Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Compulsion

Sometimes, I have to put an author on probation.  I only have so much time, and there are too many books I want to read to spend my time on authors who seem to be on autopilot.  I'll give an author I've enjoyed a few books to retain my attention, but at some point, I'll stop reading and donate my backlist to the Book Corner.

Jonathan Kellerman is now on probation.  I first read When the Bough Breaks during a Christmas break from law school and just couldn't put it down - I may have read it in a single sitting.  I've been a faithful reader ever since, and like most long running series some of the books have been better than others.  Time Bomb left a bad taste in my mouth, but Devil's Waltz was fascinating.  I was losing interest with Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis when The Murder Book altered the formula by using Milo's POV as well as Alex's and making his partner Rick more than just a passing mention.  Unfortunately, I haven't enjoyed its sequels and have come to the conclusion that I'm now reading Kellerman's books out of habit.  

Compulsion starts with a young woman drunkenly staggering out of a club.  Her car runs out of gas and she thinks she's in luck when an aristocratic woman in a Bently gives her a lift.  The next day, the Bently's owner calls the police, claiming that it had been stolen and left on a nearby street.  Milo and his subordinate investigate and find blood on the driver's seat but it's not a priority until an elderly woman is murdered by a man driving a BMW stolen from and returned to a luxury car rental service.  Milo follows a few ultimately false leads, using Alex as a psychological sounding board, and at home Alex's luthier girlfriend is making custom instruments for a tone-deaf dot-com millionaire.  

Compulsion comes across as an average-quality mystery until about the last 80 pages when it takes a turn for the bitter.  Kellerman is a clinical psychologist as well as a novelist, so I can understand why he might see the worst in people.  However, he seems to have fallen into the habit of writing himself into a corner and then 'solving' the mystery by showing that one (or more) of the characters is a creepy psychopath.  It's the near-cheating more than the creepiness that bothers me.  The solution may work if you trace all the way back to page one and choose the less likely outcome for every potentially ambiguous piece of data, but it feels like Kellerman is playing a trick on us.  I might be a little more willing to go along with the game, but the solution usually involves such a repulsive character, I'm less willing to cut Kellerman any slack.  I'm not asking for a kittens and flowers happy ending, but unless Milo and Alex start encountering murders that can be solved without cheating, they're leaving my library to make room for my ever-expanding collection of historical mysteries.


Sweet Revenge

I first met Goldy Schultz (then Goldy Bear), the Colorado caterer who keeps stumbling across dead bodies in 1993, and she hasn't changed much.  Her business is more secure, she's happily remarried to Aspen Meadow's sheriff, and her abusive ex-husband was killed two books ago, but she's still the same espresso-guzzling, chocoholic who solves mysteries while whipping up a souffle.  Like many series characters, she's aging in slow motion (from 28 to 34 in 16 years), but it doesn't seem to matter.  Goldy's never been a deep character, and Davidson's mysteries tend to be more like an angel food cake than a dense chocolate torte.  It's a balancing act, because she touches on serious issues, especially domestic violence, but she usually succeeds.

Sweet Revenge is Davidson's 14th novel.  It's the holiday season, and Goldy is fully booked with office and private parties and events at her still-new catering hall.  On the way to a client's house to sign contracts and plan the menu, Goldy sees a ghost - Sandee Brisbane who killed Goldy's ex and then apparently died in a forrest fire.  Needless to say, her husband Tom doesn't believe her - dozens of police and fire fighters saw Sandee jump into the raging wildfire after confessing to John Richard Korman's murder.  But Goldy sees her again outside the library where she's setting up a holiday breakfast, and again when investigating the real mystery.  

Sandee is a bit of a red herring.  The real mystery involves a corpse found in the reading room, map collectors, angry ex-spouses, fighting dinner guests, and counterfeiters.  It moves along pretty well, never dragging or skipping logical steps, until Goldy ties everything together in about ten pages.  

Sweet Revenge is a bit formulaic, but it's a formula that works.  I was usually a page or two ahead of Goldy, but I don't read these books to be stumped.  I read them because I enjoy Goldy and her friends and family.  Her best friend (and JRK's other ex) Marla shows up for gossip and to display expensive clothes; her teenage son skis, studies, and hangs out with his friends; her assistant/former apprentice Julian works a few events, and there are a dozen or so recipes at the end of the book.  Sweet Revenge isn't the best book in the series - the series started strong, slumped a bit around book 6, and has been uneven since - but it's still enjoyable.  I enjoy spending time with the characters and the mysteries are usually believable, but the main attraction is the food.  I've made and enjoyed a few of the 150+ recipes included (my mom refers to Snowborder's Pork Tenderloin from Tough Cookie as Porkay Mignon) and I know that about every 30-40 pages, she's going to describe a dish that will make me drool.  

Monday, February 16, 2009

Christmas Present, 2X, x2

19 years ago, I made my dad an Aran sweater for Christmas - it's a greyish blue and my dad has worn it to death.  I made him two other sweaters, one around 1994 and the other around 2000 but he still wears the first one.  Well, since I was starting to get embarrassed when he'd tell people that I'd make his sweater, I decided to make him one for Christmas this year.  He's a big guy, so this one, like the three prior sweaters, is a scaled up version of my favorite pattern - the one on the back cover of the Bernat Aran Knits book.  

Yesterday, I had dinner at my parents' house.  Not only is my dad's sweater stretched out and stained in front, but there's now a hole in the sleeve.  To make matters worse, my dad wore the sweater after noticing the hole so it's raveled to the point where I couldn't fix it even if I did find matching yarn.  So why isn't he wearing one of the other sweaters?  Well, my mom told me that he gave them to a clothing drive a few years ago.  He said they just didn't fit the way the other one does.  

Now, I don't mind that he gave them away - there are now two large men in dire straits who are a bit warmer than they would have been.  However, I really wish he'd told me he'd done that.  I would have made him another sweater before this instead of, for the sake of family harmony and my ability not to wince when my dad shows off his handmade sweater, planning to make a second 2XL sweater for him this year.

And yes, I am going to confiscate the old ratty sweater when I give him the new one.  

This has been the occasional "defarge" segment of this blog.   Stay tuned for future adventures in knitting (which, considering what's happening in my office right now, will be attempts to finish baby sweaters before the recipients go out on maternity leave).

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Assassin's Touch

Does a historical novel have to be accurate, or is it sufficient that it feels accurate?  Laura Joh Rowland's sets her Sano Ichiro mysteries in Edo period Japan.  I know very little about the period so I don't know how accurate they truly are but they feel real. 

The Assassin's Touch is the tenth book in the Sano Ichiro series.  At the end of The Perfumed Sleeve, a power struggle led Japan to the brink of civil war and sent Sano's predecessor and nemesis, Chamberlain Yanigasawa, into exile.  Although he eliminated his main competitor, Lord Matsudaira did not have a large enough faction to become Chamberlain himself so Sano, who allied himself with neither side, became Chamberlain.

Like most mysteries, The Assassin's Touch starts with a death.  The head of the intelligence service dies during a horse race, and he is not the only official to have recently died in suspicious circumstances.  The victims have all died suddenly, with no obvious marks or signs of violence.  The Shogun orders Sano to investigate, and both the Yanigasawa and Matsudaira factions see Sano's potential failure as a way to replace him.  Complicating matters, Sano's wife, Lady Reiko, has undertaken an investigation of her own.  

Lady Reiko is an anachronism - an independent noblewoman and skilled martial artist who has helped Sano solve prior cases - and Rowland admits this by always explaining how unusual she is.  Reiko is Magistrate Ueda's only daughter and he asks the daughter he educated like a son to investigate whether or not an outcast woman accused of murder actually committed the crimes to which she confessed.

The Assassin's Touch blends two types of mysteries - the "whodunnit" and the "whydunnit" - and they collide in the final third of the book.  I admit that I wasn't surprised by the solution to either mystery or the connection between the two, but it took enough effort to solve them that I didn't feel cheated.   Like the rest of the Sano Ichiro novels, The Assassin's Touch includes a climactic battle scene, this time with a fairly small contingent of samurai and including a one-on-one battle between Sano and a samurai reputed to know an obscure martial art.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Innocent Traitor

I don't read much straight fiction; I usually stick to mysteries, classics, and non-fiction.  Innocent Traitor isn't much of a deviation for me, though, because it's Alison Weir's first novel.  I've read and enjoyed most of her non-fiction but somehow missed Innocent Traitor until I saw her next novel, The Lady Elizabeth, in Borders.

Innocent Traitor is the story of Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days Queen who was executed for treason, and it's familiar territory for Weir who counted her as one of The Children of Henry VIII.  Weir begins with the almost simultaneous births of Lady Jane and her cousin Edward and uses multiple narrators to chronicle Jane's short life, most of which was spent as a pawn to her abusive mother's ambitions.  

Although Weir could have portrayed Jane as a "poor little rich girl" or the sweet martyr of prior historical fiction, she creates a more complex picture of an intellectual, insecure, and surprisingly dogmatic teenager.  Yes, she is a pawn, but she's also a bit of a prig, a devout Protestant who seems to equate wearing bright colors with moral turpitude.  Jane is extremely intelligent and well-educated and described by others as pretty, but convinced that she's plain and will end up a spinster because of comparisons to her pretty, frivolous younger sister.  She comes across as a real teenager, albeit one with unusual family issues.  Her one triumph as Queen is when she realizes that her mother's words no longer sting - instead of obeying the venomous Duchess of Suffolk, Jane can now issue orders to her tormentor.   

Weir wrote Innocent Traitor after four non-fiction books on the Tudor court and her ease with the era shows.  Improbable yet true events, such as Catherine Parr's discovery of the heresy charges being prepared against her, flow naturally and the secondary characters feel like real people rather than historical figures.  Princess Mary feels particularly well developed, perhaps because she's so often portrayed as a one-dimensional character.  Mary is a tragic figure.  She's plain and politically suspect but desperate for marriage and children, heir to the throne but politically tone deaf, and as devout and dogmatic as her younger cousin.  Catherine Parr also stands out - an intelligent, maternal woman who takes Jane under her wing and protects her from her mother.  Even Guilford Dudley has an unexpectedly sympathetic scene.  He's introduced as a spoiled vulgarian who preens and sneers and gets drunk at his wedding banquet, and the consummation of his and Jane's marriage devolves into a rape.  In his final meetings with Jane, however, Weir shows him to be a scared boy whose father has been executed and knows he may soon lose his head as well.   Even Jane's mother, whose only personality traits are cruelty and ambition, feels like an actual person.  Not someone you'd like to know, but a McMansion-dwelling helicopter mom you've unfortunately met.

After two novels, Alison Weir has returned to non-fiction with a biography of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster.  Based on Innocent Traitor, I hope she hasn't abandoned fiction for good.  As a reader, I'd like to see her alternate between fiction and history because I find her work in both genres so enjoyable.  Perhaps she'll write a novel about Queen Mary, focusing on the years between her mother's banishment from court and her ascension to the throne.

A Flaw in the Blood

I've been reading mysteries for decades, so I don't get 'gotten' very often.  I may not solve the case until near the end, but I'm rarely surprised by a supported solution.  A Flaw in the Blood got me, and did it without cheating.  Chapter 52 is totally improbable, and completely supported by the facts Stephanie Barron scatters throughout the narrative.

Barron also writes the Jane Austen mysteries and A Flaw in the Blood is a change of tone from that series.  The Austen mysteries are epistolary, with Jane writing her adventures in her diary or letters to Cassandra, and part of the fun comes from meeting the 'inspirations' for Austen's characters.  A Flaw in the Blood uses shifting narrators, including Queen Victoria, her daughter Alice, and a London barrister who made his name saving the queen from an early assassination attempt, to obscure both the nature and perpetrator of the crime in question.

The book opens with the aftermath of an unsuccessful suicide attempt by Prince Albert.  18 months later, he lies dying of natural causes and Queen Victoria calls Patrick Fitzgerald to Windsor Castle to disavow any knowledge of the 1840 plot on her life.  He refuses and as he explains the story to his Georgiana Armatrage, a somewhat anachronistic young woman doctor, their carriage overturns, nearly killing them.  This is the work of Barron's least convincing character, Victoria's henchman who all but twirls his mustache as he pursues the pair through England and into France where they encounter Prince Leopold, about whose hemophilia Albert had consulted with Georgiana.

Back in England, Victoria throws herself into the deep mourning that would last until her death while her daughter Alice questions whether Albert actually died of typhoid.  No one else at Windsor contracted the disease, including Alice who nursed him through his illness, and his symptoms weren't typical of typhoid.  Between bouts of hysteria and battles with her second daughter, Victoria reflects on her childhood and her recently deceased mother who was both a duchess in her own right and a political pawn.  As Barron switches between Victoria's memories and Georgiana's outline of the 1860's understanding of hemophilia, Victoria's legitimacy comes into question and we wonder how far a woman raised to be Queen will go to protect her position.


Sunday, February 1, 2009

A quick note

I started this blog to review the books in my 52 books in 52 weeks challenge.  You may have noticed that I've tagged my posts "book 4" and "book 6."  If you're wondering where the reviews of books 1, 2, 3, and 5 are, well, I've discovered that it's harder to write reviews than I thought, especially mysteries.  Of the seven books I've read so far, four are mysteries and two of those are later books in long-running series.  I'm working on them, but I'm not satisfied with how they sound so far and I hate editing my work - once I start second guessing, I end up quintuple guessing.

The Gecko's Foot

Sometimes, it takes effort to keep up my Pale and Geeky credentials, such as when I read The Gecko's Foot.  Peter Forbes covers a fascinating topic - how engineering, both on the macroscopic and microscopic level, imitates nature - but in most chapters, he just can't seem to hit the right tone.  Perhaps Forbes, who has edited and translated poetry, is out of his area of expertise writing about science.  

I found the uneven tone frustrating because The Gecko's Foot covers such fascinating topics.  How does the lotus blossom manage to throw off dirty water?  Strange as it may seem, it's because the surface of the flower is extremely rough - not smooth as one would imagine - as seen through an electron microscope, and engineers have imitated this roughness to create paints and glass coatings which self-clean.  Forbes also discusses the less successful attempts to create spider silk and to imitate the nano-Velcro on the gecko's foot.  Forbes treats these technological quests with a combination of Gee Whiz Mr. Wizard and Mad Men hucksterism which I found annoying and somewhat condescending.  

Forbes's tone becomes much drier in the later chapters, possibly because the science of how insects fly or how light refracts on a butterfly's wing doesn't have a short-term commercial application.  With no obvious way to link biology to new technology, Forbes seems lost.  He mentions mollusk shells and suspension bridges but doesn't make a clear link between nature and the lab.  Forbes makes one clear connection between nature and innovation in the later chapters, when he discusses how an easily unfolded and refolded map imitates the way petals unfurl from a flower bud.  While this could have been fascinating, Forbes's description of the process reminded me of the old New Yorker cartoon where a student writes "And a miracle occurs" to get from two simple alkanes to a complex molecule.  Like the professor in the cartoon, I just wish he'd been a bit more explicit in step 2.

I hope I haven't given the impression that I didn't enjoy The Gecko's Foot because I did.  I'm just frustrated by the fact that I didn't enjoy it more.  After reading Stiff, I have to wonder what Mary Roach could have done with this material.