Monday, September 1, 2014

Stages of Grey by Clea Simon

Elmer is not happy at having his reading disturbed by a photographer.

 Reviewed by Jeanne

Graduate student Dulcie Schwartz is preoccupied as usual.  She’s still trying to solve the mystery of the identity of the anonymous author of The Ravages of Umbra, work on her thesis, teach her sections, and find out if her boyfriend Chris is a werewolf.  Her mentor, the ghost of her beloved cat Mr. Grey, has remained silent on the subject, though he does offer occasional life advice. It’s also a blustery winter in Boston (is there any other kind?) and the ice and snow make travel difficult, but it’s certainly a great atmosphere to be studying a gothic novel.  

Maybe a bit too perfect, as Dulcie is taken in by a bit of theatrics that has her believing she’s seen a man being dragged away by wolves. It’s a promotion for a new production of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” which features some rather unconventional staging—think Roman deities and a disco beat. Under the circumstances, Dulcie isn’t inclined to go see the play, not even with free tickets but her friends finally convince her to go. In addition to strobe lights, the production includes a gorgeous Russian Blue cat who walks a tightrope as well as a bit of unexpected sleight of hand when Chris discovers his wallet is missing and ends up as part of the performance. It turns out to be a lot more fun than any of them had expected—until one of the performers is found dead, her throat slashed.

Dulcie being Dulcie, she soon finds herself involved in the investigation and discovers that nothing is what it seems.

This is a fun entry in the series and, because the focus is on the mystery at hand, it’s particularly accessible one for newcomers.  Longtime fans won’t be disappointed either, as some progress is made on continuing storylines.  Dulcie likes to think that she’s very practical and realistic, unlike her mother who still lives in a commune and calls her daughter with vague warnings from the spirit world, but she has her share of imagination and a tender heart for those in trouble, especially those of the feline persuasion.  Like Don Quixote, she wants to save the world but tends to run into a lot of windmills. (I don't think it's coincidence that her real name is Dulcinea.) She gets some guidance from Mr. Grey and kitten Esme (when her little feline nose isn’t out of joint) and is ably supported by Chris and her other friends. The academic setting brings back fond memories, especially to those of us who belong to Garrison Keillor’s POEM (Professional Organization of English Majors). As usual, Simon strikes a nice balance between the supernatural (talking ghost cats) and the realistic, always taking care to see that the solutions are dependent on real world clues and not messages from beyond.  I of course am always interested in the scenes with the cats, and Gus the Russian Blue makes a nice addition.  

I always enjoy Simon’s work and Stages of Grey is no exception.  As with many of Simon’s heroines, Dulcie struggles to overcome the past and a fear of abandonment while moving ahead with her life.  At times, she also has a charming naivety and behaves impulsively—much like the heroines of the gothic literature she studies. Another thing I enjoy is the way the books effortlessly juxtapose the past (18th century literature, with samples of the overwrought style appearing at times) with the present (computers and electronics usually play a role in the plot somewhere). The mysteries are well done, appropriate clues presented, and there’s a sense of fun in the books.  Finally, these are all books I can recommend to those folks who don’t like a lot of explicitness in their stories, be it excessive gore, sex or language, but these aren’t fluffy, sugary tales either. 

 In short these are entertaining mysteries with solid plots and characters which are fun without being silly.  If you like to read in order, start with Shades of Grey and don’t put a “50” in front of it or you’ll get something else entirely.

Full disclosure:  I was sent a review copy of this book but that did not influence my review except in timing:  the book won't be generally available until October.

"MY book! Go away!"

Friday, August 29, 2014

Everybody's a Critic: Found Reviews of Books, Part 2

Compiled by Kristin

As noted a few months ago, sometimes our lovely patrons leave little notes written inside the covers of books, telling what they liked, loved, or hated.  Most of our quick-reviewers have strong opinions, and often they clash with other readers.  Check here if you missed our earlier compilation.  So if you'd like a few quick opinions on a wide variety of books, read on!

 “I love Nora Roberts.  Her books are hot!”  --Loving Jack by Nora Roberts

“Good if you like a lot of shooting!” –Fool’s Coach by Richard S. Wheeler

“Yes—very good.”
“One of the Best!!”
“I agree”
“You all must be crazy!  What a dysfunctional family.  Her books are so depressing!!”
“Good, but her opinion of Christian religion was a disappointment.”

     --Colony by Anne Rivers Siddons

 “Fairly good—but another stupid hero.” –The Holdout in the Diablos by Louis Trimble

Then there was the long-ago librarian who pasted blank paper in the front of novels so that readers might share their opinions.  Perhaps our current day patrons are simply continuing the tradition.

“Dear Patron:  After reading this book, please write one or two sentences giving your impressions of it.  These comments will help others decide if they want to borrow this volume.  Please keep comments short, so others may also participate.  Thank you.”

“This is a book I wouldn’t recommend to anyone.  It was boring.”
“Not as bad as all that—just slow moving.”
“Great if you like classic British mysteries.”
“This is an excellent book.”
Excellent—she spends the needed time to develop her characters well so that we can THINK through the mystery.  An excellent read!”
“This is 2014, I have just read Ann Perry’s latest book.  I have read all her books, they get better every year.  I consider her the greatest Victorian Mystery writer.”

     --Resurrection Row by Anne Perry

“Fair.  I don’t like stupid heroes.”  --Shotgun Law by Nelson Nye

“Stupid betraying girl.  Too pushy and completely doesn’t know what she wants!”  --Daring Moves by Linda Lael Miller

“Good book!”
“It stunk, NOT! Great book.”
“Excellent, excellent, excellent—too good for words.”
“Great!  Thought provoking!”
“Wonderful, funny, thought provoking!”
“As always, C.S. Lewis is a wonderful read!”
“Amazing!  Thought provoking and troublesome.”

     --The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

What do you think?  Any opinions on any of these books?  Please feel free to leave comments here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Nevermore: Math, Magic, Marijuana, Mr. Mercedes and More!

Nevermore readers this week eked a little more mileage out of How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg.  Our most recent reader commented that the book is more about how figures can be used to manipulate the facts, such as when political advisors portray statistics in a way that makes public figure actions seem more favorable.  “Figures don’t lie but liars figure” was quoted.

Next up was Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.  Set in the autumn of 1806 in Great Britain, this novel begins with academics debating whether or not magic is still alive and real.  Mr. Norrell has made it a personal goal to collect as many books about magic as possible.  The narration is in the style of Austen and flows along smoothly.  However, not all Nevermore members thought this sounded like a book they would like to read.  One member said, “The more you talk, the worse it gets!”

A couple of readers have enjoyed Caught by Lisa Moore.  Set in the 1970’s, two friends were caught smuggling marijuana.  Hern got away, but Slaney served four years in prison.  After Slaney escapes, he is determined reconnect with his friend and go back to Columbia to successfully smuggle the drugs and make a fortune.  Hern has been working on his PhD in modern English literature.  The journey for the friends to reconnect and the absurdity of Slaney’s plan makes this a very readable book.

Another reader has been enjoying The Other Rebecca by Maureen Freely.  A retelling of the classic 1938 novel Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, Freeley sets out to tell the “real” tale of the unnamed narrator.  Fast forward to the 1970’s, the young woman and the infamous “Max Midwinter” take up with each other in a wild love affair.  Max has an interfering Aunt Bea, housekeeper Danny, and two children: Hermione and William.  The sly humor and entertaining dialogue make this a promising novel.

Last, another reader mentioned that she was surprised at how much she liked Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes.  She said it was very readable and covered the whole spectrum of human emotions.

Note:  This is Kristin's last Nevermore report.  She's moving on but will be missed!  She's promised to continue to send reviews.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Death Overdue by Mary Lou Kirwin

Reviewed by Jeanne

Librarian Karen Nash has impulsively left Minnesota for London with possible love of her life Caldwell Perkins to set up a bookshop in the B & B he owns.  Things get complicated when Caldwell’s former girlfriend Sally shows up, new beau in tow, and demands her half of the B & B.  Sally doesn’t have long to make these demands, though, as she’s terminally flattened by a bookcase soon after her arrival.  Who could have unlatched the case? Karen is sure it couldn’t have been Caldwell—could it?—so that leaves limited suspect pool.  Of course, the police are including Karen in that pool as well, so she really needs to do some investigating on her own, right?  

This is a cozy mystery, the second in a series after Killer Librarian.  Karen is an appealing narrator, a youngish woman who is trying to decide whether or not to stay in England or to go back to her life in Minnesota. She loves books and Caldwell (not necessarily in that order) but this is a huge change and there are a few little niggling doubts in her head; plus she misses her friends back home, and hasn’t really made many new ones.  Brenda, Caldwell’s assistant in the B & B, certainly doesn’t like Karen and is thrilled that Sally may be back; Bruce, an avid book collector, is more interested in finding out what new collectible books Caldwell has located; and Penelope, Sally’s sister, is more intent on the long-running feud with Sally. 

This is a light, fun read with a dash of local color thrown in.  Karen tries to remember that a bookstore is a bookshop here and to how to convert meters into feet.  There are a number of book references to please bibliophiles and much tea is drunk.  In short, it’s a nice traditional mystery without car chases or serial killers.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Top Secret Twenty-One by Janet Evanovich

Reviewed by Kristin

I really didn’t want to review another Janet Evanovich book.  I might have been a little embarrassed that I keep reading them, even as I feel that they are getting even more repetitive than the dozens that have gone before.  But I placed the book on hold, took it home, read it over the course of a few days, and actually laughed at the latest Plum exploits.  Maybe I should I say that I laughed at the latest Grandma Mazur exploits, because she was at the center of my favorite crazy humor scene in the book.  Let’s just say that she has a bucket list.  And Ranger is on the list.

In Top Secret Twenty-One, Stephanie Plum is once again on the trail of an FTA (failure to appear): Jimmy Poletti, used-car dealer and dealer of more unlawful things as well.  Ranger enlists Stephanie’s help in catching a professional assassin at a Russian vodka trade show.  Whenever Ranger asks for Stephanie’s professional help, I wonder what in the world she can do that he cannot.  Then again, amidst Russian vodka salesmen, I guess that Stephanie’s feminine attributes are the one thing Ranger does not have.

Grandma Mazur and Joe’s Grandma Bella are at each other’s throats as well.  Name calling and pie throwing are fair game in this battle of the senior citizens.  Lula is riding shotgun and even dating an FTA so that Stephanie can apprehend him at the end of the evening.  Randy Briggs, unlikable short person, is back and needs Stephanie’s protection and apartment.  Even as he is an unwelcome houseguest, Stephanie manages to wrangle Randy into dog-sitting as she takes in a homeless FTA who is extremely attached to his ten unruly Chihuahuas.

The book is similar to the previous twenty in the series, but for some reason I found this one to be slightly better plotted.  Yes, cars explode, apartments are damaged and the Buick remains pristine as always.  When I start wondering about the lack of character development progression, it seems that Stephanie should have matured a little bit by now (or at least made a choice between Morelli and Ranger.)  But then again, each book may only be a month or two apart, so it’s entirely possible that the entire series encompasses only a couple of years.  After all, Rex the hamster has lived through all twenty-one books and multiple apartment bombings.  I guess I’ll hang in there and see how many more laugh out loud moments are in number Twenty-Two.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Invisible Code by Christopher Fowler

Reviewed by Jeanne

The PCU (Peculiar Crimes Unit) has always had to scramble to exist. They infuriate those in power with their unorthodox method of doing things and their even more unorthodox personnel—never mind that they get things done.  It’s the way they get things done that’s the problem. Arthur Bryant is a historian, not a policeman, with an imagination that tends to run a bit toward the occult and knowledge of London history that would put Britannica to shame. Besides, he’s not nearing retirement age, he’s tottered past it and is lurching toward eternity.  His partner John May is younger which isn’t saying much at all. The rest of the staff are a motley crew as well, mostly people who didn’t quite fit in with the regular force.  None of them seem to have much respect for authority or proper procedures, which is why the PCU always seems to be on the verge of being shut down.

Now, however, they’ve been handed a case which could make the Unit’s existence a good deal less precarious, providing they can reach a successful conclusion.  Oscar Kasavian, an old enemy of the PCU who has tried to shut them down repeatedly, has approached them with a personal problem.  His beautiful young wife has been behaving very strangely for reasons he can’t understand, claiming to be chased by demons and harassed by witches.  She’s even causing some public scenes, which could not only end Kasavian’s career but could damage international relations.

Bryant and May accept the case, with a condition:  they also want to investigate the case of a young woman who was found dead in a church. There’s no apparent cause of death, but also no reason why a healthy young woman would expire sitting in a pew. There may or may not be a connection with Sabira Kasavian, but one way or the other the PCU is going to solve these cases.

This is the second Bryant and May mystery I’ve read and I enjoyed it even more than the first, despite the fact that I’m not reading these in order as is my wont.  They’re not exactly traditional mysteries.  Actually, they’re not traditional anything, being a mixture of mystery, thriller, puzzle, historical survey, and humorous tale with a splash of the paranormal thrown in for good measure.  The protagonists aren’t action heroes but senior citizens with aches and pains, false teeth, and first hand memories of WW II. There are a lot of good one-liners, but the stories aren’t farce.  Neither are cases solved through supernatural intervention but through detective work; the reader can generally accept or deny any supernatural aspect.

My favorite parts of the books are when Bryant stops to give a bit of history of a place in London, usually going all the way back to Roman times.  His seemingly endless knowledge of various sites makes me want to visit that old church or investigate that street. These digressions are more teaser than tedious, usually leaving me to go look up the history of Bletchley Park or the Hellfire Club or an artist to fill out details. The use of folklore and archetypes in Bryant’s summations delights me and the way Fowler combines the fantastical possibilities with reality is a marvel.  I’d recommend the books on those aspects alone, but the books are also pretty darn good mysteries as well. And they make me laugh and want to read passages out loud to unsuspecting bysitters.

These books aren’t going to charm everyone but they certainly captivate me with their wit, knowledge, puzzles, and characters I relate to more and more every day.

P.S. Yes, there is a cat and the name is Crippen.  Why are you not surprised?

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Hot Zone: Ebola

Reviewed by Jeanne
Anyone listening to the news these days has heard of Ebola, the frightening virus claiming so many victims in Africa.  There was a bit of an outcry when two Americans infected with the virus were brought to the U.S. for treatment.  Some were horrified at the idea this disease was in the country.
Actually, a strain of it has been here for decades.

Back in 1995, someone suggested I read a book called The Hot Zone by Richard Preston.  It was the true story about a disease outbreak but was as compelling as any novel, I was told.  Ebola wasn’t anything I’d ever heard of before, and I wasn’t sure the book was anything I wanted to read.  

The story is spun in two parts.  The first deals with the emergence of the filoviruses, the category to which Ebola belongs.  One of the first was Marburg, named for the German port where a worker came down with a viral hemorrhagic fever. The symptoms include high fever, severe headaches, and bleeding, usually from multiple sites.  The mortality rate is high; about a quarter of the patients who contract the disease will die. That number was bad enough, but a worse one was about to emerge with the discovery of Ebola.  The symptoms are similar, but the Ebola outbreak killed about 75% of its victims.

The second part of the book concerned a lab in Reston, Virginia, which housed a number of primates including some from the Philippines who turned out to have a variant strain of the Ebola virus.  While this strain turned out not to be transmittable to humans, the story of the way the situation was handled kept me on the edge of my seat. 

My friend was right about The Hot Zone.  The book was absolutely riveting and more than a little terrifying.  It’s not just a story of petri dishes and microscopes but a very human story.  It’s also a mystery, as researchers try to figure out where Ebola and related viruses originate.  They seemingly appear out of nowhere in populations and then vanish again.  

I finished the book with enormous respect for the brave doctors and researchers who try to identify these diseases and who care for the ill.  I admit I wept a time or two, but the narrative kept me turning pages. I went on to read another book or two on the subject, but I have to say that Preston’s remains the gold standard for me in terms of information and readability. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.