Mini Reviews: Ruth Rendell, Lauren Graham, Marlon James

416MKFJY97L._SX292_BO1,204,203,200_Kissing The Gunner’s Daughter (Inspector Wexford #15) by Ruth Rendell:  Ah, there’s nothing like visiting an old friend, and after having read 14 previous Wexford mysteries, I consider the erudite Reg Wexford an old friend indeed.  It’s odd to say that murder mysteries are my comfort reading, but it’s true all the same.  This one starts out with a grisly (for Rendell) crime scene: three murder victims, including famed author Davina Flory, shot in the middle of dinner, with her teenage granddaughter, Daisy, the only survivor. Robbery gone wrong, or something more sinister? Meanwhile, Wexford’s favorite daughter, Sheila, is seriously dating a self-important ass, and Wexford is trying navigate this tricky terrain, desperate to hold onto his good relationship with her while wanting her not to settle.  I liked this mystery, but at 378 pages it felt a bit too long for me.  And for the first time I started to figure out who was behind the murders before the Inspector did.  I could have used more Mike Burden, Wexford’s no-nonsense sidekick, but all in all this was an entertaining mystery.  I’ve got nine more of these books, according to Goodreads.  I don’t read series in quick succession like some people do, so I imagine that it will take me 2 or 3 more years to complete the series.

Talking As Fast As I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls And Everything In Between by Lauren Graham:  I listened to the audio book version, read by Lauren Graham herself, and it was delightful.  (It was also my first downloadable audio book checkout from my library system’s Overdrive catalog – go me!  Embracing “new” technology!)  If you’re not a fan of “Gilmore Girls,” you can skip this one.  But if you are, you MUST read or listen to it.  Ms. Graham writes about her unconventional childhood, her days in acting school programs, auditioning and trying to make it, and most pleasingly to this fan, goes into great detail about both of her times playing Lorelai Gilmore. Just a charming, self-deprecating woman letting us fans in on what it was like to be a part of such a magical show.  I especially liked her smartly done skewering of ridiculous Hollywood body standards for actresses.  Ms. Graham seems genuine and humble, and this was a fun, breezy, entertaining celebrity memoir.

512--x+XDfL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_John Crow’s Devil by Marlon James: So, how much do we owe our favorite authors?  If you’ve followed me for a while you know that I ADORED both of Marlon James’s other novels, A Brief History of Seven Killings and The Book of Night Women.  Hopes for this one, his debut novel, were high, I admit.  At just over 200 pages, it was a total slog for me, I’m sorry to say.  It’s a story about two warring priests in 1950’s Jamaica, wrestling for control of the souls in a small village called Gibbeah.  Filled with biblical imagery and passages, it is also one of the most brutal, relentlessly violent books I’ve ever read.  However, there were some beautifully written passages, hinting at the mastery of his later works.

People had a way of carrying afflictions like possessions, thinking suffering was the evidence of life.

She hated him.  Her spirit rose and fell with his and she hated him.  Because of Bligh, the Widow’s heart was undoing her.  They had struck a deal, heart and mind, and now heart was cheating out.  It had begun by tricking her into doing things like adding more sugar to the limeade and looking at old dresses in red, yellow, blue.  She wished she could punch a hole in her chest and yank the frigging thing out.  The Widow has grown accustomed to death; the mossy, mothy grayness of it.  God had taken away every man who had unfroze her heart.

I made myself finish this because I loved James’s other novels so much.  If it hadn’t been him, or if this had been the first novel of his I’d read, it would probably have been a DNF. It was leaden, joyless, and his characterization was lacking.  I still don’t know what the point of the damn thing is, quite frankly.  Still, I gave it three stars on Goodreads, because I just can’t give him less.  So I’m wondering, do we treat lesser books by our favorite authors differently?  Do we grade them on a curve?  Or am I just a big softie?

How about you?  Do you tend to devour series quickly, or do you parse them out sparingly?  What’s the last good audio book you listened to?  Have you ever made yourself finish a book out of loyalty to the author’s previous work? I’d love to read your thoughts.

The Murder At The Vicarage by Agatha Christie

“My dear young man, you underestimate the detective instinct of village life.  In St. Mary Mead everyone knows your most intimate affairs.  There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.”

Fairly recently I was reminded that I’d never read a Miss Marple mystery, despite having read and enjoyed many of Christie’s mysteries featuring Hercule Poirot.  It’s one of those bookish oversights that I can’t logically explain.  My aunt was the first person to introduce me to Agatha Christie, when I was in high school.  She gave me a hardcover collection of five famous Poirot cases, and I was hooked.  This same aunt, however, prefers Miss Marple as a detective to Poirot, so why didn’t she give me Marple?  And why has it taken me 20+ years to get around to reading one with the clever spinster? Perhaps we’ll never know.

murder-at-the-vicarageIn any case, I’m glad I finally tried one.  This is the first featuring Marple, set in the fictional British village of St. Mary Mead.  I was surprised to find that Marple is almost a side character in the book, albeit a vital one.  The story is narrated by the Vicar himself, and the murder is one of those types where many in the village have a motive, and the victim is spectacularly unpopular. Colonel Protheroe is found shot to death sitting at the Vicar’s desk, and within hours we have two separate confessions from two probably suspects.

It felt very classically British and cozy, with all the gossipy spinsters contributing tidbits to the police investigation, as well as the Vicar himself dipping his toe into detective work.  I very much enjoyed the tone and humor of the book, finding it recalled my beloved Barbara Pym at times.  The Vicar’s wife, the much younger Griselda, is especially funny.  He asks her at the beginning of the book what she’s got scheduled that day, and she replies,

“My duty,” said Griselda.  “My duty as the Vicaress.  Tea and scandal at four-thirty.”

“Who is coming?”

Griselda ticked them off her fingers with a glow of virtue on her face.

“Mrs. Price Ridley, Miss Weatherby, Miss Hartnell, and that terrible Miss Marple.”

“I rather like Miss Marple,” I said.  “She has, at least, a sense of humor.”

“She’s the worst cat in the village,” said Griselda.

My only complaint is that this was a very slow read for me.  It took me a week, and my paperback edition is only 230 pages long!  I voiced my issue with a regular library patron who enjoys Christie and she said that the Marple mysteries do unfold at a slower pace than the Poirots.  I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s certainly possible.  Or perhaps it’s just this particular title.  Any of you Christie fans care to weigh in on that one?

Despite the glacial pace, I did enjoy it.  There’s some clever misdirection by the master mystery writer, and I (once again) did not guess the murderer.  The Vicar and Vicaress were charming, and I found that Miss Marple grew on me as the story progressed.  She is indeed a “shrewd” character, as the Vicar describes her.  As all great amateur detectives are, she’s a keen observer of human nature, yet I found her to be humble as well – something I don’t think I can say of Hercule Poirot.  I am most definitely going to try another one in the series and see how I like it.  There are still many other Christie mysteries I’ve not yet read.  I find myself reaching for these when I’m stressed or in a weird reading mood. They’re dependably entertaining and serve as palate-cleansers.  No matter who the detective is, there will always be a place for Agatha Christie in my reading life.

 

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly: a Mini-Review

29154543The Wrong Side of Goodbye is Michael Connelly’s twenty-first Harry Bosch book.  I’ve never before read a mystery series for this long.  Years ago I was into the Hamish Macbeth series by M.C. Beaton, but I think I stopped somewhere around the sixteenth book or so, because things just got too repetitive.  I used to read Martha Grimes’s Richard Jury series but decided to quit, coincidentally, after the 16th, mostly for the same reason (boredom) but also because that one involved investigating a snuff film with kids (NOPE NOPE NOPE!)  I’m still digging Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series, of which I’m on the fifteenth book.  But let’s face it, it’s Ruth freaking Rendell, the queen of smart psychological mysteries, and she’s a goddess in my book, so I think I’m safe there.   (Sadly, she passed away in 2015; I wrote a tribute to her here.)  The thing about series is, at some point they have to end, right?  I’m definitely hanging in with Detective Harry Bosch until the end, whenever that may be – and based on how much I enjoyed this one, I hope that’s not any time soon!

If you’ve never read a Bosch book before, let me get you up to speed.  They’re set in L.A. (with a few detours here and there to Vegas, Florida, and even once to China.)  Harry’s real name is Hieronymous (yes, like the 15th century painter!) His mom died when he was young, and he was put into foster care.  He’s a Vietnam vet, and flashbacks play a role in many of the novels.    He’s horrible at relationships, and as of this last book, he hasn’t found his one true love.  (I admit, the relationship plot lines are my least favorite and most cringe-worthy elements of the books.)  But he does have a daughter, and he manages to forge a pretty good relationship with her.  And his relationship with a half-brother, who he doesn’t discover until many books in, is really compelling (no spoilers!)

What I like about Harry is that he’s the guy fighting the system, fighting corrupt cops and politicians alike, always fighting for justice and the underdog.  He’s smart but he’s not perfect – he sometimes misses things and makes mistakes, and he’s got a bit of a hot temper.  He usually reads people well and is a good study of character.  I like how he will often think that something about a case is bothering him but he can’t quite make the connections, so he’ll let it sit and percolate, go about his business, and all of a sudden BAM! He’s cracked the case and it’s a mad race to see if he can save the next victim or catch the bad guy after all. Connelly’s plots are page-turners, but it’s really Bosch himself that keeps me coming back.

This one was a bit different because there were two cases being worked simultaneously.  Harry’s part-time now at the small San Fernando Police Department, since he’s no longer with the LAPD.  He’s also a private investigator on the side.  He’s working a serial rapist case for the department while also trying to find a potential heir to an ailing millionaire’s fortune. He gets so caught up in one case that he makes some crucial missteps in the other, possibly endangering someone he is close to.  It was a typically fast-paced Connelly thriller; I raced through it in two days, even willingly staying up way past my bedtime to finish it.

518cjmm-dxl-_sy344_bo1204203200_If you’re thinking about trying one of these books, I’ll tell you that the first three were solid three-star books for me.  It wasn’t until the fourth book  (The Last Coyote) that I knew that I was invested in the series for a while.  Harry is a capable, complicated, tough, caring, haunted man, and he made me want to keep coming back. Mysteries make great, entertaining palate-cleansers in between heavier literary fare, so if you’re game, I say give Michael Connelly a try!

 

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke

 They are about to head back inside when they hear the first scream, what sounds at first like a cat’s cry, shrill and desperate.  It’s coming from the north side of the bayou, high above them, from somewhere in the thick of trees and weeds lining the bank.  At first Jay thinks of an animal caught in the brush.  But then… he hears it again.  He looks at his wife.  She too is staring through the trees.  The old man in the baseball cap suddenly emerges from the captain’s cabin, a narrow slip of a room at the head of the boat, housing gears and controls.  “What the hell was that?” he asks, looking at Jay and Bernie.

This literary mystery novel begins with a pulse-pounding scene in which Jay Porter and his wife Bernie, pregnant with their first child, are supposed to be celebrating their anniversary on a private night-time bayou cruise.  It’s 1981, and Jay, an African American lawyer with a struggling practice, barters with a client whose cousin owns a barge. Instead of a romantic moonlit cruise, however, they hear screams and gunshots, and Jay finds himself rescuing a white woman from drowning in the river.IMG_3035

Jay doesn’t want to get involved with whatever she’s tangled up in, though, because he is a man haunted by his past.  After an arrest and harrowing trial as a college-aged Black Panther movement activist, he is understandably locked down by fear and paranoia.  He can’t let himself trust even Bernie.  She’s supposed to be the one person on his side, but he can’t let her in on his predicament.  Because he is indeed drawn in to the drowning woman’s intrigue, whether he likes it or not.  Big Oil, a looming labor strike breaking down along racial lines, and his former romantic relationship with the now-Mayor of Houston all play a part in this engrossing thriller.

Ms. Locke is good at nailing tension-filled action scenes, but she also has the nuance of a literary fiction writer.  Occasionally I found myself getting bogged down in some of the details of this complex story line, but overall I really enjoyed the suspense and the glimpse of early 1980s Houston.  The second half of the book has a particularly fast pace.  I also appreciated Locke’s delving into Jay’s past as a “radical” college civil rights activist.  Lots of complicated history there.  Locke is a talented writer, and she is a screenwriter for the Fox show Empire.  I’m definitely going to read her other books, Pleasantville, which also features Jay Porter, and The Cutting Season.  If you appreciate a smart thriller like I do, you should check out Black Water Rising.

 

 

Where Did The Week Go?

I don’t quite know where the last week has gone!  I posted my last review, finished Alice Munro’s The Progress of Love, began Robert Galbraith’s Career of Evil, and finished my audio book (The Opposite of Spoiled by Ron Lieber) and POOF, suddenly it was another Sunday!  This has been a hectic week, what with work and doctor’s appointments for everyone in the family.  I’ve also joined a new gym (huzzah!) and have been working out more there and at home.  And Downton Abbey has started again (yay!)  So my focus for blogging has been divided lately.

But of course, I’m still reading!  This particular novel is not fulfilling the requirements of the Triple Dog Dare TBR Challenge, but it’s one of the exceptions I made at the outset.  I’ve been on hold for this one for a while at the library and it came in last week.  I’m glad to say that the third installment of Galbraith’s (J.K. Rowling’s) Cormoran Strike mystery series is the best one yet.  Career_of_Evil_Oct_2015If you’ve not read them, you probably should begin with the first.  Strike is a very appealing character, a P.I., ex-British military, gruff and imposing physically, but with a good heart.  He and his secretary/partner (her role in the agency is sort of undefined,) the younger, beautiful Robin Ellacott, have a sweet, complicated “will-they-or-won’t-they” relationship that I am rooting for.  The mystery in this outing is excellent, and totally grabbed me from the start.  Some sicko killer has sent Robin a HUMAN LEG, and is targeting Robin to get to Strike, not to mention ruin their business in the process.  Strike immediately thinks of four men who could be out to get him, all of them very unsavory characters.  Robin’s also about to get married and tensions between her and her fiance are high, so she’s dealing with that along with the stress of being in the sights of a psychopath.  I’m about 100 pages from the end and there’s SO MUCH yet to be resolved, so I’m sort of breathlessly turning the pages at this point.

My books for my book group count as another exception to the TBR challenge, and February’s book (discarded library copy) arrived in the mail this week   I belong to an awesome book group – smart, funny ladies who have a diverse range of interests.  Our pick for next month is Corey Feldman’s Coreyography!  IMG_2973I have a weakness for dishy celeb autobiographies, but this one was heavily lobbied for by another book group member.  I remember loving the movies that Corey Feldman and Corey Haim made in the last ’80s and early ’90s, Licence to Drive and Dream a Little Dream.  I didn’t harbor a crush for either guy, as many of my generation did, but I appreciated their work!  (Feldman was also in another campy favorite of mine, the underrated Tom Hanks movie The Burbs.)  Anyway, I think this memoir is going to be pretty heavy, with drugs, physical and sexual abuse, and family dysfunction in Feldman’s past.  It’s not our usual kind of book group choice, but I’ll let you know how it goes!  Anyone else have a weakness for celebrity memoirs?  I’d love to hear your picks.

 

 

 

An Appetite For Violets by Martine Bailey

For my final library book before the TBR Triple Dog Dare Challenge begins, I managed to finish An Appetite For Violets at approximately 12:40 AM on New year’s Day.  (Do I know how to party or what?)  That was way past my bedtime, but I simply didn’t want to put it down.  It was a page-turning, smartly written historical mystery, with intrigue, romance, and 18th-century recipes galore!IMG_2958

Our heroine is Obedience (“Biddy”) Leigh, an under-cook at a small British  country manor.  She has a genuine talent for cooking and quick mind, but she plans to marry another servant, the not-so-impressive but attractive Jem, and open a tavern with him.  Instead, her life is turned upside down when the often-absent master of the estate marries the young, brash Lady Carinna.  The Lady suddenly decides to travel to Italy for mysterious reasons, taking Biddy and a few other servants with her.  Biddy takes along an old cookbook, called The Cook’s Jewel, and the narrative is her observations of the journey.

This was one of those pleasant surprises, taken from the library shelf based on book jacket alone.  Lady Carinna has dark secrets, the other servants on the journey have their own agendas, and Biddy realizes her true passion for exploring the wide culinary world as she travels through France and Italy.  It was a fun, sensual, slightly gothic read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Martine Bailey has another novel coming out soon, called A Taste for Nightshade.  As soon as my TBR Challenge is over in April, I’ll be picking that one up!

The Kind Worth Killing, and Looking Ahead

So.

It’s been a while.  I’ve been reading, but I’ve also been parenting, wife-ing, being a friend, trying to work out, trying to clean – you know, LIFE.  But I’m here now, and I’m excited to tell you about a book!

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Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.  Just go get your hands on a copy of this book.  The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson is packed with twists that this reader did NOT see coming.  It’s smart, well-written, entertaining as hell.  It starts out just the teensiest bit slow, but by halfway through, you’re hanging on for dear life and don’t want to put it down.

THIS is the thriller that should be on the best-seller list (not that book about the train, you know the one. It was… okay.  Not great.)   Can we make this book happen, please?  I’m going to do my best to put this in the hands of my patrons at the library.

What’s it about?  I don’t want to spoil anything so I’ll give you the basic premise: Ted Severson has discovered that his wife, Miranda, is cheating on him with the contractor for the house they’re building.  On his way back from England on a business trip, he meets Lily Kintner, a waifish, attractive red-head who engages him in  conversation.  When Ted half-jokingly tells Lily that he’d like to kill his wife, Lily basically says, “Why not?”

It’s supposed to be sort of an updated version of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.  I’ve not read that, nor have I seen the film that was based on the novel.  I put the Highsmith on my good old trusty Goodreads TBR.

Peter Swanson has written another book, called The Girl With a Clock For a Heart.  I put that one on the TBR too.

So what’s up next?  Well, I’ve gotten some good stuff lately.  I’ve got an Inspector Wexford (Ruth Rendell) mystery waiting for me at the library.  I also am in the  middle of a travel-memoir called The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s most Glorious – and Perplexing – City by David Lebovitz.  I have a real soft spot for travel memoirs, especially about people moving to France.  This one would be perfect for a real foodie, which I’m not.  So I sort of skim the recipes at the end of each chapter.

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I ordered Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankin from another branch, and I’m psyched to start that.  I’ve heard nothing but good things about it.  I’ve heard it’s powerful and tough to read.  I’ll let you know how it hits me.

And then two fun books from the used book store: Four Nights With the Duke by Eloisa James and The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes.  I’m trying to branch out with romance, and I’ve heard that Ms. James is among the best.  And The Shining Girls sounds intriguing but pretty terrifying, so we’ll see if I can handle it.  Maybe not!

What have you guys got lined up?  Got any good thriller/suspense recommendations for me?