Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Friday, October 2, 2015

When it crosses the line ...

All of us at Murder by the Book at one time or another answered the question, "Why do you like/read mysteries?" Most of us primarily read fictional crime stories. In fiction, an author can create motivation, puzzles, and an ending in which the culprit is named and usually made to pay for his or her crime. The fictional murders, assaults, and violence run the gamut from gently abraded (Agatha Christie) to viciously masticated ("Silence of the Lambs"). None of us ever mistook fiction for fact, nor did any of us desire to ever find even the coziest of crimes on our doorstep.

It is appalling to think that Umpqua Community College in Roseburg -- a three-hour drive south of Portland -- is the latest (and probably not the last) setting for someone to arm himself to the teeth and willfully murder strangers as part of a sick fantasy.

For one week every summer for fifteen years, I've driven from Portland to Roseburg to volunteer at Camp Millennium, a primarily Douglas County-supported charity that provides summer camp for children dealing with cancer. For several years, students at UCC have provided an afternoon of entertainment for the campers on their beautiful campus. How dare someone take the serenity and beauty of that campus away from everyone for even one second!

To my Camp family from Roseburg, I wish it hadn't happened to your community. The murderer crossed the line. He put thought into action. To those of us who are avid mystery/thriller/suspense readers, that would be the furthest thing from our minds.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Ecco, 320 pages, $16 (c2010)

Before heading back into the mystery world, I read "Just Kids," the memoir that won poet/singer/artist Patti Smith the National Book Award a few years ago. I put on "Horses," "Easter," and "Dream of Life" while I read. Her new memoir, "M Train," has just been released, with good reviews in its wake.

"Just Kids" is a powerful, sincere, poetic, touching, and slyly humorous book, mostly about her relationship with controversial artist/photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The backdrop to their years together was the underground/beat/folk/hippie/punk scene in New York City in the 1960s and 70s. Smith is still exerting her influence on the music scene today.

It was an exhilarating experience to view her life secondhand.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

DAW, 384 pages, $7.99 (c2012)

“Throne of the Crescent Moon” is a fantasy adventure. It is not a mystery, but I wish it were so I could give it a star for how much fun it was to read. The cover says, optimistically, that this is “Book One of The Crescent Moon Kingdoms.” Saladin Ahmed’s website says the next book is due in 2016. I hope so.

Set in a fantasy version of the Middle East with an Arabian Nights inflection, there are magicians, alchemists, spell casters, ghuls (ghouls?) and ghul hunters, Dervishes, and shape shifters. Ghul hunter Adoulla Makslood, his apprentice, his beloved neighbors, and a desert tribeswoman are all that stand before a mysterious force of evil intent on taking over Dhamsawaat, the ruling city of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms. Detroit author Ahmed has created his characters with reverence to the actual mythology and culture of the Middle East.

Can’t wait for the next volume.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Invisible City by Julia Dahl

Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $15.99 (c2014)

There was a fleeting thought at the beginning of “Invisible City” that, ho hum, here was simply another book about an edgy, feisty young woman, trying to make her way in New York City. However, as the story unfolds, more unusual elements arise, and they make the story very different and very much worth reading.

Rebekah Roberts has been a stringer for a NYC tabloid newspaper for a few months. As the story opens, she is freezing outdoors as she waits for the body of a naked, bald woman to be lowered from a hoist in a scrapyard. The scrapyard is owned by a Hasidic Jew, and the dead woman is known to the owner. Special Hasidic attendants remove her body. As time passes, however, Rebekah wonders why there is no police investigation or autopsy. Eventually, a man named Saul Katz, who presents himself as a rogue cop possibly investigating corruption in the police department, wants to help Rebekah with her story if she will help him with his subrosa investigation.

Rebekah is a stranger to the Hasidic way of life, but nevertheless, a connection is revealed. Her mother, Aviva, came from the same community that apparently has made a murder (and murderer) disappear. Rebekah has not seen her mother since she was six months old. She has harbored anger towards both her absent mother and her forgiving father, and it manifests itself in a clinical case of anxiety.

What Julia Dahl does so well is give her readers a multi-layered look at a Hasidic community. Her depiction reveals the genesis of this tightly controlled Orthodox Jewish community, and the modern-day repercussions of traditions and orthodoxy rooted in an ancient past. Dahl also has created a complex character who is given an opportunity to perhaps forgive the woman who deserted her by understanding the forces that shaped her.