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What I'm Reading Now: 11 June 20

The best mysteries of Isaac Asimov-- Isaac Asimov
Puzzles of the Black Widowers-- Isaac Asimov
Carved in bone--Jefferson Bass
Fatal: The Poisonous Life of a Female Serial Killer--Harold Schechter

The best mysteries of Isaac Asimov, by, you guessed it, Isaac Asimov-- I ordered this in just for the three Union Club mysteries that were previously unpublished in book form. Yes, I'm a bit obsessive that way. I enjoyed them, as well as the other mysteries that I hadn't read in years. I don't think I'll read it again.

Puzzles of the Black Widowers, by Asimov-- I read the first four Black Widowers collections twenty-odd years ago, but I hadn't heard of this one until a few months ago. The Black Widowers collections consist of short stories where a group of six men (The Black Widowers' Club) and their regular waiter, Henry, solve some puzzle or mystery for their guest at their monthy banquet. Formula writing? In a way, perhaps. Asimov devotes a few pages to the main characters going off on rants and tangents about all manner of things (Gilbert and Sullivan, limericks, locked-room mysteries) before getting down to the puzzle itself, and I've never really gotten the feel that he was repeating himself. They're short (ten pages, at a guess), they're fun, and there's nothing that says you have to read more than one at a sitting.

Carved in bone, by Jefferson Bass, is the first in the Body Farm mysteries. The Body Farm is the name author Patricia Cornwell gave to the University of Tennessee Anthropology Research Facility, which studies the decomposition of human remains. The name stuck, and later, Dr. Bill Bass (founder of said facility) and journalist Jon Jefferson joined forces to write nonfiction and fiction about The Body Farm. Carved in bone follows Dr. Bill Brockton (heavily based on Dr. Bass), whose pursuit for the truth behind a mummified female body gets him deeply involved in local corruption in the backwoods of Tennessee.
Overall, a decent read, although a little lacking in plot sometimes. It is, after all, a first novel, so I'm willing to suspend judgment for at least another book. If you can handle a medium-to-high gross factor, it's worth reading. I wouldn't spend money on it, though.

Fatal, by Harold Schechter, deals with Jane Toppen, a rare female serial killer. In her career as a nurse, she poisoned upwards of a hundred people-- she wasn't sure, because some of her victims were only hospital patients, and not her private-duty patients. She began poisoning in 1891-- no, serial killers aren't a new phenomenon, even if the term was only coined sometime in the 1970's. The amazing thing is that she could go on as long as she did, and as blatantly as she did-- she wiped out one family of four inside a year, and only one man thought it was anything other than bad luck.
I've probably spoiled the suspense for you, but I'm not overly worried. As true crime goes, this was readable. (I've come across some that wasn't, and the only reason I'm not naming names is that I've blocked the title and author from my memory). It was interesting in spots. It was also slow and pedantic in spots, and the author found it necessary to spend the first few chapters on some other serial poisoners. I think I would have preferred the book if he had covered Jane Toppen in fewer chapters and added a few other poisoners to round out the book. I don't think I'll bother with Schechter again.

What I'm reading now: 11 June 11

The last temptation--Val McDermid
A drop of the hard stuff-- Lawrence Block
A presumption of death--Dorothy L Sayers & Jill Paton Walsh

Apparently my reading rate is slowing down somewhat. Too many other things to do, I suppose. Now I have to start slowing down my volume of book requests. So many books, so little time...

The last temptation, by Val McDermid, is the third in the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series. It's a bit of a departure, in that it takes place almost entirely in continental Europe, away from both characters' home territory. Jordan is asked to take on a special undercover assignment, in spite of her complete lack of experience, and Hill assists her with the psychological aspect of it. Jordan's German contact, a local police officer, draws both of them into helping her track down a serial killer who is targeting experimental psychologists.
I'm not sure what it is about the Hill/Jordan series, but McDermid never sets a foot wrong with this. It's creepy and suspenseful, and there are some interesting character developments for both the main characters. This was one I had missed earlier, and I'm glad I finally read it... and as soon as my reading pile goes down a bit, I'm ordering the next one.

A drop of the hard stuff, by Lawrence Block, is part of his well-established Matthew Scudder series. Block is a crime writer who has over fifty published books. The Matthew Scudder series is probably his claim to fame as a serious writer, but he has a number of other series that are varying degrees of screwball mystery. (His other major series, by volume count, anyway, is about Bernie Rhodenbarr, a burglar who runs a second-hand book store as a front, and makes periodic attempts to lead an honest life--but just can't.) Scudder, though, is serious business. He's an ex-cop with a failed marriage and a problem with alcohol. He doesn't have a job per se; he does favors for people, like a private investigator would, (but he's not licensed as such) and then those people give him some sort of gift in appreciation. As the series progresses, Scudder becomes more and more of an alcoholic, then hits bottom, and finds his way back with the help of friends and Alcoholics Anonymous. It's a fascinating journey, and it's all pretty much secondary to the main focus of the books, which are the mysteries he is asked to solve. By now, Scudder has built a solid life for himself again, and has been sober for years. A drop of the hard stuff is a "flashback" novel-- introduced in the present day, and told as a story from his first year of sobriety.
Block's writing is evocative of the struggles and frustrations of the ongoing fight to stay sober, and the plot grows out of the background of AA meetings and the 12-step program. There are plenty of plot twists and dead ends, and the ending isn't quite what you'd expect. I found it to be just a wee bit of a letdown, but that being said, what might be a mediocre entry in the Matt Scudder series would still make a lot of authors weep for their inability to write anything half as good. Yes, read it-- but read the others, too.

A presumption of death, by Jill Paton Walsh and Dorothy L Sayers, is one of those situations where an author continues a popular series after the original author's death. In a lot of cases, this sort of thing makes me itch, and I have to go back and read the real thing again, after which I apologize to the spirit of the original author for having even entertained the idea that anyone else could do her characters and her writing justice.
This is not the case with Walsh's continuation of Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane series. They are excellent-- I've even run across someone who prefers Walsh's to Sayers'. (I can sort of understand why, but I still think she's wrong.) There are three of them so far: Thrones, Dominations, which was begun by Sayers and completed by Walsh; A presumption of death, which was loosely based on The Wimsey papers (written by Sayers during WWII); and The Attenbury emeralds, which is wholely Walsh's work. I read the first and third more or less when they were published, but I was unaware of A presumption of death until about two months ago. I finally got my hands on it a week ago, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
It's not my favorite, even of the Walsh three, but that has more to do with the time period than anything else. The original stories take place between the two World Wars, but Presumption takes place during the early years of WWII, with rationing, air raids, and fire watches in the foreground, and the ever-present grimness of war lurking behind. It's not comfortable, and the murder makes it even less so. Still, it was well worth reading.

This doesn't really fall into my regular category of reading, but I did indulge my interest in neuroscience by picking up What goes on in my head?, by Robert Winton, and published by DK Publishing. It's an introduction to the brain for younger readers. DK Publishing does well-researched, fully-illustrated  books on a wide variety of topics, and if there's a choice of sources, I often steer people to DK titles. It didn't really give me any new information, but it was an excellent review.

I started reading Twice a spy, by Keith Thomson, but I very quickly realized that it picks up roughly fifteen minutes after the end of Once a spy, which I haven't read yet. It's now in my reading pile, too.

What I'm Reading Now: 11 June 04

Even more five-minute mysteries--Ken Weber
Best of five-minute mysteries-- Ken Weber
My cat saved my life-- Phillip Schreibman
The night season-- Chelsea Cain

I haven't read much this week, although it's not for lack of reading material. I keep bringing books home. I've been doing some spring cleaning instead. I've been finding it oddly compelling and, at moments, quite enjoyable. This is not to say that I'll be trading in my books for a mop anytime soon...

Even more five-minute mysteries and The best of five-minute mysteries are part of the --you guessed it-- five-minute mystery series. Ken Weber is a Canadian writer who started out writing these short puzzles to catch the interest of a class of "difficult" students, and found that students from other classes, as well as fellow staff members, came begging for more. In the span of a few pages, Weber sets the scene (frequently the scene of a crime, or possible crime), including facts material and immaterial, and poses a question at the end. Do you spot the same clues that the detective in the story did? It's another version of Encyclopedia-Brown-for-adults, right down to the solutions being given at the end of the book. This is not an easy format to master, but Weber manages to fit a lot into a very limited space, creating brief glimpses of interesting people and places, as well as situations.
I found these at the library book sale, and bought them for my husband. (I read them aloud to him while he's doing things that don't require too much attention, and he sees if he can solve them. He has an excellent track record, by the way.) I endedn up reading them myself, without him. It's like eating toffee peanuts: you're only going to have just one more... and then, suddenly, they're all done.
I'm looking forward to reading them with my husband, later, and I will definitely consider finding the others.

My cat saved my life, by Phillip Schreibman, was a birthday gift which languished in my reading pile for a bit before I read it. It's a memoir of sorts, about how the author rescued a kitten from the alley, and she, in turn, helped him carry on in spite of depression, and find a way of coping with the fact of death. Now, I love cats, but I have come to the realization that that is exactly why I should never read memoirs about cats. Almost without fail, the author finds it necessary to include a chapter on the cat's death, and this always devastates me. Granted, in this book, it was necessary, even pivotal, for Schreibman to talk about Alice's death and his grieving, because that was part of the process of saving his life. I will also add, in the interest of fairness, that Schreibman did say, at the beginning of the appropriate chapter, that this was the chapter in which Alice died, and the sensitive should skip it. (I should have done so. I really should have done so.)
This is not a book for me. It's very well-written, certainly, and could well be helpful if you're grappling with how to face loss and death. I'm not sorry I read it, but I will not be reading it again.

The night season, by Chelsea Cain, is the fourth book in her series about Archie Sheridan, the detective who has been damaged by deep involvement in a serial-killer investigation that ended in his abduction and torture by said serial killer. In this entry in the series, bodies found in the rising river turn out to be not drowned, but poisoned. With the city on high alert due to threat of catastrophic flooding, Archie and reporter Susan Ward try to find the killer and a mysterious boy before more people die.
I've been reading this series out of order, which I don't recommend. (I still need to read the third one.) Cain's writing is excellent; when her characters do crazy things, it's for very understandable reasons. She weaves in a second plotline, of a past flood, with a tidy touch, and in the end, every character and every story tendril fits together with impressive neatness. However, this is a mystery series, so Cain sets out one or two tiny hints of something to come, just to keep us waiting for more... and it's working.

What I'm Reading Now: A Nod to the Inevitable

Apparently Friday is not a good time for me to try updating my blog. Official update day is now Saturday.

We'll see how long that lasts...