Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I Love Lucy--er, Stephanie!

Anytime I need a fun, pick-me-up, laugh-out-loud read, I can always count on Janet Evanovich. Mystery. Romance. All of her books are hilarious, but the Stephanie Plum mysteries are especially fun. Imagine Lucy Ricardo as a bounty hunter, and you pretty much have Stephanie Plum. She’s smart. Pretty. Has a pet hamster, and keeps her gun in a cookie jar.

Every June, a numbered Stephanie Plum novel is released. By numbered, I mean, they actually have numbers in the title.
One For the Money, Two For the Dough. The newest is Finger Lickin’ Fifteen. Evanovich actually has a contest on her website for fans to name the books. In “Fifteen,” Lula, her coworker and sidekick, witnesses a murder. They pair up with Stephanie’s Grandma Mazur and get involved in a barbecuing competition to catch the killer. Numerous cars explode. Sparks fly – Stephanie has two loves in her life. Tough Trenton cop, Joe Morelli, and mysterious Ranger, who is her mentor and sometimes boss. There is plenty of mystery to keep you guessing and loads of humor to keep you chuckling.

“Between the Numbers” is also a series. Usually released in December, it has the same characters plus Diesel, who has “special powers” that extend well beyond bounty hunting. In
Plum Spooky, the latest in the series, he and Stephanie go after a nerdy scientist and the mysterious Wulf. A group of monkeys. Kidnapping. Explosive farts and a brush with the Jersey Devil make this a hilarious romp.

Warning: these books are totally addictive. My husband just stares at me in amazement as I sit laughing so hard the tears roll down my face. It is fun with the numbers and between!

These books are available at both Main and Avoca in adult fiction under "Evanovich." You don't have to read them in order, but it's more fun that way. You may need to put certain titles on reserve as Evanovich (and Stephanie!) are very popular!

Reviewed by Susan Wolfe

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

He's--or She's--In The Jailhouse Now

Behind Bars, Surviving Prison by Jeffrey Ian Ross and Stephen C. Richards (365.6 ROS Main)

Reviewed by Nancy

Why read this book? Well, here's how it happened to me (reading the book, not going to jail). I was straightening the library. This book was out of place. By the time I got to the shelf where the book belongs, I had decided it looked like it might be interesting reading. This happens to me frequently, resulting in an eclectic reading mix.
This book opens with tons of statistics. Here's one to try on: One in thirty-two Americans is under the control of the criminal justice system. This figure reflects individuals who are incarcerated, on parole and on probation. Think about that the next time you’re in a crowd.
I am very happy to report that I have never been in jail, nor am I planning to go there, so my reading of this book was more in an informational vein than a preparatory one. Gee, what an eye-opener.
The authors begin at the very beginning, advising on what to expect if you are arrested. It is important to remember that even if you are an upright and law-abiding citizen, you might sometime be so unlucky as to be arrested by mistake. It happens. And if it happens, you want to know how to behave in the slammer. Not me, you say. Never happen.
But think about it. What if you were arrested due to mistaken identity? You spend one night in the tank, and you could come out a completely different person, suddenly craving illegal drugs and fighting the urge to write bad checks, just because you fell under the influence of the wrong crowd in there.
That scenario should motivate you to have a look at this book, just in case.
So, this book tells you what to expect if you are arrested: what is involved in the booking process, who to talk to (nobody), who not to talk to (almost everybody), when you will get your phone call (eventually), and what to expect from your lawyer (bills, bills, bills).
The primary nugget I garnered from this section of the book was this: KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT, especially if you are guilty. And remember, all jail phones are bugged.
The book goes on to describe the state and federal prison systems, how prisoners are transported, what to expect from prison fare, how to deal with the other inmates, how to behave with the guards, and how to stay healthy. This includes a reminder to stay away from the blood when other inmates are stabbed.
Also, the authors take you through a typical day as an inmate. You walk from place to place in groups and get counted a lot, even when you are sleeping.
For me, the scariest sentence in the book was on page 124: “In every cellblock (typically 500 prisoners) there are a couple dozen seething paranoids and violent sociopaths who've armed themselves with deadly weapons.”
What are the weapons? “An experienced convict can make a weapon out of nearly anything.” Shanks (homemade knives) can be made from toothbrushes and razor blades, broken glass and tape, or any metal that can be sharpened. Also mentioned are newspapers rolled tight and hardened with toothpaste, pillowcases filled with soda cans, and dental floss (think garrote).
The most startling bit of information related to work in prison. Convicts work at prison industries which may include making license plates, mail bags, office furniture, clothing, shoes, and electronic parts. They might work in the prison kitchen, mop floors, do maintenance work, or keep up the grounds. All of this seems to be pretty much what you might expect. Here's the surprise. Prisoners also work as telemarketers for banks, airlines, hotels, state lotteries, etc. Whut? Banks? Telemarketers? We are certainly living in a mixed up world, aren't we?
If you’re a woman things are a little different. You’re not quite as likely to be murdered in prison. Isn’t that great news?
Ross and Richards also provide information regarding educational opportunities for the incarcerated and suggested prison reading lists, including a list of well-known authors who spent time behind bars themselves.
One final bit of advice from this tome: If you become so frustrated with prison life that you decide to kill yourself, don't mess it up. If you do attempt suicide and bungle the job, you will end up either in a psychiatric unit, or solitary and the guards will be unhappy with you for making trouble.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Muse Named Musetta

People who enjoy having animals appear as characters in books fall broadly into two camps: those who like having the animal add his or her two cents’ worth and those who want the animal to behave realistically. I’ve known people to pick up a book with a nice cat on the cover and ask suspiciously, “Does the cat talk in this one?” If the answer is yes, then back the book goes onto the shelf. If the book was by Clea Simon, it’d be checked out because, as charming as Musetta is, she never oversteps her bounds and remains true to her species—which means no talking, no solving mysteries and no commentary on human foibles.

Simon’s detective is Theda Krakow, a free-lance reporter/critic for a Boston newspaper. Theda specializes in the rock music scene but often has to take on other assignments to pay the bills. She’s thirty-something when we first meet her and adjusting to some drastic changes: giving up a secure but dull job as a copy editor for a chance to do what she really loves, getting over a break-up with a long time boyfriend, and mourning the loss of her cat, James. She’s taking stock of her life and doing some second guessing. Should she have maintained the status quo? Are the professional risks in pursuit of a dream worth it or should she have opted for being sure of being able to pay the rent on time? Or is it time to simplify, uncomplicate and settle? Her friends are making their choices; but these may not be the right choices for Theda.

The first book also introduces Musetta, a tuxedo cat who becomes the one constant in Theda’s life. The feline offers comfort, companionship and distraction. Pet lovers will smile in recognition at some of her antics and enjoy the interspecies comraderie.

Theda’s job naturally draws her into most of the mysteries, though she isn’t one of those pushy, intrusive, obnoxious reporters. She tries to be fair, even when she feels some of her subjects are trying to use her to further their own aims. The supporting cast offers a great deal of diversity, from Bunny the Wiccan to Bill the cop to Violet the punk rocker. Animal welfare themes are frequently a part of the plot, but Simon generally practices an even-handed approach, with discussion over tirades. Simon is topical without being dated; she deals obliquely with the pet food poisoning and pet diets, the controversy concerning pet vaccinations, no-kill shelters and the implosion of local papers in enough detail to make readers aware, but she doesn’t use the novels as a soapbox. She also manages to describe the music scene Theda loves in a way that makes the music interesting and appealing, even if blues or rock isn’t your cup of tea.
The setting is used to good advantage as well. Simon gives the reader a good feel for Cambridge’s people and neighborhoods, the vibrant music scene and the creative side of the city, reflective of many a college town.

This series doesn’t have to be read in order, but I enjoyed watching some of the character growth. The books also get better as they go along, with a dab more polish each time. All are solidly plotted and well-written mysteries which play fair with the reader. If you appreciate a good clean puzzle with some real-world connections, by all means give Simon’s books a try.

Mew is for Murder: A number of life-changing events have left Theda reeling. A chance meeting with an elderly lady who may be either a cat rescuing saint or a deranged hoarder gives her an idea for a possible feature story, but her subject dies before the interview can take place. It appears accidental, but why does someone keep breaking into the house?

Cattery Row: Someone is stealing show cats, in what would seem to be a senseless crime. Without papers, the cats and any offspring wouldn’t be valuable and it would be easier to obtain cats from the street. Additionally, an up and coming new musician is in town and Theda has a chance for an interview but there’s just something a little “off” about the situation. It isn’t long before murder and extortion give Theda’s investigations a more dangerous aspect.

Cries and Whiskers: When a local animal activist is killed in an apparent hit and run, Theda finds herself on a rescue mission to find the feral cats the woman had been trapping. Her life is further complicated by a rush assignment to profile an up and coming band whom everyone knows but nobody seems to have heard play, the emergence of some new recreational drug that's marring the club scene, some possible real estate hanky panky involving the bottling plant and the growing evidence that the activist’s death was no accident but a case of murder.

Probable Claws: After a donated bag of cat food sickens some of Violet's cats, Theda offers to help her trace the source. The search leads to a local vet, but dead-ends—literally—when Theda finds the body and becomes a suspect in the murder.

Clea Simon is the author of both fiction and non-fiction books. She lives in Cambridge with her writer husband and their cat, the ever inspirational Musetta. She’s started on a new series of mysteries with a supernatural touch—and possibly a ghost cat. Or not. You’ll have to decide when you read
Shades of Grey, due out in September 2009.

Reviewed by Jeanne

Monday, July 6, 2009

Murder, They Write

My son once asked me why I read so many mysteries. I told him I was looking for the perfect murder. I could have also said mysteries engage my mind and provide me with delightful escapes. I have a bunch of favorite mystery writers and I have grown attached to their characte4rs. I like imagining myself sitting with Sarah Beth Delaney on her front porch waiting for Jitty, her resident ghost whom I imagine looks like Halle Berry. I love laughing at Miss Juila, and I want my own ghost to communicate with me like Aunt Dimity does Lorie Spencer. I want to visit Hamish MacBeth’s village of Lockdub and meet his wildcat and dog. I want to ride to the hounds with Sister Jane and help Sneaky Pie write her next book. I like searching for familiar landmarks in Knoxville while Dr. Bill Brockton does his forensics inquiries. I am fascinated by Brother Cadfael and his knowledge of plants and how they can be used to heal or kill. And then there are the masters of mysteries: Inspector Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and Nero Wolfe—how easy they make it seem to unravel the twists and turns of devious plots.
Recently one of our treasured patrons tipped me to the series of mysteries by Kathryn Wall featuring her heroine Bay Tanner. Bay lives in her beach cottage on Hilton Head. She’s a gorgeous redhead with glass-green eyes, healthy investments that pay the bills and an impeccable Southern lineage. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? But, as with all good heroines, there are depths to Bay that are not readily seen. She’s just barely coping with life almost a year after a horrific explosion killed her state criminal investigator husband Rob and badly injured her. Her cherished but cantankerous retired judge father is recovering from a series of strokes and her perfect belle best friend is married to a controlling bully. Worst of all for Bay, no one has been charged with Rob’s death and no one in law enforcement seems to care.
In the fashion of many mysteries these days, Kathryn Wall has created a strong female character but with a decidedly Southern twist. The smells, foods and quirks of Hilton Head and Lowcountry South Carolina weave their way around Bay throughout the nine books in the series. Wall’s plots are just intricate enough to keep you engaged, but they aren’t so complicated that you have to turn back ten pages to see who did what to whom. Between her daddy, her friends, her partner in the “inquiry agency” she establishes, Bay’s life stays in tumult, but you know in your heart she’s going to come out on top.
These are great books to take with you on vacation. Start with In for a Penny and follow Bay as she faces life, new dangers, new loves, and mysteries just waiting off the edge of her deck. The books are available at Main and Avoca in fiction under the author’s last name. This series is best read in order:
In for a Penny
Not a Penny More
Perdition House
Judas Island
Resurrection Road
Bishop’s Reach
Sanctuary Hill
The Mercy Oak
Covenant Hall
Reviewed by Doris