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

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins (hardcover, $17.99)

Okay, I'm ready for the third and final volume. I raced through Catching Fire, the second in "The Hunger Game" series. It was a little slow for an adult reader in places (e.g., there was a lot of hand-holding between Katniss and Peeta), but once the big surprise got going about two-thirds of the way through, it was bam, bam, bam in typical Suzanne Collins style. She's so good at getting her readers' hearts racing!

If you haven't read anything about this book, don't know what becomes of Katniss and Peeta, the 17- and 19-year old stars of the show, haven't read the dust jacket summary, then don't go there. Just read the book. If you can preserve the surprise of what Collins does with her people, then that's better for you.

If you haven't read The Hunger Game, read the review a few entries ago, or just read the book. It's designed for mature adolescent readers but adults are welcome.

So I'm afraid that this is the review. No synopsis. No whining over who died. No hint at what the big picture might be.


P.S. Mockingjay is the third and final volume. I'm hunting, snaring, and tracking down a copy.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Crocodile on the Sandbank, by Elizabeth Peters

Barbara Mertz, writing as Elizabeth Peters (inspired by her children, Elizabeth and Peter), began her Amelia Peabody series in 1975 with this book. River in the Sky, the 19th book in the series, was published in 2010. There are readers who began reading the series when the first book came out and still eagerly look forward to the next entry. And Amelia Peabody still draws new readers today. That's not a surprise.

After receiving a Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago, Mertz raised a family instead of taking off for archaeological digs. The character of Amelia Peabody grew out of Mertz's love of Egypt. She began to live vicariously through Amelia, who was a 32-year-old woman in 1884 in Crocodile on the Sandbank. Amelia traveled to Egypt, fell in love with and married Radcliffe Emerson, an archaeologist. The characters age throughout the series. Amelia and Emerson, as she refers to him, raise their son, Ramses, who grows up, marries an Egyptian woman, Nefret, and has a child of his own. Ramses has his own adventures and intrigues in World War I. Eventually the series wends its way to the early 1920s. The Peabody-Emerson family lives a rich fictional life, and their trials and triumphs have won countless accolades and awards for their creator.

Despite having read and enjoyed several of the episodes, I had never read the first book. It was time to remedy that.

Obviously, there were some things that were not a surprise to me. This is the book in which Amelia and Emerson meet, and knowing that they wind up married didn't disturb my enjoyment of the will-they-or-won't-they subplot. It was fun to see Peters  give them their cat-and-mouse relationship without resorting to cute and trite descriptions and dialogue.

And speaking of vicarious … it was tremendous fun to visit an Egypt in which there were still hidden treasures to be discovered and the legendary Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo to stay in, to float down the Nile, and to see Cairo's pyramids surrounded by desert sands, not suburban housing.

Here is the story in a nutshell. Amelia inherits money. In 1884 England, she makes a decision to indulge her desire to travel and her love of Egyptology, which is more than just the current fad to her. On her trip of discovery, she rescues Evelyn, a destitute and disgraced English gentlewoman, who becomes her friend and travel companion. The two women meet the brothers Emerson who are involved in a dig to uncover an ancient, royal tomb. And away they go, replete with mummies who walk at midnight, curses, cobras, chaste romance, and nefarious villains.

Become beguiled by this charming story. Share it with everyone, because it is multi-generationally friendly. It is the ultimate escape.

Barbara Mertz celebrated her 83rd birthday last September. Here's to many more!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

In Search of the Rose Notes, by Emily Arsenault ($14.99)

After 16-year-old Rose Banks disappears one day, the children she leaves behind are shaken. Nora and Charlotte are the 11-year-olds she babysat, and eventually the emotions churned up by Rose's disappearance affect their friendship and they part ways. Sixteen years later, a skeleton is recovered. Nora hears about it and returns to her small hometown, to Charlotte and her other childhood acquaintances, to determine what the discovery means to her and the others.

This is not a thriller. There are no shoot-em-ups, wild chase scenes, or crazed murderers roaming the street. There's a lot of introspection and reflection, and there are secrets. Emily Arsenault's book moves slowly as the layers of assumption and mistrust are peeled away. There is a resolution. I was afraid there might not be one, as Nora seesawed between not wanting to know what happened to Rose and needing to clear her conscience from believing that there was something she should have done to save Rose.

It was more confusing than elucidating, but Arsenault intersperses her present-time tale with a flashback of young Nora and Charlotte pouring over the Time-Life series on the supernatural. They and Rose experiment on themselves and have discussions of what the various alleged phenomena might mean. In fact, Nora is discovered to have some sort of psychic "talent," but that wasn't specifically developed, except perhaps in an oblique way. After Rose disappears, the books take on a different meaning. Charlotte plays psychic detective by using the various techniques mentioned in the books to find out what happened to her.

Maybe the girls are supposed to be comforted by thinking that if Rose is dead, she still has a "presence" somewhere or that Rose can still communicate what really happened to her. Or, worse yet, maybe there's a supernatural explanation. Rose believes in aliens, it turns out, and perhaps she has been kidnapped by one.

All in all, In Search of the Rose Notes is a thoughtful book and distinguishes itself favorably from what seems like an onslaught off recent books involving young women with suppressed or forgotten memories from their childhood. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Deep Sky, by Patrick Lee ($7.99)

I admit to being hampered by not having read the first two books in Patrick Lee's "Breach" trilogy, The Breach and Ghost Country, but Lee explains enough that I wasn't asea when I started Deep Sky.

A breach in time and space has been opened, and a secret, independent organization, Tangent, monitors it. Odd technology erupts from the wormhole every once in a while, technology pretty far removed from what scientists on Earth are capable of producing. There's a suit that can make a person invisible, a tiny cube that allows the user to journey back in time to a memory and to live during that memory's moment, and doodads like that. That's enough to give the idea that this book may not be a typical political thriller, although it starts with the President of the United States being killed by a missile while giving a televised speech.

Travis Chase and Paige Campbell are two members of Tangent, and they soon figure out that whoever killed the president is gunning for Tangent next.

The rest of the book is a cat-and-mouse game between Chase, Campbell, their allies and the shadowy bad guys. The breach is at the heart of the matter, however, so that the ultimate goal is to find out what it is. Why is Tangent protecting it and why do the bad guys want to gain control over it?

Deep Sky was exciting and peculiar. It's plot-driven and doesn't pretend to be anything else, except at the end. Enjoy it for what it is: political thriller and sci-fi in one neat package.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Turn of Mind, by Alice LaPlante (hardcover, $24

Alice LaPlante's portrayal of a mind deteriorating from dementia sounds disturbingly accurate. I was so caught up in Dr. Jennifer White's mental time-traveling that I almost forgot there was a murder mystery involved.

Although Jennifer lives in her own home with a caregiver, it doesn't take a lot for her to sneak out and get into trouble. So it is possible that Jennifer could have killed her neighbor and best friend, the high-handed and moralistic Amanda. It is especially suspicious that four of Amanda's fingers were surgically removed. And Dr. Jennifer White is a surgeon.

The narrative viewpoint shifts a lot, starting with Jennifer's thoughts while sitting in a police station and on to journal entries, both by her and others. In the end it's a jumble of narratives in second person present, first person present and an intimate third person. Because of Jennifer's shifting mental time frame, we learn about her life in non-linear bits and pieces. It's never too confusing, however, as LaPlante does build to a climactic, cleansing scene. 

The best part of LaPlante's writing covers the worst nightmare of someone beginning the unforgiving route of Alzheimer's. Incredibly, LaPlante is able to inform us of outsiders' reactions to Jennifer, while never leaving Jennifer's often muddled viewpoint. Before the onset of dementia, Jennifer was competent and cool, both as a surgeon and as a person. In fact, those elements still define her. Look, no tears, she often comments. As she deteriorates more rapidly, the questions become will the emotional barriers finally crack, will she have one final moment of clarity, will Amanda's murderer be discovered?

Quite a stunning piece of writing and a moving depiction of a disarranged mind.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Night Eternal, by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan (hardcover, $26.99)

This is the final book in Del Toro and Hogan's vampire trilogy, which includes The Strain and The Fall. The Strain was one scary book! The airplane scene that begins that book made me glad I wasn't watching a movie version, because I would have been hiding behind my bag of popcorn for at least a couple of days. The Fall, the second book, had the hardest task. The gasp of being caught off guard was gone after the first book. Naturally, there was no resolution at its end -- only sadness. I liked it for its thoughtful (yet action-packed) presentation.

In other words, my expectations were high.

The Night Eternal starts with a world off kilter and without hope. It has been two years since "The Master" and his vampire army took over the world. The skies are unrelentingly dark except for a few minutes every day. Our main characters are CDC epidemiologist Ephraim Goodweather, ratcatcher Vasiliy Fet, CDC doctor Nora Martinez, gangbanger Gus, Eph's ex-wife and current vampire Kelly, Eph's son Zack, and one-of-a-kind vampire Mr. Quinlan. Yes, one of the vampires is a hero. (We hope.)

Had everything been compressed into one book, this portion would not have taken that long. We wouldn't have had to immerse ourselves in the dread, despair, darkness, and damnation that makes up 99.99 percent of the book. I was ready for the book to end way before it actually did. No offense to the writing skills of Del Toro and Hogan. In fact, it is because of the skill of the authors in finding new ways to terrorize their heroes that I couldn't wait to get to the end. (Put them out of their collective misery!)

Enough with the fighting and whooshing of silver swords. Enough with the "book-hurling vampires." Really. Enough with the book-hurling vampires. Enough with Loved Ones and Dear Ones. Enough with machine gun ack-acking. And especially with the what-ev-er with Gus' madre.

So there were rough spots. (According to me.)

In fact I really liked this series (and loved The Strain), despite the schizo writing (gangbanger street talk followed by highfalutin religious philosophy). I take that back. I enjoyed the schizo writing, actually. After all, there are two authors, and it was a tale that drew from both the modern world and ages long since gone.

I'm not sure everything in the final scenes was necessary. I found Eph a little repetitive in the end, but he was a flawed hero in the best tradition. Fet proved to be my own Odyssean hero: going from ratcatcher to demolition specialist in order to make his way home. Mr. Quinlan was a great addition to the team because his background and nature were unknown.

Once having started the journey with The Strain, it was impossible not to want to read The Night Eternal.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Practical Jean, by Trevor Cole ($13.99)

(Part way through this review, I decided that you would learn a major plot device if you read this. If you want to be totally surprised by this unusual book, read the book first. And don't read the description on the back either.)

This unusual book begins with the narrator obliquely letting us know that something has happened, and it has to do with Jean and Jean's friends. The prologue ends with, "And here in Kotemee, all anyone can say now is, 'Thank God I was never a good friend of Jean Vale Horemarsh.'" Then the story backtracks to what began it all: Jean's mother's painful, lingering death.

The book's ironic and subdued tone reminds me so much of the television shows "Desperate Housewives," "Pushing Daisies," "Six Feet Under" and "Twin Peaks." Like them, Practical Jean is an odd dramedy, a term that some media wit coined to indicate both comedic and dramatic aspects. (As Jean might say, "Isn't that a sweet phrase?") There's a wink to the audience that includes them in the joke. Irony leaks through every crack in this book.

Back to Jean's mother's death. Jean and her mother had a difficult relationship, but it was up to Jean to take care of her mother during her last few months of life. Afterwards, Jean knew that she didn't want anyone she loved to die the way her mother did: unhappy, in pain, old, disabled, with regrets. So she sets out to find out what would make her best girlfriends happy. She would do whatever it took to make them happy. Then she would kill them.

Jean is insane but her motivation has a certain logic. Wouldn't you want someone you loved to be happy? Trevor Cole smartly inserts flashbacks to Jean's childhood and teenage years. They provide a pathos that contrasts with and will carry the reader through the bizarre plans Jean makes.

Drama, comedy, pathos, told with an ironic voice. If the book isn't speaking to you within the first 20 pages, give up because it only gets weirder.

Here are a few quotes to help you decide whether you want to read this book:

On finding Jean's inspiration: "…[A] pre-idea, a vague and smoky intuition, was beginning to form in Jean's mind, gather and condensing into something potentially powerful, potentially great, like a mob massing before a riot."

On her husband Milt: "In both hands she took the heavy cheeks of his face, felt the smooth, shaved skin against her palms, and steered his head toward her the way she might move a roast of beef, looking for the best place to carve."

At a town gathering: "…[T]he two women were forced to wade through children like Mennonites through fields of flax."

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins ($8.99)

Scholastic Press brought Harry Potter to the U.S. and probably raised its caché and stock price in the process. Once again, Scholastic has a blockbuster series which is appropriate for teen and adult readers. It begins with The Hunger Games, a story set in the future when life in the U.S. has been altered by another civil war.

Most parts of the country have been turned into "districts" with specialties. The ruling class lives somewhere in the Rockies in the Capitol. Katniss Everdeen, the 16-year-old heroine, lives in "District 12," an impoverished, hard luck community, dependent on coal mining, somewhere in Appalachia. (So what's changed, you ask.) Her district has a fence around it, stepping outside of which is punishable by death. But because her miner father is dead and her mother and sister would starve otherwise, Katniss has learned to hunt in the woods outside the compound. Very few in Katniss' community escape the hounding poverty, so people turn a blind eye to her activities. She finds food for her family and to sell in the black market.

In a ritual designed to never let the other districts forget who the boss is, the Capitol requires tributes. (Very ancient Rome and, as we later find out, many of the Capitol people have ancient Roman-sounding names.) It would be hard to pay a tribute if it were just money or coal but far easier than what the Capitol wants. Each year one girl and one boy between 12 and 18 are chosen to be sent to the Capitol to take part in The Hunger Games. Like a ramped-up "Survivor" game, with death as the loser's punishment, the children compete to be the last one standing.

Katniss' sister's name is drawn as the girl tribute. Gentle Prim wouldn't survive a minute, so Katniss volunteers. In a "reaping" ceremony televised throughout the country, people witness Katniss' first sacrifice. She is joined by Peeta, a boy she doesn't know very well but who saved her from starving when she was younger and whose kindness she has never forgotten. And now he is one of the 23 kids she must outlive.

All the tributes are transported to the arena, an area designed to accommodate the game. Like the TV show "Survivor," the arena changes each year, and this year it is a wooded area, not unlike what Katniss is used to. Maybe she has a chance after all, she thinks.

Collins manages to accomplish a lot in an exciting, moving, well-paced 374 pages. She gives us a look at a community in dire straits, a Capitol in which most of its citizens are pampered and morally corrupt, and a clever and heart-breaking "game" of survival among children who should be getting tattoos, sassing their parents, and listening to indecipherable music instead of trying to kill each other.

Collins has given us unforgettable side characters: from alcoholic and barely articulate Haymitch, the last winner District 12 had thirty years ago, who becomes Katniss and Peeta's mentor, to Cinna, Katniss' stylist from the Capitol. Yes, stylist. The Hunger Game is a televised event which spawns betting and promotions. It's a big deal in the Capitol and the contestants better look good and they better die well, too.

I am longing  for the next book in the series, Catching Fire, and may move it way up to the top of a toppling pile of must-reads.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Jaguar, by T. Jefferson Parker (hardcover, $26.95) (due out 1/10/12)

T. Jefferson Parker's Charlie Hood series now deals with the violent world of the drug cartels, with their sadistically bent code of honor. Money brings only evil in its wake, and Parker tells the story of once-lovely parts of Mexico that are given over to gangs and gang feuds.

Parker's writing in this series is more poetic, channeling the soul, perhaps, of his younger protagonist, Bradley Jones. Bradley was a bright but criminal teenager when Charlie, a sheriff's deputy, first met him through his mother, Charlie's lover. Over the years, although Charlie has tried to help him, Bradley has gone his own twisted way and is now a member of a vicious drug cartel out of Mexico. And Bradley, too, is a sheriff's deputy. Both Charlie and Bradley mix with the federal ATF agents, tough and independent-minded people for whom there is no border, only crime.

Bradley has found his one true love, Erin. She is expecting their first child when a rival ganglord kidnaps Erin for ransom. Bradley enlists Charlie's help to get her back from deep in the jungles of Mexico. Whatever their differences, whatever their lack of trust in each other, they are united in wanting Erin back. Up until this point Erin and Charlie had no firm idea that Bradley is as deeply involved on the other side of the law as he is.

This is an unusual book for Parker, although he has dealt with the unknowable before. There's more of an ethereal, philosophical air to it. The ending showcases the steps Parker has taken outside the box. This odd book can't quite be categorized as a simple mystery or thriller. It should be remembered that Bradley's mother kept the head of one of her ancestors in a jar of alcohol. That sets the stage quite well, actually.

In Mayan mythology, the jaguar is sometimes the night sun, god of the underworld. Who is the jaguar in this story? Is he the psychopathic kidnapper, Benjamin Armenta, a man who has both lost and gained by violence? Or is he the mysterious Mike Finnegan, someone Charlie views as a devil and Bradley sees as his savior? It will help to read the other books in this series. Bradley's background becomes a little clearer, as does the reason that Charlie is searching for Mike. However, this book is capable of standing alone.

Parker has stated (http://tinyurl.com/7v252re) that he is planning to write six Charlie Parker books. I can see where this one, number five, is heralding the denouement of the series. It will be interesting to see how much over the edge Parker goes to bring his series to a conclusion, if that is his intention.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Baker Street Letters, by Michael Robertson ($13.99)

Love the premise. Reggie Heath, a lawyer in London leases a building. His good-hearted but odd brother, Nigel,  does penance by working for him. One of Nigel's jobs is to answer mail of a peculiar sort. Reggie's too much of a high-powered lawyer and man-on-the-way-up to realize just what sort of historical building he has leased. If there were in fact a 221-B Baker Street, legendary home of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, it would be somewhere in Reggie's building. Stipulated in the lease Reggie carelessly signed was a provision that all mail addressed to Sherlock Holmes must be answered. It is Nigel's duty to fill out and mail back the appropriate form. No personal contact of any sort should be made with the writers.

Nigel tries to tell Reggie about a letter they have received and how it's imperative that they do something about it. Reggie is dismissive, Nigel does a bunk to L.A., where the letter-writer lives, Reggie's girlfriend, Laura, is aloof, the body of Reggie's nasty clerk is found in Nigel's office, another body is discovered in L.A., and Nigel is suspected of murder on two continents.

Nigel barely appears in the book, which is a pity because he appears to be the more interesting of the two brothers. Perhaps the second book, The Brothers of Baker Street, fulfills the promise of such a creative idea, but this one meanders a bit and spends far too much time in Los Angeles. Also, there's an unnecessary complication with the vaguely characterized girlfriend. Sherlock Holmes means England, not Beverly Hills!

However, here's another pat on the author's back for another great idea: The letter in question was written 20 years ago by a young girl worried about her father. Nigel has received another letter from the now-grown woman wanting the original enclosures back. This was such a sweet idea that a young girl would write to her hero, Sherlock Holmes, to request his help. Robertson definitely is worth another look.