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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Christmas at The Mysterious Bookshop

Christmas at The Mysterious Bookshop (#27) is a compilation of stories written by famous mystery writers for the owner of New York's The Mysterious Bookshop, a specialty mystery/crime/suspense bookstore located in Tribeca.  Otto Penzler, the editor, commissioned these stories which were originally published in pamphlet form as gifts for his customers beginning in 1993.  Some stories are murders, some simply mysteries, but they all have two elements in common: The Mysterious Bookshop itself, and the Christmas season. 

I thoroughly enjoyed these stories.  Otto Penzler himself appears as a character in many of the stories written by author friends ranging from Donald Westlake through Mary Higgins Clark with a wide variety of well-known names in between.  If you're a mystery fan, chances are this anthology will include some your favorites.  Both the former location of the bookstore on West 56th Street and its current Tribeca address on Warren Avenue are featured locales as many of the fictional events take place there.

Since I couldn't get my hands on this library book until after Christmas, I've made a New Year's resolution after reading it: the next time I'm in NYC, I'm going to make it my business to visit The Mysterious Bookshop in person!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Wolfsbane And Mistletoe

More Holiday reading!  Wolfsbane And Mistletoe (#26) is a collection of never before published short stories edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni Kelner with two elements in common: werewolves and Christmas.  I got a few chuckles from J.A. Konrath's story SA (for Shapeshifters Anonymous) where the assorted weres (not just wolves) are the heroes, and Santa and his minions (the Salvation Army!) are the evil ones.  Even the disclaimer at the end of the story absolving the Salvation Army is amusing.  I also enjoyed Donna Andrews The Haire of the Beast - talk about a fitting revenge for your ex... 

I think, though, that the two stories that best meet what I expected to be the spirit of this book were The Star of David by Patricia Biggs and Keeping Watch Over His Flock by Toni Kelner.  Both stories involve the saving of a child from mortal danger, and a theme of redemption and reconciliation for the characters who rescue them.

The rest of the stories were a mixed bag of blood, guts, and not too much Christmas spirit, unless you count delivering live victims to werewolves as Christmas gifts uplifting.  I don't.  Not for cozy reading by the fire with your mug of cocoa!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Christmas Odyssey

A Christmas Odyssey (#25) is this year's Christmas mystery by Anne Perry.  She sets this story in Victorian London using characters from her William Monk series.  Henry Rathbone, Sir Oliver's father, is asked by his friend to find his prodigal son, Lucien Wentworth, and bring him home.  Henry decides to consult Hester Monk because the patients she treats in her clinic could provide Henry some leads in his search.  Instead at the clinic, he meets up with Squeaky Robinson, whose mission is to protect Hester.  He winkles Henry's reason for calling out of him and they, along with one of Squeaky's acquaintances, "Doctor" Crow, wind up as an unlikely alliance searching for Lucien.  Along the way they also acquire Bessie, a very young barmaid who provides their first real lead to finding Lucien. 

Although this is possibly the darkest of the Christmas novels, set as it is in the London underworld, ultimately it is a novel of redemption for several of the characters.  A quick, sometimes harrowing, but satisfying and unsentimental read that's just right for the holidays.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lost To Time

In his collection of essays Lost To Time (#24), Martin Sandler tells the stories of persons and events that are significant, but have been "lost to time".  He begins with a black slave from Baghadad who emigrated to Andalusia in Spain.  Music, meals, hygiene and fashion have all been influenced by this man down to the present day.  Mr. Sandler ends the book with the story of Exercise Tiger, a disasterous and deadly rehearsal off the coast of England for the D-Day Invasion.  In between, he includes chapters on an enormous fire in Wisconsin the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, two Revolutionary riders whose missions were even more critical and ardous than Paul Revere's, a secret subway built beneath the streets of New York, and the story of Gustave Whitehead who almost certainly made powered aircraft flights two years before the Wright Brothers (but the Smithsonian has signed a contract that does not allow them to ever mention or display his work!).

I find this stuff fascinating.  It's provided hours of lively car conversation for me and my husband of the "Did you know....?" variety.  I hope you decide to read Lost To Time, it will be time well spent!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Lady of the Butterflies

The protagonist of Fiona Mountain's debut historical novel Lady of the Butterflies (#23) is based on a real person, Eleanor Glanville.  Eleanor lived in Restoration England and left her mark on the study of butterflies through notes and specimens that are included in the British Museum's collection and through the Glanville Fritillary butterfly, which is named for her. 

Normally I love finding out about obscure historical figures and their lives.  So after I had read about a quarter of the way through Lady of the Butterflies' five hundred plus pages, I Googled Eleanor Glanville to see if there was a portrait of her available on line and some more concrete information.  No luck on the portrait, but I did find a lovely photo of Tickenham Court, her home.  I also found two British websites with snippets of information on Eleanor Glanville and citations of articles written about her in British Entomology publications.  And that was my mistake.  What I discovered was that the name and butterfly connection was accurate, as well as the name of her home estate, and that she did, in fact, have two husbands, named Edmund Ashville and Richard Glanville. But that was the extent of it. It left me feeling very ambivalent about this novel.  It bothered me that the little that is known about  Eleanor did not jibe with Ms. Mountain's book.  Yes, she does say that the ending of the book is her own flight of fancy, but that gives the impression that the rest of the book is substantially true.  I wish she'd simply written a novel that took the time and place of Eleanor's life and her pursuit of butterflies and transformed it into a work of fiction with differently named characters, where I could have been totally comfortable with the fictional story she weaves.  It's interesting enough, but I could never separate the ficitonal Eleanor's obsession with the men in her life from the real Eleanor's life.  I could not reconcile the two different Eleanors I now had in my head.

If you decide to read this book for yourself, do yourself a favor and treat it as a pure work of fiction, and if you're like me, don't research Eleanor Glanville and her world until after you finish the book.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Undead And Unreturnable

Undead And Unreturnable (#22) is MaryJanice Davidson's Christmas offering in her Betsy Taylor Vampire Queen series set in Minneapolis.  This is not a new book, but one I found in my library's Christmas books display.  This book does plug in some gaps in the action of the series for me, but it really isn't a Christmas book in my opinion.  I have the feeling that since this is a popular series, MaryJanice Davidson had reached a point where her publishers told her they wanted a Christmas title for the mass market.  Add a few passing references to Christmas shopping to the story, a pink Christmas cover, and viola!, one Christmas book without the bother of having to add seasonal plot points or re-work her original premise.  Don't get me wrong.  These are very light and humorous books which I do find enjoyable, but this one is hardly worth the effort of labeling as a Christmas read.  You'd hardly notice the holiday.  If you're looking for something more suitable to the season, you'd be better off with Lauren Willig's Mischief of the Mistletoe, or any one of Debbie Macomber's Christmas titles.  (See Call Me Mrs. Miracle.)

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Mischief of the Mistletoe - A Pink Carnation Christmas

Lauren Willig has done it again in the Mischief of the Mistletoe (#21).  Her Pink Carnation series is head and shoulders above the normal offerings in this romantic costume drama suspense series.  Think a historically accurate version of The Scarlet Pimpernel with the added delight of recurring characters sparring with French spies, sometimes literally and sometimes with witty and humorous dialogue.  It's better than the best box of Christmas bon-bons (with the added advantage of being calorie free!).  Mischief features Turnip Fitzhugh who blunders into a situation at his sister Susan's boarding school in Bath.  Ms. Willig finds several creative uses for Christmas puddings and even manages to work in a plausible appearance by Jane Austen.  Find a cozy nook to curl up in and savor this one, even if you do have to wait until after Christmas to get your hands on it!

If you've read my previous blogs, you know that I have a thing about a book's cover art.  Apparently this is the last book in this Pink Carnation series that will use the charming portraits featured as cover art to this point.  I have tracked down and enjoyed the artwork used on the original A Secret History of the Pink Carnation, The Black Tulip, The Emerald Deception and so on.  They were interesting, unique, and tied into the story being told in that volume.  Shame on Dutton and The Penguin Group for making the next book in the series, The Orchid Affair, look like every other generic Regency romance novel out there!!!  Re-issues of the previous books in the series are getting the same bland, vanilla treatment.  Lauren Willig and her cast of characters certainly deserve better than this.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Real Murders

Charlaine Harris of Sookie Stackhouse fame introduces a new character in the first novel of her Aurora Teagarden series Real Murders (#20).  Aurora, or Roe, is a suburban Georgia librarian who is interested in true crime.  She's found some like-minded citizens in Lawrenceton, whose aptly named club Real Murders meet monthly to discuss famous and infamous murders of the past.  That is, until someone starts picking off members of the club in duplicates of famous murders.  Aurora is right in the thick of things with not one, but two potential suitors, red herrings and experiences way too close for comfort. 

This was a fast, entertaining read and it will be interesting to see how the relationships develop in the series.  If you're looking for fantasy or the supernatural be warned.  This one is firmly grounded in the possible.  There are no hints or vampires, werewolves or ghosts anywhere, nor will this librarian need any of these props. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Death's Excellent Vacation

Death's Excellent Vacation (#19) is an anthology of "Paranormal R & R" short stories edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner.  All of stories in this collection are new, by a number of noted sci-fi, fantasy & horror writers: Charlaine Harris (the Sookie Stackhouse series), Katie MacAlister, Jeaniene Frost, Jeff Abbott and Lilith Saintcrow among them.

I'm not generally a fan of short stories, but I did enjoy this collection which is more on the light side than the "hide under the covers and don't turn off the lights" category.  I particularly enjoyed Katie MacAlister's The Perils of Effrijim about a sixth class demon who is a victim of a plot, and Toni L.P. Kelner's Pirate Dave's Haunted Amusement Park whose subject you can pretty much guess from the title.  Lilith Saintcrow's The Heart Is Always Right about a love-struck gargoyle was a sweet tale of sacrifice and virtue rewarded.

My husband is like me - he's not really a short story fan, either.  If he picks up a collection like this, he tends to pick and choose his favorite authors from the anthologies and will sample, but rarely read all of the stories (He's left Warriors for me to read which contains some of my favorite authors, but we probably won't read the same stories from it, for example).  It surprised me that he picked this book up at all but especially when he admitted that he read every single story in this collection.  He knows I read Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse books, but hate the HBO True Blood series (The series just doesn't match the mental pictures I have.).  He had nothing to read on hand so was willing to read a vampire tale, but got hooked on the stories in Death's Excellent Vacation.  That's two thumbs up from this household!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


This month's book for my Literary Circle is Rudyard Kipling's Kim (#18).  It was recommended as one of the best buddy adventure stories ever written, although I'm not sure I'd agree with that description of this book.

Kim was originally published in 1901.  The plot is very loosely based on the workings of Britain's spy network in India - the Great Game, as it was called.  Kim, the title character, is an orphan street urchin living in Lahore with the papers that prove he is a sahib, a white man, in a bag around his neck.  He has managed to avoid being caught up in the sahib's world for all of his short life so far.  But one fateful day he does befriend a Tibetan lama on a quest, and becomes his disciple for a lark and a chance to see the world.  As they set out on their journey, Kim encounters another old friend, Mahbub, a wily Afghan horse trader who turns out to be a British spy.  Kim performs a service for him, and so is dragged into the white man's cloak and dagger games.  Creighton, the British spy master, sees Kim's potential, and insists he obtain an education that will allow him to move freely in India to gather intelligence. 

What makes this book so interesting, though, are the descriptions of the people and places of what was then British India.  Much of the action takes place in the northwestern territories, which is today's Pakistan. The incredible diversity in the landscape alone is amazing, as are the many different types, sects, and castes of people, none of whom seem to have much in common with their neighbors.  Kim fits right in, having spent his entire young life observing the calvacade of humanity in the Lahore market place.  He is at home with the wide variety of beliefs and customs and can easily adapt to fit in with whomever he is with.

It struck me while reading this book that in many ways, it is more accesible to us today than it must have been when it was originally published.  Many of the exotic words used have passed into our own everyday language - madrassas and curries are familiar to us.  The ongoing conflict in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan with Western involvment really hasn't changed, only we can see pictures of it on our TV, so even the landscape is recognizable.  Those of us who have read Greg Mortensen's book Three Cups of Tea, or read Doug Stanton's tale of American GIs in Afghanistan right after 9/11 Horse Soldiers, have even more background in the politics and perils of the area.

John Cobb in the Afterword of the version of the book I read makes the point that only two British authors ever wrote novels about the British colonies at the height of the Victorian Empire: Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling in Kim.  No matter how carefully a book is researched, you can't beat an eyewitness account told by someone with a great deal of respect for his subject.  No wonder Kim is a classic.  Hope you find the time to read it, too.