Friday, December 15, 2017

Checked Out by Elaine Viets

Reviewed by Jeanne

Private investigator Helen Hawthrone has been hired to shelve books at her local library.  Actually, that’s just a cover: she’s actually searching for a small watercolor painting thought to have been in a book that was part of a donation to the library, one among hundreds and hundreds of books.  The painting is actually a John Singer Sargent original and worth up to a million dollars, which is why Helen isn’t the only one searching.  There’s also the matter of the library ghost.  . . .

Meanwhile, Helen’s investigator partner and husband, Phil, is busy posing as a gardener at a local estate.   A valuable necklace and a golf cart have gone missing, and the family is sure one of the servants is to blame.

This was my first foray into the Dead-End Job Mystery series.  A friend had recommended it, assuring me there were cats.  Cats are my fall-back, in case I don’t care for plot or characters.  In this instance, while the cats were welcome, they weren’t the only reason to enjoy the books.  Helen and Phil are an adorable couple, very much in love, but also smart and competent. They put me in mind of Nick and Nora Charles or Jennifer and Jonathan Hart: romantic banter but the partners are equal, and there’s a real mystery (or two) to solve.   There’s a selection of returning supporting characters, my favorite being Margery Flax, their landlord and friend who presides over her tenants like an eccentric aunt.

The suspects and motives were well defined, and I like the methodical and professional way that the two investigators go about their business.  That was something I didn’t realize I’d missed while reading a slew of cozies: people who have a plan, instead of characters more or less waiting around for a clue to show up.  

 The part that I enjoyed most was the background setting.  Her descriptions of how a library works ring true:  for example, the eternal debate whether to shelve series alphabetically by title or numerically, by series order.  It’s a small thing, but it tells me that Viets has done her research and gives me confidence in areas I don’t know well, such as how one would get rid of a hot golf cart.  I even looked up Sargent’s watercolor alligators and highly recommend others do the same: they are indeed lovely.

Another point in the book’s favor was the shrewdly observed social commentary.  There are the usual class distinctions, but with a Florida twist that includes the “old families” vs. residents vs. seasonal residents.  The problem of homelessness comes up as well and is considered in an even-handed manner.

This particular book even had a bonus cat, in addition to the series regulars. Paris is the library cat whose proposed ouster causes a ruckus similar to ones I’ve heard about from other libraries. (Browser the library cat was one of the more recent ones.)

I will definitely be reading more in this series.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Nevermore: Velveteen Daughter, Mute Stones, Bushmen, Our Picnics in the Sun, Little Fires Everywhere

Reported by Kristin

Nevermore read a wide variety of books this week, beginning with The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber.  The similarity of title to The Velveteen Rabbit is no coincidence: this is historical fiction based on the life of Margery Williams Bianco (who wrote The Velveteen Rabbit) and her daughter Pamela, a well-known child prodigy artist.  Pamela had great talent, but also suffered greatly from severe depressions and other mental illness all her life.  Our reader enjoyed the story of a family touched with talent but also with sadness.

Another reader had a great breakthrough—she finished a book that she had been reading off and on for about a year!  The Mute Stones Speak: The Story of Archaeology in Italy by Paul MacKendrick may have been a long read, but well worth the time.  The author writes with enthusiasm to draw in scholars and non-scholars alike.  Our reader learned much about the search for antiquities in Italy, but was perhaps most impressed by the last ten pages, when it is revealed that the crypt of the first Saint Peter’s church was found.

Moving to yet another continent, Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen by James Suzman.  While the book talks about how the bushmen of southern Africa have traditionally lived simple and happy lives, our reader was very impressed by the anthropological changes in people over time.  Because of being able to cook meat—skulls, faces and teeth changed, so then they were able to physically develop and articulate speech.  Our reader found “so many beautiful things” in this book.

Our Picnics in the Sun by Morag Joss took Nevermore to a novel set on the English moors where Howard and Deborah Morgan are eking out a living by keeping sheep and chickens, making pottery and weaving cloth.  Then Howard has a stroke, and the world changes for both of them.  Deborah opens a bed and breakfast but is surprised by two men who come to stay, opening up old secrets and tragedies.  Our reader said that she enjoyed the book, but that it was quite sad.

Finally, another reader read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.  A story about secrets and hidden undercurrents in Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, most reviews have been positive.  However, our reader found that she didn’t have the patience for the story and thought that all the characters were immature.

Monday, December 11, 2017

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

Reviewed by Christy H.

            My Best Friend’s Exorcism is about two best friends – Abby and Gretchen – and how they navigate their sophomore year of high school in 1988.  Oh, and Gretchen’s demonic possession.
I love horror, I love the 80s, so this seemed like a perfect fit.
            Gretchen and Abby have been best friends since Gretchen was the only one to show up for Abby’s 10th (and E.T. themed) birthday party. In high school, they are a part of a foursome that are constantly together but none of them have Gretchen and Abby’s tight bond. In fact, when Gretchen disappears in the woods one night, only to return naked and dirty the next morning, Abby is pretty much the only one deeply concerned. Although never being a teen girl himself, Hendrix somehow nails the all-or-nothing connection of female friendships during adolescence.  Gretchen and Abby spend almost every waking hour together or on the phone for their well-timed chats (11:06 pm every night.) Abby’s loyalty and tenacity is admirable. When Gretchen starts to act strangely, and her other friends abandon her – Abby doesn’t. When Abby gets in trouble at school, or Gretchen’s parents bar her from every seeing Gretchen again – Abby doesn’t give up.
I really enjoyed this novel. Each chapter is named after an 80s song, and the time period is woven in well. Nothing too over the top but just enough to have fun with it. Hendrix’s writing is fairly cinematic; I could see this as a movie. (When Gretchen walks into school with a drastic new look I could practically see the slow motion.) The thing that hit me the most though is that it’s actually pretty heartwarming. It all comes down to a girl’s love for her best friend, and how that love literally saves them both. I read this book often before bed, and I would have dreams of old high school friends. When I finally reached the conclusion I cried. A lot. Which I most definitely did not expect. The exorcism scene in particular has a sweet twist on a familiar trope. While there were a couple of minor things I would’ve taken out if I could, they didn’t cause negative feelings overall. This is the first book I’ve read by Hendrix, and I liked it so much that I’ll keep an eye out for his other work. Now I’m going to go text my best friend.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P.D. James

Reviewed by Jeanne

P.D. James was considered one of the modern grande dames of mystery fiction, being awarded numerous honors for her writing, including being named a Baroness.  Critics lauded her books as elevating mere mystery to Literature.  While this implied criticism of their genre annoyed mystery readers, it gave others a good excuse to dip into the adventures of Inspector Adam Dalgliesh or Cordelia Gray.

Besides her novels, she wrote non-fiction, including an excellent book Talking About Detective Fiction in which she discusses classic authors and books, and short stories. Four of the latter comprise this collection; two feature Dalgliesh.  The description says these are “uncollected stories” which is not the same as “unpublished.”  I recall reading at least one of the Dalgliesh stories before, probably in some anthology.

The title story is set at Christmas, 1940, when a young widow is invited to her estranged grandmother’s estate for the holiday.  Told in hindsight, the bleakness of wartime Britain comes through strongly in the dark, forbidding house where a select group has gathered. Of course, ere long one of the company will end up dead in a traditional country house murder setting.

“A Commonplace Murder” involves a clerk who slips back into his place of employment after hours and ends up becoming a voyeur.  This reader found echoes of both Hitchcock and Christie in this tale.

“The Boxdale Inheritance” is one of the Adam Dalgliesh stories, set early in his career.  Adam’s gentle godfather is due to inherit a considerable sum of money, but the elderly gentleman has concerns about how the wealth was acquired.

In the final story, Dalgliesh is on his way to visit his aunt only to be waylaid by a reported suicide.

James fans should take great satisfaction in these fine stories, and those unfamiliar with the author may find their appetites whetted for her novels.  All are excellently done with strong plotting, well-defined characters, and vivid settings.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Nevermore: Thirst, Blood Card, Billy Lynn, Faithful Place, Five Carat Soul, Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye

 Reported by Kristin

Nevermore kicked off with The Thirst by Jo Nesbo, heartily recommended by our reader.  In this series entry, Harry Hole is investigating more murders—this time of women who fall prey to a predator using the Tinder dating app.  Our reader praised this as an excellent book, although quite long.

Another reader was enjoying The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye by David Lagercrantz.  Continuing Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, Lagercrantz uses the same set of characters surrounding hacker Lisbeth Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist.  This volume goes back to Lisbeth’s childhood, introducing many more characters into the mix.  Our reader found this very good, but at times very complicated.

The Blood Card, by Elly Griffiths, was discussed next.  Third in the Magic Men series, this outing has 1950s Detective Inspector Edgar Evans investigating another murder, this time of a local storyteller.  From England to New York and back again, Edgar seeks out clues to try to prevent even more violence.  Our reader said she has read everything written by Griffiths and always enjoys them.

Back home in the United States, the next reader had enjoyed Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.  Billy Lynn and his Bravo squad are soldiers who have been elevated to heroes after a news station captured their engagement with Iraqi insurgents.  On leave, they are being honored at a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game, but the ostentatious display of the halftime show makes Billy Lynn terribly uncomfortable.  The stark violence of the war compared to the glitzy American pastime is certainly disconcerting.  The novel was also made into a movie in 2016.

Faithful Place by Tana French features Frank Mackey, now a Dublin Undercover squad detective who looks back into his past when Rosie Daley’s suitcase is found behind a fireplace, suggesting that perhaps something sinister happened, rather than Rosie just being a no-show, when they were teenagers planning to run away to London.  Our reader read the book straight through, enjoying the show of Irish family dynamics in a desperate world.

Finally, a very recently published book, Five-Carat Soul by James McBride was brought to the table.  A collection of short stories, the characters feel lifelike, and things happen that you don’t expect.  Our reader was quite impressed by a story that takes place in a zoo where the animals are able to thought-speak to each other.  McBride’s prose has been praised as fluid, beautiful, and artistic.