many twists and turns, as did Ms. Barrett's first book, and is an entertaining cozy read. It seems that every time Trisha thinks she is getting somewhere, someone else gets hurt with no apparent reason and that includes herself. I love the camaraderie of the booksellers and book clubs, the feel of small town unspoken separation between the originals and the newcomers is comical in its truth. I also got a kick out of the references to the Canada Goose problem around the town; anyone who has ever lived in their migratory route will certainly find the descriptions true to life and laughable in a "you have to laugh or you will cry" type of way. For a light-weight humourous read, fun yet focused, this series fits the bill. As a bonus there are some quick and easy yet tasty recipes at the back.  4 1/2 stars.
(Review revised Mar. 10/10)

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Cockatiels at Seven by Donna Andrews

 Read Dec. 27, 2009

Donna Andrews' Meg Langlow series is always entertaining; between her wacky family, new husband, chasing felons and animals alike, and renovating their newly purchased old home, the stories are among the best of cozies in the business.  I adore these books!  This one did not disappoint. Picture boas (not the feathered kind) in your brand new hot tub because your father is caring for them and you'll get the idea. To add to all the normal wackiness, Meg uncertainly takes on a toddler for what she believes to be a few hours, when an old friend shows up at her door needing a baby-sitter for a little while... and doesn’t return. When her friend’s ex-husband turns up dead, the hunt is on, mostly with the little one in tow, to find her friend.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year, Happy Reading and Happy Writing in 2010!

Here I sit in the wonderful north, enjoying the quiet of snow, the mountain out my window, the fire in the woodheater (no need for other heat)... the sun was "shining on the new-fallen (and old) snow" and I thought about how lucky I was to live here.

Please feel free to comment or discuss my reviews.

Little Tiny Teeth by Aaron Elkins

Owned by me, read Feb. 8, 2009

A little different from some of the other Gideon Oliver aka Skeleton Detective series by Aaron Elkins, it was still fun and educational as well. Julie, Gideon's wife & her friend Marti Lau, wife of Gideon's good friend John Lau, have decided to vacation at a spa in Cabo San Lucas, and she tells Gideon he and John should take a vacation together somewhere too. A phone call to another friend who arranges vacations "On The Cheap" soon sets them up for a trip to the Amazon.

The book opens with a scene from the past involving headhunters and three unlucky botanists who inadvertently take a shortcut through the tribe's coca fields. The story then brings the reader into the present with the only survivor of this fiasco. Now a professor, department head and author, he is about to return to the Amazon with other ethnobotanists, an entomologist, and his co-author.

Naturally all this ties in as all the players arrive in Isquito to begin their cruise along the Amazon. Their "cruise" boat turns out to be over 100 years old and rickety, with few amenities. There are interesting characters, strange happenings, and of course the requisite bone fragments. There are also surprises in store for the reader. I am a great fan of Aaron Elkins' series and enjoyed this light read, as always.

Invisible Armies by Jon Evans

Originally posted on My Space, Aug. 1, 2007
Reviewed for Harper Collins My Space

This is the first Jon Evans novel I have read. What an adventure in reading! This book is positively vibrating with intensity and action. If you want a book that you will not want to put down, this is the book for you. The action is constant with occasional breaks where you can catch your breath before again boarding that rollercoaster ride through the pages. I found that with all the switchbacks and turnabouts I was holding my breath. This book spun me around and topsy-turvy with every change in direction. At first I found the narrative bits a bit unsettling, somewhat like watching a TV program with voice-over narration for the blind, but I soon overcame that feeling with the dialogue and action.

The story begins with a somewhat typical girl, Danielle, doing a favour for a friend. She is soon literally fighting for her life and for humanity. Nobody is who they seem, nobody wants to trust anyone else. This book will amaze you in how far the world has actually come in technology, but don’t concern yourself with whether you will understand technobabble; it will usually be explained. I guess you could say technology is one of the heroes. Jon Evans has built a brilliant story which includes the best and worst in people, greed, awareness, and the survival instinct in all of us. It takes us to different countries and in dark places and communities which seem worlds away. I highly recommend this book, it is outstanding in its genre. If it weren’t for the few calm spots in the book, I would have had to read it cover-to-cover in one sitting. In fact, I finished it at 3:00 in the morning. You will not be unaffected. 5 stars

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: a Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale

Read Dec. 30, 2009

The author obviously has done in-depth research into not only the case itself, but into the mores, lifestyles, and beliefs of the time, even to the use of urine to clean wool in the mills.

Many terms in use in the mid-1800s are explained in current times as they are used, including those names given criminals and detectives. Charles Dickens' Bleak House featured the first detective in a novel, the story somewhat based on Whicher. Wilkie Collins also based some writings on this case.

There's a very interesting section on how Whicher became an undercover detective and how these investigators worked behind the scenes and were more or less undercover and invisible. This book is a very in-depth epistle, Kate Summerscale has made it easy to understand from a wording point of view, if not from the point of view of civilization. And who indeed could understand such an inhuman act although we do get a good look at the possibilities. A work of the time of women knowing their place, rich men taking advantage of their station in life, and where children were not the responsibility of a parent but of a stranger: governess, nursemaid, or other servant of the house.

This lurid crime becomes a scene of controversy on a large scale, and as such is made even more so by the press of the time. Nothing was sacred when it came to reporting, and everything is poked and prodded that would be expected of tabloid reporting today. There were no restrictions on the press, therefore speculation runs high and loud in the streets.

Summerscale takes us through Whicher's mind and method as he conducts many discussions, and his interpretation of the disappearance of a nightdress that may or may not have anything to do with the matter, it is simply a fact that it disappeared from the laundry, suspicious in nature for the fact that had it gone to the laundry as supposed, it may have had signs of blood on it, or it may have been innocent. Perhaps this was the original "red herring".

The culmination is that Whicher himself comes under fire and is made a laughing stock, bringing him down in the end. His theories are based on observations and appear to him and to the reader as correct but the country is too riled up to believe him.

This case became a turning point in the murder mystery genre and several fictional detective books were written in a manner closely related to Whicher and to this crime in particular. Once a suspect has been arrested and charged, the book turns to "what if?" It follows the continuing untangling of the skein of wool, leaving us wondering if the wool was pulled over our eyes. The case ruined many people, including the very detective who worked in such a clear manner but disturbed the balance of the classes. This is an interesting case and the author has handled the delivery well. There are many endnotes, references cited, and clarifications of text. I give this book 4 ½ stars on its content and handling of a difficult subject and will gladly read another book by Kate Summerscale.