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

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan, by Nancy Springer ($6.99) (c2008)

Enola Holmes, much younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft, is as much fun in this her fourth adventure as she was in her first, The Case of the Missing Marquess.

It has just been a few months since 14-year-old Enola ran away from home, away from brothers intent on raising her to be a lady, wedded to some suitable gentleman when the time is right. She has established herself as the secretary to Dr. Ragostin, a private investigator, only "Dr. Ragostin" is a figment of Enola's imagination. She is single-handedly solving mysteries and managing to support herself. Now if Enola could only solve the biggest mystery of all: What happened to her mother? The reason Enola was left in the care of her brothers is that her mother suddenly disappeared, apparently traveling with a caravan of gypsies, looking for or hiding from goodness-knows-what.

London is a big city, but Enola is constantly in danger of being spotted by one or another of her brothers. In her latest case, she accidentally crosses paths with both of them, potentially hobbling her as she tries to rescue -- again -- Lady Cecily Alistair, the damsel-in-distress of the second Enola Holmes adventure, The Case of the Left-Handed Lady. In a modern public lavatory, Enola sees Cecily escorted by a pair of formidable dowagers. Cecily seems to be more a prisoner than a young woman being escorted to pick out her trousseau, but that is what the dowagers are talking about -- Cecily's trousseau. Using a flimsy pink fan, Cecily uses the secret fan signal system once popular among cultured young women to silently pass messages among themselves in public. "Rescue me," she signals before she disappears, trundled off by her captors.

The chase is on.

These books are written for children, but there are plenty of adult fans, too. I find them intelligently written, entertaining, and certainly complimentary of and complementary to the Sherlock Holmes myth. The next up, The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline, is due out soon in hardcover.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Finding Nouf, by Zoe Ferraris (c2008) ($13.95)

Based on her experience living with Saudi-Palestinian Bedouins, American Zoe Ferraris tries to give us an inside look at one aspect of the complicated contemporary Muslim society in Saudi Arabia. There were too many qualifications in that last sentence. That's because Saudi Arabia, on the face of it, is one of the Middle East countries cordial to the United States and it's one of the most "western" in its appearance. Lest we forget, however, it is predominantly conservative Muslim. The vast majority of Saudi Arabian women appear in public in burkas, the head to toe shroud that masks their identity and femininity. It is difficult for a woman to hold power or affect the political structure, but there are exceptions. This is the complicated, conflicting structure that provides the background Ferraris uses for her tale of murder and propriety.

On the verge of marrying a suitable man chosen by her wealthy family, young Nouf disappears and is later found in the desert, drowned. One of the distraught members of her large, influential family asks Nayir ash-Sharqi, a desert guide who has worked for the family on several occasions, to first find her in the desert and then to find the murderer once her body is found. Nayir is a conservative Muslim who yearns to be married but finds it difficult to find a wife because he is a low-status (no one to broker his marriage) pious (can't look at women) Muslim. This seems like a fairly interesting conflict, but within the course of the book Nayir slips from a conservative point of view to a more liberal one without a satisfying point of liberation, in my opinion.

Katya is the fiancée of one of the family's sons. She is a modern woman because she has a job and is willing to be seen in certain settings without her veil. She risks being socially ostracized and losing her job to help find the killer. Her point of view is much more interesting. I would have enjoyed seeing more of her rather than Nayir, but the point of Ferraris' story is that Katya was very limited in what she could do.

The book was slow moving in parts, but it was mostly intriguing. It's good that I'm still thinking about the book, but it's probably not good that I found the resolution a little trite. I thought there could have been more depth and a grander motivation. I wanted it to be more about the Saudi Arabian culture and less about self-serving egotism, something we can get in the United States in abundance.

Friday, November 19, 2010

U Is for Undertow, by Sue Grafton ($7.99)

It's been awhile since I've read one of the alphabet books. After I thought Kinsey Millhone wussed out at the end of one of the books, I grew uninterested in her goings on. I managed to stay distant through a few more of the letters, but the premise of this book sounded so intriguing that I decided to renew my acquaintance with Santa Teresa's most famous P.I. This is the thing: Nobody does it better than Sue Grafton. She still does one of the best jobs opening and closing a book, setting up the scene, reintroducing us over and over to Kinsey, and putting us in a place and time.

The place is the fictional town of Santa Teresa and the time is 1988. A young man asks Kinsey to investigate a memory. He says that as a six-year-old he saw two men bury a bag in the woods next to a middle class subdivision. As an adult he realized that it was right around the time of the kidnapping and disappearance of a young girl in 1967. It was a sensation at the time, and over the years people assumed the young girl was dead, although her body was never found. (To accommodate all the reader needs to know, part of the book is first-person Kinsey and the rest is a third-person narrative that follows several people who lived in the area.) So Sutton, the grown-up little boy, is convinced that what the men were burying was the little girl, and he wants Kinsey to find the spot. Based on Sutton's scant memories, Kinsey works the clues step by elusive step.

Instead of telling you what Kinsey and Sutton find -- because if you read this book, you have every right to be as surprised as I was by the revelations -- let me just say that this was a very satisfying book. I learned what a wuss I was for having given up on Sue Grafton. This is why she is a good writer: She doesn't beat her readers over their heads with the clues. She lets the pieces fall in place for them, too. At the end, she doesn't say that this plus that plus this other thing equals the aha! moment. I was impressed by how she slowly and carefully unfolded the story, and how she created her moments of tension and sadness seemingly without effort.

Another part of the book deals with Kinsey's newfound family. Her wealthy grandmother and other relations have been trying to draw Kinsey into the family fold. After years of neglect by this family, she isn't buying into any warm, fuzzy feelings for them. Once again, Grafton's tremendous strength as a writer is on display with this side story. Real people, real feelings -- really, really well done.

I have awarded this book an MBTB star.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Dark Vineyard, by Martin Walker (hardcover, $23.95)

Now I, too, would like to run away to wine country in Périgord, France. What more could you want than foie gras, truffles, and the wines of the region, bergerac and monbazillac? And a little non-threatening mystery, perhaps.

This is the follow-up to Martin Walker's first book, Bruno, Chief of Police. (I love a title that plainly says it all.) Bruno Courrèges is in fact the chief of police of the little town of Saint-Denis. It is populated by good souls, some of whom are eccentric, all of whom seem to enjoy a good glass of un vin rouge simple.

Walker is a writer of mostly books and articles about global business concerns and other non-fiction topics. It is obvious, however, from reading The Dark Vineyard that his knowledge of this region of France runs deep enough to give his book an authentic-sounding twang. His business background gives the book its main storyline.

A mega-wine company from the U.S. is trying to buy large tracts of land in Saint-Denis to produce more of its uniform corporate wine. This would bring more jobs and money to the region, so Bruno and the mayor play host to the son of the current CEO. In the meantime, an arsonist sets fire to a field where experimental crops are being grown. It turns out the crops were genetically modified grape vines. Much, much, much later in the book, a dead body is discovered in a vat of wine. Are all or any of these things related? Of course they are. Walker does a credible job setting up the light mystery, but before the bad person(s) is discovered, every character is innocent and likable until proven guilty.

What a salad of characters Walker tosses at us: Albert, Cpt. Duros, Jules, Ahmed, Fabien, Gérard, Philippe, Stéphane, Dominique, the Baron, Pamela, Claire, J.J., Isabelle, Alphonse, Fauquet, Gustave, Hubert, Cresseil, Nathalie, Baptiste, M. d'Alambert, Hector, Jacqueline, Max, Rollo, Xavier, and on and on. I actually had to keep notes because there were so many names, and who knew which ones would prove to be important later. Then, too, I had not read the first book, which probably introduced many of the characters. Most authors know to reintroduce, however quickly, standing characters. Walker does it for some of the people but not all. It sometimes isn't until pages or chapters later that a character's place in Saint-Denis is explained. I strongly suggest you, too, take notes. (Note: I was reading an "ARC," an advanced reading copy. Sometimes editing corrects deficits, so perhaps the final version is a little clearer. If so, I apologize. But still, take notes.)

Bruno is quite likable. (But, as previously said, aren't they all?) I tremendously enjoyed the description of the food and wine of the region. I truly want to believe the French in Périgord are as good-hearted and community-minded as they are in Walker's book. This book is ... likable.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Bricklayer, by Noah Boyd, c2010 ($9.99)

I loved this book.

It was an adventure with puzzles, but then I wasn't reading this for its realistic portrayal or deep social commentary. So it was fun.

There's been a lot of comparison of Steve Vail, the "Bricklayer," to Lee Child's Jack Reacher. True, they are both masters of their own fate and they don't want no stinking bosses, but Vail is way more fun.

Steve Vail used to be an FBI agent. Before he was fired. For insubordination. A few years later the FBI needs him again. They send Deputy Assistant Director Kate Bannon to round him up from Chicago, where he is a bona fide bricklayer. In fact, she has to climb up onto a roof to talk with him while he's buttering up a chimney.

The group Rubaco Pentad is killing enemies and critics of the FBI. In a convoluted, unethical way, that might be a good thing, but the FBI is not amused. Rubaco Pentad wants millions of dollars to stop. The first agent who tried to deliver the money died. The second one disappeared. Uh, oh. Now what do we do? Think, think. Hey, let's use a very smart scapegoat who doesn't work for the FBI anymore. Surprisingly, Steve Vail says yes.

What follows is a clever, albeit overly complicated, series of cat and mouse moves. In its opening gambit with Vail, Rubaco Pentad has Vail in a dark tunnel wired with light-sensitive bombs, punji boards, and no way out. Since that happens in the first third of the book, I don't think I'm spilling too many garbanzos when I tell you that Vail, despite the odds, escapes. (Besides the best part is in how Noah Boyd -- an alias for a former real-life FBI agent -- shows us how.) Vail uses great intuitive and deductive skills to decipher the clues and find the perpetrator. Then another trap is set. Then Vail deciphers more clues. Rinse and repeat.

Great fun.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Day of Small Things, by Vicki Lane, c2010 ($7.99)

Vicki Lane has a way of giving Appalachia an other-worldly atmosphere. In The Day of Small Things, she mixes romance and Appalachian myth and magic in stories set in the 1930s and the present time. And, yes, it does eventually qualify as a mystery book; there are criminals.

The two stories, which each take up half the book, have very different tones.

In the 1930s, Fronie Gentry tells everyone that her daughter, Least, is simple. Between beating and belittling Least to keep her submissive, Fronie is determined to keep one of her children with her to help on the farm. Life is very hard, no doubt, in Appalachia in the best of times, but this is also the Depression. Mortality rates are high and it's not uncommon for children to die young. Going along to get along, however difficult, is the path of least resistance for Dark Holler families. Despite Fronie's oppressive thumb, Least manages to make a young friend and, before it's too late, to make the acquaintance of her grandmother. Granny Beck is a canny woman, full of Cherokee secrets, spells, and herbal knowledge, all of which she passes along to Least. Then a calamity pitches Least out on her own. Although she is an innocent afoot in the world, she actually makes it no further than a few miles down the road and becomes a semi-prisoner in a local dance hall/house of ill repute. The story gets darker and deeper from there. This part of the book is full of Appalachian cultural details that are intriguing. The chapters switch between various characters' points of view. They are written with an Appalachian voice that is endearing and catchy.

The second half of the book is about Birdie, a woman who has lived in Appalachia all her life. When Dorothy's grandson is kidnapped, she asks her friend Birdie to use her "powers" to help find the grandson. The problems and conveniences described in this part of the book are all too modern. From cell phones to meth to gated estates, the outside world has come to Dark Holler.

Lane has a way with tone and prose that sinks her story right to the heart. Small Things is about family and love and ancient hate. There is a strong mystical and spiritual element, so if that's not your bag, walk on by this book. However, Lane isn't preachy or silly with its use. She received an Anthony nomination for In a Dark Season several years ago. That's not surprising. Her writing is strong and evocative. This book reminds me of Ursula Le Guin's fabled series, beginning with The Wizard of Earthsea, in how it addresses balancing the forces of the natural world.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Locked In, by Marcia Muller, c2009 ($7.99)

This book will give you nightmares. It will make you want to put a phone in your coffin. You will want to take out oodles of disability insurance. Because what if ...

San Francisco P.I. Sharon McCone was shot in the head by an intruder in her office. When she groggily regains consciousness, she finds that she cannot move or talk, but she has perfect awareness, just no way to communicate that. Marcia Muller has been writing Sharon McCone stories since 1977, and this book represents a very different kind of story. With Sharon out of commission in the hospital, her team, relatives, and husband must solve the current caseload to see if one of the open cases brought the intruder to their doorstep.

Dizzingly told from various viewpoints, we follow her main investigators as they doggedly break their cases. We even have insight into Sharon's despair and determination, as her story is told in the first person. She is locked into her own mind, all decked out with nowhere to go.

I really liked Sharon's part of the story. It was told with a great depth of feeling. And, as I said before, it's a nightmare inducer. The rest of the intermingling tales were a little disconcerting. My co-worker John said that in the hands of a lesser writer, it would have been a mess. I will be happy to get back to just Sharon, all the time.

I will say this, however, it was a great gimmick. It got me to read my first Sharon McCone in a couple of years, and I can't wait to read the next up, currently in hardcover, Coming Back.

The Last Run, by Greg Rucka, c2010 (hardcover, $25)

Tara Chace rocks! Or she has a head hard as a rock. Or she has rocks rattling around in her head. Or all of the above.

Tara Chace is Greg Rucka's superspy chick creation. Throughout her adventures in two books and numerous comics, Tara has escaped in the nick of time over and over. If she were a cat, she would have used up her nine lives a long time ago. Now she's finally feeling the draw of home and hearth since the birth of her daughter, Tamsin. Facing the quandary of many modern mothers -- having a job that takes her away a lot -- she balks at having her child mostly raised by a nanny. Worse yet, the danger she often leaps into might leave her daughter parentless. She has tendered her resignation as a "minder," i.e., action-adventure heroine on behalf of Queen and country, and requested quieter office duty. On the verge of making this happen, a serious situation arises in Iran and the powers-that-be say that only Tara will do.

An informer from decades past, now inactive and all but forgotten, has requested that British Intelligence extricate him from Iran. (Oh, by the way, he just happens to be the Ayatollah's nephew.) Just as freedom is within reach and Tara's improbable plan to escape with the informer is succeeding, things go, as the British say, pear-shaped. Rucka does a tremendous job keeping the tension high and the story rolling along. It was hard to put the book down. And I don't say that lightly.

Luckily, Rucka does not sacrifice character development for cinematic extravagance. Telling comments about Tara and her daughter, about Tara's boss, about the other members of Tara's team bring the story to a very human level. For instance:

"She closed her eyes, mind wandering free, instantly finding Tamsin, so far away. The fever, had it broken yet? Was she all right? Then she was seeing Tom Wallace, perfect in memory, a flight of fancy as Tara held their daughter in her arms, showing her to him. Look what we made, look at this beautiful creature we created."

The story isn't everything; people are everything. And Rucka's creations can hold their heads up high.