Friday, March 25, 2011

Deliciously Funny: Wicked Appetite

Wicked Appetite by Janet Evanovich

Reviewed by Doris

I used to love Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books. The first seven or so make me laugh out loud. Stephanie’s adventures as a “bail enforcement agent” were funny, the characters appealing, and the back and forth she does between Joe and Ranger made for good reading. Then, it became rather stale and repetitive. Now Evanovich has a new series featuring Diesel, a new heroine named Lizzy Tucker, a monkey named Carl who has appeared in other Evanovich books, and a ninja cat. Throw in a couple of secondary characters who are definitely off-beat, a setting that includes Salem where they had the witch trials, and the giggles are back. There’s even a belly laugh or two!

Evanovich has had a couple of other books featuring Diesel. He is a supernatural “unmentionable” with a number of talents. He works for the Board of Unmentionable Marshalls--aka BUM-- and his current assignment is to retrieve some ancient stones that represent the Seven Sins. The relics when all brought to together will give the person possessing them world-changing powers. Just to refresh your memory the seven sins are gluttony, envy, anger, lust, greed, sloth, and pride. The first set of stones deal with gluttony which leads to some rather humorous and cunning scenarios. The lust stone also adds a little spice to the menu.

Lizzy creates scrumptious cupcakes. Suddenly Diesel turns up in her house needing her help. Diesel must retrieve the stones or chaos will ensue. Also after the stones is Diesel’s cousin Wulf-- dark, tall, and smelling of just a hint of sulphur--and he is unafraid to use deadly force. Thus begins one of Evanovich’s classic romps with improbable happenings, a bit of magic, trashed cars, silly sidekicks, a touch of sex, and a bunch of laughs. Lizzy is very appealing and Diesel and Wulf add the right blend sexy. Then there’s Carl the monkey who has a way with gestures, Lizzy’s ninja cat who saves the day, and various characters who are just funny. This book is a perfect read for a rainy afternoon or a lazy day when you just want to be amused and relax. Great literature it is not, but it is great fun.

Wicked Appetite is available at both Main and Avoca at F EVA. Main also has an audio version, CD F EVA.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Pru Marlowe, Pet Psychic

Dogs Don’t Lie by Clea Simon

Reviewed by Jeanne

Pru Marlow doesn’t smile when she hears someone say, “Oh, I wish I knew what my dog was thinking!” because Pru probably does know: she has a psychic connection that allows her to hear/see what some animals are thinking.

That’s how she knows Lily the pit bull didn’t kill her master.

Unfortunately, the cops don’t have Pru’s inside information. When they arrive at the scene to find a man with his throat torn out and a dog covered in blood, they reach an instant conclusion. Pru has been working with Lily and knows about the dog’s horrific stint with a dog fighting ring, but she also knows that Lily is a gentle, wounded soul who adored Charles, her rescuer. The trouble is that Pru’s evidence isn’t admissible in court and just might get her sent to a mental institution. Complicating matters is the fact that as a dog trainer, Pru herself might be a suspect. Could the police believe that she trained Lily to attack her owner?

I will confess up front that I’ve been intrigued by stories of animal communicators, those folks who claim they can talk to pets and receive thoughts back. I would like to believe but then again, I’d like to believe I can win the lottery, too. Simon takes this idea (communication, not my winning the lottery) and makes it plausible. Pru does have conversations with Wallis, a tabby as imperious as the Duchess of Windsor, but for the most part her communications are vague, words or images gleaned from minds that work on somewhat different planes than ours. One of the most fascinating parts for me is the view that Pru gets from the animals about themselves, a view that is often quite different from that their human holds. Bitsy, for example, is a little fluff-ball of a Bichon, but he thinks of himself as Growler.

However, most of the book feels “real,” not at all supernatural. Pru is afraid that her talent will be found out and she’ll be considered insane. Actually, when her talent first revealed itself, it was so frightening that she committed herself to a mental hospital for a few days. Once she got out, she then fled the city without finishing her degree—a stumbling block that makes it difficult for her to find a job. Instead, she’s stuck trying to make ends meet with a series of odd jobs, from dog walking to helping a vet to training. The animals do give Pru some clues—in fact, all the clues she needs—but it’s the interpretation problem than keeps Pru and the reader from seeing the answer until the end.

One thing I also really liked about this book is that it really is a mystery. Some of the paranormal books spend more time on the “out-there” trappings and short change the mystery section. That’s not necessarily a bad thing at times, but I sometimes feel a little cheated. Growing up on some of the classic mysteries, I developed that feeling that the author should play fair with the reader, give her or him enough information to figure it out independently of being told. I like a book that after I read whodunit, I can instantly remember some of the clues that should have led me to that conclusion.

Secondly, and most importantly for me, I liked the characters. The animals tend to be more developed than the humans, though in part that’s due to Pru’s tendency to hold people at arm’s length, afraid of accidentally revealing her talent. One of my favorite characters is Frank, a ferret obsessed with all that is shiny. I also felt for Floyd, a big black Persian who is pining for his person.

Finally, I enjoyed the respect for animals. I have to admit that one of my pet peeves (no pun intended) is when a book introduces an animal character just to have it killed off. Part of that respect is to permit the non-human characters to be individuals, to be snarky or sullen or sweet. Several scenes took place in an animal shelter, which can be unpleasant. It’s an easy place to portray as heartless, but the people I know who volunteer at local shelters are devoted, compassionate people who try to do the best they can under difficult conditions. Simon hit exactly the right notes for me.

I’ve read and enjoyed Clea Simon’s mysteries before, but I think this one might be the book to introduce her to a wider audience. I’ll be looking forward to Pru’s next adventure!

I read this book as an Advanced Reader's Copy. The book is on order for the library but you can still put it on reserve.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Walking in Circles Before Lying Down

Reviewed by Nancy
You might guess from the title that Walking In Circles Before Lying Down by Merril Markoe  (F MAR Main) has something to do with dogs. You'd guess right.

I believe this book would be of interest to dog lovers and non-dog lovers alike as it is a very entertaining story. As the narrative unfolds we are offered insights regarding how dogs might view us, and we are pretty much riveted by the trials and tribulations of Dawn, the primary character.

Dawn is trying to pull her life together after two failed marriages and a string of nowhere jobs. Every time she gets close some person or circumstance yanks the rug out from under her. Her support group consists of her sister, a babbling idiot making a living issuing new-age platitudes as a life coach, her mother, who seemed to me to be a manic-depressive alcoholic, although it's never stated outright in the book, her boyfriend, who could only be described as a self-centered jerk, and her dog, Chuck. Guess who the nicest individual in the support group is?

There is a love story of sorts. Not the kind where the subjects end up in a house with a white picket fence happily ever after. It’s more the kind where our beloved main character finally sees the light and dumps the jerk. Whether or not beloved main character ever takes up with the nice guy in the plot is left to our imagination.

There is also an exciting segment of the book in which Dawn allows her dog, Chuck, to pick a potential boyfriend for her. Chuck has assured her that he can tell the good from the bad when it comes to people. So, does Chuck choose well, or is his judgment blurred by the fact that the potential candidate is a butcher?  You'll have to read the book to find out.

One thing's for sure, having read this, I regard my dogs differently. I think a little more about what I say to them, the promises I make to them: "We'll play in a little while, just let me finish this." In my mind now I hear the responses they might make to those promises: "Yeah, that's what you said last time." Etc.

So, read the book and gain insights about dogs. Also, read the book and be very entertained. Also, also, read the book and perhaps be reassured that compared to Dawn's life, your life is calm, orderly and tidy even though it might not seem so to you at times.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Attenbury Emeralds: The Wimseys Return

The Attenbury emeralds:  The new Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mystery by Jill Paton Walsh (F PAT Main)

Reviewed by Jeanne

As I’ve mentioned before, I enjoy many of the classic detectives:  Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Perry Mason, Ellery Queen and, of course, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books. I became attached to the characters and hated to see the series end.  This isn’t to say that I’ve always welcomed other authors coming in to continue the series:  often I find their efforts lack that certain spark which drew me to the original, so I approach these continuations with a bit of trepidation.

I was familiar with Jill Paton-Walsh from her children’s novels, all of which were very well done.  Still, I resisted reading Thrones, Dominations and Presumption of Death, both of which were completed from some material left by Sayers.  Reviews were generally positive, so when this new book came out I resolved to give it a try.

Set after World War II, the Wimseys are changing with the times.  While the warm and loving relationship between Peter and Harriet remains the same, there’s a bit more informality creeping into their lives.  Bunter is still the perfect butler, but he’s also the perfect friend.  His son Peter has grown up with the Wimsey boys and is treated as part of the family.  As the book opens, Lord Peter is regaling Harriet with the story of the first mystery he solved: that of the Attenbury Emeralds.  Actually, it turns out to be three mysteries:  two in the past, then one in the present.

For me, Paton-Walsh does a wonderful job of capturing the relationship between the characters.  She also manages to give a good sense of a time and place—actually, more than one, as her post WWI setting rings as true as does her post-WWII.  She does a wonderful job of putting things into context for those readers who may be unfamiliar with the original series, while gently and unobtrusively explaining some attitudes that may not be particularly palatable to us now.

However, the part of the book that impressed me the most was when Paton-Walsh introduced some life-altering events to the Wimseys’ lives, a daring thing to do with iconic characters.  Yet it didn’t feel gratuitous—an author determined to put her stamp on a character-- but natural, believable, and a reflection of some of the changes British society was undergoing at the time.
I found this to be a good, solid British mystery in all the best senses of the term.  The characters are clear- eyed and progressive; they see an era passing but are ready to face change, both good and ill.  There are pots of tea, affectionate exchanges, and some witty banter, but these are characters with steel inside. 

I’ll be reading the other Lord Peter Wimsey books by Paton Walsh.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Judging a Book by Its Cover; or, Cover Conundrum

Ramblings by Jeanne

I’ve always been fascinated by book covers. So much planning goes into them: designing the images, the type-face, and the colors. The results can be quite mixed. There are books which accurately reflect content, yet others in which one has to wonder if the artist had any clue as to the contents of the book. Some seem to be rather generic covers, as if the artist has been told “this is a Southern murder book” and so produces a picture of a big ol’ plate of fried chicken or a big ol’ watermelon with a big ol’ dangerous looking knife, setting both on a homey looking checkered tablecloth. Never mind that neither knives nor fried chicken play a noticeable role in the book: it’s just a sort of visual shorthand to say “Hey! Reader! Southern mystery here!” A cozy mystery will have a cat and some other comforting accouterment: a quilt or a china tea cup or flowers and then something vaguely menacing, such as a bottle with a skull on it.

Romance books? I don’t need to describe those! Handsome man, handsome women, either in an embrace (it’s going to be passionate!) or studying each other warily (they hate each other on sight, so naturally they’ll fall in love.)

Other books have covers that reveal little about the contents but intrigue the viewer: what could this book be about?

In many cases, the authors do NOT have any input into what the cover looks like. I often wonder exactly how some choices are made. Obviously, someone believes that this cover will “sell” the book to a specific audience. Recently, I’ve noticed an interesting instance of this with Catalyst: A Tale of the Barque Cats by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. The story is set in the future, when cats are used to protect spaceships from vermin and serve as valued members of the crew.

This is the first cover for hardback edition of Catalyst.

However, apparently the publisher decided to go with a different designer, so the cover for the sequel, Catacombs, had a very different look as you can see.

The cover of the paperback version of the first book now resembles the second.

What do you think?  Which cover do you like best and why?  I'll explain my choice in the comments section.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Barque Cats Return!

Catacombs: A Tale of the Barque Cats
by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough (F MCC Main)

Reviewed by Jeanne

In the future, spacecraft have cats on board who keep down vermin such as mice who chew on cargo and components that could endanger the ship and its passengers. These highly trained cats also alert the crew of potential hazards such as air leaks. The cats are so valuable that they usually have their own person assigned to keep them well cared for and healthy.

Or that’s the way it used to be, before a panic caused the humans to try to eradicate animals. A whole group of the Barque Cats and some of their humans followed the alien cat Pshaw-Ra to his home planet, a paradise for cats.

As Catacombs opens, Barque Cat Chester and his boy Jubal are beginning to wonder a bit as to whether they jumped out of the proverbial frying pan into the fire. For one thing, this planet is very hot and rather uncomfortable for long haired cats and their humans. For another, their welcome has been a bit. . . reserved. It seems Pshaw-Ra may have misrepresented things just a bit. It soon becomes obvious that there’s something sinister going on and the Barque cats may be just pawns in the struggle for power among the royal cats.

Oh, and Pshaw-Ra has plans to take over the universe for cat kind.

I enjoyed this second book more than the first, in part because the setting is so vivid. The authors did an excellent job of evoking the hot, sandy, arid world—not an easy thing to do when I was surrounded by winter when I read it! The Egyptian imagery and mythology were a plus for me. The scenes in the catacombs were particularly effective. Parts of it reminded me of McCaffrey’s Dragonriders; I won’t say more. Humans and cats work more as a team in this book, with better developed personalities on both sides, and the action scenes are well done. One thing I noticed in the first book was that one character who was supposed to be in her twenties sounded younger than that; in this book, there are no such problems. Both McCaffrey and Scarborough are seasoned writers, though usually they write for adults; I felt there might have been a little bit of adjusting going on in Catalyst which has smoothed out in Catacombs.

This is one of those books that adults or teens would enjoy, and you needn’t have read Catalyst first. Cat lovers will especially enjoy the books, but even if you aren't a feline fan there's plenty to like here. Unfortunately, this appears to be the last book. I for one will miss Chessie, Doc, Pshaw Ra and Chester. I hope many will be inspired to make their acquaintance.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Murder in Tudor England: Heartstone

Heartstone: a Matthew Shardlake Tudor Mystery by C.J. Sansom

Reviewed by Susan Wolfe

With two compelling mysteries wrapped up into one book, this page turner is set during the twilight of the reign of Henry VIII. The plot flows smoothly yet there are plenty of twists that you won’t see coming.

Shardlake is the Columbo of Tudor England. He is a lawyer and does his own detective work. He’s a hunchback who handles himself with wit and intelligence. He has managed to antagonize or offend many members of Henry’s court, though he is a favorite of Queen Katherine Parr, the last of Henry VIII’s wives.

On behalf of one of her servants, he is hired to investigate a claim that a noble orphan is being cheated of his property. This takes him to the Court of Wards, known as the most corrupt of the various courts. Shardlake has another case - one that he's been involved with for a while, that of a woman who might (or might not) be wrongly imprisoned in London's Bedlam mental hospital.

Shardlake's involvement in the case of the ward and inheritance takes him to visit the young man in an area near to coast. Coincidentally, the woman in Bedlam is also from that area and Shardlake takes the opportunity to look into her background. The king has declared war on France, ant this area is the projected landing site of the French fleet. Shardlake and his assistant Barack are setting forth on their journey, along with the opposing lawyer and his clerk, to this potential battle area.

The protagonist, Shardlake, has his faults as well as virtues. The other characters are multi-dimensional and well fleshed out. Set when the country is gearing up for war, the historical details are fantastic. The early “draft” and military organization is interesting. The sinking of the “Mary Rose,” the English fleet’s pride, is realistic and emotional. The author has certainly done his research. However, the historical background doesn’t overpower the story: it just makes it more credible.

This book is part of a series, one that I have just recently discovered. The story is richly developed and a pleasure to read. Look for it at Main under F SAN.