Friday, February 25, 2011

Bones in the Belfry: A Batty British Book

Bones in the Belfry by Suzette Hill (F HIL Main)

(Please forgive the heading. I couldn't resist the alliteration.)

Reviewed by Jeanne

Do you watch the Britcoms on PBS? You know, the shows like “Keeping Up Appearances” or “Are You Being Served,” in which people end up in increasingly ridiculous situations all while trying to keep their dignity intact. If you like that sort, then do I have the book for you!

It’s the late 1950s and the Reverend Francis Oughterard is very happy in his work as vicar of a small village. He does a lovely funeral, for instance, and doesn’t mind the sermons or weddings. Baptisms are a bit of bother, mainly because the infants are often squirmy and occasionally go headfirst into the font, which is disconcerting and upsets some people. Other than that, and handling the tantrums of the organist and smoothing things over with some of the parishioners who squabble about who’s in charge of what, he finds he has a lovely existence, treating himself to some fine wines and enjoying the company of his dog and cat. Well, there was that business when he strangled Mrs. Elizabeth Fotherington but she really had it coming to her. Honestly, he didn’t really mean to do it and he certainly won’t do it again.

The trouble starts when his friend Nicholas brings by some paintings that he wants put in a safe place, paintings that Francis is sure are stolen. Normally, he would have refused but Nicholas provided him with an alibi, no questions asked, in that little matter of Mrs. Fotherington. While Nicholas hasn’t actually said anything, the vicar has the distinct impression that if he refused to stash the paintings Nicholas might recant.

The plot thickens when Maud Tubbly Pole turns up. She’s a crime novelist who thinks the strange unsolved murder of Mrs. Fotherinton would be a perfectly thrilling premise for her next mystery. What’s more, she thinks the vicar is just the person to help her research the story.

The story is narrated from three points of view in three distinct voices. The first is Francis himself, a fussy somewhat nervous man who just wants to sip his wines and perform his duties in peace. The second is Bouncer the dog, whose former owner was a banker who absconded with a suitcase full of cash. Bouncer is an energetic soul, obsessed with his bones—the chewing kind—and rambling around with his canine buddies. Maurice the cat is the third narrator, former pet of Mrs. Fotherington and who seconds the vicar’s vote of “good riddance.” Bouncer finds Maurice to be smug and superior, Maurice thinks Bouncer is scatterbrained and none too bright even if he has learned bits of Latin from his jaunts in the graveyard, and they both know that Francis is their bumbling meal ticket. They are well aware of the vicar’s little misadventure, and (unbeknownst to Francis) actually helped cover up the crime. After all, as Maurice points out, if Francis goes to the gaol, they’ll be out on the street again. All three are quite self-centered and determined to maintain their own status quo.

I found this to be a rollicking tale. I could almost picture some of the scenes in my head and would have sworn I heard Hyacinth Bucket’s voice: it’s that type of book. This is actually the second in the series. I’ve requested an interlibrary loan of the first book, but I didn’t have any trouble following the plot at all.

Update: I borrowed and read the first book in the series, A Load of Old Bones. It was good, but not as good as the second book. I don’t know if that was because I already knew much of what was going to happen from hints in the first book or if it was because it took awhile to introduce the characters and situation. A colleague tried to read it and gave up. I think this may be one of those cases when the author sort of hit her stride in the second book. I’ll know more after I read the third in the series, Bone Idle.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

2000-2009: What a Difference a Decade Makes!

Reviewed by Nancy

As a youngster, back in the eighteen hundreds, uh, no, I'm sorry it was the early nineteen hundreds. Oh, no, I guess it was the mid twentieth century. Well, whatever. Anyway, a LONG TIME AGO when I was young and in school, anytime I was issued a new textbook the first thing I did was flip through the book and look at the pictures. Text only became important to me later in life. When I was young, I was all about the photographs.

I suppose that's why I so enjoyed looking at 2000 - 2009 The Decade That Changed The World by the editors of Life Books. (909.831 TWO Main)

Turning the pages of this book you can remember George Bush in his flight suit, Saddam Hussein in his hole in the ground, Tina Fey pretending to be Sarah Palin while playing the flute, the Boston Red Sox, Lance Armstrong, the flood of Hurricane Katrina, Michael Phelps, and on and on and on.

The book progresses through the decade year by year with a text summary of each year at the beginning of the section.

The 2001 section features only photographs of the inauguration of George Bush, the World Trade Center disaster, and the war in Afghanistan. For other highlights of that year, one must read the text.

If, after this, you feel the need to dwell on more lighthearted images, flip to one of the two "of the moment" sections and entertain yourself with a sassy picture of Amy Winehouse or an elegant photo of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

2000 - 2009 The Decade That Changed The World closes with a "farewell" section that presents photos of some of the national figures that exited this earthly plane during the decade.

Throughout the book I found myself thinking over and over again, "Oh, yeah, I forgot about that." If you'd like to review the things you remember, or check to see what you've forgotten, have a look at this book. It's fun!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bearers of the Black Staff: Legends of Shannara

Reviewed by Susan Wolfe

Elves. Magic. Adventures that rival Tolkien's Hobbit.

Terry Brooks has long been known for his science fiction and fantasy. He worked with George Lucas to write Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace.

Like Tolkien and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, he has created a whole, fully-developed world, bringing together elves, Druids, trolls and men to battle demons. The Shannara series occur years after the "Great Wars" of men, wherein which civilization is pretty much wiped out. A handful of survivors were led to a valley in the mountains. From there, the world is slowly recreated. The Shannara trilogies cover later generations of a family that reluctantly is called to fight magic that has been twisted. The stories are wonderful. This book backs up in time to the beginning of the story, when their peaceful valley is breached by demons.

For 500 years, one man is chosen by his predecessor to be the Bearer of the Black Staff. Not used in centuries, the staff is said to contain magic. Syder is the current Bearer. He discovers a rift in the magic that has both protected and hidden their peaceful valley. Worse than that, he finds that the whole protective barrier is failing. Already some monsters have entered. He saves a couple of young trackers, Pan and Prue, from a savage death. They rush to warn the valley peoples, but few believe it is happening.

These characters are fully developed. Syder's background and a lost opportunity at love are touching. How he is unwillingly selected to be the Bearer is tantalizingly hinted at and finally explained at the very end. The humans Prue and Pan, are nicely portrayed, pragmatic yet youthfully inexperienced. An elfin princess, Phyrne, is eager be part of the adventure, yet drawn to the human Pan which is a major taboo in their world. The valley settlements are fully drawn out societies: bickering leaders, a king blinded by love, intrigue and murder.
Then there is a threat from without: a Troll army wants the valley for themselves.

As a long-term follower of the Shannara books, this is a story that I've been awaiting. The background is a foundation for all the other series. It's the beginning thread that leads to the other stories. For someone new to Shannara, it is an interesting book that ends on a cliffhanger. It might just hook you into wanting more, like it did me all those many years ago.

One thing for sure, Terry Brooks has a master's touch.

Bearers of the Black Staff
is available at both Main & Avoca under F BRO. Main also owns a copy of the audio book (CD F BRO).

Thursday, February 10, 2011

In the Still of the Night: Rule Rules!

In the Still of the Night by Ann Rule (364.1523 RUL Main)

Reviewed by Sue Wolfe

When Ann Rule speaks, people listen. She’s a dynamic true crime writer. She often takes on subjects that make you cringe, like Ted Bundy. She thoroughly researches the material.

Barb Thompson is a strong independent woman. Nine days before Christmas in 1998, Ronda, her only daughter, had arranged to visit her mother in Seattle. Ronda never made that visit. Instead, she died that morning with a gunshot wound to the head.

Ronda Reynolds had been a Washington State Trooper. She had divorced another trooper and made enemies with the public and within the department. She had then remarried a respected high school principal, but the marriage was in trouble. The coroner declared it a suicide. So did the local police and her estranged husband. But . . .

There were several inconsistencies and poor detective work in the case. The husband claimed to have slept through the shooting, only 15 feet away. Her stepchildren were removed from the scene before being questioned, including a teenage stepson who hated Ronda. His friends reported that the stepson was heavily into drugs, and had been peeping at Rhonda while she showered. Ronda’s husband's ex-wife may have been involved too.

This story is a tragedy. It is also a story of a loving and devoted mother who wanted justice for her daughter. Frustrated and angry with an investigation so obviously botched and incompetent, Barb Thompson never accepted the ruling of suicide. The coroner who ruled it a suicide on the day of the death became the center of the later civil suit.

The case became well known in the region. It began and finished the careers of elected officials. It was a locally famous case that was in Ann Rule's backyard. It is obvious that Ann Rule admires Barb Thompson. In fact, this is the only book by Ann Rule that I've read in which she allows her feelings to leak through. This may turn off some readers, but this still evolving story deserves to be told. I don't think anyone else could have done it better.

The case was declared a murder in November, 2009. The case is still unresolved, but Ann Rule sheds light on the mystery surrounding it. Some people will have egg on their face. Others should be expecting a knock on the door from the FBI with a search warrant.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Victorian Shades: The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (F HIL Main)

Reviewed by Jeanne

Young solicitor Arthur Kipps is sent by his firm to a rather secluded English village in order to tie up the affairs of the late Mrs. Alice Drablow, a recently deceased elderly client. The villagers don’t seem inclined to discuss Mrs. Drablow, or anything else for that matter, though they do make Arthur welcome. At the funeral service, Arthur catches a glimpse of a woman in black lurking around the churchyard, but his inquiries are brushed aside. Resolutely, he prepares to go to Eel Marsh House, Mrs. Drablow’s residence, which is in a marshy area accessible only at certain times due to the tides. Once there, he will be cut off from the outside world until such a time as the pony cart can cross the causeway to fetch him.

He’s going to wish he had taken a tide chart with him.

The subtitle of the book is “A Ghost Story” and that’s exactly what this is, in the best sense of the phrase. The old fashioned setting, the formal narration, even the nature of the story itself harkens back to those wonderful early ghost tales where the chills and thrills came from the mind and not blood spatter. Hill has perfectly captured the flavor of these Victorian tales but without the sometimes purple prose. It’s beautifully written; Arthur, the narrator, is looking back at an event which shaped his life and he tells his tale without hyperbole or exaggeration. It has the ring of authenticity.

The book is just so wonderfully atmospheric. I could practically smell the sea air and shivered a bit in the dampness. While there were definitely warning signs, the book wasn’t over laden with signs and portents. The villagers may not have been over communicative, but there was nary a pitchfork nor cackling crone in sight. Arthur enjoys a hearty meal at the inn, a warm fire and a comfortable bed. The skies are blue and largely clear but cold. No air of menace hangs overhead.

The haunted aspects come later.

The ending is abrupt and I was taken aback at first, but it is the perfect ending. He has told his tale; there’s no analyzing or rationalization that this might have been just his imagination. This is what happened and, like the villagers, he has no wish to discuss it further.

My impetus for reading this book came originally from a mention on DorothyL, the listserv for mystery lovers. At the time I wasn’t really in the mood for either a ghost story or a period piece, so I put it aside for another time. I was reminded of the book when I saw that Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe had chosen it for his next role. I was a bit curious as to why, so I tried the book again. This time I had no trouble starting the book at all and certainly see why it’s a plum part. I puzzled a bit over how some of it will be handled, but discovered there has been a stage version running in London’s West End for a couple of years now. I’ll still be interested to see how they rework the book for the screen, but I don’t think it can possibly measure up to the scenes Hill evokes in her novel.