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

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Death by Pantyhose ($6.99), by Laura Levine

I didn’t read the author’s biographical information until after I had finished the book. After I read that Laura Levine had been a comedy writer on some of the most popular sitcoms of the 70s, the book made a whole lot more sense. Death by Pantyhose, the sixth entry in the Jaine Austen series, really should be called One Joke After Another.

Jaine is a freelance writer whose greatest accomplishment is as the copywriter for a toilet bowl ad. She blithely solves mysteries in between writing gigs. In this instance, Jaine is negotiating to write gags for Dorcas, an insipid comedienne, when a fellow comic is murdered and Dorcas is accused of the crime.

Jaine is a shadow of Janet Evanovich’s hilarious Stephanie Plum, the sassy New Jersey bailbondswoman. There are the same elements in each series: a dysfunctional yet funny family, a hot boyfriend, goofy cars, a pet with an attitude, a hearty appetite, and a tendency to be the horror movie heroine who opens the door when the entire audience knows she shouldn’t. I laugh out loud while reading Evanovich -- even when her plot goes thunk instead of whee. I titter when reading Levine. And that’s the difference in a nutshell.

Nevertheless, Levine’s story is entertaining, a fast read, and can easily be turned into something visually funny. I wonder if there’s a sitcom in sight?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Fatal Grace ($6.99), by Louise Penny

The town of Three Pines is picture-perfect, cozy, warm (even in Quebec's freezing winter), and inviting. It is also the scene of its second murder in a little over a year. Penny writes with a soothing style that belies the harsh crime and sometimes four-letter invectives that the charming residents of Three Pines use. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that Penny's works are cozies. After all, they are filled with Agatha Christie characters in an Agatha Christie country setting. The victim herself in this latest book is a classic villainess: she is arrogant, egotistical, cold, duplicitous, and manipulative. Not to mention vicious, scathing, and insensitive. But the resemblance to all things Christie ends there.

Armand Gamache, beloved chief homicide inspector of the Quebec Sûreté who first appeared in Still Life, is called upon to solve the murder of CC de Poitiers, the above-cataloged villainess. She has insinuated herself, her cowering family, and her fictitious and incomprehensible self-help philosophy into the smooth and happy workings of Three Pines. She was not liked and she is not mourned. However, solving the case involves more than just lining up the suspects and naming the killer (through a dazzling display of logic and an extensive knowledge of human nature, of course). As the layers peel back to reveal just who CC de Poitiers was, we glimpse something more like the darker side of Ruth Rendell or Minette Walters than Christie.

There sometimes is no indication of tone in Penny's dialogue, so the going is initially difficult until you get a sense of who means what to whom. (It also helps to have read her first book in which you meet most of the characters and learn their relationships to each other, she said helpfully.) Also, most of her characters are burdened with a sad knowledge of each other and an over-abundant responsibility for their fellow villagers. If Fatal Grace were a person, it would be a tall, slender, graceful woman who carefully, deliberately, and tenderly examines each and every thing in the room. She would nod her head knowingly while dropping obfuscatory comments. You have to be in the mood for her -- I mean, “it.”

Penny’s first book was not so portentous and thus more enjoyable. But there is something comforting in knowing that someone as principled as Gamache is watching our literary back.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Anniversary Newsletter

Please check out our latest newsletter, about MBTB's 25th anniversary celebration. We've got lots of fun events scheduled, and hope to see those of you in Portland at at least one of them. For those of you who can't attend, you may purchase our anniversary album, which will published at the end of June (with a link posted here).

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Big Both Ways (trade, $16.95), by John Straley

This book really should begin, “Once upon a time,” and continue, “in the not so distant past, in the still wild Pacific Northwest.” The Big Both Ways is a gift to those of us who live here, surrounded by reminders of what strong characters and iron wills carved out places to live in America’s last frontier.

John Straley, a well-regarded author for his contemporary series starring private investigator Cecil Younger in Sitka, Alaska, has just released The Big Both Ways, a novel set in 1935 during the Depression and in midst of the management vs. labor turmoil of the docking, mining, and logging industries of the Pacific Northwest.

Did those of you raised in the Pacific Northwest learn in school about Wobblies, trade unionists, labor spies, and the massacres in Everett and Centralia, Washington? I wasn't raised here, so I had to stop reading the book about thirty pages into it and look up all those subjects in "Wikipedia." Eventually Straley leads the reader into a deeper understanding of the different groups involved, but I was afloat without a Ketchikan paddle at the beginning.

To summarize: jobs were scarce, labor was cheap, people were starving. When mud pies laced with salt and oil provide psychological sustenance for people in need of physical sustenance, times must be really low. There were no safety laws protecting workers in very dangerous situations. Labor unions linked to specific industries sprang up in an attempt to rectify both the working conditions and pay for the workers. The IWW (sometimes labeled “anarchists,” “socialists,” or “Reds”) fed into the mix with its attempt to bind all workers into rising up in favor of industries without rulers. Labor spies were everywhere, and the law was sometimes hamstrung by its own corruption or lack of jurisdiction.

It is into this period that Straley places Slip Wilson, a logger who quits his job (which gets snapped up immediately by the next in the long line of gaunt, beaten men waiting for any job to open up), Ellie Hobbes, a Wobblie rabblerouser, and her young niece Annabelle. The Big Both Ways is a tale of coincidences and fate. Slip has quit to pursue his dream of owning a quiet farm with a quiet family. Instead, he meets Ellie, a woman with a car and a dead body in its trunk. Soon there is another dead body, a young niece, and a yellow bird to tote along. We really don’t learn much more than this, given the taciturn natures of all the characters. They don’t ask questions and they don’t volunteer information. You, the reader, are left to scream in silence, “What’s going on?”

Slip, Ellie, and Annabelle, in various combinations and with other temporary companions, leapfrog up the Pacific Coast, chased by George Hanson, a Seattle police detective, who ostensibly is trying to apprehend the murderers of the aforementioned dead bodies. As the various characters stop in ports both small and large, Straley depicts the life and culture of the times with care and understanding. He is diligent always to snare a bit of optimism along with his glimpses of a moribund world.

For fans of Robinson Crusoe and the children’s classic The Boxcar Children, there’s a satisfying element of do-it-yourself or fend-for-yourself. Other than hunters and the contestants of “Survivor,” would most of us 21st-century souls be able to skin and gut a lamb? Straley tutors us in navigating the Inland Passage as Annabelle clambers on a box to be able to see over the steering wheel of a boat she learns to wend past rocks and whirlpools and through incoming and departing tides. Landlubber Slip suffers blisters and aching muscles as he haphazardly teaches himself how to skipper a dory northward. At one point Straley describes a cycle-of-life moment in a scene of great beauty -- and practicality -- as his characters witness whales, salmon, and seagulls feeding.

But this is not a fairytale or children’s cozy, Skip and Ellie are beaten and mangled more times than all of Dick Francis’ protagonists put together. Some of the villains are meaner than snakes’ teeth. Straley’s tone is noir-ish, especially with the spare dialogue, reticent natures of the main characters, and preference for action over cerebral interplay.

It is worth it for the reader to hang in there through the eddying strands of the first chapters and the push and pull (the “big both ways”) of the confusing loyalties of the characters and their relationships with each other to follow what turns out to be a great and rewarding adventure.

minister. The heady realization that he will be meeting and getting to intimately know the controversial ex-prime minister, not to mention the hefty paycheck, gives the acerbic, unnamed (appropriately so, don't you think) narrator a cause for celebration … until things start to go wrong.

Imagine Tony Blair charged with crimes against humanity in a world court for aiding and abetting the capture of alleged terrorists in Pakistan, who are then shipped to a U.S. military compound where they are tortured. Substitute "Adam Lang" for Tony Blair, and you have yourself the inspiration for this Robert Harris novel.

At first I was excited: the narrator was witty, sarcastic, sophisticated. The narrative flowed with verve and seemed full of insider looks at publishing. Because a book cannot exist with just the fun stuff showing, we had to eventually meet "the conspiracy." The narrator's ghostwriter predecessor supposedly committed suicide during a ferry ride to Martha's Vineyard, leading, of course, to all sorts of double entendres involving the word "ghost." In continuing his research, the new ghost stumbles across his predecessor's research that indicates the prime minister's rise to power and term in office may not have been all it seemed. Which leads to a frightening assumption that perhaps his predecessor's death may not have been all it seemed. It is after the narrator adjourns into incipient paranoia that the book ceases to fulfill the promise of its beginning. But as well as Harris is capable of creating a chilling scenario and as probable as the ending may eventually turn out to be, I nevertheless found the resolution to be ludicrous.

It may surprise you that I suggest you read it: for the humor, for the wit, for the promise of what could have been.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Try Dying (hardcover, $21.99), by James Scott Bell

I like to skim the first couple of pages of the copies of books publishers send the store for review to see if anything catches my fancy right from the get-go. Very few do. In fact, some of my favorite books start off slow and don’t pick up speed until far into the book. Try Dying had me from the first paragraph. Before I knew it, it was page 50 and I was destined to read the whole thing.

Big L.A. law firm rising star Ty Buchanan had it all: prestigious job, nice home, beautiful fiancée. That was before a man shot himself on an overpass, flipped over the barrier, and landed on the car underneath being driven by Ty’s fiancée. The circumstances of her death seemed bizarre but straightforward. It wouldn’t be easy, but all Ty had to do was try to manage his grief and regain his life. Then a strange man tells Ty his fiancée was alive after the accident and the stranger knows who killed her. In the process of juggling his quest for vengeance and the lawsuit he is handling for his office, another person is murdered and Ty is the primary suspect.

Bell invests his book with a lot of snappy dialogue – sometimes a little too much snap, as barely a scene goes by without some sort of wisecracking comment from Ty. All in all, however, an engaging fast read with good characters – especially Sister Mary -- a nice hand at depicting grief, and an authentic feel to the legal word fights.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Winter Study (hardcover, $24.95), by Nevada Barr

Reading this book on a frosty spring day in Portland is like eating ice cream in a freezer. Everything seems just a little bit colder.

The latest release in the Anna Pigeon series takes us back to Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, site of Barr’s A Superior Death. Actually, Barr’s successful gimmick is she tries to place Park Ranger/Investigator Pigeon in a new national park in every book. This time, however, the park is not leafy and inviting; it is winter and a small group of people have amassed for varying reasons to study the wolves that live on the island. (A real-life long-term study of the moose and wolf populations on the island provides the background for the novel.)

So, how cold is it? Apparently it is so cold that even a wolf, kept inactive in a trap for a period of time, could freeze to death. This is one of the many interesting facts with which Barr laces her story. The author’s description of Isle Royale and its environment stripped of summer tourists is wonderful. There are also vivid descriptions of hypothermia, what blood looks like frozen, frostbite, and the perils of the cold in general.

In our terror-centric world, even this remote park is a potential gateway for terrorists, so say the administration-that-be, and a Homeland Security duo is sent to accompany the researchers and park ranger Anna for six weeks of study. In positively no time one of the group is dead, apparently savaged by wolves who, contrary to popular fear, do not attack humans. Huge paw marks appear in the snow. In the best Agatha Christie tradition, the weather turns nasty and the islanders are cut off from the rest of the world and left to solve their own problems.

As far as mystery stories go, this is one heck of a good nature story. The mystery part of it suffered from back-and-forth-itis. There is a lot of tromping around in the snow, and I cringed whenever Anna had to swaddle herself in winter gear, which was never enough to keep her (or me ) warm. In a bow to a horror-movie convention, the comeuppance at the end goes on and on -- but it is a spectacular ending. And a warning for you tender readers: there is also a medium “ick” factor when Barr describes the death and a prior crime committed by the criminal.

But frankly, the mystery is not always why I read Nevada Barr. Her nature writing is “superior” (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), and I love Anna Pigeon’s mixture of humor, practicality, orneriness, and unpredictability. The girl’s got dignified sass!

Even if it’s 78 degrees outside your window, make yourself a hot mug of Ovaltine and pull on your mukluks to read Winter Study.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Lush Life (trade, $15), by Richard Price

If the calendar year were to end today and I had to choose my top pick of the year for the store’s “best of” list, this is the book I would pick.

I began reading Lush Life, Richard Price’s latest gritty, city-wise novel, because of other reviews, almost all of which are laudatory, and because Price was an occasional contributing writer of the magnificent HBO series, “The Wire,” the demise of which has left me bereft. The New York Times, in particular, spent an inordinate amount of ink on this book. Let’s look at why the critics have been gushing.

Price is the author of The Wanderers, Clockers and Freedomland, all of which have been much praised as books and movies. If you haven’t read any of those books, here are two longish quotes to give you a taste of his style. Perhaps you’ll see why Price should be read slowly and with savor, although you will want to rush to the end higgledy-piggeldy to find out what happens.
As a rule he is soft-spoken, leaning in to the driver’s window to conversate, to explain, his expression baggy with patience, going eye to eye as if to make sure what he’s explicating here is being digested, seemingly deaf to the obligatory sputtering, the misdemeanors of verbal abuse, but … if the driver says that one thing, goes one word over some invisible line, then without any change of expression, without any warning signs except maybe a slow straightening up, a sad/disgusted looking off, he steps back, reaches for the door handle, and the world as they knew it, is no more.
And later:
…leaving Matty in the middle of the room with a cardboard box of 61s and 5s and no backup except, maybe out of pity, Yolonda; everyone else tacitly avoiding him on this one like a landlocked Ahab, like an ass-pain Ancient Mariner, like he had halitosis of the brain.
[I just want to point out that I just used the word “savor” for the second time since starting these reviews for Murder By the Book. I just want it out there in case anyone is keeping track. Not that I’m equating myself with her, but the mysterious Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times’s chief book reviewer, has been castigated for using the word “limn” too frequently, and I just want to be ahead of whoever out there is keeping count of such things. By the way, I had to look “limn” up.]

Lush Life is Price’s song of life in the city that never sleeps. In fact, sleeplessness begins the tale. Early one morning Ike is shot dead. Eric, one of his two companions, tells Matty and Yolonda, the detectives assigned to the case, that two young men tried to rob them and one of them shot Ike. Is he telling the truth? Further witnesses come forward to say they only saw three white men and not the two alleged dark-skinned robbers. Steven, the third man, is so intoxicated he has to be hospitalized, so it’s left to Eric and the other witnesses to repeat and repeat their stories to the point of fatigue, the detectives listening while their own fugue deepens. In the process of investigating the shooting, Ike’s father, Billy, is introduced. We watch while he struggles with an overload of emotion and guilt, estranging himself from the rest of his family. Other peripheral but fully defined characters help us understand Eric, Matty, and Billy.

Complicating the story are opportunities the detectives miss to solve the case and tactics they use which backfire. Also, little side stories highlighting New York City and its eccentricities pop up to flesh out the sad/mad world of Lush Life. All this adds to the realism and tension of the story. Price writes with such authenticity about a city he both loves and censures.

People don’t really get what’s coming to them in the end so much as wander into their destiny. There’s a certain untidiness to it, but perhaps that is as it should be in a book that echoes with such realism. One can imagine the characters in Price’s book living out the final lines of Billy Strayhorn’s classic song:
I’ll live a lush life in some small dive,
And there I’ll be, while I rot
With the rest of those whose lives are lonely, too.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Restless (trade, $14.95), by William Boyd

Grade: A

William Boyd shows us in his latest novel, Restless, that in the blink of an historical eye alliances can change. In both the larger scale of country to country and the smaller scale of person to person, the word “friendship” is meaningless and we can never know for certain where a person’s loyalties lie. Since part of the novel takes place in the time period just before the United States entered World War II, with the benefit of knowing what came after, we can also see that what seemed benign at the time grew into a malignity in the future. The other part of the novel takes place in 1976, and again with the benefit of foreknowledge, we see nascent and well-behaved political unrest that will grow into something more chaotic and dangerous in our present world. The larger issues play in the background -- albeit, a sometimes loud and insistent background -- to the front stories of a mother and her daughter.

Sally Gilmartin is really Eva Delectorskaya, a resident of Paris, by birth a Russian, and a woman who loses this identity when she becomes a spy for Great Britain during World War II. You’ve seen the bumper sticker, “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t after me”? In 1976, Sally is a grandmother and Eva has long disappeared, but an unknown event has triggered a paranoia in Sally that her past is on the verge of catching up with her. She decides to tell her daughter, Ruth, about her hidden life. Boyd tells Ruth’s and Sally’s stories in alternating chapters.

Ruth has a small life in Oxford as an academic, a teacher of English to foreigners, a mother to a young boy, and the ex-girlfriend of a German man whose wayward brother has insidiously moved into Ruth’s apartment. When her mother slowly begins to reveal who Eva was, Ruth is uncertain whether her mother is telling the truth or sick from some delusional ailment.

Eva’s story begins with a casual recruitment by a strange acquaintance of her dead brother. Gradually Eva becomes more enmeshed in the propaganda machine Great Britain uses to sway other countries into allying with them and is later involved in more intricate activities. Initially, Ruth’s story is ordinary and uneventful in counterpoint to the increasing strangeness and exoticism of her mother’s tale, but we gradually learn that certain associations Ruth has tie into a dangerous part of the world in 1976, with implications for something more serious in the future. The spy apple may not fall far from the tree!

Boyd’s story of Eva is clever and harkens to a world of le Carré with its ambiguous relationships and shadowy power plays. He uses a gentler touch with Ruth and breathes life into her world without the underlying thrum of tension and suspense he uses for Eva. The bottom line: a great story with masterful writing.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Latest info on mbtb.com

Our latest monthly mystery list (Murder by the Month) have been posted on our website, www.mbtb.com. We have also sent out some of the recent blogs on this site to our newsletter subscription list.