Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Snow Empress

I'm not sure what Laura Joh Rowland has in mind for her characters.  Three books ago, she promoted Sano Ichiro to Chamberlain, where he spends less time investigating and more time watching his back in the political shark tank of the Tokagawa Shogunate.  This leaves Lady Reiko fewer chances to act as an unofficial detective and his former assistant, Hirata, as the Shogun's chief investigator.  Hirata, however, was injured, and as part of his training to recover has become quite mystical.  All these changes are believable in the framework of the series, and while I'm not sure where Rowland is taking them, I'm enjoying the journey.

The Snow Empress focuses on a journey to the northern reaches of Japan.  Lord Matsudaira has kidnapped Sano's and Reiko's son Masahiro, causing Reiko to withdraw within her sorrow.  Matsudaira has hidden Masahiro in Ezogashima, where Lord Matsudaira sends Sano to find out why the local lord has not made his required annual trip to Edo.  Once the party arrives, they discover that Lord Matsumae has had a mental breakdown following the murder of his native mistress, Tekare.  As Reiko searches for her son, Sano and Hirata try to solve Tekare's murder, a task complicated by how different she appeared to everyone who knew her.  (Yes, I know this review is begging for a Rashomon reference, but I've never seen that movie, so I'll refrain.)  Logic, legwork, a bit of Hirata's new-found mysticism, and Lord Matsumae's rage avenge Tekare's death, allowing Sano to return to the familiar but uncertain environment of the Shogun's court.

Dirty Blonde

I miss Rosato & Associates.  The last few Lisa Scottoline books I've read haven't been part of her series-that-isn't-a-series involving Philadelphia's only all-female litigation firm.  The titular Dirty Blonde is Cate Fante, a newly appointed judge originally from Centralia PA.  Cate is reliably smart - and smart-mouthed - as all Scottoline heroines are, but I just couldn't get involved in her story.  I think Scottoline might have had the same problem, or maybe she realized that there are only so many times she can make her protagonist the target of a stalker.  

Dirty Blonde is full of witty dialogue, well-drawn settings (as a native Philadelphian, I mentally penciled in street names and landmarks as Cate drove around town), and daring escapes.  What's missing is a strong central plot.  Scottoline has thrown in too many subplots, including Cate's best friend and her autistic toddler, Cate's habit of picking up men in dive bars, and Cate's trip back to her burning, abandoned home town, and they all distract from the intertwined problems of Cate's stalking and the murder of a plaintiff Cate has ruled against.  

The Typhoon Lover

In her early twenties, Japanese-American Rei Shimura fell into two careers - one as an antiques expert and one as a detective.  A decade and eight novels later, Rei is now 30 and Sujita Massey has solved the problem of how to explain why a woman in a seemingly genteel job keeps coming across dead bodies.  The day after Rei's surprise 30th birthday party (thrown at a hot new club by her on-and-off fiance, Hugh), she drags herself to a 9 am interview at the Smithsonian...except it's at rather than with the museum.  Rei's former lover, Takedo, has apparently become involved in smuggling antiquities out of Iraq and the CIA thinks Rei can use him to recover an ancient ewer.  

Maybe Rei fell for the bait (she's been barred from traveling to Japan and if she takes this job, the State Department will end that), or maybe she realizes that her relationship with Hugh (described as arguments punctuated by great sex) is falling apart.  Either way, she did not expect to find Takeo engaged to a high-strung girl from a political family or that she and Takeo would have a one night stand in the middle of a storm.  After some dead ends, Rei finds that the smuggler is much closer than she though.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Butcher of St. Peter's

I have mixed feelings about prolific series-bases writers.  Michael Jecks produces a mystery about every nine months, which means that I usually have more than one of his titles in my infrequent deliveries, and if I were to stop importing paperbacks, I'd still have half a dozen Sir Baldwin mysteries sitting on my shelf.

Unfortunately, The Butcher of St. Peter's is far from the best novel in the series.  Jecks seems to be in a bit of a lull, writing less vividly than he did a dozen years and 15 or 16 books ago.  The Keeper of the King's Peace, Sir Baldwin Furnshill, has been called to Exeter to solve a dispute over the estate and remains of a wealthy man.  As he and Bailiff Simon Puttock try to untangle this complicated and uninvolving problem, they are drawn into the murder of a prominent citizen.  We should suspect the titular butcher, but we don't - like the people of Exeter, we know he's a broken but ultimately harmless man.  Unfortunately, I didn't care who committed the murder, or the resolution of Sir Henry's estate and burial, or the actions of a medieval crime lord.  It's a kitchen sink of a novel, in which these three minor mysteries are mixed with Sir Baldwin's guilt over his brief encounter (while shipwrecked) with another woman, his wife Jeanne's fear that she has lost her husband's love, and the preening of Sir Baldwin's nemesis, Sir Perigrine de Barnstaple.  I enjoy spending time with these characters, but I wish Jecks had devised a stronger plot.

Perfect Figures

I think I bought Perfect Figures because it's about math.  In retrospect, I think I pulled it off the shelf at Daedalus because of the author.  If someone is willing to be known, not just personally but also professionally as Bunny Crumpacker, well, I just have to buy the book.   Crumpacker lives up to her name - Perfect Figures is a fluffy bunny of a book, the first math-related book I've ever read that would be more enjoyable accompanied by a neon-colored drink garnished with an umbrella.  A little math, a little history, some folklore, and a bit of rhapsodizing over the shape of 8 makes for an enjoyable but ultimately ephemeral experience.