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

Monday, September 29, 2008

Anathem: page 400, and counting ...

The going is getting easier on Anathem, but there is still no murder.

Stephenson's fantasy world is intriguing. There is a Lord-of-the-Rings quality to it. Erasmus (like Frodo) is at the center of the story, but it takes a group effort to solve the puzzles.

The world of Arbre contains monastery-like communities that are closed off to the rest of the world for one year, ten years, a hundred years, and a thousand years. Erasmus is part of a ten-year community. That means once every ten years a gate opens and the inhabitants can wander about in the outside world and the outside world can enter the walled community.

The latest character to be introduced (yes, they are still being introduced half-way through!) is a (potentially) mystical "millennarian." Because of extraordinary circumstances, the likes of which I still have to discover, he leaves his thousand-year community a long time before its gate is set to open.

Friday, September 26, 2008

I'm on page 103 ...

After much stopping and starting and referring to the glossary, I'm reading Anathem much quicker.

Do you read books if they are this much work?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Taking a Neal Stephenson break ...

I am a big Neal Stephenson fan, starting with Snow Crash, a sci-fi classic. With Cryptonomicon, the author stepped into the world of historical fiction, using real people to help purely fictional ones break codes during World War II and hunt treasure in the present time. His "System of the World" series advanced that gimmick even further (and into many more pages).

Stephenson's new book, Anathem, is 960 pages long. I will be reading it for awhile. It is full of strange words that I must look up in its glossary -- yes, it has a multiple-page glossary and mathematical addendum.

So, I'll be gone for a while, immersed in a strange world of Stephenson's imagination.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Night Kill (hardcover, $24.95), by Ann Littlewood

Portland author Ann Littlewood used to be Portland zookeeper Ann Littlewood. That's why her debut novel has so many great behind-the-scenes details about zookeeping. Just as Nevada Barr makes you appreciate man-in-nature, Littlewood makes you appreciate nature-in-captivity. They both say that we should be here on earth as keepers or preservers, not users. But that is merely the underlying theme. Both deal primarily with man-versus-man themes, culminating in murder.

Littlewood's murder begins in a dramatic fashion. "Big cat" zookeeper Iris Oakley's estranged husband is found dead in the tiger cage one morning. (Although Littlewood was a zookeeper in Portland, she sets her fictional zoo in Vancouver, Washington.)

Iris was on the point of reconciliation with Rick when he died. Mourning his death, Iris soon is mourning the loss of her job as well. During routine maintenance of a tiger exhibit, Iris suddenly finds herself face to face with the tiger. Did a preoccupied Iris forget to properly close his door, or did someone let him out of his pen? Distracted and emotionally off kilter, Iris is moved out of Big Cats and placed with crotchety Calvin to learn how to take care of his beloved birds. She is soon mixing and mashing fish and various smelly emulsions to feed penguins and other winged critters, but that doesn't stop strange things from happening.

Littlewood solidly grounds her story in the little details that could be jarring if absent or not done well. Her characters bloom off the page and their lives have substance. Her story doesn't have subterranean creatures or Vatican conspiracies, but it does have very human failings and aspirations.

The tigers did not murder Rich even if they did cause his death. The only animal capable of premeditated murder is the human kind.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Still Waters (hardcover, $23.95), by Nigel McCrery

Oh, boy, oh, boy! Another creepy, dark, British serial killer mystery!

I've been reading a lot of these lately. Okay, so one was actually set in Canada (The Calling, by Inger Ash Wolfe). And another wasn't a serial killer (In the Woods, by Tana French). And another took place in Slovakia and France (Siren of the Waters, by Michael Genelin). But they were all dark and creepy.

Moving right along.

This U.S. debut novel is satisfying on so many levels. The writing is energized and well-paced. The main character, DCI Mark Lapslie, has an interesting gimmick going for him: He is disabled by synaesthesia, a confusion of the senses. In his case, he can taste sounds. Because his disorder has intensified, he is semi-permanently off the job when the story opens. The serial killer, who is introduced very early, has a back story that unwinds in a twisty way, even though the reader can make a basic assumption from the prologue. Put these elements together and it makes for a magnificently chilly read.

When Lapslie is dragged back into the fray -- and the ultimate reason for having him dragged back in may be the only weak point in the book, but IMO, it doesn't detract from the storyline -- he acquires interesting work companions, including his new assistant, DS Emma Bradbury. Upon learning he has synaesthesia, she asks if she tastes like anything. Oh, you know what I mean, she says, blushing. He says her voice tastes like lemon and grapefruit if she's in a good mood, lemon and lime if she's not. Mostly, however, his disorder is crippling, not charming. For instance, the cacophony of his workplace tastes like blood.

McCrery doesn't drown the reader in synaesthesia anecdotes, so the book clips along at a good pace. It's hard to forget that center stage belongs to an elderly woman stalking and killing lonely, elderly women. Her madness gives her the clarity, which she combines with a brilliant tactical ability, to pursue and bag her targets undetected. It is only the accidental uncovering of one of her victims that jeopardizes her plan.

It is the balanced mix of quirky characters, an interesting storyline, and the author's fine descriptive capability that makes this a great tale to read as the nights grow longer.

More, Mr. McCreary, I say.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

When Will There Be Good News? (hardcover, $24.99), by Kate Atkinson

Even though I’ve read Atkinson’s other books featuring Jackson Brodie, erstwhile Edinburgh police inspector, I’m still amazed and surprised by the gimmick she has used in each: intertwining seemingly unrelated stories. Coincidence should be the subtitle of each, and Atkinson is the master of creating coincidences that stretch the reader’s imagination but don’t expose his gullibility.

Beginning with Case Histories and continuing on to One Good Turn, Jackson Brodie appears almost as a subsidiary character. He ties all the internal stories together, but he is not the main focus. There is always a heart-tugging tale of loss and renewal at the center, and this is what I treasure about Atkinson’s works.

When Will There Be Good News? is an appropriate title because the various stories must spiral down before we can even hope for good news. Dr. Joanna (“call me Jo”) Hunter and her mother’s helper, resourceful 16-year-old Reggie, become victims of other people in their lives. When she was a child, most of Hunter’s family was slain by a serial killer. Now his jail term is up and release is imminent. In addition, her husband seems vague and unworthy. Reggie’s mother has died recently, leaving Reggie an orphan, with only a miscreant of a brother for family. When Reggie cannot contact Dr. Hunter, she enlists the help of Brodie, who is unwittingly on his own downward spiral of bad news.

It is difficult to write about this novel without giving away any of the twists and turns it takes. The reader certainly will take joy at how the convoluted lines unwind at the end. Let me simply add that the writing shines, the humor is subtle, and Dickens couldn’t have done better by Reggie.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A Beautiful Blue Death (trade, $13.95), by Charles Finch

There's a comforting, sitting-by-the-fireside-with-a-good-cup-of-tea feeling that reading this book might give the reader. As a matter of fact, the main character, Charles Lenox, does a lot of sitting by the fireside while he sips his restorative cup of tea. I'd use the word "cuppa," but the story is also about the delineation of Victorian class lines, and Lenox would no more use that word than he would sit companionably with his butler, no matter how faithful, brave, and ingenious he may be. Oh, wait, he does sit companionably with his butler, although the reader senses that the faithful, brave, and ingenious Graham is sitting gingerly on the edge of his chair, back straight, and with the proper note of deference still in his tone. And Lenox still wouldn't say "cuppa."

Although financially and emotionally comfortable, Lenox is the second son in his family and, thus, did not inherit the family estate, but neither is he required to shoulder the family's obligations, e.g., sitting in Parliament. Lenox must make his own way in the world and chooses to become a private detective. He is ably assisted by his butler; his neighbor and childhood friend, Lady Jane, sophisticated widow-about-town; and his older brother, Edmund, who is eager to share the adventure of investigation.

My favorite character is the conflicted Edmund. On the one hand he apparently is one of the guiding lights of his age, but he is also the gawky, eager amateur dying to help his little brother with his exciting cases.

Lady Jane is upset because a former maid has died after moving to her new situation. Scotland Yard is not yet the formidable and principled organization that we have come to know and love through authors like P.D. James, so Lady Jane asks Lenox to look into it. Lenox has the cachet of his family name to open doors and give him access to (almost) everywhere, not to mention membership in an impressive number of clubs. Inevitably, the story works its way to another murder and a larger, complicating issue.

Finch has created a cozy story of an impossibly genteel time. Most of the time I enjoyed the leisurely pace with which Lenox moves through his life, time enough to drink tea, take naps, choose the proper cravat, and politely corner a murderer. However, I often felt the aristocratic characters were much too polite, even when they were being dismissive. Even Agatha Christie, grand dame of the British cozy puzzler, put some sass in her melodrama. Crime shouldn't be played by the rules, eh, wot?

Finch attempts to show that the tragedy of classism works both ways, that as hard as it is to cry a river for an upper crust Victorian, the need to remain upstairs, rather than downstairs, is a mighty powerful and human motive.