Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Late Scholar: Review

At the end of The Attenbury Emeralds, Peter Wimsey finds himself in a new role as the Duke of Denver. The Late Scholar opens three years later with Peter discovering that his latest title also carries the responsibility of Visitor for St. Severin's College, Oxford. As Visitor, he is charged with such duties as overseeing the installment of new Wardens and fellows to the college as well as acting as a sort of referee of last resort in times of irreconcilable conflict. It is in this last capacity that members of St. Severin's write to Peter and request his presence at Oxford.

It seems that the college is in rather desperate straits financially and one solution would be to sell a valuable manuscript to buy some land for development. The fellows are divided evenly on the issue and the Warden has previously cast the deciding vote--but the Warden has disappeared. Peter, Harriet, and Bunter arrive at Oxford to find that not only has the Warden vanished, but there have also been attacks and "accidents"--some of them fatal--on various fellows of the college. Peter finds himself acting not only as Visitor, but as detective as well as he attempts to discover who is behind the attacks and why.

Four books into the revived Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane stories and Jill Paton Walsh is finally getting things more right than not. Given her own series featuring Imogen Quy, a nurse at St. Agatha's College, Cambridge, it may well be that she is far more comfortable with the academic setting and this story which takes place at Oxford has made her feel at home. Or perhaps she is just acclimating to her task of writing in Sayers's shadow--regardless, this story was much more enjoyable for this Sayers fan.

The banter between the Peter and Harriet sounds (for the most part) affectionate and smart and literary as Sayers intended. The relationship is easy and comfortable as it should be between two people who have loved each other this long. The quotations fit more comfortably into the conversations instead of sounding as if Paton Walsh had just opened a book of literary quotes, picked one at random that might fit the topic at hand, and dropped it in the mouth of Peter or Harriet. In fact, congratulations on the characters all round--from the Dowager Duchess to the Wimsey sons to the dons of Oxford. The mistakes in well-known (to LPW fans) characters are few and far between--the most glaring is having Miss de Vine commit such a blunder in reference to Harriet's past experience as a murder suspect. The Helen de Vine we all know and love from Gaudy Night would never drop such a social brick. Another problem that struck me quite forcibly was having Peter pull a revolver out of his pocket to shoot the lock off a stubborn locked door--Peter Wimsey is no hard boiled private eye; he doesn't go round with firearms in his pocket, shooting his way into places. 

So...high marks--with a few reservations--for characterization. The plot, however, is a bit disappointing. While the basic problem of motive is new to the Wimseys, the methods of murder and attempted murder are not. Each incident is stolen from Harriet's mysteries (read Sayers here, since most of the murders referenced have been based on Peter's cases). Paton Walsh has no need to devise murder methods of her own...she just grabs them from Harriet's books. The motive is also a bit murky--I think I understand it (although I don't entirely buy it), but with Sayers I would have been sure. All-in-all, a much better outing and if Paton Walsh gives us another Peter and Harriet story, I have hopes that it may be even better still. ★★

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Attenbury Emeralds: Review

Currently (at least on Facebook) there is a major debate raging over Sophie Hannah's forthcoming Hercule Poirot novel. A large number of diehard Christie fans are up in arms and who can blame them? All of the promotional material I've seen shows the cover with "Agatha Christie" emblazoned in huge letters at the top of the book.* Many commenters have initially been confused--asking if this has recently been found among Christie's papers. I have to say that it gives every appearance of the Christie estate trying to hoodwink readers into thinking that this is an Agatha Christie story. It's not. And this sense of being tricked is what really puts me off. Of course, I also am not terribly keen on authors trying to take up the mantle of a much beloved novelist. It rarely goes well. (The sequel to Gone With the Wind, anyone?) There are a fair number of good Sherlock Holmes pastiches--but there are also a multitude of poor ones. But to my knowledge none of them try to pass themselves off as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. [*Please note how tiny the "Based on the characters of Dorothy L. Sayers" is on the cover to the right.]

Which brings me to The Attenbury Emeralds by Jill Paton Walsh. The Lord Peter Wimsey novels which have sprung forth from Paton Walsh's hand would be a prime reason why I am very reluctant to pick up The Monogram Murders by Hannah. I dearly love Dorothy L. Sayers's novels and was, quite honestly, thrilled to hear that she was going to use DLS's notes and partially finished work to give us Thrones, Dominations. What LPW fan wouldn't want more adventures with our lordly sleuth? That book was okay--not even close to the brilliant gem it could have been if Sayers had completed it, but okay. And when the next one came out I read that too in the hopes that Paton Walsh would be more comfortable with the characters and begin to come into her own with them. It didn't happen and, in fact, the second novel was much weaker than the first--probably because there was even less Sayers material to work with. So, why, you may ask, have I continued with the series when I have been disappointed with the results so far? Because I cannot resist the Wimsey charm even when it hasn't been properly represented. The same reason that I've already started the most recent LPW/Harriet Vane adventure, The Late Scholar. Resistance is futile...I don't want that to happen with Poirot. So....unless an overwhelming majority of reviewers I know and trust give rave reviews to The Monogram Murders, I won't be touching it.

And now....on with the review.

The titular Attenbury Emeralds have been the focus of mystery for quite some time. In 1921 Wimsey, just making his entrance back into society in his recovery effort after the war, is involved with the hue and cry that goes up when the famous large stone of the set goes missing. It is his maiden venture into the realm of amateur detecting and his handling of it and the publicity around the recovery of the gem launches him into the career that serves as the most efficacious cure for his shell-shocked nerves. Years later, after the Second World War, another crisis arises with emerald and the newest Lord Attenbury asks Wimsey to investigate. With all the changes after the war, most immediately the heavy death duties he faces on the passing of his father, the new lord would like to sell the emerald and save his estate. But a claimant has popped up--asserting that the emerald held in the bank vault is not Attenbury's at all, that somehow it has been switched. The bank will not allow Attenbury to remove the stone for sale until proof can be supplied that it is, indeed, the family's property. Wimsey with the assistance of Harriet and Bunter must track down the crucial moment when the stones may have been switched....but the case takes a more diabolical turn when they discover that each time the emerald was removed from the vault a death followed.

This novel, as with the first two, contains flashes of Wimsey and his lady that are true to form but they are too few and far between. The entire first quarter of the book reads like a bad drawing room comedy between two people who are doing their best to appear that they know and love each other but don't really. Peter and Harriet's literary quote filled banter always had a thread of joy and sexiness running through it that is sadly lacking. Bunter's relationship to the two is also slightly askew. Granted, the times they are a-changing and the relationships between the gentry and servants may not be the same--but Bunter is too old-school to ever change and Paton Walsh's efforts to indicate this make Bunter into a wooden version of himself throughout a large portion of the book. The person who comes off best is the Dowager Duchess--she still isn't quite as Sayers wrote her, but she is the closest rendition we have.

The story has a very self-aware feel especially in the first third with coy references to "if this were one of my detective novels" and "not nearly as good as Christie or Sayers." Let's just announce in a loud voice that "Hey look, we're amateur detectives in a mystery novel" shall we?  I should also make reference to the quite awful method of delivery for the previous emerald incident. Sitting round the fire for "story hour" was bad enough, but then we follow Peter and Harriet around from tea shop to kitchen table and back to the fireside for installments (like this is a radio serial story or something). There must have been a better way to tell the back history. Peter could have started out in story-teller mode...fade to black and whoosh we're in 1921 and following events...fade back to present with wrap-up comments/questions and Bob's your uncle. Tally-ho and let's play hunt the emerald in modern times. I don't know. All I do know is the first half of the book does not work well for the reader or the characters involved. [Speaking of Bob and his uncle, since when does Peter say "old chap" except perhaps in deliberate and obvious irony?]

The mystery itself is convoluted and full of coincidence. The investigation itself is fairly well done but the plot leaves a lot to be desired. Paton Walsh does a much better job with her own Imogen Quy series--most likely because the characters are hers and she doesn't have to worry about writing in the shadow of such a fabulous author. She can just tell her story and concentrate on the plot construction.

★★ purely for my beloved characters and the chance to visit with them despite their imperfect renderings. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Bigger They Come: Review

 The Bigger They Come by A. A. Fair (aka Erle Stanley Gardner of Perry Mason fame) is the first book of the Bertha Cool and Donald Lam series and it is their first case working together as well.  Lam is a down-on-his luck former lawyer who lost his license to practice for a year because he unwisely bragged to a client that he knew a foolproof way to commit murder. No locked doors; no mysterious poisons; just a little loophole in the law that would allow a guilty man to walk free. Cool is a woman who set up her own detective agency as a means of support after her philandering husband passed away. She's greedy, vulgar, and not opposed to dealing with both sides of the law if it means she'll make a fast (untraceable) buck.

We meet them as Lam arrives at the office in answer to a personal ad. He and every out-of-work Johnny in California have lined up to try and convince B. Cool of "B. Cool Confidential Investigations" that he is the man for the job. None of the applicants who go into B. Cool's private office last longer than 15 minutes and they all come out looking dazed, confused, or like they're running from a fire. Lam goes in and despite no experience whatsoever as a detective and his scrawny appearance manages to land the job. His ability to string a story and his former life as a lawyer will serve him well. Here is his take on his employer:

I sized up my new boss as she walked across the office and revised my first estimate of her weight by adding twenty pounds. She evidently didn't believe in confining herself to tight clothes. She wiggled and jiggled around inside her loose apparel like a cylinder of currant jelly on a plate. She walked with a smooth, easy rhythm. It wasn't a stride. You weren't conscious of her legs at all. She flowed past like a river. (p. 9)

Lam's first assignment is to serve divorce papers on Morgan Birks a man rumored to have wealth from a slot-machine scandal. There's just one problem. Birks has apparently disappeared. So, Lam has to learn the ropes quickly and find ways to hunt down a man who has managed to elude both the police and the mob. He's also caught up in a web that involves a lot of moolah, mysterious safety deposit boxes, and a gang of toughs who kidnap him and beat him up in an effort to get him to reveal Birks's hiding place. When Birks winds up dead and the cops try to pin the murder on Lam's love interest (oh, yeah, we've got one of those too), he gets to try out his theory on committing a murder, confessing to it, and walking away scot-free.

This is a fairly amusing introduction to the Cool and Lam combo. The characters aren't quite settled, so the entertainment value wasn't quite up to the standard of You Can Die Laughing (my own introduction to this series). The private eye/hard boiled genre isn't my usual fare, but Cool and Lam are a combination that I can enjoy. Because of his size Lam has had to depend on his wits rather than his brawn and I really appreciate his interactions with Bertha Cool. I have a few more of these sitting on my shelves and look forward to reading them. ★★  and 1/2.

Men like women to be modern with them. It's when they're modern with other men that the trouble starts, (p. 23)

This fulfills the "Size in the Title" square on the Vintage Golden Bingo card.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Challenge Complete: Scrabble

When you sign up for the Scrabble, Anyone? Challenge at GoodReads (click link), Barb (our gracious hostess) will assign you one set of randomly generated letters. Your challenge is to read one book for each of those letters. You may use the first letter of the first word of the book's title (do NOT count A, An or The), or the first or last initial of the author to complete each letter.
NOTE: Everyone's letter sets will be different, and assignments will be based on the order in which you sign up. The first person to sign up will get set #1, the second person will get set #2, and so on. Therefore, it will be up to you to keep track of the letters that have been assigned to you :)

My personal goal was two sets of letters per year each year I play. I just completed my second set--which included the difficult letter "Z" and have fulfilled my stated goal for the year. But I'm not done. Oh, no. I've asked Barb to dish me out another set of seven.

Letter Set #1: E, E, E, A, N, S, H

E: Exit Actors, Dying by Margot Arnold (2/4/14)
E: Endless Night by Agatha Christie (3/13/14)
E: Ellery Queen's 20th Anniversary Annual by Ellery Queen, ed (2/22/14)
A: After I'm Gone by Laura Lippman (4/6/14)
N: Naked Is the Best Disguise by Samuel Rosenberg (4/8/14)
S: Shelf Life by Douglas Clark (2/5/14)
H: A Hangman's Dozen by Alfred Hitchcock, ed (4/7/14) 

First set complete! Just waiting for my new letters....

Letter Set #2: I, I, N, R, T, L, Z

I: Invisible Green by John Sladek (6/2/14)
I: Introducing C. B. Greenfield by Lucille Kallen (8/6/14)
N: No. 9 Belmont Square by Margaret Erskine (6/21/14)
R: Red Herring by Edward Acheson (5/25/14)
T: Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell (6/5/14)
L: The Lady of Sorrows by Anne Zouroudi (4/26/14)
Z: Zingers, Quips, & One-Liners by Geoff Tibballs (8/25/14)

Second set complete! And 2014 goal fulfilled.

Zingers, Quips, & One Liners: Mini-Review

(*The Mammoth Book of) Zingers, Quips, and One-Liners has--according to my edition--over 8,000 gems of wit wisdom. It comes complete with quotes from everyone from Oscar Wilde to Lenny Bruce from Mae West to Margaret Cho and Roseanne Barr. The key word from the title, I believe, is zingers. If you're not expecting the outrageous and pointed comment, then this collection is not for you. There is a quote that says, "A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone." (Jo Godwin) I would say that this is true of this book of quotes as well. 

For the most part, I enjoyed this collection. Overall, very amusing--one quibble: there is a fair smattering of more modern celebrities. In general, I have no problem with this (despite my love for more vintage things-books, movies, TV shows, etc), but I do have a problem with quotations being ascribed to more recent celebrities when I know full well that the comments were around well before the advent of Madonna or Jerry Seinfeld. It would be nice if the editor Geoff Tibballs had credited the earliest reference rather than his favorite actor/comedian/what-have-you. ★★

*There are so many "Mammoth Book of" books out there that I am not counting that as part of the title for any of my challenges.

[on murder] Very stupid to kill the servants: now we don't even know where to find the marmalade. {Emily Brent (Dame Judith Anderson) in And Then There Were None}

Murder is always a mistake. One should never do anything that one cannot talk about after dinner. {Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray}

Experts agree that the best type of computer for your individual needs is one that comes on the market about two days after  you actually purchase some other computer. {Dave Barry}

All the good music has already been written by people with wigs and stuff. {Frank Zappa}

If an article is attractive, or useful, or inexpensive, they'll stop making it tomorrow; if it's all three, they stopped making it yesterday. {Mignon McLaughlin, The Neurotic's Notebook}

Sometimes opportunity knocks, but most of the time it sneaks up and then quietly steals away. {Doug Larson}

Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy. {H. L. Mencken, Chrestomathy}

A man generally has two reasons for doing a thing. One that sounds good, and a real one. {J. Pierpont Morgan}

Friday, August 22, 2014

Seventh Son: Review

I'm sadly behind on this review...I actually finished the book on August 19 but between being generally brain-dead after a week of orientating graduate students and spending all evening for the last three nights watching "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" episodes/clips on Youtube, I just haven't gotten my act together on Seventh Son. But we'll give this a whirl so I can move on to other books....

 Seventh Son is the first novel in Orson Scott Card's alternate American history series. It's set in the early 19th Century in an America where folk magic holds sway and the fate of the New World has taken a slightly different path. Yes, there are United States, but not quite the same ones as here in our timeline. Yes, there was a first president, but it wasn't George Washington. And there is an Indian Nation state that has representatives to vote.

In this world, seventh sons are magical and seventh sons of seventh sons are even more magical than their fathers--and quite rare. Alvin Miller, Jr. is such a one. In fact, Alvin is a Maker, a seventh son with the power to not only create new things out of old, but also to make things whole and to heal. He has a destiny that can help create a good positive future for America. But from the moment of his birth an ancient, dark force, the Unmaker, who will stop at nothing to destroy Alvin and prevent him from fulfilling his destiny.

I am just a bit torn on rating this one. I'm pulled towards a four-star rating by the world-building and the fresh, original feel to this American fantasy/alternate reality. The characters are delightful--particularly Peggy (Alvin's far-off "guardian angel") and Alvin and the writing is particularly strong. There is a character called Taleswapper who goes from place to place telling stories and collecting new ones and the entire book reads like a tale told by a grand old storyteller around the fire. But I'm also pulled toward a lower three-star rating by the infusion of religion. You want to create an America that's based on folk magic and secret powers? Cool.  You want to set up dark forces to destroy the ones who hold that power for good? Hey, absolutely.  I'm all for that Good vs. Evil thing.  But...can't we just do that within the folk magic scenario? That's why we created a whole different timeline America, right? I do get the whole Pilgrim/Puritan vs. "witchcraft" background. Salem and witch burning. I know it was part of the early days of America. But was it necessary to bring in religion and make those who represent it the bad guys?  Maybe it was--but when I was reading it just didn't settle right.

My other small quibble is that the blurb on my edition made much of the positive role of Native Americans in this version of America and, perhaps, since this is a series there will be more of a Native American presence in the following books.  But there is little here. The mention of those who have voting rights. And a man who is healed by Alvin (in an unexpected way) and who goes off to be a prophet to his people. But no real direct contact with Native Americans beyond that. When I specifically polled some of my friends for alternate history books that involved Native Americans, this series was one that was mentioned. I had hoped for more Native American influence in the opening novel.

Quibbles aside, Card is quite the storyteller in Seventh Son and the story was compelling and interesting. I will definitely be looking to read the next book in the series (Red Prophet--perhaps the title is an indication that there will be more Native Americans....).  ★★ and a half.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

New Orleans Requiem: Review

Astor + Blue Editions is proud to release New Orleans Requiem (ISBN: 978-1-938231-36-0; Fiction / Mystery & Suspense; $5.99 E-Book) the latest Broussard mystery by DJ Donaldson.

Synopsis (provided in review request):

Andy Broussard, the “Plump and Proud” New Orleans medical examiner, obviously loves food.  Less apparent to the casual observer is his hatred of murderers. Together with his gorgeous sidekick, psychologist Kit Franklyn, Broussard forms a powerful, although improbable, mystery solving duo.

 It’s a bizarre case for Andy and Kit.  A man is found in Jackson Square, stabbed, one eyelid removed and four Scrabble tiles with the letters KOJE on his chest. Soon, there’s a second victim, also stabbed and missing one eyelid, but this time with only three letters on his chest, KOJ.  The pattern is unmistakable, but does it mean there will be two more victims and then the killer will go away, or is he leading up to something bigger and deadlier?

Broussard and Kit use their disciplines to profile the killer, but it soon becomes clear that the clues and objects they’ve found are part of a sick game that the killer is playing with Broussard; a game most likely engineered by one of the hundreds of attendees at the annual forensics meeting being held in New Orleans.  Has Broussard finally met his match?

My Take:  New Orleans Requiem is one of several re-releases of Donaldson's books by Astor + Blue Editions. Originally published in the late 80s and early 90s, the heroes of Donaldson's stories have no cell phones, only beepers, and the presenters at the forensics meeting use actual slide shows instead of Power Point presentations. So, we all get to go for a short time travel trip to a time when one cut phone line can mean life or death for one of the characters. The story itself, however, doesn't feel dated at all.

Serial killers and high-suspense thrillers are, generally speaking, not my cup of tea. But the description of Broussard and Kit put me in mind of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin and the scrabble tile clues made for a nice hook to draw me in. It also helps that this is more a blend of police procedural/forensic investigation than a straight-up serial killer fest. I thoroughly enjoyed Broussard and Kit and the way their skills complement each other. Kit regards Broussard as a mentor as well as a colleague and so often feels like she isn't quite measuring up, but without her skills and input there is little chance that he would arrive at the correct solution. 

A fast-paced thriller with much of the classic whodunnit. There is a really nice twist at the end and the final reveal came as a big surprise. Enjoyable read for thriller, police procedural, and whodunnit fans alike.  ★★★★

[Disclaimer: My review policy is posted on my blog, but just to reiterate....The book was offered to me for impartial review and I have received no payment of any kind. All comments are entirely my own honest opinion.]

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Book Clubbed: Review

Synopsis (from book flap): Cranky Chamber of Commerce receptionist Betsy Dittmeyer is done reading people the riot act. After she’s crushed by a fallen bookcase, the next item to be read is her last will and testament—which is packed with surprises. It soon comes to light that Betsy was hiding volumes of dark secrets behind that perpetual frown of hers—and one of them just might have been a motive for murder.

While Tricia tries to help Angelica—the newly elected Chamber of Commerce president and Betsy’s boss—solve the mystery, she discovers a hidden chapter in her own family history that rocks her to her very core. And with her ex-husband and the chief of police vying for her affections, it’s doubly hard to focus on who might have buried Betsy in a tomb of tomes.

But as Tricia and Angelica try to read between the lines, they need to watch their step…and make sure the killer doesn’t catch them between the stacks.

My Take: This is going to be fairly short. Book Clubbed caught my eye on the New Arrivals shelf at the library. I mean, what's not to love? A mystery bookstore owner as amateur sleuth. With a cat named Miss Marple. A corpse killed by a fallen bookcase.  A clue in a family Bible. Books everywhere you look. I was in need of just six more library books to fulfill the I Love Library Books reading challenge and this seemed like a perfect entry--a quick, cozy read. At first I thought that maybe the reason I wasn't connecting with Tricia Miles and her sister Angelica (and about 95% of the rest of the characters) was because I hopped on the Booktown Mystery Train at stop number 8, but a glance through other less favorable reviews by readers who have been on board from the beginning lead me to surmise that it wouldn't have mattered much. Tricia apparently has been in a weird funk from her divorce (and other man troubles) all along. She's being stalked by her ex--I don't care what anyone says. The fact that he watches her every move from a window that looks down on her store and straight across from her apartment is very creepy. And, it's not enough that she's got hang-ups over men. She's also got her troubled relationship with her mother. 

Quite honestly, living inside her head and seeing the other characters from her point of view is no treat. She's labeled a goody two-shoes, but she's not particularly charitable in her thoughts about most of the others. When tragedy strikes at the end, I'm not even invested enough in her character to feel terribly sorry for her. The most sympathetic characters--in my opinion--are her employees.  Unfortunately, we don't see nearly enough of them. And let's not even talk about the dialogue...mostly flat, almost always at cross-purposes, and sometimes I'm left thinking "what-the-heck?" because the subject has just been changed abruptly for no discernible reason.

The good points? Decent mystery and plotting, although not enough clues displayed so the reader could possibly arrive at the solution on their own.  Booktown atmosphere is also a plus. But not enough good points to entice me into reading any more of the series.  ★★

Adam's 2014 TBR Challenge: Checkpoint #8

I joined Adam from Roof Beam Reader for another round of TBR Tower Taming with his 2014 TBR Pile Challenge. As of July 20, I am technically finished with the challenge--I've read all twelve of my original TBR list plus one of the alternates. However, my goal every year with Adam's challenge has been to read ALL the books (including both alternates)....

Adam's Question of the Month: If you had to swap out a book from your list and put another book in its place, which book would you exchange and what would the replacement be?
Well...since I only have one book left (in the alternate position), I'd have to say that I would swap out Alone Against Tomorrow by Harlan Ellison and I'd plug The Black-Headed PIns by Constance & Gwenyth Little in its place. And, why, you might ask, Adam? (And you did.) Simply because I can't for the life of me figure out where I've put Harlan Ellison.  He's somewhere around here--but I've apparently packed him away in storage. This may be the first year that I don't read all twelve plus the alternates....
Here's my list:
1. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (pub 1962) [2/27/14]
2. For Old Crime's Sake by Delano Ames (pub 1959) [4/29/14]
3. My Antonia by Willa Cather (pub 1918) [4/20/14]
4. Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis (pub 1952) [7/20/14]
5. Shakespeare's Planet by Clifford D. Simak (pub 1976) [1/6/14]
6. By the Watchman's Clock by Leslie Ford (pub 1932) [5/23/14]
7. Death on the Aisle by Frances & Richard Lockridge (pub 1942) [1/24/14]
8. Plain Sailing by Douglas Clark (pub 1987) [6/11/14]
9.  Made Up to Kill by Kelley Roos (pub 1940) [2/18/14]
10. Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout (pub 1938) [7/12/14]
11. The Clue of the Leather Noose by Donald Bayne Hobart (pub 1929) [3/31/14]
12. The Forgotten War by William Forschten (pub 1999) [7/9/14]

1. Alone Against Tomorrow by Harlan Ellison (pub 1971)
2. Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell (pub 1991) [1/5/14]

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Book of the Dead: Review

Mr. Howard Crenshaw travels east from California to wrap up the estate of an uncle. But while he is there the reclusive, friendless man is diagnosed with leukemia and passes on himself. The doctors at the hospital see nothing wrong with the lonely gentleman paying everything up front and getting his affairs in order well ahead of time. The only person interested in his affairs is Pike, a man of all work who acts as his companion/valet/light nurse until he can no longer avoid the hospital.

But unknown to Pike and the doctors, Mr. Crenshaw had made one friend while at his uncle's estate--Miss Idelia Fisher. He and Miss Fisher shared a taste for literature and he let her borrow a battered old edition of Shakespeare which contained The Temptest and a few odd markings in the passages. When Miss Fisher tries to return the book, she finds that Crenshaw has been admitted to the hospital and no one will allow her to see him or will tell her anything about his condition. 

A mutual friend had mentioned biblio-sleuth Henry Gamadge and that when queer things happened Gamadge could sometimes make sense of them. So, she takes her puzzle to him. Gamadge no sooner takes up her case than they find out that Crenshaw has died--most definitely of leukemia. But little "queer things" continue to crop up and when Miss Fisher is bludgeoned on her doorstep and Gamadge barely escapes the same fate in his own home, he knows that there is more to the mystery of Mr. Crenshaw and his oddly marked Shakespeare than meets the eye.

Once Gamadge really starts digging--and brings in a private detective agency and an FBI agent to help--he finds that Mr. Crenshaw wasn't nearly as alone as it appeared. There's a wife who shows up to identify the body (and make sure the will is all in order) and a step-niece who seems more attached to her uncle than the "grieving" widow. The doctor who was initially called into the case also benefits substantially--through a rather hefty fee, and who knows what kind of influence the mysterious Mr. Pike might have had on the dying man. All-in-all a pretty puzzle for Elizabeth Daly's sleuth in Book of the Dead.

 I really enjoy these light mysteries starring the genteel Henry Gamadge. This one takes place during war-time with gas rationing, a distinct lack of men, dim-outs (no street lights, etc.), and mention of Gamadge's "other" jobs--on call for war work. And Gamadge seems a little more sombre and business-like as a result. I still enjoy him as an investigator, but he comes across as a bit stiff and not quite as personable. Perhaps its because Clara is out of town and isn't there to soften him...not entirely sure. Nicely plotted and the other character are well-rounded. Various reviews I've read indicate that the solution was telegraphed (even though one reviewer said that some of the clues were kept up sleeves), but I must confess that the telegraph lines must have been down in my area, because I didn't get it.  That may also be because things are rather hectic here at the moment (gearing up for another round of classes at the university--new student orientation and so on). But, whatever, the reason, Daly managed to keep me mystified until the end...which is more fun than having no mystery left at all.  Good solid read.  ★★

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Button, Button: Review

Button, Button by Marion Bramhall (1944) finds us on Cape Cod in 1942. Our heroine is Kit Acton. She and her husband Dick have just recently moved into a rental home in Lyford where Kit spends a great deal of time on her own while Dick is in the Navy. They don't know anyone in their new hometown and Kit's life is pretty dull until Sally Winstead shows up on her front porch. She is a friend of a friend of Kit's father's and sets out to make Kit her friend and to show Kit the ins and outs of Lyford life. 

From all appearances, the main entertainment in Lyford is antiquing--a passion which Kit quickly takes up. She decides that she would like to furnish her new home with some good period pieces and Sally takes her round the local shops and introduces her to the trade. Kit manages to get on good terms with one wily old man, "Old Jake"--a man that few seem to really like. Another huge hobby in the small town is button collecting--it seems that just about everyone is interested in grabbing up a few calicoes or floral enamels or historicals. Even Sally gets bitten by the button bug when she buys her first green-starred calico at the annual Button Show.

Old Jake is rumored to have a fabulously rare button, a jewel-encrusted beauty that belonged to Louis XIV, but no one has actually seen it until he decides to show it to his new friend. However, it looks like owning the fabled button may have been unlucky indeed when Kit and Sally stop by his shop on the way home from the Button Show and find Old Jake murdered and the button missing. The circumstantial evidence points toward Sally's ex-husband Dr. Wilton Barnes, but there are plenty of collectors who would have loved to get their hands on that beautiful button. Did someone take advantage of Barnes's argument with Old Jake to do murder, collar the collectible, and shift the blame? Sally denies harboring any feelings for her former husband, but she convinces Kit to help her do some sleuthing of their own before the State Troopers can arrest good the doctor. But if not the doctor, who?

Marion Bramwell is a name that I never came across until I picked up one of those nifty 3-in-1 Detective Book Club books (Which I grabbed primarily for the Elizabeth Daly book--review coming soon on that one too.). A search through the interwebs didn't produce much help.  The gadetection website, so often a font of knowledge had just this: "Marion Bramhall was an American writer. Her series detective was Boston nurse's aide Kit Acton." The site also tells me that this is second four novels. I'm not entirely sure how we know that Kit is a nurse's aide--there's nothing in Button, Button to tell us so...and all the doctor/nurse-type duties are performed by Dr. Barnes and Sally Winstead (who was also studying medicine before marriage and divorce). 

Having read the story, I can see why there isn't much out there about Bramwell and her mysteries. Not that the mystery is bad--it is a decent whodunnit with pretty fair-play. The characters are also fairly interesting and given enough spark that you want to stick with the story and see who the culprit is. But there really isn't any hook, no real zing that would put Bramwell into the top-flight group of detective novelists. The only fairly unique facet is the focus on button collecting...those more knowledgeable about crime fiction than me may know otherwise, but this seems to me to be one of the earliest examples of a mystery that focuses on a collection that is outside the usual stamps, books, artwork, or weaponry. This gives the book a little bit of flair, but not enough to keep it in the collective internet consciousness apparently.  ★★  for a decent mystery and enjoyable read.

This fulfills the "One Author You Haven't Read" space on the Golden Vintage Bingo card.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Date With Danger: Review

Date With Danger by Roy Vickers is lovely little bit of fluff. Bobbie Chandler, our heroine, reminds me of Saturday afternoon movies where the main character stumbles into trouble, repeatedly runs afoul of both bad and good guys alike, and yet manages to come out unscathed and with boy/girlfriend as a bonus.  It all starts with blue satin slipper left behind in a taxi. Bobbie is on her way to meet her current fella when she grabs a taxi that a mysterious, smooth-voiced, movie-star-faced gentleman has just exited. As she rides towards the restaurant her foot nudges something which upon closer examination proves to be the blue satin slipper. Bobbie wonders how anyone could lose a slipper and not notice...but then she notices a message written on the bottom of the slipper in lipstick. One word: "Come." But come where? She then finds a note stuffed in the toe of the slipper that contains the address of Miss Aldringham, the society darling and daring adventuress.

When her gentleman is late to their dinner date, Bobbie sets off for Miss Aldringham's and begins an adventure of her own that will involve secret agents, double agents, the British Secret Service, mysterious plans for war-time devices, and a hunt for a dangerous killer. She also must avoid Scotland Yard--who are very anxious to talk to the beautiful red-head who was last seen exiting Miss Aldringham's apartment leaving a very dead Miss Aldringham behind.

This story is more readily a light thriller/adventure novel than a mystery. There really isn't much doubt about who is responsible for Miss Aldringham's death. The only true puzzle is finding out where the secret plans have gotten to. The spies, counter-spies, and Secret Service men are all on the hunt--even after the slipper shows up a second time with its sole split open. It's obvious that something was hidden there--but no one seems to have found the missing papers. 

While I like Bobbie and her Secret Service men--they aren't as finely drawn as one might like. And the Scotland Yard men and secret agents are stock characters--smooth villains, rough henchmen, and disbelieving policemen. The best character of the bunch is Bobbie's Granny. The elder Mrs. Chandler is spunky and smart. In fact, she's the one who spots the clue that points the way to the true hiding place for the plans. The best plan for enjoying a book like this is to consider it a Saturday afternoon matinee...grab some popcorn and get comfy for a light adventure and a bit of ride. No intricate puzzles, not a lot of clues to track down--just a fun little outing with a happy ending for all (well, all but the bad guys) and Bobbie does manage to have her romance in the bargain. ★★


Your father is a bit uneasy, though he doesn't know what he is uneasy about. (Granny; p. 95)

I don't see how I'm going to earn a salary by just standing about until the murderer announces himself. (Bobbie Chandler; p. 98)

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Introducing C. B. Greenfield: Review

Well, I pretty much read the C. B. Greenfield books by Lucile Kallen backwards--or mixed-up--or something.  I started with The Tanglewood Murder, meandered my way to A Little Madness (the last book in the series), and have now finished up with Introducing C. B. Greenfield. In which, guess what? Kallen introduces us to Charles Benjamin Greenfield, editor and owner of the Sloan's Ford Reporter, and his star reporter and side-kick Maggie Rome. 

When Peter Kittle, the newspaper's only delivery boy, is the victim of a hit-and-run accident, Greenfield takes it upon himself to track down the coward who would leave a twelve-year-old hurt and, possibly dying, in the road. He convinces Maggie to play Watson to his Holmes and soon the two newshounds have another mystery to unravel. One of their prime suspects, author Julian Tragar, goes missing--leaving behind an expensive Mercedes, a bloody iron bar, and evidence that something heavy was dragged down to the nearby river. Did Peter's parents take matters into their own hands and attack someone they thought had injured their boy? Or are there others with a reason to want Julian Tragar out of the way? 

I have to say that I kind of wish that I had quit while I was ahead. The Tanglewood Murder (#2 in the series) was a really fun read. The interplay between Greenfield and Maggie was just right and the mix of amateur detective work was right on target. This introductory book just doesn't work as well for me. I suppose part of it is that the characters aren't as settled as they are in number two--Greenfield seems way more grumpy and unwilling to share his theories with Maggie and Maggie doesn't really seem all that inquisitive. Especially given the fact that she's a reporter and it's kind of her job to ask questions and ferret out answers.

I'm glad I read this one for completion's sake (and a big thanks to Peggy Ann for sending me her copy when she was done with it!). But I'm afraid that it's a mere ★★ outing.

Set in New England and first published in 1979, this fulfills the "Set in the U. S." square on the Silver Vintage Bingo card.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Mangle Street Murders: Review

The Mangle Street Murders takes us to Victorian London to meet the most famous personal detective. Personal--not private. Don't even think about using the word "private" in his presence. Just as Sidney Grice has taken on the guardianship of the daughter of a man to whom he feels indebted, he is approached by Mrs. Grace Dillinger to investigate the murder of her daughter. The man accused of stabbing Sarah Dillinger Ashby forty times is her husband--but Mrs. Dillinger is certain that he is innocent. When Grice finds out that Mrs. Dillinger has no money, he is ready to decline the case--after all, the most important thing is his fee, not justice. But his ward, March Middleton, has means of her own and offers to pay him herself--provided he allows her to accompany him in his investigations. He reluctantly agrees, but the more they discover the more convinced he becomes that the police have arrested the right man. March is just as sure that they may be sending an innocent man to the gallows and she keeps goading Grice on to continue looking for the truth. A truth that may surprise both of them.

Sidney Grice is the most unlikeable "good" guy I've ever met in detective fiction. There are detectives with big egos (Nero Wolfe or Hercule Poirot, anyone?). There are detectives with irritating habits, poor manners,or an apparent loathing of their fellow-man...but Grice absolutely takes the cake. He is rude to just about everyone he meets. His ego is as big as steam engine. He'll do just about anything to make sure he gets the credit for solving a case and once he's got the credit, he absolutely does NOT want to admit that he might have been wrong. He has all the faults of Holmes and none of the redeeming qualities.

March Middleton, on the other hand, is a very likeable, outspoken young woman who isn't about to live up to her Victorian male companions' opinions of women. She's assisted her father, the army surgeon, out in the field and she isn't about to swoon at the sight of blood or the use of strong language. She has no problem telling her guardian, Inspector Pound, various constables, shopkeepers, and others exactly what she thinks. She's definitely good for Grice--he needs someone to tell him he's not nearly as wonderful and perfect as he thinks he is.

The other supporting characters are also finely drawn and engaging. The mystery is a tad convoluted and it's not as fairly clued as one might like, but a nice solid debut novel. I definitely want to read the next one...if only to find out if Grice mellows at all after having March in his household for a while. I'm also curious to see if the mystery is better constructed and explained.  ★★

Monday, August 4, 2014

Challenge Complete: Semi-Charmed Summer 2014 Challenge

Megan gave us another round of the Semi-Charmed Summer 2014 Book Challenge! So, of course, I signed up. And I just finished the last book.  Here's my list of completions:

And now for my list:
5 points: Freebie! Read any book that is at least 200 pages long.
The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw (412 pages) [5/9/14]

10 points: Read a book that was written before you were born.
Death at the Medical Board by Josephine Bell (1944; 218 pages) [5/16/14]

10 points: Finish reading a book you couldn't finish the first time around.
On The Beach by Nevil Shute (1957; 311 pages) [7/7/14]

10 points: Read a book from the children’s section of the library or bookstore.
Bed-Knob and Broomstick by Mary Norton (240 pages) [5/16/14] 

15 points: Read a book that is on The New York Times' Best Sellers List when you begin reading it.
 Me Without You by Jo Jo Moyes (#7 on Trade Paperback list on 7/20/14) [7/21/14]

15 points: Read a historical fiction book that does not take place in Europe.
Sinners & the Sea: The Untold Story of Noah's Wife by Rebecca Kanner (Nile basin/Mesopotamia; 339 pages) [5/21/14]

15 points: Read a book another blogger has already read for the challenge.
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkein (read by Kalyn V @ Geez, Louise) [6/12/14]

20 points: Read a book with “son(s),” “daughter(s)” or “child(ren)” in the title.
The Chief Inspector's Daughter by Sheila Radley (211 pages) [7/5/14]

20 points: Read a book that was/will be adapted to film in 2014.
A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby (movie due in July; 333 pages) [7/8/14]

25 points: Read a book written by a blogger.
Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell (307 pages) [7/30/14]

25 points: Read a biography, autobiography or memoir.
—  Beyond Uhura: Star Trek & Other Memories by Nichelle Nichols (320 pages) [5/29/14]
30 points: Read a pair of books with antonyms in the titles.
Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley (215 pages) [7/31/14] AND The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Angel of the Opera by Sam Siciliano (309 pages) [8/4/14]

Total points: 200

The Angel of the Opera: Review

My latest read The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Angel of the Opera pits the world's greatest detective against the mysterious Phantom of the Opera House in Paris. This rewrite of Gaston Leroux's classic tale of music, passion, and unrequited love brings Holmes in to delve into the true secrets that motivate the shadowy ruler of the Opera's underground. The current managers who have no way to deal with the "ghost" who steals their horse and who is blamed for the hanging death of one of their employees asks Holmes to cross the Channel and get to the bottom of their mystery. The great detective discovers that Christine Daae, a rising star in the opera world, is at the center of the mystery, but can he unravel all the threads before the Phantom destroys them all and the Opera House as well?

I will discuss this book on several levels.  First, as a mystery, it's not really. I'd say that a large portion of readers will already be familiar with the basic story of the Phantom of the Opera. So, the identity of the "ghost" or Phantom is no secret. And just that fact that there is a real person behind all the mysterious goings-on will be no surprise. Fortunately--on that score--I didn't pick this up at the bookstore and read it because I thought I was getting some dramatically different brain-teasing puzzle.  I got it because it was a different spin on the Phantom and on Holmes (more on him later). That being the case, I'll give Sam Siciliano a pass on a rating for the mystery. Those who have never read/seen the original Phantom can better rate the mystery.

Second, if I completely ignore the fact that I am incredibly familiar with the person of Sherlock Holmes as Conan Doyle conceived him, this is a fine story. The story itself is well-written and an exceptionally quick and absorbing read. And I thoroughly approve of the new ending. Replace Holmes with a brand-new detective and I could down-right love this story....Which brings me to the major stumbling block in the book....

This is billed as "The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes"--that would seem to me to be a major selling point. Siciliano apparently has great disdain for Holmes as Doyle wrote him. He makes huge changes to the Holmes character and ditches Dr. Watson as the detective's right-hand man. Instead, he gives us Dr. Henry Vernier--Holmes's cousin and best-buddy. The bestest of besties who knows Holmes better than anybody on earth--especially better than that blithering idiot Watson. Vernier is down-right jealous of Watson--that's my only explanation for the character assassination that issues forth from the mouth of Holmes's cousin. And yet Vernier isn't exactly the brightest bulb himself--regularly missing clues and suggestive actions that are as obvious as the nose he holds so high in the air when referring to that other doctor. Listening to Vernier's drivel about how much better he is as a doctor and a friend to Holmes and side-kick was nearly enough to make me stop reading.  Take that and the fact that Holmes is suddenly in touch with his feelings (totally understands all this unrequited love business because he had some of that himself) and he's suddenly all about the cash--charging outrageous fees left, right and center--forget the fact that most of his cases he took on because the mystery fascinated him, and...all those references in Doyle that might have made you think Holmes believed in God...yeah, no, Watson was just making stuff up (as he does, you know). Seems to me that this book was just a chance for Siciliano to make the Holmes character in his own image rather than pay homage to Doyle's well-known detective. summation: Mystery--neutral; Story Itself--very good; Holmes story--pretty darn bad. We'll give it  ★★ and 1/2 stars here and round it up on Goodreads.