Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Guest Blog – The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

The end of the month is drawing near and soon I will be traveling again. Away from Montreal and the McGill library. Therefore I have been trying to read all of the Louise Penny books that I can before leaving. I just finished The Cruelest Month and liked it more than her other mysteries.

Penny’s characters are vivid and believable. They remind me of people that I know. Penny though gives us a brief look at their thoughts and secrets. In the third Three Pines mystery, Clara Morrow still is going unrecognized for her art. Gamache is still being attacked personally from within the Sûreté. This book will bring to close some of the problems that he faces from his own comrades in the police force. Jealousy and revenge are major themes throughout the book. Jealousy of other people’s success and of others’ personal peace and contentment with life.

In life it is often difficult for each of us to find joy in other people’s accomplishment and success. In many ways, I think that is a mark of true friendship. It is not so difficult to commiserate with a friend over the struggles and challenges of life. Too often we discover within ourselves the reluctance to find joy in someone else’s joy or abundance in her life.

Basically that is what this story is about: the husband who is afraid that his wife is more talented than he is, the friend who can’t understand how his life long friend could find such happiness and contentment, the friend who thinks that other people like someone better than themselves. All people that you and I know. Thank goodness Penny manages to have good triumph over evil by the conclusion of her stories. I never have liked those stories where the protagonist dies on the last page.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Guest Blog – Dead Cold by Louise Penny

I have read only two mysteries written by Penny, but already I am attached to her detective, Armand Gamache. In fact at the end of Dead Cold when I discovered that someone in the Sûreté is out to get Garmache, I was really alarmed and concerned for him. My concern was connected to the fact that it was apparent that this antagonism towards Gamache would continue into the next novel and perhaps the one after that.

Not too surprisingly Dead Cold takes place in the small village of Three Pines at Christmas. The cold atmosphere was so vivid that I decided that I never want to be in the Eastern Townships of Quebec in the winter. Well, let’s make that all of Quebec. I did spend a few days in Quebec City in November several years ago and for the first time in years bought a hat to try to protect my head and ears from the biting cold wind. I haven’t worn the hat again. There has not been a moment since then when I have been exposed to cold as bitter as on that snowless winter day in Quebec City.

In the novel, a woman is electrocuted while sitting by a frozen lake watching a curling match. The first mystery in the story was ‘how could this have happened?’ Despite the fact that it is a murder mystery, Penny had me laughing out loud while reading. I had to struggle to resist boring my husband with another really funny incident in the novel just as the police officer had to fight the urge to blow on his hands to warm them while sitting inside the very cold house of Ruth Zardo.

Dead Cold was amusing and at the same time sad. Not all of the characters I grew fond of while reading made it to the end of the novel. I hope that Louise Penny finds readership south of the border. She is well worth reading. I am grateful to a friend in the United States who suggested that I look for her books.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Guest Blog - Grave Secrets by Kathy Reichs

I learned about Kathy Reichs last summer while I was staying in Toronto and reading crime mysteries written by Canadian authors. I mistakenly thought that Reichs was one since she works out of Montreal as well as North Carolina. However, she is actually a native of Chicago and received her Ph.D. at Northwestern. However, her first book Déjà Dead won the Ellis Award for Best First Novel in 1997. The television series Bones is based on her novels. Although I have not actually watched one of the episodes, after reading Grave Secrets I have an incentive.

Grave Secrets is not centered around deaths in either Montreal or Raleigh. The main character and voice in Reichs' mysteries is Temperance Brennan who like Reichs is a forensic anthropologist. The story begins in Guatemala where Tempe is volunteering her time to help identify the remains of Mayan people who were killed during the civil war that lasted from 1962 to 1996. The remains of twenty-three women and children have been lying at the bottom of a well since 1982. Tempe and her team are there to retrieve the bones and identify them so that they can be properly buried by their families.

The mystery is intriguing and the story moves quickly. It never gets bogged down anywhere, but if you have too much imagination, the retrieval of a decomposed body from a septic tank may be too graphic. Since I am in Montreal at the moment, I was pleased that Brennan returns to Montreal for a part of the novel. It was fun to be able to recognize where her neighborhood is located and where the holding cells are.

I thoroughly enjoyed Reichs and am looking forward to reading other mysteries written by her. However, there was one aspect of the story that nagged at me. Throughout the book, Brennan asks herself again and again and again, “Will the killing never end?” She is so tired of death. I wanted very much to yell at her, “Get a grip, woman! If you are tired of dead bodies, change your profession!” I’ll let you know if in Reichs' later novels, Brennan is less likely to bemoan the fact that she is surrounded by dead bodies.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Guest Blog – Dragon Bones by Lisa See

Two years ago I read Flower Net, the first mystery by Lisa See. The protagonists are David Stark, an American attorney from San Francisco, and Liu Hulan, a top investigator in China’s security force. Liu is from a prominent family in Beijing but was actually educated in the United States. She and Stark first met when they were attorneys in the same firm in San Francisco.

In Dragon Bones the two are married and mourning the lose of their daughter who died from meningitis when she was three years old. Liu is dealing with the lose by isolating herself and seldom interacting with Stark. Liu’s old mentor Zai sends the two of them off to investigate the death of an American archeologist on the Yangzi River close to the Three Gorges. A huge dam is under construction that will flood the Three Gorges and displace millions of peasants. Archeologists are frantically digging and searching for artifacts before the dam is completed and the area is flooded permanently.

Dragon Bones was published in 2003 before the dam was completed. Needless to say one of my first breaks in reading was to look at the Three Gorges dam on the Internet. It was completed in part in 2006 but is not scheduled to be fully operational until 2011 . The dam was created to supply China with energy that is so badly needed as the country becomes an industrial nation.

The book is filled with discussions about Chinese history and folklore. If you are interested in the ancient history and folk tales of China, the book is filled with information. If you are a casual mystery reader like myself, you will need to be patient and determined to make it through the information. I have realized that I have only a very basic knowledge of the nation and know even less about China’s creation stories.

Overall I am glad that I read the book. I certainly have learned a lot more about China and its ancient civilizations. Part of the book involves the dead archeologist’s interest in the development of written language. I found this interesting since I was aware that all of the Asian languages with characters owe their roots to China. Japan although it has an ancient history had no written language until it started having commerce with China.

If you are looking for a good book about the early Chinese immigrants to the United States, I highly recommend See's book On Gold Mountain. I found the early history of See's ascendants fascinating. I came away from reading it with a much greater respect for those determined and hard working men who came to a hostile environment to help better the lives of their families in China.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Guest Blog – Still Life by Louise Penny

Canadian author Louise Penny is relatively new on the mystery writing scene. Her first book, Still Life published in 2005, won the New Blood Dagger in Britain and the Arthur Ellis Award in Canada for best first crime novel. Since then she has received more awards for her writing. Her novel, The Cruelest Month, won the Agatha Award..

It was by chance that I picked her first novel off the bookshelves at McGill’s library. It was a good introduction to her inspector, Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Quebec and the small town of Three Pines.

Penny lives in a small town south of Montreal close to the US border. That is the setting of Three Pines. Still Life is a very comfortable cozy mystery and I enjoyed it very much. I decided early on who the murder was and was surprised when I discovered that I was wrong in the last few pages. Of course, if I had been thinking while I was reading, I would have seen the clues leading to the revelation of the killer. I am not sure whether Penny is available in the US. Probably not at my local library. I might have to try to read more of her novels in the next few weeks before I head back to the United States. I liked her inspector and I liked her character Clara Morrow in this first novel. When I read about Penny on the Internet I was delight to find that both Gamache and Clara appear in later books. Another good reason to read more Penny.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Guest Blog - The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

If you have not had a chance to watch the new HBO television shows from Alexander McCall Smith's series of books about Precious Ramotswe and her friends, I hope you will put it on your list of DVDs to rent when they come out. Both my husband and I have enjoyed watching the unfolding tale of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. We look forward to Sunday night and are grateful that we can watch missed episodes on HBO On Demand.

This is such a great adaptation of the books. And if you have not discovered the books, I highly recommend that you read them. They are more than good mysteries, they are a gentle and frequently amusing look at the strengths and failings of man/womankind. Happy reading and watching!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Guest Blog – Nothing to Lose by Lee Child

Nothing to Lose was released in the paperback edition this spring. Child’s novels are usually around 400 pages long. This one had another one hundred. And I got bogged down in the middle. Probably largely motivated by the fact that my reading materials were limited, I slogged on.

The villain in this story is a man who owns the metal recycling plant in a small town called Despair in Colorado. Thurman not only owns the only place of employment but he owns his employees' homes as well. On top of that he is the local preacher at the only church in town. Thurman is a believer in the rapture and in Armageddon. As the story progresses, it becomes evident that he is a fanatic.

I am not exactly sure why I enjoyed Tripwire (see an earlier blog) so much and struggled through Nothing to Lose. Perhaps it was because in Tripwire, Child allows us to see what the antagonist is doing while Reacher is slowly gathering facts and information. I had a sense of two forces building and getting ready to collide at the end of the novel.

Nothing to Lose is well constructed but there was just something that rubbed against me. Perhaps it is the fact that although I don’t believe in ‘the rapture,’ I do believe in respecting other people’s religious beliefs. I am aware that there are extremists among all followers of religious or philosophical thought, but the small town in the middle of nowhere that was a fortress against the world did not sit well with me. I have never been a fan of the story where the stranger walks into a small town and discovers that the whole town is evil and out to get him. Nothing to Lose just didn’t work for me.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Guest Blog – A Murder of Quality by John le Carré

When I was a teenager, I saw The Spy Who Came in From the Cold with Richard Burton. I have not seen it since but I still remember Burton’s performance and the chilling ending. The book itself established le Carré as an author. Since then I have seen George Smiley played by Sir Alec Guinness on Masterpiece Theatre. He is quiet and unobtrusive with a very sharp mind. But I have never read any of le Carré’s books until now.

With small tight type, A Murder of Quality is only 150 pages long. When I picked the book up, I hoped that it would be a satisfying read. It didn’t disappoint me. It had a few conversations between its characters that left me feeling as if I was an uneducated participant on the sidelines. However, I am used to that from reading authors such as Dorothy Sayers. British authors of a certain period seem to have this desire to show off their education by quoting Latin or spouting intellectual piffle. 'Piffle,' by the way, is a good Lord Peter Wimsey word if I remember correctly.

I found the book interesting largely because the victim of the book is describe by various acquaintances in very different terms. Some say she was gauche, some say she was kind and went out of her way to help others. It isn’t until the end of the book that the reader discovers what Stella was really like. The discovery changes one’s perspective completely.

I don’t think that John le Carré is reading for everyone. Younger readers might find him stuffy and dismiss him. However, this is only his second novel. I am interested in reading something more recent. In the meantime, I thoroughly enjoyed A Murder of Quality. It was certainly a very nice and sophisticated break from reading Lee Child.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Guest Blog – Eyes of a Stranger by Rachel Ann Nunes

I have a friend who seems to read only fiction written by authors who are LDS. She reads mysteries. Obviously there is a market out there and my friend and co-worker helps support it. She frequently gives me books for my birthday or eagerly lends one to me saying, “This is so good. You’ll love it.” Being a loyal friend, I reluctantly accept her offerings. One of the more recent loans was Eyes of a Stranger.

Some of the authors I have read in this niche of books, are not much more skilled than a senior in high school. Rachel Ann Nunes is better than that. Her mystery takes place in Portland, Oregon and is centered around the destruction of the Hawthorne Bridge. It has never actually collapsed in "real life." It did burn down in 1902 and was replaced by the current lift bridge. The novel has romance and mystery. And a bit of a twist at the end.

I don’t think I am going to give up reading mass market paperbacks, but it was a pleasant excursion into a gentler area of fiction. By the way, this book has no references to religion. Possibly Nunes was hoping to bring in a wider readership.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Guest Blog – Tripwire by Lee Child

I keep telling myself that I am going to start reading best sellers, classics or something intellectually stimulating. So far it hasn’t happened. When I was looking for something to read on a cross country flight, I bought a Lee Child mystery/thriller. It took no time at all for me to become engrossed in Tripwire. In fact, I wanted life to quit getting in the way of reading.

Tripwire is a story that has its roots in the Vietnam conflict. Therefore the villain is from my generation. Every time that I read a Lee Child I feel certain that the next book cannot possibly have a bad guy worse than the one in the novel I am reading. Somehow though they always manage to horrify me with their evil deeds. Hobie in Tripwire is certainly no exception. He has a scarred face from severe burns and has lost his right hand. In place of the hand he has a hook that has a razor capability. He uses the hook to intimidate and injure people who get in his way.

It takes the entire novel for Reacher to come face to face with this evil man. And the ending is surprising. I will tell you that Reacher meets the love of his life and I am curious to know how and why he goes back to wandering the country leaving her behind. I guess I will have to check out the next book in the series, Running Blind.

Child is enthralling but he does have his flaws. Of course, this is not great literature, but that doesn’t bother me. This time he totally gets it wrong by saying that the guys going to Vietnam all wanted to be Frank Sinatra. I wonder how he got his timeline and wars so mixed up. Sinatra was the idol during WW II. Who do you suppose guys wanted to be in the late sixties? I have no idea. Certainly in Good Morning, Vietnam no Sinatra recordings were played.