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

Monday, March 31, 2014

Aunty Lee's Delights by Ovidia Yu

William Morrow, 288 pages, $14.99

If you like mysteries with a strong food element, Aunty Lee's Delights is for you. This series debut is set in Singapore and stars Aunty Lee, a well-off, widowed flavor maven and owner of a restaurant,

Rosie Lee doesn't have to work but, at the same time, she can't not work. People come from near and far to enjoy her Singaporean/Peranakan food. Were you to work from one of her recipes, it's doubtful you would achieve the same quality of taste because there are so many variables that only a true finely-tuned palate can notice and know how to adjust for that dish at that time. Whew!

Plus Aunty Lee loves people and she uses reason, observation, and intuition to understand them. Singaporean author Ovidia Lee says that Agatha Christie was an early heroine, and it's easy to see the influence.

Aunty Lee is doing her stepson a favor by providing the dine part for his fledgling wine/dine club. It's a strange gathering of locals and tourists of all ethnic and cultural flavors that night. Aunty Lee wants nothing more than to talk about the dead body of a woman that has washed up on a nearby beach. Too bad it wasn't Selina ("Silly-nah," as Aunty Lee names her), her stepson's wife, a supercilious, ambitious, vacuous woman who looks down on Aunty Lee, but not her money. (Not that Aunty Lee would wish ill on anyone!)

When the body is finally determined to have something to do with the club, Aunty Lee goes into cooking overdrive.

I enjoyed the look into the Singaporean food and varied cultural background. The story got a little foggy sometimes (who is where in what room in the hospital and how did who get into the pantry closet when?), so that was a distraction. Aunty Lee has the potential to become the next Dr. Siri (of Colin Cotterill's great series), but she's not there yet.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Riverhead Books, 320 pages, $27.95

This is not a mystery.

But it IS a book of illuminating moments and writing. Here’s a sample of Helen Oyeyemi’s writing, pretty much selected at random. Boy Novack, a white woman and one of Boy, Snow, Bird’s narrators, is talking about her wedding day:

“Outside it snowed lightly, lifelessly, thousands of white butterflies falling to earth. Becoming Mrs. Whitman was a quiet affair that I didn’t have to diet for.”

Boy, Snow, Bird refers loosely to the Snow White fairy tale, but Oyeyemi’s story is anchored in a middle-class life in the fictional little town of Flax Hill, Massachusetts, in the 1950s and 60s. Boy Novack has run away from a miserable life with her violent ratcatcher father in New York City. She settles at random in Flax Hill, the farthest her money could get her on the bus. Soon she meets other people in their 20s, including her future husband, Arturo Whitman, and his beautiful young daughter, Snow.

What do fairy tales teach us? Why do these tales live long and healthy lives? In all cultures, they provide a grounding point, a moral lesson for the young, and are usually paeans to self-sufficiency. In Snow White the fight is between good and evil, evil holding sway long enough to build our anxiety until good can triumph and make us sigh with relief. It’s black and white.

Speaking of black and white, that’s what Boy, Snow, Bird is about, too.

References to mirrors and reflections are woven throughout the book. What do we see when we look into a mirror? We see deeper than the shallow reflection, Oyeyemi says in her book, sometimes to the point of not seeing our reflection at all. If we try to present our reflection as ourselves, we will fail at a major level, as does the family Boy marries into. As does Boy herself.

Oyeyemi is a black woman, via Nigeria and England. In her story, her characters must deal with what it is like to be a black person who does not look black, whose inner story does not match what is reflected in the mirror. She tells the story with grace and humor, sadness and warmth. Boy’s daughter, Bird, is especially exuberant. She is one of the narrators and her voice lifts the book up with its sound of mischief, joy, and acceptance.

Boy has the part of the wicked stepmother and Snow is Snow White, although neither plays her part as written. So who is Bird? Bird is the unexpected treasure hidden in the winter snow who throws the fairy tale into a spin and makes Boy and Snow question their roles.

Monday, March 17, 2014

How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny

Minotaur Books, 416 pages, $25.99

[Added note: I forgot to mention when I originally posted my review, that How the Light Gets In has been nominated for this year's Edgar Award for Best Novel.]

How the Light Gets In tidies up some of the dangling storylines from earlier books, and what a story it is. Canadian Louise Penny balances the coziness of tiny Three Pines, her fictional hidden village, situated just south of Montreal, with something big that has been coming down the pike for several books in her series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of the homicide department of the Sûreté du Québec.

In this, Penny’s ninth Gamache book, the chief inspector feels himself buffeted from all sides in the Sûreté. It is no secret at this point that his superior, Chief Superintendent Sylvain Francoeur, wants him gone, departed, deleted, amscrayed. Gamache’s department has been gutted, his superbly trained detectives, once loyal to him, have been reassigned to many other departments. His favorite — and his daughter’s favorite, too — Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, once his right arm, now hates Gamache, blames Gamache for deserting him after a police raid went kablooey and he was injured. Into this intrigue comes a puzzler, again courtesy of the not-so-sleepy town of Three Pines. Once again, Gamache makes his way there to visit his village friends Gabri, Olivier, Clara, Myrna, and the irascible Ruth.

Myrna owns a bookstore in Three Pines. As so many of the other residents did, Myrna accidentally happened on the village. It fulfilled a need she had to get away from the chaos of her life as a psychologist, and so she stayed. Now, years later, an old friend has come to visit and she, too, is lulled by the comforting arms of Three Pines, so much so that instead of just a short visit, she wants to come back in a few days for a longer stay at Christmas.

Seventy-seven-year-old Constance Pineault, in just her initial brief visit, has made friends with the gay bistro owners, Gabri and Olivier. She has gone from being homophobic to emotionally adopting them as her sons. More remarkably, she has formed a strange bond with Ruth, a nasty, irreverent, foul-mouthed, nationally-lauded poet, and Ruth’s duck, Rosa. (“[Constance had] arrived a self-sufficient city woman, and now she was covered in snow, sitting on a bench beside a crazy person, and she had a duck on her lap.”)

When Constance doesn’t reappear for her second visit, an uneasy Myrna contacts her friend Gamache. When he investigates, he finds Constance murdered in her home, in the midst of packing for her second visit to Three Pines. Although Constance’s murder is not in Gamache’s purview, a sympathetic detective friend allows him to take over the case.

If you have read no other review of How the Light Gets In, I will not be the one to spoil Constance’s secret. Suffice it to say, it is a remarkable secret. But did it have anything to do with her murder? Handling the case himself allows Gamache to travel back and forth between Montreal and the village. And — ah ha! — Three Pines then also becomes the setting for the denouement of Gamache’s investigation into what devilment Chief Superintendent Francoeur is up to. In the process, Penny reunites other previously introduced characters into the gathering forces.

This is good versus evil. This is the gathering of the light over the dark. How does the light get in?

Penny’s style of writing is poetic, mostly at an easy-going pace, and very personal. Although this book is voiced in the third person, it is easy to imagine that third person. It is not just a writing contrivance; the narrator feels like an unseen person who takes us by the hand into the story.

As Homer laid on attributes whenever he mentioned his characters (“brilliant swift-footed Achilleus,” “flowing-haired Achaians,” “Odysseus the spear-famed”), so Penny bruises Ruth with wry epithets (“demented poet,” “embittered poet,” “crazy poet,” “mad old poet”). Penny’s characters are treasured by her for their eccentricities, which overflow at times.

You will either like Penny for her storytelling style or you won’t. If you don’t, you should know that you are vastly outnumbered by those who do. Penny’s books have been nominated for every major mystery award, and she has won more than her fair share — although she has won her earned share.

If you have never read Penny, this is no place to start. If you don’t want to start at the beginning (Still Life), for goodness’ sake, at least start with Bury Your Dead.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Until She Comes Home by Lori Roy

Dutton Adult, 352 pages, $26.95

Lori Roy’s first novel was Bent Road, and it won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. Until She Comes Home, her second novel, is a finalist for this year’s Edgar Award for Best Novel. That’s a pretty good way to start a writing career.

Until She Comes Home is set in Detroit during the summer of 1957. Malina Herze, Julia Wagner, and Grace Richardson are housewives on Alder Avenue, in a working class neighborhood. Malina is the queen bee. Julia has lost a baby to SIDS and is taking care of her twin nieces for the summer. Grace is pregnant with her first child.

Elizabeth Symanski is a mentally handicapped young woman on this street. Grace especially keeps a watch over Elizabeth as she wanders the neighborhood. Her father is old, and since his wife died, it has been hard for him to take care of Elizabeth properly. One day, after visiting with Grace, Elizabeth disappears. Julia, who was also visiting Grace, was supposed to have kept her eye on Elizabeth until she walked into her home, but afterwards Julia can’t remember whether she did or not.

The men of the neighborhood organize to search for Elizabeth. Malina organizes the women to cook for the searchers. As the days drag on without any results, tensions within the families on Alder Avenue rise, along with the summer heat. Each family seems to have a secret, then a cause to suspect the worst of themselves and the other families. Lori Roy drops the clues and builds the suspense very slowly. Even the few action scenes have a torpor to them.

Alder Avenue lives and breathes and then withers and compresses as the story goes on. It is as much a character as the people who live there. The story is also infused with the looming problem of race relations. Alder Avenue has a few African American people living on it, and black workers walk the back alley. The story begins with Malina’s obsession with a black woman she thinks her husband visits. The shops the housewives visit serve both black and white. But there is no race keg that is ignited here. Roy’s tale simmers with the racism that in later years exploded in Detroit and other big cities.

What is striking is how Roy brings her readers into the three very different households like spectators to a play. The set revolves from house to house, the inhabitants entering and exiting with increasing intensity and madness. Lights go on along the block when Elizabeth disappears to guide her home again. The back alley holds its own dramatic comings and goings. The stage is set and the players make their way through their various tragedies.

It’s easy to see why this book was nominated.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Ripper by Isabel Allende

(Translated by Ollie Brock and Frank Wynne)

Harper, 478 pages, $28.99

Ripper is more famous at this point for its controversy than its literary quality. Isabel Allende said in an interview with NPR, “This book is tongue in cheek.” She also admitted that she was not a fan of the mystery genre, although her husband writes mysteries. Then the real slam came when she said, “I will take the genre, write a mystery that is faithful to the formula and to what the readers expect, but it is a joke.” Many people picked on the “joke” aspect and thought she was being very disrespectful. Allende later clarified that her use of idiomatic English (Spanish is her primary language) misrepresented what she really meant. She meant that she would take mystery conventions and treat them ironically. I accept this, and it sounds like a valid goal.


What Allende has done because she’s NOT a mystery fan is to take the most popular aspects of the genre and toss it all together in a fruit salad-y kind of way. Cozy new age meets Navy SEAL meets groovy computer-savvy kids meets psycho killer meets tough guy cop meets a Lisbeth Salander wannabe meets every piece of research Allende did to prepare for writing a mystery. And in fact it’s more a romance than anything else. And she throws in a little woo-woo. Irony meets confusion, and confusion wins.


There certainly were parts of the book that were interesting to read. Almost every character gets a treatment, and sometimes it’s quite charming. Especially when she presents the various Latin American characters (please don’t lump all Spanish-speaking cultures together), it’s downright fascinating.

The basic story is that 17-year-old Amanda Martín is the daughter of Indiana Jackson, a new age healer (Reiki, aromatherapy, etc.), who is divorced from Bob Martín, the Deputy Chief of Police of San Francisco. Amanda is convinced that a serial killer is stalking San Francisco. She and an online crew of game players (including her grandfather, Indiana’s father) scattered around the world decide to catch the killer. Indiana’s boyfriend (a society playboy), a wannabe lover (the Navy SEAL), and a lovestruck client vie for Indiana’s attention and manage to get mixed up in the proceedings. Every character, however minor, is eccentric, every relationship is fraught. It makes for a long book.

It’s hard to know what to say the bottom line is. Allende is popular for a reason. She can make a story about a community and its interactions. Even in a throwaway part, she can say something interesting about a character. On the other hand, I hated all the men who vied for Indiana’s affection. They seemed so not worthy of her. They were homophobic or snobbish or stupid. Indiana was a ditzy mother at best and didn’t seem to deserve her daughter’s affection. The cop father blithely lets his father-in-law and 17-year-old daughter look at classified police material. So this is the bottom line, I guess: There was stuff to recommend it and stuff that just didn’t gel. Sigh.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Watching You by Michael Robotham

Mulholland Books, 432 pages, $26

It is hard to wait for the next installment in Michael Robotham’s entertaining series. London psychologist Joe O’Loughlin and retired DI Vincent Ruiz have gotten mixed up in a mess of a case, and I couldn’t be happier. When these former adversaries and current BFFs combine forces, it is the perfect melding of the qualities needed to make a supersleuth.

Marnie Logan is one of Joe’s patients. She suffers from anxiety, but not the easy form of it (spiders, heights). “Existential anxiety is more difficult because the reasons aren’t obvious and the magnitude confounds everything in their lives,” muses Joe. She is especially anxious because she has run out of money. With two kids to raise, it’s not the stuff with which to fashion an amusing cocktail party anecdote. Her husband, Daniel Hyland, disappeared about a year ago. But without going through nasty red tape, she cannot cash in his life insurance policy or access his bank accounts. She is stuck. And anxious.

Daniel did leave behind one legacy, however. He owes a loan shark a lot of money, money the loan shark wants Marnie to fork over on Daniel’s behalf. When she can’t, a minion forces her to become a prostitute. Could things get any worse? Well, yeah.

Joe calls in his good buddy, Vincent Ruiz, to help Marnie out of her difficulties with the shark. Then the minion is found dead. Also, poor Marnie, is she really poor Marnie? Could she have whacked her hubby, not realizing the full consequences of that action? After all, he was a bit of a scoundrel.

The more Joe and Vincent become involved, the weirder Marnie’s life appears.

It almost doesn’t matter what the plot is*; the trick is how an author chooses to tell a tale. Robotham tells his tale with humor, great pacing, and excellent character delineations. The plot of Watching You is bizarrely satisfying. It twists so much, it’s easy to be quite wrung out at the end. 

* I don’t really mean that.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin

Little, Brown & Co., 400 pages, $26

If you have not read Standing in Another Man’s Grave yet, this is your spoiler alert notice. I don’t think you necessarily need to have read other Rebus books to read this one, but it surely would help, especially with the ongoing ebb and flow of Rebus’s status with the Edinburgh police. I rarely read works by the same author one after another (or even in the “right” order), but I found myself picking this up very soon after reading Standing, the book immediately before Saints of the Shadow Bible in the John Rebus series. It was nice for a change to be able to see (and remember!) what threads Scottish author Ian Rankin continued directly from the end of the last novel.

You’ve been alerted, warned, alarmed, and served with notice.

John Rebus, former retired DI, former civilian cold case investigator, has, by some miracle, been allowed to rejoin the Lothian and Borders Police … but as a lowly detective sergeant, a grade below the now-superior, ex-inferior DI Siobhan Clarke. He appears to be dealing well with the change, just happy to be back in the saddle. As Rebus re-enters the force at a time of modernization, reorganization, and centralization for the Scottish police force, it is ironic that a case from Rebus’s first years with the force reappears.

Because of a new interpretation of the double jeopardy law, the murder of Douglas Merchant by his lover’s husband, Billy Saunders, thirty years ago is being reopened. Messy record keeping and sloppy detective work resulted in Saunders’s release. Since it was his team’s case, Rebus’s boss, DI Stefan Gilmour, had to fall on his sword and leave the force. No great harm done, as it turns out, because Gilmour went on to become a millionaire through property development.

So Rebus’s old Summerhall team is under scrutiny again, which of course means that Rebus is under scrutiny by his old nemesis from “The Complaints" department, Malcolm Fox. Rebus was just a detective constable at the time and thus a very junior member of “Saints of the Shadow Bible,” nicknamed as so many of the CID teams were at the time. The other members, DSs Eamonn Paterson and George “Dod” Blantyre, have been retired for some time. Dod is housebound with a terminal illness. It is a sad and tentative reunion for them in the present day, held on the metaphorical eve of their destruction. They have not kept in touch much over the years, either to remember the good times or excoriate the bad.

Back when the Saints were detecting, it was the Wild West of police work. Results were what mattered, and people could be made to look the other way about how those results were garnered. Just what does Rebus know and what does he suspect? Since we faithful followers know that Rebus is (mostly) honorable at heart, it is hard to believe that he might be mixed up in something too unorthodox. But it is suspicious that Saunders got away with murder.

Then Billy Saunders disappears in the present time, right before he is to be interrogated. And right before that he had received a phone call from Stefan Gilmour.

Rebus is rebuffed from officially investigating anything to do with the Saunders case. Instead, he is assigned an automobile accident in which a young woman, Jessica Traynor, was injured. Since it’s a Rebus case, nothing is simple. Rebus believes she was not driving, even though she was found in the driver’s seat. Her boyfriend is Forbes McCuskey, son of a prominent politician. Her roommate is a little too nervous when interviewed. Jessica, to add to the drama, is the daughter of a big-time businessman with a shady underside. When Forbes’s father is found dead, Rebus wonders whether it has to do with the accident.

Edinburgh must be a small place*, because soon everyone’s lives are crossing and intertwining. (Rebus even finds that he lives on the same street as Forbes McCuskey.) Rebus sticks his nose into all of the big cases and tries to see the big picture of those cases and his own, when everyone else is mired in the details.

My heart bled for Rebus with his “demotion” and when he is shuffled aside over and over. (Can he survive the thought of Siobhan and Malcolm as comrades-in-arms without him?) He was left answering to the odious and toadying DCI James Page, who mostly just needs a scapegoat. It bled again when he had to choose between his old loyalties and solving some crimes.

The picture of Rebus as a lonely, record-playing, chain-smoking, alcohol-guzzling bachelor was clear before and is hammered home again. (At one point, as a bully is beating on Rebus, he calls Rebus "Grandad." Ouch.) But he still has a fire in him, and Rankin invites us along to see it stoked.

* Don't send me emails; I know it's not small. I've been there -- and really enjoyed my visits.

Monday, March 3, 2014

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Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Humans by Matt Haig

Simon & Schuster, 304 pages, $26

This book has been nominated for the 2014 Edgar award for Best Novel.

The unfathomable universe has sent a murdering alien to Earth. For our own good, you understand. We don’t, at this stage in time, deserve immortality, instant teleportation, freedom from pain and fear, or even the last package of potato chips on the last day of the apocalypse. All of that (with the exception of the potato chip bit) will be possible with the solution of the elusive 165-year-old mathematical puzzle known as the Riemann hypothesis, an implication that there is way to determine which numbers are prime numbers. Andrew Martin, late of Cambridge, England, successfully produced the equation. That is why he had to die. And more human deaths may follow.

Vonnadoria, for some reason, has appointed itself the guardian of the universe. It is in their interest to keep humans away from the rest of the universe. We are full of pretty awful and cluttery things, like emotions, food, smells, protuberances (mostly noses), and illogic. Can you imagine letting something like that loose on the cosmos?

But the unnamed (because it has no name) alien sent to Earth to exterminate, exterminate, exterminate* has taken Andrew Martin’s form and family. His secondary mission is to learn about humans, and he takes that to heart, one of which he has acquired thanks to Andrew Martin’s physiognomy. As his days on Earth accumulate, he reads Emily Dickinson, listens to The Beach Boys, drinks Australian wine, watches Fellini films, and finds himself slowly becoming less Vonnadorian and more human. Quel disaster! Especially in light of his primary mission, to kill Martin’s wife and son.

The Humans is a funny, thoughtful, and poignant look at ourselves. The book’s mission is to celebrate what makes us human, even if we ultimately must pay the price for being a collection of unpredictably predictable individuals.

* Courtesy of those dastardly "Dr. Who" nemeses, the Daleks.