Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dresden "Changes"

Changes by Jim Butcher (F BUT Main)

Reviewed by Mikey as channeled by Susan P.

It seems like I waited forever to read this book. I had hoped to read it at the beginning of April when it came out on Amazon Kindle. Unfortunately, because of a nasty pricing fight between Amazon and the book’s publisher, Penguin, I was left to find other ways to catch up on my favorite wizard. I drove myself crazy trying not to read the message boards and blogs that held spoilers and clues as to what the book was about. What I did pick up from magazine blurbs and message board titles is that this book was a defining and transitory book for Harry Dresden and friends. Luckily, I was saved by a guardian librarian angel who set aside a copy for me to read, so I thought I’d return the favor by writing a review for the library newsletter.

Usually, books I have a lot of high expectations for end up not being able to live up the hype. I would say Changes is an exception to that statement. The whole story is a roller coaster ride of action and drama that will keep readers turning pages till the end. The first sentence sets the ride into motion when Harry’s ex-girlfriend Susan Rodriquez tells Harry his daughter has been kidnapped by vampires. A daughter Harry did not know he had, mind you. There is no first chapter that builds up the story, no gradual discovery of what the book will be about; there’s just an immediate plot point thrown out there for the reader to absorb. For a Dresden Files fan, it will leave you feeling as shocked as Harry, almost like Butcher wants to knock the reader off balance. While a first time Dresden reader might not get the exact same effect, it is easy to quickly figure out that this is a huge shock for Harry. The rest of the book basically finds Harry discovering what lines and boundaries he is willing to cross to save a child he’s never met but is his nonetheless. As others have noted, the title Changes is quite apt since this book is a continental shift in terms of the character of Harry and his story. In fact, by the end of the book, everything readers have come to know about Harry has changed. I am hesitant to mention what changes because if you are a die-hard fan like me you probably want to discover them for yourself. Just be certain that the only thing recognizable about the Harry Dresden at the end of Changes to the Harry Dresden in previous books, is that he is still a wizard.

I will add this caveat for new readers, although you don’t need to read previous books to enjoy Changes, it does help. However, as a fantasy, action novel you can’t get much better that a Jim Butcher Dresden Files novel and Changes is no exception to that. There is also a warning for Dresden fans. Even though Changes is a must-read book and I highly recommend it, the ending is not only surprising but will basically drive you crazy as you wait for the next book in the series. Enjoy!!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Summer, Sand and The Last Time I Saw You

Reviewed by Doris

Readers will either enjoy The Last Time I Saw You by Elizabeth Berg (F BER Main, Avoca) or hate it. I am kind of in the middle.  I found the pace very fast (perfect for a lazy summer afternoon read), some of the characters touching and others annoying, and it did make me stop and remember people I had not thought about in years. It is also rather predictable and a bit too smarmy and trite with the guaranteed happy ending for all.  Berg’s earlier works have a good bit more meat to them than this one, but it is not a bad summer read—especially if you have a class reunion coming soon.

The book uses a fortieth and last high school reunion to look at a few members of that class. In most ways the characters Berg weaves into the story are stereotypes from every high school class. There are the jocks led by the handsome quarterback every girl wanted. There is the most beautiful girl in the class who was “Miss” everything. There is the nerdy class valedictorian who became a veterinarian and the unattractive girl everyone treated badly. Finally there is the “wannabee” girl who desperately tried to be most popular. Forty years after the triumphs and disasters of high school they all come home, bringing with them the successes and failures they have lived as adults.

Mary Alice Mayhew was poor, unattractive and the target for the brutality some teens seem to thrive on in high school.  Quiet and unassuming, she has made a very comfortable life for herself caring for others.  In most ways she has “grown into her skin” and finds her life good. She goes to the last reunion because she has not attended any others, and she wants to see how her classmates have fared. She feels no rancor for the way she was treated so she is going with an open heart. Her date for the reunion is a ninety-two year old Einer Olson who offers Mary Alice and her classmates some great advice and a couple of belly laughs. My favorite part of the story is that Mary Alice gets her heart’s desire much to everyone’s surprise.

Dorothy Shauman has recently undergone a bitter divorce and is at odds with her daughter. She wanted to be with Pete Decker in high school. Now, the reunion is her chance to get one night with the golden boy. She plots and plans for months only to have her expectations crushed.  Forced to confront who she was, she finally sees who she wants to be by the end of the night.

Remember the golden boy that had all the girls in love with him and everything just his way? Pete Decker is that golden boy, but life lately has thrown him for a major loop. After years of playing around on his wife Nora, she leaves him. His children won’t answer his calls. His body fails him, and he is desperate to turn things around. Believing the reunion is the way to get Nora to open her heart to him again, Pete risks everything. What happens to the golden boy finally brings out the real man.

Lester Hessenpfeffer was class valedictorian and the resident nerd. He becomes a successful veterinarian and at age twenty-nine tragically loses his wife and baby when a drunk driver hits them. Life since then has been devoted to his patients and friends, but in his heart he carries just a little fantasy about the high school girl who seemed unreachable. His office staff tells him they will resign en masse if he does not go to the reunion so Les goes. Keeping one eye out for the girl he hopes will show up, he almost overlooks the girl who will give him back his heart.

     If Pete Decker was the class golden boy, Candy Sullivan Armstrong was the class beauty, homecoming queen, most popular, and nicest person. Candy has lived her life since high school being the perfect wife to a controlling man. Days before the reunion Candy receives news that devastates her and forces her to look back to a safer time. She goes to the reunion to see old friends, but she finds new friends instead.  The new friends give her a perspective on her future that helps her face life or death.

     Five very different people except each one is looking for a human connection they need. By looking back, they find their way forward. Berg does not flinch when she is called a “woman’s writer” because her characters tend to be full of feelings, needs, and wants. In The Last Time I Saw You she creates a story about feelings and how we all at some point may lose sight of who we are meant to be. As I said the ending is rather predictable, but it is satisfying in most ways too. This is not a great novel, but it will go down well with a tall, cool glass of lemonade and your high school yearbook.

     One piece of advice about reunions: everyone should go to at least one of their class reunions. Go with an open mind and talk to classmates you did not get to know in high school. I promise you will be pleasantly surprised.    

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Stitches in Crime

An Ominous Death by Annette Mahon (SSB F MAH Main)
Reviewed by Jeanne

A benefit of being a member of the Dorothy-L  listserv is being introduced to new authors. This time it’s Annette Mahon, a former librarian who has several books to her credit.  Besides some stand-alone books, she’s the author of the St. Rose Quilting Bee mysteries.

As An Ominous Death begins, Maggie Browne and the ladies of the St. Rose Quilting Bee decide to visit Candy Breckner, a sometime quilter who is recovering from a serious auto accident.  The visit is an uneasy one:  Candy is convinced that an “Angel of Death” is loose in the Palo Verde Care Center, killing off elderly patients.  Maggie and the others have their doubts, wondering if a recent program about a murderous nurse in another state might have influenced their friend.  After all, Candy tends to be a bit emotional and dramatic in the best of times.  Now she’s also under the influence of pain medication for two broken legs and unhappy at being confined to a care facility, none of which is conducive to clear thinking.

Before the Quilters can reach any conclusions, Candy herself is murdered.  Is it because of her suspicions about the Angel of Death? Or could the murderer be someone closer to home—even a member of the Quilters?

This is a solid second entry in Mahon’s Quilter series.  The pace is leisurely, giving the characters time to discuss various clues and make observations.   They also drop in interesting bits of general information (ill omens, mercy killing, etc.) during conversations.  Maggie is an intelligent, compassionate lady who takes a measured approach to the mysteries; though her policeman son thinks she takes too many chances with her questions, Maggie does try to be cautious.  This makes her more believable to me than some of the cozy sleuths who don disguises and go prowling around suspects’ houses at night.

The other members of quilting club aren’t as well developed, though Mahon tries to give each a bit of time.  There is some information about quilting but not so much as to bore a non-quilter, and the author makes it sound like fun.

Note:  Despite the cat on the cover, no cat appears in An Ominous Death.  This is a phenomenon I’ve noticed before in book covers: cats tend to appear even if it’s not part of the story.  I think it’s just visual shorthand for “a cozy mystery.” The quilt and medical chart do reflect content!  I have to mention a coincidence, though:  I had just finished reading Making Rounds with Oscar by Dr. David Dosa, about the cat in a care facility who seems to know when patients are about to die.  This made the cover seem eerily appropriate to Candy’s situation.

The next book in the series is Bits and Pieces which just came out in January 2010:
Six months earlier, a house explosion killed a young mother and her twin daughters.  The police are playing it close to the chest, but they have named the husband, Kenny, as a “person of interest.”  He wasn’t at home, nor has anyone seen him since the incident—at least not until Clare, a mystery book aficionado and member of the Quilting Bee, calls Maggie to announce she’s seen Kenny in a store.  Maggie is somewhat dubious, but encourages Clare to alert the police.  The next call sends Maggie into high alert:  Clare has decided to follow Kenny on her own!

Actually, this was the first Quilting Bee Mystery I read, being fortunate enough to win an Advanced Reader’s Copy from the author.  She generously donated the large print edition of An Ominous Death to the library for our collection.  I asked Annette if they should be read in order and she felt each could stand alone so I started with the newer title.

Let me set the stage a bit, a la Doris:  I’ve been having some work done on my house.  I had intended to have this work done in phases with lots of recovery time in between but it hasn’t worked out that way.     I find this hard on my nerves, but it’s nothing compared to what it does to the cats!  In fact, I have an early warning system:  as soon as one of the trucks pulls up in my yard, a herd of cats stampedes in all directions. Since I’m required to be on the premises while some of the work is being done, I was in deep need of a cozy to keep me occupied and not flinching at every crash while allowing me to respond to the frequent calls for my attention. 

Bits and Pieces  fit the bill admirably.  There are a number of characters: excitable, dreamy Clare, practical but sympathetic Maggie, no-nonsense Edie and patient Victoria seemed to figure most prominently in this one.  The puzzle is well constructed and interesting with many avenues for investigation.  The characters play well off each other:  even though one character was thoroughly convinced of Kenny’s innocence, there were others who took a more dubious view. I was pleased that they took nothing for granted, but re-examined the lives of people they thought they knew.  The characters are also very aware of not being real detectives and discuss the difference between real detectives and the fictional detectives whose exploits they enjoy reading.

 I liked the bits of information that were dropped in at intervals.  For example, in the course of the investigation one character asks about the different types of calcium tablets available.  I had asked a pharmacist about this not long ago myself! The “name dropping” of sleuths done by the characters was a nice touch, as characters spoke of the adventures of Amelia Peabody or Annie Darling.   Again, the quilting references were also short enough not to bother non-quilters but were nice little perks for folks who do.  I’m going to be passing this one along to a couple of quilters I know, one of whom may be inspired to make the lovely quilted cabin on the cover (perhaps without the flames, however!)

The library also holds two other books by Ms. Mahon, Holiday Dreams and Secret Correspondence, both F MAH Main.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cat of the Century Flops

Cat of the Century by Rita Mae Brown (F BRO Main, Avoca; CD F BRO Main; MP3 F BRO Main)
Reviewed by Doris

I have been an avid reader of Brown’s Sneaky Pie books since I Wish You Were Here (1990), the first book featuring Mrs. Murphy the tiger cat and Tucker, the corgi.  Soon Pewter the lazy, fat cat joined Murphy and Tucker as they helped their owner Mary Hairsteen solve mysteries. The animals were, of course, smarter than the people, but the stories were always fun and lively and very enjoyable.  You may notice I am using the past tense here.  That’s because Cat of the Century is my last Rita Mae Brown book. I rarely totally ditch an author unless I find his or her work just unreadable, and I have reached that point with Brown.

The last couple of books in the series from Brown have become more and more a soap box for her political views.  Frankly, I don’t care what her views are.  I read mysteries because I want a good story and characters about whom I can care. In Cat of the Century every other page is some long diatribe about the economy or how the United States is going to Hell in a hand basket. While I might agree with some small portion of what Brown’s spouts here, I found the constant hammering of it into my mystery very distracting and boring.  She does try to disguise her political ramblings by using two characters who are 100 and 98 years old respectively as the sources of her delivery.  They repeatedly compare the country today with the country of their youth, and they do so to the everlasting detriment to the country and this book.

Cat of the Century actually does have the bones of a good plot, something that has been missing in the last three or four books in this series. Brown uses real college William Woods University as the setting of a celebration of the 100th birthday of Aunt Tally Urquhart. Using Tally’s day as a major fund-raiser for the college lets Brown bring news headlines into her book with a plot based on shady financial dealings and schemes.  Harry goes to William Woods to honor Tally, taking with her Mrs. Murphy, Pewter, and Tucker. People start to die. Financial records disappear. Tally and her ninety-eight year old best friend Inez Carpenter begin very long and very boring rants about the decline of the country. So, the plot gets lost or meanders along with no real kick to it while you the reader miss some of the great characters like Boom Boom and Big and Little Mim who have made this series worth reading. If I were Mrs. Murphy, Tucker, and Pewter I would be looking for a new owner.  Needless to say, I am looking for a new author. 

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Cats and Mysteries

Melon takes a break from his busy modeling schedule 
to check out Grey Matters.

Mystery in Grey

Grey Matters by Clea Simon (F SIM Main)
Reviewed by Jeanne

Since it’s well known that I am owned by multiple cats, it’s no surprise that I’d seek out this series about a woman who receives messages from a ghost cat. It’s also no surprise that I enjoyed it. The surprise is that this mystery is firmly rooted in reality, no “Ghost Whisperer” nor “Medium” otherworldly intervention in discovering whodunit.

Dulcie Schwartz, the grad student we first met in Shades of Grey, is up against a deadline that may determine her future. Her advisor is pressuring her to show “significant progress” on her doctorial thesis. If she fails to do so, she could lose the grants which allow her to stay in school. The problem is that Dulcie feels she HAS made progress, more than enough progress, but Professor Bullock doesn’t seem to think so. Actually, Dulcie has serious doubts that he’s even read her notes and he doesn’t seem to remember from time to time what they’ve discussed.

It doesn’t help that Dulcie’s friends, including her boyfriend, all seem to be too wrapped up in their own lives to offer her much solace. She still misses her beloved Mr. Grey, the late feline who was her confidant, and friend. Since his demise, Dulcie feels that he’s also been something of an advisor, albeit a very cryptic one—a fact she’s keeping mostly to herself. People seem to behave very oddly when told about communications from departed pets; and Dulcie’s reputation is already a bit tarnished by being one of those English majors with her head lost in mists of early Gothic romance.

She comes down to earth when she stumbles upon the corpse of a fellow grad student littering the path to Professor Bullock’s house. Cameron Dessay had been handsome, charming, and apparently well-heeled, on the fast track to a degree. He had a fancy car, fancy clothes and a playboy reputation, but could any of these things have resulted in murder?

Not that this is any of Dulcie’s business, not really. She just has a cat’s curiosity. Besides, Dessay’s death is affecting her department in strange ways and there seems to be something going on with Professor Bullock, upon whom Dulcie’s future largely depends. As she tries to unravel these mysteries, Dulcie becomes aware that a lot of people around her seem to be keeping secrets. The question is, which of these are dangerous?

I found Grey Matters to be even better than the first book. There is much to like. Dulcie herself to start, a bookish heroine with her head as much in literature as in her own life. Now able to deal with the loss of Mr. Grey, she’s more able to focus on her studies but still a bit adrift in her personal life. The new supporting characters/suspects are interesting: Polly, an adoring student who has served as an aide for the Professor for so long that no one is sure she is actually a student anymore; seemingly nice guy Lloyd, who shares an office with Dulcie but who doesn’t share a lot of information; Gosham, the rare book dealer and restorer who seems to have more than a professional interest in Polly; and Raleigh, the annoyingly beautiful and brainy English major who seems to be vaulting over others on her way to the top. Lucy, Dulcie’s mother who lives on a commune and believes herself to be psychic, is another favorite character. The star, of course, is Mr. Grey, Dulcie’s late feline companion. He dispenses advice in a patient but somewhat distant manner, allowing Dulcie to figure out situations on her own, rather like Master Po and Grasshopper. The academic setting is another plus for me, reminding me of my student days. (We won’t discuss how very long ago that was.)

I also liked the fact that Dulcie doesn’t set out to solve the murder. At times I’m willing to suspend disbelief and allow that bookstore owner/author/caterer/whatever can become involved in one murder after another, but on occasion I do pause and wonder why on earth the police are letting Mary Smith question felons. Dulcie’s contacts with suspects are natural and reasonable.

Then there’s the matter of “woo woo,” the supernatural elements of the story. In the first book, Simon tried to leave doubt in the reader’s mind as to whether or not Dulcie really was hearing from Mr. Grey. In this book, she drops that sort of pretense but refrains from using the ghost cat as a deus ex machina, solving all the mysteries. In fact, Mr. Grey probably isn’t at all interested in anyone except Dulcie and he seems to regard her as a kitten who needs to find her own way. The little twist at the end utterly delighted me. Frankly, I liked the change: I don’t like it when an author drags out the “is it real or not?” over multiple books. I feel they need to commit, one way or the other, and decide if there is a supernatural element or if there is not. Simon has made her choice and I approve. Mr. Grey is a much less intrusive guide than, say, Aunt Dimity, so people who don’t care for ghostly characters shouldn’t find it a problem. No crimes are solved due to otherworldly intervention. (No disrespect to Aunt Dimity is intended, by the way. I do enjoy Nancy Atherton’s series, but some folks just don’t want to read a mystery with ghostly interventions.)

There’s a bit of a twist at the end, nothing earth-shattering, but it certainly has me anxious for more. The next one will be a definite Must Read for me!

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Bone To Pick. . .

The Bone Thief: A Body Farm Novel by Jefferson Bass (F BAS Main & Avoca, SSB F BAS Main)
Reviewed by Doris

Need a kidney? Twenty thousand dollars will buy one from Pakistan or India. Need skin, bone, or other human tissue for a graft or transplant? Check out your friendly neighborhood grave robber or mortician because he just might be selling it. Legitimate and black market companies are doing business selling human tissue and the ripples of such activity go far and wide. The illegal trade for organs and tissue has exploded into a monumental international business netting the unscrupulous ‘investors” hundreds of millions of dollars as the demand for transplants and research tissue has far outstripped the number of people donating. Jefferson Bass—the writing team of Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson—look at this knotty legal and moral issue in their newest book, The Bone Thief.

Dr. Bill Brockton, head of the Anthropology Department of the University of Tennessee and frequent FBI consultant, has been asked to exhume the body of Trey Willoughby to pull DNA for a paternity test. What is a rather ordinary exercise becomes a stunner when Brockton and his assistant Miranda open the coffin and find Willoughby’s skeleton has no arms. Who amputated them and why? Those questions start the journey Brockton will take through the world of trafficking in human tissue. Taking on an undercover assignment for the FBI that threatens to totally compromise his reputation, Brockton struggles to sort out who the bad guys are while his family and friends believe he has become one of the criminals. Haunted by questions and feelings raised in the previous Body Farm book Bones of Betrayal, Brockton feels disgusted with himself, defeated, and broken. On every side, things are unraveling. His relationship with his son is even more strained than usual. Funding cuts are hurting his program at the University, including possibly taking away Miranda’s graduate assistantship. The ethical questions about transplants and tissue donation are hitting too close to home as his friend Dr. Eddie Garcia struggles to survive and deal with the loss of his hands. Brockton must ask himself if he will cross lines to save his friend and can he live with himself if he doesn’t. While he struggles to find his balance, life pitches forward at a reckless pace and the dilemmas become wrenching, leaving Brockton very apprehensive about the future. Soon the apprehension turns to terror as he fights for his life.

The Bone Thief is the fastest paced of the Body Farm novels by Jefferson and Bass. Its plot is the most tightly wound, and I found myself reluctant to put it down. Included of course are many references to real places, people, and cases on which Bill Bass has worked which gives the book authencity. The progression of Brockton’s character from Carved in Bone (the first book in the Body Farm series) to this book is both gratifying and wrenching because it is tragedy that has forged the changes. The Bone Thief is an excellent read and a major step forward for Jefferson and Bass as authors.

On a personal note: a thousand years ago when I was in college, I needed an anthropology class as an elective. My advisor suggested I take a class called Introductory Forensic Anthropology being taught by a young professor who had recently come to UTK from Kansas. I did and I lost fifteen pounds that quarter. The class, taught by the fascinating Dr. Bill Bass, was at 11:55 AM—lunchtime—and after seeing the slides he showed every day, I had no desire to eat much. The class was tremendous, one of the best I had in college. Dr. Bass is a marvelous teacher and his books always teach me as I read. Did you know one of his former students has developed an electronic “sniffer” that detects human decomposition? It was used to check the trunk of the car in which Caylee Anthony’s body was transported, and it confirmed decomposition. Did you know that Emory University has a hand transplant center that is making real progress which will help many of our soldiers who have lost hands in Iraq and Afghanistan? Did you know that, because of the fame garnered by Dr. Bill and the Body Farm, the Farm receives so many donations of bodies for research that the research facility is almost out of land?

Most importantly, The Bone Thief points our desperate need for organ and tissue donation. As of April 8, 2010, there were 106,878 Americans waiting for donors. Have you signed your donor card?????

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Return of Nancy Drew

Not A Girl Detective by Susan Kandel

Reviewed by Jeanne

CeCe Caruso has parlayed her youthful fondness for mysteries into a job writing biographies of her favorite authors. In Not A Girl Detective (F KAN Main), her project is Carolyn Keene, the pseudonym used by the Stratemeyer Syndicate for the Nancy Drew series. This project introduces CeCe to the world of Nancy Drew fandom, where people write papers on Nancy’s wardrobe, devise versions of Nancy’s wedding to Ned, collect various editions of the books and generally obsesses over everyone connected with Nancy. She’s introduced to an avid collector who specializes in the “Blue Nancys,” first editions of the books. Wealthy and flamboyant, Edgar Edwards has a bit of a bombshell to drop at the upcoming Nancy Drew convention. . . and “bombshell” is a very apt description.

Too bad he ends up dead first.

Earlier in our blog posts, Doris wrote of a gentleman who was revisiting the Hardy Boys series. I never read many of those but I did devour the Nancy Drew books as did many of my friends. Her post reminded me that there was an adult mystery that had something to do with the teen sleuth, so I set out to find it.

I enjoyed this light mystery which was peppered with tidbits of information about the various Stratemeyer series, especially about the people who created the books, from the ghostwriters to the cover artists. Kandel delivers these in easy to absorb pieces, without slowing down the plot. I was amazed at how many of the Nancy Drew titles I remembered: Message in the Hollow Oak, Password to Larkspur Lane, Mystery of the Brassbound Trunk and so many others! I was also intrigued by comments on how the character evolved as the years passed.

I have to admit I was a little unsettled to realize how many of the book covers I remembered. Who knew that they would have made such an impression? I vividly remember the two titles I received for Christmas when I was about ten, one of which introduced me to the Nazca Lines in Peru.

Nancy aside, the book features an interesting mystery with an equally interesting solution. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the solution hinges on the motive, for motives abound. CeCe has her own versions of Nancy’s chums, Lael and Bridget, and a policeman boyfriend to round out the cast. A grown daughter and an ex-husband are mentioned in passing. CeCe also has an abiding passion for vintage clothing but again doesn’t bog the reader down with details.

Susan Kandel has carved out a niche for herself with this smart mystery series that revisits beloved writers of yore as CeCe does her biographies. This is the second in the series (after I Dreamed I Married Perry Mason, in which CeCe was researching the life of Erle Stanley Gardener) but you need not have read it to enjoy this one. Other entries involve Dashiell Hammett, Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie.