What I'm Reading Now: 11 July 11

The kitchen daughter-- Jael McHenry (literary fiction)
Dark road to Darjeeling-- Deanna Raybourn
The abortionist’s daughter-- Elisabeth Hyde
Escape--Carolyn Jessop (memoir)
How Shakespeare changed everything-- Stephen Marche (non-fiction)
State of wonder--Ann Patchett (literary fiction)
A very modest cottage--Teresa Surratt (non-fiction)
The girl who disappeared twice--Andrea Kane
Voodoo river-- Robert Crais

The kitchen daughter was recommended by one of my fellow librarians at a professional development day. It took a few weeks to cross my desk, but I'm very pleased I got it. Ginny is the kitchen daughter; she's a genius in the kitchen, pretty much a wreck anywhere else. When her parents die in a car accident, she has  to find her way in the world, with, or  in spite of, the well-meaning attempts of her older sister to run her life. “I do not have a problem,” Ginny insists, “I have a personality,” and her personality helps and hinders by turn as she makes friends and tries to answer questions of grief, how well one knows one's family, and what constitutes normal.
McHenry's images of food are lush and mouthwatering, and Ginny's stumbling progress through life on her own both ring true and open up the landscape of someone who is... well... differently normal. Read it.

Dark road to Darjeeling is the start of a second trilogy about Lady Julia Grey. I devoured the first one as the books came out, then lost sight of Raybourn for a while. I'm very glad she's continued with Lady Julia and Nicholas Brisbane, who are an amateur and a professional sleuth, respectively. They crossed paths (and metaphorical swords) frequently in those first three books (Silent in the grave, Silent in the sanctuary, Silent on the moor), and have finally given in to the inevitable and admitted their feelings for each other. In Dark road, they are just completing the eighth month (!) of their honeymoon when Julia's sister summons them to join her in India, as she rushes to the aid of her best friend Jane, whose husband has died under somewhat suspicious circumstances.
Raybourn has done a lot of things right that many authors can't quite master: creating an impetuous heroine who remains sensible, for one, and depicting a relationship that continues to be interesting once the ring is in place. Julia and Nicholas are hardly speaking to each other for a good third of the novel, as they try to work out how two strong-willed people from very different backgrounds can fit together into a marriage. I'm almost as interested in seeing how they're going to make their marriage work as I am to watch them solve the next mystery.

The abortionist's daughter is somewhere in the misty area where “novel” and “mystery” intersect. There is a mystery-- a doctor who performed abortions is found dead in her lap pool. There are conflicted relationships-- both her husband and her daughter are, to varying degrees, estranged from her, and later from each other. The characters are interesting, and the plot throws in a number of twists. It's a good read.

Escape is Carolyn Jessop's  memoir of growing up in a polygamous sect, becoming the fourth wife of a fifty-four-year-old man at the age of eighteen, and finally managing to escape the cult with her eight children when the cult became dangerously apocalyptic.
It's gripping reading, and it's true. Jessop and her co-writer Laura Palmer do an excellent job of bringing across  Carolyn's perspective, beginning with her childhood belief that polygamy was the right and moral thing to do, to a growing realization of how horrifying it was in practice, to finally escaping and creating a new life in the world she was raised to think of as evil. I'm planning on reading her other book, Triumph: life after the cult.

How Shakespeare changed everything is a slim volume that makes the claim that without Shakespeare, we wouldn't have adolescence, the name Jessica, a healthy sex life, or starlings in North America. Marche explains how Romeo and Juliet changed the way we look at teenagers, how Othello paved the way for Obama's presidency, and how Tolstoy believed Shakespeare was a hack. Worth reading for the myriad of Shakespeare-related trivia, even if you don't believe Marche's arguments.

State of wonder is the latest from Ann Patchett, who also wrote Bel canto. It is possible that “author of Bel canto” will appear on Patchett's tombstone; it seems more likely than citing State of Wonder. Not that it's a bad book-- it's odd, and haunting, and it will stay with you for a while-- but it's not her best.
Be that as it may, State of wonder finds Marina, a pharmacologist, traveling to the Amazonian wilds to track down a doctor so that she can give an accounting of the research into some new wonder drug. Marina's co-worker, Anders, has already made this trip and died in the jungle; guilt and a sense of responsibility force Marina to follow. However, things that seemed so basic and straightforward in the US become muddled and multilayered in the tropics, and Marina finds that very little can be accomplished easily, or without pain. Definitely, read it-- but read Bel canto, too.

A very modest cottage is basically the picture book of the restoration of a small tourist cabin. Not a lot of text, lots of pictures. It's interesting, but it wasn't what I expected, and so my opinion of it has suffered a bit from that.

The girl who disappeared twice is a very enjoyable read. I thought at first I'd fallen into the middle of a series again, as there were a number of very well-drawn characters with well-rounded backstories, but apparently this is the start of a series. I'm very pleased about that: Forensic Instincts, Inc, is a group of three people of varying backgrounds and approaches who will work with the law, but are not above doing things expediently rather than strictly legally.  Casey, Marc, and Ryan are a firm for hire, and they've just been hired by a judge whose daughter has been kidnapped. The judge is hiding a secret. So is her husband, the nanny, her mother, her father, and, well, practically everyone in the book.  Kane gives you just enough about a character to make them look suspicious, so there are plenty of leads and dead-ends before Forensic Instincts and the FBI close in on the kidnappers. My only complaint is that I figured out a few things well before the investigators did. I will be looking for more of Kane's work.

Voodoo river was a booksale purchase. I'd read some Robert Crais before, and had been somewhat underimpressed. However, I had run out of library books, and this was handy, so I thought I'd give him another chance.
Elvis Cole is a wisecracking PI based out of Los Angeles. A TV star approaches him about finding her adoptive parents, which sends him out into Louisiana. He runs into a lot of dead ends and stonewalling before a gimcrack PI who is tailing him gets killed, and after that, the plot complications come flying in.
My verdict? I'm not going to bother with Crais's Elvis Cole again. When I'm looking for a wisecracking PI, I'll read Robert Parker instead.

What I'm Reading Now: update schedule change

Apparently, when I decided that Saturday would be a good day for updates, I failed to take into account that I wanted to have a social life.

Update now (tentatively) scheduled for Monday(s).  See you then.

What I'm Reading Now: 11 July 04

Arrows of the Queen--Mercedes Lackey (Fantasy)
In a dark house-- Deborah Crombie
The marriage-- Dallas Schulze (romance)
The distant echo-- Val McDermid
Cue the dead guy-- H. Mel Malton
The best science fiction of the year #9 (1979)--edited by Terry Carr (science fiction)

This week's selection comes my personal library. More specifically, these are all book sale purchases from the last two years.

Arrows of the Queen is Mercedes Lackey's first book. She has gone on to publish at rather a remarkable rate, and has ambitions of writing more (I assume science fiction/fantasy) than Isaac Asimov. (I clarify because Asimov wrote 515 books in his lifetime, on a wide variety of non-fiction topics as well as fiction, and if Lackey wants to catch up, she will either have to write even faster or she'll have to live an extra lifetime. Mind you, Asimov started writing at fifteen or so, and Lackey was an adult, but even so...) Right, back to the book at hand. I loved Arrows of the Queen and the two other books in the trilogy when I first read them. (That would have been shortly after their publication in 1987 & 1988). On re-reading, well, now that I have more experience, I can tell it's an early novel. I could nitpick about the various cues to that, but it's still a good book. The premise is interesting, the characters have some depth to them, and the plot moves along nicely. My only caveat would be that it's more a YA title than adult-- Talia, the main character, is 13 when the story starts, and it's her perspective.
The story itself--Talia has dreams of being a Herald, but her life in a border town is limited, and about to become more so. A Herald's Companion, a magical white horse, finds her and rescues her from impending marriage to become the Queen's Own Herald, but life as a Herald is dangerous, especially when there are plots against the Queen and the Heir to the throne.
For all I said about it having suffered over the passage of time, I'm pretty sure I'll be reading Arrows again one of these days.

In a dark house is the eleventh (I think) novel in Deborah Crombie's Duncan Kinkaid/Gemma James series. Kinkaid and James are Scotland Yard officials who began as partners and are now living together but not working together. They struggle with balancing the job and their relationships with each other and their children. Kinkaid has a massive warehouse fire on his turf that could be the work of a serial arsonist-- or it could be connected to the women's shelter two doors down. James is, in her limited free time, trying to help the friend of a friend track down her missing roommate. And somewhere, a missing child is at the mercy of a woman she has never seen before. It's an interesting tangle, and Crombie throws in a lot of surprises.
I've read others in this series, and I've enjoyed them. Crombie has a good sense of pacing, although sometimes she seems to have too much going at once. However, she has an excellent eye for relationships-- both the obvious ones, between the series characters, and the smaller ones, between the missing child and her regular baby-sitter. If I had more time, I think I'd take a run at the whole series (fifteen and counting). As it is, I'll take them as I find them.

The marriage is an indulgence of mine. It's pure escapist froth... but it's entertaining and funny. Schulze somehow keeps stereotypes from sounding like stereotypes, and makes you care about the characters. There are some steamy scenes, because, hey, it's published by MIRA's Romance line, so don't say I didn't warn you. (I've lost some of my taste for that sort of thing, but the one Dallas Schulze I read back when I enjoyed those scenes more was very well done.) Otherwise, what can I say? It's a straight-up romance, and it involves cowboys. The difference is in the writing.

The distant echo is a non-series Val McDermid. It begins with a group of four university boys discovering the body of a murdered barmaid in an ancient cemetery. The boys are under suspicion, but nothing is ever proven, and the case goes cold. Twenty-five years later, the newly-formed Cold Case Squad re-opens the folder... and those four friends are under suspicion again, and this time someone is out for revenge.
This was very well done. McDermid spends a good half of the book revisiting the events of twenty-five years past, how each of the boys reacted to the crime and their entanglement in it, and how it affected their relationships with each other. Present day, she follows the investigation as well as the current life of the now-grown men. It was very good, although I had a suspicion as to the final identity of the killer before the denoument. I'm always a little disappointed when that happens. However, that's not going to keep me from reading more McDermid.

Cue the dead guy was an impulse buy. I got sucked in by the title, and the fact that it's a theatre mystery. For some reason, I'm fascinated by theatre mysteries, which is yet another reason why I like Ngaio Marsh mysteries so much... but that's another rant. Polly Deacon is a puppet maker living up in the boonies. Work is scarce, so she takes on a commission for a traveling black-light theatre troop. When the assistant stage manager vanishes, Polly takes on the job. She also tries to get the local Mounties to take an interest in the said missing ASM, but they're not listening to her. Is she overreacting, or are the Mounties letting her past history with one of their own get in the way?
What's to like: Polly is  funny and smart-mouthed, but not flawlessly smart-- she can jump to the wrong conclusion now and again. The pacing is good, and the secondary characters are interesting. She's Canadian, too, and I like to support Canadian writers.
What's not to like: In an interview, Malton says that she's a dyed-in-the-wool seat-of-her-pantser, and doesn't plan things out ahead of time. This is all well and good if you put enough time into editing, but there are one or two things about the book that sound either like she was going to develop that line later and then forgot, or were shoehorned in on a mad impulse. It was still a fun read, though, and I could be persuaded to hunt up another Polly Deacon at some point.

I won't say much about the SF anthology, except to say that I enjoy reading older science fiction. Sometimes the science contained in it has dated badly, but there are some original minds out there.

What I'm Reading Now: 11 June 25

The unthinkable: who survives when disaster strikes--and why--Amanda Ripley (non-fiction)
Evil at heart--Chelsea Cain
The Not-So-Big House--Sarah Susanka (non-fiction)
Eco House: practical ideas for a greener, healthier dwelling-- Sergi Costa Duran (non-fiction)
The pawn-- Steven James
Assassin--Tom Cain
Heads you lose-- Lisa Lutz & David Hayward

It's amazing-- a couple of rainy days, and all I want to do is lie on the couch and read. I indulged myself that way this week, and it was most enjoyable.

The unthinkable: who survives when disaster strikes--and why is about how people react when disaster strikes. It looks at why some people sent some emails and picked up mystery novels before leaving their offices in the Twin Towers after the first airplane strike on 9/11. It discusses why people will climb over the backs of airplane seats to get to family members instead of leaving by the nearest exit. It also explains why one firm housed in the Twin Towers only lost five or six of over 500 employees, despite being on the floors just below the first impact site. And it also tells you that  reading the emergency procedures card on airplanes can increase your chances of survival by a hefty percentage. It's an interesting read, and has encouraged me to start noting the location of all emergency stairwells and exits... just in case.

I have finally read Evil at heart, the third in Chelsea Cain's Archie Sheridan series. It was quite enjoyable, but not at all what I expected. In it, Gretchen Lowell, the Beauty Killer, is at large, and Archie is trying to escape his obsession with her by hiding out in a mental ward. They made a deal in the last book-- if he doesn't try to commit suicide, she won't start killing again. Now it looks like she's broken her half of the deal, and Archie is coaxed out of hiding to try to untangle the complicated clues before someone else-- or many someone elses (forgive my grammar)-- die.

I re-read The Not-So-Big House, after having read it when it came out in the nineties. Susanka has co-written a number of Not-So-Big House titles, and by and large, they've aged well. Susanka's thesis is that, instead of building ever-bigger houses, we need to build not-so-big, well-planned houses. In her second book, she lists several design principles of Not-So-Big; I'd recommend reading both if you're planning to build a new house.
Relatedly, Eco House covers a lot of the latest and greatest in ecologically-friendly house-building. It's not exhaustive, but it's a good starting point. It covers principles like passive solar and siting, geothermal heating/cooling and air exchangers, the embodied energies of different building materials, flooring options, and on and on. It's got an international focus, which is good, but it doesn't seem to always be that applicable to Manitoba building conditions, where we have to deal with extremes in cold and heat (granted, not Saharan heat extremes, but it gets a lot hotter here than, say, Europe) and moisture. Still, definitely worth a look.

The pawn, by Stephen James, is the first in the Patrick Bowers thrillers series. (The rook, The knight, The bishop, and The queen (this last due September 2011) make up the series to date). Patrick Bowers is an FBI agent whose specialty is environmental criminology-- analyzing the time and location of the crimes to triangulate on the criminal. In The pawn, Bowers is called in to consult on a series of murdered young women in North Carolina. The pattern doesn't quite make sense, and Bowers has to contend with a supervisor who hates him and a stepdaughter who is perilously close to doing the same. It's a great story, and James subtly touches on Christian faith, making it significant without rubbing readers' and characters' noses in it.
I will admit that I find a lot of self-proclaimed Christian fiction to be heavy-handed dreck. This is neither, and I will be reading the rest of this series.

Assassin, by Tom Cain (no connection to Chelsea that I can discover) landed on my desk in the library a week ago. Apparently I had placed a hold on it and then completely forgotten about it. But here it was, so I read it. (I ended up putting it down halfway through and reading Heads you lose first, but I did finish it. More on Heads later). A couple of high-profile criminals die well-deserved deaths, and both show signs of Sam Carver's handiwork. Carver, though, is supposed to be a retired assassin. Is someone setting him up, and for what? The action moves from Dubai to San Fransisco to London to Oslo as Carver tries to find out who is framing him, and protect the new US president from becoming the biggest assassination ever. Cain's writing is fast-paced and plausible, and his plotting is up-to-the-minute, right down to the Iphone app that plays a key role in the final scene. I'm not sure why I put it down for a while, especially since I enjoyed the second half so much. If I come across more of his, I'll certainly give them a look-see.

Heads you lose was a fun romp. I've read author Lisa Lutz's Spellman series, and they're a hoot-- screwball PI mysteries. Heads you lose is a bit of a departure, in that... well, okay. It's written in alternating chapters by Lutz and co-author Hayward. According to the editor's foreword, there was no pre-planning, no outline; Lutz wrote the first chapter, added a few explanatory notes, and sent it to Hayward, who responded to said note, added a few comments to the first chapter and wrote the second. It bounces back and forth between them this way. The exchanges between the authors (who used to date, and may, just possibly, have a few unresolved issues arising from that time) grow progressively more aggrieved as the plot developments appear and are twisted and mutated in the following chapter, and, well... okay, there is a headless corpse that keeps appearing on the main characters' property, there's a MENSA IQ gimpy ex-stripper, there are characters that die only to be resurrected for another chapter and then get killed off again, there is a plane that explodes and then never really figures again in the plot...
I give up. I can't describe it.
Just read it. You can thank me later.