Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Book report: end of May/June

You can see as the year wears on, my highfalutin' books give way to quick-reading mysteries and other such escapism. Here's the latest batch I've read:

The Birthday Present by Barbara Vine. Barbara Vine is the pen name of British mystery writer Ruth Rendell, who is one of the most prolific yet consistently good mystery/thriller writers out there. The novels she writes as Ruth Rendell are more traditional mysteries, usually featuring an English police inspector named Wexford. The books she writes Barbara Vine tend to be stand-alone, and I think are a bit creepier. What is remarkable to me is the way Vine/Rendell manages to write suspenseful and creepy thrillers without very much blood and guts. Instead she has a way of getting into the head of characters who seem very normal on the outside; she then peels away the outer, normal layers to show you the twisted psyche inside, or in some cases, shows how a character flaw or twist of fate turns a law-abiding citizen into a criminal. The Birthday Present concerns a handsome Member of Parliament who at the beginning of the book is guilty of only adultery. But by the end of the novel, his life is in ruins.

The Crazy School by Cornelia Read. I read Read's first Madeline Dare mystery last year, and liked it, so when I found the sequel at the library, I grabbed it. Dare is a recovering debutante who, in this book, finds herself teaching troubled high school students at a residential school led by a controversial, charismatic leader. When two students die after drinking poisoned punch at a school party, Dare jumps right in to find justice for them.

Faithful reader Kris suggested Mistress of the Art of Death by Arianna Franklin -- and I really enjoyed it. I had to skim some of the more squeamish scenes, but a very engrossing mystery set in 12th century Cambridge. I liked the historical tie-ins, the good characterization and the twist at the end.

What Angels Fear by C.S. Harris is the first in a series of novels set in Regency England. A nobleman is accused of murdering an actress and has to find the real killer to clear his name. Okay, not great.

A Matter of Justice by Charles Todd is the latest in a series of mysteries written by a mother-and-son writing team. Their protagonist, Ian Rutledge, is a veteran of World War I who carries lingering emotional scars from his experiences in the trenches. He struggles with his own ghosts, while trying to solve this convoluted mystery of a prominent investment adviser found murdered and strung up at his country home. This one wasn't as good as some of the previous ones, but still well done.

The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry. This is one of only a few non-mystery/thrillers I read. When the narrator tells you on the very first page that she's a big fat liar, you kind of expect there to be some plot twists, but I sure didn't expect the gigantic and convoluted twist that came at the end. The book isn't about lace knitting, but what sounds like a form of tatting from the colonial era, and the lace is really secondary to the characters and what happens to them. The book is set in modern-day Salem, Massachusetts, and the author's description of how the town has capitalized on its connection with witchcraft is interesting and amusing.

No Graves As Yet by Anne Perry was recommended by a GKIYH reader. I read this when I was recovering from some virus, and I can't tell if it was the fact that I wasn't feeling as clear-headed as usual or if it just wasn't my cup o' tea. It wasn't awful, but it seemed very slow, with way too much conversation and not a lot of action.

The Serpent's Tale by Arianna Franklin is the sequel to Mistress of the Art of Death and I very much enjoyed this one. I like the way the author blends history -- in this case, the death of King Henry II's mistress and the friction between Henry and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine -- with the fictional characters and the mystery they are trying to solve.

Finally, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, was one I started -- a non-mystery even -- and just couldn't get into, so I abandoned it. I don't know if you've ever heard people say that you should subtract your age from 100, and the number you get is the number of pages you should read in a book before giving up on it. I'm 44, so I'm supposed to give a book 56 pages before bailing, but I can tell you I didn't get that far in this one (more like 20 or 25). The book is set in post-WWII England, and is written in the form of a series of letters from an author to various people in her life. I found it just too cutesy-poo and self-conscious to get into it, so I gave it up.

To Laura -- I have read some of the Maisie Dobbs books and liked them, but there's probably a few more out there that are new since I last looked at the series -- thanks for reminding me!

As always, I love talking books so if you've got any recommendations, please leave 'em in the comments...

23 comments:

toni in florida said...

Anything by Cecelia Ahern. Really.

Anonymous said...

Now I know how you accomplish so much--just read this fresh new post at 7:45 am. Is it because you still have young kids at home or are you an insomniac like me.

obscure

Mary Lou said...

Just finished Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor, mystery set in down and out London in 1934, features british union of fascists.

tanyadiva said...

I picked up Mistress of the Art of Death a few months back at my local used bookstore, and now it will move to the top of the pile. Thanks!

Ali P said...

I read The Lace Reader awhile back. Quite the book.
Hmmmm...what have I read lately... I'm not much for the mysteries myself, but The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher is an entertaining series...especially book 3.
I'm dying to read "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies". I hear its fun.
Historical: I recently read the first two books of the Conqueror series by Conn Iggulden. Book One was best, about Genghis Khan as the child Temujin growing up on the steppes.
Have you read the Josephine trilogy by Sandra Gulland yet? Written as diary entries by Rose/Josephine, Empress of France, the first tells of her girlhood on Martinique. The books explore her marriage and her first husband's infidelity, her single motherhood, the Revolution, her marriage to Napoleon.....all from her own perspective, as it were. Very historical "fiction" and well researched.

puffthemagicrabbit said...

Anything that makes me laugh is what I reach for. My favorite summer escape reading is Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books. She just put out #15. I was disappointed in #14, so we'll see- I think eventually everyone reaches the end of their run.

Another fun group- the Serge A. Storm books by Tim Dorsey. Once you've reminded yourself they are fiction a few times, then wrapped your mind around the fact that you are loving a serial killer, they're pretty hilarious.

Luise said...

Not a mystery (my usual fare), Deborah Weisgall's The World Before Her is an excellent story set in Venice about two marriages: George Eliot's in 1880, a modern couple's in 1980. Very well written.

nestra said...

Have you tried any Mark Helprin? I highly reccomend A Winters Tale, although Soldier of the Great War and Memoirs in an Antproof Case are also really good.

Sonya said...

I just devoured The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. What if there were witches in Salem in 1692? And what if a grad student found documentary evidence? I loved it!

Su said...

I'm in a couple Yahoo bookgroups that you might like, if you are interested. Depends on what you're looking for. I can recommend them if you email me.

Right now I'm reading The 19th Wife by Ebershoff. Very excellent in my opinion.

Carol said...

I just read Sapphire's Push on the recommendation of the Well-Read Hostess. Wow.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Nestra. Soldier of the Great War is one of my favorite contemporary novels.

obscure

Marin (AntiM) said...

I was popping my head in to recommend The Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (by all outward appearances, a book I shouldn't have liked and most of my book club shouldn't have liked, yet we all loved it and most of us will read it again in a different pattern [if you read it, you'll know what I mean] because it was that good and that compelling), but I have to jump on the Mark Helprin bandwagon. Winter's Tale is one of my all-time favourite books.

Betty said...

I just finished reading Oblivion by Peter Abrahams. Really interesting and surprising believable premise in the writing of it -- PI has a stroke/brain tumor and can't remember 2 critical days -- and though you eventually figure out the who, you don't the why. Would make a very good movie.

17th stitch said...

I read "No Graves As Yet" when it first came out and really enjoyed it; the sequels fall off sharply so I wouldn't recommend continuing through the series. Second the recommendation for Mark Helprin - his stuff is brilliant and off-the-wall and the writing is just gorgeous.

Anonymous said...

Phhht. Besides Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, which is the first book I've read every summer since I turned 10, most of my reading has also been light. I've ripped through all of the Percy Jackson and the Young Olympians (tween level) series but the last(waiting on the last from the library), they are ok, but not in the HP league.
rogue1
I've also read the first two King Raven series(retelling of Robin Hood as a Briton, or Welshman, which apparently is a French slur for them), Hood and Scarlet, and am waiting on the third, Tuck.(author Stephen R. Lawhead). Okay, but I prefer Robin McKinley's YA adaptation of the story Thieves of Sherwood.
I had sworn to myself to never read another Star Wars novel again, but couldn't pass up on Millenium Falcon by James Luceno. Vaugely amusing backstory of the bucket of bolts, but the end made me want to shove a lightsaber up my nose. So far I've been able to resist picking up the new series Fate of the Jedi. Damn, at this point George Lucas would probably let me write a SW novel (hint: it would have much more sex)
Apparently the lightsaber caused brain damage, because I picked up The Sweetgum Knit Lit Soceity, which made me contemplate violence against others. In fairness, it's nothing like my usual reading, and I know people love it, but I had to go read Shatterday by Harlan Ellison just to feel normal again.

Leamonteach said...

Interesting comment on Guernsey Lit. and PPP Society. . . because it does start out fluffy and then suddenly deepens and becomes, I thought, fascinating. I listened to it on cd so I was less likely to skim, of course. Everyone I spoke to about it (or lent the cd to) also mentioned how it seemed "lite" at first and then really gained depth and insight.

I was thinking of the Maisie Dobbs series for you, and then your last comment covered them; might also try Julia Spencer-Fleming, who has a series that I liked less as time went on but the first four were compelling.

Enjoy!

Cynthia said...

I am so glad you didn't like Guernsey Literary blah blah blah. I am a librarian and it is a hot title being read by many book groups. I thought the title was annoying and the book was dull. So many folks love it, but I just don't see it.

I too love a good mystery. Have you tried the Cara Black books--set in Paris, they are fun and light.

To the reader looking for Harry Potter replacement series--I say try 'Graceling' by Kristin Cashore. I thought it was great and 'Fire' it's prequel (due out in Sept.) is also quite good. For a really fun YA read that is fast and furious try 'Hunger Games'--it is like reading a season of Survivor (only you actually care about the characters and they are not in it for the glory or money).

SDW said...

Do check out Stieg Larsson's Millennium books -- Start with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and prepare to be hooked. ANd have you read any Henning Mankell? His books are chilly and excellent.

SDW said...

Try Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo -- and prepare to be hooked. Then go on to Henning Mankell. Delicious -- and chilly.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the Lit. society book and I think you probably didn't get far enough into it...thanks for all the other recommendations...I'm always looking for a good read.
Try "Oxygen" by Carol Cassella. She answered my fan letter with a lovely hand-written note!
Blogless Mary Lou

Alex said...

Glad you liked Mistress of the Art of Death, although I agree it could have been a bit less gory. I had no idea there was a sequel, though. Thanks! I just finished "I Capture the Castle" by Dodie Smith while on vacation. You might like it as a quick, easy holiday read.

M-H said...

Love Ruth Rendell by any name. The Blood Doctor is one of her best, IMO. But you do know that Anne Perry was in fact convicted of murder in New Zealand in the early 1950s? She and her friend murdered the friend's mother with a brick. Peter Jackson made the film 'Heavenly Creatures' about this case, and there have several books as well. More details here. I personally find her a stale and uninteresting writer.