Saturday, March 31, 2012

March WrapUp and Pick of the Month

This year I will be combining my monthly wrap-up post with Kerrie's Crime Fiction Pick of the Month over at Mysteries in Paradise.

My March totals are finally starting look like last year's. I really managed to pick up the pace. In part, because I now have two lunch hours a week to call my own. It's amazing how much reading I can cram into two hours a week. Here we go...

Total Books Read: 23
Total Pages: 4875
Percentage by Female Authors: 48%

Percentage by US Authors: 57%

Percentage by non-US/non-British Authors: 13%
Percentage Mystery: 78%
Percentage Fiction: 87%
Percentage written 2000+: 13%
Percentage of Rereads: 4%
Percentage Read for Challenges: 100% {It's eas
y to have every book count for a challenge when you sign up for as many as I do.}

Number of Challenges fulfilled so far: 4 (13%)

AND, as mentioned above, Kerrie is sponsoring a new meme for those of us who track our reading. What she's looking for is our Top Mystery Read for each month. In March, I read eighteen books that count as mysteries. Of those I gave five of them a four star rating: Champagne for One by Rex Stout, Dead as a Dinosaur by Frances & Richard Lockridge, The Murder at the Stork Club by Vera Caspary, The So Blue Marble by Dorothy B. Hughes, and A Good Death by Elizabeth Ironside. If I have to pick just one as the Top Mystery Read for March....then I believe I'll nominate A Good Death, although you really can't go wrong with any of the five. (click titles for reviews)

A Sprig of Sea Lavender: Review

A Sprig of Sea Lavender by J. R. L. Anderson has been something of a Holy Grail-type book for me. It got added to my TBR/TBF list sometime in the 1980s and I've kept an eye out for it whenever I've gone to used book stores or book sales--with no luck. And then my mother-in-law went to visit her sister at Christmas and they went to a used book store in Jacksonville, FL. Mom-in-law was armed with a list of some of my most-wanted books (she didn't seem to want to take all 10-15 pages of my To-Be-Found list with her--I can't imagine why). Wonder of wonders, she came home with the Anderson book (along with 30-some others; have I mentioned what a great mom-in-law I have?).

Now, I can't exactly explain why this book appealed to me so much that I kept it on the TBF list for 20 years. I found it listed in The Mystery Lover's Companion by Art Bourgeau and something about his synopsis grabbed me and held on tight:

Piet Deventer of Scotland Yard investigates the murder of a young woman found dead on a train, with a fortune in artworks in a portfolio next to her. The only clue is a sprig of sea lavender. the trail leads to the seaside in an excellent read.

Not precisely a description to make you drop everything and run out to find it.....and yet I felt like it was a must-find. And, while I have disagreed with some of his favorites, I have found his ratings to be pretty reliable over-all.

Now, of course, you're wondering--was it worth the wait?

First things first, though. How about a little more on what it's all about? As mentioned the story begins and centers on the death of a young woman on a train. She comes rushing to the platform just as the train was pulling out and is hauled aboard by a young solicitor from London. From the beginning, he thinks she isn't feeling well and isn't surprised when she seems to fall into an exhausted sleep. However, when they reach their destination he finds that he can't waken her. For good reason, she's dead. The woman has no identification on her and the only items found in her possession or near her in the compartment are a portfolio of artwork and a sprig of wildflower later identified as sea lavender.

Chief Inspector Piet Deventer has had experience as an artist and serves as part of the Fine Arts Division of Scotland Yard. He is called in to check out the portfolio and is astonished find that three of the paintings appear to be unknown works by Constable, Gainsborough and Turner. If genuine, this means that the young woman was carrying a treasure-trove of artwork with her when she died. An examination soon proves that she died of an overdose of barbiturates--but the case is further complicated by the traces of arsenic also found in her system. Using good old-fashioned leg work, Deventer manages to discover the identity of the victim and uses his background in the arts to go undercover at a seaside art colony to get to the bottom of mystery.

This is a good, solid mystery. Not quite as fairly clued as I would like (there's no way I could have figured out the true identity of the culprit/s), but a nicely written police procedural. I like the character of Piet Deventer very much and would like to read more stories featuring him (note to self--are there more stories featuring him? A quick peek at the interwebs would seem to say no. :-( ). I'm glad I kept the book on my list--but, in all honesty, it's not the Holy Grail of mysteries, nor anything like. Just a good average book written in the late 70s. A quick read and full of adventure. Three stars.


I agree that her story is improbable, but the improbable is not necessarily untrue.
~Wilbur Constantine (p. 125)

But reason is one thing, imagination another, and imagination here was not greatly comforted by reason. (p. 164)

Friday, March 30, 2012

Friday Memes

Book Beginnings on Friday is a bookish meme now sponsored by Rose City Reader (who originally inspired the meme). Here's what you do: Share the first line (or two) of the book you are currently reading on your blog or in the comments section. Include the title and author so we know what you're reading. Then, if you are so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line and if you did or did not like that sentence. Link up each week at Gilion's place.

Here's mine
from A Sprig of Sea Lavender by J. R. L. Anderson:

That there should be a surviving railway station at the little Suffolk town of Sudbury in these days of axed branch lines seems improbable; that it should still actually have trains seems next to unbelievable. Privately, Keith Tomlinson had doubted the accuracy of his aunt's information.

The Friday 56 is a bookish meme sponsored by Freda's Voice. It is really easy to participate. Just grab a book, any book, and turn to page 56. Find a sentence that grabs you and post it.
Here's mine from A Sprig of Sea Lavender by J. R. L. Anderson:

Could he justify a search of the whole line? That would be ridiculous.

The Case of the Grinning Gorilla: Review

Okay. So, for years I've been saying I don't care much for Perry Mason books. Perhaps it was the influence of the TV show with Raymond Burr which I took exception to at a young age. I'm not sure. But I'm here to eat humble pie. I picked up several Erle Stanley Gardner books over the past year--all those tempting little pocket-sized editions that I just can't resist. And I thought, just maybe, I ought to try reading one. I just finished The Case of the Grinning Gorilla--and it was good. Not the most awesome thing I ever read, but a good story. And, mostly, I love Della Street. I love how she sums up people succinctly and accurately for her boss. I love how she interacts with Mason. She's just a top-notch character.

But...the book. Mason is passing an auction held by the public administrator, and on a whim bids on the "Private personal belongings, matter of the Estate of Helen Cadmus." He didn't expect his bid to be the only one and is surprised to find himself in possession of the package to the tune of $5.00. Helen Cadmus had been the private secretary to Benjamin Addicks, an eccentric millionaire with the usual rich man's toys, including a private yacht. It was from the yacht that Helen Cadmus disappeared and the assumption was made that she had jumped overboard and committed suicide.

Once word gets out that the famous lawyer has acquired the materials, he finds that there seems to be an inordinate amount of interest in whether or not the effects includes Helen's diaries. As a matter of fact, they do. And that's when Mason gets interested himself. He gets involved at first out of curiosity. He and Della sit down and read through the diaries and are left feeling that this was a young woman who was anything but suicidal. As he tries to get more information on what really happened during that fateful yachting trip, he finds that the millionaire's household has more secrets than anyone suspected--from a small zoo full of gorillas and chimpanzees to Addicks' shifty legmen to an accusation of theft against the millionaire's former housekeeper. Before it's over, Addicks will be murdered and Mason will confront an apparently hypnotized and murderous grinning gorilla.

As I mentioned, this is a good read. Plenty of action and the narrative moves right along. For whatever reason, I thought the books were more hard-boiled than this one turned out to be. A little on the pulpy side...but in a very fun and light way. I will definitely be sampling more of the Gardner books sitting there on my shelf. Three and a half stars.

**One of the interesting bits in this novel: In the foreward, Gardner talks about his friend Dr. R. B. H. Gradwohl, a pioneer in the field of legal medicine. Dr. Gradwohl gets a mention (as himself) in this story. And the backstory on Gradwohl is very nice.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Theme Thursday: Ending

Hosted by Reading Between the Pages

*A theme will be posted each week on Thursday
*Select a conversation/snippet/sentence from your current book that features the theme
*Post it and don't forget to mention the author and title of the book
*Event is open for the whole week
*Link back to Reading Between the Pages
March is going to be all about making life easy. This month we will do ‘Pick what you see first‘ themes. So open the book you are reading, continue reading; pick the first mention of any name in it and post the snippet. The only condition is ‘No Ebooks’.. lets go traditional. Easy-peasy!!

And this week's theme is ENDING (the last sentence on the last page of your current book).

Here's mine from The Case of the Grinning Gorilla by Erle Stanley Gardner (***Spoiler Alert*** Do not read this sentence if you think it all likely that you will read the book. It will definitely spoil the ending for you. If you want to read it--and have difficulty--then highlight the sentence to make it more visible.):

Pocketing the wallet, he put through the call to Helen Cadmus.

Perhaps....since I am reading a mystery...I shouldn't have participated this week.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Good Death: Review

Judging by the two books by Elizabeth Ironside that I have read so far, she is a very versatile author. The first one I read (last year), Death in the Garden, was a country house murder with a bit of twist. This most current novel, A Good Death, is a less than straight-forward murder mystery set during the time of the French Resistance under Nazi rule. In both stories one of the most striking features is the sense of place and time that Ironside evokes. One feels very much what it was like to be on home front in war-torn France. How very difficult it was to navigate the territory between resisting the enemy and doing whatever necessary to save your friends, your family, your neighbors. And a major theme in Ironside's books seems to be betrayal--what constitutes betrayal and who is betraying whom?

Colonel Theo Cazalle returns to his family home in Bonnemort, France in 1944. He had left in 1940, faking his death so he could join the Free French in an effort to help end the war and bring peace to his divided country. The estate is deep in the countryside and memories of Bonnemort and his wife Ariane have carried him through the long four years of secret fighting. Now the enemy is being slowly driven from his homeland and he returns to find everything he knew changed and his dreams are shattered.

In his absence, his very home had been invaded by a Nazi officer and his men. The Nazis have since abandoned his estate, but they left a trail of terror and destruction in their wake. A family servant has been shot, several villagers have been hung, his wife has been denounced as a collaborator, his daughter is beaten, and the Nazi officer has been left naked and dead at the front gate of the Bonnemort estate. Theo finds that if he is to restore order to his world he must somehow find out what happened while he was gone. Is his wife a murderer? Did she become the mistress of the officer? Did she betray the resistance fighters? Or were there others who betrayed not only their compatriots but his wife as well? And what role has his daughter and the young girl his wife has sheltered during the occupation played in this drama?

As with the previous book, Ironside moves between time periods in this historical novel. The time jumps aren't quite as great in A Good Death--but they are just as important. We are given Theo's viewpoint "now" (1944) and then as he interviews various participants we are given the stories of the previous years as if they were happening as they are being told. It is a very interesting narrative technique and Ironside manages it very well. It is also interesting to be given so many versions of "what really happened." As is always the case, each character has their own version of the truth--slanted by their own fears and prejudices. In the end, when we finally discover what really happened to the German officer, we're still not sure that we've been given the entire truth.

A very compelling historical read. It's not a straight-up mystery--so purists may not enjoy it quite so much. It is also a bit darker than Death in the Garden, so I can't really say that it is a fun and enjoyable book. But is a good book. Four stars.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Mount TBR: Climbing Everest (Checkpoint)

So far, it looks like I'm right on track. I conquered 26 books off the teetering stacks around my back room--that puts me about 1/4 of a way up good ol' Mt. Everest. I've actually read a bit more than that--but there have been a few rereads and some library books in there. I do feel really good about clearing out what I've managed so far. I'm definitely glad I put this little challenge together--lots of motivation to read what I've got rather than constantly getting distracted by new books (either at the library or the bookstores). And just in case you're curious...the book that's been on the TBR stack the longest....A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens. I'm not precisely sure when I picked it up, but I was in high school. So that's well over 20 years ago (um....more like almost 30...yikes!)

Here are the stops along my way up Everest:

1. My Name Is Legion by Roger Zelazny (1/4/12)
2. The Problem of the Green Capsule by John Dickson Carr (1/7/12)
3. Prayers to Broken Stones by Dan Simmons (1/14/12)
4. The Masks of Time by Robert Silverberg (1/16/12)
5. Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett (1/19/12)
6. Future Crime: Anthology of the Shape of Crime to Come by Cynthia Manson & Charles Ardai (eds) (1/23/12)
7.. Murder & Magic by Randall Garrett (1/28/12)
8. The Black Seven by Carol Kendall (1/29/12)
9. The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells (2/3/12)
10. The Red Lamp by Mary Roberts Rinehart (2/7/12)
11. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (2/14/12)
12. Future on Ice by Orson Scott Card, ed (2/15/12)
13. Nothing Can Rescue Me by Elizabeth Daly (2/18/12)
14. The Yellow Room by Mary Roberts Rinehart (2/27/12)
15. The Jesus Incident by Frank Herbert & Bill Ransom (2/29/12)
16. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (2/29/12)
17. The Greenwell Mystery by E. C. R. Lorac (3/3/12)
18. Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh (3/6/12)
19. Hare Sitting Up by Michael Innes (3/9/12)
20. Five Passengers from Lisbon/Wake for a Lady/The Murder in the Stork Club by Mignon G. Eberhart/H. W. Roden/Vera Casapary (3.11.12 /3.12.12/3.10.12)
21. From Sawdust to Stardust: The Biography of DeForest Kelley, Star Trek's Dr. McCoy by Terry Lee Rioux (3/14/12)
22. Strange Murders at Greystones by Elsie N. Wright (3/16/12)
23. The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux (3/19/12)
24. The Rose Window & Other Verse from New Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke (3/22/12)
25. Full Moon by P. G. Wodehouse (3/23/12)
26. The So Blue Marble by Dorothy B. Hughes (3/24/12)

Mount TBR Challenge Checkpoint

The rumors are true...Your mountaineering guide is calling for the first quarterly check-in post. Let's see how our challengers are doing. Made it a couple of miles? Camping out in a cave 1/3 of the way up the mountain face? Taking refuge in a mountain hut along the way? Let us know how you're doing.

There are no formal rules about what must be in your checkpoint post. You can simply give us run-down of the books read. Or you can send us a few "snapshots" from your climb--tell us your favorite "scene" (book) along the way or which book of those conquered so far had been hanging out on the mountain the longest (I've got a few that had been there for around 20 years...) or anything else interesting about your journey so far. It's up to you. All I ask is that you post a little something and link it up here.

And what do you get for all that hard work (and distraction from the actual climb)? The link will close at 11:59 pm on Saturday, March 31. At that time I will crank up the Custom Random Number Generator and pick a winning climber. He or she will have their choice--either add to their TBR stack via my gently-used book vault (prize list will be sent) or a surprise book/reading-related item. Just think, if you win a book you can get a pile ready for next year's Mount TBR Challenge.

Even if you're not in the mood for a prize or if you've only got one leg of the journey under your belt, I'd love to have you check in and tell us how your climb is going!

***Addendum: Please note--the linky is for Checkpoint posts only. I haven't made the rules too exact--but the link must be to a specific Checkpoint post (not your blog's home page in general). Links that are not Checkpoint-specific will be removed--to make it easier for me to track a winner.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Vintage Theme #1 Complete: The So Blue Marble

The So Blue Marble (1940) was the debut novel for Dorothy B. Hughes. It is a bit thriller, a bit noir, and just a tad bit off-the-wall. The protagonist is Griselda, former actress, current fashion designer for the rich and famous in the glittering world of Hollywood. She has come back East for a rest and has taken advantage of her estranged husband's offer of his apartment for her stay. Con (the husband) is away on assignment and the apartment is conveniently empty.

She hasn't been there long when her nightmarish journey begins. A pair of dashing twins--identical in every way save that one is golden blond and the other dark-haired--in top hat and tails walk her home and begin to invade her life. And her younger sister, Missy, is involved with them as well (and quite the little psychopath, by the way--this is no spoiler, you know it from the moment you meet her). They insist that they will leave her alone if she will only hand over a very important object. The so blue marble. We learn later in the book that the marble is rumored to contain secrets leading to riches untold as well as the "secrets of the greatest lost civilization, of the day when the sun was harnessed, as we would like to harness it, when gravitation was controlled as we haven't dreamed of controlling it." They don't believe her when she says she doesn't have it (and doesn't even know what it is) and before she knows it she's caught up in a web of terror and there are dead bodies littered everywhere.

On the one hand, there is a lot of suspension of disbelief required by the book. That a map to such treasures could fit in a "marble" that somehow opens up. That dead bodies can appear and disappear all over New York. That the twins can kill indiscriminately without being caught. That Grisleda's other sister Anne could have no clue about the sinister undertones in every meeting with the twins and Missy. On the other, this is one page-turner of a book. I read it in two sessions (two, only because I absolutely had to go to bed last night) and could not put it down during either session. Very compelling narrative and description...and even though it all seems unreal, it becomes quite believable while you're reading it. It is easy to see why this book is considered a classic in the field. Four stars.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Full Moon: Review

Back to P. G. Wodhouse. Full Moon, another Blandings Castle adventure, also happens to have been written in 1947 and, therefore, counts as another candle for my mom's cake in the Birth Year Challenge Honors Edition.

In this particular outing, love is in bloom at Blandings Castle. Lord Emsworth's neice Prudence is on the brink of making a most unsuitable match--with an artist, no less. Her mother bundles her off to Blandings Castle to prevent the horrible event. Freddie Threepwood (Lord Emsworths's younger son) heads to Blandings with Tipton Plimsoll, a rich American bachelor, in tow. Plimsoll had been told by a Harley Street doctor that he is suffering from too much alcohol, needs the rest and relaxation of the countryside, and that if he doesn't follow doctor's orders then he may start seeing things. Plimsoll immediately does start seeing things--the face of a gorilla-like man, to be exact, popping up everywhere he goes. This causes him to take the doctor's advice and head to Blandings. Unbeknownst to Plimsoll, the face isn't a hallucination. It actually belongs to Freddie's long-time friend and god-son of Freddie's Uncle Galahad, Bill Lister.

Lister is, coincidentally, the unsuitable suitor of Freddie's cousin, Prue. Freddie and Uncle Gally come up with a plan to get Lister and Prue back together (and, hopefully, hitched). Lister will present himself to Lord Emsworth as an artist sent by Gally to paint the Empress of Blandings (Emsworth's famous pig) and that will provide him with an entree to Blandings and make the wooing of Prudence as simple as anything. (Anyone who has read any of the Wodehouse books knows how that's going to turn out.) Meanwhile, Freddie and Plimsoll show up at Blandings and Plimsoll promptly falls in love with Freddie's other cousin Veronica. Veronica's parents are much happier about this match for their daughter than the mother of Prue is about her choice. They are, in fact, eager for an engagement to be announced.

But, of course, this is Wodehouse and the path of true love never runs straight in these stories. The artist trick falls through for Lister. Several new plans are devised, much confusion and hilarity ensue. Plimsoll keeps getting glimpses of Lister and thinking his symptoms are reoccurring. He also becomes convinced that Veronica does not love him--she is obviously in love with her cousin (so he thinks)--and he drags his feet in the wooing. Her parents devise several plans to encourage him to propose, much confusion and hilarity ensue. Classic Wodehouse.

This one starts out well. Lots of laugh-out-loud moments--particularly in the early stages of Plimsoll's "hallucination." However, the multiple plots and plans to try and get love's young dream to fruition palled a bit. Wodehouse is funny, there is no denying that, but the formulaic plots are a bit much. I've got a couple more Blandings books sitting on the TBR pile. I think I'm going to let them simmer for a while. Three stars.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Rose Window: Review

Suddenly a shaft of moonlight
shines out fiercely, as if somewhere
the archangel had unsheathed his brilliant sword.
~from "Townscape"

I'm really working on clearing out books that have been sitting on the TBR shelves for much too long. The Rose Window & Other Verse from New Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke has been hanging out for about 10 years or so. I fell in love with Rilke's poetry in college. I went out immediately and bought myself The Complete French Poems and have read and reread those. Then in about 2000, I found this pretty little book sitting in the clearance bin of a now defunct bookstore. And somehow managed to never read it. So...I put it down for a number of reading challenges just to ensure that I would finally do so.

This book of poetry isn't quite as compelling as the translated French poems. I think perhaps it suffers from the fact that there are multiple translators rather than just one--nine translators in all. I would get into a certain rhythm (or rather the translator seemed to) and then a poem would come along that brought things to a screeching halt. Word choice and order seemed a bit off. Then there would be a few more good ones. It made for very uneven reading. My favorite poems were "Early Apollo" and "The Angel of the Meridian" (both translated by the same person), "The Poet" and "Townscape" (translated by a second person) and "Lullaby" (translated by a third). My rating for the entire collection: three and a half stars.

[for the European Reading Challenge: Rilke was born in Prague, died in Switzerland, and the poems are translated from German]

Theme Thursday: Movement

Hosted by Reading Between the Pages

*A theme will be posted each week on Thursday
*Select a conversation/snippet/sentence from your current book that features the theme
*Post it and don't forget to mention the author and title of the book
*Event is open for the whole week
*Link back to Reading Between the Pages
March is going to be all about making life easy. This month we will do ‘Pick what you see first‘ themes. So open the book you are reading, continue reading; pick the first mention of any name in it and post the snippet. The only condition is ‘No Ebooks’.. lets go traditional. Easy-peasy!!

And this week's theme is Movement.

Here is mine from "The Carousel" in The Rose Window & Other Verse from New Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke (p. 65):

And on the lion rides all white a boy
and holds himself with his small hot hand,
the while the lion shows his teeth and tongue

A Blast From the Past: The Clue in the Old Album

Growing up, I was a big Nancy Drew fan. My mom got me hooked when she gave me her 5-6 volume set from the 1950s. From that moment on I devoured the mysteries starring the girl detective like they were going out of style--every birthday and Christmas saw at least one Nancy Drew title on my list. I've been reluctant to reread any of these beloved mysteries for fear that they wouldn't hold up so well now that I'm a grown up. But--I signed up for the Birth Year Challenge Honors Edition and needed books from 1947 (my mom's birth year), so I decided to see which Nancy Drew book came out in that year and give it a reread. I thought it appropriate to read at least one Nancy book in honor of mom--since that's really how this love affair with books started--and, so, this is my first candle on Mom's Birth Year Challenge cake.

The Clue in the Old Album
--in which Nancy goes to a violin concert, observes a man steal an older woman's purse, runs after him, recovers the purse (but not its contents), and winds up on a hunt for a lost doll and a young girl's missing father who happens to be a gypsy. In the course of her adventures, Nancy gets poisoned and kidnapped (not on the same day), takes an impromptu trip to New York City where she just happens to be able to meet the violinist from the concert who introduces her to a famous gypsy actress, AND she and her friends Bess & George buy a little sailboat and win the first-ever "girls" boat race. Just your typical small-town girl's life. :-)

So, yeah. Totally unrealistic. But absolutely fun and exciting for young girls...and not too bad for a middle-aged girl doing a bit of nostalgia. As I've said previously here on My Reader's Block, I've seen critiques of the Nancy Drew stories--all about how it wasn't healthy to entice girls with a heroine who seemed to have all the money in the world and a dad who let her do anything. You know, those things never occurred to me. I never thought, "Gee, I wish I was rich like Nancy" or "I wish Dad would let me do whatever because Nancy can do everything." Yeah, I admit it, I wanted a blue roadster (for that matter, I still do), but not as a thing to possess. For me, that blue roadster represented adventure. Anything might happen when you set out on an ordinary day in your blue roadster. And, for Nancy, anything did.

This particular story was never one of my favorite, favorites. I'm not sure what I rated it then, but I suspect it would be the three stars that I'm assigning it now. Decent mystery, good adventure. A nice trip down memory lane.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Curious Cape Cod Skull: Review

The Curious Cape Cod Skull by Marie Lee is another mystery that has been sitting on the TBR list for quite a while. It is also an academically-inclined book--with the body finder and main character being a former science teacher and the victim and most of the suspects being university folk. And...thankfully, this one went over a heck of a lot better than my previous read.

As mentioned, Marguerite Smith is a retired science teacher who is preparing for a visit from her nephew Jeb and his sons. On schedule for the weekend is an introduction to clam digging for the youngsters. In anticipation of the outing, Marguerite heads out to her shed to unearth the clamming equipment--only to find the door securely locked (not something she regularly does). Her surprise does not end with the locked door, however. On the other side is a dead body.

The victim is one Peter DaFoe, a handsome Cambridge archeologist who had been in charge of an area excavation of an Ancient Native American homesite. And the murder has been carried out using a baseball bat stored in the shed. Police investigations turn up several suspects--from DaFoe's colleagues on the dig to his beautiful, straying wife (who just happens to benefit under a large insurance policy) to, surprise!, Marguerite's nephew Jeb. Having found the body and then having suspicion focus on her relations, Marguerite takes it upon herself to help the police get to the bottom of the mystery. And then her dog Rusty digs up another ancient skull in a fairly new plastic bag. Was this the reason DaFoe had to be silenced?

True to cozy mystery tradition, there are a lot coincidences and the improbable "help" given by the amateur. But the mystery is fast-paced and interesting and the main characters (Marguerite, the police officers and most of the suspects) are charming and well-drawn. Their voices ring true and they seem like real folks who might live in your home town. A very nice debut to a short series (only three books) . The only short-coming is the rather too-detailed archeological descriptions and run-down of how the family trees of the various blue-blood East Coast families. But it doesn't distract too much from the story. If I come across the other two, I will certainly give them a read. Three stars for a solid mystery.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Nantucket Soap Opera: Review

Nantucket Soap Opera by S. F. X. Dean has been sitting on my TBR list (of books I don't own) for quite a while. At some point after I discovered I really enjoyed mysteries with an academic flair I ran across a mention of this one. I don't remember exactly when or how. And so I added it to my Wishlist Challenge--that way I could scratch it off my list. When I found that it was the sixth of a series starring Professor Neil Kelly, well, I just thought that was spiffy. A whole new academic series to start on. Having read this one, I don't think I'll be going out of my way to look for any more.

Here's the scoop: Professor Neil Kelly is a seventeenth century scholar. He's a rare bird in the academic community--a scholar whose books sell well. Coming off a best-selling book about John Donne and a mini-series no less (we're stepping into fantasy territory here), he's taken himself off to Nantucket in the off-season for some peace and quiet and a chance to commune with his muse. 'Cause he's supposed to cough up another best-seller--this time on Ben Johnson.

His idyllic little world is shattered when Hollywood hits Nantucket in the guise of actor/director William Olds. Olds has decided that his next big winner will be a soap opera based in the 17th century and using a true story of the island's first bank robbery as a jumping off point. Tagging along with Olds is his ruthless and ambitious daughter, his sex-symbol mistress, and an entire entourage of ghastly hangers-on--all roaming the island to see if it really will be suitable for their dream series. They also try to convince Kelly to write the screenplay once they discover that he had actually co-written a small piece on the robbery for a television show. Following the havoc wreaked by the celebrity folk, the story is made complete with three murders, betrayals, infidelity, and an abuse scandal.

This is a story that doesn't seem to know what it wants to be. At times comic, at times philosophical, at times drop-dead boring narration. There is way more gratuitous sexual references than necessary (if any can be said to be necessary). Dean's narrative style roams from straight-up story-telling to weird little cameo sketches of various characters. I never really connected with the people involved and I didn't much care about the story--and I darn well didn't care about every male character's sexual fantasies and who they first made it with (and that was rarely important to the plot).

I get the sense that Professor Kelly is a likeable fellow. It's remotely possible that I might enjoy a real-live mystery story with him as the central character. But I can't say that this particular book allows me to discover whether that's true or not. I'm not sure whether the plan was to "sex-up" the story because we had Hollywood involved or not--but if there's some symbolic thing going on with that....well, it just didn't work for me. And, unfortunately, it has made it unlikely that I'll try another one just to find out if a Kelly story really can be good. Unrated.

Teaser Tuesdays

MizB of Should Be Reading hosts Teaser Tuesdays. Anyone can play along. Just do the following:

*Grab your current read.Link*Open to a random page.
*Share two "teaser" sentences from somewhere on that page.

*BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! You don't want to ruin the book for others.
*Share the title and author too, so other TT participants can add it to their TBR lists if they like your teaser.

Here's mine from Nantucket Soap Opera by S. F. X. Dean (p. 59):

Panda didn't just arrive at the deck where they were gathered, she invaded it, a thin, bleached bristle of energy in beaded tennis shoes, shorts, and an embroidered chambray shirt open halfway to her belt. She threw a pair of aviator sunglasses back over her shoulder in the general direction of the car. the woman behind her could have caught them, but neatly stepped aside and let them bounce on the grass.

Monday, March 19, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is a bookish meme hosted by Book Journey. It's where we gather to share what we have read this past week and what we plan to read this week. It's a great way to network with other bloggers, see some wonderful blogs, and put new titles on your reading list. So hop on over via the link above and join in...and leave a comment here so I can check out what you are reading.

Books Read (click on titles for review):
Wake for a Lady by H. W. Roden
The Doctor Dines in Prague by Robin Hathaway
From Sawdust to Stardust: The Biography of DeForest Kelley, Star Trek's Dr. McCoy by Terry Lee Rioux

Strange Murders at Greystones by Elsie N. Wright
The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Onon no Komachi & Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan trans by Jane Hirshfield w/Mariko Aratani
The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

Currently Reading:
Nantucket Soap Opera by S. F. X. Dean: When director William Olds arrives on the island of Nantucket with his entourage to shoot soap opera, Professor Neil Kelly must sort through the death and destruction they leave behind

Books that spark my interest:
The Fire Engine that Disappeared by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahloo
The Golden Scorpion by Sax Rohmer

The Mystery of the Yellow Room: Review

Synopsis: A series of inexplicable events involving Mademoiselle Stangerson, her father, and their household pit the famous detective Frederic Larsan against the amazing young journalist Joseph Rouletabille. Mlle. Stangerson is attacked one evening after she has retired to bed. She has firmly locked and bolted the door behind her. Not too long after, there are cries of "Murder!' and gun shots and the sound of a scuffle--but no one can get in to help her. When her father and a servant manage to break in the door, they find her badly hurt and bleeding--but there is no one else in the room! And the only other means of escape is a window that is closed and barred--fastened on the inside as well.

Both Larsan and Rouletabille (aided by his trusty side-kick & the main narrator of the piece, Sinclair--a young barrister) are hot on the trail, looking for clues inside and out. Larsan quickly fastens on Mlle. Stangerson's fiance, Robert Darzac, as the culprit. But Rouletabille disagrees. There are further attacks, another mysterious disappearance of the villain and eventually a murder before Rouletabille provides the murder in a last-minute deposition to the court. A court all set to find Robert Darzac guilty!

The Mystery of the Yellow Room
by Gaston Leroux is hailed as one of the first locked room crime novels. It has been named by some as the third best locked room mystery of all time. John Dickson Carr, master of the locked room and impossible crime himself, has sung its praises. And it is credited with inspiring Agatha Christie to try her hand at her very first mystery. So--what do I, a mere book-blogger, have to say about it? Well, it's a decent mystery. It's got some interesting elements. But I can't say that it knocked my socks off--it may have done so a hundred years ago. But I've read too many more recent novels for that. I see other detectives and stories in it. There is the shadow of Holmes--the intelligent, rational amateur taking on the established detective. There is the scrambling of the Holmes-like detective all over the scene of the crime--making patterns of footprints. There is the insistence (of Larsan) that the assailant was not wounded in the hand, but was bleeding from the nose (reminiscent of A Study in Scarlet). There is the echo of Lord Peter Wimsey--rushing into the court room at the eleventh hour to save an innocent man (Clouds of Witness, anyone?). And, yes, I suppose I should say that Wimsey reminds me of Rouletabille and not the other way 'round. But, you see, I read Sayers first. And, truth be told, I find Lord Peter to be a much more engaging character than Joseph Rouletabille.

The book starts out strong. Leroux sets up everything very nicely--explaining how our narrator and Rouletabille become involved in the mystery. The descriptions of the attack on Mlle. Stangerson, the mystery of the locked room and the investigations immediately following are wonderful. In fact, everything perks along quite nicely until Leroux abandons Sinclair as our narrator for a time and presents certain events through the lens of Rouletabille's journal entries. Rouletabille's voice does not ring true in those entries and the switch in narrative voice was a bit jarring. And when our familiar narrator picks up again, the rhythm never quite gets back on track.

One last quibble--although the explanation given for the locked room does work--it seems a bit contrived. As if Leroux had painted himself into a corner and he couldn't provide a more clever explanation. I don't think John Dickson Carr would have resorted to such a convenient solution.
Over all, a quite decent mystery from the time period. I would have liked to have liked the characters more...that would have pushed this three star outing into the four star range.

Favorite Quote:

Coincidences are the worst enemies to truth. (Rouletabille, p. 87)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Ink Dark Moon: Review

The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi & Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan translated by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani. These poems were written by two ladies of the Heian Court between the 9th and 11th Centuries in Japan. These women were central figures in the only literary Golden Age where women writers dominated the field. Shikibu (974?-1034?) wrote during the court culture's greatest period. She was a woman interested in both religious consciousness and intense erotic experience. Komachi (834?-?) served in the Heian Court's first half-century. Her poems were very diverse--personally expressive with philosophical and emotional depth.

The poems are all very short and yet quite expressive in their brevity. The word choice is precise and beautiful--taking the reader into the heart of the poet's vision in just a few lines. I thoroughly enjoyed my time-travel back to early Japan. But the themes covered are universal. Love and desire, fulfillment and rejection don't change with the centuries. Love can be just as captivating and all-consuming now as it was then. Rejection and loss can cut just as deep. These women convey the feelings of all women...of any time. Four stars.

Of the two, I prefer the selections from Izumi Shikibu. But I do like this one by Ono no Komacchi:

I thought to pick the flower
of forgetting
for myself,
but I found it
already growing in his heart.

Selections by Shikibu:

In this world love has no color--
yet how deeply
my body
is stained by yours. (p. 51)

To a man who said we should meet, even if it were only for a single time

Even if I now saw you

only once,

I would long for you

through worlds, worlds. (p. 55)

Some cross the Pass of Love,

some don't.

Unless you are the watchman there
it is not your right
to cast blame. (p. 69)

On a night
when the moon
shines as brightly as this,

the unspoken thoughts
of even the most discreet heart
might be seen. (p. 78)

This heart,

longing for you,
breaks to a thousand pieces--
I wouldn't lose one. (p. 110)

Even when a river of tears

courses through
this body,
the flame of love cannot be quenched. (p. 118)

Even if I

repeated love's name


could outward life match

the intensity of our hearts? (p. 135)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Strange Murders at Greystones: Review

"Oh, dear, dear, dearie me!" [Kate Griggs, housekeeper]

That just about sums it up. This is a train wreck kind of book. A deer in the headlights kind of book. A "it's just so awful, but I can't stop reading it because I've got to see if it gets any worse" kind of book. And it does. Elsie N. Wright was so busy stuffing Strange Murders at Greystones with every cliché and stock cardboard character that she could whip up that she didn't have room to logically complete scenes and provide ample explanations for inexplicable events.

You have the unpleasant lord of the manor who has been cruel to everyone and who winds up conveniently dead. Nobody really cares--especially not you, the reader. You have the worried, harried housekeeper. You have the weird butler who has just been dismissed from service shortly before the murder. [Maybe the butler did it!] You have the disgruntled gardener who looks furtively or malevolently or mirthlessly (or some other -ly sort of way) at everyone. You have the excitable French maid. You have the "coloured" cook who is suddenly hired to fill in for the excitable housekeeper who has to take to her bed because of the stress. A cook who says "Lawd's sakes" and swears that the "Debbil" is after them all. You have the daughter who has been sent away to school all her life up till now and who didn't really know her father--and she's so innocent and brave and naive and willing to stick up for her fiance (who the cops immediately nab for the murder). You have the (obviously innocent) fiance who had a huge ol' fight with the victim shortly before he (the victim) is found dead. You have the Inspector who is initially advertised as the force's best and brightest, but who shows himself to be a big dumb cop who'd rather beat a confession out of the first obvious suspect than get down to business and actually try to solve the crime.

Oh, and don't forget the mad scientist and the unknown relative and the secret passage(s). And as an extra special surprise--the pretty gory (for the time period) grand finale. Whew. Then, of course, there are the mysteries of why Inspector Kelley would hand over his convenient extra gun to the man he's considered his A number one suspect. And why he only keeps one bullet in it. And the huge gaps in between the second murder and Kelley being interested in it. Not that the corpse is important being one of his fellow officers and all. And Polly (the daughter) being too scared to go to bed that first night and deciding to wait up for her aunt--and immediately falling asleep as soon as she sits down. [Personally, with a murder and someone laughing maniacally in my house, I'd be too darn keyed up to sleep--for weeks, probably.] And Kelley swearing to bring a squad of police officers and the doctor after another murderous attempt....and dawdling for what seems days (but in reality hours). And the number of mysterious people who appear and disappear. It's more than a body should have to stand (cue harried housekeeper).

I couldn't resist this book when I found it on the almost free clearance table at the Red Cross Book Sale last fall. In this case, "clearance" must have been code for "nobody in their right mind would pay a decent price for this" OR "if you only knew...we'd have to pay YOU to take it home with you." I even got an inkling of what was in store for me when I looked good ol' Elsie N. Wright up on the interwebs once I had the thing in my possession. William F Deeck reviewed this book in August 2010 over at Mystery*File. He told me how bad it was. John at Pretty Sinister Books put in a word to the wise when I bragged about my Red Cross haul. Silly me, I thought perhaps it might be so bad, that it would be good. At the very least humorous because it was so bad. Yeah--no.

But you know what I absolutely love about this book? At the end of the book--supposing you hang in there and read all the way to the end--there is this blurb:

Did you enjoy reading "Strange Murders at Greystones?" It is only the first of twelve First Editions that we have scheduled for 1931 Publication! Each book will be an "eye-opener" to fiction readers--so--we suggest you get your copy of each new book as it is placed on sale....You can now go to your neighborhood store and buy your copy of a BRAND NEW BOOK, WRITTEN BY A VERY WELL KNOWN AUTHOR FOR 25 cents. ['cuz everybody has heard of Elsie N Wright, right? And, coincidentally--that happens to be how much I paid for this off of the clearance table.]

In the following pages you will find a few paragraphs, picked at random, from this very excellent story, which held every member of our Editorial Department interested from beginning to end.

Get Your Copy of "Dancing Desire" on March First. [Darn. I wish I'd known. I would have scoured the Red Cross Sale to see if I could have found that one too!] Sarcastic? Who me?

Unrated. I can't even think of an appropriate rating for this.....They say that everyone has at least one book in them. What they don't say is that not all of them should be published.

Really Bad Lines (descriptions/metaphors/what-have-yous):

Nervously her bony hands twisted her stiffly-starched apron, while the brown frightened eyes in her wrinkled face blinked with anxiety as she darted, quick, bird-like glances all about her. [About Kate Griggs--on the very first page--and nothing has really happened yet.]

The housekeeper screamed, a loud piercing scream that rose above the wailing of the dogs, above the harsh voice of the gardener--a scream to wake the dead--but Thatcher Graham did not stir. (p. 12)

They stood there, the four of them, in a tableau of horror, no one daring to go forward to the man who had been their master, and help him, if help were possible. (p. 13)

"The Commissioner thought that seeing that Mr. Graham is so important, and this would have such a great effect on stocks going down and all, that it would be best to put someone on this case who'd clear it up right away." (Inspector Kelley about self--the epitome of the humble detective, p. 16)

He became a member of the plainclothes staff. Here the sledding was harder, but by dint of sheer ability and persistence, he forged his way ahead, and was now Inspector Kelley. [p. 17; "sledding"--really?]

"Well, Doc, he's dead, ain't he?" [Kelley, p. 17]

It came from Pete the gardener, who sat far back in the shadows, his piercing eyes glaring malevolently from out of his dark face. [p. 26]

"Oh, all right, all right, girlie, go ahead. But remember, one false move, and we shoot from the hip." [Kelley, p. 34]

Suddenly a laugh, a bloodcurdling laugh, a laugh that ended in a shriek, echoed through the house. [p. 50]

There was a whirring sound and the clock on the mantel struck twelve. "Twelve!" shuddered Polly. "Anything can happen at twelve! Everything happens at twelve!--" [p. 54]

Polly screamed, but no sound came from her throat. [p. 55]

From the corner of the room two piercing green eyes were regarding her, fixedly, unblinkingly. Polly could not move--her limbs were paralyzed. She could not cry out--her throat belonged to someone else. She could only sit there, horror-stricken, while those eyes drew closer, closer, through the pitchy blackness of the room. [p. 55]

"Lord knows, you need the newspapers to convict a man." [Kelley, p. 66; Never mind evidence.]

There was more to this Russian than he could fathom. In Kelley's mind the man was either awfully smart or awfully stupid. Either he knew an awful lot about this case or he knew nothing. [p. 87; odds are...Kelley's right]

"You see, a good alibi is bad, but no alibi at all is worse." [Kelly, p. 107]

And a whole lot more. If I'd wanted to, I probably could have given you bits from every page.

Favorite Quote (for reals):

It's his business to sound convincing, Polly, dear, and the less he has to say, the more convincingly he'll say it. (Aunt Margaret, p. 61)

I never argue with a woman, especially when she's made up her mind." [Kelley, p. 156; smartest thing he said in the whole book :-)]
****Update! Did a little search on the interwebs for Dancing Desire. It's a "ballet romance." Only description I could find: Dancer makes good, gets three boyfriends. How could I resist that? Will have to keep my eyes peeled. Of course, if I really wanted it, I could order it up online--for anything from $4 to $65. I think I'll hold out for 25 cents. ;-)