Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Iron Kissed by Patricia Briggs

fpo  This series just keeps getting better and better! Mercy Thompson is a lot of things: a VW mechanic, walker who can go shift into a coyote, and above all, a really good friend. The last is demonstrated by her willingness to go against powerful forces when her friend, mentor, and former boss Zee is arrested for a murder he did not commit. Mercy sets out to prove his innocence even though it may mean upsetting the very powerful and very vengeful fae. Years before the fae revealed themselves to the human world with mixed results. Many fae now live on reservations away from humans who are largely afraid of them.When a human is killed and Zee is found at the scene of the crime, he becomes the obvious suspect. The powers that be in the fae world know Zee is innocent but are willing to risk losing one of their own to appease human law enforcement and put the case to bed. That is not okay with Mercy.

Iron Kissed, book number three in the Mercy Thompson series, was really interesting. At the end it got really heavy, tackling issues like sexual assault, identity, and what consent really means. It blew me way. I didn't expect such intensity from a series centering around werewolves, vampires, fae, and ghosts. Paranormal might be seen as escapist fare, but this series is grounded in real emotions.

Mercy is quickly becoming my favorite paranormal heroine. She is such a richly drawn character. She is tough and vulnerable, lonely but resistant to entering a relationship, and always, always, a formidable challenge. People continually underestimate her to their detriment. She cares about everyone. Making her different from everyone else - she's not a werewolf, a vampire, fae, or entirely human - allows her a degree of empathy that extends beyond her own "family" or "species" in a way other characters aren't able to.

The guys of the Mercy Thompson series are pretty awesome too. Brigg does a great job of writing men who are strong and powerful without being too obnoxious and controlling, or at least who are confronted with their obnoxiousness when needed. Not that they don't have their issues, but on the whole the men in Mercy's life are good guys. There's Adam, the local pack alpha. He is a leader who understands the importance of taking the time to hear what his pack members have to say. He walks a fine line between being dominant without being excessively domineering, well most of the time. He wants Mercy as his mate but will not coerce her into it. Sam, Mercy's first love, still cares about her but is as unsure as Mercy is as to what the future holds for them. They are both protective of her but try to resist protecting her too much. Warren and Kyle's relationship is also refreshing to read about. Warren, not surprisingly, still has to deal with issues related to members of the wolf pack who don't accept his sexuality but it is clearly their problem, not Warren's. He has settled nicely into his relationship with Kyle. Even Ben, the British werewolf who was so obnoxious in earlier books, comes off rather nicely in Iron Kissed. I hope there is more of Ben in future books.

In sum, I am really loving this series.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch

A Beautiful Blue Death (Charles Lenox Series #1)  A Beautiful Blue Death is the first in a series of historical mysteries about an amateur detective in Victorian London. Charles Lenox is a gentleman who spends his time planning exotic trips he never goes on, reading by the fire, and solving mysteries. He is sometimes assisted by his older brother Edmund who not so secretly envies his brother's adventures and loves to help out if he can, and well as his butler Graham. His latest mystery comes about when his dear friend Lady Jane asks him to look into the death of her former servant Prudence "Prue" Smith. After leaving Lady Jane's employ Prue sought work in Mr. Bernard's house where her fiancee was also employed. All seemed well and yet a suicide note, a bottle of poison, and Prue's deceased body would indicate otherwise. Charles suspects that foul play rather than suicide was at play. Inspector Exeter is none too thrilled to have Charles poking around the case, but even he must admit that Charles has an impressive record when it comes to crime solving.

I had a difficult time getting into this story. It felt like it was written in accordance with a checklist. As in, wealthy, single male who solves crimes as a hobby, primarily through deduction and guesswork. Check. Sidekick who is smart but not as not smart as the detective and in some way socially inferior to the detective. Check. Police officer whose main purpose is to mock and get in the way of the detective. Check. Following a set of rules or basing characters on well-known literary tropes can be a good starting point but then the author has to add something more to flesh out the story, to make it unique, to make it memorable. That was missing here. The characters were more character types rather than characters who could be believable entities in their own right. The murder mystery had a promising start started but quickly got bogged down. The story did pick up towards the end, but not enough to redeem all that came before. This wasn't a very long book (309 pages in the edition I have) but it still felt bloated.

One thing that was evident in the writing was how much the author loves the era of Victorian England. I rather like this time period myself, which is one reason why I was looking forward to this book. Unfortunately, it just didn't quite come together. Overall, I'd say this was decent. Only time will tell if it was enough to compel me to continue with the series.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag (Flavia de Luce Series #2) Flavia de Luce is back at it again - roaming around the village of Bishop's Lacey on Gladys (her bicycle), dreaming up ways to vanquish her opponents (especially her sisters) with poisonous concoctions, having adventures, and best of all, solving murders. 

The Weed that String the Hangman's Bag is second in Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series about an eleven-her-old English girl who has a passion for chemistry and a tendency to find herself in the middle of murder investigations. When celebrated puppeteer Rupert Porson is killed there is no shortage of suspects. He and his puppet shows may have been beloved by millions of children but with a propensity for romancing naive young women, regardless of whether they are married or not, Rupert is certainly not loved by all. When a shock of electricity ends his puppet show for good, some think it was an unfortunate accident. Flavia is quite certain it was not. Flavia may have thought her murder solving days were behind her once her last adventure (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie) ended, but it is not to be. How can she not step in to help when the police so obviously need her?

This is such a fun series! The mystery is good but the real draw here is Flavia. She's the youngest daughter of Colonel Haviland and Harriet de Luce. Harriet's mother disappeared and was presumed dead when Flavia was but a toddler. Devastated by the loss of his wife, Haviland spends most of his time working on his stamp collection. In between conducting chemistry experiments (and solving murders), Flavia spends her time sparring with her two older sisters, seventeen-year-old Ophelia (Fifi) and thirteen-year-old Daphne (Daffy). Fifi and Daffy repeatedly try to convince their little sister that she is adopted and Flavia retaliates by using her sisters as guinea pigs for her chemistry experiments. Rounding out the household are Dogger and Mrs. Mullet. Depending on how he feels that day, his experiences in the war having left its mark on him, Dogger is the butler, gardener, or simply the good friend both the Colonel and Flavia need. Mrs. Mullet is the family's housekeeper and cook. And who can forget Inspector Hewitt - the police constable who cannot help but be both impressed and exasperated by the precocious young detective.

Flavia reminds me of one of my favorite detectives, Miss Marple. She is incredibly observant, extremely intelligent and constantly underestimated by those around her. Still, like Miss Marple, she always manages to figure out who did what. I love being in Flavia's mind as she rides around the village, commenting on all she sees and gathering clues. She is such a curious girl with a sense of adventure who misses a mother she barely remembers. When her aunt tells Flavia that if she wants to know what her mother was like she need only look in the mirror, my heart smiled for her. It is awful for such a little girl to keep stumbling across murders, but it is such a delight to read.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen

Lost Lake  Garden Spells was the first time I heard of Sarah Addison Allen. It was the cover that got me. A woman in a fancy dress kneeling in a garden with big juicy apples scattered around. I was as captivated by words between the covers as I was by the front cover. Then there was The Sugar Queen which among other things featured a woman for whom books magically appeared around her whenever she had a problem that needed solving. Thinking about buying a house - poof! There's a book about first time home ownership on the nightstand that was previously empty. How could I not love that? I can't lie. The Girl Who Chased the Moon was a bit of misstep, although I did love the cover - a woman in a white dress kneeling and surrounded by butterflies. Though it was not my favorite it wasn't a bad way to spend a couple hours. All missteps were forgotten with The Peach Keeper, set in Walls of Water, a town Addison drew so vividly I wish I could visit. And now there is Lost Lake.

Eby first saw Lost Lake on a picture postcard. She and her husband George decided to make the lake resort their home, treating guests to their southern hospitality and charm. George has long since passed and Eby wonders if it is time to let Lost Lake go.

Kate is just beginning to wake up from a year of sleepwalking that followed her husband's death. Like anyone waking up from a deep sleep she fumbles around waiting for things to become clear. She might want to go back to sleep but she knows she can't. She has a daughter, Devin, to think about. During her sleep filled year, Kate let her mother-in-law Cricket take over and free spirited Devin has suffered for it. Kate must put a stop to that. On a whim Kate decides to revisit Lost Lake where she spent a memorable summer visiting her great aunt Eby many years earlier.

So wonderful! Oh how to count the ways? Lost Lake is about grief and recovery, choosing happiness, cutting toxic elements out of one's life and moving forward. I wanted to read this slowly, to savor each word but it was too hard to stop reading. Upon reaching the last page for just a moment I considered turning to page one and starting again. This was truly a good read.

Highly recommended:
Garden Spells The Sugar Queen The Girl Who Chased the Moon The Peach Keeper

Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

A Fatal Grace (Chief Inspector Gamache Series #2) CC de Poitiers was a miserable woman who made everyone around her miserable: her husband, her child, her lover, and just about anyone who happened to cross her path. Her philosophy in life was not to show emotion, though she herself showed a lot of emotion. Her favorite seemed to be anger. When she dies, electrocuted while watching a curling match on a frozen pond no less, no one is particularly upset. Still, Inspector Armand Gamache must discover her murderer and bring him or her to justice even if some might think the world is better off with CC de Poitiers. He is also tasked with solving the murder of a homeless woman as part of his annual ritual of swapping cold cases with a colleague in another city. No worries, Inspector Gamache is up for the job.

A Fatal Grace is the second book in Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache mystery series, a series I am very much enjoying. In so many police procedurals (televised and written) the police are characterized as skirting close to the line between right and wrong, legal and illegal, and often crossing that line. Viewers and readers are supposed to root for the police anyway because anything they do is all in the name of crime solving. Inspector Gamache is different. He is a cop with an ethical code. He tries to avoid making assumptions about people and jumping to conclusions. He apologizes when he is wrong. He understands that part of his job as the lead detective is to train and mentor younger detectives. He realizes that the people he comes into contact with, whether a suspect, victim, witness, or bystander are just that, people, capable of both good and bad and everything in between. This ethical code makes Inspector Gamache an officer with an impressive solve rate. It has also made him unpopular among some of his colleagues.

I quite enjoyed this. This mystery itself was interesting, though not particularly difficult to solve. (I figured it out about half way through.) Aside from liking a book about an ethical police officer, I really like the town of Three Pines that Penny has created. It reads like a sort of artist colony with quirky residents full of interesting stories. My one complaint is that Gamache's team are not so well drawn or interesting. Hopefully they will be fleshed out more in future books.

I am intrigued by the dynamic between the Anglo and Franco factions of Quebec as portrayed in this series. The casual, I don't know if racism is the right word, between them is no doubt meant to be funny. Sometimes it is, but is also rather jarring. In both this and the previous book, a character will remark how all Anglos/Francos are one thing or another, as if these are people they have never encountered before. I can kind of understand why people who live in Quebec might have stereotypes about people from one of other Canada's provinces and vice versa, but it is interesting that people living in the same province seem so foreign to one another.

Halfway through this book I went out and bought the next two books in this series. Aside from the current homicide investigation, there was a hint of something bigger to come. It is known from the prior book in the series that Gamache's career has stalled, despite how good he is at his job, because he pissed someone off higher up the food chain. In this book we find out a little more about the case that put a damper on his career. More importantly, it appears that simply stalling his career might not be enough for some people. Can't wait to see what happens next.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Pagan Spring by G.M. Malliet

Pagan Spring (Max Tudor Series #3) Pagan Spring is the third book in the Max Tudor mystery series by G.M. Malliet. Malliet's series is set in a bucolic English village led by MI-5 agent turned Anglican priest, Max Tudor. Tudor may have thought he was escaping the violence and ugliness of the world when he entered the priesthood. Instead with Pagan Spring Tudor encounters his third murder since arriving in Nether Monkslip. It all begins with a dinner party to welcome the recent addition of a minor celebrity to the village.

There is a British television series called Midsomer Murders that I enjoy. It is a standard police procedural set in a series of villages that at first glance would appear to be bastions of peacefulness in the English countryside but instead seem to have a homicide rate that would rival any major metropolis. Think Crystal Cove and Murder She Wrote, only British. Pagan Spring, and its two predecessors Wicked Autumn and A Fatal Winter, are more or less book versions of Midsomer Murders or Murder She Wrote, which is probably why I like them. There is nothing too complicated, just a comforting cozy mystery with a few quirky characters, a pretty little town and a mystery that needs to be solved. I like darker stories too, but sometimes the time is right for a gentle cozy. This series is perfect for those times.

Wicked Autumn (Max Tudor Series #1)   A Fatal Winter (Max Tudor Series #2)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

What a Three Star Review Means to Me

I was on Book Riot recently and saw post about an author who had a meltdown on Goodreads because a person read his book and gave it one lonely star. He seemed to view this as a personal attack on him an on all that is good in humanity. I have also read/heard some authors say how they would much prefer five stars or one star over a three star review on the theory that a three star review means the book didn't provoke a strong interest in the reader one way or another. Love and hate are strong emotions and perhaps a three seems too boring. All this got me thinking about what a starred rating means to me.

Before Goodreads I never rated books. I kept a paper journal where I wrote what I thought and felt about a book. This never took the form of a rating, stars or otherwise. Then came Goodreads and its star rating system. I rarely rate books in my paper journal but feel kind of compelled to do so on Goodreads. Most of the books I rate on Goodreads are three stars. Three stars is good. It means I liked the book. It means I’m glad to have met the characters and spent some time in the world the author created. Three stars means that although reading the book so rated may not have been a life changing experience for me, my time was nevertheless well spent.

Remember when you were a teenager and everyday seemed like either the best day or the worst day of your life? I'm exhausted just thinking about being teenager. As an adult I find some days are spectacular, a few are truly horrible, but most are good. Perhaps even pretty good. In other words, somewhere in the middle. I feel this more or less applies to books as well. A significant portion of my reading consists of threes and that seems right to me. I hear people say that life is too short to not read great books but how do you know a book is great until you’ve read it? And how could it possibly be that every book you pick up ends up being truly great? If not for any reason besides statistics it seems that most would fall short of being great, but still might be good.

Favorite books I can’t stop thinking about, that I want to reread again and again, that spoke to me deeply in some way – those get a five. Four stars are pretty good books but not the best because every book cannot be the best or “the best” wouldn’t mean anything as a category and also because not all great books become favorite books. One star means I really didn’t like it, so much so that if I own the book I won’t own it for much longer. Two stars are where things get tricky. A two-starred book is a book I had issues with. I may not have particularly liked it but can see that it has some redeeming qualities.

When it comes to other people’s ratings, I take it all with a grain of salt and am amazed that anyone takes the Goodreads rating system with any degree of seriousness. For one thing, there is no agreed upon criteria for reviewing books. Anne might consider three stars a pretty good book while Betty equates three starts with mediocrity. You just never know. Every so often I come across people who have given every book on their Read shelf four or five stars and I think well this person likes everything and therefore cannot be trusted because who likes everything.

I do pay attention to the stars but mostly to get a sense of extremes. If I’m contemplating a book by an author I’ve never heard of before, particularly if the book came to my attention in a less traditional way, then I look for a five star review, a one star review, and a three star review. When you love something, it is easy to overlook the flaws, and vice versa, hence the one and five star reviews. As for threes, they tend to recognize the strengths and the weaknesses of a book. More importantly, I don’t just look at the stars. I read the review. That’s where the gold is. In the end the stars don’t mean much, but your thoughts do. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman

What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding: A Memoir  What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding is Kristin Newman's memoir about how she spent her time from her mid-twenties through her thirties while many of her friends were off getting engaged, getting married, and having babies. A television writer, Newman spent much of her free time in between writing jobs traveling to destinations far and near. Okay, mostly far. She went to Paris, Amsterdam, Russia, London, Argentina (multiple times), Brazil, the Dominican Republic, New Zealand, Australia, Iceland, Israel, and Jordan. In every port, or at least most of them, there was a boy to help her pass the time, sometimes multiple boys in the same port.

Basically what Kristin was doing while her friends were breeding was trying to figure out her complicated feelings about marriage, kids, independence and "settling down" while traveling around the world and meeting lots of interesting people, a number of which she ended up in bed with. This is a memoir about being in one's thirties and not having a husband or kids, or even a potential prospect for either and wondering (a) why don't I have those things and (b) do I even want those things? It's about loving one's life but also half wanting a different one. There is a great passage in the book where Newman writes that often life isn't about choosing between a really great thing and a really horrible thing. More often it is about choosing between one really great thing and another really great thing. Whichever one you choose, you both win and lose. Throughout this book Newman is in equal parts hopeful, desperate, funny and fun loving, lonely, and above all filled with a sense of adventure and willingness to try new things.

A great travel memoir reveals something about the place traveled to and person traveling. Newman's book excels at the second task but falls a little short on the first. After reading this I feel I know a lot about Newman and just a little about Argentina, Amsterdam and the other places Newman traveled. The exception is New Zealand which is incidentally the place where Newman had the least sex, or at least the place where sex wasn't the primary focus of the chapter about the trip.

I feel like I've read multiple versions of books like this one over the few years: Wild, Wanderlust, All Over the Map, Eat Pray Love. With the exception of Cheryl Strayed's Wild, they general involve women contemplating the state of the their romantic lives as they travel around the world in an effort to run away from a relationship or find a new one. As I read What I Was Doing I kept thinking of new genre categories for books like these. Single blonde women who like to travel, travel sex memoir, and romantic crisis travel memoir are three that came to mind. Nothing against blondes, but I would love to read a travel memoir by a woman of color, or at least by a brunette.

An ex tells Newman with disdain that the hallmark of spinster (my words, not hers) used to be a house full of cats. Now it is a house full of souvenirs from around the world. Newman chose to take that as a compliment. So do I.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Queenpin by Megan Abbott

Queenpin  Queenpin is so good!  So very good. The unnamed narrator is a girl from a good Christian family. She was raised right, but all she wants is bad. Her hardworking dad gets her job at Tee Hee, a bar on his delivery route. She spends her mornings in accounting class, her afternoons keeping Tee Hee's books, and her evenings keeping house. She doesn't think twice when her bosses ask her to "cook the books." She knows her bosses aren't the real bosses and that this won't probably end well, but she's willing to go along for the ride.

When Gloria Denton walks into Tee Hee, the narrator sees everything she never knew she wanted. Gloria is a legend in the criminal world and everything our girl wants to be. Gloria sees something in our girl and offers her a chance at a different life, one with big risks and even bigger rewards. Our girl knows she should feel guilty but she doesn't, not really. She loves her new life. All she has to do is not make any mistakes, like falling for the wrong guy.

When she meets him she falls hard. What's crazy is that she knows he's bad news from the beginning. He's a gambler who never knows when to walk away from the table. He's so bad for her, and yet so good. She can't walk away.

It is usually pretty easy to explain why a book doesn't work for me. It is much harder to explain a book that's great. This is the fourth of Megan's Abbott's modern noir stories that I've read and they have ranged from good to great. Queenpin was great. Abbott has a way of capturing voice and setting a scene. Throw in a great plot and there is not much more a girl can ask for. 

The only thing sad about finishing Queenpin is that I'm running out of Megan Abbott books to read.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Blood Bound by Patricia Briggs

Blood Bound (Mercy Thompson Series #2)  Blood Bound is the second book in the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs. Mercy is a walker who can turn into a coyote. For reasons I don't totally understand yet (beyond the fact of being different animal) this makes her strikingly different from the werewolves she grew up around. In the paranormal world Briggs has created, there are werewolves, vampires, fae, and walkers, or else at least one walker, as so far Mercy seems to be the only one. Humans have known about the fae for a while but have only recently found out that werewolves are real. The vampires have wisely decided to keep their existence a secret, at least for the time being.

Vampires are evil, or so Mercy has been told. Still, she counts one as a friend, or at least a fairly close acquaintance. When Stefan asks Mercy to accompany him to a meeting with another vampire and act as a witness, Mercy can't refuse. She does owe him a favor. This other vampire turns out to be more powerful than either Mercy or Stefan expected. And, he's a lot more trouble. There's a heat wave on and people's tempers seem to be shorter than usual. Everyone knows the heat can drive people crazy, but Mercy is beginning to suspect that it is more than just the heat is behind the string of violence erupting throughout the Tri Cities.

I like Mercy. She is strong willed, smart, and brave. She's not superhuman. She is well aware of both her strengths and her limitations, which notwithstanding that this is a paranormal story, makes her a realistic and believable. She's not trying to solve the world's problems, taking down one bad guy at a time. She's a mechanic who happens to have a lot of unusual friends and when she finds herself drawn into a situation, she figures out a way to handle it. Mercy is sarcastic and funny and an all around great character to spend some time with.

The side characters are also interesting. There's Sam, Mercy's first love. He clearly still wants her but he hurt her in the past and he and Mercy are trying to figure out what kind of relationship to have in the present. Adam is the local pack alpha, Mercy's neighbor and semi-boyfriend. They are awkwardly dating. As an alpha, Adam finds it difficult to not be controlling and domineering but realizes he cannot simply expect Mercy to be subservient to him the way other wolves are. Being in tune with her animal side herself, Mercy struggles to not simply submit to Adam and not get subsumed in the werewolf hierarchy and its politics. Stefan is the wild card. As Briggs writes them, vampires are inherently cold and untrustworthy. Yet Stefan clearly cares for Mercy, and he has a sense of humor, driving a van painted like the Scooby Doo mystery van. Mercy and Stefan have something going on but it's too soon to know yet if it is a genuine friendship, something more or something less.

This is a great series. I can't help but compare it to the Southern Vampire book series and its HBO counterpart, True Blood.  The Southern Vampire series and True Blood were over the top with craziness. It's early in the series but even with a bunch of supes running around making life difficult (but interesting), the Mercy Thompson series has a lot less melodrama. This isn't a criticism of either series, just noting that they're different. Next up, Iron Kissed.