Monday, January 24, 2011

Flavia de Luce Redux!

The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley (F BRA Main)

Reviewed by Jeanne

Life has returned to normal for Flavia de Luce, eleven year old chemist, would-be sleuth and resident of Bishop’s Lacey.  After all, it’s probably too much to expect to find yet another stranger lying dead in one’s cucumber patch.  Flavia is making the best of things by continuing her experiments and trying to find new ways to torment her older sisters, Daffy and Feely, who cheerfully return the favor.  Things start to look up a bit when Rupert Porson, puppeteer extraordinaire, and  his beautiful assistant Nialla turn up in the village and agree to do a performance at the church.  They have very little choice in the matter:  their van has broken down and they’re stuck until it’s repaired.  Flavia soon has reason to suspect that Rupert is no stranger to Bishop’s Lacey:  one of his puppets bears an uncanny resemblance to a child who died several years earlier under somewhat unusual circumstances.

When Rupert has a fatal encounter with large amounts of electricity, Flavia knows at once that it’s no accident.  The police tend to agree, but they seem less than enthusiastic about having an underage detective doing her own investigations.  That doesn’t deter Flavia in the slightest, of course, and she sets out to learn all she can about the tangled relationships and dark pasts of those involved.

I for one cheered the return of the indomitable Flavia de Luce whom we first met in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  Some people found Flavia too precocious and too smug, but I found her delightful.  She has a sharp tongue and quick wit. (In regard to the vicar’s wife, Flavia says “I have to admit… that Cynthia was a great organizer, but then, so were the men with the whips who got the pyramids built.”)

She’s extremely well read, extremely bright and more than a bit stubborn, but she’s still a child. She understands a great deal but not quite as much as she thinks she does, especially where emotions are concerned.  She’s read Madame Bovary, for instance, but doesn’t quite grasp some of the implications.  She goes to her friend Dogger, an ex-soldier suffering from shell-shock who serves the family as chauffeur and general handyman, and inquires about a particular passage:

“What did Flaubert mean… when he said that Madame Bovary gave herself up to Rudolphe?”

“He meant,” Dogger said, “That they became the greatest of friends.  The very greatest of friends.”

To which Flavia replies, “Ah!  Just as I thought.”

The supporting cast is wonderful. The family plays a lesser role in this second book, though the scenes with visiting Aunt Felicity are not to be missed.  Instead we have a fine cast of suspects with complex motivations and dark histories.  Bradley seems to evoke England of the 1950s with ease.

You don’t need to have read the first book to enjoy this one; each stands alone.  There’s a lot of humor but it’s thoughtful rather than slap-stick.  I find Flavia delightful and I hope you will too.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

New Cats on the Block: How to Wash a Cat & Murder Past Due

Reviewed by Jeanne

I’m not sure when cats became mystery series stars.  It may have been when Lilian Jackson Braun’s “Cat Who” series took off, although the Gordons (a husband and wife writing team) produced books with DC the cat earlier.  (DC's name was edited by  Disney to be That Darn Cat in the movie version.)  Then we saw the advent of Carole Nelson Douglas’ “Midnight Louie,” Lydia Adams’ Cat Sitter series, Garrison Allen’s “Big Mike,” Shirley Rousseau Murphy’s “Joe Grey,” and several others.  Not long after, some dog mysteries began to appear, such as Susan Conant’s Dog Sitter series, the wonderful Virginia Lanier Bloodhound series, Carol Lea Benjamin’s “Alexandra and Dash” mysteries, Lauren Berenson’s Melanie Travis books and, more recently, the Chet and Bernie books by Spencer Quinn.  Some authors, like Rita Mae Brown, even included both dogs and cats.  

Since I was planning a trip involving airplanes, I started looking at the new paperback mysteries and discovered a new litter of cat mystery stars.  There are no fewer than four series starring felines, and probably more.   So I picked out a couple and took them with me.  There’s nothing like being a captive audience to get me into a book.  (I'll admit I did a bit of judging a book by its cover:  both these have wonderful cover art!)

How to Wash a Cat by Rebecca Hale is the first in the “Cats and Curios” series.  Our heroine gets the sad news that her beloved Uncle Oscar has died suddenly of a stroke.  As his only heir, she inherits his antique shop in San Francisco.  At first, she isn’t sure if she wants to take over the store; she already has a full time job as an accountant and she really doesn’t know much about antiques and curios. Her abrupt termination at her job makes the prospect of the shop much more appealing, so she moves in with Rupert and Isabelle, her two cats. It turns out the neighborhood is full of interesting characters—some annoying and some dangerous.  It isn’t long before some suspicious circumstances have her questioning what she’s been told about her uncle’s death.  Hale packs a lot of information about the history of San Francisco in the story, from its rough and tumble past to the present, and her descriptions of the city are vivid.  It's also obvious that she’s very fond of the cats. 

I have to say I wasn’t exactly enthralled by this book.  The writing was competent enough, but there were a number of odd flashbacks in which the heroine imagined herself back in early San Francisco, to the point that another character even asks her about it. (And by the way, the lead character is unnamed for a good part of the book. I think her name turns out to be the same as the author’s but I honestly can’t quite remember.)  I found Monty the neighbor-comic-relief character to be a bit too over the top for my taste, and much though I hate to say it, the cats weren’t very catlike to me.  It was little things, like an odd tail thump--not a twitch--when stalking and not being freaked at the idea of being dressed up and walking a runway.  Maybe I just have the wrong cats.  (Melon does occasionally don accouterments but not for very long, and definitely not in front of an audience in a strange place.)

The ending left me a bit befuddled:  the story had started to become increasingly implausible, and not just because she was talking about someone owning a Siamese cat mix years before Siamese were imported to the US.  While I do enjoy a book with fantastical elements, this one gave very little hint of any such leanings until near the end.  I also wondered quite a bit about the heroine and her lack of curiosity about some things, such as the exact circumstances of her uncle’s death and her failure to follow up on some fairly important questions.  Still, I’ve read worse books and I’ll give the sequel a chance. I’ve had other authors make a false start or two before hitting his or her stride.
If you like books about San Francisco, especially ones that deal with the early history, a plucky heroine, antiques, and cats, give How To Wash A Cat a try and let me know what you think.

Murder Past Due by Miranda James also has an atypical cat, but Diesel the Maine Coon is closer to the cats I’ve known. (He looks a bit like my Elmer, but Diesel is MUCH brighter.) He doesn’t solve any mysteries but he does walk on a leash and seems a perfectly amiable sort. Diesel’s human is Charlie Harris, a good-natured librarian who works in the archives of a local college in sleepy Athena, Mississippi and volunteers at his local library.  Charlie’s beloved wife has died, as has his elderly aunt, and his children are grown and living out of state.  Justin, the 18 year old son of a friend of Charlie’s, has moved in as a boarder.  Justin’s a good kid, but there’s obviously something on his mind lately. 

This relatively tranquil scene is upset by the appearance of Godfrey Priest, a former classmate of Charlie’s who has become a best-selling author of thrillers.  Charlie remembers Godfrey as being arrogant, condescending and obnoxious, and it becomes obvious that success hasn’t really changed him.   Still, it’s a bit of a surprise when Godfrey turns up dead.  Things get even worse when it appears Justin may be a suspect, and Charlie feels he needs to do a bit of sleuthing on his own to get to the truth.

I found Murder Past Due to be much more enjoyable and not just because the author apparently does know her way around a library.  I liked Charlie.  He seems the sort of solid, dependable person who is the backbone of most small towns.  Some reviewers found him to be too staid, too set in his ways;  I didn’t agree, but that may be because I am too staid and set in my ways. The setting was gently Southern:  recognizable, but the author didn’t feel the need to have someone whip up a pot of grits or have a possum amble by every second page or so. It was also rather refreshing to have a cozy mystery with a male protagonist.   I have to say, though, that the part which impressed me most was the way Charlie and the deputy worked—or didn’t work—together.  In most amateur sleuth series, if the police and the sleuth aren’t friends, then the police are portrayed as idiots.  In this book, while the deputy was a bit stiff and impatient, she was open to help within reason and she was careful to explain to Charlie why some of his good intentions went awry:  things like chain of evidence, for example.  For me, this was a satisfying mystery with companionable characters and a comfortable setting.   I’ll be looking forward to the sequel.

There are some other new cat mystery series I'll be reviewing as soon as I complete a few steps. Step one:  Find where I put the books.  Step two:  Read books.  Step one will probably take longer than step two...

Elmer practices posing, just in case.
 There are copies of both books available in our system.  If you need help locating or reserving them, please check with the folks at Reference.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

American Icon: Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire

Reviewed by Doris

The American Western man has long been an icon of American culture. Tall, quiet, a man of action, a man of honor, a man who loves his horse, his dog, his wide open spaces, and his woman (once he finally has one),the Western hero is embedded in the American Consciousness. Think Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, or Henry Fonda in their heyday of movies. Framed by the likes of Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey the Western novel is still one of the most requested genres at the BPL. Recently I was reading some reviews and saw one highly recommending Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series of Western mysteries so I decided to give them a read.

Johnson’s books continue the Western tradition, but he adds a few new twists and turns. Walt Longmire is a Wyoming sheriff whose view of the world is shaped by those vast, often desolate spaces and the creed of the West. Having survived serving in Vietnam, losing his wife to cancer, and being a sheriff for twenty some years, he has reached the point where he thinks few things surprise him. Yet, he is often surprised by the peculiarities of the people around him. His sense of humor is wry and usually misunderstood. His penchant for quoting the Bible or works of great literature in almost any situation tends to confuse or annoy his neighbors. Surrounded by a cast of intriguing and quirky characters, Longmire uses his innate sense of justice and his strength of will to solve his cases. He is no longer young, no longer in good physical shape, no longer eager to take on the world, but he is a solid, kind man who gives everything to his family and job.

The Absaroka County setting plays a significant role in Johnson’s novels to the point that the landscape is almost a character in the books. It is this vast and often hostile land that shapes the people and the crimes Longmire must handle. Johnson lives in the town of Ucross, population 25, so his feel for the vast and often violent terrain is genuine. His career in law enforcement also lends an authenticity to the books not always found in mysteries.

You don’t have to read the six Longmire books in order though it does help you see the evolution of both the characters and Johnson’s writing which improves with each novel. I started with the fifth book then backtracked to the beginning, and it did not diminish my enjoyment at all. The newest book in the series, Junkyard Dogs, is a major step forward for Johnson in plotting and style. Similar to Robert Parker’s Spenser series which I have always enjoyed and mourned the passing of with Parker’s death, this series is one I look forward to enjoying for years to come.

The Cold Dish-This first book introduces most of the characters that will shape Walt Longmire’s life. It opens with the death of Cody Pritchard who was convicted—along with three other high school boys—of the rape of a young Cheyenne girl who is a victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The boys’ punishment for the brutal attack was suspended sentences, and the racial tensions between the white community and the Cheyenne Reservation have escalated. Even his chief deputy believes Cody’s death was a hunting accident, but Walt has an uneasy feeling about it. Then another of the boys dies and the tensions and questions really heat up. Are the killings revenge for the rape or are there other factors involved? Is the killer Walt’s best friend who is the uncle of the raped child?

Death Without Country-Absaroka County sheriff Lucien Connolly hired Walt as a deputy as soon as Longmire left the Marines after Vietnam. Years later Lucien made sure Walt succeeded him as sheriff. The long-time friendship comes into question when secrets from Lucien’s past come out after a Basque woman dies at a local assisted living facility where Lucien lives. Walt finds himself torn between catching a killer and protecting his friend who may have been involved in a death and its cover up. The plotting of this story is fast and convoluted.

Kindness Goes Unpunished—Longmire’s daughter Cady is the light of his life. She is fiercely independent and a hotshot young attorney in Philadelphia. Walt and Henry Standing Bear take a road trip to the City of Brotherly Love just in time for Cady to be brutally attacked and left in a coma. Out of his element in a big city and crushed by the possible loss of his daughter, Longmire joins forces with the Moretti family of cops and the Philadelphia PD to find Cady’s attacker. This one pulls at your heart.

Another Man’s Moccasins begins with the dead body of a Vietnamese woman along the road. In her belongings is a picture of Longmire and a barmaid he knew when he was a Marine MP in Saigon in 1968. The investigation leads to human trafficking and flashbacks that carry Walt to the heart of his war experiences. Vivid scenes of Vietnam and what happened there are the hallmark of this book.

The Dark Horse—Wade Barsad, a man with a dubious past, locked his wife Mary’s horses in the barn and then burned it down. In return she shot him in the head six times or so she said. Walt goes undercover to the county where Mary and Wade lived. There he encounters some of his own ghosts and discovers there were many people who wanted Wade Barsad dead. Mary shot him, but did she kill the man who needed killing?

Junkyard Dogs—The Stewart family owns a local junkyard right next door to a new exclusive housing development. Neither the Stewarts nor the developer is happy about it. Then a severed thumb turns up in a cooler in the junkyard. Where is the rest of the body? This book has enough turns to make your head spin and it is funny to boot. The solution was not one I saw coming!

Hell is Empty—comes out in June, 2011. I have already pre-ordered it.

The main library has Cold Dish, Kindness Unpunished, the Dark Horse, and Junkyard Dogs. Just look for F Joh at Main or Avoca. We can request the other books for you from other libraries in the region.

Monday, January 10, 2011

House of Sand and Fog: More Timely Than Ever

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus (F DUB Main; Cassette F DUB Main & Avoca)
Reviewed by Nancy

Fasten your seat belt and get a prescription for anti-depressants. This is going to be a bumpy ride and Betty Davis is nowhere in sight.

This is not a comedy.
This is not a mystery.
This is not a romance.
This is not uplifting.
This book is grim.

So why read The House Of Sand And Fog? Well, it's just so interesting. I read this book a while back, before the crash of the housing market and all its attendant economic misery. To read it now would certainly be "of the moment."

Mr. Dubus provides an educational peek into the unbelievable manner in which human relations can become garbled. You've got Kathy, either indulgently wallowing in her own depression, or so clinically depressed that she needs to be institutionalized. You've got Lester, the policeman, and his misguided and detrimental love for Kathy, and you've got the colonel tripping over his own pride and stubbornness.

All of the individuals in this book suffer from their own character flaws, as we all do, but in this case, character flaws direct destiny and the orbits of these people converge into one big, unpleasant, seething mess.

Depressed over the end of a relationship, Kathy really makes only one mistake, but Wow! It's a big one. It starts when she gets a tax notice regarding her home. The bill is for taxes she doesn't actually owe, and like a responsible citizen she trots down to the tax assessor's office and straightens it out. She leaves that office reassured by the clerk and confident that she has taken care of the problem.

HOWEVER, (hear the sinister music of the soundtrack and see the dark clouds rolling in) the overdue tax notices continue to come in the mail. This is where Kathy makes her mistake. She ignores these notices, thinking that some computer has gotten hung up on sending her letters and can't quit, believing that things are actually straightened out, even though she is receiving the notices.

Imagine her surprise when the police arrive to evict her because her house is going to be auctioned off. Lester, one of the policemen who is there to carry out the eviction, feels sorry for this disheveled, unstrung woman and gets involved.

Despite the fact that it is all just a bad mistake, proceedings proceed and the county puts her house up for auction. This is where the colonel enters the picture. A refugee/immigrant type of person, he uses the last of his savings to purchase Kathy's house at a fantastic price. It provides for him the leg up that he and his family need in order to establish themselves in the United States.

Even after it comes to light that the house should never have been put up for auction in the first place, the colonel refuses to let go of it.

By the end of the book I felt sorry for everyone in it, and also really hacked off with everybody. It didn't have to end the way it did, but, darn, it did.

By the way, if you've seen the movie that was based on this book, you haven't seen anything yet. The movies ended badly, as does the book, but, believe it or not, the book is worse.

So, buckle up, and educate yourself. Also, read those tax notices!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

My Favorite Impostor: Brat Farrar

Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey

Reviewed by Jeanne

As a non-caloric post holiday treat to myself, I decided to review an old favorite instead of a new book.  I started reading mysteries at an early age and remain partial to some of the classic mystery authors.  I tended to prefer series with reoccurring sleuths:  Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, or Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason.  Josephine Tey’s detective was Alan Grant, a nice chap who starred in what is arguably Tey’s most famous book, The Daughter of Time.  In it, a bored Inspector Grant is in the hospital with a broken leg and is given a book with portraits.  Grant prides himself on reading faces; looking at a picture of Richard the Third, he can’t believe that the king was the monster that the history books say he was.  For the rest of the novel, Tey through Grant lays out a case for Richard’s innocence.

While that is indeed a masterful work which set the standard for historical mystery, it’s not my favorite.  In fact, this is one of the few times that I have enjoyed an author’s standalone books more than the reoccurring characters.  My pick is a book which I’ve read several times over the years and at each re-reading I find myself just as involved as I was the first time. The only thing I might change is its title:  Brat Farrar.  It’s named for a character but the title itself really gives a browser no clue as to what the book is about. Let me enlighten:

Brat Farrar is set in the mid-1940s, a contemporary piece since the book was published originally in 1949.  The Ashby children are being raised by their Aunt Bee, who also took on the management of the horse farm after the parents were killed in an accident. There were five children, but Patrick—Simon’s twin and the eldest child—disappeared at the age of thirteen, leaving behind a cryptic final note hinting at suicide. As the story opens, Simon is preparing to celebrate his twenty-first birthday and thus inherit the family fortune.

A complication arises with the sudden appearance of Brat Farrar, a young man who claims to be the missing Patrick.  He looks just like Patrick, or the way Patrick should look by now. He knows the family, the layout of the house, incidents from the past and even has some of Patrick’s mannerisms.  Most of all, he has Patrick’s gentleness and sweetness; he’s a lost boy, and he’s finally come home.

We the readers know this is a lie.   Brat is an impostor, coached to know all about the Ashbys and Patrick by a man who knew the family well and who hopes to profit from the Ashby fortune.  Yet Tey makes us like this young man to the point where we want him to BE Patrick and to be accepted into the family.  The problem is that someone else knows that he’s an impostor, because this someone knows what really happened to Patrick. . .

Tey excelled at characterization and this book is no exception.  Aunt Bee wants to believe this is her nephew, but is he really Patrick?  And if he isn’t Patrick, then who is he?  Brat comes to care deeply for the family and worries about hurting them when the truth comes out.  Simon is wary of this brother returned from the grave.  A deep and abiding love for horses is central to most of the characters, but this book should appeal even to those who aren’t equiniphiles.  The writing is solid and insightful; it reminds me more of P.D. James than Agatha Christie, though Tey isn’t as convoluted. The plot flows along beautifully, but the last few pages will have you reading avidly to see just how this all turns out—even if you already know.

I was glad to learn I’m not alone in my affection for the book.  Fantasy and Science Fiction writer Jo Walton cited it as an influence; Mary Stewart’s book The Ivy Tree is an homage of sorts to it, even having a character refer to the book by name. Book guru and librarian Nancy Pearl, author of Book Lust, says it is perhaps her favorite mystery novel.  So there you have it:  if you can’t trust the model for Archie McPhee’s Librarian Action Figure, who can you trust?