What I'm Reading Now: 12 September 10

Jim & Casper go to church: frank conversations about faith, churches, and well-meaning Christians-- Jim Henderson & Matt Casper (non-fiction)
The ritual bath-- Faye Kellerman
The nine tailors-- Dorothy L Sayers
Operating instructions: a journal of my son's first year-- Anne Lamott (memoir)
Vanished--Liza Marklund
Not in the flesh-- Ruth Rendell
Just send me word-- Orlando Figes (history)

Jim & Casper go to church: Picture a Christian (a former pastor, even) paying an atheist to go to church with him a few times - a dozen churches in total. Picture said pastor wanting said atheist not to convert during the church-visiting experience. Picture some very blunt questions being asked, including :"Is this what Jesus told you guys to do?" Jim (the pastor) and Casper (the atheist) do exactly that, and the North American church through an atheist's eyes is not at all what I expected. There's respect on both sides, and food for thought for both as well. Definitely worth reading.

The ritual bath: A woman leaving the ritual purification bath at a yeshiva is raped. The yeshiva is not in Israel, but in a bad part of the Los Angeles hills, and LAPD Detective Peter Decker runs into culture shock every time he walks through the yeshiva gates. Between that, the serial-rape cases he is investigating elsewhere, and his growing attraction to the intelligent and very Orthodox woman who is his contact inside the yeshiva, things get very complicated, and deadly. This is the first meeting between Decker and Rina Lazarus; I started later in the series, so it's interesting to see the genesis of the connection. I enjoyed the book, but with a feeling that there was something not quite right about it; I suspect, though, that the not-quite-right was my personal bias making itself felt, as I prefer Faye Kellerman's husband's books (Jonathan Kellerman) to hers. I can't explain it-- but I'd certainly never tell someone not to read Faye Kellerman because of that. Good writing, good plot, so try it and see if you enjoy it.

The nine tailors: A disfigured and mutilated body is discovered in a few-months-old grave. Identity: unknown. Cause of death: unknown. Lord Peter Wimsey, who had visited the parish a few months previously, was invited by the Rector to see if he could help discover what had happened. What follows is a tangle of bell-ringing, a priceless emerald necklace, family loyalty, jail-break, and desertion. This is one of the few mysteries I know that goes into English campanology (the science of churchbell-ringing), and it does go into some detail, which is both interesting and a little overwhelming. The whole story unfolds quite slowly as well (the mystery doesn't make an appearance until page 70 in my edition), but even with all of that, it's an excellent mystery, and most enjoyable. If you like classic British mysteries, Sayers is a must-read.

Operating instructions: Anne Lamott is not the first person to have a baby, alone, at the age of 35, but she is one of the few to write about it with grace, humor, and thorough-going honesty. She talks candidly about her anger at her colicky son, and about the incident with the rectal thermometer that resulted in, well, brown everywhere, as well as her overwhelming love for her son. Reading Anne Lamott's memoirs (I haven't read any of her fiction yet) makes me feel that I've connected with someone real, that this is the way it is, and that there is beauty in telling the truth about the ugly as well as the beautiful things in our lives... and that I'm not the only one who doesn't have it all together. Thank you, Ms. Lamott.

Vanished: A young woman is on the run in Stockholm after a brutal double murder. She contacts journalist Annika Bengtzon with her story, and Annika sends her to Rebecka, who has also recently contacted the journalist, and the foundation Rebecka runs that helps threatened people disappear. Annika follows up on both these stories, and the facts point in a different and deadly direction. It was a good story, albeit bleak, and I have to say that the resolution of the primary plot thread (woman on the run) was thoroughly unexpected and beautifully set up. I thought the resolution of Annika's personal problems was too easy, though, and unless Marklund was setting her up for more difficulty in the next book instead of giving her a karmic reward, it wasn't at all satisfactory. I don't regret reading this book, but I don't think I'll be reading another Marklund.

Just send me word: There are no easy resolutions in this biography, a slice of Stalinist Russian history. Lev was sentenced to ten years in the Gulag, a Russian prison work camp, for "treason against the Motherland"-- serving as a translator for a German officer as a Soviet prisoner of war. Somehow, he and Sveta, the woman he loved, managed to exchange over 1500 letters during his sentence. The letters were smuggled by friends and sympathetic camp workers, so the camp censors never saw them. Sveta even managed to visit him more than once during his stay. The story of life in Russia, both in the Gulag and in Moscow, during that time is shown vividly through these letters, which the couple preserved, and eventually donated to the archives. Figes uses these letters, as well as a few supplementary sources and interviews, to tell their story. Inspiring, and recommended.

What I'm Reading Now: 12 September 03

A door in the river-- Inger Ash Wolfe
The (honest) truth about dishonesty-- Dan Ariely (psychology)
Shoot to thrill-- PJ Tracy
The tools: transform your problems into courage, confidence, and creativity--Phil Stutz & Barry Michaels (psychology)
Some assembly required: a journal of my son's first son--Anne Lamott with Sam Lamott

I have this sneaking suspicion that there was another book there somewhere, but I can't remember what it was.

A door in the river: Hazel Micallef is running out of time. Her police detachment is about to be absorbed by a larger regional group, and her new boss will be a former subordinate and nemesis. Kitty is running out of time. She has no money, no friends, and some very bad enemies. Henry Wiest is out of time. He's dead in the parking lot of the smoke shop on the local reserve. Hazel has to find the cause of death, find Kitty, and find out if anything connects the two before things get very bad indeed. I thought that the plot was good, but for some reason, in this book (the third Hazel Micallef mystery) Hazel irritated me, and I was reluctant to continue reading. However, I did, and it was still a good use of my time. I'd still recommend the first two (The calling (which I read but did not review)  and The taken) over A door in the river, but I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from reading Door.

The (honest) truth about dishonesty: If you think you know why people cheat, Dan Ariely has some news for you. It's not a simple equation that balances gain against the potential consequences if caught. It's much more complex than that, involving, at its core, how much you can cheat and still feel like you are a moral person. As one of the studies Ariely ran shows, people are less likely to take advantage of a blind person than a sighted person, even if the "cheating" is fully legal and not taking advantage will cost the "cheater". It's intriguing and well-written, and recommended to anyone who wonders why some people are honest and some are not.

Shoot to thrill: Someone is posting murder videos on the internet: not amateur re-creations, but the real thing. The videos are untraceable as far as law enforcement is concerned, so the FBI calls in a number of hackers... including the Monkeewrench crew. In the meantime, the Minneapolis PD is faced with a body in a bridal gown floating in the river. Monkeewrench and the MPD struggle with their separate cases before they realize that there is no separation, and in the meantime, the number of videos is slowly increasing. This was another excellent Monkeewrench outing that gave all the characters a chance to be heard. My only problem is that I now have to wait until the library purchases the next in the series... and after that, I'll have to wait a year for another one.

The tools: Imagine that you could change not just your attitudes, but the way you live. Imagine that you could fully and completely overcome all your history and your baggage to become the you that you are meant to be. That's the premise of The tools, set down by two psychologists who use these techniques to help their clients get past their fears to accomplish the things they want. I found the ideas interesting, and I could see that they could be helpful. They don't fit with my personal worldview, though, and Stutz and Michaels warn against modifying the tools in any way. I will therefore leave them in the book where I found them, and any recommendation I will make for their use will come with the caveat that they require a certain non-focussed spirituality which may be at odds with various religions, including Christianity.

Some assembly required: Just under twenty years ago, Anne Lamott wrote a book about her son's first year. Now, she writes about her grandson's first year, with her son's full permission and co-operation. She writes about her difficulties in stepping back and letting a very young couple be parents in their own way, especially as they have financial and relational struggles. She writes about her own spiritual journey, and throughout it all, she writes about her grandson, Jax, and how much she loves him. Just about any time I read something by Lamott, I want to go out and find more of her writing, while at the same time being at least mildly startled by how honest and earthy she can be. Highly recommended. (And now, if you'll excuse me, I believe I need to order Operating Instructions, the aforementioned journal of Sam's first year.)

What I'm Reading Now: 12 August 27

Kill you twice-- Chelsea Cain
Down the darkest road-- Tami Hoag
The gallows bird-- Camilla Lackberg
English fairy tales-- Joseph Jacobs

Kill you twice: I find myself wondering how long Chelsea Cain can spin out the entanglement between Gretchen Lowell, the serial killer, and Archie Sheridan, her victim/arresting officer, especially since Archie arrested her at the end of the first book. Kill you twice demonstrates that Cain can continue this story for some time without diminishing the suspense or the believability. Now, there's another serial killer out there, and Gretchen claims not only that she knows who he is, but that he is responsible for the child murders that she is accused of. Archie can't let his only lead evaporate, but that may be only a coverup for the strange and twisted connections between Gretchen and Archie. Add in a reporter who has a fixation on Archie, and a mysterious new neighbor, plus a few plot bombshells, and there's plenty of material for another book or six. I say: bring 'em on.

Down the darkest road: Tami Hoag returns to Oak Knoll with Down the darkest road. Lauren Lawton is hiding in the small college town, hoping to keep her younger daughter from being abducted by the same man who Lauren believes is responsible for the disappearance of her older daughter.  Lauren slides deeper into fear as it becomes clear that Roland Ballancoa is also in Oak Knoll and that someone has a definite interest in Lauren and her daughter. Officer Tony Mendez takes on Lauren's cause, to try to find something that links Ballancoa to a crime so he can be taken off the streets. I found the story interesting, although it seemed to me that Hoag, who is deliberately setting the Oak Knoll stories in the 1980's and 90s, is a little too aware that she is writing in the past, and has her characters indulge in technological foreshadowing. It's a minor quibble, though, and although I've liked other of her books more than this, it was still a decent way to spend a couple of hours.

The gallows bird: A small Swedish town is about to host a reality TV show. The locals are not necessarily appreciative, especially the police force, who have to deal with public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. When one of the contestants is murdered, public pressure nudges Detective Patrick Hedstrom and his colleagues to focus all their efforts there, all but forgetting about an apparent drunk-driving fatality with just a few anomalies... This was the first mystery I'd read by Lackberg, and it was quite impressive. She juggles multiple characters, managing to make most of them quite real and nuanced, and brings several storylines into play, each at the appropriate moment. Although I had my suspicions about a few characters and motivations, the ending was still surprising. Definitely recommended; in fact, I've already requested the first in this series.

English fairy tales: And now for something completely different... I've been looking around for a plot for this year's National Novel-Writing Month, and I thought perhaps that I could use a fairy tale as a jumping-off point, as I did in 2006 with Waltz for a soldier. I found a collection of English Fairy Tales, collected by Joseph Jacobs, at the library book sale this year, and finally took the time to browse through it. There are some poems and cumulative stories (like The house that Jack built), and an assortment of stories. There are variations on Cinderella (Catskin and Rushen Coatie), and there are all kinds of giant-killing stories. Jacob's style is interesting, but it's really not a book for reading straight through; it's more of a browsing book. Still, I enjoyed it, and I may have found a plot or two I can use.  

What I'm Reading Now: 12 August 20

Brat Farrar-- Josephine Tey
Snow blind-- PJ Tracy
The fairy godmother-- Mercedes Lackey (fantasy)
Judgment call-- JA Jance
Gone girl-- Gillian Flynn
Death in a white tie-- Ngaio Marsh

Brat Farrar: Simon Ashby is about to inherit Lachetts, the family estate that has been in trust for him since his parents' death, and his older twin's suicide a few months later. Days before his birthday, a man arrives claiming that Patrick never committed suicide, he merely ran away. He knows, because he is Patrick. The family slowly accepts this man, although they prefer to call him Brat, the name he had used as an alias. Brat knows himself to be an impostor, but he loves horses, and he comes to love the family... all except Simon, who on the surface is welcoming, but occasionally shows signs of deeper undercurrents. I enjoy Brat Farrar every time I read it, and the ending is quite satisfying. Definitely recommended.

Snow blind: Snow is nothing unusual in Minnesota... except this time, when it won't stop snowing. At first, the snow is welcome, especially for a pair of cross-country skiers and for the children's snowman-building contest. But when one of the snowmen is found sporting expensive cross-country skis and has unnervingly human hands. Across the state, a rookie sheriff discovers another eerie snowman, and the steadily falling snow makes travel dangerous and hampers everyone's investigation. The computer firm (and crime-solving consultants) Monkeewrench step in to help both departments catch a serial killer... if these murders are in fact the work of one killer. Again, PJ Tracy puts together a plot that's both unexpected and believable, and the small details of character and setting are perfectly placed. This is another must-read.

The fairy godmother: As you may have gathered, I'm partial to fairy tale retellings. Mercedes Lackey's series, The Five Hundred Kingdoms, is all about the fairy tales; about kingdoms where Tradition is an active magical force that pushes people into following fairy tale archetypes when their situations indicate it. Elena is one such person - she would be a perfect Cinderella, except that the only prince is only half her age. She is rescued by the fairy godmother of the kingdom, and becomes a fairy godmother herself, discovering how Tradition can bless or doom a person, and how a fairy godmother can use and subvert it to save an individual or a kingdom. Lackey's basic idea is quite intriguing, and she makes good use of various tales to support her main story. She does her own subverting of fairy tales to come up with an ending for Elena that is happy without being, well, Traditional. It was enjoyable, and I expect I'll be reading others in the series.

Judgment call: Joanna Brady was not prepared for her teenaged daughter to call her and report finding a dead body. She was also not prepared to find the balance between being a mother and being the sheriff, especially when a crime scene photo is leaked on Facebook-- a picture only Jenny could have taken. Joanna follows the Facebook lead and discovers a shocking video of the victim that suggests the killer could be a student at Jenny's high school. The plot follows a lot of twists before the killer is discovered, and there are some interesting characters along the way. As always, this entry in the Brady series is a good read, with plenty of personal as well as professional challenges for Sheriff Brady to meet and deal with.

Gone girl: I don't really know how to classify this book. On the surface, it's a mystery: man comes home and finds his wife missing on their fifth wedding anniversary. Man comes under suspicion, and can't seem to clear himself - in fact, he keeps re-incriminating himself. Told in alternating chapters, first from Nick's point of view, then in Amy's diary entries, the story as it's presented keeps you wondering: guilty? innocent? not quite either? The mystery aspect becomes more of a gloss on top of the real story, which is the anatomy of a relationship. As the story progresses, your sympathies flit back and forth, wondering which of the two you dislike more, and the ending... I'm sorry. Words fail. The ending feels both inevitable and the last thing you would have expected. Gone girl was very good indeed - I couldn't put it down for more than fifteen minutes before needing to go back to it, needing to find out what happened next. Highly recommended

Death in a white tie: Lord Robert Gospell was just helping out the police a little, observing the comings and goings of the London Season, trying to help track down a blackmailer. Someone caught him on the phone to Scotland Yard, and Lord Robert was found dead in a taxi that morning. Detective-Inspector Alleyn had little enough to go on: two cigarette cases, a missing letter, and a secret drawer. Alleyn is also very much in love with a young woman who passes through the scene from time to time, which causes some distraction, but also gives him a few minutes' break from the case. I wouldn't say this is one of Marsh's best, but it's certainly worth reading, and has less of a period-piece feel than some of  her others.