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...