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Not Hooked On This Crochet Mystery

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was stuck on a book. Despite all the reasons I thought I would like that mystery set in Georgian England, it just wasn’t grabbing me and it seemed like the best way to restart my reading was to switch books. Normally, to get on-track with my reading again, I like turn to a book by a favorite author, a known quantity. But, much to my folly, I went with an author I hadn’t read before.

The premise of Hooked on Murder by Betty Hechtman appealed to me for a couple reasons. It was set in a bookstore and it involved a crochet group–two things I love. Not only that, but because this author was published by Berkley Prime Crime, I had a feeling I knew what to expect from the book in terms style and the quality of writing.

Berkley Prime Crime tends to specialize in “cozies”, mysteries in the tradition of Agatha Christie where things happen in a set location with an established cast of characters. These books focus more on the mystery of figuring out “who-done-it” than on vividly gruesome crime description, overt violence, or action. And the Prime Crime books seem to be aimed at women because so many of the authors and protagonists are female.  But while Hooked on Murder was generally true to what I have come to expect from Berkley Prime Crime, it just didn’t do it for me.

The story. Molly Pink, a recent widow in her late 40s, has fought to get her life back to a new normal after the early death of her husband Charlie, a partner in a small public relations firm. But Molly’s plans for her new normal are thrown when she discovers the dead body of Ellen, her husband’s business partner. Now Molly is scrambling to figure out who would kill Ellen because a jealous female police detective seems convinced Molly is guilty, a development that would free up Molly’s boyfriend for this detective. In her efforts to learn more about the deceased and find an outlet for the nervous energy being the prime suspect of a murder investigation can cause, Molly joins the crochet group that Ellen ran and learns that there were a variety of people who benefited from Ellen’s death far more than Molly did. In order to prove her innocence, Molly is going to have to find out who really killed Ellen–all while learning to crochet the perfect granny square.

What I liked. As a protagonist, Molly is likeable. She’s been through tough times with the early death of her husband, but she’s rebuilding her life on her own and struggles to maintain the independence she’s discovered in the wake of tragedy. Not only is Molly herself likeable, but so is her best friend Dinah, a community college English teacher who refuses to disclose her age. I enjoyed this story the most when it stayed with Molly and Dinah.

The other characters. Other than Molly and Dinah, almost none of the characters were likeable. Molly had two grown sons, Peter and Samuel, and neither of them seemed worthy of her. Peter came across as coldly self-centered that even as his mother worried about being arrested. Samuel fares no better, coming across as a complete wuss. Molly’s boyfriend Barry was remarkably obtuse for a police detective, never realizing that “Detective Heather” was crushing on him and trying to get Molly out of the way, even if that meant charging Molly with a murder she didn’t commit. Adele, a fellow bookstore employee, is so over-the-top rude to Molly that I cringed each time she appeared in the story. An aging star, CeeCee, attempting to become the crochet group’s new leader is entertaining in her vain way, but the other group members are kind of flat. The owners of the bookstore where Molly works are only present to heap pressure on Molly for things she can’t control, and it felt odd that small business owners would be in their shop so seldom. Perhaps the only other likeable character was Jeffrey, Barry’s son. Thirteen-year-old Jeffrey, despite his father’s consternation, wants to be an actor and wants to know all about Molly’s experience finding a dead body. I can go along with a lot in a story so long as I like the characters in it, but with Hooked on Murder I mostly felt sorry for Molly, Dinah, and Jeffrey that they were surrounded by so many jerks.

The writing. Despite the drought of likeable characters, Betty Hechtman writes a clear, understandable story. Through the action and the revelation of the mystery, there weren’t any times in the story when it was unclear who had done what. I appreciate that because it gives me the feeling that I’m getting the information I need to figure out the mystery. However, that wasn’t quite the case with this book. Not unlike Agatha Christie, there was a whole lot of red herring and very little that would allow the reader to figure out the mystery.

I really wanted to like this mystery, but I don’t think I will read anymore books in this series. My affection for crocheting isn’t enough to overcome my dislike for so many of the characters. However, the good thing this book this did was it compelled me to start a new crochet project. If I like how it turns out, I’ll share it here.

Until then, I wish you better reads than I’ve been reading. A book that you think is going to be good and doesn’t deliver, well, that feels like a broken promise.

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Posted by on February 29, 2012 in Books, Lifestyle, Uncategorized

 

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Comfort Food for the Bibliophile

I’m staring down a perfect storm of blah this February. Not only did my football team have a lousy season, but their divisional rival is in the Super Bowl. It’s one of the snowiest winters I have ever seen, with drifts that just keep growing—so I promise myself that I won’t leave the house until May. I can’t keep that promise, but the fact that I make it at all is a sign of how fed up I’m getting with winter. Oh, and, not to be left out of the gloom storm, Valentine’s Day is fast approaching. That holiday stung me badly two years ago when I was dumped a mere 12 days before Valentine’s Day and left with nothing but my broken heart and the non-refundable ticket that I had purchased so I could see the guy who had dumped me…for Valentine’s Day.

So, with all the doldrums and blah-ness going on, I have decided this is an excellent time to ignore reality and read a good book.

For me, a good mystery is like comfort food, it hits the spot and satisfies my craving. Sometimes I want to branch out and read mysteries by authors I haven’t read before, but when I want a book that won’t disappoint, I turn to books by my tried and true authors. And, I can guarantee myself books by my favorite authors because I stockpile them for just such an occasion. For authors I really like, I try to avoid being completely caught up on their series so that when I need a good mystery by a particular author I don’t have to wait a couple months for his or her next book to come out.

In honor of my comfort food theme, I’ll list books with a food selection. Seems to me that if you need some deep winter comfort, then you might as well go all out.

Tears of Pearl by Tasha Alexander. This fourth book (five in the series) in Alexander’s series of mysteries featuring Lady Emily, takes place in Constantinople during the Victorian age of the British Empire. In the three books prior to this one, Lady Emily has had to content herself to solve murders as a meddling amateur, but now, accompanied by her new husband, she’s an official agent of the British Empire. Her investigations promise to lead her into the lavish world of the Sultan’s harem and extreme danger. Who says the Victorian’s didn’t know how to have a good time? Alexander has become one of my favorites because she manages to make me feel like I learned something new and interesting about Victorian culture without it feeling like a lecture and without sacrificing good storytelling to do so. Snacking suggestion: I think this jaunt to the Orient calls for tea, Turkish delight, and baklava.

Curse of the Pogo Stick by Colin Cotterill. Dr. Siri Paiboun is once again raising some geriatric hell in Cotterill’s fifth book (seven books in the series) about Laos’ National Coroner. It’s the 1970s, disco is taking the rest of the world by storm, while in Laos the new communist government is trying to keep things under control—but they probably don’t know that their National Coroner, Siri, is conducting an exorcism on a possessed pogo stick and preparing for his wedding. It would likely only embarrass the young communist government to find out that their National Coroner is the reincarnation of a powerful Hmong shaman. What I like about this series is that, for as hokey as the idea might seem that this coroner, a man of science, becomes the reincarnation of a powerful shaman and talks to the dead to help solve their mysteries, Cotterill somehow makes it work. He writes about the country of Laos and its people with humor and compassion as they adjust to changes in their government and world. Snacking suggestion: Although not a Laotian dish, Laos is just across the river from Thailand, so I’m craving pad Thai and spring rolls—maybe some iced coffee too.

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing by Tarquin Hall. India’s portly sleuth, Vish Puri returns in Hall’s second book (two in the series). Vish Puri (“Chubby” to his friends and family), is India’s Most Private Investigator, a man who spends most of his days vetting potential spouses for wealthy Indian families, but every so often a unique case comes along that taxes Puri and his team of peculiarly-named professionals. I like how Hall’s protagonist bemoans the erosion of traditional India and Indian values at the hands of modern society and technology, all while he uses modern society and technology to solve his cases and try to uphold traditional Indian values. And, Hall writes as if he genuinely loves India, you can feel the heavy, humid air of the monsoon, smell the saffron, and see the vivid colors of the countryside in his writing. Snacking suggestion: In honor of Chubby, I think samosas and a mango lassi are in order.

Well, you know how I’m going to ride out the winter doldrums and why I’m going to have to spend a lot of time on the treadmill and doing Pilates, samosas will sneak up on you. If you have a favorite author and food pairing to share, I’d love to hear it. One can never have too many good books. Happy hibernating!

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2011 in Books

 

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The Bibliophile’s Hometown Pride–Minnesota Authors for Summer Reading

It is summer. Since it is the last day of June that probably isn’t much of a shock, however, for the first time in a long time it feels like summer. Or the way it should feel.

The sun is shining and the only clouds around are the fluffy kinds where you look for interesting shapes, not the ones that bring thunderstorms and tornados. Humidity is way down and light breezes tickle leaves. In my neck of the woods that amounts to a Mary Poppins day—it is practically perfect in every way.

Now you can be active types and seize the day going biking, hiking, strolling, running, flying a kite, or swinging on swings. All good options. However, for those of us more inclined to move at a slower pace, this is a great day for finding a comfy place to sit and enjoying a book outside. And on a day like today when it seems as if the great state of Minnesota is making amends for the recent humidity, rain, thunder, and tornados, it seems like a good day to read one of our own authors. So, here are a few homegrown authors, some more well-known than others, you may enjoy when you are feeling Minnesota in the best possible way.

  • Laura Childs. Currently writing three different mystery series (a scrapbook series, a teashop series, and a diner series), Childs does book signings in teashops throughout the Twin Cities. Her most recent book is The Teaberry Strangler.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald. His book The Great Gatsby is always on the recommended summer reading lists, but he also wrote This Side of Paradise and numerous short stories.
  • Joanne Fluke. Fluke’s protagonist in her mystery series, Hannah Swensen, bakes up a storm while solving mysteries in a small Minnesota town.
  • Vince Flynn. Author of a numerous political thrillers featuring Mitch Rapp, Flynn started writing novels when he was a bartender working in St. Paul.
  • Margaret Frazer. Frazer takes reader back to medieval Europe in two different series, one featuring Dame Frevisse, a nun, and another featuring traveling player Joliffe.
  • Jon Hassler. The late Writer-in-Residence at St. John’s University, wrote novels about academics, small towns, and Catholic folks in Minnesota.
  • Tami Hoag. Hoag is best known for her books in the thriller genre but actually started out writing romances.
  • Garrison Keillor. Voice of A Prairie Home Companion, Keillor also writes about his fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota and all the folks who live there.
  • William Kent Krueger. Award-winning author of crime fiction featuring the protagonist Cork O’Connor, Krueger used to rise early in the morning and write at the St. Clair Broiler before heading to work at his day job.
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder. Author of the beloved Little House books based on her pioneer childhood, the books were written in collaboration with her daughter Rose Wilder Lane.
  • John Sandford. Probably best known for his Prey thriller series featuring Lucas Davenport, Sandford won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for a feature he wrote at the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

This is hardly an exhaustive list of Minnesota authors, but it is a sampling of options for buying local in your summer reading.

 
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Posted by on July 1, 2010 in Books, Lifestyle, Series

 

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The Bibliophile Presents: Reading New (To Me) Authors Part 7

It is Monday and slightly overcast. Seems like a good excuse to escape to Egypt, the location of today’s book, a historical mystery set in ancient Egypt during King Tut’s reign.

Murder in the Place of Anubis by Lynda S. Robinson. Sometimes I wish that when I was in school I had studied Egyptology and archeology instead of writing. Society in ancient Egypt was kind of like a cultural three-way between Hollywood, New York City, and Washington D.C.—there was glitter, high-society, and political backbiting all baking together in scantily clad languor under the desert sun. And Lynda S. Robinson tries to bring that vibrancy and complexity to life in Murder in the Place of Anubis. Sometimes trying to write a detective novel set in another time period can feel clumsy because in the ancient world it seems that if people were suspected of a crime they were swiftly executed just to be on the safe side. But with all the political machinations and manipulations present in Tutankhamun’s reign, an era that saw the reinstatement of all the traditional gods after Akhenaten’s one-god reign, it sort of works. In Murder in the Place of Anubis, Lord Meren, the Pharoah’s Eyes and Ears, is trying to find a murderer who has killed in a holy place. If the killer is not found quickly, the political backlash from the priests of Amun could be enough to endanger the boy king’s throne. Generally, I’m not a fan of characters in period books talking as if they were 21st century people, but despite the occasional use of modern colloquialisms, Robinson’s story manages to succeed more than fail, complete with a conclusion that makes sense. And I’m glad I like Robinson’s writing because I have another of her Egyptian mysteries just waiting to be read.

*Thanks for reading and join me again, probably sometime this week, for my highly subjective summer reading suggestions. Yes, the chance of it including anything from Oprah’s book club is fairly low because she seems to dig depressing books and I don’t.

 
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Posted by on June 21, 2010 in Books, Lifestyle, Series

 

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The Bibliophile Presents: Reading New (To Me) Authors Part 5

Until now there has been a fair dollop of estrogen in the books I’ve reviewed, but this book is one the guys out there can appreciate.

The Alexander Cipher by Will Adams. Sometimes I want an intricate mystery with interesting, complex characters. Other times, I just want an adventure. The Alexander Cipher is a mystery adventure and, even when the characters aren’t complex, they are interesting—I like to think of it as win-win reading. I suppose the easiest description of the story’s style is to say that it is what you might expect from Dan Brown if he wrote about archeology rather than symbology, however, unlike Dan Brown this story produces female characters who have more to offer the story than just a bod that won’t quit. Our hero and protagonist, Daniel Knox is a slightly disgraced Egyptologist who has a knack for pissing people off. Most recently, he has seriously annoyed a very successful thug who has connections all over Egypt. Knox also has a knack for Egyptology and for surviving situations that probably would have killed a lesser protagonist, which is handy when there are so many people who want to kill him that they have to take turns. The story has several interweaving plotlines that buzz through the search, and possible discovery, of the legendary final resting place of Alexander the Great. The first book in the Daniel Knox series, The Alexander Cipher is a fun, modern-day Indiana Jones story complete with true-believer bad guys, and roguish good guys. It is the kind of book you want to read while you’re on the beach sipping lemonade.

*Tomorrow I’ll be reviewing Reservations for Murder by Tim Myers, a tale of murder at an inn that has a lighthouse and is nowhere near a body of water.

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2010 in Books, Lifestyle

 

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The Bibliophile Presents: Reading New (To Me) Authors Part 4

There are some suspiciously bright spots in the sky today and I think it might be sunlight. Hard to tell, it has been awhile. Today’s book starts out with a late season snow storm in late 1890s New York City and it’s conclusion happens in a thunderstorm. Makes the book sound a bit melodramatic, and it is (just a smidge), but somehow Victoria Thompson makes it work. Probably helps that she has given the story a likable protagonist and shows that her characters are capable of growth.

Murder on Astor Place by Victoria Thompson. When I started reading Murder on Astor Place I was encouraged to see how many books there were in the series for two reasons: 1) if Thompson was a crappy writer the publisher wouldn’t keep publishing her work, and 2) if I liked the book I would have plenty of future reading material. Sarah Brandt, Thompson’s protagonist, is a midwife in late 19th century New York City. In the course of her work as a midwife she runs across a murder and meets Detective Frank Malloy. Sarah and Frank are nothing alike and can barely tolerate each other (she’s a little like a baby-delivering/sleuthing Dolly Levi and he’s a jaded Irish police officer), so, it seems likely that they will eventually fall in love in future books. But for now, they combine forces to solve a crime that takes them into the twisted heart of one of New York’s wealthiest families. Sarah, our midwife and sleuth, is in a unique position to help solve the crime because she too is from one of the wealthiest, most influential old families in New York. With a lesser writer, Sarah Brandt’s choice to forgo her family’s wealth and position for the independence of having her own career would feel contrived, but Thompson gives Sarah a back-story that helps to make Sarah’s choice feel plausible. I liked the main characters and I plan to spend a lot more time with them in the dirty, violent, and class-divided New York of the 1890s.

*Tomorrow we totally ditch the Victorian world and head to present-day Egypt with Will Adams’ book The Alexander Cipher.

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2010 in Books, Lifestyle

 

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2009’s Bibliophile Favorites

According to my list, I read 47 books in 2009. If I had thought about it somewhere in December, sometime before I wrote about my resolution to read more books by authors I haven’t read before, I would have written about my favorite books and authors in 2009. But I didn’t. Instead my sister had a baby in mid-December and I went into big-time auntie mode.

However, even if it wasn’t done in as orderly a way as I would have liked, it still seemed like a good idea to share some of my favorite books read last year. I get tired of the only books you hear about being the ones with publishers who have the cash to pay off reviewers, or those “achingly haunting” depressing coming-of-age/women-with-problems books. Nope, I’m just into good, clean murder mystery fun.

Suzanne Arruda. Technically, I discovered Suzanne Arruda and her feisty heroine Jade del Cameron in December of 2008, but I didn’t finish the book The Mark of the Lion until after New Year’s.  While the book has its flaws, like a rather weak McGuffin for getting Jade out to Africa at the end of WWI, once she’s in Africa and on her mission to find her dead fiancee’s lost half-brother, the story picks up. I loved the warm, vivid way Arruda wrote about Africa, the British, and the wildlife. Jade herself is occasionally tiresome because she is almost, but not quite, a female version of Teddy Roosevelt. But overall, I liked this book as well as the next two in the series (Stalking Ivory, The Serpent’s Daughter). The settings in post WWI Africa are rich with historical detail letting me feel like I’m on vacation—and a vacation to warm, sun baked Africa sounds pretty good right now because yesterday the high was 14 degrees. There are five books in the series, I just haven’t read The Leopard’s Prey or The Treasure of the Golden Cheetah yet.

Bruce Alexander. Alexander’s book Murder in Grub Street is a solid follow up to his first book in his Sir John Fielding series Blind Justice. Set in London, England in the 1700s, Alexander’s protagonist/narrator Jeremy Proctor is all set to start an apprenticeship with a printer in Grub Street when the printer and his entire household are brutally murdered just the day before Jeremy was to start. Blind Justice was good, but I think I liked Murder in Grub Street better because Jeremy acquired a friend his own age and acted like a real kid. Alexander wrote eleven books in this series before his death in 2003 and, when I was at Barnes & Noble last week, I saw Blind Justice with brand-spanking new cover art so it looks like they are being re-released, making it is a good time to start reading the series.

Chris Ewan. The saying, “You can’t judge a book by the cover,” may be true, but I think a lot can be said for titles. I picked up The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris solely for the title and was pleased to find it did not disappoint. Set in modern-day Paris, the book follows the adventures of international author Charlie Howard who writes mysteries about a fictional cat burglar. However, Charlie really is a cat burglar and the burglary racket is much more complicated than the plots of his novels, and much more likely to get him killed. The book jacket described Charlie Howard as “the most disarming burglar since Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief” and I thought that was a pretty tall order, but the book delivers, mostly. So far there are two books in the series, The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam and The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris.

Tarquin Hall. I have been fascinated with India since I was about four-years-old and went to a Hindu wedding. Eventually, I would dearly love to visit that country, but in the meantime I have discovered a writer whose rich details and commentary on modern Indian life were both entertaining and insightful. In The Case of the Missing Servant our detective, Vish Puri (a.k.a. Chubby) makes his stand for getting to the truth, being thorough, and employing strategic use of technology, even while he thinks technology has played a part in the breakdown of Indian society. The book really flowed and I didn’t want to put it down. Best of all, there was a handy glossary at the back so I could find out what all those strange terms I was reading meant. Sadly, I this is the first book in Hall’s Vish Puri series, which means I’m going to have to impatiently bide my time until the next installment.

Rhys Bowen. This year I read the first books in two of Rhys Bowen’s series, Murphy’s Law about Irish immigrant Molly Murphy, and Her Royal Spyness about Lady Georgianna (a.k.a. Georgie) who is thirty-fourth in line for the British throne. Maybe it is a sad statement about my lack of patience, but I like books that don’t drag or indulge in historical background simply for the sake of showing me how much research the author has done. Bowen writes an engaging mystery that moves without feeling disjointed and rushed, or that character and plot development have been sacrificed for the sake of showing off research. Also, and I really like this, there is a sense of humor in Bowen’s books. Sure these women are in outrageous and dangerous circumstances, but they don’t lose their ability to see the ridiculousness around them and they don’t lose their gumption. Currently, Bowen is up to eight books in the Molly Murphy series and three in the Her Royal Spyness series. Bowen has a third mystery series featuring Constable Evans with ten books and counting.

Elizabeth Peters. During 2009 I discovered writer Elizabeth Peters in a big way. Part of what I love about her work is that there is just so much of it, making it easy to find her books used. Peters has several series of books plus a glut of non-series books, she has written under two names (Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels), and she has been publishing novels and non-fiction since the 1960s. I read a few of her non-series books (Summer of the Dragon, Legend in Green Velvet, and The Copenhagen Connection) and liked her use of history, archeology, and humor in her writing because she makes it feel like it fits rather than that it is mashed together for the sake of a plot vehicle. I read the first book in her Amelia Peabody series, Crocodile on the Sandbank, and immediately had to start hunting the used bookstores for the next book in the series (The Curse of the Pharaohs) because I was so taken with the umbrella-wielding heroine Amelia Peabody. The only drawback to Peters books, and it is a small one, is that when I was trying to look for the next book in the series, the lists in the books themselves do not always separate the books by series and order, and, given the volume of material that Peters has written, it can be a bit of a mess making sense of it. My solution, and I wish I’d thought of it sooner, it to just print out the lists from her page on wikipedia.

Will Thomas. How do I love Will Thomas, let me count the ways. The man writes a good mystery. This year I read the third (The Limehouse Text) and fourth (The Hellfire Conspiracy) in his Barker and Llwelyn mystery series. I have the fifth and latest installment (The Black Hand) tempting me to ignore other books, eating, and sleeping in favor of reading it. Will Thomas is simply a damn good writer who has created interesting characters in Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn, characters I want to spend time with. Private enquiry agents (not detectives) in Victorian England, this pair matches wits with anti-semites, Irish terrorists, Chinese factions in Limehouse, and seedy aristocrats. Thomas blends action, historical background, and character development in a way that feels effortless. And, although not important to the enjoyment of these books, I have my heart set on Russell Crowe playing the roll of Cyrus Barker if these books are ever turned into a film. The first two books in the series are Some Danger Involved and To Kingdom Come.

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2010 in Books, Lifestyle, Series

 

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