Sunday, May 24, 2009

Plum Lucky

How can I review Plum Lucky?  Stephanie is not a deep character, and Janet Evanovich's between-the-numbers novels are short and fluffy.  It's tightly plotted enough to get past the silliness, with the slightly scatty but ultimately sane Stephanie Plum holding everything together.  

On St. Patrick's Day, Grandma Mazur 'finds' a duffel bag full of cash.  So, like the 72-year-old juvenile delinquent she is, Grandma decides to buy an RV and head to Atlantic City, bringing along angry little person Randal Briggs as a bodyguard and driver.  Unfortunately, the money actually belongs to a gangster named Lou Devina.  Also on the trail of the money is Snuggy, a jockey-turned-bank robber who talks to animals and is on a mission to save a race horse, the supernatural bounty hunter Diesel, and Stephanie whose mother has threatened to cut off her supply of pot roast and pineapple upside down cake if she doesn't bring her grandmother back Right Now.  Along for the ride are Lula, the hooker-turned-file-clerk who kept her wardrobe when she changed professions and Connie Rosolli, the Jersey-girl receptionist at Vincent Plum Bail Bonds who packs a lot of attitude and a semi-automatic pistol.  Of course they find Grandma and recover the money and even save the horse, but that's not really the point.  The plot exists only to tie together the set pieces, including Lula creating a diversion by throwing nickles on the ground...while wearing gold lame spandex that's shorter, lower cut, and tighter than usual, and a few jokes about the bodily functions of quadrupeds. It's fluffy fun, not to be read on public transit unless you're trying to get a three-seat for yourself.


Nine Men Dancing

I had an account with amazon.co.uk several years before I had one with amazon.com, and Kate Sedley is one reason why.  I picked up her first Roger the Chapman mystery, Death and the Chapman about 15 years ago, but after the first few installments, she must have been dropped by her American publisher.  I was hooked, though, so after a few years shopping with a now-defunct bookstore in London, I started buying her books (and those by Michael Jecks and Susanna Gregory) through amazon.co.uk.

Sedley makes Fifteenth Century England feel both familiar and alien.  Roger's travels wouldn't seem out of place on the Travel Channel, if they were to do a walking tour of southern England, but the bustling commercial city of Bristol only has a few thousand inhabitants, most of whom  have some connection to each other.  It's odd to think of a major city with fewer people than my Roxborough neighborhood, and even odder to think of a town so isolated that an outsider's marriage and relocation is gossip-worthy twenty years later and a decade after his death.

Nine Men Dancing begins, as do about half of Sedley's mysteries, with Roger leaving Bristol in January, 1478 to sell his ribbons and notions in the small settlements and villages of Southeastern England.  As he begins his return trip to Bristol, he stumbles across an abandoned manor.  A few hours later, he hears how the brothers who owned the manor died of plague shortly after digging a new well, and also about the disappearance of Eris Lilywhite.  The prior autumn, Eris had disappeared on a stormy night after Nathaniel Rawbone announced that he planned to marry her.  Eris had originally been attached to Nathaniel's son Tom, who had jilted Rosamund Bush, who first tells Roger the story.  He meets Eris's mother and grandmother and promises the older woman to try to discover if Eris is dead or alive.  Naturally, everyone in this small, isolated community has an idea of who may have murdered Eris, with most suspicion centering on the jilted Tom Rawbone and his older brother Ned whose inheritance would be decreased if his father started a new family with Eris.  

Sedley neatly ties the threads together, ending with Eris's sad but believable fate, the details of which involve a bit more technical knowledge of water tables than I expect in a medieval tale.  She also mixes in the politics of courtship in a small village where everyone knows (and is probably related) to each other.  With only a few eligible men and women of marriageable age, the competition for the son of a well-off farmer (like Tom Redbone) or the tavern-keeper's daughter (Rosamund Bush, who spends the novel playing hard-to-get with Lambert Miller) can be as fierce as any seen in Jane Austen's assemblies and balls.  It's one of the more enjoyable books in an entertaining series.   Sedley's books are hard to find in the US, but finding them is worth the effort.


Saturday, May 23, 2009

Seneca Falls Inheritance

I like to re-read mystery series.  I'm sure that seems odd to some people, because what's the point of reading  a mystery if you know the solution?  For me, the point is to revisit the characters earlier in their history and see how they've grown over the years.  And, to be honest, with nearly eight years and 457 books between visits, some of the details of Seneca Falls Inheritance were a little fuzzy.

The book opens with a flatboat accident which kills Friedrich Steicher and his wife.  A few weeks later, his daughter by a brief, annulled first marriage appears in Seneca Falls, asking for directions to the Steicher farm.  Her body turns up in the canal the next day, and when the town learns of her parentage, Steicher's son becomes the main suspect.  Constable Cullen Stuart and town librarian Glynis Tyron piece together the solution, with a few unlikely but not totally unbelievable twists.

Miriam Grace Monfredo ties this mystery to the organization of the 1848 Women's Rights Convention, and she isn't totally successful in doing so.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton sets the main plot in motion by writing to Steicher's first wife, asking her to tell her daughter that she may be in line to inherit a prosperous farm and has enlisted the novel's fictional librarian/detective to help organize the Convention, but the convention itself feels unconnected to the main plot.  I've always been fond of that particular historical event (I memorized Stanton's keynote address in 6th grade forensics), but in retrospect, its appearance in Seneca Falls Inheritance feels a bit forced.  The book also contains a bit too much character exposition and explanation, probably because it's the first in the series,  and it's not particularly complex.  Like Sharon Kay Penman's Justin de Quincy mysteries, it may serve as a good bridge from YA to adult novels for pre-teens interested in mysteries or historical novels.


Monday, May 11, 2009

T is for Tresspass

Series authors have a problem.  Most novelists release books about a year apart, so how do you deal with aging your characters?  Many authors slow the clock, allowing their characters to age at half or less the normal speed and changing cultural touchstones as the series wears on.  Marcia Mueller did this with her Sharon McCone mysteries - the 60s radical who was 28 at her 1977 debut stopped talking about the 60s  as time wore on and eventually turned 40 in 1999.  Others, like Faye Kellerman, start with relatively young characters and stagger the spacing of their books so if there are only a few months between volumes, the next book will take place two or three years later.   Then there's Janet Evanovich, who has decided that Stephanie Plum will be 32 forever, and forever accompanied by her juvenile-delinquent grandmother, and the authors of historical mysteries who either by luck or design don't have to worry about how quickly their characters age.

I don't know when or why Sue Grafton decided to deal with aging Kinsey Milhone by setting her novels further and further in the past, but it's an ingenious device.  Kinsey has only aged 5 1/2 years in the 25 she's been on the scene, but the world has slowed down with her.  Kinsey's new car is a 1970 Mustang which is merely used and not classic, she has no cell phone, no one suggests that Rosie's Bar hook up cable, and she actually has to get government documents in person instead of clicking on a link and printing it herself.  I've felt rather nostalgic while reading the last few Milhone novels.  So far, they've spanned my teens and carried me from 8th grade to sophomore year of college and I enjoy seeing how much of daily life which we take for granted barely existed just 20 years ago.

While I normally notice the historical aspect of Grafton's books, they stood out in T is for Tresspass, perhaps because the topics are so current, identity theft and the problem of caring for the elderly and alone.  Grafton shifts the narration between Kinsey and a woman who has stolen the identity of a nurse named Solana Rojas and has been hired as a home health aid for Kinsey's neighbor.  

Solana looks good on paper, because the real Solana (referred to as the Other) is highly qualified and because the criminal is highly skilled at ingratiating herself, and because in some ways she's picked the perfect victim.  Gus Vronsky is the local crank, an elderly man whose hobby is yelling at teenagers for practicing skateboard tricks.  Kinesy's landlord Henry Pitts maintains a casual friendship with Gus but few others in the neighborhood care to talk to him and his only relative is a great-grand niece who lives across the country in Manhattan.   No one seems to notice that Solana is gradually cutting Gus off from society, first cancelling the Meals on Wheels delivery, then telling his few visitors that Gus 'just isn't up to company' or 'just started a nap.'  Once she has control over Gus, she moves in with her disturbed and mentally disabled son and begins to steal Gus's property while physically mistreating him and frightening him into believing that she is protecting him from being locked in a nursing home.  

Solana's plot fails through a series of coincidences - a chance encounter with the granddaughter of a woman she'd previously 'cared' for, seeing Kinsey's car where she doesn't expect it, and the actions of Henry's potential ladyfriend, a successful 70-something real estate agent.  It falls by coincidence, and yet it doesn't feel like Grafton cheated.  It may be a bit too coincidental that her prior charge's granddaughter sees her in a department store as she's planning her escape but not beyond belief, and Grafton plants the seeds of the other 'random' events while Kinsey goes about her professional life investigating insurance claims and acting as a process server. 

What doesn't quite work is the ending, or rather the last two of three endings.  Kinsey (with help) rescues Gus, but the fate of Solana and her son are a bit more gruesome than I expected and verge on cartoonish.  Still, it's one of the better entries in what has been an enjoyable series.  Grafton only has six letters left in the alphabet, so somewhere around 2015 we'll see the series end with Z as Kinsey faces the year - 1990 - in which I first met her.