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Monday, May 30, 2011

Stitch Me Deadly

I actually had my copy of Stitch Me Deadly (#76) by Amanda Lee on hand before I read The Quick and the Thread, the subject of my previous post.  So sue me, I like to read things in order if possible.  As you probably have already guessed, Stitch Me Deadly is another Embroidery Mystery (and still no counted cross stitch graph for the reader, Ms. Lee!)

Only a couple of months have passed since the first book and embroidery shop owner Marcy Singer is still trying to get past the murder that occurred in her store.  It was a dark and stormy morning when elderly Louisa Ralston brings an old sampler in to Marcy and begs her to "find ivy" before collapsing and dying later at the hospital.  She's been poisoned and Marcy is number one on the suspect list of the Tallulah County Sheriff's Department.  Marcy's film costume designer mother is between assignments and flies up to Oregon to defend her chick.  They are determined to unravel (sorry!) the mystery of the missing ivy - is it a person or merely a matching color thread for the altered sampler?  And why was the the sampler altered in the first place?  Is Marcy's shop cursed as her cranky neighbor who owns the aromatherapy store claims?  You'll just have to read the book to find out.

Although this book was an enjoyable read, I didn't find that the story hung together as well as her first book.  The local Tallulah Falls characters that were introduced in the first book were barely developed further.  If you weren't told that Sadie was her best friend and the reason Marcy moved to Tallulah Falls, you would never have known it from Stitch Me Deadly, as these two characters hardly interact.  For supposed best friends whose stores are almost next door this seems highly unlikely, and very unsatisfying.  Too much Mom and not enough Town.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Quick And The Thread

The Quick and the Thread (#75) by Amanda Lee is the debut novel in a new mystery series featuring one of my favorite hobbies - embroidery.  (Not to quibble here, but frankly, I would have gone with the term needlework, since the shop concerned is called The Seven Year Stitch, but a great deal of the merchandise includes needlepoint and knitting/crochet supplies, NOT embroidery!)

Marcy Singer is lured to the coastal Oregon town of Tallulah Falls by her married college room mate Sadie after being left practically at the altar by her former fiance in San Francisco.  Time for a change of place and a more interesting career future than being a corporate accountant.  It's always been her dream to own a needlework shop and the ideal spot becomes vacant next door to Sadie's coffee shop. 

Wouldn't you know that the morning after her shop's Open House Marcy and her Irish wolfhound Angus find a body in the shop's store room?  The man had tried to talk to her the night before at the party, but he seemed to be drunk so Marcy did her best to avoid him.  And now he's dead after scratching a message on her newly painted store room wall.  What can it all mean?

Lots of red herrings and a sprinkling of movie and TV references in this one, plus the potential for a new romance or two for Marcy - if she survives!  An enjoyable way to spend a few hours.  The only thing this book is missing if you're a stitcher or knitter yourself  (and in this book the emphasis was on counted cross stitch) was a bonus counted cross stitch chart.  After all, the cooking mysteries usually come with recipes!  How about it, Amanda Lee?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Gator A-Go-Go

Serge A. Storms and his sidekick Coleman are back and this time Serge is shooting a Spring Break documentary tracing its roots through time in Gator A-Go-Go (#74).  But wait!  There's more!

Tim Dorsey has thrown in a hit squad from a revenge-seeking drug family, an informant in the Witness Protection program whose son has gone AWOL from a New England college on spring break to - you guessed it - Florida! and a customized motor coach trolling the beaches hoping for another DVD mega hit to follow Girls Gone Haywire.  To get the ball rolling for Gator A-Go-Go, Panama City Beach, Daytona Beach, Fort Lauderdale and points in between serve as the lynch pins for Serge's showcasing of this bit of Florida history and culture. 

Serge and Coleman score a hit with the college crowd and run into several old friends along the way as Serge films his documentary.  How he brings about justice is his own inimitable way makes for a fun read.  It also helps that Mr. Dorsey has made sure Serge has ample opportunity to show off his skills as an imaginative serial killer with a conscience.

If you think everything about Florida is over the top, this book is definitely for you!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

First Degree

In David Rosenfelt's First Degree (#73) defense lawyer Andy Carpenter's investigator and love interest is arrested for the first degree murder of a Paterson, New Jersey police detective.  While Laurie Collins was still with the police, she turned over information on Alex Dorsey that should have had him removed from the force.  Instead, all he got was a reprimand and Laurie was forced to quit the department.  Now someone with pull is setting her up to take the fall for his gruesome beheading.  Andy and his team, of course, defends her in what seems to be another open and shut case for the prosecution.

In Open and Shut, the first book in this series, Andy saves a golden retriever from certain death at the pound, exonerates an inmate on death row shortly before Willie Miller is due to be executed, and unexpectedly acquires a hefty fortune from his father from untouched guilt money.  In First Degree, we learn how Andy gains a business partner, finds a meaningful charity to support and cements together a tightly knit defense team.

Mr. Rosenfelt poses an intriguing problem and manages to solve it with deft touches of humor, my favorite brain mix!  His description of the prosecutor's manueverings in some of his initial meetings with Andy comparing them to Olympic events is priceless.  I highly recommend this series, but do yourself a favor and begin with his first book so you can understand and appreciate the character and plot development.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Aunt Dimity and the Family Tree

Aunt Dimity and the Family Tree (#72) is the perfect way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon on the beach or in a hammock.  It's hard to believe that this is the sixteenth book in this delightful English cozy Aunt Dimity series by Nancy Atherton. 

There have been some changes lately in the tiny Cotswold village of Finch.  Chief among them is the purchase of the run-down estate Fairworth House by Lori Sheperd's wealthy widowed father-in-law and doting grandfather to her twin sons.  The neighborhood is all agog to see what Willis, Sr. has done with the place and Lori is keeping her fingers crossed that he will soon find a suitable live-in couple to take care of the place.

During the restoration, some antique items are found hidden away in the stable. A blackened painting is stolen from the art restorer's studio and the other objects and the furniture keep re-arranging themselves at night.  What could be going on, and are the new seemingly perfect employees involved?  Not to mention that Lori is aiding her father-in-law in pulling off the largest deception in Finch's history (all for a good cause, of course!). Lori is kept busy as usual covering their tracks and trying to solve the mysterious goings-on at Fairworth House, all with the supernatural help of Aunt Dimity.

Not a lot of heavy lifting involved, but a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon indeed.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Caleb's Crossing

How does Geraldine Brooks do it?  Perfectly evoke a time and a place with such precisely chosen words?  In Caleb's Crossing (#71) it's Martha's Vineyard in the mid 1600s.  The eponymous Caleb is Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a Wampanoag Indian who is known to have graduated from Harvard College in 1665.  That is almost all that is known about him, so Ms. Brooks has imagined how that might have come to be through a relationship with an English girl.  Bethia Mayfield is the narrator of this tale and Martha's Vineyard is a wonderous place seen through her eyes in Caleb's company.

Caleb is tutored by the local minister, Bethia's father, along with her brother and another Indian scholar.  When the boys go to the mainland to pursue their studies prior to entering Harvard, Bethia is indentured to the owner of the preparatory school in Cambridge in lieu of her brother's tuition by her skinflint grandfather.

The narrative is in three sections: the first set on Martha's Vineyard during Bethia's girlhood.  This is the most lyrical section, and I almost wish that Ms. Brooks had stopped here.  The second section deals with the years in Cambridge as Caleb studies and Bethia works out the terms of her indenture.  The third section returns to Martha's Vineyard as Bethia looks back over her long life and jots down her final memories.

I couldn't put this book down.  Ms. Brooks works her magic again.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Purity of Blood

Arturo Perez-Reverte continues the story of Captain Alatriste and his youthful servant Inigo Balboa in the second book of this series, Purity of Blood (#70).  Captain Alatriste is about to return to his old regiment about to see action in Flanders when a friend calls on him to assist an acquaintance in freeing his daughter from a convent with a dubious reputation.  Things do not go well and Inigo, the narrator of these tales, comes very close to an appointment with death at the hands of the Inquisition.  How this came to be, and how he is rescued to tell further tales of Alatriste's exploits is the crux of this entertaining mystery.

This book is set in a time and place in Spain's history that I have not read much about, and I find the period details and the poetry make me want to learn more.  The Church and the Inquisition are still strong, but Spain's imperial power has begun to wane.  Madrid is not the safest spot to be living.

One strong recommendation if you decide to read Perez-Reverte's swashbuckling series: begin with the first book Captain Alatriste (see my 3/25/11 post).  Most of the action in Purity of Blood hinges on events that happen in the first book.  Even though you could read and enjoy this book as a stand alone, it will really help you to connect the plot dots if you know what really happened in the incident of the two English gentlemen Inigo refers to repeatedly.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Fatal Shore: The epic of Australia's founding

The Fatal Shore: The epic of Australia's founding (#69) by Robert Hughes is an epic read as well.  This book was recommended reading by our tour company and by my sister-in-law the librarian and world traveler, for our upcoming trip to Australia.  Mr. Hughes covers the history of Australia from the landing of the British First Fleet to establish a penal colony in 1788 until the arrival of the last transport ship in 1868 with its load of Irish Fenians.  He concentrates on the convict history which he claims was not taught in Australian schools as lately as the 1960s.

It really is amazing to think about how the country/continent that I picture as enterprising, open and vigorous sprouted from a dumping ground for Britain's "criminal class" and political dissidents as far removed from the home country as it could be.  That is partly due to the opportunities that existed in this new place for convicts that were pardoned or had their "ticket of leave".  They were free to work for themselves and develop their own land or businesses in a way that they never could have done in England.  It was not until much later that the struggling British at home heard of these opportunies and decided to emigrate themselves in search of their own betterment that things began to change.  The discovery of gold in Australia was the final nail in the coffin for the transportation system and a period when the government in London began to look to Australia for its resources and not just as a handy oubliette.

Lest you think that the prisoners had an easy time of it, Mr. Hughes reminds you of the struggles with the Aborigines whose failure to understand the European concept of property put them in direct conflict with the settlers.  But those conflicts pale in comparison to what the British overseers of this vast prison system inflicted on their own people.  Flogging is such a common thread that out of curiousity I looked up the word "flogging" in the book's index.  It does not appear because you could turn to almost any page that discusses the "system" and find reference to it. 

I did learn a lot from reading this book, but frankly I also found it a bit tedious to read.  The author skips about so, it's sometimes hard to keep on track.  The constant descriptions of floggings and other punishments are unrelenting.  I didn't feel I needed to be hit over the head quite so often with it.  I got it the first thirty or so times.  Mr. Hughes also brings up homosexuality a number of times.  I suppose when he wrote this book in 1986 that this was more shocking than it appears to be today - in fact, in a society where the male population greatly outnumbered the females, and in the more isolated penal colonies for repeat offenders, it would be surprising if this sort of activity wasn't taking place.

Personally, I don't think the writers who wrote the glowing cover blurbs for The Fatal Shore ever actually did more than skim the contents lightly.  If they had, maybe they would have picked up some of the more egregious editing mistakes in the book and in the maps included.  They may have also picked up that Mr. Hughes, despite living in New York City at the time, does not like Americans, but is careful to hide his snide comments in the footnotes.  He probably figured we were too dumb to ever read them.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Madame Tussaud: a novel of the French Revolution

Have you ever been to a Madame Tussaud Wax Museum?  Ever wonder who she was and how she got started?  Madame Tussaud: a novel of the French Revolution (#68) by Michelle Moran tells the story of Marie Grosholz and how she rose to prominence during the French Revolution.

Marie's uncle ran a weekly salon at their Paris wax museum, the Salon de Cire.  The men who were influential in the Revolutionary movement - Robespierre, Marat, Demoulins, the Duc d'Orleans - all attended and were well known to the family.  The museum was also visited by the Royal Family and Marie herself was invited to Versailles to tutor Madame Elizabeth, the king's sister, in wax modeling.  The family walked an ever more perilous political and emotional tightrope as they scrambled to adjust their wax tableaus to keep up with currrent events and their heads on their shoulders as the monarchy collapsed and the Revolution ignited.

Ms. Moran does a good job of creating suspense in a story whose outcome is already known.  This is a change in period and place for her, since her three previous novels dealt with ancient Egypt.  Ms. Moran does take some liberties with the historical record in the narrative, but she does introduce a very interesting minor character in the person of Grace Elliott. 

I recently read a biography of Grace Elliott, mistress to both the Duc d'Orleans and the Prince of Wales among others - My Lady Scandalous: the amazing life and outrageous times of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, royal courtesan by Jo Manning.  If you find the period of the French Revolution interesting, you might enjoy Elliott's perspective of the unfolding events and her miraculous escape from the guillotine.

Another aside for one of my pet hobbyhorses: I hated the cover of Madame Tussaud.  The publishers would have been better served putting together composite images that didn't strike such a false note.  The model in the photograph is wearing a dark brown pouf with a cheap theatrical costume dress.  It's so wrong, it's off-putting.  I'm glad I persisted and read the book anyway!