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.

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.