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

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Dark Mirror, by Barry Maitland (hardcover, $24.99)

Dark Mirror is the latest David Brock/Kathy Kolla mystery. In this long-running series, the first of which, The Marx Sisters, was a stunner, Barry Maitland has admirably developed the characters of DCI Brock and DI Kolla of The Serious Crimes Unit of Scotland Yard. Maitland has given Brock and Kolla depth and human strengths and weaknesses to which most people can relate.

Maitland's mysteries, on the other hand, often bend towards the esoteric and intellectual. I am often reminded, strangely enough, of Agatha Christie, who sometimes would solve her mysteries with a solution plucked out of left field. (Remember her famous solution of German measles?) The resolutions, needless to say, are hard for the reader to puzzle out.

In Dark Mirror, an attractive graduate student dies of arsenic poisoning in the reading room of an exclusive academic library. She had been tangentially working on poisons and their influence on pre-Raphaelite society. Everyone who already knows about this topic, raise your hand! Ahh, so you might benefit, educationally speaking, from reading the discourse on how the upper-class artistic society of William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti operated.

She appeared to be a committed academic with a quiet life, so the victim, Marion Summers, proves an unlikely mystery woman. However, as more of her life is uncovered, links to unsavory characters pop up. And how was she, on a student's stipend, able to afford the three quarters of a million pound house registered in her name?

The tangle of characters from high and low classes, academia, and Brock and Kolla's personal lives should have provided more of a zip to the story, but the only real pep is provided by Pip, the replacement ingénue character for Kathy Kolla, who has aged and been promoted out of her original helper monkey position. The new romance for Kolla also briefly engages us in something other than the author's careful stage setting for the solution to Marion's murder.

This is, nevertheless, a well-written book, just a little given to plodding and exaggeration.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The even slower read . . .

In a fit of multi-tasking, I'm also reading Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City, a dense, demanding work by the author of Motherless Brooklyn. I should be finished with this sometime in 2011.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The slow read . . .

I have been reading Robert Bolano's 2666 for the last month now. It's not that the book is tedious or underwhelming; quite the opposite. I love it. I savor it. The translation is sterling. But it is work. The plot so far revolves around a mysterious German author who is the object of intellectual affection and awe by a few international groupies. I am on page 80. At this rate, I hope to finish it by the end of next year (i.e., December 2010!) and give you a report. :)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Heat Wave, by Richard Castle (hardcover, $19.99)

It's a fine line between reality and imagination sometimes. Richard Castle is a figment of TV producer Andrew Marlowe's imagination, but Heat Wave is a real book being sold under "Richard Castle's" by-line.

"Castle" is an ABC-TV show. It is about Richard Castle, a mystery novelist à la James Patterson, who pulls some political strings and gets to tag along with homicide detectives to get "background" information for his books. This means he mostly gets to hang around too-glamorous-to-be-a-real-working-detective Kate Beckett. Finally, as part of the TV show, Castle produces a book and has an inaugural signing at a bookstore. The book? Heat Wave, starring Nikki Heat, based on the fuming-but-flattered Kate Beckett.

So what have we here, for real? The book Heat Wave, starring Nikki Heat. The characters, dialogue, and plot are strangely similar to that found in an episode of "Castle." Yay for the characters, dialogue, and plot, I say! Needless to say, I love the show: a romantic comedy/drama, with a mystery. Nathan Fillion, late of the wonderful "Firefly" TV show and "Serenity" movie, is Castle, and he brings an admirable lightness to the part.

Now to the book. Tying the snappy dialogue together is a rather plodding narrative. If a book could be schizophrenic, this book is it. It's as though someone took a "Castle" script and ham-fistedly laced some narrative to tie the dialogue together. The TV show portrays author Castle as pompous but literate. The pomposity comes through in the fake-real "Acknowledgements" at the end of the book, but the literate part is harder to find. No doubt a real writer was found to create Heat Wave, but I have the impression that this isn't the book he or she would normally write. Thus the awkwardness. It becomes a little smoother (or I was worn down) later in the book, but never truly reaches a point of synthesis.

Nevertheless, I heartily endorse this book. It's like a "Castle" episode with benefits. Nikki Heat and "Jameson Rook," Castle's alter ego, are allowed to venture, romantically-speaking, where Castle and Beckett are not. Fun.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

In Tongues of the Dead, by Brad Kelln (hardcover, $24.95)

There's no ambiguity here. You aren't left wondering whether it's a fantasy or just a fantastic premise. The reader learns pretty much from the start that there are renegade angels who fathered children by human women. In modern times there are still descendents of those angels.

There's a book and there's an autistic kid who seems to be the only one who can read the book. There's a priest who solves problems for a cardinal at the Vatican. He seems to be at odds with other henchmen of the same cardinal at the Vatican. It's somewhat confusing.

What is ultimately confusing is why the angels must destroy their descendents in order to get back in God's good graces. Why would killing people be what God wants? Also the mystic book that supposedly tells God's secrets to humans, if only they could read it, contains pictures of plants and chubby naked women. If God's secrets involve plants and chubby naked women, perhaps we don't really need to know them.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Case of the Left-Handed Lady, by Nancy Springer ($6.99)

Enola Holmes is the much younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft. Did you know that?

In a charming children's series, Nancy Springer has given her readers a 14-year-old girl who has the stunning Holmes intellect and powers of detection, but who also has compassion and a wider breadth of emotions.

This is the second book in the series -- the fourth was just released in hardcover – and success has not diminished Springer's ability to capture her readers, young and old, from the first page.

Since Enola's escape from her brothers' clutches and plans to turn her into a well-mannered young woman with expertise in the arts necessary to make a good marriage, she has traveled to London and established herself as a finder of what is lost, be it people or things. A 14-year-old "scientific perditorian." She is also looking for her mother, who ran away from home and who, Enola believes, is in danger. That is a running thread throughout the books, and we find out a little more each time.

In the present book, Enola sets out to find another missing young woman, Lady Cecily. Cecily, too, was being groomed to be a proper young lady with good marriage prospects. It becomes clear that she had an interest in the dark and miserable world of the English underclass, the workers and impoverished souls upon whose backs the upperclass exist. So Springer supplies an education to her readers while entertaining them with Enola's adventures.

With Sherlock and Mycroft (and Dr. Watson) actively trying to find her, Enola must also use her wits to avoid their efforts. She gives a human face to the cold and intellectual creations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As a long-time ("The Speckled Band" in the seventh grade) fan of Sherlock Holmes, I love this series. What fun!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Ghost War, by Alex Berenson ($9.99)

This is the most excellent follow-up to The Faithful Spy. CIA agent John Wells is now famous, whether he wants to be or not, for having saved the United States from al-Qaeda terrorists. In The Ghost War, it is a year later and John is living in the U.S. He is trying to re-define his life in a world he hasn't lived in for ten years. As a deep undercover agent with al-Qaeda in the deserts of the Middle East and as a convert to Islam, John did what he had to do to survive. Now he feels he no longer fits into the world of American culture or Washington, D.C., spy politics. Neither does Jennifer Exley, his boss and girlfriend. As a result they and a few others are in a side organization that works on the fringes of legitimacy – and it works for them.

In an intense desire to rid himself of his demons or the vision of all the people he has had to kill over the years or perhaps to kill himself – even John doesn't know – he races his motorcycle hell-bent-for-leather on highways in the early hours of the morning. He doesn't kill himself, and because of his fame, he doesn't even get a ticket for speeding. Is that what his life will be like from now on – life in a bubble?

Across the world, the North Koreans have sussed out one of the U.S.'s most deeply imbedded agents. How did they uncover him? The trail leads to China and an intensely ambitious party bureaucrat. Then let's bring in a CIA mole, more of al-Qaeda, some Russians, a contentious CIA official, and an arms dealer. And this concoction works.

However, Berenson needs to learn how to better integrate his explanations of spy vocabulary. It is rather jarring when he pauses to explain the military or technical abbreviations or slang. (I realize that this says more about me than about Berenson's writing.) Otherwise, he has great pacing and drama. His mysteries and their unraveling are intelligent and provocative. He makes John Wells' psychic pain heart-wrenching. It's a difficult task but Berenson leads us into a better understanding of the cultural clashes that define our world today.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Only Milo, by Barry Smith (trade, $14.95)

I love a quirky story. I love a quirky story written in a quirky manner. That's why I picked the quirky Beat the Reaper as one of my year's best. And then along came Milo.

I don't think I'm giving too much away when I tell you that Milo is a killer. And I don't mean of ants or a hot pastrami sandwich or a nightclub comedy act. Milo is a frustrated novelist. He cannot beg, borrow or buy his way into the big time. So he tries every other way to get published. His first success is as a translator, despite his rudimentary Spanish, for José, a Mexican author. Judging the material he is to translate as second-rate, Milo substitutes one of his novels. When José accidentally almost unmasks the deception, Milo kills José. It is all uphill and downhill and back uphill from there.

The book speeds by because there's a lot of white space. The book looks like a typewritten (or computer written) manuscript or journal.

Short sentences.

One per paragraph.

Lots of punchlines.

Funny.

Unashamedly bloodthirsty.

All Milo wants to be is a published author. Is that too much to ask?

Birds of a Feather, by Jacqueline Winspear (trade, $14)

Maisie Dobbs, star of a now six-book series, is more than just a plucky heroine and farsighted feminist in turn-of-the-century England; she is a great mixture of a kind heart and an incisive intelligence.

This is the second book in the series. Maisie's private investigator business in London has picked up steam, thanks to her unimpeachable reputation and astute insights. She is more than a private eye, however; she is also a psychologist who tries to heal aggrieved parties and lost souls. She uses techniques of meditation and immersion taught to her by her mentor, Dr. Maurice Blanche. Maisie is extraordinary in another way: She has worked her way "upstairs" from being a maid in Lady Rowan's household to being the protégé of Lady Rowan, who has educated and helped Maisie.

It is this amalgamation of characteristics that makes Jacqueline Winspear's series so engaging and charming. Winspear writes with tenderness about the era, even as she shines a light on the injustices and atrocities of the post-World War I world.

A young woman has disappeared and her father wants her back. He hires Maisie to bring her back. Now. His brusque manner is off-putting. It is not clear whether Joseph Waite is looking for Charlotte Waite because she is his daughter or his possession. In her search for Charlotte, Maisie stumbles across the mysterious deaths of other young women. Winspear never embraces the cliché. You, the reader, may think you know what's going on, but you haven't a clue. The resolution is touching and it is hard to determine who the real villain is.